Originally uploaded by butwait.
When I arrived at Skelly Field on Rutgers’ campus, I thought of my mom at Douglass and my dad at Ursinus, back in the day. I wondered if they’d be able to imagine the spot from memory if I described it to them. Was the small pond to the left of our route nicknamed “the Passion Puddle” even back then? When I signed up for the walk I thought I might try to walk with Jeff – and Gigi, the third DFA’er – but Terri and Mr. D and I spent the night before the walk at Stacy & [she whose name is no longer spoken] & JT’s house because our air conditioning was on the fritz. I hadn’t taken the time to go online, and so had not connected with Jeff or Gigi. I’d never met either of them in person, only emailed back and forth online, so I didn’t have cell phone numbers or anything, and as I drove down College Farm Road and saw the huge crowd of people milling about in a staging area, any hopes I had of finding them quickly dwindled down to nothing.
I was immediately struck by the celebratory feel of the gathering. Despite the wilting heat and the seriousness of our cause, it felt more like a festival than anything else. There was a huge stage from which the organizers periodically made housekeeping announcements, and in between announcements there was a live band playing upbeat, “you can do it” music. This was very different from the “Silence = Death” ACT UP activism of earlier decades. People were walking in a spirit of support, and the common ground was a given. The walkers seemed generally willing to have the fighting of the disease – and the societal forces that work against those struggling with it – remain an implied and understood backdrop. The other thing that made an immediate impression on me as I tried to figure out where I was supposed to sign in was how predominantly brown and black the assembled walkers were. It made perfect sense, thinking about how communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic, but since living in Philadelphia I don’t spend that much time in settings where white people are in the minority. Sometimes I miss it.
As I stood near a merchandise table, reminding myself that the last thing in the world I need is another t-shirt, a voice came from the side. “Hey, you’re Shelley!” It was Gigi, who amidst the hundreds of walkers had somehow spotted and recognized me from the picture I’d posted on my NJ AIDS Walk fundraising website. And with her was Jeff! I was so happy to connect with my fellow teammates, and when the walk kicked off a few minutes later, we stepped off side by side.
Jeff and Gigi and I immediately fell into a comfortable companionship… a little odd, given that we’d never laid eyes on each other before, but nice. We traded book recommendations while scoping out the other teams. We talked about our first political memories and our experiences around AIDS. A Rutgers grad himself, Jeff smoothly shifted into tour guide mode and regaled us with tales of Rutgers traditions and news. We tried not to talk about the heat. (On the drive to the walk site, I heard an ever-so-helpful radio weatherperson breathlessly exclaim “Highs today will be in the mid-90’s, but with the heat index it’ll feel more like the 100’s!” Who pays these people?) Clearly concerned about the safety of the walkers, the walk organizers had arranged for plenty of water to be available along the route; although it was stored in buckets of ice, the intense heat meant that it only got vaguely cool, and that only for a few minutes. When a fellow walker blithely tossed aside an empty water bottle, we reminisced about the “litter bug” commercials of our youth and wondered whether “these kids today” would even recognize the phrase. Much of our walk route led us along sidewalks or pathways; when we walked on roads, it felt a little bit like walking on a cookie sheet. In an oven.
Still, I didn’t see anyone fall by the wayside. The route was clearly marked, there were volunteer marshalls everywhere, and it seemed pretty easy to just get caught up in the tide and swept along. There were a few large teams (ETS and J&J were the ones who seemed to have the most participants), but most seemed to be smaller, more intimate groupings. I saw families walking together, some with small children who were being pushed along in strollers. There were some grandparental-looking folks walking. A few groups of young women who looked like they might be sorority sisters. And while the group did thin out a bit from the initially massed formation at the beginning of the walk, the column of participants remained impressively dense throughout the entire walk; I would love to know how many people there were!
The walk was tiring, but surrounded by all that determination and good will, we just kept on trucking. I poured most of my walk water over my head, and I can still remember the sound of the collective “ahhhhhh” that went up from the walkers when a rare breeze blew down the lines of walkers. Towards the end, conversation died out a bit as we concentrated on the task at hand, and we periodically catalogued our growing list of aches and pains. (Reminded me of the kids’ song, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” except that it went in the opposite order.) Finally, just as we were starting to wonder about our collective sanity, things started to look familiar and we realized we were almost back at the staging area. And then we were done.
The one aspect of pre-walk preparation that didn’t get covered in all the advice I received concerned my rings. About 3K into the walk, I noticed that my hands were swelling up in the heat, and managed to pull two of my three rings off. The last one was clearly on for the duration; my fingers finally got back to normal about eight hours after the walk. The ring I couldn’t remove was the one that Terri and I designed together, a celebration of the relationship whose beginning almost thirteen years ago was marked by a pounding heart and an AIDS test. Aching for all the right reasons, I slipped my ring back on with a silent prayer of thanksgiving.