...continued from "Positive Participant Observation: The Women's AIDS Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital" (2004), See Part 1, (of 4)
Looking around the room I see many familiar faces, although I, shamefully, only remember one woman's name. Most are African American; there are two white women besides me, and one Latina. Although there are sometimes Asian healthcare workers around, in writing this I realize that I don't remember ever meeting an openly HIV+ Asian woman anywhere. Most of these patients are very sociable, as designed. (The women's clinic project was established five or six years ago - I'm not good with years - to address the disproportionate level of isolation of HIV+ women from each other, and our correlated diminished care-seeking and treatment adherence.) Most of us seem to look forward to seeing each other here, and the apparent light-heartedness is not, I assume, representative of day-to-day lives. I, and a couple others, are never talkative, which seems to be allowed, and does not seem to be received as unfriendly - as, at least in my case, it is certainly not intended to be.
Although I know the mission of this project is to create and sustain a sense of community, the typical conversations make me more aware of my differences, than of our commonalities. The conversations often either concern addictions/recovery which is discussed freely and with effusive, practiced-seeming support, or, as commonly, stories of family and children (who I think are not allowed here -?). I've never actually seen anyone of us pregnant, and I wonder where we go for that. Except for references to baby-daddies references to husbands or boyfriends or partners are almost non-existent. Also maybe-surprisingly lacking are conversations about illness. Care providers are talked about casually, as though friends.
The most conspicuous (- to me) conversation of this day is between a very large, ageless-looking black woman with enormous breasts, who walks slowly with a cane in stiletto boots, and a small white woman, who might be forty but looks like a very weathered, straight-postured 12-year-old. The black woman, seated, has attracted attention from several woman, for her hair extension - a shiny, swingy-straight short blue ponytail on the very top of her head. The white woman, who shifts her weight quickly (maybe 95 pounds) from foot to foot - (she is the only underweight one in the room) - with both hands pushed deep into her ratted jeans pockets says, "That's cool. I like that. Your hair."
The black woman ignores her, both boots on the floor.
The white woman says, "It's kinda like those things, you know, those Dr. Suess things."
The black woman looks straight ahead and says nothing.
The white woman says, "You know Dr. Suess?"
The black woman raises he eyebrows, and the white woman shoves her hands harder into her pockets, saying, "That's cool, that's cool," and turns 90 degrees to look out the window. I realize, with jolt, that it had occurred to me that the blue ponytail looked a little like a whale spout.
Concerning dress: my favorite thing in this room - in this whole place, next to the cardboard Halloween bats which for years have been hanging upside down from the ceiling above the phlebotomists in the lab across the hall - is a garbage bag of clothes in the corner to my right.: a nest of clothes strewn around it. Years ago, when the women's clinic was just getting going, an unknown person left a bag of clothes for us, and I didn't know how we were supposed to feel about that - if we should feel offended. Apparently we weren't; no one else seemed to think at all about how it got there. A dressing-each-other-up happened, and every week ever since then, without plan, we have brought our own hand-me-downs for each other