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AIDS columnist's writings resonate today

by Brian Bromberger

Robert De Andreis' June 21, 1995 column in the San Francisco Sentinel.
Robert De Andreis' June 21, 1995 column in the San Francisco Sentinel.   

When Robert De Andreis' columns were published on Wednesdays, they became must-reads. A few people would gather at the Castro newspaper boxes to await delivery of the now-defunct San Francisco Sentinel (a former competitor of the Bay Area Reporter) so they could snag the latest issue and immediately open to the page containing his weekly HIV commentary.

Various descriptions were applied to his work: acerbic, blunt, satirical, riotous, poignant, sincere, enlightening, and too much information — encompassing a full range of emotions because De Andreis touched on them all, sometimes even in one column. Told by a friend they were looking for new writers, "the Sentinel's publisher and editor, [the late] Ray Chalker, hired me sight unseen based on a spec article I wrote last summer. I had no clippings, no writing credentials, in fact I had never written a thing before this stint," he wrote in his March 2, 1994 column.

"Robert De Andreis: HIV Commentary: Preparation for life's ultimate journey: A Collection of his weekly San Francisco Sentinel Columns, 1993-1994" are available at the GLBT Historical Society's archive, which is currently closed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic..

From June 23, 1993 to July 26, 1995, De Andreis chronicled his often painful, debilitating, embarrassing, but at times uplifting struggles with AIDS. His final column was published just one week before his death on August 2, 1995 at age 36. Today, bookstores are filled with brutally candid memoirs and diaries, but they were still a relative novelty in the early- and mid-1990s. No area of his life, especially his sexuality, was off-limits in terms of the subjects he covered, whether it be grappling with opportunistic infections, his ex-lover Bob [no last name provided], unorthodox treatments, dealing with his ambivalent family, satirizing AIDS support organizations, or picking up tricks in the streets. (Three of his family members were contacted for comment on this story, but none responded.)

Vincent Crisostomo, 59, is the program manager of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. A gay man and a longtime HIV survivor, Crisostomo wrote in a statement to the B.A.R. that he and De Andreis weren't close.

"But I remember Bob De Andreis having an affinity for anyone who would approach our predicament with a sense of humor," he stated. "After all if we could not laugh at it no one else would."

Greg Cassin, 62, an HIV health services counselor at the Shanti Project, first met De Andreis when he came to a meeting of the San Francisco Healing Circle, a group Cassin started in 1989 for people living with HIV/AIDS, their friends, and others affected by the disease.

"It was still a time when few wanted to be public about their HIV status," Cassin stated. "I remember reading Robert's articles, he was very bright, sure of his voice, and if I remember correctly he had a wicked sense of humor ... and a sharp tongue.

"One day I heard through the grapevine that he was going to come and visit our group. The thing that made me nervous was that Robert shredded any organization or person he disagreed with. I was terrified that we were going to be next! You see, the Healing Circle was a bit touchy-feely/New Agey and from what I'd read he wouldn't be a fan."

Cassin was soon surprised.

"He was so gentle and soft-spoken and kind," Cassin recalled. "Not at all what I had expected. And he was so open and willing. He had recently been ill and needed some comfort and a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging is still a need prevalent today. I was so grateful that we could give back and provide that for a member of our community that was being a voice for us."

De Andreis did not seem to be an admirer of AIDS benefits, as he wrote in an April 19, 1995 column: "People ask me why I never show up at any AIDS functions. The answer is simple: I am never invited. I am out of that elitist social loop, and to all those social coordinators who see me as some big AIDS figure in the community, but continue to snub me, I have three words for you: Fuck you all!"

Never planned a writing career
De Andreis never intended to become a writer, according to his bio in the collection of his columns. A fifth-generation San Franciscan, he received his B.A. with honors in drawing and painting from San Francisco State University. He had also studied classical ballet and traveled to New York to advance his dance training at the School of American Ballet.

However, realizing he had started too late to dance professionally, he returned to SFSU to begin a master's program in film production and even had a short film shown at Frameline, the San Francisco LGBT film festival.

During the mid-1980s, he moved to Los Angeles with his lover Bob to pursue a film career and worked as an archivist at Paramount Studios.

After testing HIV-positive, he quit that job, broke up with his lover, and focused on his health. He studied "A Course in Miracles," attended Marianne Williamson and Louise Hay's lectures, and started a new career as an elementary school teacher. His AIDS was progressing so he returned to San Francisco to be closer to his family. Contracting Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in 1993, he took a leave from teaching. Going on disability and having kept journals since age 16, he began transcribing them onto computer disks. Recognizing perhaps he had a gift, he kicked off his HIV commentary columns.

In the forward to the collection of his weekly columns, De Andreis revealed what he wanted to explore with his AIDS writing.

"As I became more involved with my own AIDS story of the week, I identified the personal issues deep within me to be tackled," he wrote. "I realized the most empowering thoughts were the least AIDS-specific and I wrote more of the universal questions of mortality, forgiveness, and kissing this world goodbye. It's the personal the world cares more about in this crisis. We want to know about the emotional components of the disease, how we feel and how we express these emotions to ourselves and others. I have found that diving into these issues, regardless of how painful, is the best thing I can do on the AIDS front line."

Breath of fresh air
His uncensored, outrageous honesty was a breath of fresh air. He never felt sorry for himself, even confessing he was bipolar and disappointments with friends and family to meet his needs.

He appeared on local TV talk shows and his work won two SF Cable Car awards, which used to be presented in San Francisco to outstanding LGBT performers, composers, arts groups, actors, writers, and athletes. His readings at bookstores drew standing-room-only crowds.

In a May 12, 1995 article by Evelyn White for Poz magazine, "Burn Baby Burn: HIV doesn't have to destroy your dreams," she quoted De Andreis about the attention he received: "It is cleansing and cathartic. There is something about writing that keeps me going. It gives me a chance to celebrate and honor my life. All those years when I thought that I was going to live forever, I never did anything. Now people think I'm the toast of the town."

Reached recently, White, 66, recalled De Andreis.

"A quarter century later and I still remember the sunlight streaming into Robert's apartment," she wrote in an email. "Bedazzled by his writing, I reached out to him from my desk at the San Francisco Chronicle. And like the vining greenery in his living room, he extended himself to me in friendship. An exquisite wordsmith, Robert's work was witty, wayward, wicked, and winning. As for COVID-19, I suspect that Robert would have found a way to 'burlesque' (as he put it) merriment out of the mayhem. He documented his AIDS journey with uncommon zest and left an enduring repository of arch and artful prose."

As suggested by White, it's likely De Andreis would have advocated for people with COVID-19, describing their conflicts, frustrations, aspirations, and loneliness in this quarantine age. For him, it was always about resilience. In the last sentences in his final column (July 26, 1995) he summarized how any disease can transform people: "Illness alienates us from much of what we once loved, but this solitude creates a certain kind of strength. Only in stillness, when the noise of our heads and the prattling of those around us has subsided, can we hear ourselves think again. As a sick person, honor your unique position to uncover truth more readily, but don't expect to make friends and do expect to lose a few. Being terminally ill can be liberating, once you stop caring what other people think. In that climate, you can start a whole new life for yourself, creative or otherwise, AFTER an AIDS diagnosis. So, never give up on yourself, because sometimes the best is yet to be."

During the run of the column, De Andreis received over 2,000 fan letters, and along with all his writings, they are part of the permanent archive at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

In a March 15, 1995 column he wrote, "It's so twisted and surreal having anonymous readers know so much about my darkest, most private side. It's not that far off from all my years as a sex addict, when I would share such moments of ultimate intimacy with complete strangers ... No, honey, all you know about is my AIDS side, and there's a lot more to me than this dull, painful, annoying, irksome, frustrating, terrifying, and mundane disease. It's only because I'm a clever writer that I've made it appear so glamorous! Yet the truth is, I would never be thinking about AIDS this much if it weren't for this column."

It was De Andreis the wordsmith who parodied the struggles and treatments (medical and otherwise) he had to endure that endeared him to readers. He was able to express inescapable, often-unutterable truths that people were thinking but couldn't voice out loud, with wit and compassion.

Part of his April 13, 1994 column summed up his feelings on obituaries.

"When obituaries say someone bravely fought the battle against their illness, it's kind of rude, because you're also saying they lost," he wrote. "For my obit I'd prefer something more real: 'He's been through the same ordeal everyone else who's died of AIDS has been through — including those days he was an irritable BITCH! In fact if he didn't die soon, we would have killed him ourselves.'"

On hooking up, he wrote in a February 22, 1995 column: "All of a sudden I was in some guy's tacky living room sitting on a plaid couch, and he looked much hotter outside from a distance ... We whipped them out, fooled around for a split second, and I said, 'Yeah, hot, whatever. Listen I've got to go.' I felt slightly disheveled as I went into the Sentinel office to pick up my check, hoping I didn't have dick on my breath."

He chronicled his insomnia.

"It's been hell trying to sleep some nights with all that rattling in my lungs with that suffocating-like drowning feeling, like Esther Williams trapped underneath a glass AIDS pool — smiling, synchronizing, looking fabulous, yet still coughing up unsightly bits of lung tissue," he wrote in his May 24, 1995 column.

Herman "Homer" Hobi, 74, is a member of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. He's also a long-term survivor who read the De Andreis' columns.

"I was diagnosed with HIV in August of 1994 and I lived in Rohnert Park, Sonoma County until September of 1995 when I moved back to SF," he wrote in an email. "I read a number of Robert De Andreis' articles. But his writings brought back the memory of my lust during those first years when I was diagnosed and had just come out openly as a gay man. I had so much pent-up sexual energy and I sought out positive men everywhere. I did quickies, all-nighters, just about anything but public sex. Now, I look back fondly on that time of my life."

Finally, De Andreis' biggest fear was his work being ignored or dismissed. In his June 8, 1995 column, he wrote, "Can't some AIDS organization, instead of printing out another resource manual, a nutritional HIV cookbook, or a catalogue on the latest drug trials — can't someone steal some of my work and publish it into some practical coping handbook? Rip me off, don't give me credit, I don't care. I don't even care about money at this point. I would just hate for all the work I've done these past two years to be lost when I die, and why should it sit in some dusty archives for a hundred years when it has contemporary value NOW?

"Use me, steal from me, infringe my copyright, rip me off, reproduce me without permission — just don't shelve me when I'm gone," he wrote.

Updated, 7/1/20: This article has been updated to indicate Mr. De Andreis' columns are available at the GLBT Historical Society's archive, which is currently closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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