Late on a golden afternoon in August 1979, my dad turned a twenty-six-foot rental truck onto an unpaved driveway lined with ponderosa pines. Road dust billowed and shimmered. Inside the truck were the remains of our San Francisco life: artwork and easels, baking equipment, baby toys, the wall-sized dance mirrors my dad had scavenged from a ballet school—all hastily packed.
Only days before, my parents were at the helm of Sticky Fingers Brownies in San Francisco, a massive underground bakery distributing ten thousand marijuana brownies per month. Selling any amount of weed was a felony. They’d skated by for three years, but then my mom started having nightmares about police barging in. My dad dreamed of earthquakes and tidal waves. They argued about what to do, but both sensed a looming catastrophe. When their weekly I Ching consultations turned ominous, my parents shuttered their lucrative bakery in a panic and moved three hours north to Willits, California with me in tow.
I was just a toddler, too little to remember this moment, but my parents have filled me in on the details. When the little farmhouse emerged between oak trees, my dad crowed, “Home sweet home!” failing to notice a gigantic tree root hiding a deep pothole. The sound of glass breaking in the truck shocked us all into silence. Then I began to wail.
I doubt there’s a culture in the world that would deem the shattering of giant mirrors on the final approach to your new home a good omen. Of course, my parents brought the turbulence of their marriage to our bucolic retreat. And San Francisco was far from finished with us.
Our first house in the country was bland: not old enough to have character, not modern enough to be nice. The stillness of that first night must have been stunning. There was the occasional rumble of a pickup heading into the hills, the cluck of the neighbor’s chickens, the hoot of a barn owl. Nobody arguing on the sidewalk, no Friday-night low riders, no friends stopping by to get high. Just a fat silver moon hanging over the fields like the pendulum of a stopped clock. A quiet so profound you could hear the oaks creaking in the breeze.
Dad looking at Mom, Mom looking at Dad, me watching them both for clues.
Willits boasted one of the longest-running rodeos in California: Frontier Days, held every July since 1927. “Downtown” consisted of a family drug store, a battered saloon, a single-screen movie theater, and a strip of old-timey buildings with a few New-Age galleries and a little bookstore. Route 101 cut right down Main Street, stoplights slowing traffic to a crawl. Businesses scraped by on local patronage and the trickle of motorists stopping to pee.
The town had redneck roots, complete with a semi-famous shoot-out and a dying logging industry. But the hills were alive with hippies. Tree huggers and tree killers living together, with predictable tensions between them. Rural families came to town for groceries and banking, and to pick up their mail from PO boxes; many were growing marijuana and didn’t want their home addresses known.
We soon relocated deeper into the backcountry, forty-five minutes from the nearest grocery store. Here, my memories tilt toward galloping through tall grasses, inventing games to play with imaginary companions. There was my blooming obsession with horses, and my blooming loneliness as an only child in the woods. In summer, we’d keep organic juice in a box freezer on the porch, so we could eat it with a fork by the lazy Eel River. I remember sitting in my mom’s arms in the gentle rapids, how we had to wipe tiny leeches off afterward. The long afternoons, the sunburns. The dusty manzanita and the deep silence.
My parents were trying to quit the weed underground, but they’d chosen an inopportune location. Willits belonged to the tricounty area nicknamed the Emerald Triangle for the potent sinsemilla grown in hidden sunbaked gardens—the region’s unofficial cash crop. Before the pot brownie business, my dad had worked as a psychic and my mom had illustrated children’s books; neither had experience with straight jobs. The local economy offered few legal opportunities. I have often thought that my parents’ plan for surviving in rural Willits was unrealistic. Now I realize that it’s not that they had a bad plan; it’s that they had no plan. No idea how to make a living without dealing.
The money ran out fast. When my parents found themselves unable to pay rent, my mom made an emergency run to sell brownies in the city.
She took a room at Beck’s Motor Lodge on the edge of the Castro district. My mom’s Castro sales runs had been enormous prior to moving north. Dressed in her flashy disco threads with duffel bags of brownies strapped across her chest, she’d nose through crowds of men draped over cars and newspaper stands, draped around each other. Rather than selling to passersby, my mom catered to people working in shops, restaurants, offices, and salons—more than fifty regular stops in the Castro alone—while her collaborators walked routes in other neighborhoods. That was before the omens had turned bad.
Now, aiming for a low profile, she did an abbreviated route, visiting a handful of her regulars at their workplaces and stopping by the home of the disco star Sylvester. After an afternoon of deliveries, she returned to her motel room and held court while customers came to her.
It was a risky way to do business—the three-hour drive loaded with contraband, dozens of people passing through the motel room—but she made enough to cover bills. From then on, my mom straddled two worlds: the dry, quiet country life punctuated by monthly escapades in San Francisco. Sometimes she let me come along. Or she’d go alone, returning to the boondocks with a stack of cash like a mama bird bringing food to her chicks.
It was on one of the monthly brownie runs that my mom caught her first glimpse of the monster coming our way. December 1981, she was making her way up Castro Street on a pre-Christmas brownie run when she saw a small crowd studying a poster outside the Star Pharmacy. She leaned in to check it out.
“GAY CANCER” it said across the top. Below that was a series of graphic Polaroid photos of sores on a man’s legs, feet, and arms. The back of my mom’s neck prickled. Hadn’t she seen one of those little spots on Roger’s wrist that afternoon? Weird, she thought, as she continued on to do the next deal.
Later, she found out that the flyers were the work of Bobbi Campbell, a handsome twenty-nine-year-old nurse who specialized in gay men’s health. My mom had occasionally sold Bobbi brownies at Café Flore. Now he was among the first young San Franciscans diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare skin cancer almost never seen among people his age. He was also one of the first people in the country to sense the enormity of the danger. As a public health nurse, he wasn’t about to sit back and watch. Declaring himself the Kaposi’s sarcoma poster boy, Bobbi began a column in the San Francisco Sentinel, a gay newspaper, detailing his experiences. His first piece, “I WILL SURVIVE!” ran that month. The tone of the column was buoyant and witty, but it dispensed crucial information. And although Bobbi would not, in fact, survive — he died within four years — he would become a hero of the AIDS epidemic.
Until that point, there had been a few AP articles buried with other low-priority news. Rare skin cancer seen in young homosexuals. Fatal pneumonia caused by a common fungus. It was enough to interest a couple of journalists and concern some doctors. But there were still fewer than three hundred identified cases nationwide.
It started in that small way: whispers, rumors. Something going around. People feeling fatigued and vaguely ill. A recurring flu. A stomach bug that wouldn’t quit. Love handles melting away, collarbones protruding. Those painless purple spots showing up out of nowhere.
What the hell was going on? Were these a bunch of isolated problems or one big one? Could it have something to do with the poppers everyone was into at the discos and sex clubs? Was someone poisoning the liquid soap in the bathhouses? Was the CIA in on it? Some guys started eating healthier, taking more vitamins, going out less. Others played harder, leaning heavier on cocaine and poppers, and spending night after night at the baths—might as well have fun.
In August 1982, my mom lost her first friend and customer to the disease. When she heard the news at Beck’s, it hit her right in the third eye, spun her momentarily out of her body. “Michael’s gone?” she gasped. “But he’s so young.”
Not only young, but vibrant. Michael Maletta was a stylish and handsome New Yorker with strawberry blond hair and a wicked wit. One of those people who seemed more alive than others around him. Michael was known for throwing lavish all-night happenings. My mom hadn’t seen him in a while, but it hadn’t occurred to her to worry. Now he was dead.
By the end that year, the San Francisco Department of Public Health had recorded forty-six deaths from the mysterious illness. Nationwide, some nine hundred cases had been reported to the CDC. A brownie customer, Ellen Freed, was working as a medical assistant in an STD clinic with gay clientele. At night, when she went dancing at the Stud, friends would bounce up to her: “Hey, Ellen, look at this spot on my arm. Do I have the gay cancer?” She would squint at their skin under the strobing disco lights and suggest they make an appointment for a proper exam. Then they’d go back to dancing.
It was still business as usual in the city.
And business was good enough. With my mom coming down once a month, customers stocked up on larger quantities of brownies. Beck’s Motor Lodge could be rowdy on weekends, popular among Castro boys for both cruising and tricking for money. On the plus side, that meant people came and went for various reasons, which my mom thought gave her cover. Safe to say, Beck’s personnel didn’t want to know what people did in their rooms.
Sunshine, a photographer who’d been a customer for years, usually bought five or six dozen; she’d sell some to friends and keep the rest in her freezer to last through the next visit. Sunshine remembers approaching Beck’s and seeing a buck-naked man standing in the picture window overlooking Market Street. She thought it was weird, so she mentioned it to my mom, who shrugged it off. Apparently, it was this guy’s deal to hang out nude in the front window so he could cruise without ever having to put clothes on or walk down to the street; his tricks could come up and find him. Sunshine also remembers there “always being a child” when she visited my mom at Beck’s. Sunshine would enter the motel room, and my mom would whisper, “Shh, Alia’s sleeping.”
In truth, I wasn’t there every time. But I adored returning to the city with my mom. As we sailed through puffs of fog crossing the bridge, we’d belt out, “San Francisco, here we come! Da-da-da! Right back where we started from!” I loved the sound of traffic below the motel windows. I loved customers waltzing through the door with a singsong “Hello, darlings!” How the damp night air would trail them, clinging to their leather jackets and smelling of the street and the ocean. How their hair was never shaggy like up north but spiked and dyed bright colors or coiffed into artful shapes. I loved that everyone exclaimed over how tall I’d gotten since the last time. I loved shrill city laughter, the boldness of it. The magic of carelessly caring so much about everything. I loved visiting Sylvester’s house, that sumptuous wonderland of fabric and antiques and music. But I especially loved lounging around on the big motel bed with the grownups. I remember the whisper of money in my mom’s hands, the dry snap of rubber bands when she counted at the end of the weekend.
With that capacity young humans have for absorbing difficult realities, I understood that some of my mom’s friends were sick—the suddenly skinny ones, the frail and hunched ones—but nothing changed how I relished our weekends in the city. It felt like we were visiting home.
San Francisco struggled under the highest density of HIV/AIDS cases in the western world. The first effective medication wouldn’t reach the market until 1996—fifteen years after Bobbi Campbell hung his warning in the window of Star Pharmacy. In this treatment vacuum, marijuana emerged as a palliative remedy for many AIDS-related symptoms, particularly for the nausea and appetite loss that accompanied the deadly wasting syndrome. My mom joined the underground network of dealer-healers breaking the law to get soothing cannabis into bodies of those who needed it at the dawn of the medical-marijuana movement.
When my parents’ marriage collapsed in the mid-eighties, my mom and I moved back to the city full time. At nine, I was deemed old enough to help my mom bake. I tagged along on deliveries, which had become tours of sickbeds, and saw firsthand the relief our home-baked edibles brought. I grew up in the grip of the epidemic, maturing as people I adored as surrogate aunties and uncles fell ill and vanished from our lives.
Somehow, looking back, the eight years we spent in Willits feel like a brief sunlit interlude, a weekend sojourn. Did my parents escape a bust by whisking us away in 1979? It’s impossible to guess. The dark times my parents sensed back in 1979 came in a different form. And the city was always going to call us back.
An excerpt from Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.