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Kalifornia girls: San Diego's dangerous women

AIDS newsbearer, prison guard, border watcher, gay queen, El Cajon Blvd. prostitute, euthanizer

Kali unwittingly steps on Shiva's chest.
Kali unwittingly steps on Shiva's chest.

Dangerous woman

Kali, tie Hindu goddess, las been grossly maligned by Hollywood. Consequently, tie mention of her name among polite company most often conjures distasteful fancies of turbaned murder cults, devil worship. Yet she is much more complex and compelling than any specious depiction in an Indiana Jones adventure film or a forgotten Beatles comedy. Sever all misleading connotations to evil and sacrifices. For Kali is the Mother.

And your Mother loves you.

Even though she dances naked, frenzied and joy-stricken, in the center of a battlefield, sometimes a cremation ground, surrounded by corpses, skeletons, scavenging jackals, and ghosts. Even though she stands with her foot squarely on her husbands chest — a ring of skulls around her neck (upon which she tells the name of God, as with a rosary) and a girdle of severed arms about her waist. Even though she wields a bloody sword in one of her four arms and the bleeding head of a demon in another; even though she makes benevolent gestures with the remaining two hands, bestowing fearlessness and boons upon her devotees — destroying ignorance and preserving world order. Even though her skin is pitch black and her tongue — projecting from her mouth bran exaggerated gesture of shyness — is fiery red.

Kali symbolizes the feminine aspect of the divine, the dynamic aspect, sometimes referred to as Shakti, or creative energy. In India, Kali is one of the most popular images of the Absolute. There, it is not uncommon to refer to God as ‘‘She." The worship of Kali is the worship of naked reality, of life as it is — raw and teeming with contradiction, delight, and misery. She is worshipped as the terrible in principle, yet she is also the bringer of devotion and peace.

And always Mother. Inexhaustible. Confronting and comprehending all facets of life. Also, the Mad Mother. Life’s endless interplay of good and evil, destruction and creation, this is all merely her sport, her play, her febrile fascination.

Underneath Kali’s foot lies the god Shiva, her husband — he, the embodiment of the Ultimate, the Absolute. Shiva has been meditating, absorbed in bliss. Yet, out of control and caught up in her dance of carnage. Kali unwittingly steps on his chest, jarring him free from his transcendent vision. He looks up in an ecstasy of recognition when he sees his beloved Kali. In this manner, Kali is understood as the vision of Shiva as he looks toward the world. She is, then, what God sees when he looks at this world — Kali, symbol of the genuine, the wholehearted, the all-knowing. Her black skin suggests an image of cosmic destruction, of apocalypse. Yet she is also the mother of all colors and the goddess of transcendence. Black. In Sanskrit, Kali means black. It also means time. She is all-devouring time, her hair flowing behind her like the unalterable stream of time. And she is naked — as stark as the dread realities of life, nothing hidden, everything stripped and exposed.

— David Zielinski

The envelope, please

Kathleen Keenan. She does not have your test results in her hand or on her desk. They are in a file box in another part of the trailer.

You follow a thick red line — the kind painted on elementary school hallways to show the way to the principal’s office —through the county public health building on Pacific Highway. Opening the back door, you are faced with the pseudo-wood-shingled side of an office trailer and a door marked Exit. Down a ramp is a door marked Entrance. The doors have specific functions assigned to them, evoking flow charts, time-motion studies. It’s one of those nods to efficiency with which the public health system is rife. It must be humiliating to be told you’re “positive” (you might, in all likelihood, die before long) in a trailer such as this on the edge of a hot, tarry parking lot, beside a septic harbor.

The person who might give you the news, positive or negative, is Kathleen Keenan, Health Advisor. She would greet you in the trailer’s central lobby area, where you wait in a government-issue molded plastic chair. She is a comfortably, reassuringly ample and attractive woman. Her gray eyes are deep, gaze solidly without the funeral director’s unctuous compassion. (Whatever profit she derives from her work, it isn’t the kind you resent.) Keenan would take you into one of the private rooms that surround the lobby area, offer you coffee.

You would have met her previously. She would have counseled you before you ever took the HIV test. She spent 15, 20 minutes with you. She updated you on the latest developments in AIDS research and assessed your risk. She asked you to describe, in close detail, the sexual activities you have engaged in — which anatomical parts into which orifices, how often with how many people, and what do you know about them? And you will have told her, perhaps employing the crudest words in your vocabulary, hoping to shock her down from her exalted position of inquisitor/con-fessor. Keenan says it is easy, easier, to ask strangers such intimate questions.

She asked you, “Knowing what you know now, do you want to proceed with the test?” Most people, Keenan says, have made up their minds before they come to public health. They have decided that knowing is much more important than not knowing.

You proceeded with the test. You took your slip of paper with the number on it and then called back in two weeks. You made an appointment to see a counselor to discuss the test results; that counselor again might be Keenan — the HIV counselors take turns.

Now you sit across from her. You try to read your fixture in her eyes. She is concentrating on her breathing. This is one of the ways in which she has learned to cope (she also takes long walks, jogs on her lunch hour). Keenan asks how the last two weeks have been for you. She tries to assess your ability to cope with either test result — a state-mandated guideline. “If a person says, ‘I just know it’s going to be negative,’ I know they’re completely unwilling to face the possibility of a positive test result. If I know a person has unstable relationships, they won’t have the support system to help them deal witli the news. If a person told me they have had thoughts about hurting themselves...”

She does not have your test results in her hand or on her desk. They are in a file box in another part of the trailer. She leaves you sitting there with your thoughts while she goes to retrieve the results.

She hasn’t looked at your test results yet. When she first started this job, two years ago, Keenan used to look in advance. If the results were negative, Keenan would feel as if she’d escaped. “But it triggered things for me,” she says. “I would worry how this person was going to get services. How this person was going to get by. And I soon realized it was more important for me to focus on the reaction of the person I was with.... I can’t do that if I’m having an incredible reaction myself.”

Keenan asks if you want to talk first, then look at the results; look first and talk later; look together; look alone. Invariably, people want the results right away and want to look at them together. “People have an incredible sense of humor at that time. People who are in high-risk groups generally have an expectation of positive results.”

The actual Word — swing-of-the-axe or last-minute-reprieve — appears at the end of the report: “reactive” or (hallelujah) “nonreactive.” She reads it aloud, tracing the words with her finger, leaning close to you.

“It’s a real intimate moment... that is, positive. It’s real precious, even though the subject has such gravity. There’s no doubt that that kind of intimate moment is satisfying to me. I hope it is satisfying to the other person as well.”

Some people “need a hug,” she says. Others cry. “I’ve held people, cradled them.” After a few minutes, Keenan proceeds with the next step, giving information the person needs to continue — referrals, phone numbers, and straightforward encouragement to engage in safer sex.

A negative test result can be “a bigger issue” than a positive one, Keenan says. “Especially when a partner is positive. The negative partner may engage in high-risk behaviors, as if they want to expose themselves to the virus.”

With every person she sees, Keenan seeks “a sense of closure.” She says there is a part of her that clings to the idea of “making it better for people, making it okay.” When Keenan began this work, she used to worry about certain people. “I have had to learn to let go and let people process the information I give them for themselves.”

Occasionally, Kathleen Keenan accidentally runs into people whom she’s counseled. She never approaches them, although she would sometimes like to. She allows them to approach her.

“If you thought that this was all a death sentence and you just stamped a page and processed them, you couldn’t go on.” Keenan and the other counselors have to set limits for themselves. “No more than two or three difficult situations a day. We counselors have an agreement, that if you see two or three positives in a day, you rotate to another counseling position for the rest of the day — pre-test counseling or sexually transmitted disease counseling. It’s emotionally draining, that constant establishment of rapport.”

There is a part of her that stands outside this process, that takes an almost “anthropological view,” that gathers anecdotal information on people’s sexual lives in a way never possible before. She and the other health advisors have a support group that meets every other week; they talk about their feelings, about what they’ve learned, trade anecdotes. It is inside information.

Keenan does not relate to the power one might associate with her position, although she says there is a group of people willing to take that role. This is how she thinks of her work: “I am adding another perspective to people’s views. That can be empowering for them.”

What weighs heavily on her is seeing people struggling with so much in their lives. What she can offer is limited by the system. “There’s never room. There’s never time. There’s never money enough.”

Keenan does not see herself as an oracle, a fate drawing through her fingers some pre-measured thread of life. “I’m a person involved in a process of another person’s life. I stand at a gate with them.”

And the separately marked doors of the office trailer, Keenan says, are not marked Entrance and Exit for efficiency’s sake. They are a gesture of discretion.

— Mary Lang

Our lady of perpetual stress

Rosslyn Lindstrom. Some inmates call her “Little Mama” or “Fast Forward.”

The inmates must address her as “Miss Lindstrom.” She lets them know, in the very beginning, that she will not tolerate a disrespectful appellation like “bitch.” Nor may they use her first name, which is Rosslyn. These are only some of the rules that Miss Lindstrom communicates to her charges at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa.

Next month marks Miss Lindstrom’s third year at Donovan, an all-male state prison two miles north of the Mexican border. The facility is an isolated group of buildings that rise from a bleak, dusty landscape. Only the “living units” are surrounded by coils of razor wire, and their overall appearance is not particularly foreboding. Neither is Miss Lindstrom. She stands at 5’3”, her nails are polished (clear), and she wears eye shadow (blue) but no lipstick — that would send the wrong message. The line between female and feminine is an important one at Donovan.

“The inmates are very brave in groups,” says Miss Lindstrom, who hears the occasional obscene comment when she walks past clusters of men. These remarks can be quite personal, describing parts of her anatomy in unflattering terms. Some female corrections officers may ignore these insults, but not Miss Lindstrom. “I think it’s up to the female [officer] to set the standard,” she says. “My policy is to walk up to the group and tell them I’m too old to be subjected to that kind of talk. I say that I’ve always treated them with respect, so I expect the same. And if I hear it again I’m going to start taking names.”

Prison discipline works on a kind of demerit system at Donovan: too many points can lengthen a prisoner’s stay. Undesirable behaviors include stabbing another inmate with a homemade knife (usually called a shank) or cracking someone’s head open with a rock in a sock. But expletives, especially the MF word, are the lingua franca of prison life. Miss Lindstrom admits that she would look silly reporting an inmate who used foul language. So how does she curb pugnacious prisoners? “There are other ways,” she says, smiling sweetly. (Miss Lindstrom declined to elaborate on this point, but several options might be open to her: “losing” long-awaited books and magazines; restricting telephone and canteen access; withholding toilet paper.)

When people inquire about Miss Lindstrom’s occupation, she tells them the truth. But then she changes the subject to avoid the inevitable prompts for her war stories. The 39-year-old farmer’s daughter (her father grew wheat in Colorado) likes to cordon off her personal life. She does not socialize with her peers, although she is good friends with her male partner and his wife. (Some corrections officers work in pairs.) Miss Lindstrom is very careful about fraternizing with the prisoners, too. Few of them know that she is divorced with two teen-age children. “If they ask if I’m married, I tell them it’s none of their business,” she says. “Sometimes an inmate will get too comfortable with me, maybe call me a cutie or something like that. That’s when I take him aside for a talk. I tell him there’s a line of professionalism and that if he steps across that line, he’s going to have trouble with me.”

Miss Lindstrom may be stem, but she is certainly no ice queen. She doesn’t seem to mind, for example, that some inmates call her “Little Mama.” Her other nickname, “Fast Forward,” comes from her walking pace. While she won’t admit to having favorites among the inmates, she is protective of those prisoners assigned to her work crews. If another inmate is giving one of her workers a hard time, Miss Lindstrom will step in. She finds many of the inmates’ antics amusing; they are always testing her, schmoozing with her, giving her some cockamamie story about why an exception should be made in their cases. Especially in the kitchen. “There are nights I’ve patted down guys and found chicken patties all over them,” she says, feigning exasperation.

Female officers are not allowed to search nude inmates, but they can tell the men to strip down to their underwear. Miss Lindstrom has given such an order in search of weapons or wounds. Some prisoners have accused her of choosing a corrections career just so she could dominate men. Miss Lindstrom also finds that many inmates are misogynists or, at the very least, inclined to order her around like a personal maid. Some don’t fear reprisals because they have nothing to lose. Working in the maximum security unit (otherwise known as “the hole”) means listening to eight hours of taunts, insults, and graphic descriptions of what prisoners would do to her if they could get her inside their cells.

Nonetheless, Miss Lindstrom is grateful for her job. The decision to work in corrections was made shortly after her divorce in 1986. Miss Lindstrom needed a better-paying job, and the corrections department offered an enticing salary ($28,000 a year, to start). At the time, she was doing secretarial work in the County Mental Health’s psychiatric unit. Before that, she screened inmates for placement in the county’s minimum security facility. “I tried to weed out the crazy ones before they got to the honor camps,” she explains. (Cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick was one of her more memorable interviews. “I wasn’t impressed,” she says.) Miss Lindstrom grew accustomed to criminals and claims she became “addicted to the stress” of being around psychotic people. This rare combination made her a natural for her new career.

After completing six weeks of paramilitary training, which required proficiency with the following weapons: 38-caliber Smith and Wesson, six-inch revolver, shotgun, rifle, and side-handled baton, Ms. Lindstrom was placed at the newly opened Donovan facility. Her first assignment was to search the prison yard with a metal detector, looking for construction leftovers. Now she works in transportation, shuttling “the guys,” as she sometimes calls them, to medical and court appointments. When outside the prison facility, Miss Lindstrom keeps her hands on their shackles.

The ratio of male to female corrections officers at Donovan is 523 to 150. There is no real “sisterhood” among the women, according to Miss Lindstrom, who doesn’t think she would like working in an all-female prison. At Donovan, the male officers tend to be protective of the opposite sex. This paternalism is appreciated by Miss Lindstrom. Being incarcerated with 4329 convicted felons makes you glad for any watchful eye, she says. While not exactly afraid of the inmates, Miss Lindstrom would never want to be alone with any of them. She often reminds herself of one prisoner’s account of the murder that landed him in prison. “I didn’t have anything against the guy,” the inmate told her. “He just got in my way.” Miss Lindstrom’s mother, who scans the news for prison riot stories, tells her daughter to be careful. Miss Lindstrom is. “You can’t ever forget who these guys are.”

— Brae Canlen

Muriel Watson lights up your life

Muriel Watson. "Finally I said to myself, ‘What in God’s name is going on down there?’"

Muriel Watson administers Light Up the Border activities from her sunny home-office in Bonita. Since the late 1950s, she has lived in a comfortable Spanish-style house not far from the Sweetwater Reservoir, on a bluff across the road from the golf course. One of her daughters manages an equestrian training stable on their property, adjacent to the side yard. Watson’s late husband, a border patrol agent, was killed in the line of duty. Her home is less than ten miles from Mexico, buffered by low rolling hills and garish spores of new housing developments.

Formerly a schoolteacher, Watson devotes her time these days to Light Up the Border. This grassroots organization seeks to draw attention to what members consider an out-of-control atmosphere through tactics as simple as lining up their cars along Dairy Mart Road in the evening and shining their headlights across the border into Mexico. Since last October, when she initially spoke up at a press conference in San Diego for an outgoing INS commissioner, her efforts have received international attention. During the ensuing months. Light Up the Border was covered by national newspapers, as well as CNN, CBS, Time, and Life. Her group’s activities were once branded as racist by both chief of San Diego police Bob Burgreen and various counter-protesters — an accusation she denies passionately. (Chief Burgreen has since apologized publicly.)

Her office is roomy; windowed doors on two walls provide abundant light. File cabinets line another wall, and a large computer rests prominently on her cluttered desk. On the far wall is mounted a two-place wooden ox yoke. Papers, articles, and clippings lie everywhere. While speaking, Watson jumps up to retrieve an appropriate document, to highlight one of her observations. Occasionally, she must reclose uncooperative windows after recurrent gusts of warm wind send papers floating onto the carpet. Her battle with the wind and the doors is continual, visual counterpoint to her determined conversation.

An expressive woman with a reserve of appropriate enthusiasm, Watson relates her story with practiced skill. She punctuates and underscores her main ideas with extra feeling, appreciating the opportunity to convey her message almost as much as the message itself.

“You know, I’ve always been short,” she admits, “and I’ve always had glasses. My classmates were taller than me, so I had to hit them to get their attention. All the time it was like that; take off my glasses and fight.”

Since November of last year, there have been more than half a dozen Light Up the Border protests near Otay Mesa. Nonetheless, apprehensions of undocumented aliens in San Diego County account for nearly half of the nationwide total. Also, at least seven slayings have been reported along the border since January of this year. But Watson has been following the upsurge in border-area crime for a lot longer.

“At first, it was just a series of tiny insidious blurbs in the paper, buried inside somewhere, describing two kids drowning in the Tia Juana River or a couple of women rescued from attackers or a group of aliens run over on the freeway. These stories should have had headlines on page one. I read and read and read, and finally I said to myself, ‘What in God’s name is going on down there?’ People were dying, and I didn’t understand it. Then, when I heard INS Commissioner Andrew Nelson’s resignation speech at that press conference — where he told us the border situation was out of control — I was appalled. I realized then and there something had to be done — to get the public to see the border the way border patrol agents see it.”

Watson acknowledges her accusers but fails to understand why she has been branded a racist. Repeatedly, she described the importance for everyone concerned to journey down to Dairy Mart Road, to see for themselves the disastrous realities. “Take a real good look. Never mind the glitz of Tijuana. What used to be a political problem, and then an international problem, is now a deep human problem,” she explains. “And this tragedy is tearing at the border patrol agents. My husband used to come home and tell me awful stories — of agents picking up a young woman who had just been raped, accompanied by her screaming children. Every night those agents would pick up the pieces out there and then come home to their own families — and try to live like a civilized human being after they’d been out there in that jungle. It wears you down. And the public was not being told how bad things really were. Unfortunately, now it’s our tragedy, too. And I lay the blame at the feet of the United States Congress.”

“I believe the United States is like Gulliver,” Watson philosophizes. “As a giant, he could do marvelous things. But he was subdued quite easily by hundreds of small people tying him down with hundreds of little ropes. Our government is not handling this problem very well at all — and it seems to me that Mexico and the U.S. are almost embarrassed to sit down and talk about it honestly. Lately, for the most part, when the two countries get together for their token meetings, it’s just ‘eat meat and retreat.’ In the meantime, the slave trade continues.

“Earlier this century, Mexican workers were shipped around the Southwest in boxcars; now, they’re shipped around the country in U-Haul trailers, sometimes dying from asphyxiation along the way. The bottom line? Cheap labor. And when I see this tragedy, and when I see these two governments unwilling to take realistic action, I begin to wonder: Whose interests are being served when things are kept the way they are? You don’t want to sound paranoid, but when you see all the programs that have failed and that have not been implemented as promised, you begin to wonder. Year after year, the border patrol graduating classes would be scooped up by other agencies — because, after all, these were some of your top guys, trained in law, bilingual, the best. But we’d see them all go, and we’d ask ourselves, ‘Is there some sort of conspiracy to keep the border patrol down to their fingernails, with one guy when there should be 100?’ After 20 years of staring at that situation, I am still asking that question.”

At this point, Watson discusses the maquiladoras; her voice colored by emotion, she declares: “People should not be expected to work for a wage which won’t allow them to feed themselves. And I don’t think Mexico wants to become the cheap labor force for the world. We’ve come a long way from the Aztecas and their sacrifices, but here the sacrifices continue. It’s the killing ritual all over again. And this is what we’re trying to do with our headlights — turning a light on this mess so people can see it for what it is.”

“Over here,” she continues, “we’ve got to stop waving the carrot. Problems at the border continue because of all the people up here saying, ‘We’ve got a wonderfiil job for you,’ luring those workers north. Attitudes have to change. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a menial job. Around our house here, we’re pretty earthy. We do a lot of work with the animals, good hard work, and we love it. America, on the other hand, has lost touch with the dignity that should accompany this sort of work. Unfortunately, too many of the illegal immigrants are willing to make slaves of themselves — which throws the whole system out of whack.”

Watson takes time to explain the legal system of labor contracting that currently exists, administered by the U.S. departments of labor and agriculture. Under this program, needed workers can be imported from Mexico or other countries as long as proper dormitory, kitchen, and sanitary facilities are provided, along with reasonable salaries. “But,” she explains, “why should anyone pay $10 an acre for workers when they can hire illegals for $2 an acre? It’s not that we don’t have people here to do the work — we do. The problem is low wages.”

When asked about her commitment to Light Up the Border, Watson replies, “It has nothing to do with anti-people. I don’t know why anyone says that about us. Right now, this country has immigration rules and regulations on the books, but they’re not being enforced. If we have these laws, then let’s enforce them. Some of my friends have told me, ‘But Muriel, this problem has been going on for years. It’s always been like this. Why are you all of a sudden getting upset?’ But they’re wrong, and they’re unwilling to accept how terrible the problem is. When you go down there you’ll see. More and more — and I’ve got this on home video — you’ll see whole families coming across. I’ve got film of a daddy with a baby in his arms and the wife with their suitcases in both hands. The problem is getting worse, and it’s primarily because the government never fulfilled its obligation to increase the number of border patrol agents here. We’ve got 3500 agents in this country carrying the emotional load for 250 million citizens, and naturalized citizens, and aliens, and resident aliens, and refugees, and everything.

“For years, my husband took congressmen and senators on tours. He took them in planes and showed them. He took them in helicopters and cars and showed them. For years. They simply went back to Washington and nothing changed. Now, we’re trying to take this issue to the people instead.”

Watson wants to see the border bulldozed by the California National Guard and a dignified fence erected on Dairy Mart Road. “If push comes to shove, we shouldn’t hesitate to call in the United Nations to feed and take care of those people either. Then we should let them know about the contract labor program, which works, and get all the necessary paperwork rolling. In the meantime, believe me, we’ve come a long way from that first protest.

“Things are finally starting to happen. San Diego police have been reassigned to the border. The border patrol has installed new lights. The INS has managed to scrape up more manpower. The San Diego Crime Commission is urging the governor to call out the national guard. And already, we’re planning Phase Two. But I’ll never forget that first night. November 2, 1989. We only had 23 cars. But when those lights went on, I kid you not, it felt like the Taj Mahal.”

— David Zielinski

Feminine mystique

Nicole Murray: There are plenty of gays who "feel uncomfortable with the female dressing and the name.”

If tomorrow every gay and lesbian person in town were to turn purple, there’d be some very nervous people on the court bench and everywhere else.... There are so many closet cases — local politicians, religious leaders, newscasters....” Nicole Murray giggles conspiratorially. Even over miles of telephone wire, there is a canniness under his bubbly tone. “I’ve developed a lot of friendships with them. They’ve become my allies, mostly.”

It could be argued that to be a prominent closet case in San Diego and not be Nicole’s ally could be a dangerous position to be in. “I’ve written to a newscaster with whom I’m furious!” Nicole says. “His straight co-anchors sponsor AIDS fundraisers, gay events, but he won’t have anything to do with them because he’s in the closet. I give him hell for it. In a friendly way, of course. Now if he’s invited to a party he asks, ‘Is Nicole invited?’ before he accepts an invitation!”

Nicole’s power is rooted in time. “Nineteen years ago,” he says, “the Imperial Court system — a service organization, basically, like the Shriners — was the only game in town. It was the only gay political power base.” Empress Nicole was “out,” always. A man with a woman’s name and a woman’s wardrobe becomes known. Because he’s out, no one can touch him. He has always had his enemies, even within the gay community. There are plenty of gays who “feel uncomfortable with the female dressing and the name,” Nicole says.

There are also plenty of gays who feel that the power Nicole has amassed is more Nicole’s than the gay community’s. Whoever it benefits most, there’s no doubt that this power base has grown. Money, Nicole says, is the bottom line. “Years ago, Pete Wilson wouldn’t let us in the back door. Now he meets with us openly.

What I have learned is that people will deal with people no matter who they are as long as they’re part of their constituency. HDO [the Human Dignity Ordinance] passed because we raised money for Ballesteros and Chacon; for Hedgecock, too — but don’t get me started on Hedgecock! We’ve become players. We’ve become a power voting block. We get out and vote. And we spend money.” Councilman Henderson, Nicole notes, voted against HDO but recently voted for city funding for the Gay and Lesbian Center. “His district has P.B., M.B., Clairemont.... Do you know how many gays live there? Really! And we don’t forget!” Nicole says he grew up “in a situation where pretty well-known people were in the closet. They would come to me for advice. I was the only one who knew what was going on. When any famous gay person would visit town, they’d call me to find out where they could socialize comfortably. Strangers still call me for everything from how to tell their lover they have AIDS, to where to meet people, to where to pick up tricks!”

His social column in Bravo! news magazine has added to his power. “My biggest enemy (who shall remain nameless) was in a bar once. I watched him pick up a copy of Bravo! and turn first to my column. A friend said, ‘Why are you reading him if you hate him so much?’ And he said, ‘I may hate him, but he is indispensable.’ ” Nicole also hosts his own yearly service awards, known as the Nicky Awards.

Nicole knows gays and lesbians in the arts, in politics, in business, in the media. “Past mayors. Movers and shakers.” He considers himself a very successful fundraiser for gay causes. He owes his success, he says, to his bluntness and honesty. “And I deliver, I bring votes.” He does not, however, blackmail people. “I call them and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you give us a contribution?’ It eases their consciences, I suppose. I do make them feel guilty for staying in the closet.” Possessing secret knowledge about people’s sexual orientation, he admits, gives him entry and leverage. And Nicole has lists: an A list, a B list, a C list. People are ranked according to their prominence and generosity. He writes letters, designates what charity a check should be made out to, encloses a stamped return envelope.

When Nicole dresses up, he feels “more feminine. I start thinking and acting more femininely. It’s automatic because I’ve been doing it so long.” As the recently elected (his fifth time) Empress of the Imperial Court, Nicole will appear “in full regalia” at numerous fundraisers this year. “My passion, Empress-wise, is portraying historical figures,” says Nicole. Costumes he has had made by friends in Hollywood include reproductions of gowns worn by Catherine the Great, Carlotta (the so-called “Mad Empress of Mexico”), Marie Antoinette (his most expensive outfit, but he won’t name the price), and Empress Alexandria of Russia. Nicole has four scepters and six crowns, most of which are exact duplicates of existing or historical crown jewels.

For his reign as Empress this year, Nicole had four different ensembles made. “But I have a full wardrobe — cocktail dresses, daywear, a Nancy Reagan-type drag with a little strand of pearls, summer hats, a lot of Eva Perdn-style hats, boxes full of wigs, dozens and dozens of pairs of shoes...Nicole also shops at Nordstrom, Judy’s, Frederick’s of Hollywood. He wears a size 11. He is never intimidated by saleswomen. “They know female impersonators are big spenders,” he says.

Nicole does not dress up as often as he formerly did. “I used to deal with people in a dress. But I have had to become more serious. When AIDS hit, we had to be taken more seriously.” And while his drag persona used to be likened to Raquel Welch, Nicole says he is more often compared with Imelda Marcos and Leona Helmsley these days.

“I’ve never hidden it. I’m blunt. I go to these La Jolla parties, these political-social situations, and, I mean, people ask my name and I say ‘Nicole,’ and they go, ‘Huh?’ Or they’ll say, ‘Er, we heard you used to do drag,’ and I say, ‘Why, sure! Look at these cheekbones!”

Although it is a great testament to the power he wields, Nicole prefers not to speak about the San Diego Union profile he managed to have aborted last year — something insiders say is next to impossible. He had been amenable to the idea but found the reporter sent to interview him “hostile and sensationalistic.” It is said that Nicole could tell a few stories about David Copley if he were so inclined. It is said that had the Union profile run, he might have been so inclined. Nicole won’t say so on the record.

“I tell stories about a certain gay admiral. People say, ‘Who is it?’ But I don’t drop names.” Perhaps this close-mouthedness encourages movers and shakers to confide in him — and keeps them in line with their checkbooks.

Call-waiting interrupts our conversation for the thousandth time. When Nicole clicks back, he says, “That was someone who was just appointed to Jeff Marston’s office. He’s so happy! He deserved it!”

— Mary Lang

Thorns and all

She slid into the passenger seat on her tropical, gaily printed shorts.

Because of overcrowded conditions at Las Colinas, the women’s detention facility in Santee, the new policy in town is to present prostitutes with easy-to-ignore Notice to Appear tickets. Lieutenant Lesli Lord of SDPD’s vice unit says, “We know that the word has been put out [on the streets] about the booking policy, but whether in fact I can say that there are 50 more girls out there as a result of that alone, I don’t know.”

Regardless of their number, the lieutenant continues, “They are a problem. A lot of it depends on where they are on the pecking order. If they are in fact not only a prostitute but an intravenous drug user, then I think you’ve got some issues there. I don’t think there’s any question that the girls who are turning 20- or 25-dollar tricks with a lot of customers ... I definitely think there is a public health concern there. Many of these people who might be carriers may not come forward for fear of losing what livelihood they’ve got. So I would have to say that there is a public health element there that we have to concern ourselves with. Besides AIDS now, they’re seeing some new resistant strains of syphilis, gonorrhea, and a few of the more traditional sexually transmitted diseases. That doesn’t even address herpes or some of the other things that don’t make people quite as paranoid.”

The callow john emerged from San Diego Data Products into the midday heat on the 3000 block of El Cajon Boulevard. The girl leaning against a parking sign smiled at him, careful to expose only a minimum of broken upper teeth between lips the color of bruised cherries.

“Want a date?” she asked.

The john fumbled with the pack of computer disks and handful of computer literature he studied. He looked up, over eyeglasses riding low on his sweat-slick nose. She was maybe five feet tall, thick black hair to her shoulders, plucked eyebrows redrawn in a wide, greasy arc. Her acne-scarred face was rouged. Thick eyeliner ringed wide brown orbs like a spaniel pup. The girl was young, maybe 20, 22.

“Yeah, okay, here’s my car,” he said.

She slid into the passenger seat on her tropical, gaily printed shorts, swung economical brown legs (on her feet — Pro Wing, Payless brand — high-tops, pink socks) into the car and crossed her legs neatly under the glove compartment. The john got in the driver’s side and handed her a 20, saying, “I just want to talk to you.” She sighed, “Okay, what’s your name, baby?”

The john pulled out his wallet. She grabbed for the door, “Oh shit, man.”

“No, I’m not a cop.” He handed her his card.

“Your name is John?”

“Yeah, what’s yours?” He drove around the block in to the parking lot of Great Western Bank, killed the engine.

“My name is ... Rose. Okay?”

“Sure.”

“What am I supposed to say?”

“Tell me about the guys, the johns. Your job. Partying.”

Rose rolled her eyes, tucked the 20 into a black leather clutch purse. Her arms were scarred at the elbows. Her hands were stubby, scarred, some nails long, some were broken and yellow, others curved, their red polish flaking. She held the purse close to her sleeveless red blouse. “Nobody parties. They’re all business guys, all married and all they want to do is get a hand job, or a blow job, sometimes get a lay.”

“Rubbers? They use ’em?”

“Half o’ them use condoms, half don’t.”

Singsong. What a drag. You get off on this? “Half o’ them don’t give a shit about AIDS. Half o’ them drug addicts.”

“You do drugs?” He waved a hand at the marks on her arms.

“No, I don’t. That was from a washing machine.” She indicated one ragged scar on her upper arm. “Never mind.”

“A washing machine. Business guys are drug addicts?”

She gave him a look: Where you been?

“Normally, what I do is try to convince them to put them on or all I’m gonna do is give ’em a hand job. But what am I gonna do? I gotta make money. That’s why I’m here. I got a daughter. I can’t argue with these guys that don’t give a shit. They’re not gonna argue with me. Most of these guys are 45 or 60 or 70. A lot of these -guys are scared of the AIDS. The whole week, I come out here, maybe two guys want to get a lay. Everybody’s scared of the AIDS. They don’t wanna chance it. Some guys are bisex, you know? That’s the chance you gonna take.”

Rose said she was born and raised in San Diego. She’d been hooking for six months. Before that, her job description was “Mother ... Miss Goody Two-Shoes. To be honest with you, I meet a lot of really nice men. But then you meet the assholes that wanna pull guns and knives, rape you and hurt you and that’s it. I been hurt twice. I ain’t been raped yet, thank God. A lotta girls got pimps or an old man, but I don’t wanna give my money to someone else and that’s it. ’Specially when I work hard. Me, I come out here from 12:00 to 3:30, and that’s it. I make $150 to $300. I go home. On the first every month, you can make $500.

“I mean, think about it. You go to work at McDonald’s, and they pay you minimum wage. Out here you go to work for an hour, you can make 60 to 100 dollars. If I told you, I’ll give you $100 for a blow job, would you do it? Shit yeah. Instead of working your ass off at McDonald’s, ’course, you’d do it... if you think about it. You can’t turn that down, you know?” “You ever get an AIDS test? An HIV test?”

“Oh, yeah, about a year ago. I’m due for another one. You’re supposed to go every six months. They keep it on record and all that shit, the county.”

“And you been out here for six months?”

“Yeah. If somebody gave it to me, God knows why if they did, I wouldn’t want to turn around and give it to somebody else ’cuz it’s not their fault. You might as well shoot me with a gun though if that happens. You know what I’m saying?”

— John Brizzolara

Good death

Faye Girsh: “People in the Hemlock Society are generally educated."

... all you need is a plastic bag of suitable size, two or three rubber bands just to fit round your neck not too tightly, and then you take your moderate and easily obtained dose of sedatives ... enough ...to keep you soundly asleep for an hour or two and probably as little as 10 sleeping tablets will do that very predictably, particularly if you wash them down with a little bit of alcohol....

— from “Self-Deliverance With Certainty,” by Colin Brewer, in HEMLOCK Quarterly, June 1989. Copyright the Hemlock Society.

Magnified through a 12th-story window in Columbia Tower, afternoon light suffuses psychologist Faye Girsh’s office. The room’s decor is upbeat, tasteful, executed in subtle oranges and beiges. There are big pillows scattered here and there, exotic knick-knacks on book-lined shelves. The buttery light from outside coordinates well with all this — and with the woman who sits in a plump armchair facing me. Her shoulder-length hair is a quiet shade of auburn. Her makeup is subdued. Her legs are crossed beneath her silky flower-print dress. She folds and unfolds my business card with one restless hand. The copy of HEMLOCK Quarterly in my hand, printed in conservative type on thick, creamy stock, matches the carpeting, the chair’s upholstery. The good life. The National Hemlock Society’s motto is “Good Life, Good Death.”

Girsh’s voice completes the picture: soft, considered, well-modulated. “A good death,” she explains, “would be quick, painless, gentle, effective ... dignified ... cheap. ” It is this that Girsh, as president of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, has been advocating for three years. “The Hemlock Society believes we all have the right to choose the time and means of our death.”

The Hemlock Society, says Girsh, is “an upbeat group of people” who “enjoy life to the fullest.” They are not morbid. Girsh does not usually find her Hemlock duties — coordinating meetings, speakers, and educational programs, writing the newsletter, representing Hemlock locally — depressing. At present she is saddened by the death of Roy Goodman, 76, a member of Hemlock’s Support Group, who was terminally ill with lung cancer. On July 17 he shot himself. “That was not a good death,” Girsh says. “It was so ... violent.” She grimaces. Blood spatters in my mind’s eye. “And he died alone.... The violence of it bothers me. It was probably painful, too, but I don’t know.”

Unlike many Hemlock Society members, Girsh notes, her own involvement in the right-to-die movement doesn’t spring from a personal acquaintance with prolonged and terminal suffering. In 1983, Girsh, then on the local board of the ACLU, was asked as a clinical and forensic psychologist to evaluate Elizabeth Bouvia’s competency. In 1986, the U.S. District Court ruled that Bouvia, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, had a right to refuse the treatment that had been forced upon her against her will, including food and hydration. During the intervening three years, Girsh spoke publicly about the Bouvia case. She was contacted by numerous people, she says, with “horror stories” about terminally ill friends and relatives who “desperately wanted help” to die. Girsh organized a conference featuring Derek Humphry, president of the National Hemlock Society. A local chapter was formed in 1987, with Girsh at the helm, to advocate “active and passive voluntary euthanasia.”

The group’s 1988 effort failed to get a Humane and Dignified Death Act passed in California; they couldn’t gather the requisite 450,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Girsh in part attributes this failure to a lack of support from local organizations: the ACLU, for example, took issue with the initiative’s exclusion of pregnant women. Last month, San Diego Hemlock’s newly hired legislative counsel met, unrewardingly, with Senator Lucy Killea. It was San Diego Hemlock’s first attempt to find sponsorship within the state legislature for a revised Death Act. This will be presented, they hope, in 1991.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case of Nancy Cruzon " i recognized a constitutionally protected right for individuals to refuse unwanted medical treatment. This method of suicide is called “passive euthanasia” in Hemlock Society parlance. Says Girsh, “The Supreme Court decision is almost extraneous, because many states have recognized that right for years.”

But until issues raised by cases like Janet Adkins’s (the woman who ended her life with the help of Michigan’s Dr. Kevorkian and his “suicide machine”) are resolved, “active euthanasia” will remain a legal gray area, and those willing to take an active hand in the deaths of their loved ones might have to employ the chancy “plastic bag method.”

Girsh tells a story that is typical, she says, of the horrors related to her and other Hemlock Society members every day. “A woman called last month who’d helped her sister go via the plastic bag method. She had bone cancer.” The dying woman’s husband injected her with morphine (left in the house by a hospice nurse); because of the tolerance to the drug she’d already built up, the injection only made her more agitated. Rolling around in bed, she broke more of her fragile bones. The husband called the sister, who arrived, injected her with more morphine, and put a plastic bag over her sister’s head. The bag was not airtight. “She kept breathing. The sister taped a second plastic bag over that, put books around her chest or something.... She finally stopped breathing around 4:00 a.m. The sister took off the bags, and her face and hair were all wet.” Girsh grimaces again. “She had to dry off her face and hair.... It was terrible.”

Faye Girsh is not religious. She believes in neither an afterlife nor reincarnation. Death, she suspects, is pretty much it. She intends “to live life to the fullest, to prolong it as long as I can.” Should, however, the quality of her life decay to an unbearable point — and by this she means should she be unable to care for herself or be rendered unable to communicate — she wishes to be put out of her misery. To this end, she has given her son durable power of attorney. Her son would make her wishes known.

How would Faye Girsh like to die? “In bed, or in a nice restaurant after a good meal!” She laughs. “Holding the hands of my children, by lethal injection administered by my doctor.”

At present, the Hemlock Society’s proposed Death with Dignity Act only addresses terminal illness. There are group members, however, who would like to expand the measure. “In Holland [where physician aid-in-dying is legal],” Girsh explains, “the criterion is unbearable suffering, but that determination is entirely subjective. They include mental suffering, which could include schizophrenics, manic-depressives, those with bipolar illnesses, who’ve tried every therapy available to them....” The tilt of Girsh’s head conveys disapproval. She says, “My consciousness has not yet evolved to that point.”

Girsh believes most people in this country would at least favor legalization of physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill. Getting up, she crosses the room to her honey-colored wooden desk. She returns with a four-page document. It is the results of a Roper poll commissioned by the Hemlock Society earlier this year, which asked 2000 Americans: “When a person has a painful and distressing terminal disease, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to end the patient’s life if there is no hope of recovery and the patient requests it?”

Across the board, a majority of those polled are in favor. Approval ratings mostly range between 60 and 70 percent and are broken down by race, geographic area, political affiliation and ideology, occupation, sex, age, household income, education, marital status, and religious affiliation.

The lowest approval ratings — between 50 and 60 percent — come from blacks, unmarried people over age 45, and homemakers. The highest approval rating of any category — 74 percent — is given by those with a household income of over $50,000. Why would blacks disapprove of active voluntary euthanasia? Why would approval of active voluntary euthanasia increase with income?

“I don’t know,” Faye Girsh says. There is a long pause, during which I regard Girsh’s woven leather shoes, her silver bracelet engraved with elephants, the yellow light sparkling on the bay at the end of A Street. “People in the Hemlock Society,” she says, “are generally educated. I think we’d all agree that the unexamined life is not worth living.”

— Mary Lang

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Kali unwittingly steps on Shiva's chest.
Kali unwittingly steps on Shiva's chest.

Dangerous woman

Kali, tie Hindu goddess, las been grossly maligned by Hollywood. Consequently, tie mention of her name among polite company most often conjures distasteful fancies of turbaned murder cults, devil worship. Yet she is much more complex and compelling than any specious depiction in an Indiana Jones adventure film or a forgotten Beatles comedy. Sever all misleading connotations to evil and sacrifices. For Kali is the Mother.

And your Mother loves you.

Even though she dances naked, frenzied and joy-stricken, in the center of a battlefield, sometimes a cremation ground, surrounded by corpses, skeletons, scavenging jackals, and ghosts. Even though she stands with her foot squarely on her husbands chest — a ring of skulls around her neck (upon which she tells the name of God, as with a rosary) and a girdle of severed arms about her waist. Even though she wields a bloody sword in one of her four arms and the bleeding head of a demon in another; even though she makes benevolent gestures with the remaining two hands, bestowing fearlessness and boons upon her devotees — destroying ignorance and preserving world order. Even though her skin is pitch black and her tongue — projecting from her mouth bran exaggerated gesture of shyness — is fiery red.

Kali symbolizes the feminine aspect of the divine, the dynamic aspect, sometimes referred to as Shakti, or creative energy. In India, Kali is one of the most popular images of the Absolute. There, it is not uncommon to refer to God as ‘‘She." The worship of Kali is the worship of naked reality, of life as it is — raw and teeming with contradiction, delight, and misery. She is worshipped as the terrible in principle, yet she is also the bringer of devotion and peace.

And always Mother. Inexhaustible. Confronting and comprehending all facets of life. Also, the Mad Mother. Life’s endless interplay of good and evil, destruction and creation, this is all merely her sport, her play, her febrile fascination.

Underneath Kali’s foot lies the god Shiva, her husband — he, the embodiment of the Ultimate, the Absolute. Shiva has been meditating, absorbed in bliss. Yet, out of control and caught up in her dance of carnage. Kali unwittingly steps on his chest, jarring him free from his transcendent vision. He looks up in an ecstasy of recognition when he sees his beloved Kali. In this manner, Kali is understood as the vision of Shiva as he looks toward the world. She is, then, what God sees when he looks at this world — Kali, symbol of the genuine, the wholehearted, the all-knowing. Her black skin suggests an image of cosmic destruction, of apocalypse. Yet she is also the mother of all colors and the goddess of transcendence. Black. In Sanskrit, Kali means black. It also means time. She is all-devouring time, her hair flowing behind her like the unalterable stream of time. And she is naked — as stark as the dread realities of life, nothing hidden, everything stripped and exposed.

— David Zielinski

The envelope, please

Kathleen Keenan. She does not have your test results in her hand or on her desk. They are in a file box in another part of the trailer.

You follow a thick red line — the kind painted on elementary school hallways to show the way to the principal’s office —through the county public health building on Pacific Highway. Opening the back door, you are faced with the pseudo-wood-shingled side of an office trailer and a door marked Exit. Down a ramp is a door marked Entrance. The doors have specific functions assigned to them, evoking flow charts, time-motion studies. It’s one of those nods to efficiency with which the public health system is rife. It must be humiliating to be told you’re “positive” (you might, in all likelihood, die before long) in a trailer such as this on the edge of a hot, tarry parking lot, beside a septic harbor.

The person who might give you the news, positive or negative, is Kathleen Keenan, Health Advisor. She would greet you in the trailer’s central lobby area, where you wait in a government-issue molded plastic chair. She is a comfortably, reassuringly ample and attractive woman. Her gray eyes are deep, gaze solidly without the funeral director’s unctuous compassion. (Whatever profit she derives from her work, it isn’t the kind you resent.) Keenan would take you into one of the private rooms that surround the lobby area, offer you coffee.

You would have met her previously. She would have counseled you before you ever took the HIV test. She spent 15, 20 minutes with you. She updated you on the latest developments in AIDS research and assessed your risk. She asked you to describe, in close detail, the sexual activities you have engaged in — which anatomical parts into which orifices, how often with how many people, and what do you know about them? And you will have told her, perhaps employing the crudest words in your vocabulary, hoping to shock her down from her exalted position of inquisitor/con-fessor. Keenan says it is easy, easier, to ask strangers such intimate questions.

She asked you, “Knowing what you know now, do you want to proceed with the test?” Most people, Keenan says, have made up their minds before they come to public health. They have decided that knowing is much more important than not knowing.

You proceeded with the test. You took your slip of paper with the number on it and then called back in two weeks. You made an appointment to see a counselor to discuss the test results; that counselor again might be Keenan — the HIV counselors take turns.

Now you sit across from her. You try to read your fixture in her eyes. She is concentrating on her breathing. This is one of the ways in which she has learned to cope (she also takes long walks, jogs on her lunch hour). Keenan asks how the last two weeks have been for you. She tries to assess your ability to cope with either test result — a state-mandated guideline. “If a person says, ‘I just know it’s going to be negative,’ I know they’re completely unwilling to face the possibility of a positive test result. If I know a person has unstable relationships, they won’t have the support system to help them deal witli the news. If a person told me they have had thoughts about hurting themselves...”

She does not have your test results in her hand or on her desk. They are in a file box in another part of the trailer. She leaves you sitting there with your thoughts while she goes to retrieve the results.

She hasn’t looked at your test results yet. When she first started this job, two years ago, Keenan used to look in advance. If the results were negative, Keenan would feel as if she’d escaped. “But it triggered things for me,” she says. “I would worry how this person was going to get services. How this person was going to get by. And I soon realized it was more important for me to focus on the reaction of the person I was with.... I can’t do that if I’m having an incredible reaction myself.”

Keenan asks if you want to talk first, then look at the results; look first and talk later; look together; look alone. Invariably, people want the results right away and want to look at them together. “People have an incredible sense of humor at that time. People who are in high-risk groups generally have an expectation of positive results.”

The actual Word — swing-of-the-axe or last-minute-reprieve — appears at the end of the report: “reactive” or (hallelujah) “nonreactive.” She reads it aloud, tracing the words with her finger, leaning close to you.

“It’s a real intimate moment... that is, positive. It’s real precious, even though the subject has such gravity. There’s no doubt that that kind of intimate moment is satisfying to me. I hope it is satisfying to the other person as well.”

Some people “need a hug,” she says. Others cry. “I’ve held people, cradled them.” After a few minutes, Keenan proceeds with the next step, giving information the person needs to continue — referrals, phone numbers, and straightforward encouragement to engage in safer sex.

A negative test result can be “a bigger issue” than a positive one, Keenan says. “Especially when a partner is positive. The negative partner may engage in high-risk behaviors, as if they want to expose themselves to the virus.”

With every person she sees, Keenan seeks “a sense of closure.” She says there is a part of her that clings to the idea of “making it better for people, making it okay.” When Keenan began this work, she used to worry about certain people. “I have had to learn to let go and let people process the information I give them for themselves.”

Occasionally, Kathleen Keenan accidentally runs into people whom she’s counseled. She never approaches them, although she would sometimes like to. She allows them to approach her.

“If you thought that this was all a death sentence and you just stamped a page and processed them, you couldn’t go on.” Keenan and the other counselors have to set limits for themselves. “No more than two or three difficult situations a day. We counselors have an agreement, that if you see two or three positives in a day, you rotate to another counseling position for the rest of the day — pre-test counseling or sexually transmitted disease counseling. It’s emotionally draining, that constant establishment of rapport.”

There is a part of her that stands outside this process, that takes an almost “anthropological view,” that gathers anecdotal information on people’s sexual lives in a way never possible before. She and the other health advisors have a support group that meets every other week; they talk about their feelings, about what they’ve learned, trade anecdotes. It is inside information.

Keenan does not relate to the power one might associate with her position, although she says there is a group of people willing to take that role. This is how she thinks of her work: “I am adding another perspective to people’s views. That can be empowering for them.”

What weighs heavily on her is seeing people struggling with so much in their lives. What she can offer is limited by the system. “There’s never room. There’s never time. There’s never money enough.”

Keenan does not see herself as an oracle, a fate drawing through her fingers some pre-measured thread of life. “I’m a person involved in a process of another person’s life. I stand at a gate with them.”

And the separately marked doors of the office trailer, Keenan says, are not marked Entrance and Exit for efficiency’s sake. They are a gesture of discretion.

— Mary Lang

Our lady of perpetual stress

Rosslyn Lindstrom. Some inmates call her “Little Mama” or “Fast Forward.”

The inmates must address her as “Miss Lindstrom.” She lets them know, in the very beginning, that she will not tolerate a disrespectful appellation like “bitch.” Nor may they use her first name, which is Rosslyn. These are only some of the rules that Miss Lindstrom communicates to her charges at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa.

Next month marks Miss Lindstrom’s third year at Donovan, an all-male state prison two miles north of the Mexican border. The facility is an isolated group of buildings that rise from a bleak, dusty landscape. Only the “living units” are surrounded by coils of razor wire, and their overall appearance is not particularly foreboding. Neither is Miss Lindstrom. She stands at 5’3”, her nails are polished (clear), and she wears eye shadow (blue) but no lipstick — that would send the wrong message. The line between female and feminine is an important one at Donovan.

“The inmates are very brave in groups,” says Miss Lindstrom, who hears the occasional obscene comment when she walks past clusters of men. These remarks can be quite personal, describing parts of her anatomy in unflattering terms. Some female corrections officers may ignore these insults, but not Miss Lindstrom. “I think it’s up to the female [officer] to set the standard,” she says. “My policy is to walk up to the group and tell them I’m too old to be subjected to that kind of talk. I say that I’ve always treated them with respect, so I expect the same. And if I hear it again I’m going to start taking names.”

Prison discipline works on a kind of demerit system at Donovan: too many points can lengthen a prisoner’s stay. Undesirable behaviors include stabbing another inmate with a homemade knife (usually called a shank) or cracking someone’s head open with a rock in a sock. But expletives, especially the MF word, are the lingua franca of prison life. Miss Lindstrom admits that she would look silly reporting an inmate who used foul language. So how does she curb pugnacious prisoners? “There are other ways,” she says, smiling sweetly. (Miss Lindstrom declined to elaborate on this point, but several options might be open to her: “losing” long-awaited books and magazines; restricting telephone and canteen access; withholding toilet paper.)

When people inquire about Miss Lindstrom’s occupation, she tells them the truth. But then she changes the subject to avoid the inevitable prompts for her war stories. The 39-year-old farmer’s daughter (her father grew wheat in Colorado) likes to cordon off her personal life. She does not socialize with her peers, although she is good friends with her male partner and his wife. (Some corrections officers work in pairs.) Miss Lindstrom is very careful about fraternizing with the prisoners, too. Few of them know that she is divorced with two teen-age children. “If they ask if I’m married, I tell them it’s none of their business,” she says. “Sometimes an inmate will get too comfortable with me, maybe call me a cutie or something like that. That’s when I take him aside for a talk. I tell him there’s a line of professionalism and that if he steps across that line, he’s going to have trouble with me.”

Miss Lindstrom may be stem, but she is certainly no ice queen. She doesn’t seem to mind, for example, that some inmates call her “Little Mama.” Her other nickname, “Fast Forward,” comes from her walking pace. While she won’t admit to having favorites among the inmates, she is protective of those prisoners assigned to her work crews. If another inmate is giving one of her workers a hard time, Miss Lindstrom will step in. She finds many of the inmates’ antics amusing; they are always testing her, schmoozing with her, giving her some cockamamie story about why an exception should be made in their cases. Especially in the kitchen. “There are nights I’ve patted down guys and found chicken patties all over them,” she says, feigning exasperation.

Female officers are not allowed to search nude inmates, but they can tell the men to strip down to their underwear. Miss Lindstrom has given such an order in search of weapons or wounds. Some prisoners have accused her of choosing a corrections career just so she could dominate men. Miss Lindstrom also finds that many inmates are misogynists or, at the very least, inclined to order her around like a personal maid. Some don’t fear reprisals because they have nothing to lose. Working in the maximum security unit (otherwise known as “the hole”) means listening to eight hours of taunts, insults, and graphic descriptions of what prisoners would do to her if they could get her inside their cells.

Nonetheless, Miss Lindstrom is grateful for her job. The decision to work in corrections was made shortly after her divorce in 1986. Miss Lindstrom needed a better-paying job, and the corrections department offered an enticing salary ($28,000 a year, to start). At the time, she was doing secretarial work in the County Mental Health’s psychiatric unit. Before that, she screened inmates for placement in the county’s minimum security facility. “I tried to weed out the crazy ones before they got to the honor camps,” she explains. (Cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick was one of her more memorable interviews. “I wasn’t impressed,” she says.) Miss Lindstrom grew accustomed to criminals and claims she became “addicted to the stress” of being around psychotic people. This rare combination made her a natural for her new career.

After completing six weeks of paramilitary training, which required proficiency with the following weapons: 38-caliber Smith and Wesson, six-inch revolver, shotgun, rifle, and side-handled baton, Ms. Lindstrom was placed at the newly opened Donovan facility. Her first assignment was to search the prison yard with a metal detector, looking for construction leftovers. Now she works in transportation, shuttling “the guys,” as she sometimes calls them, to medical and court appointments. When outside the prison facility, Miss Lindstrom keeps her hands on their shackles.

The ratio of male to female corrections officers at Donovan is 523 to 150. There is no real “sisterhood” among the women, according to Miss Lindstrom, who doesn’t think she would like working in an all-female prison. At Donovan, the male officers tend to be protective of the opposite sex. This paternalism is appreciated by Miss Lindstrom. Being incarcerated with 4329 convicted felons makes you glad for any watchful eye, she says. While not exactly afraid of the inmates, Miss Lindstrom would never want to be alone with any of them. She often reminds herself of one prisoner’s account of the murder that landed him in prison. “I didn’t have anything against the guy,” the inmate told her. “He just got in my way.” Miss Lindstrom’s mother, who scans the news for prison riot stories, tells her daughter to be careful. Miss Lindstrom is. “You can’t ever forget who these guys are.”

— Brae Canlen

Muriel Watson lights up your life

Muriel Watson. "Finally I said to myself, ‘What in God’s name is going on down there?’"

Muriel Watson administers Light Up the Border activities from her sunny home-office in Bonita. Since the late 1950s, she has lived in a comfortable Spanish-style house not far from the Sweetwater Reservoir, on a bluff across the road from the golf course. One of her daughters manages an equestrian training stable on their property, adjacent to the side yard. Watson’s late husband, a border patrol agent, was killed in the line of duty. Her home is less than ten miles from Mexico, buffered by low rolling hills and garish spores of new housing developments.

Formerly a schoolteacher, Watson devotes her time these days to Light Up the Border. This grassroots organization seeks to draw attention to what members consider an out-of-control atmosphere through tactics as simple as lining up their cars along Dairy Mart Road in the evening and shining their headlights across the border into Mexico. Since last October, when she initially spoke up at a press conference in San Diego for an outgoing INS commissioner, her efforts have received international attention. During the ensuing months. Light Up the Border was covered by national newspapers, as well as CNN, CBS, Time, and Life. Her group’s activities were once branded as racist by both chief of San Diego police Bob Burgreen and various counter-protesters — an accusation she denies passionately. (Chief Burgreen has since apologized publicly.)

Her office is roomy; windowed doors on two walls provide abundant light. File cabinets line another wall, and a large computer rests prominently on her cluttered desk. On the far wall is mounted a two-place wooden ox yoke. Papers, articles, and clippings lie everywhere. While speaking, Watson jumps up to retrieve an appropriate document, to highlight one of her observations. Occasionally, she must reclose uncooperative windows after recurrent gusts of warm wind send papers floating onto the carpet. Her battle with the wind and the doors is continual, visual counterpoint to her determined conversation.

An expressive woman with a reserve of appropriate enthusiasm, Watson relates her story with practiced skill. She punctuates and underscores her main ideas with extra feeling, appreciating the opportunity to convey her message almost as much as the message itself.

“You know, I’ve always been short,” she admits, “and I’ve always had glasses. My classmates were taller than me, so I had to hit them to get their attention. All the time it was like that; take off my glasses and fight.”

Since November of last year, there have been more than half a dozen Light Up the Border protests near Otay Mesa. Nonetheless, apprehensions of undocumented aliens in San Diego County account for nearly half of the nationwide total. Also, at least seven slayings have been reported along the border since January of this year. But Watson has been following the upsurge in border-area crime for a lot longer.

“At first, it was just a series of tiny insidious blurbs in the paper, buried inside somewhere, describing two kids drowning in the Tia Juana River or a couple of women rescued from attackers or a group of aliens run over on the freeway. These stories should have had headlines on page one. I read and read and read, and finally I said to myself, ‘What in God’s name is going on down there?’ People were dying, and I didn’t understand it. Then, when I heard INS Commissioner Andrew Nelson’s resignation speech at that press conference — where he told us the border situation was out of control — I was appalled. I realized then and there something had to be done — to get the public to see the border the way border patrol agents see it.”

Watson acknowledges her accusers but fails to understand why she has been branded a racist. Repeatedly, she described the importance for everyone concerned to journey down to Dairy Mart Road, to see for themselves the disastrous realities. “Take a real good look. Never mind the glitz of Tijuana. What used to be a political problem, and then an international problem, is now a deep human problem,” she explains. “And this tragedy is tearing at the border patrol agents. My husband used to come home and tell me awful stories — of agents picking up a young woman who had just been raped, accompanied by her screaming children. Every night those agents would pick up the pieces out there and then come home to their own families — and try to live like a civilized human being after they’d been out there in that jungle. It wears you down. And the public was not being told how bad things really were. Unfortunately, now it’s our tragedy, too. And I lay the blame at the feet of the United States Congress.”

“I believe the United States is like Gulliver,” Watson philosophizes. “As a giant, he could do marvelous things. But he was subdued quite easily by hundreds of small people tying him down with hundreds of little ropes. Our government is not handling this problem very well at all — and it seems to me that Mexico and the U.S. are almost embarrassed to sit down and talk about it honestly. Lately, for the most part, when the two countries get together for their token meetings, it’s just ‘eat meat and retreat.’ In the meantime, the slave trade continues.

“Earlier this century, Mexican workers were shipped around the Southwest in boxcars; now, they’re shipped around the country in U-Haul trailers, sometimes dying from asphyxiation along the way. The bottom line? Cheap labor. And when I see this tragedy, and when I see these two governments unwilling to take realistic action, I begin to wonder: Whose interests are being served when things are kept the way they are? You don’t want to sound paranoid, but when you see all the programs that have failed and that have not been implemented as promised, you begin to wonder. Year after year, the border patrol graduating classes would be scooped up by other agencies — because, after all, these were some of your top guys, trained in law, bilingual, the best. But we’d see them all go, and we’d ask ourselves, ‘Is there some sort of conspiracy to keep the border patrol down to their fingernails, with one guy when there should be 100?’ After 20 years of staring at that situation, I am still asking that question.”

At this point, Watson discusses the maquiladoras; her voice colored by emotion, she declares: “People should not be expected to work for a wage which won’t allow them to feed themselves. And I don’t think Mexico wants to become the cheap labor force for the world. We’ve come a long way from the Aztecas and their sacrifices, but here the sacrifices continue. It’s the killing ritual all over again. And this is what we’re trying to do with our headlights — turning a light on this mess so people can see it for what it is.”

“Over here,” she continues, “we’ve got to stop waving the carrot. Problems at the border continue because of all the people up here saying, ‘We’ve got a wonderfiil job for you,’ luring those workers north. Attitudes have to change. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a menial job. Around our house here, we’re pretty earthy. We do a lot of work with the animals, good hard work, and we love it. America, on the other hand, has lost touch with the dignity that should accompany this sort of work. Unfortunately, too many of the illegal immigrants are willing to make slaves of themselves — which throws the whole system out of whack.”

Watson takes time to explain the legal system of labor contracting that currently exists, administered by the U.S. departments of labor and agriculture. Under this program, needed workers can be imported from Mexico or other countries as long as proper dormitory, kitchen, and sanitary facilities are provided, along with reasonable salaries. “But,” she explains, “why should anyone pay $10 an acre for workers when they can hire illegals for $2 an acre? It’s not that we don’t have people here to do the work — we do. The problem is low wages.”

When asked about her commitment to Light Up the Border, Watson replies, “It has nothing to do with anti-people. I don’t know why anyone says that about us. Right now, this country has immigration rules and regulations on the books, but they’re not being enforced. If we have these laws, then let’s enforce them. Some of my friends have told me, ‘But Muriel, this problem has been going on for years. It’s always been like this. Why are you all of a sudden getting upset?’ But they’re wrong, and they’re unwilling to accept how terrible the problem is. When you go down there you’ll see. More and more — and I’ve got this on home video — you’ll see whole families coming across. I’ve got film of a daddy with a baby in his arms and the wife with their suitcases in both hands. The problem is getting worse, and it’s primarily because the government never fulfilled its obligation to increase the number of border patrol agents here. We’ve got 3500 agents in this country carrying the emotional load for 250 million citizens, and naturalized citizens, and aliens, and resident aliens, and refugees, and everything.

“For years, my husband took congressmen and senators on tours. He took them in planes and showed them. He took them in helicopters and cars and showed them. For years. They simply went back to Washington and nothing changed. Now, we’re trying to take this issue to the people instead.”

Watson wants to see the border bulldozed by the California National Guard and a dignified fence erected on Dairy Mart Road. “If push comes to shove, we shouldn’t hesitate to call in the United Nations to feed and take care of those people either. Then we should let them know about the contract labor program, which works, and get all the necessary paperwork rolling. In the meantime, believe me, we’ve come a long way from that first protest.

“Things are finally starting to happen. San Diego police have been reassigned to the border. The border patrol has installed new lights. The INS has managed to scrape up more manpower. The San Diego Crime Commission is urging the governor to call out the national guard. And already, we’re planning Phase Two. But I’ll never forget that first night. November 2, 1989. We only had 23 cars. But when those lights went on, I kid you not, it felt like the Taj Mahal.”

— David Zielinski

Feminine mystique

Nicole Murray: There are plenty of gays who "feel uncomfortable with the female dressing and the name.”

If tomorrow every gay and lesbian person in town were to turn purple, there’d be some very nervous people on the court bench and everywhere else.... There are so many closet cases — local politicians, religious leaders, newscasters....” Nicole Murray giggles conspiratorially. Even over miles of telephone wire, there is a canniness under his bubbly tone. “I’ve developed a lot of friendships with them. They’ve become my allies, mostly.”

It could be argued that to be a prominent closet case in San Diego and not be Nicole’s ally could be a dangerous position to be in. “I’ve written to a newscaster with whom I’m furious!” Nicole says. “His straight co-anchors sponsor AIDS fundraisers, gay events, but he won’t have anything to do with them because he’s in the closet. I give him hell for it. In a friendly way, of course. Now if he’s invited to a party he asks, ‘Is Nicole invited?’ before he accepts an invitation!”

Nicole’s power is rooted in time. “Nineteen years ago,” he says, “the Imperial Court system — a service organization, basically, like the Shriners — was the only game in town. It was the only gay political power base.” Empress Nicole was “out,” always. A man with a woman’s name and a woman’s wardrobe becomes known. Because he’s out, no one can touch him. He has always had his enemies, even within the gay community. There are plenty of gays who “feel uncomfortable with the female dressing and the name,” Nicole says.

There are also plenty of gays who feel that the power Nicole has amassed is more Nicole’s than the gay community’s. Whoever it benefits most, there’s no doubt that this power base has grown. Money, Nicole says, is the bottom line. “Years ago, Pete Wilson wouldn’t let us in the back door. Now he meets with us openly.

What I have learned is that people will deal with people no matter who they are as long as they’re part of their constituency. HDO [the Human Dignity Ordinance] passed because we raised money for Ballesteros and Chacon; for Hedgecock, too — but don’t get me started on Hedgecock! We’ve become players. We’ve become a power voting block. We get out and vote. And we spend money.” Councilman Henderson, Nicole notes, voted against HDO but recently voted for city funding for the Gay and Lesbian Center. “His district has P.B., M.B., Clairemont.... Do you know how many gays live there? Really! And we don’t forget!” Nicole says he grew up “in a situation where pretty well-known people were in the closet. They would come to me for advice. I was the only one who knew what was going on. When any famous gay person would visit town, they’d call me to find out where they could socialize comfortably. Strangers still call me for everything from how to tell their lover they have AIDS, to where to meet people, to where to pick up tricks!”

His social column in Bravo! news magazine has added to his power. “My biggest enemy (who shall remain nameless) was in a bar once. I watched him pick up a copy of Bravo! and turn first to my column. A friend said, ‘Why are you reading him if you hate him so much?’ And he said, ‘I may hate him, but he is indispensable.’ ” Nicole also hosts his own yearly service awards, known as the Nicky Awards.

Nicole knows gays and lesbians in the arts, in politics, in business, in the media. “Past mayors. Movers and shakers.” He considers himself a very successful fundraiser for gay causes. He owes his success, he says, to his bluntness and honesty. “And I deliver, I bring votes.” He does not, however, blackmail people. “I call them and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you give us a contribution?’ It eases their consciences, I suppose. I do make them feel guilty for staying in the closet.” Possessing secret knowledge about people’s sexual orientation, he admits, gives him entry and leverage. And Nicole has lists: an A list, a B list, a C list. People are ranked according to their prominence and generosity. He writes letters, designates what charity a check should be made out to, encloses a stamped return envelope.

When Nicole dresses up, he feels “more feminine. I start thinking and acting more femininely. It’s automatic because I’ve been doing it so long.” As the recently elected (his fifth time) Empress of the Imperial Court, Nicole will appear “in full regalia” at numerous fundraisers this year. “My passion, Empress-wise, is portraying historical figures,” says Nicole. Costumes he has had made by friends in Hollywood include reproductions of gowns worn by Catherine the Great, Carlotta (the so-called “Mad Empress of Mexico”), Marie Antoinette (his most expensive outfit, but he won’t name the price), and Empress Alexandria of Russia. Nicole has four scepters and six crowns, most of which are exact duplicates of existing or historical crown jewels.

For his reign as Empress this year, Nicole had four different ensembles made. “But I have a full wardrobe — cocktail dresses, daywear, a Nancy Reagan-type drag with a little strand of pearls, summer hats, a lot of Eva Perdn-style hats, boxes full of wigs, dozens and dozens of pairs of shoes...Nicole also shops at Nordstrom, Judy’s, Frederick’s of Hollywood. He wears a size 11. He is never intimidated by saleswomen. “They know female impersonators are big spenders,” he says.

Nicole does not dress up as often as he formerly did. “I used to deal with people in a dress. But I have had to become more serious. When AIDS hit, we had to be taken more seriously.” And while his drag persona used to be likened to Raquel Welch, Nicole says he is more often compared with Imelda Marcos and Leona Helmsley these days.

“I’ve never hidden it. I’m blunt. I go to these La Jolla parties, these political-social situations, and, I mean, people ask my name and I say ‘Nicole,’ and they go, ‘Huh?’ Or they’ll say, ‘Er, we heard you used to do drag,’ and I say, ‘Why, sure! Look at these cheekbones!”

Although it is a great testament to the power he wields, Nicole prefers not to speak about the San Diego Union profile he managed to have aborted last year — something insiders say is next to impossible. He had been amenable to the idea but found the reporter sent to interview him “hostile and sensationalistic.” It is said that Nicole could tell a few stories about David Copley if he were so inclined. It is said that had the Union profile run, he might have been so inclined. Nicole won’t say so on the record.

“I tell stories about a certain gay admiral. People say, ‘Who is it?’ But I don’t drop names.” Perhaps this close-mouthedness encourages movers and shakers to confide in him — and keeps them in line with their checkbooks.

Call-waiting interrupts our conversation for the thousandth time. When Nicole clicks back, he says, “That was someone who was just appointed to Jeff Marston’s office. He’s so happy! He deserved it!”

— Mary Lang

Thorns and all

She slid into the passenger seat on her tropical, gaily printed shorts.

Because of overcrowded conditions at Las Colinas, the women’s detention facility in Santee, the new policy in town is to present prostitutes with easy-to-ignore Notice to Appear tickets. Lieutenant Lesli Lord of SDPD’s vice unit says, “We know that the word has been put out [on the streets] about the booking policy, but whether in fact I can say that there are 50 more girls out there as a result of that alone, I don’t know.”

Regardless of their number, the lieutenant continues, “They are a problem. A lot of it depends on where they are on the pecking order. If they are in fact not only a prostitute but an intravenous drug user, then I think you’ve got some issues there. I don’t think there’s any question that the girls who are turning 20- or 25-dollar tricks with a lot of customers ... I definitely think there is a public health concern there. Many of these people who might be carriers may not come forward for fear of losing what livelihood they’ve got. So I would have to say that there is a public health element there that we have to concern ourselves with. Besides AIDS now, they’re seeing some new resistant strains of syphilis, gonorrhea, and a few of the more traditional sexually transmitted diseases. That doesn’t even address herpes or some of the other things that don’t make people quite as paranoid.”

The callow john emerged from San Diego Data Products into the midday heat on the 3000 block of El Cajon Boulevard. The girl leaning against a parking sign smiled at him, careful to expose only a minimum of broken upper teeth between lips the color of bruised cherries.

“Want a date?” she asked.

The john fumbled with the pack of computer disks and handful of computer literature he studied. He looked up, over eyeglasses riding low on his sweat-slick nose. She was maybe five feet tall, thick black hair to her shoulders, plucked eyebrows redrawn in a wide, greasy arc. Her acne-scarred face was rouged. Thick eyeliner ringed wide brown orbs like a spaniel pup. The girl was young, maybe 20, 22.

“Yeah, okay, here’s my car,” he said.

She slid into the passenger seat on her tropical, gaily printed shorts, swung economical brown legs (on her feet — Pro Wing, Payless brand — high-tops, pink socks) into the car and crossed her legs neatly under the glove compartment. The john got in the driver’s side and handed her a 20, saying, “I just want to talk to you.” She sighed, “Okay, what’s your name, baby?”

The john pulled out his wallet. She grabbed for the door, “Oh shit, man.”

“No, I’m not a cop.” He handed her his card.

“Your name is John?”

“Yeah, what’s yours?” He drove around the block in to the parking lot of Great Western Bank, killed the engine.

“My name is ... Rose. Okay?”

“Sure.”

“What am I supposed to say?”

“Tell me about the guys, the johns. Your job. Partying.”

Rose rolled her eyes, tucked the 20 into a black leather clutch purse. Her arms were scarred at the elbows. Her hands were stubby, scarred, some nails long, some were broken and yellow, others curved, their red polish flaking. She held the purse close to her sleeveless red blouse. “Nobody parties. They’re all business guys, all married and all they want to do is get a hand job, or a blow job, sometimes get a lay.”

“Rubbers? They use ’em?”

“Half o’ them use condoms, half don’t.”

Singsong. What a drag. You get off on this? “Half o’ them don’t give a shit about AIDS. Half o’ them drug addicts.”

“You do drugs?” He waved a hand at the marks on her arms.

“No, I don’t. That was from a washing machine.” She indicated one ragged scar on her upper arm. “Never mind.”

“A washing machine. Business guys are drug addicts?”

She gave him a look: Where you been?

“Normally, what I do is try to convince them to put them on or all I’m gonna do is give ’em a hand job. But what am I gonna do? I gotta make money. That’s why I’m here. I got a daughter. I can’t argue with these guys that don’t give a shit. They’re not gonna argue with me. Most of these guys are 45 or 60 or 70. A lot of these -guys are scared of the AIDS. The whole week, I come out here, maybe two guys want to get a lay. Everybody’s scared of the AIDS. They don’t wanna chance it. Some guys are bisex, you know? That’s the chance you gonna take.”

Rose said she was born and raised in San Diego. She’d been hooking for six months. Before that, her job description was “Mother ... Miss Goody Two-Shoes. To be honest with you, I meet a lot of really nice men. But then you meet the assholes that wanna pull guns and knives, rape you and hurt you and that’s it. I been hurt twice. I ain’t been raped yet, thank God. A lotta girls got pimps or an old man, but I don’t wanna give my money to someone else and that’s it. ’Specially when I work hard. Me, I come out here from 12:00 to 3:30, and that’s it. I make $150 to $300. I go home. On the first every month, you can make $500.

“I mean, think about it. You go to work at McDonald’s, and they pay you minimum wage. Out here you go to work for an hour, you can make 60 to 100 dollars. If I told you, I’ll give you $100 for a blow job, would you do it? Shit yeah. Instead of working your ass off at McDonald’s, ’course, you’d do it... if you think about it. You can’t turn that down, you know?” “You ever get an AIDS test? An HIV test?”

“Oh, yeah, about a year ago. I’m due for another one. You’re supposed to go every six months. They keep it on record and all that shit, the county.”

“And you been out here for six months?”

“Yeah. If somebody gave it to me, God knows why if they did, I wouldn’t want to turn around and give it to somebody else ’cuz it’s not their fault. You might as well shoot me with a gun though if that happens. You know what I’m saying?”

— John Brizzolara

Good death

Faye Girsh: “People in the Hemlock Society are generally educated."

... all you need is a plastic bag of suitable size, two or three rubber bands just to fit round your neck not too tightly, and then you take your moderate and easily obtained dose of sedatives ... enough ...to keep you soundly asleep for an hour or two and probably as little as 10 sleeping tablets will do that very predictably, particularly if you wash them down with a little bit of alcohol....

— from “Self-Deliverance With Certainty,” by Colin Brewer, in HEMLOCK Quarterly, June 1989. Copyright the Hemlock Society.

Magnified through a 12th-story window in Columbia Tower, afternoon light suffuses psychologist Faye Girsh’s office. The room’s decor is upbeat, tasteful, executed in subtle oranges and beiges. There are big pillows scattered here and there, exotic knick-knacks on book-lined shelves. The buttery light from outside coordinates well with all this — and with the woman who sits in a plump armchair facing me. Her shoulder-length hair is a quiet shade of auburn. Her makeup is subdued. Her legs are crossed beneath her silky flower-print dress. She folds and unfolds my business card with one restless hand. The copy of HEMLOCK Quarterly in my hand, printed in conservative type on thick, creamy stock, matches the carpeting, the chair’s upholstery. The good life. The National Hemlock Society’s motto is “Good Life, Good Death.”

Girsh’s voice completes the picture: soft, considered, well-modulated. “A good death,” she explains, “would be quick, painless, gentle, effective ... dignified ... cheap. ” It is this that Girsh, as president of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, has been advocating for three years. “The Hemlock Society believes we all have the right to choose the time and means of our death.”

The Hemlock Society, says Girsh, is “an upbeat group of people” who “enjoy life to the fullest.” They are not morbid. Girsh does not usually find her Hemlock duties — coordinating meetings, speakers, and educational programs, writing the newsletter, representing Hemlock locally — depressing. At present she is saddened by the death of Roy Goodman, 76, a member of Hemlock’s Support Group, who was terminally ill with lung cancer. On July 17 he shot himself. “That was not a good death,” Girsh says. “It was so ... violent.” She grimaces. Blood spatters in my mind’s eye. “And he died alone.... The violence of it bothers me. It was probably painful, too, but I don’t know.”

Unlike many Hemlock Society members, Girsh notes, her own involvement in the right-to-die movement doesn’t spring from a personal acquaintance with prolonged and terminal suffering. In 1983, Girsh, then on the local board of the ACLU, was asked as a clinical and forensic psychologist to evaluate Elizabeth Bouvia’s competency. In 1986, the U.S. District Court ruled that Bouvia, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, had a right to refuse the treatment that had been forced upon her against her will, including food and hydration. During the intervening three years, Girsh spoke publicly about the Bouvia case. She was contacted by numerous people, she says, with “horror stories” about terminally ill friends and relatives who “desperately wanted help” to die. Girsh organized a conference featuring Derek Humphry, president of the National Hemlock Society. A local chapter was formed in 1987, with Girsh at the helm, to advocate “active and passive voluntary euthanasia.”

The group’s 1988 effort failed to get a Humane and Dignified Death Act passed in California; they couldn’t gather the requisite 450,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Girsh in part attributes this failure to a lack of support from local organizations: the ACLU, for example, took issue with the initiative’s exclusion of pregnant women. Last month, San Diego Hemlock’s newly hired legislative counsel met, unrewardingly, with Senator Lucy Killea. It was San Diego Hemlock’s first attempt to find sponsorship within the state legislature for a revised Death Act. This will be presented, they hope, in 1991.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case of Nancy Cruzon " i recognized a constitutionally protected right for individuals to refuse unwanted medical treatment. This method of suicide is called “passive euthanasia” in Hemlock Society parlance. Says Girsh, “The Supreme Court decision is almost extraneous, because many states have recognized that right for years.”

But until issues raised by cases like Janet Adkins’s (the woman who ended her life with the help of Michigan’s Dr. Kevorkian and his “suicide machine”) are resolved, “active euthanasia” will remain a legal gray area, and those willing to take an active hand in the deaths of their loved ones might have to employ the chancy “plastic bag method.”

Girsh tells a story that is typical, she says, of the horrors related to her and other Hemlock Society members every day. “A woman called last month who’d helped her sister go via the plastic bag method. She had bone cancer.” The dying woman’s husband injected her with morphine (left in the house by a hospice nurse); because of the tolerance to the drug she’d already built up, the injection only made her more agitated. Rolling around in bed, she broke more of her fragile bones. The husband called the sister, who arrived, injected her with more morphine, and put a plastic bag over her sister’s head. The bag was not airtight. “She kept breathing. The sister taped a second plastic bag over that, put books around her chest or something.... She finally stopped breathing around 4:00 a.m. The sister took off the bags, and her face and hair were all wet.” Girsh grimaces again. “She had to dry off her face and hair.... It was terrible.”

Faye Girsh is not religious. She believes in neither an afterlife nor reincarnation. Death, she suspects, is pretty much it. She intends “to live life to the fullest, to prolong it as long as I can.” Should, however, the quality of her life decay to an unbearable point — and by this she means should she be unable to care for herself or be rendered unable to communicate — she wishes to be put out of her misery. To this end, she has given her son durable power of attorney. Her son would make her wishes known.

How would Faye Girsh like to die? “In bed, or in a nice restaurant after a good meal!” She laughs. “Holding the hands of my children, by lethal injection administered by my doctor.”

At present, the Hemlock Society’s proposed Death with Dignity Act only addresses terminal illness. There are group members, however, who would like to expand the measure. “In Holland [where physician aid-in-dying is legal],” Girsh explains, “the criterion is unbearable suffering, but that determination is entirely subjective. They include mental suffering, which could include schizophrenics, manic-depressives, those with bipolar illnesses, who’ve tried every therapy available to them....” The tilt of Girsh’s head conveys disapproval. She says, “My consciousness has not yet evolved to that point.”

Girsh believes most people in this country would at least favor legalization of physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill. Getting up, she crosses the room to her honey-colored wooden desk. She returns with a four-page document. It is the results of a Roper poll commissioned by the Hemlock Society earlier this year, which asked 2000 Americans: “When a person has a painful and distressing terminal disease, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to end the patient’s life if there is no hope of recovery and the patient requests it?”

Across the board, a majority of those polled are in favor. Approval ratings mostly range between 60 and 70 percent and are broken down by race, geographic area, political affiliation and ideology, occupation, sex, age, household income, education, marital status, and religious affiliation.

The lowest approval ratings — between 50 and 60 percent — come from blacks, unmarried people over age 45, and homemakers. The highest approval rating of any category — 74 percent — is given by those with a household income of over $50,000. Why would blacks disapprove of active voluntary euthanasia? Why would approval of active voluntary euthanasia increase with income?

“I don’t know,” Faye Girsh says. There is a long pause, during which I regard Girsh’s woven leather shoes, her silver bracelet engraved with elephants, the yellow light sparkling on the bay at the end of A Street. “People in the Hemlock Society,” she says, “are generally educated. I think we’d all agree that the unexamined life is not worth living.”

— Mary Lang

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