June 2002

The Lab Rat

After a ten-year lapse, the San Francisco Public Health Department called me at the beginning of the month. It seems they had again gotten funding to continue studying the Hepatitis-B Cohort, of which I am a member, and they wanted me to drop by for a visit. I of course agreed, as I have a long history as a lab rat.

It all started one day in the spring of 1978 when I was at the VD clinic checking into a public health issue. While waiting, I noticed a poster soliciting volunteers for a study testing a vaccine being developed for Hepatitis-B, which was then rampant in the kind of person who tended to visit the VD clinic. So I volunteered, and they took my blood and a sexual history and said they’d be contacting me. Some weeks later, they got back to me and told me that I had had Hepatitis-B at some point in my life without knowing about it. (Apparently this is not all that unusual.) They also said that I was now immune to the disease but not a carrier, so they needed no further participation from me. Then they went ahead and developed the vaccine without me.

By 1984 the AIDS epidemic was nearing full blast in San Francisco, and my friends and acquaintances were being picked off by an invisible sniper. You wouldn’t see them for a while and then you’d be at the grocery store and there would be this gaunt creature covered with Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions who knew you. Or maybe worse yet, you wouldn’t see them for a while and you’d call up and get this unfamiliar voice saying, “Oh, he died in July. You didn’t know?”

But in 1984 a brilliant man at the Public Health clinic made a quantum leap and realized that they still had frozen blood samples from those 6000 members of the Hepatitis-B cohort, and we were the kind of guys who would make an ideal study group in the attempt to understand AIDS. They were able to find living over a thousand of us. So they took our blood and told us we’d have the opportunity to learn whether we were seropositive for the HIV virus. Like many of the cohort, I decided that I’d prefer to continue to act as if I were positive while still clinging to hope that I was negative. After all, in 1984 the medical treatment of AIDS was entirely palliative.

The situation changed, though, in February of 1987 when Allen woke up one morning terribly ill and a bit crazy.  When i got him to the hospital, the diagnosis was Pneumocystis pneumonia plus toxoplasmosis affecting the brain. I checked immediately to determine my HIV status and when I discovered that my blood from 1984 had been positive, I rushed out and bought a pack of cigarettes, since it was clear that I’d be dead of AIDS in a couple of years or so. Allen died six months later, and for the next year I went into a frenzy of activity to keep myself sane (OK, from getting crazier). One of these activities was responding to Dr. Marcus Conant’s call for study group volunteers.

I landed in the thymopentin study. Thymopentin is a naturally occurring hormone that functions as an immunomodulator. Dr. Conant hoped that by injecting themselves with an artificially produced version of this hormone, HIV+ persons could slow the progression of the disease. But how much of the drug and how often? I was initially in the 1cc. per week group on, as it turned out, the placebo, but after a time there was some weak statistical evidence that three times a week on the actual drug might be doing some good. So for several years there I gave myself a subcutaneous injection of thymopentin three times a week. (You try giving yourself a subcue when your body fat percentage is approaching zero! Real narrow target.) In about 1992, they determined that these injections were totally harmless, but also totally useless, and the study was ended.

They transferred me into Dr. Conant’s plasma study. The idea behind this study was that HIV+ persons with good numbers (in those days before viral load could be measured, this meant mainly high T-cell counts) could spare some plasma periodically and that this plasma, just loaded with anti-HIV factors known and unknown, could be of great benefit to persons with outright AIDS, perhaps prolonging their lives.

What they didn’t tell me before I agreed to join the study was how the plasma was collected. The best thing I can say about this is that the machine was fascinating in its operation and that the built-in couch was fairly comfortable.

On the downside was the Needle, down the barrel of which you could look as you wondered whether there was a vein in your entire body that the damn thing could fit into. The tekkie managed to get it into a vein on the second try, and then I discovered the other downside. This was not like a quick blood draw. Rather, the machine first let the blood flow out of your arm through an elaborate tangle of clear plastic tubing into a holding vessel. When the vessel was full, the plasma was centrifuged out into a plastic bag rather like a typical IV bag. Then the leftover red blood cells in the holding vessel were pumped back into your body, and the cycle was repeated until the plasma bag was full. This took what seemed like hours but was usually something like forty-five minutes…at best a very uncomfortable forty-five minutes. I quickly grew to dread my scheduled visits, and several times my dread was reinforced by their missing the vein or by the needle requiring adjustments at points during the process.

But I persevered, partly out of just not wanting to be a quitter, but also because before he died Allen had turned to me one day and said, “If they ever offer you a blood transfusion, take it!” He said that it made him feel so good that he almost felt normal…for a while, anyhow. So I knew that my plasma at the very least would make the recipient temporarily feel good. It was also clear that receiving a bag full of plasma would be much less traumatic than giving one.
Then one day while I was squirming there on the extraction couch feeling sorry for myself, an Emaciated Wretch, obviously one of the recipients, walked in to talk with the tekkie. He stood there, right beside me, chatting away while taking little quick glances at my blood running through the clear tubing, splashing into the extraction chamber for centrifuging, and the clear plasma pouring into the holding bag. A sense swept me that something was different. Something was somehow wrong with his body language.

And then I realized that although for several years a lot of people, men and women, had been drawing my blood for various AIDS tests in the most professional manner, courteous and steady of hand and using the latest safety measures against accidental sticks, here for once was someone who wasn’t the least bit afraid of it.

On the contrary. He wasn’t exactly licking his lips, but it was clear that he would have been quite happy for the plasma to have been run right straight into his arm, while it was still hot and fresh.

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Ferry Plaza Raid

I made a spectacular raid on the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market this morning with Chris. Last Tuesday Lou Iacopi had the good taste to thank me again for the blackberry jelly I’d given him a couple of months ago. He did so very elaborately as a joke since I was carrying at that time a flat of berries. So I took him a jar today of the jelly I’d made from that flat: tayberry.

Then I introduced myself to John Lagier at the Lagier booth. I had been buying stuff, mostly berries and their excellent almond butter from him and his nephew for years without knowing who they were. Today, I was trying to pin him down on exactly when he’d have his sour cherries. I want to get a lot of them and pit and freeze them to use in making crisps since one of the best crisps I ever made was with the one batch of sour cherries I got last year. Very few vendors in this area grow them (there was only one other vendor last year) and you have to be alert for them because, like all cherries, every damn cherry on the tree ripens almost simultaneously, so the “season” lasts for only two market appearances. He’s expecting to have them the 15th and the Tuesday following. But he did have his first “Sylvan” blackberries, of which I bought a flat and from which I have just finished making jelly.
Next I stopped at Ella Bella and schmoozed and picked up a flat of their first olallieberries.

Then to Yerena to give him back the containers and box for last Tuesday’s tayberries and to give him the dozen tayberry signs I’d printed up for him on stiff paper. He had put back for me a flat of under-ripe tayberries, which should make just spectacular jelly. Before I left, he gave me a taste of the very first of some mystery berries. Somebody gave him six canes last year but didn’t know what variety/hybrid they were. He planted them, and they are now bearing, but he doesn’t know what they are. He took them to UC Davis and they didn’t know either. All they could say was the obvious, that the berries clearly had both blackberries and raspberries in their family tree. I told him he ought to call them Yerenaberries, but he demurred. He did tell me that he thinks enough will be ripe next week to bring me a flat. Since they’re delicious, I’m just dying to make Yerenaberry jelly. Rich and famous gourmets will queue at my door, begging for a jar. I’ll tell ’em I donated them all to Glide Memorial Church to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless…on Wonder bread.

The sign I made for Yerena reads: “The tayberry is a hybrid developed by the Scottish Crop Research Institute in 1978 by crossing the Oregon ‘Aurora’ blackberry and an unnamed, “improved tetraploid raspberry hybrid” developed by the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute. It is named after the River Tay and in addition to its superb taste, has the desirable quality of making really excellent jelly. At least one amateur jelly maker has had repeated success using the recipe titled ‘Waterless Grape or Berry Jelly’ in Joy of Cooking which, especially if slightly under-ripe fruit is available, somehow miraculously jells without the addition of pectin. This results in an especially flavorful jelly because it contains nothing but berries and sugar.”

Next, around to Michael Recchiuti to compliment him on his spectacular new website. God, is it ever beautiful…and slick…and well written…and witty. Things are even spelled right and every accent is there and aimed the right direction. Impressive. Just like his chocolates and spectacular ice creams, especially the burnt caramel. Check it out: www.recchiuticonfections.com

And then back to the car so that my bearer (Chris) could drop off the three flats of berries and bag of Brandywines he was carrying for me (so I’d have both hands free to take notes:-)

And then a second round, stopping to say hello to Jeff, the succulent vendor from whom I’ve got almost all my Haworthias. During the visit with Jeff, Chris spots Sybil before I do. I’d apparently described her fairly well, as he’d never seen her. I give her a copy of the sign I made for Yerena’s tayberries, as she wants to put it on her excellent market update site. [Note: Alas, CUESA has decided that it no longer wanted to provide this excellent service. Pity.]
Then we all head for Fitzgerald’s for peaches (Sybil) and nectarines (me). In all my praise of Fitzgerald’s wit and charm, I have neglected his able assistant, Liz Crane’s. He may be more verbal, but she is certainly just as charming, and I don’t say this just because she took my side against Sybil and agreed that in breeding all those white peaches and nectarines for sweetness, somebody forgot to keep the flavor. So she and I agree that if you want your wonderfully flavorful yellow peaches and nectarines a little sweeter, you can just add a little sugar. Actually, at three cents per ounce, you could go ahead and add alot of sugar.  Nice to take care of that question for good.

Next stop, Frog Hollow for a little snack after all that socializing: frangipane/cherry galettes, just obscenely good. While still eating the galette, I spot a vendor with the first Queen Anne cherries, so I gradually edge closer and play After You, My Dear Alphonse with a lady also going for a bag. Turns out we’re both after the Queen Annes and had an excellent cherry rap as we worked the bin from both sides. I am continually getting into spontaneous discussions with folks at the market, and people are constantly asking me questions. Apparently I radiate some sort of brazen fruit confidence.
Then around to the other row of the market to see if I can find whoever it was besides Lagier that had those sour cherries last year. No luck, but in the progress, I get to know Lee James at Tierra. I’d bought her amazing Chipotle Chile Jam and given it as gifts, and I’d had her fresh chiles, but I’d not bought any of her dried chiles. So I got some jalapeño chipotles with the idea of using one of those recipes for chipotle chile oil that I found on the Internet while I was looking for sources from which to buy the stuff.

Then across the aisle to Hidden Star, where I bought some of Mijnheer Smit’s Bings while he dished the Frisians. To the obstinacy he has added a charge of stinginess. Chris just loved this, as the Frisians have been the butt of German jokes at least since I was there in the sixties. Actually, knowing how those Europeans squabble with each other, this has probably been going on for at least 500 years.

End of the line, the Hamadas, for some of their Brooks cherries. And then, back here to make jelly while taking breaks to watch the French Open. At this point, the second batch, with the Ella Bella olallieberries, is about ready to jar, and I’m so tired I can barely sit here to type. Clearly those spectacular tayberries from Yerena are going to have to just rest in the refrigerator overnight.

A comment on my jellies: Friends have asked why I don’t strain them through cheesecloth to get out those few immature seeds that get through my sieve. I like to leave a few seeds so folks will know I didn’t use a mix.

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