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An Up-and-Down Experience on the AIDS Ride

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Eighteen hundred bicyclists, passionate about fighting AIDS, arrive in Los Angeles tomorrow. Most will have ridden nearly 600 miles from San Francisco, to raise money for research into the disease. It's a long haul, one that performer and writer, Tamara Bick did a few years ago.

Ms. TAMARA BICK (Performer, Writer, AIDS Rider): It takes a long time to pedal from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a hard bicycle seat the size of at Tic Tac; seven days, in fact. Seven days of punishing pedaling. And I'm talking 10 hours every day. Seven days of wearing sweaty bike shorts with padding that protects your bum, but makes it look like you're wearing a full adult diaper. Seven days of waking up at three in the morning next to someone you barely know, who's snoring loud enough to wake your grandmother, who, by the way, has been dead for nine years.

This seven-day, 600-mile bike ride, sounds like misery to me. So why on earth would I volunteer to do it?

John was my best friend. We met in college, lived together, worked together, traveled together. John and I sometimes wore the same shirts, as though we were already in our twilight years, walking the malls. We drank dirty martinis and smoked Belmont milds while discussing important issues, like how one would bring up children in today's economy. Or, when would Achy Breaky Heart go away forever?

Then John was diagnosed with AIDS. I nursed him through his last six years, watched him waste away, and was there when he finally died. He suffered horribly. And now, so must I. A 600-mile ride seems just the ticket.

I know I'm in trouble from the minute the ride starts. It's four a.m., and instead of sleeping, I'm at the opening ceremonies in San Francisco. It's cold. My fingers and toes are numb. I'm hungry. I need coffee. Some woman who organized the ride is droning on about how excited she is, and how great the upcoming week is going to be. And then I hear laughing.

I look behind me and there's a group of riders huddling in a semi-circle. They all have the same shirts on. Oh, that's sassy: Positive Peddlers embroidered across the front. This posse of riders is so upbeat about this wretched ride, they put the word positive on the front of their shirts. That's great. Perfect.

I'm standing in the eye of my own fury storm at these Positive Peddlers, when one of them heads for the stage. I don't think I can stand this ceremony any longer. The guy takes the mic and starts talking about how he just got out of the hospital a few days ago. He says he's HIV-positive. Oh, he's a positive peddler. And that, my friends, is when I took the train into Bitch City where I became the mayor.

And that was just the beginning. I cursed all the way up a 3500-foot hill in blistering heat. Then I danced at the breathtaking view. I thought my bag and tent were stolen when I got into camp late one night, but a fellow cyclist had pitched the tent and put my belongings inside.

By the time I rode into Los Angeles, seven days later, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. My friends were all there to meet me, and all I could do is cry, and cry, and cry.

Back when John was first diagnosed, he said to me, You'll pull the plug if I end up in a hospital bed, sick to death. You'll pull the plug for me, won't you? Truth is, he was vain, and he didn't want to lose his looks. He wanted to die the way he lived, a beautiful gay man. But even when end was close and he looked like hell, he never mentioned pulling the plug again. He hung on for dear life, squeezing out every moment he could.

I guess, if he found the strength to fight, riding 600 miles really didn't seem so bad.

BRAND: Tamara Bick is a writer in Los Angeles.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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