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A Novel of 1990s San Francisco Looks Back on Era of AIDS and Loss

Each June, cities around the world host Pride celebrations. Events in 2019 also mark 50 years since the Stonewall Riots in New York City and the birth of the gay rights movement.

But while the last half-century has seen enormous progress in promoting equality for the LGBTQ community, any look back must also acknowledge the terrible losses from AIDS. More than 700,000 people have died of AIDS in the U.S., peaking in the mid-1990s just before antiretroviral therapy began to save lives.

A novel by Professor Benjamin Heim Shepard (New York City College of Technology) takes readers back to that era when the epidemic raged and the death toll was rising. Set mainly in San Francisco in the early 1990s, Illuminations on Market Street tells the story of Cab, a recent college grad who works nights in an AIDS housing program. He’s a front-line witness to the devastation of the disease, but he’s also struggling with family dramas and complicated relationships while figuring out his own identity and path. The book vividly evokes the era’s heady mix of sex and drugs, punk rock and disco, and politics and pop culture, from ACT UP protests to 90210 on TV. Shepard calls it a “bildungsroman” about “AIDS caregiving, romance, and letting go.”

Illuminations opens on a hopeful note. The AIDS crisis is easing and Cab notices that clients from his job at the AIDS facility are looking healthy. They’d gained weight, they were laughing: “No wheelchairs like last time, no more walking dead.” But the story then shifts back to the time when “a cough would lead to a bed, which led to an ambulance, which led to a hospital with a No Exit sign. … The deaths kept piling up.”

The novel includes a description of a real event that Shepard cites as the “genesis” of the book: “an ACT UP demonstration in which we threw the ashes of our dead friends on the state house in Sacramento. I came home, crashed, felt more down than I had ever felt and I started writing.” It took Shepard nearly three decades to complete the story.

Shepard’s other books include White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic, and, co-authored with City Tech Professor Mark Noonan, Brooklyn Tides: The Rise and Fall of a Global Borough. Shepard will speak about Illuminations on Aug. 21, 7 p.m., at the Green Arcade Bookstore in San Francisco. 

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Illuminations on Market Street
ibidem Press (Columbia University Press), 2019

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Benjamin Heim Shepard (Professor, Human Services) | Profile 1 | Profile 2