A time for Magic


November 12, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

THE LAST time we heard so much about a smile was when those ridiculous buttons surfaced a decade ago, the ones with the happy face and the legend "Have a nice day."

Those were phony; Magic Johnson's smile is real, a grin that says feelgood as surely as the rest of him says basketball.

Some basketball players, because of their height and a certain hauteur, seem to demand genuflection. Magic Johnson always looks to me like a guy you should hug.

That was especially true when he told the world he was infected with the AIDS virus, said he was going to become a national spokesman and flashed the grin. What a man.

This is what AIDS looks like -- good people, lovable people, people you want to hug. Are we ready to face that truth? Are we finally ready to behave properly instead of continuing to be infected by the horrible virus of bigotry and blindness that has accompanied this epidemic?

This is what AIDS looks like -- good people who get sick. Artists, actors, soldiers, sailors, writers, editors, politicians, priests.

The same issue of the New York Times that carried the astounding story of Magic Johnson's announcement carried the deaths of four men with AIDS: an educational testing expert, an actor, a former dancer and choreographer, and a partner in a law firm. "Loving nature," said one death notice. "Generosity of spirit," said another. Beloved by family and friends.

In the 10 years since five gay men with pneumonia became a million people who are HIV-positive, this illness has brought out the worst in America. We obsess about "life style" in the midst of a pyramid scheme of mortality, an infectious disease spreading exponentially.

Over the past year, we have witnessed the canonization of one AIDS patient, a 23-year-old woman named Kimberly Bergalis who says that she "didn't do anything wrong."

This is code, and so is her elevation to national symbol. Kimberly Bergalis is a lovely white woman with no sexual history who contracted AIDS from her dentist. She is what some people like to call an "innocent victim."

With that single adjective we condemn those who get AIDS from sex and those who get it from dirty needles as guilty and ultimately unworthy of our help and sympathy. We imply that gay men deserve what they get and people who shoot up might as well be dead.

It's a little like being sympathetic to the health-conscious jogger who dies of a heart attack during a stint on the Stairmaster but telling the widow of the couch potato, "Well, if he hadn't eaten all those hot dogs, this wouldn't have happened."

It's not how you get it; it's how you spread it. And we know how that happens and what to do about it. Education. Conversation. Prevention.

I don't want to hear any more about how condoms shouldn't be advertised on television and in newspapers. I don't want to hear any more about the impropriety of clean-needle exchanges or the immorality of AIDS education in schools.

Our 8-year-old asked about safe sex after he heard those words from Magic Johnson's mouth. And I was amazed at how simply and straightforwardly I was able to discuss it.

Because I don't want to hear any more about good people who aren't going to live to their 40th birthday, about wasted talent and missed chances and children who die long before their parents do. I'm less concerned about my kids' life styles than I am about their lives.

How are all those parents who denigrate "queers" and "junkies" going to explain this one? How are all those pious people who like to talk about "innocent victims" going to deal with the lovable basketball star, the all-time sports hero, who stressed safe sex when he told the world he was HIV-positive?

Will this finally make them say to their kids, "It could happen to you," finally make them stop relying solely on chastity and start dealing with reality?

"Marc will be greatly missed," said one of the death notices. Who cares where it began; this is where it ended, in small black letters on the obituary page.

One good person after another, infected, then sick, and finally dying. Magic Johnson, with that engaging personality, that athletic legerdemain, that grin -- this is what AIDS looks like.

Why can't we learn to deal with our national tragedy with as much dignity and determination as this good man brings to his personal one?

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