Douglas Thompson's Gay Asia Blog

26 August 2010

The Death of OrchidMania

About twenty-five years ago practically all of my friends died one by one. I was still young, and this was an experience no one could have expected.

I lived in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood in those days, and we were all pretty frisky. There was a constant undercurrent of sex and most of us were always in the mood. Harvey Milk was selling cameras in a city that was still very homophobic, and we were just beginning to get a taste of our collective political power. Then it happened.

Several years later, as my list of friends who had perished grew to nearly 75, I struggled to find a creative way to come to terms with my personal loss. I was asked by a friend who was on the board of directors of San Francisco's AIDS Emergency Fund to come up with an unusual fundraising idea. The idea that eventually popped out of my head changed my life completely.

I am not exactly sure when the "orchid bug" bit me, though it was at least forty years ago. Those who are bitten are usually bitten hard. Something about those sexy flowers is imprinted on a few of us that connect us in inexplicable ways to the mysteries of the orchid world. Growing orchids, buying them, having them, learning about them, and protecting them is part of a compulsion that is probably more difficult to control than heroin addiction. Over the years I have seen marriages and families destroyed because of them. More than once I have seen fellow addicts become homeless after spending their rent money on plants they had no room for in the first place. One friend living in a walk-up flat in New York grew thousands of plants under artificial lights that were all connected together with extension cords. He eventually died in an electrical fire. Two friends who were about to lose their home in the wildfires that swept through the hills of Oakland and Berkeley in October of 1991 left everything behind except their plants. Orchids are a serious obsession. I can see that clearly now that I have kicked the habit.

Behind my Fell Street house in San Francisco I built two greenhouses that were home to thousands plants, not counting the cool-weather things that grew on the patio. I had reached the point where I had learned not to kill the darn things, and dividing them every couple of years meant that I had plants I had no room for. As I was watering one morning the idea for the fundraiser came to me like a cartoon light bulb being switched -- how about an orchid garage sale? I scheduled it for Mother's Day weekend 1988.

I had plenty of plants for an event like this, but I asked a few friends if they had plants to get rid of. It did not take long for word to spread among our community of addicts about what I planned to do and the most amazing things began to happen. People I had never met came to my office with boxes of plants. "We heard what you are doing," they would say. "I lost my brother to AIDS. I think you have a wonderful idea." Then the boxes started to arrive from Taiwan, Thailand, Ecuador and even France. Trucks bulging with goodies from places like The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park and Streibing Arboretum at U.C. Berkeley arrived with my back gate. Suddenly I had thousands of plants to sell.

The weather was gorgeous the weekend of the first two-day sale. People patiently queued up before we even opened, waiting for the frenzy to begin. Two volunteers and I sold practically everything that had been donated and we raised more than nine thousand dollars (which is probably fifteen thousand in today's money).

Before long, the event had a name and OrchidMania became a non-profit corporation. It completely took over my life. It also attracted more volunteers (including some of the best people I have ever known) and more donors, and spawned a sister OrchidMania group in South Florida. We built a large commercial greenhouse that was dubbed  "The Orchid Temple" because we all worshiped there on Sundays. By the fourth of fifth annual sale we were getting national news coverage. We even appeared on NBC's Today Show. By then, the "World's Largest Orchid Garage Sale" was holding two or three events a week and raising more nearly $100,000 a year. We gave all of that money away to HIV programs in the US, Latin America and Asia that could not get mainstream funding, and started a street-side condom distribution and needle exchange program in Saigon that is still reaching many people who are at risk.

Some of our most generous plant donors were in Thailand, and near the end of my decade-long presidency of OrchidMania I traveled to Asia to give money away. God spoke to me in a go-go bar during a safe sex musical show put on by an AIDS prevention group in Chiang Mai. (Yes, God herself.) I was told that my future was here. Within three years all of my underwear and my KitchenAid Mixer had made the journey across the water and I was in Thailand for good.

For a number of reasons that could not be helped, as well as some that could, the fourth president of OrchidMania and his directors recently decided to call it quits, leaving me with feelings of sadness and anger, but also of accomplishment. What grew from my back yard greenhouse lasted for more than twenty years. I like to think the money raised helped to save tens of thousands of lives, or at least made them bearable. It also transformed the lives of many who became part of what we did. Like me, others looked for a practical, positive way to do something about HIV and OrchidMania presented a comfortable opportunity. Even our thousands of customers learned something about tolerance, generosity, and how to refine their own addictions.

Like much of what has come and gone in the world of HIV over the last twenty-five years, my inspired little event eventually became obsolete. People who have worked in HIV treatment and prevention for decades are burned out. The public is tired of hearing about HIV now that there are newer, sexier diseases to worry about.

"Isn't there a cure for that?" has become a common attitude that belies the complacency of an entirely new generation of sexually active adults who have grown up since all of my friends died. They have no passion about AIDS because they have experienced no loss. It is shocking that sexual behavior in some cities has digressed to what it was a quarter century ago.

Thailand is no exception. Few gay men here get tested because they do not want to hear bad news and they do not want to be rejected by their families or stigmatized by society. Many remain sexually active and engage in anonymous liaisons until symptoms begin to appear. In most cases they are doomed. If you have followed this blog long enough you know that have already lost one member of our staff. Sadly, I have begun to see the beginnings of the second wave of losses in my lifetime.

I no longer grow orchids. Actually, I cannot even bear to have them around. But I still have my OrchidMania t-shirt. On the back I have written the names of all the friends I lost. It is one of my greatest treasures.

And how did I survive the plague myself? A serious motorcycle accident left me in a cast from my toes to the very top of my left leg for two years. I was out of commission sexually at a time when the infection first began to spread. But that's another story, and perhaps another act of The Almighty.

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Suggested Reading: Orchid Fever

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Where to Eat Italian

A couple of years ago in this blog I wrote about a stupendous Italian restaurant in Chiang Mai and said that there was no really great Italian food in Bangkok. I have been proven wrong.

Anyone needing a gnocchi fix should hop on the Marriott Hotel's boat and take a pleasant twenty-minute trip down the Chao Praya River to their expansive resort hotel. Brio, their Italian restaurant, is one of the best I have found anywhere.

On the day I enjoyed lunch there, chef Antonio Facchinetti soon appeared at our table. A conversation in Italian began and I was so distracted from the menu that I asked him to choose for me. What came to the table was amazing; first, a platter of cold Tuscan meats and cheeses. I was in heaven. This was followed by a huge plate of exquisitely-fresh shellfish, and eventually by a sample of four different pastas, including the restaurant's house-made gnocchi.

Two things convinced me that this was a great restaurant and not merely a good one. The first was Chef Facchinetti himself. He spent a lot of time at our table discussing how our grandmothers cooked, his take on slow food, and the absence of decent tomatoes in Thailand. He proudly showed us the kitchen after our meal and even gave me a little tool to roll grooves in my own gnocchi at home so I don't have to use a comb like granny did.

The second reason was, of course, the food. Honestly, I loathe pretentious restaurants where presentation comes before flavor. Faccinetti's dishes were, frankly, peasant food, and he admits so proudly. What he brought to the table was so honest and so delicious that I later dreamed about it. I can't wait to return.

Chef Patrick Guerry's Trattoria in Siem Reap is almost as good. You will find it on the a charming, restaurant-lined "West Alley" between Linga Bar and Sivatha Boulevard that was just a dark, muddy path when I owned Figo Restaurant at the end of the alley a few years ago. Back then, Patrick owned a terrific restaurant on Siem Reap's "walking street." I often escaped from Figo to enjoy his place for lunch, talk about food, and discuss the problems he had with his wood-fired oven. His pizzas were delicately thin and as good as those I survived on when I was a poor student in Rome.

Patrick's new place is bright and charming and he has not lost his magic touch with pizza dough, although there is plenty more on the menu. While Patrick personally participates in the preparation of every meal he serves, he still finds time to appear at every table. He loves what it does and it shows. Trattoria stands out as one of  the best restaurants in a town full of really bad food. Buon appetito!

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Happy Ending

Jerry Falwell is still dead and Krispy Kremeis about to open its flagship Thailand shop in Siam Paragon shopping mall. Nineteen more will follow in the Land of Smiles. How much more happiness can anyone expect?