Bee Daniel and Ryan Adams
Portland-based artists Bee Daniel, left, and Ryan Adams were commissioned by the Frannie Peabody Center and Coffee By Design to paint a mural at the coffee shop's Diamond Street location for World AIDS Day last year. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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There’s a bright, engaging wall mural on the back of Coffee By Design’s mothership store on Diamond Street. It’s a kaleidoscope of color with bold ribbon swirls of fire-engine red, but it’s easy to miss unless one walks around the building or approaches from the east.

But the permanent art installation was a crystal clear focal point on Sunday, Dec. 1, when the Frannie Peabody Center invited people to gather there and join in a candlelight vigil for the 33rd observance of World AIDS Day. 

Natalie LaddLast year, the center partnered with Coffee By Design and Portland-based artists Ryan Adams and Bee Daniel for the mural project. It’s not ironic that it went up during the early, dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the center, the vigil is part of their mission as “Maine’s largest HIV/AIDS service organization, working to stop the spread of HIV and provide support for those living with HIV and AIDS.”

Thirty-three years does not seem like a long time when I think about AIDS and the fear surrounding the unknown it brought.

My ride-or-die friend Bruce was struggling with his sexuality and it seemed like HIV/AIDS was one more force to keep him from being comfortable in his own skin. One more thing to add to the fear, shame, and stigma of being a gay man in the conservative town of Kenosha, Wisconsin (yes, that Kenosha). One more thing to keep his state trooper father and church-going, homemaker mother of six from understanding his otherness. 

Eventually, Bruce’s parents, especially his mother, came around. In spite of her religious beliefs, Jeannie (may she rest in peace) had instilled in him a love of art and music. Not fully approving of me because she thought I was filling Bruce with unrealistic big ideas, the two of us jaunted to Chicago to see Oprah before she became a syndicated star, and to an all-night piano bar called the Acorn on Oak. We sang along and channeled our inner-Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

But the AIDS epidemic was a dark cloud over everything. People were dying and not just gay men. One of our friends said, “We’re actually fucking ourselves to death.” If the free and open days of the 1960s and ’70s were fading fast, AIDS and the prejudice, assumptions, and stigma it brought sealed them shut.

Since the 1980s we’ve made great strides with treatment and prevention. But AIDS remains a persistent problem in the United States, especially among populations of color, and gay and bisexual men. Twenty-five years ago, an HIV diagnosis would have been a death sentence, but organizations like the Frannie Peabody Center have changed that by providing advocacy, education, and comprehensive services. 

By 5 p.m. on Sunday it was cold, windy, and getting dark in Bayside, but it didn’t keep people from venturing out to attend the vigil behind Coffee By Design. I was accompanied by Mellie, the Phoenix office dog.

The ceremony itself was a beautiful tribute to those who have died from AIDS and a reminder that one day a year to recognize the work being done doesn’t cut it. We were also reminded by the keynote speaker, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, that the AIDS epidemic cannot be forgotten or brushed aside.

Shah spoke of the need for equitable access, which was the 2021 World Aids Day theme; the dangers of stigma, and made references and parallels to the coronavirus pandemic we are living with today. As I was tearing up during his remarks, Mellie let out one very loud yelp. Shah immediately looked in her direction, pointed, and said, “Exactly!” 

I’m fairly sure Mellie was applauding Shah for making the vigil a priority. We overheard him telling a reporter that AIDS cannot be forgotten and treatment is available, which was why it was important for him to be there.

The mural on the back of Coffee By Design depicts people from all walks of life. My interpretation is the red ribbon, which symbolizes AIDS awareness, is a common thread of hope, highlighting the reality that those living with the disease can now have happy, full lives. 

I will send a picture of the mural to Bruce and his husband Doug, who I am sure honored World AIDS Day in a likewise cold, windy, and dark Cincinnati, Ohio.

This holiday season, and really every day, let’s be aware, compassionate, and do all we can to keep each other safe, regardless of the times.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].