by Big Mike Phillips
For those who know me personally or have seen me on social media over the years, you may have noticed that I am all about preserving and remembering people from my past.
As the LGBTQ San Diego County News has recently transitioned to a new owner, I have been invited to stay on to share the stories of my past, including the people, locations and events that have helped me grow these last 33 years living in San Diego.
This year actually marks a milestone for me; I have lived in this incredible city and community for half of my life. I moved to San Diego when I was 33 years old, and it was the best decision I ever made.
Before I go any further, I would like to extend my congratulations to our new publisher Eddie Reynoso, and new editor, Morgan Hurley. I am excited about the future and very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of its growth, so thank you.
Since I will be focusing a lot on the past, I would also like to say thank you to the former publisher, Terry Sidie, and associate publisher, Nicole Murray Ramirez, for allowing me a platform to introduce you to so many wonderful individuals that we share our community with.
I learned a lot about my writing abilities through our past editor, JP Emerson, and creative director, Cesar Reyes, who gave me editorial freedom at times. The best education is when given a challenge and you get to work through it. I feel I was able to learn so much from JP and Cesar’s belief in me, and for that I will always be grateful.
In my first new column, which I’ve named “The Shoulders I Stand Upon,” I’d like to share the story of my beginning here in San Diego. My story is on the sad side, but it is my truth, and it is why I am here.
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would move to San Diego, but unfortunately in 1988, my very best friend in my life, Tino Graziano, was living with AIDS.
Tino had been living in New York City, where he was originally from. He had been admitted to the hospital due to complications from the AIDS virus, where he was put into a bed and wheeled into a broom closet for three full days. After the third day, he pulled all the IVs he had in his body out, put on his clothes and walked out of that horrible hospital.
He began researching where the best treatment for AIDS could be found in the United States. At that time, and probably still today, San Diego was renowned for having the best AIDS research and care through UC San Diego Health, specifically their Owens Clinic.
Deciding after his extensive research that San Diego would be the place to get the proper health care he needed, he bought a one-way ticket and moved to San Diego.
Tino and I stayed in touch on a regular basis. Now you must remember, we didn’t have cell phones in those days, and long distance phone bills were very expensive. I’m sure many of you remember those very high phone bills yourselves. We tried to call each other once a week, but always kept our time speaking short. He seemed to be very happy living in San Diego, and was starting to feel much better, so much better that he went ahead and bought a round trip ticket to San Antonio to visit me. Unfortunately, once his doctor learned of his plans, he encouraged him not to travel. Since he had already paid for the tickets, Tino called and asked if I would visit him instead, and he would change the name on the tickets so I could use them.
So on Aug. 4, 1989, I flew and landed in San Diego. Tino had his next-door neighbor come pick me up and take me to his cute little cottage. I was not prepared when I finally got face-to-face with Tino, the virus had taken over his body to the point that I did not recognize my best friend. As soon as we saw each other, however, we just hugged so tight and would not let go. After not seeing each other in over two years, we were finally back together. I did everything I could do to hold back my emotions. Tino was so excited and so full of joy because I was with him, I was not going to show any sadness on my part.
In the week I was there, I went along to all his appointments throughout the day. It was then I learned and witnessed the compassion, kindness, love and care (that any human being deserves) coming from San Diego, especially the LGBT community, places like Being Alive, The Gay & Lesbian Center, the food banks, the Owens Clinic, just to name a few. I knew then that he had chosen the best place to be taken care of.
The moment I saw Tino, the only thing that had not changed in his appearance was the twinkle in his eyes. His heart and mind were still the same. He lived on hope, but knew he was dying at the same time.
On August 11, I flew back to San Antonio, but before I left, I told Tino I was going to be back the following week to help take care of him so that he had someone who loved him make sure he would never be alone (I was not going to let my best friend die alone).
And that is exactly what I did.
As soon as I got home, I quit my job, sold most everything I owned, put the rest in storage, and bought a one-way ticket back to San Diego.
It was Aug. 18, 1989. That day changed my life forever.
I found a place to live right away, thanks to a mutual friend of both Tino and I. He was very kind and allowed me to live there while I got settled and could pay my portion of the rent. I found a job with Embassy Suites downtown working in banquets for the Christmas season. I have never worked so hard for such little pay in my life.
Soon after I had started my new job, I went to visit Tino in the hospital, like I would every single day. He was in a great mood because the doctors told him he would start a new treatment that had just come out (which was the whole reason Tino had moved to San Diego in the first place).
After I left his room, however, I knew in my heart that it would be the last time I would hug him, say goodbye, and tell him how much I loved him. I stood outside his door, leaned against the wall, and cried quietly like a baby. I went to work after seeing Tino and received a call about four hours later from his doctor saying he had passed peacefully in his sleep. I was heartbroken.
Before Tino became sick, he loved volunteering for various charity events; usually he would work the door, or help in so many other ways. In those months after I moved to San Diego before he passed, Tino and I often talked about what I would do after he was gone.
I remember one day, out of the blue, he said, “Big Mike, I want you to promise me and yourself to stay and give San Diego at least one year. I know for a fact in my heart you will fall in love with San Diego, like I did.”
I did promise him, and myself, that I would give San Diego a year. Even though I had lost my best friend just a few weeks after that conversation, it was because of Tino, I found a new life, new friends, and made a new home with the family of the people I have grown to love. That one year has now lasted 33. Thank you, Tino, you are in my heart every day.
My goal with this column is not to write sad stories, but to let you know that my past and yours are filled with memories of sacrifice that may have helped others in the future. In those sacrifices, there is also a lot of joy, laughter and fun times that also helped us move forward, which I look forward to sharing with you.
If there is anything you may remember about time you’ve spent with me, please remind me so I can share those stories. San Diego has a wonderful history of stories of survival, acceptance, disappointment, fundraising, activism, and trying to understand our differences. I invite you to follow my column to understand my past and how I have grown with the help of many of you. I need and encourage your feedback, and stories of the times we have spent together. Living and learning from our past will make our future better for equality and acceptance for everyone.
These are the shoulders I stand upon.
–Big Mike Phillips is a local photographer, bartender, and longtime LGBT activist and fundraiser. You can reach him at [email protected].