The coronavirus is on all of our minds, and for some, it brings back memories of another public health crisis, when the federal government was slow to respond and communities had to take care of each other: the AIDS epidemic.
One woman became an unexpected caregiver. Starting in the 1970s, Meridy Volz ran a bakery called Sticky Fingers Brownies. "The business changed," Meridy says. "It went from something fun and lightweight to something that was a lifeline."
Meridy arrived in San Francisco in 1975, just in time to have her mind blown on Polk Street on Halloween.
"It was filled with costumes and color and drag queens and energy," she says.
Meridy was ready for a scene like this. She'd already been an artist and activist in Milwaukee. She'd done protests for gay liberation, and against the war in Vietnam.
"And San Francisco was like a land of promise: liberal and artistic and free."
During our interview, I tell Meridy it seems like she was kind of a hippie. She corrects me right away.
"Not kind of a hippie. I was a full tilt, full on boogie hippie," she says. And she looked the part: "Big head of frizzy hair, no makeup, no bra, lots of jewelry, and a leather vest with fringe."
Meridy was a working artist, but needed a little more income, so she joined a friend selling baked goods and coffee on Fisherman's Wharf. Today, the Wharf is a tourist trap, but back then, it was a haven for street artists, selling handcrafted jewelry and knick knacks on little card tables.
Her friend carried a Guatemalan pouch of marijuana brownies over her shoulder, and that pretty quickly became the most lucrative part of her little business. So when she decided to move to Europe, she offered the business to Meridy. Like every decision in her life, Meridy consulted an ancient Chinese oracle, the iChing. First, she'd toss brass coins six times.
"I picked up the coins and I tossed a hexagram," she says, and then asked, "'Is it correct to start to sell brownies?' And very quickly, my answer became clear that this was my destiny."
She says, the danger appealed to her. "You know, how far could I go out on that tightrope? And I went pretty far with it."
There was one little problem: Meridy couldn't cook.
"I'm lousy at baking, great at connecting with people," she says.
Barbara Hartman-Jenichen had been a costumer for a prominent San Francisco theater, but pretty soon she quit that job, and started baking.
She remembers making a lot more than brownies. "Pumpkin bread, blueberry muffins, some little peanut butter things called space balls, cranberry orange bread."
On Fisherman's Wharf, Barb liked to dress up in a little calico, country girl dress, which tourists loved.
"They said, 'Oh, could we get a picture with you?' I always thought it was such a hoot because on my shoulder I had all these marijuana brownies," she says with a laugh. "It was almost like street theater in a way."
One evening after handling brownies all day, Barb had an idea:
"I held my hands up and said, 'sticky fingers,' and boom, that was the name of the business."
The name was perfect: a little sweet, a little dirty, and a little rock and roll.
One night, after a long day of baking, Barb made a mistake that became a turning point for Sticky Fingers Brownies. She forgot to put the flour into the brownie mix.
Meridy remembers, "We were kind of licking out of the pan, the batter, and suddenly we got very high. And it was like 'Ah- ha!'"
Barb says Meridy was jumping on the table yelling, "Wow, look what we did. Look what we did!"
Less flour made the brownies much more potent.
Meridy says, "Because of Barb we started to make excellent brownies."
They got really popular. The artists at Fisherman's Wharf started sending Meridy to gallery-owners and shop owners in the neighborhood, who sent her to other store owners. Pretty soon, Sticky Fingers was delivering to small businesses all over the city.
Of course selling any amount of marijuana for any reason in those days was a felony. They could have gotten years in prison. Did that worry them? Not really.
"What can I tell you? Fools have no fear," says Barb. "It was that whole time, that whole era, everything seemed magical. walking next to cops on the wharf and you've got magic brownies in your bag and you know, and you feel protected. I never felt threatened at all."
They consulted the iChing over every decision.
"I mean we wouldn't even go to a bar without tossing a hexagram," says Barb.
Meridy says, the iChing was their silent partner. "And that's what kind of let us maneuver a very dangerous territory, what was very dangerous at that time."
By this time, Meridy was making money. She had good friends and time to paing. The one area of her life that felt unfulfilled was her love life. So Barb set her up on a blind date.
Doug Volz was also a painter. He had been going to UC Berkeley but he dropped out to go to the Berkeley Psychic Institute.
Meridy says, on their first date they traded readings. "I read his tarot cards, and he read my aura."
Doug went to Meridy's house, and saw her at the top of these long Victorian stairs, with light beaming behind her.
"It was a very strong impression," he says. "And that first week with her I did more drugs than I'd done in my life previously up until that point in time. It was pretty wild."
They moved in together almost right away, into a firetrap of a warehouse in San Francisco's Mission District, and Doug joined Sticky Fingers Brownies.
"My role in Sticky Fingers was I was part of the game, part of the dance. Sometimes I think I was the oil in the wheels."
By this time, the brownies had completely overtaken the other baked goods, which made Barb, the gifted baker, pretty unhappy. "After you do it for a while, it is not very romantic anymore. It becomes a real task," she says. "I would go to blow my nose and I'd have green pot coming out of me."
So Barb went back to working in the theater, and Sticky Fingers hired a new baker, Carmen Vigil, who ramped up production to about 10,000 brownies per month. When they weren't delivering brownies, Meridy and Doug painted.
They also brought artwork into the business, making hand-drawn designs for the bags the brownies came in. One has a cowboy riding a brownie like a bucking bronco, another has a fine portrait of Mick Jagger's face.
They'd deliver the brownies wearing outrageous outfits.
"There were a lot of hats, there were kimonos," says Meridy.
"Spandex!" remembers Doug. "Oh, yeah. That was that was really big in those days."
By this point, Sticky Fingers Brownies was likely the largest cannabis edibles business in California. Which makes you wonder, why would they draw so much attention to themselves if they're doing something illegal?
Doug explains, matter-of-factly, "The way to be invisible in a situation is to stand out."
Meridy concurs, "If you tiptoe around and hide it draws attention to you doing something suspicious." But if you're highly visible, who would ever suspect something illegal was going on?
"In my life overall, my shield has always been art," says Meridy, "and part of the art was the dressing up."
Dressing up played really well in her newest neighborhood route: the Castro. It was the destination of people from across America who wanted to come out.
"There were beautiful boys everywhere," says Meridy. "There was a style: there were sideburns and mutton chops and mustaches. They were draped over cars and leaning on buildings and sitting on steps ... Lovely men everywhere."
To break in the neighborhood, Meridy approached a store called Hot Flash of America.
"Who would not go into a place to sell brownies that's called hot flash of America, for God's sakes?"
She also hand-delivered to Castro resident Sylvester, known as the Queen of Disco. Sylvester's breakout hit, Mighty Real, was playing all over the country.
Meridy says, "He always had an entourage, and there'd be Sylvester, generally in lounging pajamas or kimono, and they'd buy a massive amount of brownies."
Sticky Fingers Brownies became so popular in the Castro that Meridy could hardly keep up, so her friends at a neighborhood hotspot called the Village Deli started selling them from behind the counter, friends like Dan Clowry.
"Mer was just coming by with a big smile and her beautiful eyes. I always thought she looked like a mermaid or like a peacock feather," Dan says.
Dan moved to SF on June 11, 1978. He drove his Oldsmobile convertible into the neighborhood, and saw the iconic Castro theater sign
"I had such a feeling of excitement and thrill. I could tell I was starting a new life. And I wasn't disappointed."
Within hours, Dan landed a job at the Village Deli
"And by the end of the day I was stoned on brownies."
By this time, Meridy was lugging more than brownies around. Her daughter Alia was about 6 months old. Meridy would push the baby stroller with brownie bags hanging off the sides.
"They could have been diaper bags! It was a good place to hang the brownies. They were heavy," she says. She carried up to 40 dozen brownies at a time.
"That was kind of cute because, baby and brownies, they were a fixture on Friday," says Dan.
Dan says, the fact that everyone knew they could pick up Sticky Fingers Brownies at the Village Deli gave the cafe a bit of celebrity status. "This added to the the general feeling of euphoria in the Castro at the time."
Gay liberation politics were hot and happening in San Francisco. Meridy went into most of the stores in the neighborhood, including Castro Camera. It was a tiny, cluttered photo shop, that also served as campaign and organizing headquarters for Harvey Milk, who was becoming the most iconic figure of the gay liberation movement. Harvey had sworn off drugs when he got into politics, but that didn't mean his employees or campaign volunteers abstained.
Dan remembers, "You know, I got there in June of '78, so I only had, what, four or five months of euphoria, then it all came crashing down."
In late November, a young Dianne Feinstein made this now-famous statement to the press. "As President of the Board of Supervisors, it's my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White."
"I can remember standing in the warehouse and going, 'Oh my God," Meridy says. "I could feel the earth shift."
Dan Clowry remembers, "You could feel the shock, the stillness on Castro Street.
At nightfall, a silent candlelight vigil ran from Castro Street down to City Hall.
"The candlelight march, was one of the most powerful things I've ever been involved in," Dan says. "It just was the start of a whole new feeling in the Castro. Then it became anger and shock and rebellion."
The neighborhood changed, the city changed, and the Volz family began to change. The iChing hexagrams Meridy threw took an ominous turn.
"Suddenly I'm getting hexagrams like shock, thunder, the abysmal."
With other busts happening in San Francisco, Meridy and Doug thought they'd get caught. Meridy says, when they announced they were closing Sticky Fingers Brownies, people started to panic buy.Offers poured in from people who wanted to buy the business, or buy the recipe, or buy the customer list. Meridy says, the iChing hexagrams and kept giving the same answer: not right.
They decided to give away the recipe. So on that last bag, they printed the recipe and Meridy wrote in cursive: "Give it up and you get it all, power to the people, we love you, Sticky Fingers Brownies."
The following Monday, the closing was featured in local legend Herb Caen's column.
"Thank God it's Friday had a hollow ring in certain parts of town last Friday for that bakery in the Mission went out of business," it read. "In this city of wagging tongues, the secret of the Brownie Ladies and the Mission bakery never got to the law, but the owners decided not to push their pot luck. Fridays will never be the same."
Meridy, Doug, and little Alia moved up to a town called Willits in Mendocino County. But they moved to the country with no plan for making a living.
"Pretty soon it seemed obvious that our money, whatever we had, was running out. It was a matter of months," says Meridy.
She started making monthly runs back down to San Francisco, often with Alia in tow, staying at Beck's Motor Lodge on the edge of the Castro. But it wouldn't be long before the brownies became much more than a money-making venture. It was on these monthly runs that Meridy first started noticing little purple lesions on customers' skin.
"I believe it was 1981, during my run in the Castro. I walked past Star Pharmacy and saw a poster that had somebody showing their lesions with Kaposi, and it was talking about the gay cancer," says Meridy. The "gay cancer" soon became known as AIDS.
The vibe in the Castro began to change.
"No longer was that kind of sea of pretty men draped over cars and sitting on steps," says Meridy. "There was a fear. It was palpable."
From his post at the Village Deli, Dan Clowry watched the AIDS epidemic unfold.
"It was taking people out right and left. I was one of the lucky ones."
Dan started to see his role change from restaurant manager to care-taker. He wanted to make sure his customers were comfortable.
"There was a lot of shame, and I just did my best to try to not make people feel ashamed."
One day, one of Dan's regular customers came in, his head swollen and purple like a grape.
"You could just barely see who he was. But he was always a character in the neighborhood," someone who loved to dress up in 1940s military uniforms. "And and even with his head being all swollen up, he would dress himself up in his outfits and he'd put that little cap on the top of his head and he'd come to the door knowing that I was gonna be there and say, 'Girl, you look fabulous today.' You could see him just straighten up and feel, for a few minutes, it wasn't nearly as bad," Dan says, tearing up.
Meridy started losing friends too: acquaintances, lovers of friends, and then her best friend Phillip.
"Phillip was beautiful, with the kind of smile where his whole face smiles," she says. "One minute we were going to the opera, the next minute he was dead."
AIDS was still so little understood.
"They didn't know if that was airborne or to the touch," says Meridy, "and for me, I didn't care. I was just there to help. I wasn't there to judge. I wasn't there to be afraid. And you had to put your big girl panties on for this. Being in the middle of that plague, my gut never let me down there. I always felt that I would be safe. And that Alia would be safe."
While this epidemic killed tens of thousands of people, Ronald Reagan refused to even talk about AIDS for years. Throughout the entire AIDS crisis, there was chronic underfunding and a lack of government support.
But in San Francisco, General Hospital opened the first AIDS ward in the country, and regular people became activists. Cleve Jones started the NAMES quilt project that would appeal to mainstream America. ACT UP (in New York and across the country) campaigned to get early access to experimental drugs and to make sure that when these drugs came out they'd be affordable.
Dan Clowry says, "When they did come up with AZT, that was the only thing they had. Every place you went in the Castro you would hear 'doo doo doo doo doo,' because everybody had the little beeper with their pills in it. Every four hours they had to take their pills. Restaurants, movies, bars, you would just keep hearing: 'doo doo doo doo doo.'"
It became clear that AZT wasn't effective in the long-term. It extended some people's lives for a period, but it was also highly toxic.
"People were sick from the cures," says Meridy, "and brownies were the one thing that helped."
In the 70s, Sticky Fingers Brownies was all about partying, making art, and being subversive.
"The brownies became something else, when AIDS hit," Meridy says.
Now it became a calling.
"It helped with depression," she says. "It helped with the side effects of the drugs. It helped caregivers."
Dan says he would give a sick friend a small piece of a brownie, "and then we'd go out for dinner. It was it was great for an appetite stimulant."
In the 90s, Dan left the Village Deli and become a nurse. He eventually helped open the AIDS unit at Mt Zion hospital, "and I ended up using that experience in my nursing because we would let people smoke marijuana out the windows of the hospital. Anything we could do."
When Alia was nine, her parents divorced. Mother and daughter moved back to San Francisco, and Alia was deemed old enough to help bake, and sometimes she went with her mom on deliveries.
"During the AIDS crisis, there were a lot of home deliveries," says Meridy. At this point she'd been delivering to Sylvester at his house for a decade. "After a while delivering at Sylvester's, I only dealt with his entourage, when he got really sick."
"There's another delivery that's really vivid in my mind," says Alia. "There was a couple, friends of Sylvester's, who lived in a beautiful Victorian." She remembers the man who came to the door being so emaciated she could see every bone in his body.
"I did not know what we were walking into," says Meridy.
Alia says, when she entered the couple's living room, she noticed a photograph on the mantle. "They were on a beach with their arms around each other, sand on their shoulders, and smiling."
There was a bed in the middle of the room. "It took a while for me to register that what I thought was a pile of blankets on the bed was a person," Alia says.
"The caregiver was sick and the guy in the bed was on his last leg," says Meridy.
Alia says, "His caretaker who was also his partner, who was also dying, woke him up to say 'I've got those brownies and it'll make you feel better.' After that when I helped my mom bake on the weekends, there was a new reason to do it. Pot brownies weren't going to save anyone's life over the long term but it brought them relief, and there wasn't a lot of relief in those days."
At the same time, Nancy Reagan had started the Just Say No Campaign. Alia sat through assemblies at school, and saw PSAs at on television. "Remember that egg hitting a frying pan?"
Meridy stayed under the radar. She never got caught. But other people involved with getting marijuana to people with AIDS did jail time, and took the fight for medical marijuana public. One of those people was Brownie Mary.
Meridy remembers her as being kind of conservative. "She kind of looked like the church lady down the block, you know. You wouldn't look at her and say, 'Criminal, right there.'"
Dennis Peron, Meridy's friend and customer, opened multiple dispensaries and he kept getting arrested. He became a driving force behind the medical marijuana movement, co-authoring prop 215, which passed a statewide vote in 1996.
Around this time, protease inhibitors came on the market.
"They started to have some medicines that seem to be — in some way —helping people live longer with it."
Over the next two years, Meridy watched cannabis clubs proliferate throughout San Francisco, and realized her brownies just weren't as necessary as they had been. She left San Francisco and has been making art full-time ever since. She's 72 now, she's living in Desert Hot Springs, where she paints and teaches art to teenagers and retirees.
In California today, the adult use of cannabis is legal, but Meridy says she's totally out of the game, only taking an edible occasionally when she's at home painting.
She doesn't talk about the old days that much, but since Alia just wrote a book about her mom's life, Meridy's starting to have to reveal her San Francisco days.
"I had a rather checkered past," she tells students in a life-drawing class. "I'm about to be outed, big-time!"
"I certainly can be criticized for raising a baby and a child in what could be considered a drug environment," Meridy says.
Alia says, hers was certainly an unconventional childhood, "But I was nurtured, I was cared for, and I was surrounded by an enormous amount of love."
Alia says, her mom had that same kind of love for her friends and her community, and that led her to do the risky work of making and selling marijuana brownies to help ease the suffering of people with AIDS.
Meridy still finds the AIDS crisis stunning. "I look back at how many beautiful people passed. It was a dangerous time, but in this case, it wasn't a thrill out of the danger. It became a sense of, 'Well, I have a purpose here in this. There's something I could do to help a little, relieve a little pain.' And there was a sense of that. There was."
Alia Volz's memoir, Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco, comes out on 4/20, 2020.
California Foodways is supported by California Humanities and the Food and Environment Reporting Network.