I’m not the corporate type. I have trouble with authority, and I like being the captain of my ship. In my case, my ship is my cab—I drive the night shift in San Francisco. And until I can make a living at my dream job, writing and recording music, I’ll keep right on driving. The downside: I don’t get health benefits. I’m on Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, and sometimes I get substandard care I could avoid with private insurance. But for now, even living with HIV, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.

Last October, however, I found an itty-bitty sore on my face that wouldn’t stop bleeding. It looked depressingly familiar—I’d already had a basal-cell skin cancer removed. That one had nothing to do with HIV but was treated pro bono through the HIV dermatology clinic at the hospital where I go for my primary care. But last year, the clinic got scuttled due to federal cuts for AIDS services in San Francisco, and this time I wound up at a downtown hospital, with an Olde English 800 malt liquor bottle in the bathroom sink and bars on the window. A doctor there, who said that this sore also was unrelated to HIV, promised the procedure would be a breeze, and we scheduled the operation for July 27.

The date was significant, because July 28 would mark my 19th anniversary of testing positive for HIV. From the beginning, I have tried to take control of my own health. I devised a vitamin program, stopped drinking hard liquor and even gave up weed. I tried to bring health into my life while all around my cab I watched a city dying of AIDS—some men so weak and feeble I wanted to scream out a defiant “Fuck You” in the face of all creation. I have spent so much time in hospitals, battling HIV. And I am so over the unabating toil of all this sickness.

On the appointed day, I handed the receptionist my Medi-Cal card. Above her desk hung a sign: “There will be a $10 charge for bad behavior.” It may have been a joke, but it was still demeaning. An intern finally arrived and informed me that they were ready—but there was a catch. My doctor was on vacation. She assured me that his substitute was excellent. “I don’t think so!” I said, mustering as much sarcasm as I could. “What’s the charge for bad attendance?” We rescheduled.

I felt like I had lost control of my care. And after years of monitoring and fighting for my health, losing the reins of my destiny in that hospital felt intolerable. Which brings us to the morning of the operation. A crack team of interns jabbed at me with needles of anesthesia, as they tried unsuccessfully to figure out how to convert my chair into a gurney to get a better angle at my face.

I was under local anesthesia, and when I realized that the doctor was only going to act as an observer I, too, could do nothing but watch. The operation took almost two hours. I heard a blow-by-blow account. They asked each other questions like “Do I bevel this, or cut deeper?” Semi-alarmed warnings came from the surgeon: “No, not there! That’s the artery!”

Then, two thirds of the way into the procedure, an intern shook my shoulder, and said, “Mr. Klein, are you all right?” I ignored her, thinking she wasn’t talking to me.

She shook me several more times, again asking me to comment on the condition of our man Klein. Finally, I said, “Who do you think you’re operating on! My name is not Klein!” A flourish of apologies followed. And in their wake I found myself thinking, “Wait a minute—maybe my name should be Klein. That would mean this was happening to someone else.”