"Shout" (1985), 616, ACT UP, Greyhound, Hard Luck Life, HIV/AIDS, Homophobia, Hypermasculinity, Misogyny, NYPD, Port Authority, Prostitution, Sex Work, STDs, Systemic Racism, Tears for Fears, World AIDS Day
Today and this weekend mark 30 years since the first World AIDS Day. Unlike three decades ago, I seldom give HIV/AIDS any thought at all. Where did it go? Has anyone actually died from AIDS recently? Do people still have to worry about HIV/AIDS? I know the answers are, nowhere, yes, most definitely, and hell yes, dumb ass.
But 30 years ago, I worried about HIV/AIDS the same way I worried about the Soviet nuclear threat, my Mom still living with my idiot stepfather, and dying if I wasn’t part of some evangelical Christian rapture. I pretty much worried about everything back then. In the context of my heterosexuality and mostly burying it for fear of intimacy, pregnancy, and bodily fluids, though, I worried that with my luck, any sex at all would lead to the STD to beat all STDs.
So when my dad went out of his way to get me a prostitute (we didn’t use the term “sex worker” then, I think) for my seventeenth birthday in December 1986, a young woman I knew to have been a fellow Mount Vernon High School student the year before, I didn’t hesitate to say no. I preferred Jimme calling me “faggat” to doing the equivalent of Spike Lee’s character in School Daze, a form of meat-market sex approaching (but not quite) rape.
I knew, down to my bones, despite the ACT UP crowd of relatively well-off gay White male activists on MTV and elsewhere, despite the dome of Black hypermasculine homophobia found in Mount Vernon and in the city, that HIV/AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease.” Basic biology would dictate that viruses don’t make left turns based on sexual orientation, class, gender, or race. So, hell yes, I was scared, for quite some time, from the prospect of living with a disease that has killed more than 35 million people worldwide since 1979.
The dangers of sex work, of casual unprotected sex, and of HIV/AIDS were made clear to me on my trip to Pittsburgh in August 1990 to secure what would be my studio apartment living for the next eight and a half years. It started at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 41st on Friday night, August 3. It was going to be my second trip ever on Greyhound, catching the 11 pm red-eye, nonstop bus from Manhattan to downtown Pittsburgh. As the 40 of us stood in line to catch the bus, I saw a woman around my age wandering between the men’s room and the waiting areas, talking to different guys, with one or two jumping out of line for a few minutes.
As she drew closer to my line, I recognized her. She was someone I knew to be the cousin of one of my neighbors on the third floor of 616. By then, I also saw a Black guy in his mid or late-twenties, standing near the men’s room, keeping a close eye on her. It was like the cogs of my mind moved in slow motion as it became clear that this person I knew was a sex worker and the guy was her pimp.
A few minutes later, the pimp bellowed, “Five-O! Five-O!.” The all-too-familiar woman took off. She booked out the terminal doors and toward the streets around Times Square. The Port Authority police and two NYPD cops had grabbed the pimp, put him on the ground, handcuffed him, and took him away.
I was so surprised and sad after that, at least as we boarded the bus and weaved our way through New Jersey. I hadn’t seen this woman since 1986 or 1987, when I was a senior in high school. Over the years, she had come over to her cousin’s place to visit, and maybe to stay (at least temporarily). She had mostly teased me about my “White music,” except for Tears for Fears in the summer of 1985 (their “Shout” had been turned into some hip-hop urban mix on WBLS).
She had asked me on more than one occasion, “Do you like girls?” I mostly ignored her, saw her as just another person at 616 and in Mount Vernon who saw me as something to kick around. I didn’t consider her attractive because of how she talked to me, but looking back, she was. At five-seven or five-nine, she was a yellowish-brown skinned woman, with some freckles, a nice smile, shortish hair, and a nice proportionate shape. She could be witty, in a New Yorker’s sarcastic sort of way. But between Wendy, Phyllis, and my march to college, nothing and no one in Mount Vernon could compete for my attention in that way back then.
A week later, I came back from my Pittsburgh trip, on another Greyhound non-stopper, only to realize at 8:30 on Saturday, August 11 that I needed to take a dump. As I’ve said elsewhere, I tried and failed to take one at Grand Central, as the basement restrooms were full of broken toilets, boarded up stalls, and at least one person with obvious signs of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a sign of full-blown AIDS. I don’t know how I managed to hold my shit until I made it back to 616.
I learned from my Mom twelve or thirteen years ago that my former neighbor and teaser had died from AIDS-related complications, leaving two children behind. Even though I didn’t know her very well — didn’t want to know her, really — I was still heartbroken for her and her kids. All I could think was, what an awful life, what an awful way to die! Who’s going to raise her kids?
But really, I couldn’t help but go back to that Friday night in August 1990. I observed from up close, what the limited choices in a world of capitalism, patriarchy, misogynoir, and racism left people like this young woman. I observed, from afar, how this world can make something as destructive as HIV/AIDS a movement for gay White males, and a silent way of killing Black women at the same time.