Hunter started in November. He did outreach at the bars, a little testing down in the HIV basement, and, when Jose was gone, a little education. No one did education like Jose – wagging his finger and hips, insisting that people try the watermelon-flavored lube. We had these stacked bins of condoms: big ones, little ones, ribbed ones etc, and the highest bin was full of lube, which no one took. The WIC ladies were especially embarrassed about it. Giggling in pairs or groups of three, they would come downstairs on Friday afternoons, pretending they were sneaking away to buy candy bars from the vending machines, and drop free condoms into their bags. If Jose caught them he would insist everyone try a new flavor condom and slip lube into their purses, too.
The WIC ladies were always trying to lose weight. They came in all shapes and sizes, but young, mostly, and good-natured. At lunch they would change into yoga pants and do Zumba in the vaults. Our building used to be a bank, when the neighborhood was different, and the WIC waiting room was the old lobby, with high ceilings and elaborate plaster. One time, a robber tried to hold them up, and they said, Sorry, we only have food stamps.
Sometimes a baby would get loose and find his way to the basement, and I would have to walk him back to the lobby calling in Spanish and English, Carlos’ mother, is Carlos’ mother here? To be on WIC you had to either be pregnant or have little kids, so the lobby was full of tiny babies in bassinets, and wild toddlers, and mamas with bellies like basketballs, easing themselves in and out of the metal folding chairs.
The whole point was to give women more food so they could have more babies, or healthier babies, anyway. There was something wonderfully subversive, I always thought, about the ladies who worked there sneaking down to the basement to collect free contraception. Even though they weren’t really our target demographic, we thought they were fun.
It turned out that Hunter was pretty good with the WIC ladies. He was tall and broad shouldered and not clearly gay. Is Hunter around? They would ask. Except for the one-armed security guard, Castro, there were not a lot of men around. Do you think he’s…you know, they would ask me. I would shrug. Is he Native American, they would say. He has those cheekbones.
I was living with my mother then, in the house where I grew up, just a few blocks from the old bank. We had several cats and a pit bull, Jane, who was afraid of the cats, some goldfish, a seagull, and a Venus fly trap. I kept telling my mother that the seagull, which she had found injured in a nearby park, carried disease, but she refused to
free it back into the light industrial landscape that was its natural home. (Seagulls love one-story warehouses and machine parts factories and old railroad beds.) The bird just lived in one of the bedrooms and pooped all over the carpet. We kept the door closed.
My job was the needle exchange. I wrote the grants for it, and I sat in the half-door and traded paper bags full of clean needles for paper bags full of dirty ones on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. We had one of those old-fashioned doors that you could open just the top of. We used to let people into the office area, with the testing rooms and counseling rooms, and a hallway where the maintenance people had sinks, and further on some bathrooms and the vaults, but then we had people shooting up all over the basement. So we started using the half-door, which worked, except that sometimes people would come in, get clean needles, and then climb up on top of the vending machines in the stairwell and use that space, not actually hidden, but more or less out of view, to tie off and shoot up.
The WIC ladies didn’t like to come downstairs on Mondays and Tuesdays, which were the only days when needle exchange was technically allowed. They made Castro walk them down to the vending machines to buy their chocolate bars, just in case there was someone on top of them.
That winter someone had started giving needles out to people on other days of the week. I thought it was Hunter. I understood the impulse – if they walk through our doors isn’t it better to give them clean needles when you can? – but it was a mouse & cookie problem. Even if you told people only this once, they came back, Thursday, Friday, Saturday when the whole building was closed. Because the junkies scared the WIC ladies and liked to shoot up in their cars, Castro didn’t like the needle exchange. And because they didn’t like drugs, the police didn’t like us either. So lots of people were mad that we had accidentally expanded the program to all the days.
I knew most of the people who came in by name, though some preferred to remain anonymous, understandably. I saw them often, and I had visited some of the places where they lived. I pleaded with them to stop coming on Thursday mornings. Thursday mornings were breastfeeding classes upstairs. Everyone’s nursing bra was in a bundle. But they didn’t listen to me. I guess I was glad they weren’t using dirty needles, and I understood – when you need a hit, you need a hit, but I was mad at the new guy, whom I blamed.
Because the building used to be a bank, there were vaults in the basement; metal rooms with heavy, three-foot-thick doors. Some of these vaults we used for storage – boxes full of testing materials and multicolored condoms and fake didactic boobs (velveteen like teddy bears – the boobs also came in all colors) for the WIC ladies upstairs. Some of them we used for conference rooms. When you started work in the building, the HR people gave a stern warning about the vaults. Never, never, never close the door. They were unheated and poorly ventilated, and walls were three feet thick so you couldn’t get cell phone reception or the Internet. The concern was that someone who locked himself in a vault on Friday afternoon might shiver there alone until Monday.
One afternoon in early December, the day after a big snowstorm, where all the snow had melted and refrozen, shinny and solid overnight, Hunter asked me to meet with him in the front vault. He had an idea about needle exchange. Why don’t we just do it every day? he asked. We can’t afford a security guard every day of the week. Hmm, he said. I’m going to give blood tonight. Do you want to come?
This was a weird proposition. In most contexts I don’t think people can immediately tell I am gay. My voice and posture are neutral. Though, I guess it is difficult to gauge these things about yourself. Plenty of girls seem to like me. More girls than boys actually, which has been a problem for me all my life. We tried not to talk about our personal lives at work, mostly because the world was small, and it would be uncomfortable if we mapped too explicitly the degrees of separation. I assumed that they were few. I also assumed that here, in the HIV basement, it would be more or less apparent to my colleagues that I slept with men.
The thing about giving blood is that you aren’t supposed to do it if you sleep with men. The rule doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is a higher prevalence of disease, as they say, but some people are careful and some people are not, some people get tested and some people
do not. I personally got tested more often than I had sex. I loved getting tested. I did it all the time. Pretty much every Wednesday afternoon; after I finished cleaning up and documenting all the needle exchange action from the day before, I would go to Pedro and ask for another cheek swab. I know it wasn’t a great use of resources, but that was what we were here to do: offer free anonymous testing to anyone who wanted it, as often as they wanted it. Why exclude ourselves? I didn’t worry much anymore about the results. I hadn’t had sex in – at that point – nine months, my last lover having kicked me once in the side, landing me back at my mother’s house again. But I liked getting the results back on Thursday morning. It was calming.
Anyway, the ban on gay men donating blood was obviously an artifact of another era, more fearful and less well-informed. But I believe it was still a question on the registration, and if you answered yes you were put on some kind of master list with a lifetime ban.
So maybe Hunter was trying to tell me that he didn’t have sex with men. I mostly think you have to take people at their word about these things, good faith and all that, but I found it hard to believe he was straight. I can’t, I lied, my grandma died of prion disease. Oh, he said, I’m sorry. I can go with you, though. I don’t have anything going on, I lied again.
Actually, I was supposed to take my mother to my aunt’s house for poker that evening, since it was a Thursday, and my mother didn’t like to walk anymore, especially on a day like today, with all the ice. So I was supposed to drive her and a platter of enchiladas and possibly the dog; but I didn’t love driving my mother places, or rather, I didn’t love thinking of myself as someone who organized his week around the social calendar of his mom, and, if I were being totally honest about it, I would have to admit that I found Hunter attractive. He had this long black hair, and a swimmer’s body, lean and long-armed. I was probably half hoping – though asking a gay man to donate blood with you is an exceedingly weird thing to do – that he was asking me on some kind of date, or at least on a getting-to-know-you field trip. Maybe after we offered up our veins we could stop at a bar and get a drink. Or a hamburger. They say after you give blood you need to replenish your stores of iron.
A couple times a year they have a blood drive at the free clinic down the street. Once I went to a lunch promoting the event because they had free sub sandwiches. They had a man there from the Blood Center, a short kind of man, very tan and muscular, who said he was a former sports announcer. He was explaining to everyone how great it was to donate blood, how in these hard economic times you don’t need to write a check to make a difference in the world, that you can offer up your arm and help save a life. I thought the presentation was weird and interesting. First, there is something weird and interesting about blood as the reciprocal of money – money being this sinister and anonymous substance, circulating through healthcare, blood representing a kind of pure crimson altruism. Second, there is something straight up gory about blood donation. It is a violation of the boundaries of the body, too much like a pound of flesh.
After work we drove together in my car to the hospital, past the edges of the Mexican neighborhood, into the shadows of factory shapes, and up out of the valley to a neighborhood of two car garages and towheaded children. The boys and girls were trying to sled on small slopes in a park, but their sleds, those brightly colored disks, kept crashing jerkily through the ice. The roads were slippery too. Hunter had a little brother who died of AIDS. He was a hemophiliac, Hunter said. So he gave blood as often as he could, which these days was once every six weeks. I still didn’t understand what the subtext was, if there was subtext. Or if Hunter’s story was supposed to be ironic, or if he was maybe just one of those charismatic, pathological liars. Something about him was right up in your face, but so close it was too close to read.
I had called my mother to say something had come up at work, and that one of the aunts would have to give her a ride. I was feeling guilty about that. And, even though I thought the rule about gay men donating blood was hateful, I was basically a rule-following guy. I wasn’t sure if I liked that I felt like an accomplice, like I was in on Hunter’s conspiracy.
Hunter’s little brother was real into soccer, he said, and he was actually good. One of those kids
who you think, oh, he is a different kind of athlete. He has the genes. Well, all the genes except the blood clotting genes. But they gave him these transfusions with plasma product, and for a long time he was fine, but then...you know. Evidently his little brother’s kind of hemophilia was a rare kind, not like the Ashkenazi kind or the kind that all the European royalty used to have. Their mom was Native American, and she was a carrier for an unusual recessive thing. We all went to the same high school, but I was ten years older than Hunter, who was five years older than his little brother, so I never knew them. Apparently the little brother did fine all the way through high school. He didn’t get tested, a far as Hunter knew, but they all knew what was going to happen. Star soccer player, he repeated, he just flew around the field. They wanted to get him recruited, until it came out at school, what he probably had, which was probably around the same time that it really sunk in for him, the brother, too. He always had goldfish with him in the hospital when he was little, and then again at the end. People would bring them instead of flowers in little plastic bags. I can’t remember why we started doing that, Hunter said. The thing is when flowers die they just kind of fade, but goldfish, you know, they really die, belly up and everything. And goldfish die all the time. It was kind of sad. So that’s why I wanted to do HIV stuff, I guess, he finished. What about you?
We were getting out in the hospital parking lot. Around the edges the wind was crackling in the iced-over branches of the empty trees – poplar maybe, I thought. It was hard to tell without any leaves. The answer to Hunter’s question had to do with a bad stint as a line cook in New York and a failed attempt to return to school. It also had a lot to do with a sense of comfort among the haggard users. Their lives were even more fucked up than mine. I got interested in addiction, I guess, I said.
It’s a nice myth, the idea that we choose a job. You wind up doing something, and if you are lucky, you get interested in it. I know how to write the grants now, and I know how to ask the facilities people to help me fix something, but I didn’t choose to take back the dirty needles of the forgotten of the earth, supporting them in one sickness to protect them from something worse. It was something that just happened. I cared about being needed, I think. I cared about the urgency of the junkies, the long-haired men and skinny women who came in and tried to shoot up on top of the vending machines.
I got a little sick while I watched them do it, watched them wash down with orange iodine the crook of Hunter’s arm and pierce with a long needle his big, middle vein. The needle led to a tube, which led to a clear plastic bag, the size of a softball, or a couple of soda cans. The bag, which filled slowly with Hunter’s brown-red blood, rested in a kind of mechanical cradle, a machine that rocked it back and forth until it was full.
He didn’t want to talk while they did it, so I just sort of sat by his platform-bed, a blue vinylcushioned thing, reclining, like a too-tall pool chair, so that if you got dizzy they could lower your head, and looked around the room. He kept his eyes closed, which I understood. I wouldn’t want to watch the machine retract my own blood.
I was getting more and more light headed while I thought about these things. This, my fear of needles, and my fear of veins (crooks of arms, backs of knees) was one of the reasons I could never do intravenous drugs. Another reason of course being the fear of disease. A third being that I don’t like doing drugs much. Not that I have tried so many kinds, but I have tried a few, and it makes me anxious to not have control. In the end, I had to leave the room.
While I waited for Hunter in the hall, I thought about how weird work relationships are. How you can spend an enormous volume of time around people but not really know them, or be known, or even like each other much. I wondered what was up with Hunter. Why was he here? Really for his little brother? Something about that story seemed too sincere to be real. And what, moreover, was I doing here? Out on a Thursday night on a bizarre errand with an inscrutable coworker. I was annoyed. Hunter came back sipping cool aid from a large Styrofoam cup.
I was supposed to drive him home. He said tomorrow he would just walk. Hunter also lived near the old bank. He looked a little pale to me, and tired; he closed his eyes and leaned his head back in the car. He said, Thanks for not blowing my cover, which I took to mean that he really did sleep with men.
It had fallen dark while we were in the hospital, and the temperature had dropped a few more degrees. Three things happened on the way home. First, there was some kind of traffic block on the viaduct, preventing us from accessing, in an easy way, the South Side. Later we learned that what happened was a kid tried to hold up cars at an intersection with a gun, South Africastyle, but that there was a clash with the cops and a policeman shot the child, who was perhaps disturbed. So we had to drive up to 35th St. to get across. Second, a car in front of us, a little red cube-shaped thing, spun out. The roads really were icy now. The driver, a woman with a thick braid, or two braids crossed atop her head, got out and pulled out her cell phone. She had run sideways into a snow-bank. Hunter and I got out to offer help. She thanked us and said her brother was coming and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her tight jeans. Third, Hunter put his hand on my leg when we were a few blocks away from the bank, but I pretended it wasn’t there. We said goodnight politely at his house, and he thanked me again for the ride.
When I got home the house was dark. I warmed up the plate of enchiladas and salad my mom had left for me, the salad getting a little droopy in the microwave. Then I fed all the pets except for the bird, which I thought was unclean, and got ready to take our pit bull, Jane, on her evening walk. Neither Jane nor I liked the cold, but we toughed it out. We walked by the place the hipster drove her car into the snow-bank. Evidently her brother had come, and between the two of them they were able to push it free. The same wet snow that on the streets and sidewalks had settled into ice, had attached itself to the roofs of houses and sides of cars. There was something about the glittering stochasticism of the city in winter – people bundled up, windows fogged, cars parked at wide angles to the snowbanks – which made me feel close to my fellow man, in all his diverse ways.
The following week they shut us down. For reasons I still don’t understand, there were two policemen and one heavyset federal agent involved. They came late on Friday afternoon. I was unfortunately locked in a vault at the time, so Jose interfaced with the authorities. It turned out that there was a permit we had violated: no distribution without two armed guards. Our one guard, Castro, didn’t even carry a gun.
I guess since we started handing out needles all week long things got out of hand. Shooting up all over the parking lot, they said, and now that it was really cold, the users were using the WIC waiting room, the little wind-room of the McDonalds across the street, and the vestibule of the Pentecostal church down the block.
I blamed Hunter for pushing things past the line. He never came forward and apologized, but I was sure it was Hunter who was distributing brown bags full of clean needles on the off days. I resigned a few months later, after the dust had settled, and once spring arrived. I found another job as a line cook, working for someone whose treatment of me was demeaning, but whom I trusted implicitly, and with whom, outside the kitchen, I got along. I stayed in my mother’s house. I had no siblings, and she was increasingly frail. The seagull did have some kind of bird fleas. We took her to the vet (it turned out it was a lady seagull), and they gave her an astringent-smelling spray for the bugs, but her wing never got well. Often I walked by the bank building at dusk with Jane, whose back rippled with muscle, but whose early trauma made her fearful of people and other dogs. Above the front doors was carved in marble: Every man is the architect of his own fortune. I never noticed that when I worked there.
Hunter, I believe wound up married to one of the WIC ladies, or at least living with her and raising a child. I saw him recently and he told me about the baby. It was a boy, he said, one year old, and healthy; not afflicted with his uncle’s disease. It was summer then and just getting dark. Up and down the street people were grilling on their front lawns. Hunter invited me up to his porch for a beer, but I demurred. He said mom and baby would be home soon. Jane was pulling against her chain. I had to get going, I said, but I hoped he would give them my best. I had to get home and help my mother minister to an injured bird. Carolyn Gaebler is a first-year medical student in Boston. Her research interests include retables and starfish. She is still learning how to use the Internet.