Cir­cu­la­tion

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CIRCULATION - Text by Carolyn Gae­bler Illustration by Melissa Ling

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.

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