final part of 1988 cover article on the visit of the Names Project Quilt to Detroit
What Makes a Volunteer?
I ask a group of three “unfolders” what brings them to this work, and all three answers are the same: Guido. “He used to cut my hair. I was impressed by his commitment to a cause greater than himself. My commitment has always been to family, but he seemed able to make all these people family.” “Same here. He has the ability to cause people to feel. He begins by taking interest in you and it’s contagious. Before you know it, he’s got you under his spell.” “Guido’s my older brother. A lot of his friends are gone. He used to live in San Francisco and I used to go visit him with my wife and baby.”
Guido, it turns out, is the volunteer coordinator for the Detroit Names Project. How does someone become an “inspiration?”
“I was a studio hairdresser, movie studios. So when I moved to San Francisco I was already loaded, had a soon on Union Square near Macy’s in ’74, a house on 16th and Castro. I was shooting speed, speedballing with coke, and was always with boyfriends who were broke. Form there I went downhill to the Tenderloin, the Slot, a sleaze hotel South of Market, and the sex clubs in between. No way I was going to quit there.
“So I moved back here to Detroit to stop. No program. I just quit. But it was during that time that my best friend Jay—we used to have a summer home on Fire Island together during our twenties, see, we were both studio dressers when we were 18, we thought we were the Golden Boys—well, he got sick and died then. In fact, when he died, that’s what he said to me: ‘We lived the Golden Days. Who thought they’d ever end?’
“But these are the Golden Days now, I think. These are the times when gay men can discover the sense of their own worth—all we were doing then was coming out of the closet and being party boys with the sort of ‘movie star quality’ that gay men were supposed to have, dressing well, doing every kind of drug.
“There’s something more, something innate in gay men: a sensitivity of spirt, and I discovered it in myself. I’d never thought it was there. You know, I used to not talk to certain people, if they didn’t ‘walk right.’ Now I spend my mornings putting socks on people who can’t walk at all.
“I know what made be become an AIDS volunteer was missing that time during the last stages of Jay’s illness, due to drugs. Now, I realize that however small the thing is that we for someone, there’s no way to measure it. Taking a guy to the store this morning, no big deal, it was an hour to me. But it was the first time in a a month he’d gotten out, anywhere. It matters.”
Such conversions “on the road to Damascus” can seem unbelievable, or like cloying televangelism, until we know someone like that personally. Seen from one side of the Treatment vs. Transcendence controversy*, this may smack of fatalism, or a tendency to romanticize death in the gay community. But AIDS is not a historical aberration; some such disaster has occurred in every generation. Only since the advent of antibiotics have we somehow convinced ourselves that we are exempt from mortality. People like Guido are not giving in to death, but they have learned that it is impossible to make love to Life without a willingness to embrace its other side.
*During the ‘80s a false dichotomy put ACT UP activism (“Your laws are killing us!”) on one end and Louise Hays’ A Course In Miracles (“You can will yourself well!”) on the other. It might help in the understanding of that division to recall that the successful AIDS meds treatment “cocktail” was still nearly seven years in the future at this writing. The only medication then available was AZT alone. About half of those who chose to take it died of its side effects. And among those who refused it, half died of AIDS complications.
Civil War era, United States.
“Come lovely and soothing death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, In the day, in the night, to all, to each, Sooner or later, delicate death.
Praise be the fathomless universe, For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious, And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.”
Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d
The Streets, the Women & Children
The picture painted for me by this Infectious disease nurse is so bad it is hard to believe. “We have a 25-year old IVDU, probable ex-prostitute. She’s down to 95 pounds and hanging, literally, on her crutches. She couldn’t eat because her mouth sores [thrush] were so bad; she couldn’t sit because of her herpes. She sends her girl, a four-year old, two blocks away to a soup kitchen; the kid brings them back food.”
Another of the handful of nurses helping the worst-off make their way through a callous bureaucracy, takes me to see. The streets of Mack Corridor are potholed, most of the houses are boarded up, some with official red notices tacked to the door. More than not are empty, maybe from fires as far back as the Detroit Race Riots of 1967. Or else their owners just got sick of the neighborhood. This wood-framed one is a drug house.
You can tell, not because it is any more or less ramshackle than the others, but by the 11-year old sitting on the stoop all afternoon. He’s skinny, with the torso and long legs of a running gazelle, but his boy is not a runner. He is a spotter, old enough to watch the street for outsiders, and to be paid in crack or dollars.
He has instructions not to let anyone in, not even the tall blond nurse standing out on the sidewalk. But he knows her and sends a message upstairs for her patients to come down; a slim woman on crutches, KS bumps all over her face, and a little girl, cute as a proverbial bug, with corn-rowed hair and a cough.
“The mother is much better,” explains the nurse, “compared to a month ago when she was pointed out to us by her sister who is alienated from her but did care enough to get some medical care. This woman hasn’t let anybody touch her in over a year. We have found that’s a crucial thing, getting the first barrier down. She’s doing so well now; her doctor said it wasn’t the AZT: ‘It’s too early.’ Only one week. It’s the care and concern and knowing that someone is paying attention to her.
“Call me Champagne,” said another woman, kids running in and out of the scantily furnished but very clean living room of a brick house not far from 6-Mile and Woodward. “I used to carry money belts on airplanes, my boyfriend got me a stage passport. And I saw a lot of entertainment people come in to buy drugs; that was before I was shooting. We didn’t know anything about Crack, only Raw—heroin to sniff. It’s like different people. Heroin addicts’ bodies get all marked up, they get diseases. Still they take only so much, to stop being sick. But a crackhead, their mind is gone, baby. They do it all day and night, never get enough. Non-stop.
“I’ve go six kids but two of them I didn’t raise. Their grandmother did, upstairs. What’s important to me is that I stay healthy enough to take care of my babies.”
Like her, two of the kids are infected with the HIV virus; and the four-year old shows symptoms. “At first they thought he was retarded; he wouldn’t talk and walked with a limp. Then they found an ear infection== his balance was knocked off. By then they had taken my kids away, and his foster parents said he wouldn’t eat. Partly it was sickness, but party he was withdrawn because he was 16 months old and he’d never been away from me before.
“The boy was finally examined and diagnosed. The foster parent heard the word AIDS, she was real religious and had other foster children, so when she found out, I got my boy back. Two months later, I got the other kids back, too. He’s four years old now, and taking AZT, but none of us has ever been hospitalized. The baby (who also tested positive) is 15 months old and she seems to be doing fine, even in this heat wave.” Her daughter’s long dark hair is blowing in the fan’s draft as she tilts her head back toward it, smiling.
“I’m a pretty private person, that’s why I haven’t’ got into a support system. But my family knows. My son’s pre-school teacher knows. My grandmother, she definitely knows but may not really understand. She is a trip—a retired factory worker, Chrysler. What you call a beer drunk. She talks about people all day, me included. But if I need her, my grandmother is in my corner.
“She’s the one who called those people and told them I had abandoned my children for a month. That’s what made me stop using drugs. They took my babies away. When my boy got home from the hospital, he was so puny and looked so pitiful and I felt so guilty—that’s when I stopped for good.“
Champagne says nobody is willing to admit they have AIDS because so many people think you can touch somebody and get it, “but I’m too wrapped up in my own situation to do anything for anyone else. My kids have got nobody but me. This girl is how I’m keeping my sanity, she keeps me from falling apart.”
A Puerto Rican woman can’t think of a name to give herself, no hero or role model, but says she wants it to be Spanish. I’ll call her Lola, as in Damn Yankees.
“They say I’ve had the virus for eight years, but I don’t know. I was always shooting up; I was so fallen down I wouldn’t know anything from then. I first noticed, after I was in prison for a year, getting tired for no reason. I wasn’t doing drugs there.
“Every time I feel like shooting up now, I go to Vida Latina [the primary agency serving Hispanics]. Because all your friends are dope fiends, so there’s no place to run to, especially for us Latinas. ‘La Casa’ is a good place, but I don’t know if half of them really understand us. We’re liars. We’re cheaters. We say we’re clean, anything. We’re scared to trust anyone.
“But, you know, if I need help and I go to an addict, he’ll help me faster than a straight person would. All the junkies I know are willing to share; if nothing else, experiences. Even the ones whose tests came back negative. We’ve sat in my house and cried together. All we know is street shit, and there’s nothing to teach you about AIDS out there. One girl said, ‘I hear you got AIDS’ and I said yeah. Why not. I told her—my throat hurts, my lungs hurt, a pimple lasts a month. And there’s nowhere to run to at three in the morning.
“I’ve always made my money by cashing checks or boosting [thievery], since I was little. My father was a drug addict. I learned to dress up, I’d look like Marilyn Monroe, different wigs. I’m a booster; it doesn’t matter if they’ve got a chain on something, I find a way.
“There’s only one thing I can say I’m proud of. I’ve never given my kids away. People talk about us like we’re dogs. People say drug addicts don’t care about their kids, but they’re wrong. I have a daughter, 16, that’s been staying with me. ‘You’re my mother,’ she says, ‘I don’t care what you have.’ Last week I took my daughter and two of her girlfriends, whose mother is a drug addict like I am, to Bell Isle [Amusement Park]. It was the first time I’ve enjoyed myself in 14 years. I see now what’s important. And I heard one of them say, ‘I wish my mom did half the things for us your mom is doing now.’ We’re getting close, only at the end.
“But my two boys have already got [dealer-style] beepers. My oldest, I can see the anger and the hurt in his eyes, like, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself for having AIDS, you did it.’ He hates me. He was accepted into college. But instead it’s fast money, fast life. I think my kids are going through this because of me.”
Lola finishes: “I want to tell people, even if they have the virus, they still have a chance. Don’t share needles. Don’t just fuck with anybody without telling them. Tell them. I feel that people with the sickness are the only ones that understand.”
Detroit Comes to the Quilt
It’s hard to imagine that the Names Project began little more than a year ago, with a meeting of eight people. It was a local response, recalling traditional family quilts stitched by loving hands. Its effect has now spread across a continent. It is an unusual message, here in death-avoiding America. And a deeply religious message, one found in the rites and rituals of every ancient culture: that a deep, soothing truth can be found in the midst of pain; that of a victory of love and pride over shame and fear. The Names Project Quilt may just have created the perfect modern manifestation for this tribal truth, and sent out an unlikely group of evangelists to share it. But rather than staying, relatively safely, in the gay ghetto of San Francisco, these evangelicals departed our left-coast Jerusalem for more hellenistic places, such as Phoenix and Detroit.
“I thought we weren’t going to have anyone here,” admitted Jack Caster, the tour manager who used to live in Detroit. “But there are a lot of families coming. Old people. Kids, groups of teens. And more Black people than in any other city except Baltimore, where their Black mayor came and read names.”
The cities in the South, Southwest and Midwest are facing farm crises, new unemployment, old divisions. They are places where sex, though practiced no less, is kept decidedly quieter. News of a “homosexual disease” may come, and be received accordingly. But when the reality arrives, it is too late to blame anyone. These are one’s own husbands, wives, children and parents. By naming, and thereby honoring each one as a person that belongs to us, the Quilt facilitates such awareness.
What places like Detroit, or mid-sized cities in the heartland, can teach about how to deal with some new realities may lead the way for the rest of country in confronting the “next wave” of this crisis. The Quilt directly reached 8-10,000 Michiganders, even bringing in many from the suburbs who “hadn’t been downtown in years,” and raising some $15,000 for local AIDS service agencies.
“It’s a gritty old town,” says the dynamo Infectious Disease nurse who drove through a bombed-out zone within sight of the glittering new Renaissance Center and a multi[million dollar medical complex. “But it’s a good old town. People here, by and by, don’t live lightly; they’re driven. If you work for an auto company you work your average of 60, 80 hours a week. What happens if you’re laid off? If you live down here, you’re scrambling to survive.
“If you drive these streets early in the morning, you’ll see people lifting up the boards over windows and slipping out of all these brick buildings. It’s like a Hooverville. Or the Warsaw Ghetto. But the vegetables from that garden there will be sold in that empty lot over there, come August. It’s like a victory garden.
“Same with the families we see. Most of them demonstrate an enormous wellspring of loving and charity and grace and tremendous courage they never knew they had in them. The stigma is still there—people forced to live in the basement, or denied participation in holiday dinners. But with many others, AIDS really acts as the impetus to draw the family together. They realize that they have to set things aside—judgments about IV drug use, fear of the disease, homophobia—because truly they need each other.
Misheberach (Prayer for the Ill)
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah, Rachel and Jacob, bless _____________, along with all the ill amongst us, and all who are touched by AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Grant insight to those who bring healing, courage and faith to those who are sick, love and strength to us and all who love them. Merciful Parent, let your spirit rest upon all who ill and comfort them. May they and we soon know a time of complete healing, a healing of the body and a healing of the spirit, and let us say: Amen.
–from the prayerbook of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco