By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
What is this painting of a cabin in the woods? The windows have yellow light, the way a house looks on a summer night, just before it gets dark. That was my grandmother's house in Warrington, North Carolina. I spent every summer there. I painted it from my head. I have a great art therapist. She says, You don't have to be Leonardo da Vinci. That painting with the bouquet of flowers, I made it for Shante. She's my girlfriend. She lives down the hall. Six of the 32 residents here are women.
You've lived at the Housing Works center for homeless people with AIDS/HIV for two years. You were a drug user for 27 out of the last 30 years, homeless for 10, living in boxes, the A train. And now you're in this bright room with a stuffed rabbit that says "Be Happy," crocheted curtains, perky green plants, and an angel in a white satin dress hanging from the lightbulb string. This 1997 beige brick building is so clean. It must be the most hygienic place in New Yorkcreamy pale yellow walls, big television sets, weight room, dining area where we just saw the music teacher eating a sandwich. The first Housing Works opened in the East Village. How did you get here? April 8, 1999I'd just had my last pint of wine, same clothes on for months. I was sick every daypraying God would end my life. I checked in to the Mid Brooklyn Sober Up Station. I'd been in and out for years. They referred me here. At first, it was more comfortable to sleep on the floor, in sneakers. When you live in a box, you have to get out quickly. My family moved from North Carolina to Brownsville when I was seven, 1961, then Bushwick. My friends and I were drinking wine, smoking pot. My father was a cook; my mother worked in a factory sewing vacuum cleaner bags. At 14, I got introduced to heroin. My parents had me arrested, put me in a Rockefeller program. I got out, overdosed, then acid, marijuana, alcohol. I met my kids' mother in '73. In between having kidswe have fourI started smoking crack. We lost our apartment. Three kids live in Red Hook now with their mother. I see them twice a month.
If your parents had stayed in the South, would you have gone in the direction you did? Yes. My nephews down there went that way also. The '70sthat's what was going on: peace, love, acid, 'ludes, black beauties. I'm definitely a product of the era.
What's your daily schedule? I take 24 pills a day. When I first got here, my T-cell count was 164; my viral load was 68,000. Now my T-cell is 514, viral load undetectable. My custom-made medicine is working. I found out I was HIV-positive in '93. I was in rehab. They were paying people to take the test. Usually I get up at 7:30, see what's for breakfast. Sometimes it's too loud down there. Me, I stay out of the negativity. Not everyone here is drug free, but me and Shante are. I go to nine groups a weeknutritional, substance abuse. I used to make 22. Now I do a lot of stuff on the outside. I sell porcelain dolls, colognes, and perfumes. I got my little shopping cart. I'm trying to get a vendor's license. For now, I'm like a specialty personMother's Day, Valentine's Day.
Can you stay here forever? Until I go to that big Housing Works in the sky. Or I consider myself able to work. They don't rush you out. I'm anxious to let go. I want to live in Brooklyn.
With Shante? She mentioned it's kind of close quarters here. We'll live separately, but in Brooklyn. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Shante's barbecuing on the patio right now. She likes to cook. She's from Brownsville. When she came here, I saw her and I fell in love right away. I let her know. I said, I got eyes for you. We go out a lot, movies, Central Park. We eat in the Village. I love gyros. Sometimes we go and bring sandwiches back here. I put on a little candle. Put on my Luther. Turn down the lights.