How Jimmy Jazzy comes to be carrying a dildo is anyone’s guess. He just happens to have it in his pocket, he says. Jimmy and a couple of buddies are hanging around the 54th Street Minimarket (“We Accept Food Stamps”) at Beach Channel Drive when the SafeSpace van pulls up to the curb. The driver opens the door and releases the hydraulic steps. The outreach supervisor dismounts and leans against a nearby fence. The social worker inside the van sets up her boxes of giveaway “harm reduction” materials, her boxes of socks and gloves and winter caps, and suddenly dozens of people appear out of nowhere and crowd onto the van. They line up politely to get at the free stuff. But it isn’t the tube socks they’re after so much as the dental dams and multicolored jimmy hats.
“Now I’m ready for some mad foreplay,” a 13-year-old buddy of Jimmy’s says as he grabs a handful of flavored lubricants. “Banana, root beer, and motherfucking Juicy Fruit.”
“Gimme some, too,” Jimmy says to social worker Liza Zaretsky.
“Didn’t you take some condoms with you last time we were here?”
“Yeah,” replies Jimmy. “But I had to use them all that same night.”
Jimmy Jazzy is 14. He looks no older than 10. He is wearing a pilled wool hat, baggy jeans, cheap sneakers, and a thin Yankees windbreaker to cut the chill, which seems fiercer here in Far Rockaway than in other parts of the city. Even the gulls at the beach look frozen to the sand.
When SafeSpace supervisor George Santana asks Jimmy if he’s really having all the sex he claims, Jimmy shoots him a withering look.
“How old are you again?” asks Santana.
“And you doing all this bangin’? You getting spanked?”
“Yup,” says Jimmy.
“Do you do it up on Pebble Beach?” Santana asks, meaning the project’s roof.
“We got our own clubhouse,” says Jimmy, pulling out the pink and hollow six-inch dildo, which looks more silly than obscene. “We go to my homegirl house. We going to my shorty’s house to get busy right now.”
Despite its Florida postcard skyscape, its limitlessly optimistic ocean horizon, and its bygone reputation as the working-class Riviera, Far Rockaway these days is a pretty grim spot. The sight of jets constantly crossing overhead serves to taunt pedestrians headed nowhere more exotic than seedy Mott Avenue. There, the low brick buildings are ragged, the local deli dispenses goods through a slot in a bulletproof window, and even the American flag flapping outside the public library seems ironic.
In social-service terms, explains Laurie Jackson, a clinical social worker with the 79-year-old nonprofit Center for Children and Families, which sponsors the brand-new outreach van, Far Rockaway is another country. With a disproportionately high number of both congenitally and newly HIV-infected people, few services for adolescents, multigenerational poverty, domestic and drug abuse, and numerous foster-care facilities, “it’s an isolated kind of place.” There’s not even a local movie theater: “Just projects and the beach.”
The majority of people in Far Rockaway, Jackson continues, “don’t have the money to go anywhere else to do anything. So I find that they start to have sex very early.” How early? “As low as nine.” Spend an evening on the SafeSpace van and you quickly realize that this is not hyperbole. “Come here on a Friday night,” explains Santana, a genial mountain of a man with a seen-it-all attitude and a chrome stud through his tongue, “there be mad people lining up for condoms. I’ve seen cheese lines. I’ve seen unemployment lines. But I never seen a condom line before this.”
Even on a frigid Tuesday at the Ocean Village houses, they’re six-deep outside the van.
“You got any motion lotion?” asks a 14-year-old we’ll call Malik. Zaretsky offers him condoms for oral sex, condoms for insertive sex, lubricants for oral sex, and a vanilla-flavored Trustex dental dam.
“What’s important about having it on?” she asks.
“Right. Condoms protect against sexually transmitted diseases. And what is that thing at the end called?”
“I don’t remember.”
“It’s the reservoir. When you ejaculate, the semen fills the reservoir. So if you don’t have it on right, it runs down the sides and comes out the bottom of the condom and defeats the entire purpose. See if you can remember that.”
“Aight,” Malik says. Then, peering through the window of the van, he adds, “Excuse me, miss, I see someone I want to use these with.”
“We don’t distribute to kids under 13,” Zaretsky explains to a reporter, echoing the SafeSpace program director’s insistence that the outreach van is “not a condom mobile.” Yet when a suspiciously immature-looking “16-year-old” shuffles in and demands “100 of them shit,” because the weekend is coming “and I’m mad active,” Zaretsky gives him a strip of four condoms to be safe. “If somebody tells me they’re having sex,” says Carl Siciliano, SafeSpace director of homeless youth services, “I don’t want to be the one withholding the barrier between them and HIV.”
And, in terms of HIV infection, says Jackson, “Far Rockaway is where the rest of the city was 15 years ago. There’s a lot of shame. There are a lot of adolescents I see who were born with the virus, parents who are infected and drug addicted and in denial. There’s a lot of promiscuity and a lack of education around sexual behavior.”
Not everyone is ignorant, however. “Puerto Rican” Gambino, a 17-year-old 10th grader at John Adams High School, seems to have gotten something more from the van’s visits than free packets of root-beer lube. “Mad niggers talk about having sex,” says Gambino, “but they don’t know. You be like me, you’re not talking about it, you’re getting busy with it. And you ain’t at it if you don’t do it every day. The people I share sessions with are older than me, 18 to 21, but we only do safe sex to the fullest. There’s over 15 sexually transmitted diseases out there!”