Thursday, December 05, 2013

When You Don't Get Tested

Several years ago, I had an HIV scare. I was terrified, embarrassed and shamed by it but was determined to write down my experience with hopes that it might help someone else who is going through the same thing. Recently, I dug this article up and revamped it for your review:


I rarely get mail anymore. One Thursday night in February, I came home to a letter in a blank envelope that had been carelessly slid under my door. The paper in this envelope was lacking letterhead and looked like it had been typed on an old typewriter; there were markings, rust and scratches between words. The content of the letter was unclear as well, except it was strongly recommended that I go to the “Chelsea Health Center” at the location provided. 
 
Later that night, I went to visit a few friends and took the letter with me. Both agreed that the letter was so vague that perhaps this was some kind of money scheme or worse. We spoke of this with Law and Order SVU playing in the background—the episode where women got letters in the mail saying they won a computer, and when they went to retrieve their prize, they were murdered. This made us think even less of this possibly important letter I had received.
 
I went online to look up the name and address provided in this letter. “Chelsea Health Center” was listed as “CLOSED” according to Yelp, and the address was now a Department of Health clinic that provided free health services including STD testing. My thoughts were muddied with all these conflicting facts, but one friend convinced me to go the next morning with the promise she would come with me. 
 
Early Friday morning, I paced back and forth with five other strangers with blank faces, anxiously waiting for the doors of the Department of Health clinic to open. I had no cell phone service in this spot and was just realizing how important it was for my friend to be with me. 
 
I followed the strangers through the doors and into this little room without windows, where we each took a golf pencil and a pre-numbered questionnaire that we time-stamped. This room exposed each of our insecurities, exerted through the small jump we all made as the time-stamp punched our cards. Between answering the intrusive and shaming sexually explicit questions (i.e., Have you ever had anal sex? Have you ever used sex toys that aren’t yours?) I took a moment to rest my eyes and look around. The little room was plastered with sex education campaigns and disease awareness messages. 

I spent the last seven years of my life writing messages like these thinking they would help and educate others, but a poster that told me to think before I act was humiliating, when I was sitting in a room knowing that I committed one of these acts and forced to guess what I did while I waited. It was defeating to see all these scary diseases displayed on the wall. My eyes burned as they forced-filled with water, and I took a quick steep breath.
 
My number was called, and I was brought into a small office. The door shut quickly. The woman behind the old CD ROM asked me my name and why I came, and I mentioned the letter. She looked my name up and wrote down a code on my card without a hint of expression. Her laugh lines and forehead wrinkles showed proof that she was capable of exerting more emotion, and chose not to waste the risk of more visible aging on me. 
 
“So, what is this? Why am I here?” I asked. She kept her eyes on the computer when she answered.
 
“You’ll find out upstairs.”
 
“Do you know?”
 
“No, they don’t tell me anything. Trust me, if I knew, I would tell you. Have a seat, and they will call your number again.”
 
My friend was waiting when I came out. I gave her a shrug indicating I still knew nothing. One thing I had always admired about this friend is that she never changes her tone of voice for anything. She’s always loud, and never holds back her true emotions. Having this constant measure was a good marker for how dim this room was. A poster on the wall caught her attention.
 
“Hey, did you know that just because we live in NYC, we’re at higher risk for STDs? Scary, right? Whoa!”
 
Being respectful of the others in the room wasn’t important to me, now. I needed her to be her loud, innocuous self. It drowned out the “what-ifs” in my mind. 
 
My number was called again, and I was brought into yet another small office with a different woman who was also missing the ability to show empathy. She asked me the same questions, looked up my name. But this time she asked me to read and sign an agreement to take an HIV test. 
 
“Is it standard that everyone has to take this test?”
 
“Well, since you had contact with someone who is HIV positive, we recommend it,” she said with a bite of sarcasm. I couldn’t hear or see anymore. All of my senses had turned inward. I could just feel my heart getting faster. My voice now had one volume. 
 
“Wait! What? How do you know that?” I lost control of everything.
 
“Yeah, you see this code? That’s what it means. The woman in the other room didn’t tell you?”
 
“Oh my God. What do I do, now?” By this point, I was just focusing on breathing correctly, but I seemed to forget how long one takes to inhale and exhale.  
 
“Now, you take this clipboard upstairs to the other waiting room. It shouldn’t take long. Your case is serious, so you’ll get through fast.” Again with that caustic tone.
 
I nodded silently and took the backhanded comfort that she offered me. On the way upstairs, I shared the news with my friend with as little emotion as possible and added, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be okay. Look at me. I’m fine.” Anxiety was eating me alive inside, but the one thing that would have made it worse was transferring this oppressing emotion to my closest friend. 
“Trust me. I’m okay,” I lied again.
 
We retreated to the upstairs waiting room, where we texted our mutual friend who had calming words to share, but in a lasting effort to lighten the tone, her last words of advice were “…so stop fucking around.” Again, like the disease awareness posters, telling me not to do something I have already done left me feeling hopeless and unchangeable. 
 
After crafting the most awkward and ambiguous email to my coworkers, explaining that I was out sick on a beautiful summery Friday in February, I was called in by the physician. 
 
“You know why you’re here, right?” Now that the secret was out, I knew I would be reminded of it, constantly.
 
I stripped down to a hospital gown and was poked and prodded, like at any other standard OBGYN appointment, only it felt more intrusive. I stopped seeing the gloves she wore as sanitary precautions for my benefit, but rather protection for HER, in case I was infected. She asked me how many women I had slept with in the past year, and I stopped. 
 
“Uh what?” She continued to ask questions about my sex life, and something in me changed. These last two hours were about WHY this is happening to me, but when the doctor started to narrow down my sex partners, that’s when I started to ask WHO. Who sent me this letter? Who put ME in this position? Fear set in, and I stopped complying. I contributed however I could to get answers to only MY questions, and every word muttered by the doctor became a potential clue in the case.
 
“Why is November of last year so important?”  I yelled out as the doctor left the room.
 
I just got dressed when she came back into the room with a coy smile.
 
“I have good news for you. You’re not pregnant.” ...in case you haven't figured it out, I'm gay, and this doctor was just plain being mean.
 
Back to the waiting room I went, joining a now bigger crowd of frightened kids, including my panicked friend. Then I was shuffled into another office, this time to meet with a health education counselor, Claudia. When I stepped into her office, I was put at ease by the photos of her kids on the wall—the only sign of hope that this entire building could offer. She apologized, because it was intended that I saw her before anyone else. Claudia was a licensed social worker and thus qualified to tell people bad news. Claudia explained to me that the "person" that I had "contact" with didn’t have to give my name, and I should feel thankful that he OR she came forward to give my name at all. Of course, I didn’t hear any of this. Within her well-composed spiel explaining the purpose of confidentiality was another clue, I thought.
 
“This happened a while ago, so there’s no reason to ask who," she explained
 
Now, I had a timeframe. My own health took a backseat. I had someone else to focus on.
 
After waiting in line in a hallway, I was brought in to get my blood taken for the HIV test. First, they took a few cylinders that they would send out to determine my status in from 2 weeks ago, and then they gave me an instant finger prick test, which determined my HIV status from 3 months ago.
The instant test was negative, but I still had this bout of uneasiness.  The dim clouds should have separated, lifting this weight off of me, and yet they didn’t. I should have been able to go back to the waiting room to retrieve my friend, but Claudia wouldn't let me. As she took me in arm, we passed the waiting room, and I had enough time to fake a smile to my friend and say, “I’m negative. There’s nothing to worry about. I just...have to go.”
 
Claudia brought me to a darker, dimmer office without any windows.
 
“It’s not over yet, you know. You’re only negative as of 3 months ago, so anyone that you had contact with since then could have infected you. When you get these results back in two weeks then you will know for sure.”
 
“But you said that my incident happened a while ago.”
 
“I said nothing like that, and I can’t say anything, because I must protect that person’s identity.”
Claudia then brought me into a room with this man at a desk with a single sheet of paper and a pen in front of him.
 
He jumped right in without introducing himself. “In the case that you are HIV positive, you have the option of writing down everyone that you have had sexual contact with since November [three months ago.]”
 
The panic came back, and the fact that so far, the tests said I was negative meant nothing, but the anger and inability to cooperate came back too.
 
“I’m negative, and I don’t have to give you anything.”
 
The man shrugged and took out a red pen to which he wrote, “REFUSED” on my file. I thought of this girl of my past and how she felt during this whole process—finding out she was HIV positive, having to sit in this room and write down the names of everyone she slept with. I was negative. Why was I feeling so guilty about refusing to list names?
 
I had one last meeting with Claudia before I was able to leave for good. She told me to call her in two weeks to confirm my negative status, and she suggested that I didn’t have sexual contact with anyone until then. 
 
After this grueling morning of red tape and miscommunication, my friend took me out to eat where I ordered and ate two full breakfasts. There’s something about a gamble with your life that makes you hungry as fuck. 
 
The following weekend, I surrounded myself with friends that I trusted with this news, but I held back the possibility that I could still be positive. They took every opportunity to make me laugh—even mentioning the sketchy lovers in my past.
 
“I have money on the girl from Flatbush, who snuck out of your apartment barefoot in the middle of the night.”
 
Smiles and laughter seemed to be the only thing I needed, but when I was alone Sunday night, the bubble I was in had burst, and I was alone in the dark crying myself to sleep. 
 
Late in the night, I called someone from my church that I trusted, afraid of what she’d think of my promiscuity. Judge-free, she led me through those next two weeks with her prayers and positive messages.
 
Eventually, the burden had lifted, and two weeks later, I found out I was negative. I thought about my actions in those last three months, and thought to myself, ‘for someone that wants a family and a monogamous relationship, I’m sure as hell not acting like it.’ 
 
I’m lucky. I got a warning, and someone I know, whoever she is, wasn’t as lucky. I just have to remember that how I’m living right now is my second chance.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I wander

I wander:
Aimless, feeling small 
and wait for her to show.

I have so much to tell her 
about how high my dreams can go.

But, one look in those eyes and my mind goes dry 
and burrows within the crowd.

For the great soul I bare looks dismal now 
and what's left is masked by doubt.

I puff out my chest and I stare at her breasts
and I show my strength and brawn.

If I can't show the true me,
perhaps she will like my charm.

Further down:
I sink into my homemade crown
I have no charm or stealth

...but I have to keep on trying
'cause one day I will be myself.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Against the wind

"And the secrets that we shared, mountains that we moved caught like wildfire out of control, til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove."

 -Bob Seger

Monday, November 04, 2013

PrimeTime



People were complaining about the constant moving GIF below, so here's something a little more inviting to the senses.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

We're gonna need a bigger boat



Really cool artwork, album covers and posters available at http://www.hellola-hellola.com/

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Smaller Place

Baby was on her way to some country that she had never heard of on a continent she had never been to. One of the perks of joining the Peace Corps was a paid plane ticket to a place that she would have to make a committed effort to ever visit again, because [does it really matter?] would never be a place for Spring Break, destination weddings, or a romantic getaway. The culture shock started when she first set foot in the village and saw her pink Keds dividing her from the dirt.

In her small Chicago suburb was an abundance of sidewalks, roads, yards and floors of neighborhood homes. Each surface carried an attitude of its own and thus was treated differently in how one approached each surface.

Baby now stood in a place where it was hard to discern one surface from another. The cold clay dirt ground didnt change for anything.  

Peace Corps veterans had shared stories of going barefoot for only minutes before encountering the tapeworm, which lingered in the dirt waiting to attach themselves to the heels of strangers, whos bodies werent equipped to fight back. A young barefooted man from the village swept out the loose dirt from his home to the outside, careful not to sweep in the direction of Babys pink Keds before inviting her inside. Wanting to be a polite houseguest without risking her health, she faced her first dilemma. She left her shoes on.

It was only 2 in the afternoon before everyone on Babys team had already attempted to set themselves apart from the villagers in a demeaning way—assumptions and discomfort transcended language barriers. But for the villagers, it was to be expected ever since a group of surveyors stormed through their home years ago to proclaim that the villagers were living in squalor and had to be saved.

The only thing that kept the villagers agreeing to take part in this 3-month-long project was the promise that their lives would be easier when it was over. By completing this project, the Peace Corps would spend more money than the villagers would see in their lifetimes, and it seemed foolish not to agree to the promise of bettering the lives of everyone they knew. So, until the project was finished, they would clasp their hands together and nod in thanks at the countless insults given to them by their ignorant visitors who had come to help them out of their dire ways.

It was 4pm and Baby had emptied her canteen into her mouth hours ago. Her body was hot and sticky, but her mouth was dry. She approached that same young man preparing to speak in his language and, in stumbling tongue, asked where she could find water to drink. He smiled and pointed to the horizon. Coming into focus were a cluster of small silhouette figures walking towards the village. An hour later, they were 20 women each balancing 30-gallon jugs on their heads. Another hour later, and the women had arrived with enough water for the whole village—a days worth.

The project leaders name was Chip. He wore an old tattered hat that he got at a local camping shop 10 years ago, the day before he left for his first Peace Corps project. Though it was never said aloud, he was known for leading failed after failed projects—gardens that never flourished, water filters that became contaminated with cholera, fresh-built houses unknowingly caked in lead paint. The list went on. But Chip was one of few MBA graduates willing to be paid scarce wages, year after year. He was to be the leader of this project, and he was committed to make this one successful.

Chip explained to the team that everyday several women from the village had to walk three hours to the nearest well to stand in a long line and fill jugs of water, only to walk three hours back to the village to distribute the water. He pointed in the direction of the well and Baby thought that it was odd that he wasnt pointing in the direction that she saw the women walking from earlier.

The women couldnt walk directly to and from the well because there was a 12-foot deep ditch in the way, which lasted for miles where water once flowed abundantly millions of years earlier. So instead, the women walked around the ditch, which made for a much longer trip. One of Chips teams tried to dig a well a few years earlier without success. There was simply no water left on this side of the ditch. But Chip was determined to find a solution to the problem, the problem he had discovered when he surveyed the site years before.

Were going to build a bridge across this ditch, and when were finished, it will take 30 minutes to get water for the village instead of six hours. Chip credited himself for coming up with the idea.

The plan made sense to Baby, although she was concerned that with Chips reputation they wouldnt be able to carry it through. Still, she was the first to report to the site the next morning. She arrived to an argument between Chip and one of the men from the village. Chip had spent much time in this country and was well versed in the language—at least enough to argue well if he was good at arguing. When the conversation was over, Chip turned to Baby to explain.

Listen...baby... He wasnt calling her by name. If were gonna be here, eating the food, using the resources in this community—we all need to chip in on the daily chores. He waited.

Were gonna need you to walk with the women and collect a jug of water for our team everyday until we finish this bridge. I would do it...but women have to carry the water. Its a rule. He shrugged without remorse.

The 20 walking women now stood beside Chip with a spare jug waiting for Baby to respond. What could she say? By refusing to go, she would be setting herself apart from these women. So Baby took the jug and joined her new walking partners for the long day journey trying not to convert the 40-kilometer round trip into miles or determine how much 30 liters of water weighed.

The first trip, she said nothing. On the outside, her silence may have been viewed as a revolt against this terrible punishment that she hadnt signed up for. But really she was fighting to keep up and was both afraid of uttering a complaint and didnt want to waste any energy on words. She couldnt balance the jug on her head like the others could, so her arms were heavy with weight. Her Keds were now the color of dirt, and the hot sand was accelerating the deterioration process of her soles. When they got back, Baby went straight to sleep feeling accomplished until she had woken up.

She joined the women once more that very next morning and was at disbelief that she was about to do the same thing. Her legs and arms still hadnt recovered from the day before, but yet somehow, she was moving forward. The other women were chatting in their language, while Baby counted steps and busied herself by retelling stories about her summer flings unaware that she had fallen behind. Then the women began to sing and chant in a quick pace, which helped Baby move faster. The chanting became louder and more jubilant on their way back, and the repetitive verses encouraged Baby to join in.

After a few weeks, Baby had become used to walking the long walk and learned to carry the jug of water on her head, so she didnt have to use her arms to lift. Though her arms were stronger now, so she could rely on them if she had to. The other women had dedicated themselves to teach Baby the local language so she could understand all the stories they shared on their daily walks. She had already memorized the lyrics of all the songs they sang on the walk and was eager to learn what they all meant.

By two months, Baby could understand much of the conversation, and she recognized that the six hours a day the women spent together was not considered just a day of work. They used this day to share stories about their children and funny anecdotes about their husbands. And they all recognized that the whole village would thirst without them. They were proud that they were each given such an important responsibility, and Baby began to adopt this pride too, although she was still looking forward to the bridge being finished.

At three months, the bridge was built. Villagers danced on the bridge in celebration. Families took short trips to the well with wheelbarrows loaded with water jugs and brought back water for the week. Village leaders congratulated Chip for his leadership efforts. By the next day, locals from a village across the bridge were invited over to share a meal. Chip had deemed the project successful.

He went to the bridge to take some photos of his work and saw the 20 women sitting at the base of the bridge with their heads slouched in their hands and looking miserable—some women were crying.

Whats wrong? Chip asked.

In a rehearsed way, the women intermittently answered. Oh nothing. Were very grateful for all the hard work that you put in. Thank you very much for doing this.

But, you all look so sad.

One woman spoke up. Were just upset, because you made our lives harder.

Harder? Because of this bridge, I freed up six hours of your time every day. You dont have to spend your days collecting water anymore. You can think of anything else that you all want to be and you can be it.

Some people spend their lives chasing happiness and still never find it. Before the bridge was built, we had purpose in our lives and we were happy. We flourished on the idea that we were responsible for hydrating our community. You have taken our happiness away from us and have forced us to find it elsewhere.

Baby overheard the women crying and that's when she realized how insignificant walking for 6 hours a day could be, when it brings you happiness.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Rocky Diamonds and Fly Henderson

I first learned of Rocky Diamonds on MySpace six years ago, where I attempted to look up a musician and instead came across a 14-year-old rapper from Minneapolis, who then went by the name of Young Rocky. He sampled a few songs, including a cover of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" that sounded clean, well-produced, and fit for radio play. Sure, the lyrics were redundant and echoed every cliche of it's time, but that didn't stop Hot 97 from playing other songs that did the same thing--lyrics that compare a couple to Romeo & Juliet or Bonnie & Clyde or lyrics that rhyme, because it's the same bloody word. I wasn't impressed by the lyrics of Young Rocky at all. It was the clean production, catchy hook, and the way he delivered his prose as if he had been in that studio all his life. Also, the kid was 14! I was intrigued.

Curious about his progress, I reconnected with him years later through facebook and twitter. Now known as Rocky Diamonds, he had developed tremendously as a lyricist and acquired a sizable fan base in the Midwest. In fact, he stepped boldly away from any cheap, clean hip hop sound that carried his weight before, and focused on harder beats which shifted his voice to the forefront and made his lyrics the center of attention.

Through Rocky, I learned of other talented musicians including his friend, Fly Henderson. Fly had a steep learning curve in his lyricism and described his life in a metaphoric way that opened my eyes in wonder. His openly addressed his history of child abuse, but was determined to keep all of his music and lifestyle in a positive light.

Rocky and Fly were close friends, who shared the same birth name, Marc(k)us Henderson. As well as recording songs together, they were building their brand, a committed fan base, and making music videos of their work (produced by 18-year-old Ben Hughes), while awaiting a bigger opportunity.

Despite neglectful tweets of typical teenage boys with girls, money and weed on their minds, Rocky and Fly had won my attention, and I was on the edge of my seat in full anticipation of their heightened success. There was a movement happening in Minnesota. A shift. People began to notice these kids and recognize them alongside bigger mainstream artists. "It's only a matter of time," one would often see in YouTube comments.

I wasn't alone in my amazement of their talent, though living in New York City, where no one had heard of these guys, it seemed that way. My exclamation of "the Minnesota rap scene" would get returned by laughter until I could quiet the amused with music links. I felt like I was alongside them, anxiously awaiting a major label signing, so their music could be more easily shared.

Then without warning, on July 21, 2012, Fly Henderson drowned in a lake, while on vacation. Fans in Minnesota were devastated. And yet, after being in the middle of this shock and surprise, I looked up from my computer to the reality of my New York City surroundings and realized that somehow, the rest of the music world managed to keep on moving.

Although there is a stark realization that no one will ever see what Fly Henderson could have become, with his music and videos, he has left behind a legacy, where people are still free to discover his songs and learn of his light.

Through all this, Rocky Diamonds has taken a vow to continue to finish the dream that they have both sought after since childhood. The song below serves as a tribute to his friend, Fly Henderson. The Minnesota rap scene lives on.



  Fly Henderson - Forever from Sway Heavy on Vimeo.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reflections of the MayaArtistry Art Expo



On Sunday evening, perched on the second floor of the Vodou Bar in Bed-Stuy, an art exhibit emerged featuring the works of Maya Farrow, Zola Zakiya and Anthony Jay Falcon, while tribal house music echoed through the hall. Three of Maya Farrow’s abstract paintings caught my attention. 


Untitled 2013

It seemed simple at first—a well-balanced, two-toned painting misrepresented in the dim light. But a closer look revealed the illuminated blues and reds of equal intensity, fighting to become the forefront of positive space. The battle of complimentary colors created vibrating lines, which stunned my eyes again and again.

The blue was a nebulous sky, lightened slightly by daylight’s poor attempt to peak through. Contending was the red, tinged with orange, which gave it a pearlescent, metallic quality, like blood.

This painting superbly depicted Farrow’s play on color choice and how color plays us.


Deep Ocean 2013
Deep Ocean 2013

Standing over this work, I was absorbed by the areas where the fine dark lines clustered and where they dispersed into the yellow background. These lines pulled me in and I found myself making out images, like a child looking for pictures in the clouds.


Barrier 2013

Barrier 2013
Patiently waiting in the back sat a nearly ten-foot-wide predominantly red painting, which reflected the active energy from the room. Several layers of bright primary hues were revealed in the areas where the red was missing. It was the most captivating painting in the exhibit, and unsurprisingly the first to be sold.

I was reminded of a red door left ajar just enough to reveal a bigger, brighter world to the outside. Part of me was frustrated by the overbearing red layer, which hid previously created details. But then I wondered if I would have appreciated this hidden story if more of it was shown.

This work struck up many conversations as we all attempted to make sense of it according to the world we knew.  I heard a girl describe the painting as a song, and the many layers represented different instruments with red being the voice that brings it all together. Even the window to the inner layers replicated sound frequency on an oscilloscope display. 

I personally find abstract art very difficult to comprehend. However, Sunday night, I found myself and others so engaged in the work that it stimulated conversation for the night--and made this art exhibit a successful one.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Reflections of "My Country Has No Name" by Toyin Odutola




Toyin Odutola
"My Country Has No Name"
Jack Shainman Gallery
May 16 – June 29, 2013


This show was so powerful that it paralyzed my ability to articulate how I felt. I quickly jotted down a collection of adjectives and emotions, because I knew I wouldn’t feel this way about another art exhibit for a long time.

I was so overwhelmed by Odutola’s work, by what the human hand could do that, as an average person, I was left feeling incapable of everything. Now, every word I say seems forged. And every action I engage in seems feeble-minded. For I can no longer make a contribution to the world that doesn’t now seem trite compared to this incredible presentation.

In the “My Country Has No Name” exhibit, Odutola continued her practice of portraying human figures through mostly pen ink drawings on paper.  I was mesmerized by the insane and meticulous detail in the work. At close focus, there were millions of fine ink strokes, which made up body contour, muscle strands, facial expression and light reflection of the human form. Other unexplained revelations in the work had found the missing emotional link between art and reality.

These characters were in movement—in mid-reaction to being watched, and I caught myself at times gazing intently, waiting for them to move. What were they thinking? What were they about to tell me? These answers were reflected in the skin that they bore—a skin that throbbed and sighed and breathed as I did.

Embarrassed by the belief in the life of these characters and overtaken by the energy emitted from them, I forced myself to stare at the ground for minutes at a time—time to digest the work and process this profound experience.

I walked outside to get some fresh air and absorb some light. Still overwhelmed by the work, I began to cry. Even though the exhibit was laden with black ink, my world had been introduced to a new hue, and I struggled to accept this. I walked down the street and this new color—new perspective—surrounded me, and I wondered if anyone else on the street could see it.

The “My Country Has No Name” exhibit has changed me and inspired me to set much higher standards when engaging my own creativity. This is perhaps the only art exhibit, where I feel I am now a better writer for having seen it.