By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He can't be more than 18 or 19, brown hair, tight T-shirt, tighter jeans, light blue eyes that have yet to be deadened by the street. It's obvious what he wants: a quick hustle, sex for money, drugs, his next meal. Yet he approaches Neal Shaffer with some caution. Maybe he pauses because of the time and place: a balmy September afternoon behind "the strip" on Cedar Springs Road in the parking lot of the AIDS food pantry. Maybe it's Shaffer's gait, which is slowed considerably by nerve damage that even morphine can't relieve. Or maybe it's Shaffer's black tote bag, standard issue for all pantry consumers and the mark of an AIDS survivor on the dole.
"Hey, can I talk to you for a second?" the boy finally says.
"Why? I don't have any money. I am here for the food pantry."
"Oh, this is that AIDS place, isn't it?" says the boy, referring to the AIDS Resource Center sign posted on the rear of the mostly pink brick building.
Shaffer nods his head, wondering if playing dumb is part of the kid's come-on.
"If I go in there, will they give me free food?" asks the boy.
"It's not that easy," Shaffer says. "You have to have AIDS before they let you have food."
"I hear AIDS isn't so bad," says the boy. "You just take some medicine, and they give you lots of free stuff."
Shaffer may be feeling fatigued, but a look of shock still registers on his face. "Believe me, it's not a good thing. It hurts; it hurts a lot. Don't be fooled. It's not something you want to get."
The boy smiles coyly. "The only thing I'm going to get fooled by is fucking someone and not getting paid for it."
"You do what you have to do," Shaffer tells him. "Just make sure you wear protection."
"But then I can't feel it," says the boy, obviously trying to entice. "I like to feel it."
There was a time when Shaffer had both the strength and the inclination for this kind of play, but not anymore. He has been sick too long, he has been celibate too long, and he begins to walk away. "Trust me," he says. "AIDS sucks."
"Something profound has occurred within the last few months," claimed Andrew Sullivan, the Times writer, who is HIV-positive. That something was the availability of a new class of drugs in the AIDS pipeline, protease inhibitors, which suppress the irascible human immunodeficiency virus to undetectable levels in the blood, particularly when mixed in combination with another class of antiretroviral drugs already on the market.
These "cocktails" weren't a cure, but the drugs seemed to bring the dead back to life. HIV-positives whose disease had progressed to full-blown AIDS and who had been wasting away--their emaciated skin marked by legions of lesions, their internal organs an opportunity for parasites of all persuasions--got their cocktails and got better. Overnight, it seemed, man had conquered nature, and gay man, whose friends and lovers were the first and foremost to be decimated by the disease, reaped the benefits. Although prohibitively expensive, these powerful medications gave hope to all positives--primarily gays, IV drug users and recipients of tainted blood. Told they had only months to live, they were suddenly reborn by a medical miracle that might renew their lives for 30 years or better.
The numbers told the story: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in two years following the introduction of the cocktails, AIDS-related deaths in the United States dropped a startling 62 percent. Hysteria over the epidemic began to wane as prevention messages began to sink in. A condom for all occasions became the unyielding mantra of safe-sex advocates, and new AIDS cases began to level off at 40,000 a year down from a peak of more than 80,000. The disease seemed to be someone else's problem, that of poor souls in Africa, where a devastating strain of the virus was killing millions and rates of infection staggered the conscience. What was once a death sentence in this country had become a manageable, chronic illness like diabetes or high blood pressure. Or so we were told.
What was left largely untold was how difficult the virus was to manage. The new medications might save lives, but they were a bitch to take. Cocktails required strict adherence to a daily regimen of about 20 pills. Miss a few doses, and the virus was unforgiving. It might multiply and mutate, this time roaring back by the millions to stalk the immune system with a strain resistant to the original therapy. New cocktails would have to be ordered with the hope that science would always stay one step ahead of the disease.