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One Story From the Naked City

One Story From the Naked City


I joined a convent today. Seriously. After months of procrastinating about finding an apartment in New York City, I decided to take my social worker up on her long-standing offer to provide me with a temporary accommodation. Her suggestion? Move into the Gift of Love, a downtown Manhattan safe haven founded in 1985 by Mother Teresa'yes, that one'which provides housing in a five-story brownstone for a dozen HIV-positive men. To my social worker, it was a practical move. It meant that I'd be served three square meals daily'prepared by the nuns who live and work there'and that I'd have a warm, clean bed to sleep in each night. But to my mind, it meant that I could enjoy an oasis of serenity, take pause to reflect in my New York mirror'post-9/11 and more recently post'AIDS diagnosis'to make sure that I still like what I see. With peace of mind, I figured I could also ponder my next move in the City of Big Dreams. I arrived at the sisterhood with few expectations but inexplicably overwrought anxiety. Just inside the entrance on the main floor, a resident sat quietly browsing a Bible tract while awaiting my arrival. Upstairs I'd wait for what seemed like an eternity for the sister in charge'that's her official title'to process my paperwork and admit me. But while sitting there waiting, I sensed that something was amiss. Life inside of the convent proceeded in stark contrast to the vibrant, glistening world of New York City outside. In contrast to the testosterone-charged nightlife on Christopher Street a block away, the feeling of repressed sexuality lingered here. Fraternizing in another resident's bedroom isn't allowed. Neither are televisions. In fact, the only form of entertainment in sight is a small radio blaring away Rod Stewart and Alicia Keys on an easy-listening station. I swallowed hard. These were small prices to pay, I rationalized, for a little peace in this chaotic city. In another room an old bouquet of artificial flowers struggled to be noticed on the mantel near a statuette of the Virgin Mary. You could still smell bleach rising up from the immaculately clean floors above the stench of stale cigarettes. An overcrowded aquarium clamoring with goldfish sat dingy and neglected. The dimly lit place was filled with wilted hanging plants that, without sun, would not survive. And in every room, a picture of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, smiled against a backdrop of clouds. The feeling of life was fleeting. One resident explained that he had been here for eight years but wished he could leave. But at 70-something, he literally couldn't walk away from it. His crippled legs had given out on him. 'This is a place for people with AIDS,' he said, his speech slurred. 'A place for men with 'the package.''' It was the only insight he was able to impart before he stared quietly at the ceiling as if we had never spoken a word. Everyone here, it seemed, had a story. Or something to hide. Something they dared not tell. And as a newcomer, I dared not ask anyone. Not the thin white man in the trucker cap. Or the burly Chicano. But I wondered what led them here. And after several numbing hours, supping and waiting and praying, I began to wonder what had led me here too. I might have been looking for Jesus. Or protection for my soul. Or a clean, simple apartment in the city where I could breathe and be still. But whatever led me here wasn't enough to make me stay. I wasn't ready to die this way or to be born again in the convent. I marched back onto the streets of New York City. Only the days ahead can reveal what I am seeking. Whitfield is one of the nation's leading journalists reporting about AIDS among African-Americans. A frequent Vibe contributor, he is based in New York City.

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LeRoy Whitfield