“Smash Street Boys” was a name Rachel suggested and the boys accepted. T. now qualified for a demographic group organized in 2013 as “Let’s Kick Ass,” long-term survivors, a “Grassroots Movement of HIV Long-Term Survivors” guided by Tez Anderson. Born in 1950, T. had never expected to live this long. Sometimes he wished he hadn’t.
Books, film and alternative groups had been predicting “end times” for years when they finally began to happen today. The meds (Atripla) had improved to the point of being far more tolerable and rendered HIV not even contagious, but the price -- aside from thousands of dollars -- was constant monitoring in an underfunded public health clinic not reliably stocked and a hundred miles away through mountain forest, sometimes impassable in winter. The place was attended by armed guards and visited by ICE looking for people to deport. "Genocide", the stories, had come true.
New “competing” viruses (ebola, bird flu) crowded HIV out of the spotlight with the mistaken public belief that the problem had been solved. It was a great little money-maker for the pharma businesses. American over-incarceration made prisons hot beds (yes, pun) for untreated HIV that was carried to the general population. Stereotypes about who caught the virus meant that people never guarded against it.
But now two forces, predicted but inexorable, began to meet. One was climate change fueling drought, flood and intolerable heat as well as arctic intrusions pushing sub-zero temps south. The other was overpopulation which intensified political clashes over territory and economics. What this meant locally was hostility towards anyone different or vulnerable or the wrong color. Funding began to withdraw. Safehouses and sanctuary churches became vital.
At one point the lease on the boys' dwelling was lost due to the landlord upgrading, and for a while at Barrus’ house they slept in their bags, shoulder to shoulder on the floor. Then someone sympathetic gave them emergency use of an attic in a commercial building. They had to enter through a trapdoor and there was no bathroom, only a toilet standing in solitary splendour in the middle of the space. Boys of a certain age, wary of their own development, become very modest and require privacy. It was a test of their mutual respect to use the toilet so publicly. They built a screen around it as quickly as they could.
The boys in T’s absence discovered a group of homeless men taking shelter under a bridge and made a pile of peanut butter sandwiches for them. In their generosity they hadn’t thought about the carefully budgeted food supply and had inadvertently wiped out the month’s supply of peanut butter. One of the factors in staying well with HIV is a healthy diet, near-vegetarian but with lots of fish. They got by because of their fishing in a nearby lake and a garden, which T. had learned to maintain in his Michigan childhood.
Photo journalism for social action now became portraits of disintegrating old trailer houses, hostile gaunt dogs and their matching owners.
Then came the Appalachian forest fires, roaring down on their favorite lake and destroying a horse ranch they had enjoyed. Horses they loved were burned alive. Bears and deer came out of the trees, thirsting and disoriented. T. had the vehicles ready to evacuate, but where to go? They decided to camp, and that worked except that the smoke was intolerable for boys with lung problems. Sometimes the wind shifted in the night and smoke invaded their camp spot so they had to get up at 3AM and find another hilltop that was clear.
These were mostly city boys but they were beginning to understand how to survive in wildlands, even to prefer it. The lessons and practices of the fishing camps among the Cree Chippewa that T’s father had forced onto him now came back and proved useful. Sometimes when money was short a boy would grimly disappear for a while and return with cash. T. pretended he didn’t know what had happened. It was a resource that worked whereever there were people.
The Internet presence continued, less print and more image. Vimeo and Tumblr were good for that balance. The career of Ev Williams and other entrepreneurs led through Blogger where I have posted “long form” for more than a decade, through Twitter, to the most recent platform, called Medium. This latter has had several transformations from amateur to paid professionals, but was organized into something like publishing “domains”, each representing a style or genre determined by a volunteer editor/writer.
For a while T. found a writing home in “‘CROSSIN(G)ENRES: Poetry and creative non fiction including memoir, personal essay, academic, experimental work, and intersectional social justice writing from a personal lens. Add in some flash fiction and more than a few crazy dog stories.” The editor was Alto, a flight medic turned MFA nonfiction grad. Much of the writing was testimony to struggles, especially about sexual matters, but T’s most popular pieces were about poetry. The community was a young unshockable adventurous bunch and soon he had 4.92 K readers. But there are aways a few ideological attackers. People were becoming disillusioned with some of the promises of Medium.
Parallel, the Smash Street Boys and T. were withdrawing from contact with me. I was blocked in some platforms and there were no more emails. Rachel became more involved in charities in India. I returned to local matters but always monitored whatever public posts to which I had access.
Part of the reason for the separation was personal between T. and I. My researching obsession often focused on his emotional issues, like the two forces that warred within him about danger — one urging attack and the other insisting on escape, or at least paralysis and evasion. The most effective way he could break the internal opposition was with anger. This was PTSD. Also, Oppositional Defiance Disorder. But — as he often insists — such labels are stupid and not helpful. Anyway, what made it fascinating was that the sea change in neurology explains so much in a totally different way than the old Freud stuff.
The strongest point of deadlock was writing T's bio. He wanted to explain it all, especially to himself, but every attempt to begin caused monsters to rear up and threaten him with destruction. His parents and their generation had passed on now, but the social hyenas never die. Those outsiders did not want any justification, only the satisfaction of vengeful rending.
Constant reading all his life had built a strong brain with many connections, but violence scrambled them a bit, made vortexes and abysses. This created a natural poetic voice of rich imagery and vocabulary. Though not an instrumentalist, he had an affinity for the mathematical structure of music, more voice than grammar. The boys often shared this. They welcomed the hallucinatory as a relief.
I discovered T. was a tenth generation descendant of the Mitsawokett tribe of Delaware, dating back to the 17th century. His family had not valued that, so not mentioned it. Like many, they had concentrated on white Euro origins and traced only through male names, seriously distorting the genealogical streams of the family. Here is the record of Barrus' descent, according to Native Americans of Delaware State: Maynard Everett Barrus/Mason Eugene Barrus/ Laura Model D. Miller/Morris Miller/Enoch Miller/Sarah Consealor (descendent of Thomas Concilor or Conselor).
T. felt I invaded, manipulated, managed — which brought back all the females of his life who had tried to capture him. “You are not my mother or my therapist,” he raged. And yet in an unguarded moment he mused, “How many remarkable women have I known in my life?” There were quite a few and not just enablers — real contributors of skill and funding. He was not really a woman-hater or maybe it would be more accurate to say that woman-hating and loving can coexist like S/M and for some of the same reasons. Power. Survival.
For boys in the group who had come from broken families where they had been abused by fathers, the real villain they accused was mothers who didn’t object, didn’t protect, abandoning their children for the sake of their own safety. Much abuse came from stepfathers who brought drugs, crime, and boy rape into the house.
This is as much as I know and could write out without betraying people, but it is far from the end of the story. This diaspora of boys who become men will seed the world with ideas away from the conformity mainstream. They can protect themselves if only by becoming invisible, but they are neither innocent nor ineffective. They are — it is corny to say — one embodiment of hope.