I met Tony Palmisano and his girlfriend Tina Campos in December of '99 at the uptown site of the Community Outreach Intervention Project (COIP) in Chicago, an organization that works primarily with intravenous drug users, often considered the unreachable. COIP educates them about their addictions, HIV, hepatitis and other diseases, and helps them access services, get clean, and get a handle on their lives. Tony is 45, Tina, 34, and both are HIV+ recovering drug addicts who have worked in the sex industry for many years. Tina also has cerebral palsy. They've been sober for the last 5-6 months, spurred on by an ultimatum from Tina who finally decided she was "through with all this, done" -- meaning blowing all their money on drugs, meaning the "dope fiend ways" of lies, guilt, anger, and violence. Not to mention that for the previous 16 months Tony had her "jumping in and out of cars," pimping her to support their habits, and that had become intolerable as well. Tony soon changed. They are now back together and working on staying clean and healthy, day by day. The couple proudly showed me their rings and matching tattoos, signifying their commitment to one another, and openly shared their stories with me. Tony was especially eloquent and insightful on the nature of his addictions, HIV, and the price the sex industry exacts from its workers.
Tony -- When I was 12 years-old I ran away from an abusive home and dysfunctional family, a physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abusive stepmother. It was 1966, the hippie revolution was on, and when I ran away from home, I went basically from the frying pan to the fire; I hit the streets of Chicago's Old Town/Rush Street area. I wasn't out of the house more than ten days and I got involved in IV drug abuse and the sex industry. I hustled on a daily basis from the time I was 12 to the time I was 17, when I got married to my first wife. I was a baby and I made a baby. That lasted all of a year and a half. By the time I was 19, I was hustling again. I hit the streets and started shooting stimulants. It was a means to an end actually, ya know. When you did stimulants you didn't have to spend as much money on food. You're not hungry, and you didn't have to worry about where to sleep because you were going to be awake for days. It was like a double-edged sword. And also, if you're involved in the sex industry and you're wired, I mean, it will enhance your performance a bit, cuz you can get it up, but you ain't getting off, which helps, and you can do more tricks in less time because you can knock 'em out quicker cuz you're accelerated, stimulated.
Jim -- What's it like being so young in that industry?
Tony -- It had its good points believe it or not, because as I said, I'd gone through this abusive family situation when I was a kid, and to have anybody tell me that lie, 'I love you,' ya know, to hold me, even though it was a trick and it was just for the moment, I felt like somebody. I mean it was a self-esteem factor that I wasn't getting at home. They told me the lies that I wanted to hear, the stuff I never heard at home, and I was a star for a minute.
Jim -- It was comforting.
Tony -- Yeah, exactly. Ya know, and there's the fact that I was bisexual in nature 'til I was 30 years-old. When my father died and I was 30, that was my first exposure to quote unquote treatment. After being in jail 8 1/2 months, I went to a rehab program another nine months. It was the first time I actually had come down since I was 12, and I realized I had an emotional, psychological dependency on females. So I was basically hetero, but I had this bisexual bit my whole life, ya know, it was like, well hey, if it felt good... there was no real preference.
Jim -- Women were more the emotional side and with men it was more the sex.
Tony -- Sex, lust, camaraderie, brotherhood, fatherhood, ya know, the whole macho bonding process. So the party stopped briefly when I was 30. I was released from rehab and promptly relapsed four months after being released. Got back into IV abuse, started dealing, stealing, all around hustling. Um, ya know the song by Guns 'n Roses "Welcome to the Jungle?" Ya know that part that says "We are the ones who can provide whatever you may need, if you got the money honey, we got your disease?" That was me. This was my jungle.
Jim -- When did HIV enter the picture?
Tony -- Oh, I've been positive, it'll be seven years this coming June. When I got out of rehab, I got into a relationship with a girl who was working for a professional escort service. And, ya know, there wasn't really a lot known about AIDS at that point. She tested positive when the only known medication was AZT. I didn't change my sexual habits. We shared needles. Originally, when I came out of Gateway and relapsed, me and this girl, Judy -- God rest her -- and four other couples, we shared a studio apartment on Wilson [Avenue]. We had a jar that sat on top of the refrigerator with 10, 12 outfits [syringes] soaking in water, ya know. We were constantly in and out of the house -- do another hit, go out and catch a couple more tricks, go out and steal, deal a little, come back do a hit. Nobody knew whose outfit was what. We all figured well, fuck it, we're all gonna die anyway. They got this thing called AIDS, we figured it was produced by the government and they were trying to kill us all. And ya know, being as strung out as we were and involved in the outlaw economics, we figured, like if you're in the sex industry and not using condoms, gonorrhea is an occupational hazard, so this was just another occupational hazard. And Judy, my ex-old lady who passed away, was the first one of the bunch who tested up positive. Within a year, four more of us tested up positive.
Jim -- So AIDS was just one of many things that could get you.
Tony -- That's it, that's it, ya know if you didn't get Dahmerized, and you didn't get the clap, and you didn't go crazy from untreated syphilis, ya know, if ya didn't get arrested, there are so many ways to go out. When you're living that street life, I mean the easiest thing to lose out there is your life. Second easiest thing to lose is your money. Third easiest thing to lose is your heart, soul, mind, and your dreams, cuz it all goes, everything. Your value system, everything. You pawn your dreams and there are people out there that'll feed on 'em.
Jim -- When you sell it, you lose it.
Tony -- Yeah, exactly. Hell, my first suicide attempt was 14 years-old. I'd been hustling full time in the streets for 2 years and I had gotten to the point where I had played so many fantasy roles to so many different people, on the straight and gay side of the fence, that I didn't know who the fuck I was anymore. I had a hundred people that all would swear they loved me; they all knew how to tell that lie, and they all wanted to fuck me or suck me or have me fuck or suck them, but none of 'em really knew me, ya know. It's like, when you're involved in that industry, you retreat to this little corner in your head where no matter what happens they don't really touch you. It's a lonely, dark little corner, but that's where you exist from. That's the only place you have left to live because you've sold or pawned or given away everything else. You lose your identity in the process. It wasn't until I got sober at the age of 30 that I really started to realize who the hell I was, and then it was more a process of realizing who I wasn't, and guessing at who I was. Ya know, like ya talk about adult children of alcoholics and people from dysfunctional families, we guess at what normal is, we have no fucking idea. I remember when I was in treatment, I was telling about living in New Town [a community area] and having a queen for a lover and being out there hustling. This suburban kid with a lightweight drug problem compared to mine was talking about how he would go down there on the weekends. It was like, 'I'd take a walk on the wild side,' ya know, but then he said, 'I'd go home Sunday.' It was like, fuck, he had a life. He said to me, 'You poor son of a bitch, you lived in that twilight zone?' I said yeah man, that was my life. But it was the first time I ever looked at it from that perspective, and I thought, fuck.
Jim -- You never got to go 'home.' Never got to feel warm, safe . . .
Tony -- Home was that little corner in my head that I could retreat into, that was the only home I knew. And it was very sterile. I mean there were no feelings, there were no negative thoughts. There was nothing.
Jim -- Is that what the heroin did?
Tony -- Most definitely, heroin, alcohol, cocaine, even marijuana. You've heard the term 'spaced out?' It's space, the space in between your thoughts. You simply aren't thinking about anything. You're not thinking about anything, you're not feeling anything, there's just space. And in that space is where I called home. That's where I could rest, nobody could touch me, nothing could get me, no intrusive thoughts, no negative feelings. And from that viewpoint, the threat of dying from AIDS, well fuck, I'm dying anyway! I've been dying my whole life! What happens when I die? I go back to that sweet oblivion, I go back to being what I was before I was born, hell, that was attractive.
Jim -- You're released from it all.
Tony -- Like I said, when I was 14, my first suicide attempt, man, ya know, even if it was just a piece of the grave, it would all stop, it would all just go away.
Jim -- No more chasing, no more running.
Tony -- The race was over. The allure, the attraction is there. And I think any real addict, or chronic alcoholic, anybody that's chronic, even if it's sexual addiction, ya know, the thing is that you're purchasing death on the installment plan. Anybody that will stick a needle in their arm with an unknown powder, no guarantee on dosage or purity, you don't know what the hell you've got, but you're gonna jack that stuff into your vein? I mean c'mon, that's a death wish. It's not apparent to a lot of people, I mean ya know, killing ourselves to live. There were idiots like me that would throw just a little bit more in that spoon, every time thinking is this the one that's gonna put me over? Maybe . . . nah, I know I'm not going to be that lucky, my father told me only the good die young, I'm gonna live to be old. When I tested positive I remember a worker here, when I came out of the office, he said, 'Well kid?' And I looked at him and said I finally got what the fuck I wanted, man. I'm part of the club now. Everybody else that I knew and loved was either dead or dying, ya know. If it wasn't from AIDS, they were all at the end stages of their addiction. People's livers were going out, people were going crazy, people were getting blown up in dirty deals.
Jim -- So how do you approach being sober now, how do you do that day to day?
Tony -- It's really not that difficult. It's just like I guess when I was a baby and I was learning how to walk, those first steps are faltering. When I was in the program I had this real, thorough knowledge of the psychodynamics involved. Ya know the 12 steps, the whole psychology of addiction. I mean I had the therapeutics upside down inside out. But spiritually, I was still dead. In the program they talk about making a decision to turn your life over to a power greater than yourself. They had a helluva time proving to me that there was a concept like God, and then once they could prove to me, okay, God exists, then this all couldn't of happened. I remember my counselor said, 'Well, you're 30, you've had seven suicide attempts, right? You really wanted to die or were you just attention getting?' I said no man, that first time when I was 14, there was nobody home. I had a shit load of barbiturates, drank a fifth of tequila, turned on the gas, blew out the pilot lights and slashed my wrists. He said 'And?' I said I passed out and the next thing I know I'm listening to bam bam at the door. I thought it was my heartbeat in my ears -- here it's the fire department kicking in the door cuz the landlord smelled the gas, right? He said, 'So despite your own best efforts at self-destruction, you're still here.' I said yeah. He said, 'There's a power greater than you, now shut the fuck up and get back in the kitchen.' I said yeah, but now ya gotta convince me that He or She, whatever, this God, ya gotta convince me that He gives a shit what goes on down here on Earth. I felt like Elie Wiesel, man, where is God now? If there was a God, how could this stuff happen? In my mind that made no sense at all.
Jim -- How do you make sense of it?
Tony -- What I learned to do was humble myself to a spiritual -- not a religious, but spiritual -- component in my life. There was that little corner in the back of my head, somebody made that for me. I didn't know it was there until I crawled into it one day, but somebody put it there, some power. When I wake up now the first thing that I do is thank God that I woke up. When I was a dope fiend it was like, 'Argh, good God, morning!' Chasing, chasing something that's already got you by the throat. I used to tell people I don't have an addiction problem, my only problem is mo' and they'd say, 'Mo'?' And I'd say once I get a little, I need mo'!
Jim -- What changed?
Tony -- Because something inside me surrendered. I'm positive and my T-cells dropped below 200 again. This is the third time over the years, and I probably have a limited amount of time. I wanted to be somebody just one more time. I don't think I've ever been as fully human, as fully alive, as fully feeling, as fully caring as I'm ever gonna be; I don't think I reached that yet, ya know. But it's like, what a tragedy it would have been. What was that about 'better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all?' What a tragedy that would be to have lived but never really lived, just merely existed. When I meet my maker, what's gonna be my excuse? What did I do with my blessings? Oh hell, you love me? Good, get out there and sell pussy. Oh, you love me? Good, give me your money. Oh, you love me? Good, give me your drugs. Drug addicts and alcoholics are addictive people. We don't have relationships, we take hostages, and then we ransom them or sell them, because that is what we have done to ourselves. We held ourselves hostage to our addiction. You don't know how to do anything else.
The preceding was excerpted from a larger collection of stories profiling Chicagoland people living with HIV, entitled The Faces of AIDS, being published by the Chicago Department of Public Health. The anticipated release date is the summer of 2000.