"If I Kill Myself at This Point, I'd Be Killing the Wrong Person": A Memoir
One Man's Story of Surviving a Life in the Orphanage, in Prison, with Addiction, and with HIV/AIDS, and Emerging Stronger in the End
One cold and windy Sunday afternoon in March of 1970 as our cellblock was getting ready to go to the weekly movie, the Man came to my cell and said, "Salinas, the Deputy Warden wants to see you!" And immediately I knew that some bad news awaited me. Only two days before, a brief telegram from home informed me that my sister was seriously ill after undergoing surgery. She had been like a mother to me, and though she had eight children of her own, she continued to be my favorite sister.
The Man and I strode briskly across the barren prison yard. Neither one of us spoke, for the cold winds howled and screamed at us. My baggy wool uniform made me feel like a skid-row bum, and I wrapped my thin grey peacoat tightly around my shivering body as my thoughts raced in a thousand different directions.
"Be cool, Frank. She's alright. Nothing's gonna happen to her. Please God, make everything alright. Please God, I'll be good. Sis, I love you! Please don't die and leave me here. Please God, I'll do anything you want." My pleadings were lost in the cold March air.
The deputy warden and the Catholic chaplain were waiting . . . Instinctively, I knew . . . Sis was dead! I was never good at controlling my emotions, but now I tried like hell not to cry and break down in front of those white Gestapo motherfuckers. But before the telegram was read, the hot tears streamed down my face. I slumped into a chair and buried my face in my arms and sobbed. I held myself in my arms and rocked myself like I used to do so many times before when I was a snot-nosed kid at the orphanage. Especially at night or during a thunderstorm. Even now I get scared during severe storms.
I had always wanted the love of a mother whom I had never met, until I was 16 years old. I had never understood the love of my father, whom I had always hated and feared. When I came to know and understand my father's love was only when he died. But when my sister died, I felt that part of me had died also.
Delly tried to be a mother substitute -- a role that she had to assume as a mere skinny kid of twelve. I can remember a family photo of her with her bony arms around my younger brother and me standing in front of the old family Model-T. We looked like ragged urchins with impish grins on our faces, and her with her gangly, homely, shy, awkward self.
Death came swiftly for Delly when she was only 32. The mother of eight kids, the oldest fourteen, and the baby only six months. A few days before she underwent brain surgery she had developed a cerebral aneurysm. After a fifteen-minute conversation with my family by phone, I walked numbly out into the yard past young men playing basketball. I made my way over to one of the TV sets, which was set high upon a high ledge in a corner of the yard where a group of old men where milling around watching TV, gossiping or drinking hot coffee.
"Baby" Martinez, an acquaintance who I had known from "The Tombs" (Manhattan House of Detention) called me over to me. "Hey man, what's happening?" I blurted out to him amid a fresh stream of tears, "Baby, my sister just died. He said, "I'm sorry man, I gotta go," and then he quickly split, leaving me to my own anguish, grief, and bitter tears.
Lost Boys and Their Mothers . . .What shame a boy feels when he is abandoned by his mother! To what lengths he will go in order to defend himself against these feelings. Inside he "forgets" so that he doesn't have to feel. Outside, he punishes the world so that he feels avenged. Shame at abandonment begs overt depression which begets rage, which begets violence. That is one of the most powerful equations of life for lost boys. -- John Garberino in
I didn't meet my mother till I was 16 years old; when I walked into my sister's apartment and saw my mother for the first time, I broke down and cried like a baby. I had seen photos of her and my dad in their youth; they'd made a handsome couple. Ma was 27 years old when I was born, but when I was three, she left my father and moved to Chicago, forcing my dad to put all eight siblings in St. Joseph's Orphanage in St. Paul, Minnesota. My father always said negative things about Ma; that she was an alcoholic, and a prostitute. But like her, I became an alcoholic and prostitute also.
Ma only stayed in St. Paul for about a week, after I met her, and I was not to see her again till I was 18 years old when I went searching for her. I lived briefly with my Uncle Nick, his wife, and their eight kids in a sleazy housing project because I couldn't afford to live on my own. I hated being there because both Uncle Nick and his wife drank excessively, and I vowed to move out as soon as I could afford it.
My mother was living in the bowery of the West Side of Chicago in a sleazy room in deplorable conditions with her live-in boyfriend Henry. Uncle Nick was even ashamed to take me there but I insisted, and, boy, was I in for a rude awakening. Ma had been on a two-week drinking binge the day Uncle Nick took me to meet her; her room was a dump, and Henry was one of the ugliest men that I had ever seen. When I walked into that room and saw the mess that was my mother, I was so stunned that I could only walk away, curse God out, and ask what I did to deserve this. Even though I did visit Ma during more sober times, I was unable to bond with her, and when she died of chronic alcoholism in the mid-1970s, I didn't even bother to go to her funeral. But finally in 1989, while on a visit to Chicago, my niece took me to the cemetery where she was buried in an unmarked grave, and I managed to make peace with her.
. . . And their FathersTo anyone who knows family life in America, it should come as no surprise that fathers play a crucial role in the development of boys. Two particular patterns of father influence are the most important in understanding the development of violent boys: (1) the presence of an abusive father and (2) the absence of a caring and resourceful father. The presence of an abusive father teaches sons some very dangerous lessons about being a man, often lessons that are only unconsciously learned. -- John Garberino in
My father was forty years old when I was born; he was an illiterate Mexican migrant worker who migrated North from Texas during the 1930s, settled in St. Paul, Minnesota and found work as a factory worker. He fathered eight children and settled in a Mexican-Jewish ghetto on the lower East Side of St. Paul. Home was a dingy basement apartment, and a rundown back yard where he grew vegetables. Dad spoke with a broken accent, wore outdated clothes, smoked cigars, drank, drove an old Model-T, and wore a Fedora.
After Ma left him, when I was three, he was forced to place all eight siblings in St. Joseph's Orphanage, which was run by predominately German and Irish Catholic Benedictine nuns in a white middle class section of St. Paul. We used to come home and stay with my father on weekends and holidays and I was always so ashamed and embarrassed by dad driving up to the Orphanage to pick us up in his old Model-T, dressed the way he did in outdated clothes. We were so poor that the only heat in the apartment was an old potbellied stove, which sat in the living room and was heated by coal. We did all our shopping at the Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift shops.
My oldest sister Louise was the first sibling to leave the orphanage, and live at home so that she could be a live-in maid for my father. The girls were always treated worse than the boys; and early boyhood memories were that of dad beating my sisters Louise and Delly. Louise stood up to him, which made it worse for her, and as a result of these beatings, she had to become institutionalized at the Owatana State Hospital which was Minnesota's answer to New York's infamous Willowbrook, where she remained for many years.
I dreaded home visits; when I was a little boy my father used to delight in making me cry by biting me on the nose. It was his way of showing affection but to a five-year-old child, it was a terrifying ordeal. As early as I can remember, I knew that I was different; I didn't know how or why. I just knew that if I ever told someone how I really felt , that I too would be locked up like my sister Louise, and that the keys would be thrown away. So that at the deepest level, I shut down, never sharing with another human being how I really felt about myself. This behavior was to have serious consequences in my early twenties.
At the Orphanage
Prior to the age of five, I have no recall of childhood memories, but one of the earliest memories that I had was when I was around five years old. I was dressed up as an angel and led the First Communion class into the orphanage chapel. The nuns dressed me up in a little white outfit; with short pants, white knee high socks, white shirt, and a big ribbon-like sash draped over my shoulder and down by my waist.
St. Joseph's Orphanage in St. Paul, Minnesota was my home from the age of three till the age of 12. American Indian, Mexican, Black, and White kids; mostly from broken homes or single parent families made up the composite of the kids there, The Orphanage was located on fifty acres of land, in the middle class White section of Highland Park. About thirty nuns, mostly of German and Irish Catholic stock, staffed the orphanage which was a large red-brick structure, with smaller buildings housing the power and laundry plant, the chaplain's residence, school buildings, a garage and tool sheds. About half the land was used to grow vegetables. Mr. Kramer, his wife and two boys lived above the garage, and he did much of the maintenance and upkeep on the farm and the grounds.
We had playgrounds for the big kids and the little ones; there was even a nursery for toddlers, where there were rows of cribs, and an enclosed back porch. There were several grottos and shrines where we would gather on warm summer nights and recite the rosary. And on major holidays and holy days, we had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, where the priest would march around the orphanage grounds, where all the nuns, children and altar boys singing hymns or saying prayers.
Also on major holidays or feast days like Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, local celebrities and do-good organizations would throw parties, bring us gifts, and throw concerts for us. We were treated to major baseball games, sporting events, the St. Paul Winter carnival or the circus.
One of the earliest memories I had was that I was assigned to clean the nun's bathroom on our floor; I thought that nuns were so holy that they didn't shit. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening when I rushed in to clean the Sisters' bathroom after Sister had just taken a dump.
We had weekly movies and were treated to a steady diet of Bing Crosby and cowboy flicks: Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, and John Wayne movies being among my favorite. In a Charles Dickens movie, Great Expectations, I clearly remember a scene where a little boy my age took some mud and flung it at a woman; she caught him and rubbed his face in the muddy ground. I thought how lucky this kid was that someone was paying attention to him. I used to be terrified of thunder and lightening and hid under my blankets whenever there was one. And many a night I used to cry myself to sleep, because I was such a needy little boy. Two nuns who served as housemothers in the boys dorm couldn't extend themselves to give individual attention to the eighty boys in that dormitory.
Up to the fourth grade, I attended school at the orphanage school, and then it was decided that we would be better integrated if we were sent to the local Catholic grade school which adjoined the orphanage property. Holy Spirit Grade School catered to a mostly White, middle-income group of kids, and in the early 1950s, I grew up on a steady diet of Leave it to Beaver-type movies, with two parents, two kids, a nice home in the suburbs with a dog and a white picket fence. I never really felt like I fit in, because the nuns cut our hair, and as kids we stood out like sore thumbs, because we wore hand-me-down clothes, and while the other kids went home, we marched back to the orphanage for lunch or after school.
The First Addiction
Religion was my first major addiction. I was attracted to the karma of the nuns chanting the Divine Office in Latin, the incense, the Latin Mass, the black habit, veils and wimples that the nuns wore. In fact since nuns were my role models, in the privacy of my space, I used to dress up as a nun with my bedsheets when nobody was around. When I realized that little boys can't become nuns, I then decided to become a priest. I now realize, of course, that it was the first time that I ever wore drag!
The nuns used Gestapo-like tactics to punish us, either as a group or individually, when we were bad. The nuns could have been called Sister Ida Slappedher, or Sister Ida Slappedhim, cause they were too free in slapping kids or boxing their ears, pulling their hair or ears. We'd be made to stand in silence for hours in the boys' dormitory if a kid broke wind, and nobody would 'fess up to it, or if we were unruly or made the nuns look bad when we went to the swimming pool at Highland Park. Individually we'd be put into a dark clothes closet or made to stand behind the large kitchen stove on the main floor. Privileges would be taken away from us. We had to eat all the food on our plates and if we didn't, we'd be made to sit for hours in front of the plate of food in the main dining hall. Spinach, cottage cheese, rutabagas, turnips were foods that I detested, and it took me many years to learn to like these foods.
Daily chores were assigned to each one of us based on our ability to work, and in the summertime or at harvest we had to work in the vegetable garden, assist the nuns and girls in the laundry. We were given a weekly allowance, and you would have thought that the administrator of the orphanage was taking money out of her own pocket in the way the weekly pittance was doled out to us.
Prayers, daily Mass, and recitation of the rosary were mandatory. I loved being an altar boy but I wasn't a goody two-shoes either; God forbid that something would tickle my funny bone at Mass, like one of the kids farting in chapel. There would be hell to pay once we got back to the dorms.
Alvin Grengs was my best friend at the orphanage, and the first kid that I developed sexual desires toward; although at that age I had no knowledge of my homosexual inclinations. We used to wrestle a lot and Alvin would always wind up sitting on my face. The first time that I had an orgasm was when I was about ten or eleven; I was climbing a swing and when I got to the top of the metal pole, I found pleasure in rubbing my legs together and when I first achieved an orgasm, I thought I had peed on myself, and I ran to the boys bathroom to examine myself. I had no idea what that white sticky stuff was, but I sure climbed a lot of swings that summer.
In the seventh grade, it was decided to have a king and queen contest to see who was the most popular kids in the orphanage. Alvin, even though he was more handsome than me and more popular with the girls, was more of a cut-up than me, and to my great surprise and delight, I won. But I had to dance with the ugly duckling who won the queen contest, and I got a lot of ribbing about that.
Because the boys were getting too violent for the nuns to handle, it was decided to send the oldest boys away after seventh grade. The orphanage being the only home that I had ever known for the previous nine years, I didn't want to leave, and I cried like a baby the day that I was taken by my social worker and driven to Dallas, Minnesota to begin a new chapter of my life. My new home was to be on a eighty-acre farm with a fifty-five year old Irish Catholic widow who lived with her thirty-four year old son, Brendan.
I was enrolled at St. Anastasia's Grade School in Hutchinson, which was eight miles from where we lived, and which was also staffed by Benedictine nuns. The school was relatively new, with only four classrooms, enrolling about 120 children, grades one through eight. Since Mrs. Madden and her son Brendan, were "daily communicants" (that is, they attended Mass every day), Brendan would drive the car eight miles into town and we would say the rosary both coming and going.
Mickey Helmbrecht, who was the best looking and the most popular kid in school, lived down the road from us. Mickey reminded me of my best friend, Alvin from the orphanage. One day Mickey and I got into a wrestling match during recess and I beat him; suddenly I developed the reputation for being the toughest kid at school. Mickey and I became best friends, and my eighth grade was the best year that I can remember.
The Second Addiction
The Sacrament of Penance, or "going to confession," turned into another addiction for me at an early age. In my pursuit of wanting to become a saint, weekly confession became a must for me, and as my sexual desires towards boys grew, the need to purify myself of these thoughts became greater. Especially when I got into my early teens, my sexual urges grew but I still had no knowledge of my homosexuality. I just knew that I was attracted to Mickey but outside of school we led separate lives because I would have to go back to the farm, and Mickey was allowed to hang out with his buddies in town.
By the time I was 16 years old the inner conflict between Catholicism and homosexuality tore at me. I knew that I was gay by the time that I was 16, which was also when I met my mother for the first time and I began to doubt the existence of God. The need to confess my sins was driving me up a wall.
In my senior year of high school, I transferred to a Benedictine prep school which was located on the campus of St. John's Abbey-University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Out of a total of fifty senior boys, twelve of us were enrolled in the seminary part of the school. I struggled immensely with my homosexual desires; at morning mass I find myself staring at the bubble buts of the boys in chapel yet desperately wanting God to remove these impure thoughts from my mind.
I was grasping for straws at this point, trying to fix what was wrong with Frank, feeling ashamed and terribly alone with no one to turn to with only the solace of the confessional to rid myself of these feelings. My self-esteem was in the toilet at this point. Most of these kids came from well-to-do families. I had told only two people about my homosexuality at this point: my eighth grade teacher and my sister Delly, when I was sixteen. Despite myself, I managed to graduate from St. John's Prep School in May 1960; 30th out a class of 50 boys. I have never been back to any of my high school reunions.
Self Discovery, the Hard Way
At sixteen, while a sophomore in high school, I was living in a foster home in St. Paul, Minnesota with a deeply religious single man of 32 who shared his home with two teen-age boys from the orphanage, an elderly live-in housekeeper, and a 50 year-old man named Joe, who I discovered was a pedophile. One day when I came home from school, while I was in the kitchen making a bowl of soup, Joe came home drunk and tried to kiss me. I rebuffed him, but then he later seduced me sexually, and I felt so guilt-ridden after the encounter that I ran to the local parish rectory and told one of the priests what had occurred. He told me to tell my foster parent, and when I did, Joe was gone the next day. My conception of gay men was limited to older gay men whom I would seek out in city parks and would allow to "blow" me. I later discovered gay beaches, and at age 21 discovered my first gay bar.
When I was about 18 and working for the summer in a factory job, I had cruised one of the downtown city parks, and I got into a car with five young men, whom I merely assumed were gay also. They drove me to the outskirts of the city, and all of them got out except the biggest one, who ordered me to blow him. Needless to say, I knew that I was in deep shit so I did as I was told. The other guys got back into the car, called me names, and one of them pulled a knife on me. The driver who had initially lured me into the car was the best-looking one of the group and he told them not to harm me. They drove me back to the downtown area, and when I got out of the car, I was so scared that I ran to a local church rectory and begged a priest to let me in. But because of the late hour, he told me to go home and call the police. I stayed up half the night thinking that these guys were going to come for me. I later discovered that the guy who pulled the knife on me worked at the same plant as I did, and when I confronted him about it he said that he hadn't planned on using the knife.
Between the ages of 18 and 23, I attended the U. of Minnesota for less than a year, and while there I discovered a men's room on campus that was frequented by gay men where a lot of sexual activity went on. I worked as a janitor and an orderly at several hospitals, and even considered becoming a male nurse. I began drinking when I discovered gay bars at the age of 21 and was attracted to the bars like a fly is to shit. Because so many men were offering me money for sex, even though I was gainfully employed, I began hustling; in essence I became a male prostitute.
I was about 23 and living in Chicago when I told my younger brother Leroy that I was gay, but he already knew. I was drunk at the time and made a sexual pass at him, and he pulled a knife on me. In my shame and embarrassment, I decided to leave Chicago and head East. Because of my drinking I had already gotten arrested for DWIs, and was sentenced to serve 30 days in the St. Paul workhouse, but I fled the state. I never saw Leroy again after leaving in 1968.
Onward to New York
In September, 1967 I arrived in New York City and I thought that I was the luckiest man on the planet. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to; I didn't have to answer to anyone, and I could live my life the way I wanted to. What I didn't realize was the fact that I was living in the fast lane: my motto was, "Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse." I never expected to live to see 30. My heroes and heroines were James Dean, Janis Joplin, Sal Mineo, Elvis Presley, Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando; all the tragic heroes of the late fifties and early sixties, When I would hang out in gay bars, I would play the saddest songs on the jukebox. I drank to numb the pain of my pathetic existence. I couldn't stand to be alone, so when I wasn't at work, I would hang out in the bars and began to sleep around.
In February of 1968, at the age of 24, when most other young men begin their careers, an event occurred in my life which was to bring my world crashing down upon me. In an alcoholic blackout, I took a man's life. We had both been drinking and barhopping, and he took me back to his apartment and we had sex. I was so drunk that I fell asleep; he woke me up, asked me to leave and we began to argue. He punched me in my nose, breaking it as I was to discover the next day, when I went to St. Vincent's Emergency room to be treated. I had a knife on me, took it out only to scare him, but he called my bluff and we got into a fight.
I thought that I had stabbed him about four times in an attempt to get out of that apartment, but three months later I found out that I had stabbed him 27 times. I was arrested a couple of days later for Murder 1, and I subsequently pleaded guilty to Manslaughter 1. I was sentenced to serve 0-7 years in prison; I served four-and-a-half years and was released from prison in June, 1972.
Life in The TombsI suspect that all the crimes committed by all jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them. Cage a man and he will turn into an animal, deny him women, and he will turn to his own sex, oppress him and he will become oppressive. Hate begets hate, evil begets evil. -- Tom Wicker in
A Time to Die
Although I didn't realize it at the time, prison actually saved my life; the way I was living I wouldn't have lasted much longer in the streets. The Tombs, as the Manhattan House of Detention was called, was my first exposure to the raw and brutal realities of jail life. I survived seven months of sheer hell there, but this nightmarish part of my incarceration was to end in early September of 1968 when I was allowed to plead guilty to Manslaughter 1, and was sent upstate to begin my prison term.
The prison psychiatrist at the Tombs told me that the fact that I was unemployed when I first came to New York, that I was hustling, drinking heavily, and going nowhere fast with my life, created ripe conditions for the tragic event to occur. Finally on the night of February 17th, 1968, in a drunken outburst of anger, frustration, rage, self-hatred, and negative emotions, I let out all the poison of my life, and of my miserable existence.
I contend now, as I did then, that at the time of the crime, I was insane, but to try to prove my insanity in a court of law is another matter. While I desperately wanted to know the truth of the violent events of that night, the mind has a merciful way of blocking out much of what transpired that fateful night. It seemed incomprehensible that I was capable of committing such a horrific crime.
The man I killed was about 30 years old, and he was someone I had met in a gay bar only a few days prior to the event. My brother Joe represented this man. I spent a lot of time blaming my brother Joe for what happened to me. Like a sore festering I was consumed in my hatred for Joe, blaming him and others for what was terribly wrong with me. Not once did I blame myself for getting myself in the predicament that I was in. Not once did I blame my alcoholism, or even acknowledge that I had a drinking problem. In fact, the day that I was released from prison, I went right back to the same bars and got drunk, after spending four-and-half years in prison.
Back on the Outside
When I was first released from prison on a rainy day in June 1972, the first thing I did was to kneel down and kiss the ground. I was so grateful to be released from that cauldron of hell. I could write a book about what I had experienced behind those prison walls, but time does not permit me to do so here. Suffice it to say that the one person who was there for me during the years of my imprisonment was an Australian Catholic priest named Father Lyle Young, who was a little imp of a man, but who stood six-feet tall in my book.
I had written to a foster parent about my plight shortly after I got arrested, and Lyle showed up one day, and he has been a lifelong friend all these years. Lyle opened up a halfway house for ex-cons called East Harlem House, and I became the first resident of his house. I later joined the board of directors of the halfway house and remained so until the place closed in the early '80s. Lyle then went on to become a full-time prison chaplain until his retirement a couple of years ago. Now 75 and living in retirement in Australia, Lyle continues to be a father figure to me.
In 1978, my drinking had escalated to the point that I realized that if I didn't do something about my problem, that I would wind up either killing or being killed, or winding up back in prison. So at the age of thirty-seven, I came into AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), where it took me seven years to make ninety days clean.
My favorite motto in recovery is, "Take my advice, because I'm not using it." I had no problem giving other advice on how to work their program of recovery. Unfortunately I couldn't stay clean in AA and it took my having to spend two years freebasing, and doing crack before I came into NA (Narcotics Anonymous) in 1985.
The year 1985 was also the year that the bar the Mineshaft closed; it was the most notorious leather, sleaze bar located in the meat-packing district of West 14th street. It was open on weekends, 24 hours a day. A person could go there Friday night, and come out on Monday morning. I don't think that I would have stayed clean if that place had remained open because it was my favorite hangout, as it was for many other leathermen and guys who were into kinky sex.
My first NA meeting was at St. Mark's Place, a former disco turned recovery place; housing AA and NA meetings around the clock, and also housing addicts going into detox and rehab programs. The 9:30 am wake-up meeting was the group that I first joined and from day one I fell in love with the place, because it was such a shit-hole. It reminded me very much of the Mineshaft. A lot of homeless people slept in the back of the large hall and there were constant fights. People who were still using drugs and alcohol would hang out and be disruptive.
In 1985, NA was relatively young in New York. Addicts didn't have lot of clean time, and some addicts who were on methadone or heroin would be nodding out. The room was dimly lit and smelled foul and the cops were constantly called to break up fights or take disruptive addicts out of the meeting.
Because I considered myself a professional failure, I didn't think that I could stay clean for more than thirty days. After all, I was in pretty bad shape when I came into the fellowship. My weight had dropped to 128 pounds, and I looked like "death warmed over." I could barely walk and I don't think that I would have lived much longer had I continued smoking crack. But despite myself, the miracle of recovery began to work for me. I made the morning meeting my homegroup; that is, I attended the morning meeting there five days a week and got involved in service, and I attended three or four meetings per day for the first ninety days. At six months, I began chairing meetings, I became a trusted servant and when I celebrated my 90th day I had already gone to about 350 meetings.
When I celebrated my first year in NA, about one hundred addicts were at my anniversary, and I cried like a baby . . . for I had truly found my niche. People who had gone through what I had experienced, and who felt the way I did. AIDS had hit New York in 1985, but it didn't get personal until one of my best friends Tony Smarelli got AIDS and died in 1986. At first AIDS was considered a white, gay, men's disease, but then addicts and alcoholics began dropping like flies, as did a lot of my friends and acquaintances in and out of recovery. In the ten years that I stayed clean in NA from 1985 to 1995, I attended so many funerals and memorial services that I just stopped going to them, because it was taking its toll on me.
Around my eighth year of recovery, I began to get really depressed and had to seek outside professional help in the form of therapy and getting on anti-depressants. But I kept going back to the bars, having unsafe sex, and two weeks after my 10th anniversary of being clean, I met someone in a leather bar, who had the right amount of coke, who rocked my world sexually, and I relapsed. When I woke up the next day and realized what I had done, I was really blown away and determined not to let anyone know that I had relapsed. I continued going down to St. Mark's card room where I would play cards or chess, but I told only one or two friends about my relapse.
In August 1995, I came down with bronchial pneumonia. I got deathly sick and stayed in bed for a week until I finally managed to drag my ass to the Roosevelt Hospital emergency room, and was immediately put on antibiotics. When I got sick, I thought that I had AIDS but it wasn't until September, 1996 when I came down with a case of shingles, that I knew that I was positive with HIV. I was fifty-three years old, and since I was back on crack and alcohol, I figured that I'd be dead by the year 2000.
The day I found out that I was positive, I went to the Waverly Welfare Center on W. 14th Street, a real shit-hole of a city-run facility that even the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta wouldn't have set foot into. I also reached out to the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) on W. 20th Street and I also began going to the VA Medical Center's HIV clinic. I was briefly put on AZT and a couple of other drugs but the side effects were so toxic that I took myself off the medication, and then got rid of the Russian woman doctor who had been assigned to my case.
I was accepted as a client at GMHC in early March 1997, and from the first day I began to rock and roll with the best and the worst of humanity. After all, these clients were the same sleazebags that I had hung out with in gay bars; I had slept with many of them, and competed for the same tricks or men. In short, I was really a mess when I was accepted as a client because like many of my peers, I was still active on crack and alcohol.
GMHC has a substance abuse program called "Recovery without Judgment," in which a client would get assigned to a substance abuse counselor on a one to one, and talk about whatever was going on in his or her life, and generally the counselor would just listen and occasionally ask questions, but didn't try to steer the person into a 12-step program. After all, I didn't plan on going back into recovery because I considered myself such a loser, hated the talk about a Higher Power, hated the "step Nazis" and the advice givers. But the one thing that I couldn't deny was my own ten years of clean time, and I knew that 12-step programs worked. In my observation of other clients, both at the VA Hospital and at GMHC, I noticed that many clients like myself were active drug and alcohol users, and that many clients abused the privilege of being on the HIV medications (cocktails), and I didn't want to be one of these people. I also knew that if I was ever to get healthy, that I would have to go back into a 12-step program and make recovery my number one priority.
Back to AA
And so on the weekend of February 15th, 1999, I came into AA and began counting days all over again. In my first year, I ranted and raved like a maniac; I hated the God crap, I hated myself, and when you relapse, recovery becomes more difficult to attain. I was not a happy camper, but I began going to meetings on a regular basis, and once again the miracle of recovery began to work in my life.
The 4th of July weekend, 2000, I attended my first AA international convention being held in Mineapolis, Minnesota; I had never been to an AA convention of this magnitude. There were 75,000 men and women from 160 countries attending this convention; Mineapolis had never had a larger convention. We were all there for one common goal: to help each other stay away from that first drink, one day at a time. I also got to visit St. Paul's Monastery in Maplewood, Minnesota where I got to spend a couple hours visiting four elderly nuns who had raised me as a kid at St. Joseph's Orphanage in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had hoped to reconcile with family members some of whom I hadn't seen in thirty or forty years; and to visit my father and sister's graves. But that was not to be. Thank God, I didn't set myself up for being rejected by my family because I would have really felt bad.
The four nuns welcomed me with open arms, and we laughed and cried together in going down memory lane of my years spent in their care at the now defunct St. Joseph's Orphanage.
Sister Agnetta Legatt, who is in her 60th year of religious life, was my housemother in the boy's dormitory; she had washed my clothes, darned my socks, punished me when I was bad, and loved me when I was good; and she held my hand when I had to leave the orphanage at the age of twelve.
Sister Benita Gerold, who'll be celebrating her golden jubilee in religious life, on June 10, 2001, was also my housemother and one of the prettiest nuns that I had known as a kid. Now in her 70s, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, she drove me around St. Paul, down Summit Ave. where the nuns' former motherhouse used to be, and down that street which was known as Vatican Ave. because there were so many churches, Catholic schools and convents located there. To Randolph Ave. where the former Orphanage used to be, and where an apartment complex now stands; past Holy Spirit Church and School and Cretin High School which I attended in my junior year of high school and which was run by the Christian Brothers Order. I also saw Sister Loam Brey and her blood sister, Sr. Victoria Brey who were cooks and domestic workers at the orphanage; who fed me and countless other children from broken homes and who only wanted for us to succeed in life. They are both bent over with age and live in retirement in the monastery infirmary, but they still have a twinkle in their eyes.
Since last March, in my second year of recovery, I began taking the cocktails, which have given me a new lease on life. I began going back to the gym this past fall, and the age of 58, I began taking basic computer training to bring me into the 21st century. I live on the Upper West Side in a one bedroom, garden apartment where I have lived continuously since 1981, with my two dogs, two cats, four cockatiels, and my black-headed Caique, Iggy.
In closing, the words "many are called, few are chosen" come into my mind. Recovery for me is one day at a time basis; sometimes moment to moment. My second favorite slogan in recovery is: "Wear recovery like a loose garment!" How the hell does someone like me who has so much anger, resentment and rage do this? I have so much to be grateful for as I enter the 21st century; instead of the cup being half empty, the cup is now half full. The divine sparks of life in the moment of my life unfolding are like precious stars in the firmament; harnessing the divine energy of life with my often frail human nature. Surely someone or something is looking out for me. If I kill myself at this point, I'd be killing the wrong person.
A note from author Frank Salinas: When I recently took a course on "Men and Violence," I knew that I would get in touch with some very painful experiences of my past, but I knew that I had to come to terms with the past in order to get on with my life. I am not unique; other men and boys have suffered more tragic lives than me. But there has never been another individual on the planet, or in the course of history, that has experienced exactly what I have; and so if one person other than myself is able to benefit from what I am writing about, then this effort is not in vain.
Back to the June 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.