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To Be Young, Black, and a One-Man AIDS Epidemic

January 1998

Ricky is the lookout for a South Bronx crackhouse. He looks up and down the street, past decaying buildings. Ricky's 25 and looks 35; he's an HIV-positive crack addict. A black woman in a dirty coat, about 35, approaches. "They open?" she mutters. "Yeah! They slammin', too!" The skinny black woman hurries into the building. "Bitch got some good head!" Ricky says. "I hit that last week!" A car pulls over to the corner and a white man in a blue suit, about 38, motions to Ricky. Ricky walks to the car and leans in. "Can you get me ten?" he asks, flashing a stack of bills. "No problem, G," Ricky says. He grabs the money and jets into the building.

Around 139th Street, all the crackheads know 'Pretty Ricky.' But they don't know he has AIDS. The young black man has been working as a lookout for the last six months. Ricky works the block of 139th between Willis and 3rd, steering customers to the crackhouse every night from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am. It's 3 am now, the 'thirsty hour.' If Ricky tells people about his AIDS, he'll lose his job and his "hos," in his words. "It's the lifestyle I'm addicted to," he says, "The excitement of crack, women, and danger!" He says each week five women sleep with him on a regular basis. I ask him if he uses condoms. "Are you crazy?" he asks. "A bitch stressing for a hit don't give a fuck about no raincoat, and I ain't about to blow some sex on a tech!"

If there was any doubt that crack cocaine use is up in poor black and Latino neighborhoods, it would have been quickly dispelled by Ricky. In recent years, police brutality, a sorry education system, welfare reform, and double-digit unemployment rates among people of color have created a booming market for crack among hopeless inner-city women and men. And though accurate statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests crack is back, and AIDS has made it more deadly. Nevertheless, everyone from teenagers to grandmothers is getting high.

In about five minutes, Ricky comes out of the building to the waiting car and hands the man eight vials of crack, keeping two for himself. Ricky walks away from the car towards a dark stoop, and the red flash of a lighter darkens into the red glow of burning crack in the tip of a glass pipe. Ricky used to be a dealer and a player, but now he's a crackhead, smoking off and on, he says, since he discovered his HIV status three years ago. "It blew me away," he says, rapping at crack-driven speed. "I never thought it could happen to me!"

Crack customers continue to stop in front of Ricky more than one at a time and, after hearing 'it's on,' hurry into the building. First come two pretty Latino women who say they are lovers. Ricky says they'll sex any man for a hit of crack. Then a skinny, middle-aged man in a torn tee-shirt is pulled along by a 15-year-old black teenager. "Nigga' got AIDS," says Ricky, "but he hits more skins than Nushawn Williams." Williams is the young man accused last month of being a one-man AIDS epidemic who knowingly infected dozens of young women in an upstate neighborhood and left several women in the Bronx scared to death. New York City newspapers called him a murderer, psycho, and serial killer. Williams may be all those things. The unspoken and far more disturbing issue is whether or not Williams represents many more young black and Latino heterosexual men. Are some minority men knowingly spreading HIV to unsuspecting women in minority neighborhoods? Instead of heroin users sharing HIV-contaminated needles, is unprotected sex, promiscuity, and drug use among heterosexuals fueling the speeding AIDS epidemic in poor neighborhoods? Is alcohol and/or drugs the lethal combination that pushes bored black and Latino teenagers into the open arms of HIV-positive older black and Latino men?

Ricky says black and Latino men don't use rubbers, and recent statistics support it. The HIV infection rate is rising among women of color, and transmission through sex with infected men has outpaced infection through intravenous drug use, says Dr. Pascale Wartley, an epidemiologist and chief researcher at the Centers for Disease Control. Women are 2 1/2 times more likely to be infected through heterosexual contact than by injection drugs. Indeed, AIDS cases diagnosed in 1996 rose 19% among heterosexual black men and 12% among heterosexual black women. Roughly twice the number of African American males die from AIDS as die from homicide. And the reported number of African American women with AIDS is more than 47,000, enough to populate the town of Selma, Alabama . . . twice!

A young black hooker with thick make-up asks Ricky if he wants to party. "Let's get it on," Ricky says. "Ya know that, baby!" she answers. "Meet ya at 5:00." "Most people who do drugs will sex anyone," Ricky says, slam-dunking a bottle and beaming up. "Their guard goes down." Ricky goes home with a woman almost every night. "Nobody talks about the monster AIDS," he says. Ricky swears that sex and drugs go together like hands and gloves, and the fear of getting AIDS does not stop it. "Nobody got a raincoat, or time and money to get one!" he says.

A black Lexus parks halfway down the block. "There's Rico," Ricky says. The driver door opens and a young Latino man in full hip hop gear gets out. Ricky says Rico's the man. Street legend says he stopped using crack and heroin after watching the movie New Jack City. He's in recovery now and, at 31, goes to nightly N.A. meetings. Rico doesn't know Ricky is HIV-positive and never has taken an HIV test. Rico has at least three girlfriends.

"What's up, baby?"


Ricky introduces Rico to me. We talk for a minute. I ask him if he ever took an HIV test. "Fuck no," he screams. "Who the fuck wants to know they got AIDS?"

I tell Rico about the new medicines that can prolong your life, and point out the fact that everyone in recovery has engaged in risky behavior. Based on that fact alone, they should take the HIV test, I say. "Listen, my man," Rico lectures, "AIDS was invented by the C.I.A. as a biological weapon. They be testing it on black people and faggots, but now straight white people been getting it too. So, they made a cure. I heard it will be on the market in 2001." "That's crap," I say. "Yo, when my time has come, so be it," he answers. "Until then, I'm partying. Anyway, I don't know if I got AIDS. So, you can't say I'm knowingly passing it to women."

Rico goes on to tell me about his 'peeps' in the N.A. rooms. Some of them are HIV-positive, but they don't want anyone to know because it might affect their ability to pull women. "They don't use condoms either!" says Rico. Enough said.

Despite all the optimism about the downfall of AIDS, the white gay community was still decimated. From a scientific standpoint, multiple partners and increased amounts of anal intercourse are the factors that helped spread HIV in the gay community. The gay community responded with a massive safe sex campaign and free condoms. It worked. The rate of transmission of the HIV in the white gay male community has leveled off.

In the '90s, the second decade of AIDS, the sharing of contaminated syringes, unsafe sex, drugs, and alcohol are spreading HIV/AIDS among black and Latino heterosexuals. The safe sex message and free condom distribution has not worked nearly as effectively as it did in the white gay male community. Moreover, the unwillingness of many black and Latino people to take an HIV test makes for a host of potential one-man AIDS epidemics. Nobody has a solution. But a partnership of the entire community must be mobilized.

Pretty Ricky and Rico walk to the Lexus, get in, and drive off into the early morning light.

Back to the January 98 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
See Also's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More Personal Accounts on African Americans and HIV