In 1989, two years before receiving his own HIV-positive diagnosis, poet and writer Dennis Rhodes wrote a series of candid letters to New York psychotherapist Daniel Bloom. They remain relevant today. The letter that follows recounts an incident from Dennis's childhood, long before HIV entered his, or anyone's, life.
I want to tell you about the time I went begging with Sister James Marie. The not-so-good Sisters of Saint Joseph's Village for Underprivileged Children apparently had a pressing need for more money in their coffers. That happened a lot -- it was costly to keep 200 orphans fortified with daily oatmeal and hot cocoa.
The Mother Superior, Sister Maria DePassi (actually a nice Irish girl who had piously assumed the name of a nice Italian saint), was a shrewd fundraiser: Her trained eye pinpointed those nuns who were either excessively sweet-faced or pathetic beyond redemption. These women, obedient to a fault, were then coached and primed and crafted into a topnotch begging squad. Like sidewalk Santas who each year are stationed by the Volunteers of America on New York street corners, the Beggarnuns were dispatched to factory gates (on payday), railroad platforms (in affluent suburbs), the entrances to supermarkets, and other places where the jingle of loose change mingled with the sounds of everyday life -- traffic noise and children playing and birdsong.
This being 1963, America had not yet been pockmarked with shopping malls, with their enormous concentration of people and money. These gold-mines were still a thing of the future, which is just as well: The modest, unpretentious Beggarnuns would have been overwhelmed, perhaps cowed, by the sheer mass of moneyed humanity to be found at a suburban shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon in 1989.
This was indeed a simpler time. John F. Kennedy was in the White House and the nation enjoyed an easy, uncomplicated prosperity. In a country not yet confronted and shamed by the plight of black Americans (called, of course, Negroes), white Americans looked after white Americans. When a good denizen of Northern New Jersey saw a Beggarnun, the quarters went flying into the gaping black handbag nestled profitably on the Beggarnun's lap. The giver knew that the pieces of silver were going to feed orphaned white children who, had their particular misfortunes not befallen them, would be playing in their suburban backyards and driving in their daddies' white Impalas. Like (white) children should.
Those gaping black handbags were an essential piece of equipment for the Beggarnuns. Government issue. Carefully designed to look never-quite-full, and yet capable of holding a whole day's bounty. True Bags of Wonder.
The Chosen One
Each Beggarnun had another, more critical -- indeed indispensable -- piece of equipment: an orphan. Sister Maria DePassi, in addition to hand-picking those Beggarnuns most likely to succeed, also chose, with equal skill, orphans to serve as companion pieces in the fundraising juggernaut.
The little beggars were chosen according to one unyielding criterion -- they were adorable. It is a source of pride to me, and a tribute to my growing self-esteem, to look back and reflect that I was far and away the most adorable. My broad, innocent face, with wide and eager brown eyes, topped by tousled, baby-fine brown hair, made me an animate, compelling poster child of the underprivileged.
At some ungodly hour, while the nuns were at Chapel, Freddie was already back there in that mammoth kitchen making gallons and gallons of steaming, rich, hot cocoa. Freddie made the cocoa to his own exacting standards, with a heavy hand on the stuff that made it taste good. Since he was a favorite of the intense and repressed nun who ran the kitchen, he got away with making hot cocoa that, had they known, would have been the envy of every other orphanage in New Jersey.
And Sister James Marie (who was also overseer of the St. Joseph's Village marching band) ladled it out. On the morning in question, she smiled as she handed me my cup and said that I was chosen to help her with something very important. Since I was keenly starved for anything remotely resembling attention, not to mention affection, I was thrilled. At band practice that afternoon -- I played the snare drum and Freddie played the jumbo bass drum -- Sister James Marie told me to be up bright and early that coming Saturday. She said we were going on a Mission for the Village. It sounded exotic, and very special.
A Visit Home
So it was that I went begging with Sister James Marie.
I lived with my fellows in a subdivision of the Village called a "cottage." A cottage consisted of four cinderblock dormitories, each housing ten boys. Each boy slept in a small green metal bed; we each had three drawers for our modest possessions and a narrow closet for our clothes.
On Saturday morning, Sister James Marie pulled up outside the cottage in a black station wagon. That, of course, is what nuns drive. Freshly scrubbed and combed, I had on my finest shirt and my Sunday trousers. We sped out of the confines of the Village and headed south. Toward Hudson County. Toward my real home!
I didn't ask where we were going. In fact, I didn't say anything. Neither did Sister James Marie; I assumed she was lost in prayer. An hour later, to my astonishment, I saw a sign that said, "Welcome to West New York, New Jersey: A Good Place To Live and Work." Oh, Jesus! That was home. That was where I lived -- or once did. I don't remember if I was happy, or upset, or puzzled, or what. I think I was numb.
With a steely sense of purpose, Sister James Marie turned the station wagon in to the parking lot of what I knew to be a large costume jewelry factory. She parked, grabbed the enormous handbag, and motioned me out of the vehicle, and we strode into the factory lobby.
It was clear that she had been here before. The receptionist smiled sweetly at Sister James Marie and me, and the two of us seated ourselves on a hard wooden bench along the wall. Suddenly a bell rang, the lunch bell, strident and intimidating. Two large double doors flung open and a cavalcade of jewelry workers appeared, freshly paid and smiling. Unavoidable in the corners of their eyes were Sister James Marie and myself. The nun was affecting her most studiously downtrodden expression. She was a good foil for my most flagrantly violated innocence. All that was missing was a small wooden tripod bearing a sign: "NOW PLAYING: SISTER JAMES MARIE AND THE KID."
The factory workers knew what the Lord expected them to do. As they passed by on the way out to lunch, each man or woman would dig into pocket or purse, smile, and toss a quarter, maybe more, into the hungry, insatiable black handbag. As they vanished out the door of the dingy lobby into the sunshine, I heard their murmurings . . "What a lovely little boy" . . . "Such a shame" . . . "He looks familiar."
Familiar indeed! This was my hometown! My God, I was born here! These people were my neighbors, and here I am cruelly at their mercy, begging them for money to eat!
Only the Roman Catholic Church would put a little boy into such a nightmarish, undignified position. And even in the midst of it, I did my duty: The black handbag was so laden with silver that, had it been on a Spanish galleon, the ship would have sunk with the strain to the ocean floor.
It was the only time I ever sold my body for money. And I laugh to think that I was a street beggar years before Ronald Reagan made it fashionable.
Dennis Rhodes is a poet and writer who lives in Provincetown and who serves as Poetry Editor of Body Positive magazine.