Watching The Wheels

Friday, January 30, 2015

Being There

 I love and treasure individuals as I meet them; I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to. — George Carlin

 What got me thinking about this piece started about two weeks ago with a local pastor who had taken to what is euphemistically called social media,  posting a bizarre collection of veiled references and subtle endorsements of censorship of speech and free ideas, culminating with actually judging a person’s faith based on the level of their political correctness. This took me back to about 5 years ago when I was present at a Unitarian/Universalist Church service where the pastor – a gay man who never stopped reminding you of that – said, “You do not belong in this church unless you believe in the liberal ideas of social justice!” Coupled with the more recent atrocity, I suspected that I had stumbled yet again into another faithless cul de sac of politics and Newspeak. In a less destructive manner, though, it did get me reflecting on myself and my career.
Speaking for myself, I have been homeless for prolonged periods of time. I have been an addict of the worst kind. I have lived in places that frighten me in retrospect. And I have been in jail. I was on Welfare for 10 years and I have lived for months at a time with murderers, rapists and criminals of every stripe. I have seen nearly every kind of inhumanity another human being can visit upon another. I have also seen acts of uncommon generosity and kindness flowing from the very people and situations mentioned above. I have met the best people in my life in some of the worst circumstances. These are the people I trust. And I arrived at that thinking through some very powerful lessons.

After college, I cut my professional teeth in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention starting in 1988 by creating the first upstate New York outreach effort to young teen boys living on the street, selling themselves for shelter or drugs. They were a hard bunch to get to know, but get to know them I did, learning in the process how to play pool…badly, and experiencing firsthand how true exploitation works, as well as the vermin who perpetrate it. This was in Albany, New York which was a wretched place then and is to this day. A certain amount of decadence goes a long way, I suppose. But the point is I hung around the people. I talked their language. I was only 25 and therefore not a threat and I did not attempt to manipulate them in to a crusade. It was kind of comical watching them get all befuddled by someone who just wanted to help them out and who expected nothing in return. After all, nearly all of these boys were used to being subjected to exploitation of the worst kind, including periodic drunken, drug-laden parties thrown by a man from then Governor Mario Cuomo’s staff. I just wanted them to stay alive. They were the lost boys of the AIDS politics which was thrust upon the country by the gay “community”, forever making it impossible to deal with HIV/AIDS as the public health issue it really was. Because AIDS was shoehorned into a  political issue thousands of men died who wouldn’t have, victims of the “sex as a civil right “movement.  The people were lost. These boys were lost.

So, lately I’ve been thinking about the actual people used to populate the causes people take on. Often I get thinking about this when I run into someone or experience something directly related, and in this case it was a “chance” meeting with my friend Donnie. Donnie is a young man living on the street in probably the most dangerous neighborhood in Rochester, New York: Lyell Avenue. This street is a veritable hub for prostitution, drugs and extreme violence.  I lived on this street for quite some time and, to give you an idea of the atmosphere, one day I witnessed a group of kids- relatively well-dressed in their afterschool clothes – chase down an old man and beat him with a 2x4 to get his book bag. Such was the neighborhood then, and it still is.

It was in this environment I met Donnie and I would give him food, money sometimes and clothes when he needed them. I still do. He is a very smart guy and can hold a conversation on par with the best. I nicknamed him Donatello, after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, because it made him laugh. I have since found out that, for some reason, the people in a group of houses on the street call him that and he doesn’t know why. Funny stuff.
Anyway, my reason for bringing him up is that he is the person behind ominous “Homeless” label. He also reminds me of all those boys in Albany 25 years ago. Donatello doesn’t give a rat’s backside about the “movement” or the politics. And though he doesn’t ever say it, he thinks my problems are tiny compared to just staying warm and getting something to eat. I mean, he listens to me with patience. He smiles and makes no comment whatsoever most of the time.  Anyone who knows me knows I am extremely fond of Donatello mostly because he’s my friend but also because he reminds me that too often the individuals are lost by the “concerned others” wielding the battle mace of “social justice”, preferring to intellectualize and abstract the problem, rather than experience the people behind it.

Experience makes “concerned others” nervous.
Experience frightens the Ivy League.

Pick your issue. It will all come down to a case of “Just don’t bring one of them home!”

As an outreach worker in the 1990’s, in Rochester, it was often a painful experience wandering into crack houses and “shooting galleries” to teach people to use bleach and water in cleaning their syringes. The work myself and countless others did would lead to AIDS Rochester’s (now Trillium Health) Needle Exchange Program, as well as their Men’s Outreach Department,  which would finally gain funding by 1995. Imagine standing in public parks discreetly handing out condoms to men “cruising” each other, or sitting at the top of the stairs at a gay bathhouse at three in the morning, doing the same. But I did it. Because no one else would. It was on this level that I connected with the people behind the issue: embarrassed businessmen, young college students, people who could be working across from any counter in any store. These weren’t spokespeople. These weren’t poster boys. These weren’t puppets for lobbying in the state capitol. These were people who went home to their cats, their wives, their lovers, their families…each born into a different life, working their way toward its conclusion, hopefully in joy.

In the early 90’s these men and boys would be put on the back burner of prevention due to the lie of the “changing face of AIDS”. AIDS organizations were made to swallow the politically correct falsehood that “AIDS was not a gay disease”, when the sorry fact was that IT WAS and always had been so in the United States. But because of the vast dollars available to fledgling community-based organizations for HIV/AIDS prevention, attention was shifted to the black and Latino communities where the sheer numbers of cases paled in comparison to gay men. Even the rates of infection weren’t even close. To those of us working on the front lines it would have been different if we were told to give equal attention to gay men and ethnic minority groups, but we weren’t. It was clear that we were to give primary focus to people based on their color, not their potential risk of infection. As it would turn out, the impending pandemic in those communities did not materialize. And once again politics and political correctness had murdered people.
By the time 1999 rolled around, I was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, working as a case manager for people with HIV/AIDS. I carried a caseload of 75 people, including one who claimed to be the love child of Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy. He had an enormous file of correspondence with the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis to show for it and, frankly, he looked the part. Anyway, the political pressure was off, for the most part. Way out on the end of Cape Cod, men had moved there ostensibly to die, only to discover that they were not dying. In fact, they were thriving. Later, when I would move into Boston to become the director of a 30 unit apartment program for homeless people with HIV/AIDS, it became clear that, finally, the people behind the issue were living lives and, in some cases, fighting back against the politicization of their station. I had clients who railed against being “infantilized” by the HIV/AIDS Industry (which is what it was). They despised being poster children, one to the point of exclaiming to me, “I wish I had died before I became a cute photo op for guilt-ridden suburbanites!” They longed to live out their lives as people with AIDS, not PWA’s, and certainly not “ AIDS, oh, and here’s a couple of the presentable looking ones who represent these poor people.”

Somewhat ironically, this was when I was introduced to the hardcore believers in Newspeak. At a conference on prevention in downtown Boston on a hazy summer afternoon, the head of a major AIDS organization uttered something that would be forever scalded into my memory. He said, “Words are violence.” This just plain pissed me off, so I replied through clenched teeth, “No, words are protected. Violence is violence.” It was lost on him. I mean, this organization was the one that actually hired gay men to go into gay bathhouses to have sex…but safely. They called this “cutting edge outreach.” And anyone who would take issue with anything they did would be branded a homophobe or a charlatan. I called it taxpayer funded prostitution.  My hope is that they eventually grew up.
I actually should have known better from the beginning. After all, I was working for an organization called The Justice Resource Institute. Any time you see the word justice outside the court system you can rest assured that some group of people is about to be steamrolled by the political ambitions of “concerned others.”

This does not, however, include those who genuinely want to help. There are those, such as church groups without a political agenda, youth groups and even developmentally disabled people.   My issue is with those who exploit others for political gain. These are the “community organizers”, or the self-appointed community “stakeholders” and “gatekeepers”, or whatever the hell else comes out of a Sociology 101 text book. These consist of  undereducated or even overeducated men and women so far divorced from the people behind their subject headings and so deep in their ideologies they can't see one pair of eyes staring at them.
Today I work as a counselor in what is best described as a shelter and housing program for people who are homeless. I meet with people one-on-one, ask them about their needs and do what I can to alleviate suffering. Being homeless is traumatic, and after living for a long period of time in survival mode, in a perpetual state of vigilance, it takes its toll on the mind and the subconscious. I empathize, I relate, I act.

Politics and political correctness are meaningless, especially at the expense of people. When you try to be all things to all people, you are nobody to anybody. If you love everybody, you love nobody. If everyone is the same to you, no one is special. Try as you might; only God can do these things. And the intellectualization of God and Christ as tools for a political agenda is just offensive.

This brings me back to the beginning of this blog, this journey. To those who consider themselves Christians why not take 15 seconds and think before advocating for censorship. Take 15 seconds and think before judging someone's faith based on the level of their political correctness. Take 15 seconds and take time to ask someone who was ill how they are feeling. Take 15 seconds to see the individual souls in your dwindling congregations. Take 15 seconds to get off your iPhones and iPads and meet with people.

And take 15 seconds to consider doing the work of Christ and not Hillary or anyone else.

Copyright 2015 by Andrew T. Durham





Saturday, November 22, 2014

The 80's Were Forever: Holiday Memories

The decade of the 1980's was a time of surreal magic for me and I've found myself experiencing strong, pleasant longings for that time of my life lately. It was not only a "coming of age" time for me, but a highly formative living reverie of feelings, sights and a profound sense of being unstoppable. Mixed with the coming winter and the still child-like anticipation of Christmas, the season awakened in me something that has lived in me every single day since. These sensations haunt me as I sit here. They comfort and call to me and leave me on the edge of tears at times.

Cold nights driving from my hometown to the city, eager to meet new friends, new loves and new experiences. Gone were my childhood friends, though I tried to keep them. My mind would dance with desire for new acquaintances, those with experiences they could share with me and make me a part.  Always I would stop by at a mall on my way, happening in only to feel the time of the season as it approached: the smell of new clothes, the echoing hiss of winter pants legs as people walk by, the provocative smells passing by a cologne counter. I would see young men working behind counters and I would wonder if I would see them out in the city that night, amongst the lights and aromas of the nightlife and dance clubs, wondering what their lives were like and who they lived with...what their parents were like in their homes. Always in my car would  be the presence of the radio, flowing with music that I would swear I would always remember as eternal sounds of that time, ushering me into my life but never to adulthood. As I write this my heart claws at my memory, reaching back to those nights and the almost holy sense of longing that pervaded those journeys to the city.

There were times of feeling part of something bigger, feeling like I belonged for the first time in my life. I fell in love and people fell in love with me. My heart sang out in those nights, singing that there could be joy in the world, that Christmas existed in people and the ominous theme that everything is a time, not a place. I would sing in my car, pretending that I was singing for these new people in these new places, and that I was appreciated, that I was talented. For the first time in my life people found me attractive, which was something I was not used to and which became an odd, irritating feeling I would never understand. It was a growth feeling and in the snows of those days my heart broke with the weight of lust and possibility. And for the first time I let myself open to others, trying to share that which had been impossible to impart for so many teenage years. With this I experienced the pain of heartbreak and the terrible realization that I could break the heart of another person. That realization would haunt my soul for years.

In those holiday seasons there was an almost cheerful sense of brotherhood as I threaded my life into the city. There was no predatory consciousness but the slow caress of sensual fellowship that comforted in the cold and did not seek to control. There were forever memorable people to this day remembered, eternally frozen in the years to a time and place, always 21 years old and strong even after intervening years. Slow snowflakes and the smell of ice with car exhaust heralded the succession from bar to bar, always bathed in warm lights and smiles, complaining of winter but wishing Christmas would last forever in our hearts. Our young hearts.

There were sweet times when a gentle greeting kiss was actually genuine. The hugs were warm in the cold and the naked sincerity of young adulthood surrounded everyone, following us through the daytimes, biding time until the night came. It was in those nights that the vestiges of our childhood anticipation of the season would mask itself with something more mature, though we all knew that it was still the kid in us waiting for Christmas morning...that feeling of new discovery and the secure knowledge that there was no school tomorrow. That was the sensation that fueled those nights: there would never be any school tomorrow...ever again.

We drank and danced and laughed long into the nights to the soundtrack of Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, a-ha, Roxette, Depeche Mode, the fledgling Madonna and more. Much more. The music of eternity surrounded us and bound us together in a moment, forever captured in light.

 We were the We before the Me Generation.

We were young and powerful and some of us took this to the dormitories that we thought would launch our futures. We took the spirit of the time with us, trying to share it with new friends from strange places, but no one really understood where we came from and the camaraderie we had formed here in the city of our beginning.

There is no "But today..." to this. Anyone who recognizes what I have written above knows that the 80's were forever. The time when we got it right. So for the first time in years I am in the holiday spirit and all I can think about is the heartbreaking beauty of the beginning of discovery which, in my case, happened in the holiday times of the 80's. Certainly the places would change, college years loomed, but the city would always be Rochester. My snowy road to the beginning of manhood will always lead to the the cold...with the smell of new clothes and the bright lights...and smiles never forgotten.

And no one to blame.

Copyright 2014 by Andrew T. Durham

Monday, November 17, 2014


I am convinced that human beings do not understand love.

Love is the epicenter of restraint.


It is not the violent passion of our lost world.

It is to reach for, yet knowing you cannot touch,

And rejoicing in the pure pain of that withholding.

It is the very adoration of things so beautiful we

Cannot own.

Things or people so beautiful that we weep,

Simply because the Lord has seen fit

To bestow them upon us.

It is that person so beyond the glass that

We cannot touch,

Yet we thank God for their very existence.

We love,

Because God commands us so.

It is the Ultimate Commandment.





Copyright 2014 by Andrew T. Durham