I was diagnosed with AIDS on February 23, 2012. I left the hospital a week later, having been prescribed a course of HIV therapy. I could not walk because I could not stand. My mind was a mess; my doctors described me as vague and disoriented. I know these things only from a review of the record and later conversations with family and friends who visited me. I have no memory at all.
In time I improved. I could walk, at first assisted and then haltingly alone. I no longer fell on my ass. My strength returned slowly. I began to feel like a man again. My meds, taken religiously to schedule, were plainly working. And, I realized to my surprise, I was grateful to be alive. I thought this must be a miracle.
I felt the need to explore things I had never considered. I felt the stirrings of faith, or at least curiosity, probably rooted in my surprise to be alive. God was the only source of miracles I could imagine. But I had no experience with these feelings, no basis to judge their worth. That was to change as I left town for an adventure.
At the end of the year I felt I needed to get away, by myself, to relax and to reflect on what had happened and where I was in life then. I traveled to Key West, long my icon of earthly perfection. I was excited for the chance to go.
On my first night there I drove to Duval Street (left), the center of gay life on the island. I loved the street crowded with partiers. I loved the raucous vendors calling for sales. I loved the dark, warm night with a gentle breeze from the sea.
At my side I noticed a young man. I introduced myself, hoping to get his picture. His name was Will and he was an interesting looking young man. I got my shot and we began to talk. We made our way to a bar where we ordered drinks. And the night drew on.
Unasked, Will began to tell me the story of his life. Driven from his home at 14, he immediately entered on a homeless life. He told of his challenges: cash, food, shelter, companionship and most important safety. He told of run-ins with the police who suspect each homeless person for his status alone. He spoke of long nights where he lay alone and afraid. He spoke of nothing shared with a “normal” young man.
He spoke eloquently, with perfect grammar and a fine choice of words. How, I wondered, could a person so deprived and threatened as Will be so mature and talented? I didn’t realize then that his adversity had taught him strength.
Will told me of the hundreds of other young people with whom he shared the streets. He told of the fights, the sexual assaults, and sometimes murder. He told of the hopelessness he felt and he shared with his friends. He told how he despaired of a happy future, or of any future at all.
As we were about to part for the night - me to my comfortable resort room, and Will to a dark corner of the street in a protected place, I wondered how I could learn more about these homeless youths and their lives. Then Will spoke. He offered to collect some friends that I could join the next night, to meet them and know them. I accepted the offer gratefully.
That night I could not sleep; memories of Will and the heart-wrenching story he told crowded my mind. How, I wondered, in the most prosperous nation on earth, could young men be discarded by their fellows like so much garbage? How could “normal” people ignore this tragic epidemic of homelessness in their midst?
Late the next morning I went back to Duval. It was my vacation and I found a comfortable stool and ordered a beer. I was soon joined by a young man who took the next stool. We began to speak, and I ordered him a beer. So began my charity that later filled me with joy.
Cody was 26, and he told me of his life and of his journey. Like Will, he was uncommonly open, at least it seemed so to me, used as I was to the hesitancy and subterfuge of my world.
Cody became homeless at a young age, cast aside by his alcoholic, drug-addicted parents. He began to travel through innovative means - bus, rail, air and even freight trains, like the Depression’s Okies. He settled for a time in many cities, surviving and even thriving on his wits and determination. But he never had a home.
He came to Key West for a change from the cold North and because of the stories he’d heard across the nation of its suitability as a “home." When he arrived he immediately began to collect friends. Soon, because of his age and charisma, he began to be seen as a leader. Cody is a philanthropist. He eagerly helps younger and weaker homeless youth, offering them an education on the street. Knowledge is critical; its lack can prove deadly. Cody provides that knowledge and security.
That day we walked all over Key West, talking all the way, me offering encouraging words and Cody completing stories of a life I never imagined.
Cody told the story of a vibrant, fragile society that operated in the world‘s shadows. He spoke of threats, of challenges and of achievements. But most, he spoke of the despair he felt, and his friends felt, because they could not share the world that was always just beyond their reach.
That night I was excited to meet Will and his friends. Earlier Cody had said he knew Will (I later learned that was common. In Key West’s homeless world everyone knows everyone else. There are few secrets). Cody and I walked down Duval to find Will and his friends. Outside a raucous bar blaring honkey-tonk tunes I met them. With Will were three young men. I met Moses, a twitchy, fiery African-American man of 21. Zack was a rail thin 19 year old with a cautious smile. Evan’s companion was his beagle mix Sprout who, like Evan, was discriminated against by being barred from businesses in a town where chickens roam the streets.
As I came to know them and to share in their lives and difficult, terrible histories, the urge to help them became overpowering. And so I did help. I brought them into my space at my wonderful men’s resort. I fed them and gave them some cash to fill their empty pockets. And most importantly I gave them an impression of a caring adult who would help them succeed. This was something new- something they wholly lacked.
By the end of my time there they were happy for perhaps the first time in years. Two had been on the streets since they were fourteen years old. I brightened their lives for a time. This story is about these five young men because these are the young men I met and grew to know. They shared their lives with me and became my friends. I have a connection with these young men that blends concern, compassion, respect and love. They are my young men and I am their friend.
I’ve thought of them often since and meant to return to see if I could locate them. Cody gave me a Facebook address, but notes are not returned. I worry about them - has their luck run out? There’s no telling since there’s no safety.
Like all young people, they want simple things. Each has dignity. Each wants respect. Each wants honor. Each wants to be left alone. Each wants happiness. Each wants to make his own life. Each wants safety. Each wants love. But they cannot have these things. Our society has discarded them. It has forgotten them. It cannot be bothered with them despite all the pious protestations of equality, compassion and fairness.
This is America’s shame.
My adventure and my friends' continued past that night. The atmosphere changed and trouble occurred. In the end we parted but I was accompanied on my return by one. This situation did not end well and I will write about it in time.
What did I gain from this amazing experience in paradise? I gained empathy for a class of my fellow humans who are saddled with a life of inhumanity. I developed contempt for a society that cannot see their pain, cannot feel their longing. Most important for me I found Jesus Christ where before I spoke only to God. For I knew Christ led me to Key West and put these five young men in my path. He did this not for some grand design; I am powerless myself to right these wrongs. He did it to show me, in my self-centered self pity, that life is more than me. As bad as I believe my life to be others struggle more. Others have greater pain. Others die too soon as I may die too soon but younger and innocent, unlike me.
These things I remember and these things have guided my recovery and growth in the two years since my journey began. I will remember always.