As is their custom, the lost souls of the "AIDS Hotel" were up early for Check Day. It was a time of great renewal. The crack-heads would soon score plenty of get-high. The hungry could restock their shelves with beans and rice. The dead-broke could finally settle up with the loan sharks.
They all tarried near the front entrance, a circling mass of sickly bodies. Sometimes, their impatience took on a pitiful, moaning sound, like the prayers of mourners. Where is that damn mailman? What time is it, anyway?
The Concourse Residential Hotel in the Bronx is a skein of contradictions: a sanctuary for 107 homeless people with AIDS and an anchorage for their abuse of drugs, a gesture of social compassion and a grim, tense place to die.
There is a rhythm to it that obeys the calendar. The city pays the rent, but for cash most residents depend on federal and state disability benefits, which arrive on the first of each month in a single check, usually for $520.
Delivery is dependable. Still, until the mail comes, anxiety wafts through the air like ashes. Occasionally, there are glitches. Checks go astray. The bureaucracy cannot keep up with all the changing names and addresses.
This money is unimaginably precious. It buys not only a madcap drug binge but a ration of human dignity. Begging and hustling will stop for a few days. Cigarette butts can go unretrieved from the ground. Where is that mailman?
People were now making familiar Check Day resolutions. James Stevenson was going to treat himself to a haircut and a woman, in that order. Orlando Colon vowed this time to buy some food before all the money vanished into his arm.
C'mon, where the hell is that mailman? Drug-addict eyes--eyes leaking need and excuses--were scouring the street, past the bodegas and pizza joint, past the Chinese takeout, past the drug spots on 183rd at the Grand Concourse.
Finally, those eyes caught a glimpse of their deliverer. He was coming their way in his pale blue uniform and moving pretty good too.
That mailman well understood what he held in his sack. His stride was unusually purposeful, like a rescue worker carrying food to a famine.
Grade A Money
Checks, of course, require a changeover to cash, but that was not a worry, not with these checks. "This is prime, Grade A money, backed by the Treasury of the United States," said a celebrating heroin addict, Nancy Hernandez.
Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is meant for the disabled, including 39,000 recipients with AIDS. In that way, it is all at once a well-intentioned comfort to the infirm, and an unintended boost to the drug trade.
All common paydays, actually, are big days for drug dealers, whether the checks are for welfare or a disability or a salaried job. Dealers, just like other workers, thank God it's Friday. They lay in some extra stock.
Not much is known about what share of government benefits gets exchanged for drugs. The conversion is an unsung sort of alchemy. Scholars and bureaucrats discuss it all the time, but there is a scarceness of research.
Drug addiction and alcoholism can be qualifying disabilities for SSI. In those cases, the government prudently demands that recipients enter treatment, though, by most accounts, this is a requirement that is poorly monitored.
Most people with AIDS are not substance abusers, though intravenous drug use is a large and growing source of new cases. At the Concourse, residents get SSI because of the disease, not their addiction. No strings are attached.
This makes for a zany twist. The U.S. government, historically stingy with drug treatment, is giving drug users with a terminal illness a wad of cash. Their addiction enjoys the stalwart companionship of a regular check.
What the hell? many addicts say. So much of the future is gone, anyway. After a diagnosis of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, most people now live 1 1/2 to two years, depending on medical care. Why change now? For what? For who?
"To tell the truth," said Cheryl Jones, who smokes crack on top of her methadone, "it's easier to give up on life and just stay with the drugs."
The Stress Monsters
The new check money had most everyone at the hotel humming the same tune: higher and higher. "It's a real mood-changer," said Anna Wooden, 33.
Anna was in a rush to get to her grandmother's, wisely deciding to leave a chunk of cash with someone trustworthy before she and her pipe went into seclusion. Otherwise, the money got smoked up too fast, often in a few days.
Anna had other concerns too. People would be badgering her, she guessed. The hotel is full of "stress monsters," those pestering addicts always in your face, at the door, conning, posturing, trying to get something free.
A few days before, she and her big mouth had told the crafty hooker Cheryl Jones that "I'll be looking out for you on Check Day." And that Cheryl, she could really stress. It took a stress monster to know one, and Anna knew.
She and Cheryl had spent a night with some screwball trick who kept smoking till his eyeballs floated around like balloons. Then he mistakenly bit into the glass crack pipe and began spitting out blood.
When the guy rushed out, Anna was the first to snatch his leftover smoke-up. Cheryl protested, but Anna pacified her with promises. And now, with Check Day here, Cheryl was banging at Anna's door. "Give me a hit!" she yelled.
"I don't have it." Anna shouted back.
"Then give me $2."
"What do you mean, later?"
"Later! Can't you wait? I'm sick."
Cheryl, sly though she usually is, exhausted herself pounding on the door, fruitlessly huffing, "Give me a hit! Give me a hit!"
Wisdom Too Late
Some crack-heads get very stupid with their pockets full, but Jonathan Antley was not going to let that happen to him. His hair is gray, his skin well-creased. He walks with a limp from an old gunshot wound. At age 46, he expects people to listen to his wisdom. He has wasted nearly an entire lifetime, and some of these others won't live to waste half that much.
With his check cashed, he paid $200 to the loan sharks and then with iron will went to buy some necessities of hygiene before turning to his drugs and rented sex. He carried the commendable purchases in a paper bag: soap, shampoo, Brillo pads, kitchen cleanser, a $20 bottle of Gucci cologne.
Antley has a conservative's attitude about social programs for the poor. "The greatest enemy America has is welfare," said the Check Day philosopher. "Turn that word around and what is it: farewell. Don't you think I'd have second thoughts about how I spend my money if I had to work for it?
"Why do they pay your rent and give you food stamps? What's a drug addict going to do with that money? I think they want you to smoke that crack until you get weight-loss syndrome and they can cremate your ass after you die.
"AIDS is teaching us a lesson. We have to heal the immune system of the community. We have to teach young people the work ethic and family values."
Containers shifted in his shopping bag as he talked. He said he intended to soon move out of the AIDS Hotel. Otherwise, he had no chance to get off drugs. "If you keep going to a barber shop, pretty soon you'll get a haircut."
His head bobbed and his lips pursed. He was finally understanding human nature. Now, he said, near the end of his life, his eyes had begun to open.
Come the Voices
There were those who dreaded Check Day. Jim Harrington, 45, had not smoked crack in a few months, and the temptation was unwelcome. For him, going back on the pipe seemed to naturally follow the swearing off of it, like some immutable law. Relapsing was a specialty of Jim's.
He had other problems as well. The air around him sometimes filled with voices. The devil spoke out from the darkness. Jim's wife, dead seven years from AIDS, whispered things that kept spooling through his head. "It's time to die," she repeated as her shape wandered in the shadows of his room.
Check Days were too raucous for Jim. The crack-heads were always stomping around on the floor above. They could peek at his bed through tiny holes in the ceiling, he said. To fight back, he shouted threats up at the plaster.
"Ain't nothing but swamp rats here," he said. "To be their friend, you got to give 'em and give 'em. They come to me and say, 'Jimmy, you got some food for me?' And I tell them, 'You go ask that crack man you gave your money to. This ain't Burger King; you ain't gonna have it your way.' "
The roots of the Georgia countryside are still in his colorful speech. A decade ago, he followed his wife to New York. He worked for seven years as a security guard on the Hoboken ferry before smoking himself into homelessness.
After that, he usually slept on a plastic chair in a hospital emergency room, his neck stretching low so his chin could lie on his chest. The nurses thought him warmhearted and let him stay around. Even then, sleeping while sitting up was distressful. His body rested, but his mind went on churning.
The AIDS Hotel, then, was a relief for Jim. His room may have been small and cheerless, but it did have a large bed. There was a toilet down the hall.
So let those others go wild on Check Day, he thought. While they holed up with their $3 and $5 crack vials, he would take his comfort from a bottle of pills, prescription drugs meant to hush the voices and wipe away the shadows.
There is a telltale chatter among a group smoking crack. People are always asking about a pipe or a pipe cleaner or the vial they just put down. Those who listen door-to-door can find the party. The knocking is constant.
Jose Loubriel hates this. "Nobody's knocking on your door if you're broke, but when the check comes, boom, every phony is there," he said, mocking their whining pleas. " 'Jose, got any food? Got a hit? Jose, throw me a dollar.' "
In its actual fullness, Check Day lasts more than 24 hours. It goes on until the drugs run out, and there is another predictable boost to the hotel's economy on the third of each month. A few residents have paid enough into the Social Security trust to collect its version of disability income, SSDI.
Because of a long work history, Jose, 37, gets an ample check. His pleasure is to stay in his room unbothered and devour drugs nonstop. He is a good man to befriend. When he needs to buy more, he prefers to have someone else make the run and tips them nicely for their trouble.
Drug spots are convenient to the hotel, which is on the Grand Concourse, just above 183rd Street. A heroin purchase usually requires a walk as far as 182nd, but crack is sold in apartment buildings all along 183rd and 184th.
These errands can lead to enormous disputes. Deliverymen cannot resist their deliveries. The resulting grievances preoccupy people. Who owes what to whom? How is the debt to be settled? When is non-payment justified?
Jose's aide on Check Day was a heroin addict nicknamed Panama, who can be odd company. Looped with crack, he tends to get paranoid and retreats to a closet floor to swathe himself in the pitch-dark.
"Man, what the hell are you doing?" Jose shouted at him. "I don't need no crazy person bugging out on me when I'm getting high!"
And so Panama apologized, promising to do better.
No Trust, No Love
Panama had bad stress-monster problems. The loan shark Darrel Carr, a big man with shot nerves, was after him. Panama had to pay off $45 on a $5 loan.
Check Day was a busy time for the stress monsters. Darrel was all souped up to do his parasitic business, but he did take time to reflect on how life had changed since the days when he worked as a union elevator repairman:
"It's like one of those movies where there was a nuclear explosion and the radiated people have to live in isolation in the desert. Only here, the desert is a (hotel), and we've replaced a normal society with our abnormal one."
Tony Largea, 25, the youngest and gabbiest of the stress monsters, explained his own priorities in this peculiar society: "I don't have friends because I don't know how to be a friend. I don't trust nobody. Not my mother, nobody. The word trust does not exist for me. The same thing goes for love.
"I have given up on life completely. All I care about is getting over on people. All I want to do is get high."
Damn the Hotel
Jose Loubriel once owned his own carpet-cleaning business, so he knew all about lousy help. But he tried not to be too angry with Panama. After all, he needed him. AIDS had shrunk Jose until he seemed a wizened caricature of himself. He had cancer. In the mornings, he ran his fingers across his swollen lymph glands. The lumps pushed at his skin like candy stuffed in a Christmas stocking.
He gave Panama another chance, sending him out with $25 to buy four "nickels," which are $5 vials of crack. Panama could keep the change. Jose also gave him a little extra to bring back a couple of sodas.
Much later, Panama returned. "What the hell is this?" Jose said, looking at his meager change. There were no crack vials or even a can of soda.
"It was hot out there," Panama answered, meaning that cops were around.
"You were gone an hour!"
"I was dope sick. I bought myself a bag."
The ailing, undersized Jose suddenly pepped up, cursing and threatening. Damn you, Panama! And damn all the damn so-and-sos in this damned hotel!
"What are you stressing for over a few bucks?" Panama said, retreating.
His words were slurred and tranquil, lolling in the heroin's afterglow.
Undone by the Devil
Jim Harrington, having given up crack, had rediscovered religion. He went to church regularly and listened to hymns and sermons on the radio. Still, the AIDS Hotel had a way of eroding a sinner's revived faith. Check Day unnerved Jim, all that running to the corner, all those men with obtainable women.
Whether he smoked crack or not, he was closer to Judgment Day than he wanted. He had seen others go under to AIDS, dissolving like a bar of soap in a tub of hot water. Wasn't there some prayer to save him? If God was going to forgive him in the next life, why was he punishing him so much in this one?
A powerful anxiety began to overtake Jim. And he figured he may as well get some crack. "Ain't nobody made me do it, and God knows I've had my times around the mulberry bush, but the temptation just ate through me," he said.
He regretted it immediately. "That crack paranoided me. It burns your membranes out, you know. It got me so I couldn't sleep."
As he lay in bed, the devil tapped him on the shoulder, he said. Long hair covered Satan's cruel face, but Jim knew who it was. When the mask of hair was shaken back, his red eyes shone and his nose looked like the snout of a pig.
"He told me he was that crack inside me and he could go where he pleased, and he was going to put me through whatever changes he wanted," Jim said.
Those words left him feeling utterly lost. Later, it occurred to him that his life has been like a puzzle, fit together whole at the start, but with pieces removed one by one ever since. Now, he was all but undone.
Takers and the Taken
Those useful items still in a shopping bag, Jonathan Antley turned his attention to overdue pleasures. He bought $100 of crack and, as Check Day luck would have it, spotted a woman named Tina right outside the drug spot. Her services would cost him only a share of the smoke-up. He felt deeply joyful.
"This woman, about 22, is built like Sophia Loren," Jonathan said with enthusiasm. "If you took her to the beauty parlor and fed her for two, three weeks, there'd be no one calling her a skeezer, I'll tell you that."
In yet another splurge, he rented one of the $24 first-floor rooms at the hotel, the ones with color TVs for "short stay" guests. The value of this was open to question. After all, crack--especially in an older man--inhibits the operation of the sexual apparatus. But Jonathan was nonetheless eager.
"Just the sight of a woman, having her there, the control of her at that particular moment, that's what I like," he explained. "It's a psychological high. It was there for you, and you could have had it."
Tina turned out to be not only sexy but also engaging. She seemed to fall madly in love with Jonathan amid the enduring smoke and cool sheets of the small room. She was living with her mother, but, if Jonathan really was going to get himself an apartment, it would be her dream to move in with him.
"She moaned about how there was too little for her kids and how she had always been (screwed) over by men, one after the other," he said. "My deal with her was only for the crack, but I gave her some money ($40). She told me she had been looking for a man like me. And I was thinking it might work."
He got up to go to the bathroom, and when he got back, Tina was gone. He looked for her, but it was no use. He had been gulled by her endearing come-on, he began to realize. This figured. It is easy to fall for the Tinas.
By late afternoon, Jonathan Antley was a statue of gloom, standing before the AIDS Hotel. He had $1.55 left in his pocket, not even enough for one vial of crack--and, oh how he needed to feel some of that sweet heat in his lungs.
"So that's the deal, that's the pain and suffering," he said, rocking on his heels and looking pathetic. "The rest of the month will be soup kitchens, begging for a bottle of wine, going through the garbage."
But then he suddenly remembered. That shopping bag hung at his side like an extension of his arm. Those things inside--certainly the Gucci cologne--could be returned to the store for a refund. He was not so broke after all.
And Check Day, wonderful Check Day, might still be able to transport him away.