In more than a month's time at the AIDS Hotel, in listening to people who often had to be coaxed across the barricades of their own psychological denial, one conversation seemed to best reveal the wounded hearts and inner chaos of the residents.
The exchange took place on the front sidewalk as several people looked on. Anna Wooden, a mother with AIDS, was arguing with her former boyfriend Elliot Williams, the father of two of her four children. He liked to come by from time to time, urging her to look in on her kids.
For four years, they had lived together and used drugs together. When they broke up last July, Anna moved in with her grandmother and stayed drug free. But in October, Elliot talked her into getting high with him. This was a misstep that would put Anna back on the slide.
By then, pneumonia had become telltale of a failing immune system. She was able to get a room at the AIDS Hotel, a move that soon turned into a sort of self-exile. She had found herself a preoccupation, to inhale through a crack pipe all that was left of her life.
Elliot: You keeping your (doctor's) appointments?
Elliot: Why not?
Anna: I don't want to.
Elliot: You taking your medication?
Elliot: What is somewhat?
Anna: Not much. I don't care. What I got to live for? I do what I want.
Elliot: You could be living for your kids, that's what. When's the last time you saw them? What are they, just some trash to throw out of your life like the other ----?
Anna: I know I should be wanting to live with them, but they got their own lives. I had a life. At least they still got lives.
Elliot: How did you feel when your mother died?
Anna: Bad. But I could get hit by a car tomorrow. I'm going to die some way or the other. They're gonna have to live with it.
Elliot: Do you know what you're doing to yourself?
Anna: I know what I'm doing. I ain't stupid. If I was going to the doctor, taking my medications, seeing my children, would that be the right thing?
Elliot: Yeah, that'd be right. You got kids to care about. Those kids care about you, AIDS or no AIDS.
Anna: I know they care.
Elliot: What are you doing about it? These other people got no place to go, so they be here. You got a place to go. You don't have to be here.
Anna: Elliot, please, let's not argue and go through all that. Why do you talk down to me as a person? Because I have an illness? ---- the illness. I'm me, not the illness.
Elliot: Why shouldn't I talk about it? You told me you're doing this because you're dying.
Anna: I'm doing it because I like it. And I'm going to continue it until I choose to stop. I choose to put that stem in my mouth and light it up. It's me.
Elliot: You're a dummy!
Anna: I'm a dummy? I'm no dummy, Elliot. I know what I'm doing. I can think.
Elliot: You think about yourself, is what. You don't think about what you're doing to me and your kids and your family.
Anna: Well, I'm the one who has to walk around in this body.
Elliot: Listen, I care about you. I love you.
Anna: You're hitting on your own guilt. ---- you, Elliot.
Elliot: I wouldn't have come over here if I didn't care.
Anna: You come over here for your own reasons. You were probably in the neighborhood. This is bull you feeding me. You came over because I'm your babies' mother, is that it?
Elliot: I come over because I love you.
Anna: Love, you don't know what that word means.
Elliot: I know what it means.
Elliot: I could show you. I do have physical needs. I'm a nice-looking guy.
Anna: (She frowned at him.)
Elliot: You don't care about me?
Anna: No, I don't.
Elliot: Say that again.
Anna: Elliot, you think I don't know that you're getting (sex)? We ain't been together for 2-3 months. So if you ain't gettin' it, you're stupid.
Elliot: You getting it?
Anna: All I'm getting is a lot of looking.
Elliot: Listen to you, feeling sorry for yourself. I ain't saying you ain't had a bad deal, but people are OK with it. Anybody act different around you?
Anna: You said you told your mother and she acted different.
Elliot: My mother's an idiot. (He paused.) At least she's been in the medical profession (a nurse). She's got 23 grandchildren living nearby. She's the one who says you need to take your medication. She's just looking out for your welfare.
Anna: Hah! Your mother?
Elliot: People who care about you aren't treating you any different. And if they do treat you different, ---- 'em. They didn't care about you anyway.
Anna: (She frowned again.)
Elliot: I do love you. I do care about you. And it's going to hurt me when you pass away. You think everybody treats you different?
Anna: No, I don't think everybody treats me different.
Elliot: Do I?
Anna: I don't think you treat me different.
Elliot: Let me kiss you. (He puckered his lips and leaned toward her.)
Anna: I don't want you to kiss me. I wouldn't want you to kiss me even if I didn't have the disease.
Elliot: Aw, c'mon.
Anna: I don't need a kiss. I need sex. (As she said that, Elliot caught sight of a passing woman who was dressed in tight black pants. His eyes looked her up and down. Then he called out.)
Elliot: Hey, mama! Ooh, those legs go all the way to the top.
Anna: (She became very angry.) Don't ever do that when I'm standing there! I'm your babies' mother. (For a minute or so, they lost contact with each other. She sat on the sidewalk. He paced near the curb before returning to her.)
Elliot: I was with you even though you was positive (for the AIDS virus) and I was not. I went with you to support groups. I was there beside you. The people at Harlem Hospital praised me for that, said I was unusual.
Anna: So what you want, a medal? You're just souping me up, Elliot. You want me going upstairs (all turned on). But if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't even be here (in the hotel).
Elliot: When I told you to stop (using crack), you didn't care. I may have smoked that (stuff), but I wasn't no crazy mother'. You showed up at my door in a blizzard with no place to go. I gave you $10 for a taxi, and instead you smoked it up and slept in the train station.
Anna: That was one time. How many times you ditch me? Who left me standing in the street? Who never bothered to tell me you was going off and leaving me?
Elliot: I'm a grown man. I do what I want to do.
Anna: I'm grown too.
Elliot: The only thing I've ever asked of you is to keep a good contact with your children.
Anna: All you've ever given me is a hard way to go, Elliot. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be in the situation I'm in now.
Elliot: What situation?
Anna: If I hadn't left my grandmother's house, I'd still be trying not to get high. I can't go back to that woman now.
Elliot: You don't think she'd take you back?
Anna: Ahh! (She threw up her hands.) You know why I say you're no good for me? Because you manipulate me. If you had left me alone, I'd still be at my grandmother's. But you didn't care what happened to me. (They again split apart for a moment.)
Elliot: You just got a check ($316 in Supplemental Security Income). How much money you got now?
Anna: Nothing. I got $60 at my grandmother's, and a girl in here owes me $10.
Elliot: So you got nothing. If you had something, you'd be around the corner buying a $3 bottle (of crack).
Anna: I don't buy $3 bottles. I buy $5 bottles.
Elliot: I seen you buy $3 bottles. I used to get high with you. You're afraid to hear the truth. You're afraid of the truth, Anna.
Anna: What I'm doing is the truth. (She paused.) Every time you come, you upset me. You never say, let's go get a soda, let's go for a walk. It's always Anna and her illness.
Elliot: I don't have the money for a soda. And if I came here with money, you'd want to get high. If I came here with $50, you'd want $100. You'd be saying, what am I going to do with just $50?
Anna: Oh, please.
Elliot: (Their voices grew increasingly louder as they tried to shout each other down.) Anna, you are killing yourself in this place. Wake up and smell the coffee.
Anna: I woke up. I smelled the coffee. And I know just what I'm doing.
Elliot: Dying high, is that the thing to do?
Anna: Why the hell not?
Elliot: Because you got a life!
Anna: Had, Elliot, had a life! I ------ it up. I got AIDS, Elliot. That's what I did with my life.