Notes from the Dead Zone

The politics of AIDS funding in black Miami

One kid gets on a bicycle and rides slowly off; a few act as though no one is talking, but two girls in tight, faded bell bottoms and tiny T-shirts pay close attention. "You wanta be tested, sweetie?" Johnson-Hobson asks.

"Even though I use condoms I still got reason to be worried," one of the girls confesses, fingering a smooth curl of black hair at her neck. While an Empower U worker fills out a health department sheet on her, her friend watches languidly as Johnson-Hobson gets into a detailed discussion with an older man who's wandered over to the corner. In contrast to the neatly, fashionably dressed teenagers with clean, sulky faces, this man looks exhausted and wears a soiled white dress shirt and too-long khaki pants with dirt stains on the knees. "Say," he says quietly to Johnson-Hobson, after pocketing two long strips of colored condoms. "What about oral sex?"

Johnson-Hobson doesn't miss a beat. "Well, you can get infected from the saliva, but there are condoms for women. It's like a thin little sheet. You put it over the vagina. It works just fine."

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
"You ain't this big," Vanessa Mills, bottom, jokes while educating her street audience, all in a day's outreach work
Steve Satterwhite
"You ain't this big," Vanessa Mills, bottom, jokes while educating her street audience, all in a day's outreach work

The man looks down at his hands, mulling it over. "So that's what I need to do," he says.

"Now you really need to take precautions," Johnson-Hobson affirms, flashing her smile. "Weekend's coming up, you want to have a good time, but you gotta be careful."

"What if I don't have no female condom?"

"You can also use Saran Wrap, you know," Johnson-Hobson replies.

"I take it --"

"--and you put it there, over the vagina, it's very thin, still got your sensation --"

"Um hm," the man says. "Thank you. I appreciate that." And he ambles across the street, into a little market.

At the front door of the market, a jittery young man in baggy jean shorts is having a long one-sided conversation with another Empower U worker, who listens respectfully. He's already given the kid several belts of condoms. "Look here, it's a jungle out here," the youngster exclaims, nodding his head and rubbing his hands together, sweaty and shiny under the bright sun. "If you don't play fair you got bad karma."

The worker purses his lips in agreement, keeping an eye on his outreach partner talking to a woman and her daughter a few parking spaces away. It is time to move on to another street corner, but his jittery friend is still getting to the point of his discourse.

"Look here," says the man, "I need me two dollars."

At that, Johnson-Hobson appears and pauses, about to open her car door. She glances at him, sizing him up in a split-second. "I need me three dollars," she replies, and for another instant everyone stops to think that over.

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