It was a cloudy overcast morning and from my window I could see a clump of boats riding gently at their moorings. Below my window surrounded by angles of red-brick buildings and tunnels a temporary tent had been erected in the small hospital yard. A few prisoners were setting up tables under the tent. The yard was on a knoll and a small road wound down to a lower knoll and the road into other roads like arteries.
Picnics, family or cultural events, are rare enough to occasion a slight apprehensiveness, a tinge above the usual level of bored anxiety bracketed by manageable paranoia and routine fear. This was an even rarer event as it was the first picnic ever for the men in the Special Needs Unit, located on the 4th floor of the hospital. I’d been invited by some of my friends there, guys afflicted with AIDS whom I get to see at least a few’ times a week. It’s good for me whenever I see them because their spirits are better and more serious than most other people I know. But it hurts, too, sometimes, like when I see my friend Tommy under the blankets shaking and sweating with a 105 fever. Or trying to cut through the depression and helplessness that rises like a last wall when one of the people die.
My wife of one week, Anne, wanted to come to the picnic but the bureaucracy is such that that was out, and I was lucky I was able to attend as a prisoner volunteer worker. When my conscience told me I should go help set up the tables, or do some pre-picnic preparation stuff to justify my worker status, I left my cell with my I.D. card, hanky, pack of Camels and a 6-pack of Life Savers. Good timing. The dozen tables were set up when I got there. “What’s up?” I said to the handful of people sitting leisurely at a few of the tables. There was Donald, a worker from the law library, a couple of guys who worked in the hospital, a couple of guards. I helped move a couple of tables and set up the barbeque grill on a concrete apron used as a mini-one-basket basketball court, Around 9:30 Sister Antonia pulled up in a stationwagon with Sister Laura and a backseat filled with donuts, picnic goodies, potato salad and chips, soda, watermelons, and a lot of love. Hamburgers and chickendogs, ugh, were coming from the messhall. Sister Antonia had become involved in ministering to AIDS prisoners and was the main force in getting things done, including putting together the picnic. “We need more ice,” said Sister Laura, and off I went with a guard to pick some up in the messhall.
When I got back all the guys were there, except Hank who wasn’t feeling good, end another prisoner named Kenny who was in bad shape and would die the following morning. My buddy Tommy was there, another guy named Tom, Shorty, Mongo, Charlie, Lenny, Mora, Armando, arid a handful of family members and some volunteers affiliated with the Maryknollers, and a former AIDS prisoner named Michael who was paroled a year before and was doing great and came back bringing his lanky frame and a substantial hope. A young couple had brought a guitar and would occasionally do a song. Father Mike, an Irish priest was also there, and Lyn from Volunteer Services, and a couple of nurses stopped by for a few minutes. Also, a pretty young woman named Laurie moved from table to table talking and sharing.
It looked like rain but mercifully the rain held. I sat with Tommy and ate some donuts. I’ve known him many years. Tall, dark-haired handsome Irish mug with a neatly-clipped moustache; a sharp wit that neither prison nor AIDS could dull. But skinny, and a finicky liver giving him problems and trouble absorbing the AZT, the powerful antibiotic many patients are taking with varying degrees of success. But the side—effects can rock the systems, and in Tommy’s case the liver was impaired from long drug use, the slight swelling of the belly accentuating that complication. Also, some neurological problems were developing and this caused coordination difficulties. Tom figured he was in his last year of life. He’s an old dope user, but a classy one. I asked him one evening if he’d had anything to eat that day and he answered without a pause, “Yeah, the nurse, but I had my teeth out so she’ll probably live.”
The guards working the AIDS unit ‘aren’t a bad lot, most just putting in their eight hours without breaking anyone’s balls. For some reason the transport guards who shuttle prisoners between Sing Sing and St. Glare’s Hospital in New York are not very well-liked; the head doctor at Sing Sing is disliked even more, perhaps because of his tangible absence from the ward. Prisoners are taken to St. Glare’s, sometimes for routine testing, sometimes for admission when their condition takes an acute turn. The hospital opened its doors to prisoners, mostly at the behest of Sister Antonio and Mother Teresa who saw the need to augment the state’s inadequate facilities. The living conditions on the ward at Sing Sing have improved in recent years, and many people helped make the situation more tolerable: prisoners pushing for some changes, lawyers threatening lawsuits, Sister Antonio’s supplications, and a fairly receptive warden.
Tom had asked the warden for the picnic. From request to fruition many months passed but it finally came off. Only two guys had family members who were able to make it; Tom’s sister was moving that weekend and couldn’t so I was glad I was able to share the day with him. We talked about my recent marriage to Anne, and related how she was working on a bibliography of AIDS literature at the Westchester library where she was working. She had also wanted to do workshops on the ward, combining her pleasant nature with holistic health care: she’s a yoga teacher, has chiropractic training, and believes good nutrition and massage and exercise can go a long way as preventive and curative approaches to illness. Because she was on my visiting list the prison rules preclude her coming in as a volunteer. Dumb rule, among many. Michael Biggs, the ex-prisoner, came over and talked with us for a time. He mentioned how when he was first diagnosed as having AIDS it was psychologically devestating; “I cried for a week, I couldn’t believe it, all I could think was that I was going to die in prison.” And he related how he met someone who practiced Christian Science and how practicing its basic principles he overcame his disease, if not physically, at least mentally and emotionally. “Death is fear,” he said. “Fear causes disease. Psychological healing and health is as substantial as this table,” he added, tapping his thin black knuckles on the wooden table. Early on he rejected the despair and resignation that is often an earmark of terminal illness. “Death has no place in my vocabulary; life does. And whatever time is allotted to me I’ll use to live constructively and not bound by other people’s mind-sets and judgments of who I am and what my life is about.” Michael was inspiring, and he works now with 1edical Alert Services in New York City and is finishing college. His eyes are clear and his sincerity and good-will are so evident. e advantage he had in getting the upper hand on his debilitation was that he had been released on parole and was able to avail himself of outside support services. The unwritten policy in New York is to parole AIDS prisoners when they have served their minimum sentences; someone with a 5 to 10 year sentence say, must do the 5 years before becoming eligible for release. While that is some help in some cases it is hardly adequate for someone who has several years to go before seeing the parole board, and in those instances someone with AIDS is actually serving a death sentence. As far as I know the governor hasn’t granted any clemency to people in this situation. My friend Tom has a year to go to see the parole board, having done 4 of a 5 year sentence for burglary. Another man, Mongo, has 9 years in on a 12 year most sentence. Both men, like most others I’ve met here, are reasonable and warm men, and the isolation in their lives, the bureaucratic walls and the public apathy, must be broken down. The mentality of let-them-die or keep-them-locked-away is anti-human, and the same mentality that recently burned down the home of the children in Arcadia, Florida, because they had AIDS.
Towards the end of the picnic we sat huddled under the awning of the tent and held hands and sang Amazing Grace. Tom had left around 2 p.m. because he wasn’t feeling good and Hank came down from the ward because he was feeling better. Some of us didn’t know the words too good, but from the disparate voices arose a natural and, yes, gentle harmony, heartfelt and lucid as bells. As we said our goodbyes a light rain began to fall.