NEW YORK — 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. \o7 Where is that mailman?\f7
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.
\o7 C'mon, where the hell is that mailman? \f7 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.