City Paper is not for tourists
Blaise Bartosavage will tell you about his illness, his abusive childhood, and his family problems. He won’t say much about his bank account.
Photographs by Charles Steck
On a scorching day in mid-August, Blaise Aloysius Bartosavage sits on a pillow on L Street NW reading a book. He leans his back against a collapsible cloth chair and extends his feet across three layers of cardboard. In front of him sit a large plastic cup and this sign:
Hi My Name is Blaise.
I’m 25 Years Old and Living W/A.I.D.S.
My Family Has Shut Me Out When I Need Them Most.
Can You Please Help
Homeless + Hugry
Thank You + God Bless
The book, Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was a gift to Blaise from Sheila Felthuis, a circulation manager at a downtown publishing company, who has become a regular donor to Blaise. For some reason, Blaise is not getting as many contributions as usual. “This has been the day from hell,” says Blaise. But he suspects he knows the cause. “I think if I’m sitting here reading it makes me look too comfortable,” he says.
To test his hypothesis, Blaise conducts a little poll. “He said, ‘You don’t think if people see me reading out here they’ll think I’m too comfortable and stop giving to me?’” recounts Dorothy Crown, a legal secretary who works downtown. He asks several others, as well, before deciding to put the book away. Now when he reads the newspaper, he tries to do so only at moments when foot traffic is light.
A similar rule applies to his new $149.99 silver Samsung cell phone, which Blaise tries not to use in front of passers-by.
From his busy outpost outside Catherine’s Plus Sizes on the 1700 block of L Street NW, Blaise has learned other things about tending to his donor base. Although passers-by have given him sunglasses, he won’t put them on. “I don’t wear sunglasses, because I want people to be able to see my eyes,” he says. “I don’t trust people who wear sunglasses.” If he uses sunglasses to protect his eyes from the glare, Blaise fears, people will think he’s on drugs.
Image tweaks such as these have helped transform Blaise into something of a downtown celebrity since he took up his panhandling post, in late May. Even the elderly woman who panhandles, most afternoons, in a suit and hose outside Merle Norman Cosmetic Studios down the block from Blaise gives him money. And Blaise receives so much extra food that he, in turn, passes it along to other panhandlers, such as Gregory Ward, on the corner of L and 17th Streets, who receives less than one-tenth the money Blaise does.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Krystal Hawkins, 20, whose aunt runs Catherine’s Plus Sizes. She says customers are always talking about him at the store. “That’s sort of like the big thing: Why will everyone sit and talk to him, but there’s this homeless guy on this [other] corner no one talks to?”
An abridged version of the life story Blaise tells downtown workers goes something like this:
He’s only recently arrived in D.C. from Texas. He’s 25. He ran away from home when he was 14, because his family was dysfunctional and he was being sexually and physically abused. He lived in San Francisco, where he caught HIV when he was just 18. He was a heroin addict, but now he’s in recovery and on methadone. His father is dead. His mother is “wicked” and has turned him away. He was the youngest of seven children, and was born chemically addicted. He is bisexual. His family has abandoned him because “I broke the shell of silence” and spoke out about their abuses, he says.
To judge from the number of people who have expressed concern about him, the story tugs at people. The city’s AIDS hotline routinely receives calls about Blaise, and the Whitman-Walker Clinic is well aware of his plight. “I can’t remember having received as many calls about any one single person,” says Michael Cover, spokesperson for the clinic. The e-mail stream about him has been unusual, as well. “We’ve only gotten about three or four e-mails about him,” says Cover, “but, even so, more than one e-mail about a person on the street is significant. It’s not often that we get e-mails from anyone about a person on the street.”
The trauma of family abandonment particularly moves the passers-by, compelling them to reach out to Blaise. “The thing that gets my heart most is that he has a mother somewhere that doesn’t care,” says Crown. “It’s beyond my comprehension that a woman could carry a child for nine months and raise him and then when he needs her not be there.”
All the attention translates into contributions of various sorts:
* Christopher Brown, 25, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute and an Evangelical Christian, comes to pray with Blaise regularly and took him out on a recent Friday night to go see the movie Signs. He also bought Blaise a short-sleeved shirt, a polo shirt, and a pair of jeans.
* Lisa Thornhill, who works at National Geographic, gives Blaise her Washington Post to read every day.
* Crown, 54 and widowed one year ago, brings Blaise dinner and breakfast three times a week from McDonald’s and the Meeting Place, a restaurant on L Street. She tried to bring him some of her late husband’s clothes, but they were too big. She told Blaise to go ahead and keep them and give them to someone else in need, if he knew anyone.
* Felthuis lost her 16-year-old son in a car crash five months ago. Her grief is never far from the surface, though it took her a month and a half to screw up her courage before she finally talked to Blaise for the first time. They talked for an hour, heart to heart, about their broken families. She gave Blaise $100 that night and, when he said he was cold the next day, she brought him one of her late son’s fleece sweatshirts. “It’s good that somebody can use it,” she says.
* Robert Rigby Jr., 39, co-chair of the National Capital Area’s Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, met Blaise while on L Street for a meeting. Now he brings Blaise dinner regularly and comes in from Virginia, where he works, just to check on him. Rigby has suffered from bipolar disorder and says that without his family’s support, he might be in the same position as Blaise.
* Alexandra Khalaf, 23, a recent graduate of George Mason University who works as an $8-an-hour cashier at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, gave Blaise a Tonino Lamborghini watch—a gift from her parents worth more than $100—along with a T-shirt, a tank top, a journal, and pens. When that watch broke, she bought Blaise a brand new Swiss Army watch. “It just hurts me to know he’s only two years older than me and he’s been sitting out on a corner and his mom doesn’t help,” says Khalaf.
Recently, Lola McConnaughey, a telephone operator at the Federal Reserve, has been making an effort to get Blaise ready for winter. “They’re going to winterize me, like a car,” he jokes. She bought him a package of gray woolen socks, a package of white socks, two white long-sleeved thermal shirts, a black cotton shirt, a white cotton shirt, several pairs of new jeans, a black insulated jacket, and a pair of navy-blue cotton pajamas. Kris Fennell, the 37-year-old chief financial officer of the Magazine Group, has also helped Blaise stock up for winter: She bought him carpenter jeans, brand-new sneakers, socks, underwear, shampoo, and soap. She had to visit four stores before she found a shop that sold jeans small enough to fit him, but she kept searching. And Kevin Fadely, a 35-year-old in marketing at DBI Architects, is buying Blaise new winter boots, sized men’s 6-and-a-half.
Cold-weather donations are a logical gift for the homeless. “He lives in that alley right there,” says one woman, a friend of Thornhill’s. Analisa Fulwood, a program assistant at the American Chemical Society, says Blaise lives at a shelter: “I got the impression that if he’s outside maybe he’s in a shelter system where he has to leave at a certain time of day.” Crown, meanwhile, got a slightly different version of events: “He said, ‘I sleep on the streets, I sleep in the alleys.’ Every now and then when the weather is really oppressive, I give him $20 and he’ll go to a cheap hotel for the night.” Like Felthuis and Khalaf, she thinks he’s been on the street since October.
If business at Blaise’s L Street location remains as brisk as it is these days, he might not need all of the jackets and thermal shirts. That’s because Blaise does not reside in an alley or a shelter. During the summer, he lived in a room at the Alexandria Motel on Route 1 in Virginia.
Monthly living costs at the motel run around $1,300. “I’m getting tired of going to the hotel every night,” he says in late August. “I could be living in a nice place in Dupont Circle for what I’m paying for rent there.”
And even as he paid $42 per day to the motel office, Blaise kept current on payments of $150 per month to maintain a place near Benning Terrace NE since July. He didn’t stay there in the summer months because it lacked air conditioning—an uncomfortable environment for someone who runs fevers as often as Blaise does. (He moved in two days before this article was slated to run.)
Blaise’s panhandling more than funds his housing costs. The first day Blaise sat out on L Street he made around $60. By the end of the week, he was collecting up to $250 per day—enough to get off the streets and start staying in another Route 1 motel. He deposits the extra funds in his checking account at Bank of America. “I’m trying to save up for winter so that I have some options,” he says. Nowadays, he makes between $80 and $120 per day, with Friday being his best day. Then he sometimes takes in as much as $280.
Noncash donations filled his room at the Alexandria Motel. Four baseball caps, nestled one on top of the other, sat stacked on top of the lampshade on the dresser. All were gifts from passers-by on the street, intended to shield Blaise’s fair skin from the blistering summer sun. Other sun-protection gear cluttered the room, too: a pair of aviator-style sunglasses and an orange plastic spray bottle with battery-operated fan—also gifts from the street. But each day when Blaise rose at 5:30 a.m. for the hourlong commute to a Foggy Bottom methadone clinic and his spot on L Street, he would leave them behind. Nor would he bring the Pond’s Age Defying SPF15 face cream in his bathroom. Instead, he would wear the SPF45 sunblock, also a gift, and toss on one of the many dirty T-shirts, sized XXL, shoved into a corner of the room.
The most notable accumulation in the room, beyond the dirty fingerprints on the bathroom door, was the bottled water. On hot days, Blaise sometimes ended his L Street shift with as many as 12 donated bottles of water left over. He would lug all the extra bottles back to his hotel, where he would line them up on his dresser along with every other nonperishable, prepackaged thing he’d been given. During a mid-August visit to the hotel, there were 21 bottles of water and 13 of juice stacked on his dresser, along with a bottle of Gatorade, three sodas, three large boxes of cereal (plus seven breakfast-sized ones), four pieces of fruit, two untouched bags of trail mix, a number of energy bars, several boxes of gourmet crackers, and a large Ziploc bag full of multivitamins.
Blaise had even turned an entire dresser drawer over to storing potato and corn chips. A gallon container of water and a six-pack of smaller bottles of water sat beside the dresser, while a 12-pack of Heineken peeks out from under some clothes in a corner. Blaise says some of the other hotel guests had left the beer in his room when they were hanging out one night, and that he planned to give it to the cleaning lady. He kept condiments and napkins in the drawer of his nightstand, which doubled as his dining table when he brought, say, a donated hamburger and fries back from L Street in a takeout container.
In his bathroom, he had a razor, bars of Lever 2000 (hotel-supplied soap was only for washing his hands), Citre Shine shampoo, mouthwash, several toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, body wash, and stacks of ratty hotel towels. All but the towels were gifts of the street.
Nor has Blaise lacked for references to social-service programs to help him out. On the street, people have referred Blaise to the Carl Vogel Center, Damien Ministries, Joseph’s House, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Baltimore Rescue Ministries, St. Mary’s Clinic, the Upper Cardozo Health Center, P.L. Active Inc., Samaritan Ministries, Georgetown Ministries, the United Methodist Church, Bethany Women’s Center, Food & Friends, and Rachael’s women’s shelter. He keeps the referral cards and numbers to all these places in a dresser drawer.
Blaise’s magnetic personality is largely responsible for all this largess. “He endears himself to people,” says Fennell. “He’s the kind of guy who, if I were the one sitting on the street and he were the one working, he would approach me.”
Felthuis considers herself a “a pretty good judge of character” and considers Blaise “a well-mannered young man.” “He appears to be a very good person,” she adds.
“He’s very honest, like brutally honest,” notes Khalaf, who is a lesbian. “He tells me I don’t look like a real butch dyke—I look more like a sporty dyke.”
Blaise’s brutal honesty, though, finds room for some key omissions on his background. Take the story about his family. Elaine Bartosavage of Woodbridge, Va., his mother, says, “I love him to death, but he robbed me blind.” Blaise, her wayward fifth child, is currently 38 years old. He has been struggling with drug addiction ever since he first ran away from their Virginia home, in 1978, she says, when he was 14. “He never robbed anyone else that I know of,” she says. “Just me, because he didn’t think I’d put him in jail.”
Blaise says he was first told that he was seropositive for HTLV-III, as HIV was then called, during a hospitalization in California in late 1983 or early 1984. Somehow, though, it didn’t fully register with the heroin-abusing teen. In late 1985, Blaise went for an HTLV-III antibody test on his own. This time, when the test came back positive, he knew what it meant: “a death sentence,” he says. At the time, there were no Food and Drug Administration- approved therapies for the disease, and infected people often died within a few years of learning their diagnosis.
Blaise and his mom agree on the following: She flew him home from California in February 1986, when he was 21, and tried to take care of him. She paid for his drug treatment. She tried paying for him to finish hairdressing school. (He had started attending out West.) She paid his rent or let him live with her. She found him a doctor. She welcomed his boyfriends into her home. She became a leader in her local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Her husband, Lt. Chester Bartosavage, was a military man who could never accept Blaise’s “gay lifestyle,” she says. But she did.
For the decade after Blaise came back from California, Elaine says, she was there for him. And he stole from her routinely. In 1989, she finally had him arrested for stealing her camcorder. He was convicted of grand larceny, he tells me, and given a 10-year suspended sentence with five years of probation contingent upon his completing a drug-treatment program. He languished in prison for six months, he says. His mother says she intervened with the judge to finally get him sent to drug treatment, instead. He did so well in the facility that he whizzed through the program—which can take up to 24 months—within a year.
When Blaise was released, in September 1990, just 13 days after his father died, he went straight back to using heroin. By 1993, he was so ill that his mother thought he was dying and took him back to Texas to see where he’d lived as a little boy, and to see his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, play live. Blaise recovered. And in 1994, he substituted methadone for heroin, he says, but added crack as well. He also became a client of the Whitman-Walker Clinic that year, he says, and has had a case manager at the social service agency ever since.
The last straw came during Blaise’s crack-using period, Elaine says. In 1996, Blaise and his then-boyfriend, Bruce, according to Elaine, came by on Christmas Day and stole the presents. She was paying his rent in Forestville, Md.—$600 per month—at the time. Blaise took her safe, containing $8,300, she says, and threw it out the window. Blaise and Bruce blew the money in two weeks, she says.
“I’m not a rich woman. Now I’m barely making it because all my backup I gave to him,” she says. “I haven’t given him a cent since, except $20 at Christmas.” And she has never let him back in her house.
Blaise says his mom has it wrong. First off, “It was 1995,” he says. Second, they did not steal the presents. And third, “She knows the fingerprints were not mine.” Blaise says he took $70 from his brother’s wallet, but that it was Bruce, who also had AIDS and is now dead, who threw the lockbox out the window and ran off with “more than $9,000” in cash. “I should have went back to my mother and told Bruce we were going to take the money back,” says Blaise. “That’s the mistake I made. It’s terrible. Even the $70 is terrible.”
But they didn’t go back. Instead, he says, the two took a cab from Virginia to Potomac Gardens in D.C. and went on a crack binge. By New Year’s Day, he says, only $20 remained. But “that’s not the reason I can’t stay there,” he says angrily. “I can’t stay there because of my brother.” One of Blaise’s brothers lives with his mother, in the pool house behind the main house, and “there’s been problems between us for 20 years.” As proof that the Christmas incident is not the source of the rift with his family, Blaise notes that in 1997 his mother again paid his rent for the year, and that as late as 1998, she was still taking him to dinner twice a week.
The last time Blaise saw his mother was on Memorial Day, when she took him to dinner at a buffet-style Chinese restaurant in Virginia. She dropped him off at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station at the end of the evening and gave him an extra blanket. He begged her to let him go home with her, he says, but she refused. “She wouldn’t even drive me back to the alley,” he says. As she drove away, he says, he could see that she was crying.
“I’m not going to fault him for it, because he’s an addict,” says Elaine of the disastrous Christmas. Even though she sees that Blaise is no longer using drugs, she’s vowed never to be taken in by him again: “I can’t afford him anymore. He never was where he is now because he always had someone to rescue him. If I did what I’m doing now 20 years ago, he probably wouldn’t be where he is today. I’ve been his enabler….I get embarrassed when I see him scrambling around the street. But there comes a point when it’s his survival or mine, and I cannot survive him anymore.”
Blaise became homeless on Jan. 3, 2002, when he voluntarily left the rooming situation in which he had been living since Nov. 1 because, he says, his transsexual housemate was on drugs and he “couldn’t take the drama any more.”
Before moving into D.C. last fall, Blaise had lived in Crystal City for three years with a man whom he’d known since he was 14. “A sugar daddy,” Blaise’s mom calls him. “A real asshole.” The relationship was one of complete dependency. “I was miserable,” says Blaise, who says he did his unsuccessful best to avoid the man’s sexual demands. But when the man, who worked for the Department of Naval Defense, died last October at age 50 of a heart attack, things only got worse. Suddenly, Blaise—who dropped out of school in ninth grade and last worked as a food runner at a restaurant—was on his own.
From January until March 31, Blaise stayed in church-run private shelters through the Warm Nights program. When winter ended, so did the program. After leaving Warm Nights, Blaise says, he spent 12 days in April in the psychiatric ward of George Washington University Hospital for depression. It was his second hospitalization there in recent years; the first was for a psychotic episode in early 2001, which followed close on the heels of one of his seizures. He has suffered from a seizure disorder since childhood, his mother notes, along with asthma and hyperactivity serious enough that he was placed on Ritalin at 18 months and stayed on the drug until he was 12. He’s also racked up various psychiatric diagnoses over the years—panic disorder, general anxiety disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder—and takes powerful medications to treat his tendency toward insomnia, anxiety, and paranoid delusions.
By the end of April, Blaise was sleeping in an alley close to the hospital and his methadone clinic, Partners in Drug Abuse Rehabilitation and Counseling. The clinic is conveniently located at 2112 F St. NW, in the same building as Blaise’s physician since February 1986, Dr. Michael Pistole, who is a friend of his mother’s and has won national renown as one of the top AIDS doctors in Washington.
Blaise first arrived on L Street at the end of May. A woman from his methadone clinic told him that, if he wanted to make money, he should panhandle near a downtown Metro station. First he sat in front of the Farragut North Metro stop, but police shooed him away. So he moved east down L Street toward the middle of the block, where he’d lean against the window of Catherine’s Plus Sizes. But a store employee told him he couldn’t sit there, so he moved to the curb of the same patch of sidewalk and started leaning against a Washington Post newspaper box. But that was a problem, too, because people wanted the paper.
Blaise discovered that if he sat near the box, instead of against it, it would block the sun a little. And people getting the paper already had money in hand, so it was doubly convenient. So that’s where he now sits for 12 hours a day, his back to the traffic, the Post box to his left, exhaust fumes swirling around his head and shoulders.
“Where he is, he’s so apparent. You have to know he’s there. It’s kind of like marketing,” observes Crown, who speculates that’s one reason Blaise never tries to sit on the shady side of the street. “He’s a low-key salesman. I’ve never heard him ask for things from passers-by. His sign says it all.”
Shortly after the Fourth of July, Blaise tacked a small American flag onto his sign. He asked me what I thought of the patriotic display. “Do you think this flag is too much?” he asked, not wanting to lay it on too thick or look like a homeless veteran. I asked a friend who works on L Street what she thought. “The flag is too much,” she told me. I relayed the comment to Blaise. He took the flag down.
“I think he’s almost a skillful politician,” says Fennell. “He’s protective of his image. I don’t think he gives out any image-busting info. But I don’t think he’s a skillful liar.”
Rigby, for example, says he’s found it “hard to believe Blaise is the age he says he is….He just looks so much older.” To him, it doesn’t really matter whether Blaise is 25 or, as he suspected, in his 30s. His relationship with Blaise started “as me not being able to stand somebody who was that sick” being out on the streets and lacking the ability to help himself. “The system can be impersonal,” says Rigby. “He’s a nice guy to spend time with.” (In anticipation of this story, Blaise began telling his patrons the truth about his age and removed it from his sign in September.)
Blaise is careful to adjust his comportment for his audience—whether that’s Rigby, the L Street passers-by, or his doctor. On a recent doctor’s visit, Blaise wore a clean button-down shirt and a belt with his jeans, then changed into a filthy National Geographic T-shirt in a bagel shop before heading down to L Street. “He’s a very well-respected doctor, one of the best in the country,” Blaise explains of the clothing change. “I didn’t want to embarrass him.”
Neighboring panhandlers don’t share Blaise’s understanding of niche marketing. Ward, who stands day in and day out holding a cup down the block from Blaise, says he makes only about $10 a day. An unscientific survey of other panhandlers in the Farragut North and Dupont Circle area suggests that, even though Ward benefits from Blaise’s overflow foodstuffs, he’s suffering from the stiff competition that Blaise puts up. Panhandlers average an intake of between $45 and $80 per day, say the other men.
“I be out here every day,” says Ward, who has been homeless for several years. But there is broad consensus on the street that Ward is off-putting in ways that Blaise is not. First of all, he seems too religious, says one L Street worker who passes Ward daily: “He’s always reading a Bible.”
“I’ve never spoken with the guy with the cup. He’s a little more intimidating,” says Fennell. Others note that Ward is much bigger than Blaise, and that whereas Blaise is always seated, Ward often stands and looms over you. “He shakes the cup—he’s sort of always walking around,” says Brown. “I thought about [giving him money] a couple of times and I just didn’t.”
How much does the fact that Ward is African-American play a role in the different treatment the two receive? Research assistant Brown, who is also African-American, thinks race plays no role at all. “It’s not about [Blaise] being white, but about him being the most normal,” he says of Blaise. “A lot of homeless people are mentally ill, and that’s kind of frightening.”
Blaise is small, about 5-foot-7, and, at an August doctor’s visit, weighed 128 pounds fully dressed with his boots on. He has lost more than 40 pounds in the past year alone, and it shows in his emaciated face. His cheekbones are prominent, and his green eyes are sunken.
All you have to do is look at Blaise to know that, regardless of what he or his sign says, he is telling one fundamental truth: He is very sick. When I first met Blaise, in mid-June, his body was covered in small lesions, the result of a systemic fungal skin infection. Blaise’s hands were covered with the scaly red rash, and I saw rounded red spots under his arms when he lifted one to scratch his ear. His hair was thin all over. His face was scarred—a result of falls from his seizure disorder and an attack that left him with steel screws in his jaw, he explains—and his feet were also covered in the rash. His nails were long and dirty. He did not wear shoes.
Blaise has wasting syndrome, a condition in people with AIDS in which the body has trouble absorbing nutrients and the appetite fades, as well. The only real treatment for the syndrome is to treat the underlying HIV infection, but even then it is sometimes an irreversible process and so the second-leading cause of death in people with AIDS. People with advanced wasting syndrome sometimes have to have feeding tubes installed, and people with less advanced forms benefit from appetite stimulants and nutritional supplements, such as Ensure. “I used to have the best ass,” Blaise tells me one day as we’re walking around downtown. “Now it’s like a pancake.” It’s been a long time since anyone’s called him “Hollywood,” the way men used to in California, because he had such movie-star-quality boyish looks.
Blaise did have a difficult home life. “This is a messed-up family,” admits his mother. And though she denies that Blaise was ever physically or sexually abused by family members, she confirms that he was sexually abused—by a neighborhood 13-year-old, when he was 8 or 9. She took Preludin (phenmetrazine), a prescription stimulant, for five months while pregnant with him. In the mid-’60s, the drug was still prescribed, as in her case, to treat a condition called “pregnancy-related obesity,” and she blames the drug for many of Blaise’s subsequent health and drug problems. After he left home, he says, he got caught up in prostitution and child pornography.
Blaise was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995, according to his medical records. It’s something of a miracle that he’s still alive nearly 19 years after first learning he has HIV. “Especially with the things I’ve done to my body,” he says, “the things I’ve continued to do for a while.” Upon reflection, he adds, “I was probably infected much younger, when I was 14.”
Blaise lost his D.C. Medicaid benefits on April 1, for reasons he’s still unsure of. Depressed, he stopped taking his costly HIV medications and did not pursue other means for obtaining them, even though he says, “I’m sure there were ways.” At the time, his last T-cell count, a measure of immune-system health, was a dismal 318, he says, leagues below the normal range of 800 to 1,200. One day he tells me that the last time he stopped taking his medications, in 1999, his count dropped to 20; his medical records show that his count bottomed out at 7 in 1995, though it has ranged as high as 360 since then. Whatever his current count, by mid-July, Blaise looked like he had entered some kind of danger zone. There was a three-day period, all Code Red days, when he had such a bad headache he couldn’t talk, and he reports that he spent his nights throwing up. “I feel like I’m dying,” he said. Says Felthuis: “I’ve seen him deteriorate.”
The prescription-drug benefits were restored by early August. When he resumed his medications, the fungal infection started to clear up. Within three weeks, his face began to brighten and his skin cleared completely. His face has filled out a little, and he no longer looks as if he’s at death’s door—though he is still obviously unwell. He now takes acyclovir, stavudine (or d4T), lamivudine (or 3TC), and Kaletra (a combination of the protease inhibitors ritonavir and lopinavir) to treat HIV and other viral infections, along with Depakote, Zyprexa, clonazepam, and clonidine to treat and prevent mood disorders, paranoia, mania, seizures, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Though olanzapine (Zyprexa) is an anti-psychotic used to treat schizophrenia and manic depression, both Blaise and his mother say he does not have these mental illnesses. His mother says she thinks he’s overmedicated for those he does have. Blaise also uses Flovent inhalers, to treat his asthma, and takes the anti-fungal ketoconazole, and Cipro, a broad-spectrum antibiotic that keeps a variety of potentially deadly infections in people with HIV at bay. He keeps meaning to ask his doctor for an appetite stimulant, too, so that he can try to gain some weight.
Blaise and I arrange to meet for lunch one Saturday in late August at the T.G.I. Friday’s in Foggy Bottom. When I arrive, he is eating ice cream and a brownie from a Styrofoam cup. After we take seats in the smoking section—Blaise is a chain smoker—he nods off for a few seconds. When he comes to, he begins talking. But I can’t understand a word he’s saying, because he’s mumbling and slurring his speech. His eyes roll back into his head, and his eyelids start flickering. His head droops again. He wakes, takes a bite of ice cream, then fades. The ice cream starts falling out of his mouth. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says when I ask what is going on. “I just need some more coffee.”
He lights a cigarette, then fades out again and drops it in his coffee. He picks it up and tries to squeeze it out and smoke it, then lights another. He drops it against the tabletop.
“This soup is terrible,” he says about his meal. He loses consciousness again and slowly sinks onto the banquette. He rousts himself and fidgets in his backpack for his pills. Soon he’s going through his wallet, taking out a laundry-machine card and distractedly folding it in half to break it. He startles as if snapping out of a hypnotic state and shakes his head a few times, then pounds himself on the chest and orders more coffee. His head falls to the side and then downward into his food.
The waiter looks pained, and the other patrons of the restaurant are staring at us. “Do I seem high to you?” Blaise asks. I say yes and ask for the check. “I’m not on any drugs,” he says. He blames his new medications for his grogginess. In recent weeks, his shoes and cup were both stolen after he conked out midafternoon on L Street. “I feel like a zombie,” he tells me one day, soon after he began to take the Zyprexa again. Alone, each of his psychiatric medicines can cause drowsiness; together, the effect can be much intensified.
After our lunch, I encourage him to go back to his hotel, for his own safety. Whatever’s up with him, he is obviously in no condition to be alone on the streets. First he wants to stop at the bank. He withdraws $100 from his account, but takes so much time staring at his receipt and folding it and putting it in his wallet that the machine snatches the money back. “Well, I’m awake now,” he says, suddenly alert. He withdraws $100 again and walks toward 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., one of his favorite weekend hangouts, to call the bank to correct the transaction.
I think back on all the people who have reached out to Blaise. “I actually wanted to offer him my place to stay for a while,” says Khalaf, the recent college graduate. “He’s more than welcome to come hang out with my family on Christmas.” She is one of three people I interviewed who have been seriously considering taking Blaise in. I mention the idea to a service provider who knows Blaise. “Oh, bad idea!” he says. “Very bad idea.”
“The long-term homeless are mostly people for whom everything imaginable has gone wrong for many years,” wrote sociologist Christopher Jencks in his seminal 1994 book, The Homeless. “Many are heavy drug or alcohol users. Many have severe mental disabilities. Even those who do not have such easily labeled problems have the kind of bad luck that recurs over and over, causing them to lose one job after another and one friend after another. In such cases, it makes more sense to speak of bad karma than of bad luck.”
I think of this passage three days later, when I stop by L Street again to see Blaise. The Sunday after I had lunch with him, he was so out of it from his new prescription meds, he says, that he walked right off the subway platform at Foggy Bottom. He cracked four ribs and cut his hand. He shows me the stigmalike gash on his right palm. “God was watching out for me, because I was seriously half a step from the third rail,” he says. “People were screaming.”
Blaise asks me not to mention his subway ordeal. “Why not?” I ask. “You have cracked ribs. It makes you seem more sympathetic.” He looks even more frail and vulnerable than usual.
“If I wanted to seem more sympathetic, I would put ‘and cracked ribs’ on the sign,” he says, getting into the joke. “Hi my name is Blaise. I have AIDS and cracked ribs and panic disorder and ADD and post-traumatic stress disorder.” He smiles. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.