The Great Imitator

The scourge of syphilis re-emerges, deadlier than before

But for all of their good humor, the AIDS-prevention workers are dead serious about one thing: They insist on keeping their outreach locations secret. They say many of the men in the park are on the "down low" and may have wives or families at home. They're concerned that if word got out that they knew men frequented a certain park, their "clients" would disappear. They have good reason to worry: This is a population that often deflects the advances of AIDS counselors.

"It's natural to lie on a risk assessment," says Guild, bending slightly as she ducks into the woods. "A lot of these guys aren't doing the things they know they should [to protect themselves]."

Inside the overgrown thicket, the foliage opens onto a canopied network of trails. Sunlight dapples the wooded interior, the rumbling of passing motorists fades away and the fresh-smelling air is still. As they plunge into the urban forest, Guild and Beshears are looking for the hallmarks of sexual activity: spent condoms, empty bottles, shooting kits.

"Everyone knows why we're here," says Guardian Project captain Duane Westhoff of his weekly outreach at the Coffee Cartel.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Everyone knows why we're here," says Guardian Project captain Duane Westhoff of his weekly outreach at the Coffee Cartel.
"Everyone knows why we're here," says Guardian Project captain Duane Westhoff of his weekly outreach at the Coffee Cartel.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Everyone knows why we're here," says Guardian Project captain Duane Westhoff of his weekly outreach at the Coffee Cartel.
"Everyone knows why we're here," says Guardian Project captain Duane Westhoff of his weekly outreach at the Coffee Cartel.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Everyone knows why we're here," says Guardian Project captain Duane Westhoff of his weekly outreach at the Coffee Cartel.

"Looks like someone had a good time," quips Beshears, pointing to an empty fifth of Jose Cuervo tequila. Pushing deeper into the tracery of footpaths, the team finds several spent condoms, a filthy blue sheet laid on the ground and plenty of discarded fast-food bags. Obviously people have recently availed themselves of the park's more private areas, but the site is devoid of activity today. A few men are parked solo along the roads, but it's nothing approaching a critical mass, and the prevention workers decide to move on.

They next stop at a gay bar in Soulard. It's just shy of two o'clock in the afternoon, and the handful of assembled barflies gladly accepts the pair's proffered safe-sex kits. But again, it's not crowded enough for the AIDS workers to stick around. Beshears hands a fistful of condoms to the bartender, who promises to distribute them to his "best customers." Still, no one signs on for an HIV test. No one signs on for counseling.

"It's hard to go just anywhere in St. Louis and access the [gay] population," Beshears had remarked before heading out for the day's outreach. As if to illustrate his point, he and Guild have been navigating Priscilla through town for more than two hours when they finally decide to cut their losses and head to the disease's old stomping grounds in north St. Louis.

Pulling up to a rundown liquor store only a few blocks from the husk of the Better Donut Drive In, the team spots a black woman walking aimlessly down the street. She appears middle-aged and sports a short Afro, floral print jeans and a tentlike T-shirt. She's also straining to make eye contact with each passing car -- a telltale sign of a streetwalking sex worker, Beshears and Guild agree.

After parking Priscilla, Guild heads into the liquor store to quiz the clerk about the best time to do an outreach in the area. Meanwhile, Beshears approaches the woman, who has been skeptically eyeing the camper from a distance. With a little coaxing, he persuades her to step into Priscilla for an oral HIV test. But when the woman reveals she isn't carrying any ID, Beshears says he can't test her. Without missing a beat, she bums a cigarette, grabs a safe-sex kit and is on her way.

Within minutes, a man who's just stopped by to pick up a safe-sex kit approaches her. He's older and walks with the aid of a cane. They talk at the corner. He shows her what looks like a wallet, and then they part ways. Having witnessed the exchange, Beshears and Guild fire up Priscilla and start back for the office.

It is midday. They haven't performed a single test, but they've done the best they can. After all, there's always tomorrow.

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