Day after day, HIV tears through the black community. It's now the No. 1 killer of black men and women in their prime.
CourageHe dares to speak out to those who don't want to hear.
James Jones carries the virus, and he's still alive.
So did a lot of friends, and they are not.
Cynthia, an AIDS outreach worker.
Karen, a mother who'll never see her daughter grow up.
Mattie, a client who couldn't shake her drug habit.
Jones understands, better than most, that HIV stalks the black community. Indeed, an estimated one out of every 46 black people in Florida carries the virus.
But Jones is lucky and he knows it. Within an hour of learning he was infected, he told his parents and 9 brothers and sisters, who opened their arms and hearts. They, too, understand the hold the virus has on those close to them.
For others, it's not so easy.
In a community where the church rules, the virus is linked to unholy acts and complicated by soul-crushing social ills: poverty, racism, discrimination.
Jones knows what people are up against. He's an HIV care coordinator for the Creating Positive Change Foundation, a Fort Lauderdale HIV/AIDS agency that targets minority communities.
From his vantage point, Jones has seen it all.
He understands that many are too fearful to get tested or confront their partners.
That some black women, lamenting a small dating pool of eligible black men, won't insist on condoms.
That homophobia runs wide and deep in the community because men fear losing their job, damaging their reputation or even physical retaliation.
That some men have sex with men, get infected, then pass the virus on to unsuspecting girlfriends and wives.
That some ignore their illness and continue spreading the virus.
There are so many reasons why the virus runs wild in the black community, but at least Jones understands.
On a drizzly afternoon, he climbs into the low-riding black 1998 Chevrolet Camaro he calls "The Black Knight." And he's off.
Off to see a hospitalized client who's talking out loud to God. Off to see a man being nursed by his wife.
While making his rounds, Jones sees more than the people. He sees the family rifts, the criticizing by friends, the demonizing from the pulpit. So taboo is the virus, it's hard for people to say the word.
"Got the ninja," some say, street lingo for HIV or AIDS.
"Ninjas are deadly," Jones says. "They will wipe you out."
By sheer force of personality and a disarming smile, Jones wins people over. He's encouraging as he tells them to take their pills or see a doctor. Some do as he says because he's just like them.
He's been down and out, too.
Like so many he helps, Jones once had a bright future and big dreams. Growing up in the Tatertown section of Northwest Fort Lauderdale, he was a star athlete in basketball, track and cross country at Stranahan High. He married, fathered two children and is now a grandfather of seven.
After his 18-year marriage collapsed in 1989, his world shattered, and he escaped into drugs and sex.
But that changed when a doctor diagnosed him with HIV. He put the old life behind him, and started all over.
"I tell clients now it's a blessing," he says. "It turned my life around."
Jones also met a woman and fell in love. Julie Bashir, 43, is HIV positive, too. She thinks she was infected by a former boyfriend, a New Jersey police officer who died of AIDS.
"I really believe God had plans for me," says Bashir, who laughs easily and smiles a lot. "He wasn't ready for me to vanish."
The couple, who live in Hollywood, plan to marry one day but haven't set a date. In the meantime, Jones battles AIDS in his community, and though it gets discouraging at times he won't stop reaching out.
Because Jones understands.
SHAMEHe leads a double life because he won't show who he is.
The sun is starting to set when he arrives at the Miami-Dade park.
All the better that darkness looms because this meeting is private; he insists on anonymity.
That's the only way he'll talk about his deepest secret: that he likes women -- and men.
But he keeps the guy attraction on the "down low," meaning his sex life with men isn't out in the open. His parents don't know, nor his siblings. His girlfriends don't know or his straight friends either.
Living on the down low is nothing new. But people speak about it more openly now because it spreads the virus to men and unsuspecting women and is partly to blame for the epidemic's hold on the black community.
Yet fear keeps him silent. If his parents knew, they'd kick him out, he says. They're deeply religious and consider homosexual acts a sin. He's religious, too, troubled by the fact that what gives him pleasure brings him so much pain.
In every other way, he leads a life that makes his family proud. He's a college student with a responsible job, arriving at the park wearing a dress shirt and tie. He's polite and articulate and... scared. When he speaks he keeps his head down or turned away.
"You won't use my name?" he asks. "Nobody will know, will they?"
Little wonder that men on the down low keep their sex lives hidden. They fear rejection, ridicule or worse.
"You live a double life," he says. "You have to watch what you say, watch what you touch."
In his sex life, he isn't always so careful. He doesn't always use protection, but says he isn't infected.
He's never had sex with a woman, not even a former girlfriend who remains a good friend, he says. His religion tells him sex before marriage is wrong and, besides, he wants no unplanned pregnancy to haunt him.
Sex with guys is different, though it still feels wrong and triggers terrible guilt.
"You're not accepted by 'normal' people," he says, his hands making quote marks in the air.
"You're hated, despised, told you cause disease."
So he tells himself to think only of "girls, girls, girls," but it doesn't curb his yearning for men. He meets guys online and around town on the "D.L. grapevine," and HIV doesn't usually enter the conversation.
"Everybody looks so healthy now," he says. "I don't ask, they don't ask."If an attraction results, they meet in parks or in a car's back seat. Hotels are expensive. Home is out of the question.
"You have to keep everything a secret," he says with a shrug. "It's very hard." He grows silent, maybe thinking he's said too much. The sky has turned an inky black, and in the dimly lit park his troubled face is hard to see.
"I may get married one day and have some kids," he says, breaking the silence. "I'm just not sure where my path may go."
GRATITUDEWith help from friends, she builds a life from a shattered past.
On Mother's Day at the Hollywood hotel Candy Allen calls home, she thinks about the grandmother who loved her when her own mother didn't.
"Called me her black pearl," she says, flashing a smile. "Loved me like nobody else."
Allen speaks, lying prone on a bunk bed in a small room she shares with five women, who bustle in and out during the afternoon.
Allen's swollen feet are propped up, covered in ice. Dark circles rim her eyes and a morphine patch near her pelvic bone dulls the pain that doesn't go away.
There's much to hear about Allen's tangled life that began in the Bronx, but an important part of her story is this:
She's a woman with AIDS who, after her marriage ended, had unprotected sex with at least four men on two continents.
"Once I knew, I told 'em I've got it, but that's the choice they made," Allen says, upfront and unapologetic. "They don't like the condoms."
She meant no harm, she says. They were all men she intended to marry but never did.
Her latest, busted for selling cocaine, is in prison, a virtual incubation dish for the HIV virus, health care workers say. While confined, it's not uncommon for men to have sex with men, spreading the disease like jailhouse gossip. Once free, unprotected sex with women, or men, continues the spread.
It's one more way that the virus stalks women, who account for a growing proportion of new AIDS cases -- from 7 percent in 1986 to 25 percent by mid 2002. In Florida, AIDS is the No. 1 killer of black women ages 25 to 44.
Allen looks hard for something good in all this. Oddly enough, AIDS has given her chaotic life focus, she says.
"I took life for granted," she says. "But not anymore."
No longer able to live on her own, she has found a loving home in this small hotel.
Here she's surrounded by a flock of mothers, with one roommate plumping her pillows on the thin mattress, while another says it's time to change the ice pack for her swollen feet.
When Allen can't make it to the hotel dining room to eat, they carry food to her. When she hurts, they hold her like a child until the pain pill kicks in.
Because her immune system is battered, she can't fight a fungus on her toes, which has contributed to an infection causing her feet and legs to swell. And she's in and out of the hospital for bouts of pneumonia.
Now, with effort, Allen pulls herself from bed to show off a silver dress and handbag hanging nearby, gifts from her friends.
"This is my new family," she says, nodding to the women. "They care about me." Allen was born into a family with too much anger and too little love.
She escaped through a teenage marriage and turned to drugs to calm the wild ride of her bipolar disorder. She takes prescription pills now to soothe her thoughts but shuns medication that could tame the virus, finding the side effects worse than the disease.
She takes refuge in the sweet, blissful promise of a crack pipe, she says. It transports her to another place, where there is no pain, no regret.
As Allen tells it, she was married and divorced once, did jail time for drug possession, worked a litany of jobs and had a love affair with a woman in the U.S. military and ended up in Germany in the '80s. By this time she thinks she was already infected.
While in Germany, she had unprotected sex with an Austrian and a married American military man. Back in the States, she had sex with a California man. To this day, she doesn't know whether she infected any of these men.
In and out of drug rehab and psychiatric care, Allen has moved around the country, but for two years, she's lived at the hotel.
When well enough, she works the front desk "because it makes me feel like I'm giving something back." When work is over, she returns to her room, where her few belongings are stashed in a corner. Among them, a Bible, a pair of sparkly heels and a stuffed lion cradling a baby cub that sits on her bed.
At times Allen thinks of the grandmother who fixed her homemade biscuits, covered her with kisses and told her what others did not. That she was special. That she was loved.
When her grandmother died a decade ago, Allen lost more than a generous woman, she lost a piece of herself. But she still takes comfort in the sweet dream that followed.
In that dream, she remembers her grandmother's comforting words:
"I'm leaving you, but you'll be OK. I'll see you later."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun