Pimp's reflections from a hospital bed LIVING WITH AIDS

MAN, I LOVE dope more than I love anything in this whole wide world!"

Those are the words of Reginald C., known on Baltimore's drug-dealing corners as "Pimp." He takes pride in that nickname, which was bestowed upon him because of his exaggerated walk.


Pimp grew up in the 1500 block of W. Fayette St. He started shooting heroin at the age of 14. I met Pimp about 20 years ago. We had so much in common; we were two desperate souls, wandering through the painful wilderness of drug addiction, petty crimes and short stints in local jails.

Recently, by chance we were reunited. We still have much in common: We both have AIDS, which was contracted from using dirty needles to shoot dope.


I learned about Pimp through another former dope-shooting partner of mine, who I'll call Joe. I happened to run into Joe on a West Baltimore street. He told me that Pimp was in Bon Secours Hospital, dying from AIDS but still trying to obtain some heroin.

Joe has the tired look of an old junkie; his flesh looks brittle and dry. I knew he would try to get money from me for his habit. His voice turned whiny and he gave it his best shot. He said he needed money for food. I offered to take him to Joyner's Barber Shop where I had left a bag of groceries for safekeeping.

With a furtive look up and down Monroe Street, the old addict turned my invitation down, claiming he could not move from his spot on the corner because he was waiting to take care of some important business. I shrugged and urged him to give up that business.

Days later, I went to see Pimp, who I recalled as an incredibly funny young black man.

Pimp appeared to be too sick to try to chase down a shot of heroin or anything else. Our happy reunion helped both of us forget our suffering at least for awhile. It was a grand moment. Right away, he sat up in bed and started talking trash. He wanted me to know that he was the same old Pimp. But he is not. He is much too frail and weak for a man just entering middle age. The years of drug abuse and the brutality of AIDS have taken their toll.

After our initial exuberance, I sat and studied Pimp in silence for a long time. He glanced at me once, then glued his eyes to the TV set. Finally, I asked him why, after going through what he has with AIDS, he tried to get someone to sneak him a dose of heroin into the hospital.

That's when he looked at me with rage in his eyes.

"Who told you that?" he asked, "have you lost your mind! I've never had any dope since I've been in this hospital. I'm doin' everything I can to help these people get me straight. Yeah . . . I love heroin, but I love me, too.


"Why I won't give it up?" continued Pimp in open contemplation, "because I'm still trying to catch up with that first high. The one that made me empty my stomach eight times that day. I've been chasing that feeling ever since."

He went on to tell me how drugs had stolen his humanity. "It used to be a pleasure thing, Skinny," he said, "but now it's a 24-hour-a-day job. I've slept in cardboard boxes in the snow, lived in rat-infested empty houses and just walked for two or three days before I could find somewhere to lay my body down . . . some place to rest it. I done gone through all of that because my shot [dose of heroin] came first. That's the world I came from, and that's the world I'm goin back to when I leave the hospital."

Pimp didn't always live in such desperate circumstance. He worked installing insulation in homes and businesses for 12 years before his life took its dive. When the company folded and he couldn't find another job, Pimp decided to make his living in the drug trade. He became a small-time dealer. The problem with that decision, however, is that no big-time heroin addict can be successful at small-time dope dealing. He will always turn out to be his own best customer and end up running for his life because he's in debt to his supplier.

But, now, in a bed at Bon Secours Hospital, Pimp isn't running anywhere. And, he admits that despite all he's been through he may turn again to heroin when he leaves the hospital.

Clearly, Pimp's choices have made it irrelevant which of his illnesses is a greater tragedy: Both AIDS and drug addiction are deadly. Thus, the bottom line is this: any person dying from AIDS but not giving himself a fighting chance is a human tragedy that confronts us all. We have to reach out to people like Pimp and show them that it's never too late to give up drugs.

Despite his deteriorated condition, Pimp still has a powerful will to live. I hope he doesn't lose that, because on the streets these days I pass too many people who have given up on life.


H. B. Johnson Jr. is a poet and playwright who writes occasionally on living with AIDS.