Outside ... In

Sam Friedman

Sitting in the lightless cavern that was my office
in the hate-ridden spring of 1987,
when "Just say No" was the mantra from above
and the message for users was "Enter treatment or die,"
with death clearly the hoped-for choice.

My employers were more humane,
they really wanted folks to enter treatment,
piss into cups every few days to prove their troth,
slurp their methadone under watchful eyes
or go through headfixing at a TC uptown, downtown, uptime, downtime.
So sorry if you get HIV, but treatment is our business,
not condoms, not bleach, and certainly not
the exchange of needles.

Sitting in my gloomy office, mulling inertia, hatred, callous systems,
hearing the phone ringing,
picking it up wondering "What is it this time?"
Another Assistant D.A. seeking quotes to distort
for the papers?
Or more work, more requests, more denunciations of the helpless?

I muttered, "Yeah . . . what is it?"
or maybe "Hello,"
heard a gentle voice, quiet steel, in return,
"Hello. This is Kathy Oliver calling,
from Portland, Oregon.
I hear you might know something
about giving drug users needles
to prevent AIDS."

My mind flashed joy like a salmon
leaping under a rainbowed sky,
or like the April sunlight in 1961 when my first Massachusetts winter
broke into icicles dripping sparkling water
that sang its way through the slush that was Cambridge sidewalks,
or like the proverbial Western movie
when the cavalry sweeps over the hill bringing salvation
(even though they really brought death, racist eviction, and even smallpox
in the American rehearsal
of the Negro removal that is modern-day AIDS).

But here was the telephone,
me beaming in my windowless office,
talking to salvation,
talking needles,
talking life.

In SR Friedman, Needles, drugs, and defiance: Poems to organize by, North American Syringe Exchange Network: 1999.