Risking it All to Find Safety

Black and brown queer youth are desperately seeking space to loveu2014and be loved. Theyu2019ll do whatever is necessary to find it.

By Kai Wright May 01, 2008

Reprinted from Drifting Toward Love, by permission of Beacon Press.

JULIUS’S SHEER POWER is just unsettling. It starts with the 22-year-old’s evident beauty—the bright smile, the cherub-like innocence of his round face, his smooth, dark skin and baby dreads—all of which work alongside a sharp, speedy mind and a disarming charm to concoct a potent, volatile brew. His physicality is unquestionably male—he’s nearly six feet tall, with square shoulders and rounded if unsculpted musculature that he shows off in tight shirts and tank tops. But he wields his manhood in an overtly feminine way; where other guys strut, Julius swishes. And this recasting of male form in female style creates a gender play that’s more take-no-shit diva than nelly boy. Julius is cut out for big things and knows as much. But there’s no telling exactly what the nature of his large-scale acts will be on any given day—he’s equally capable of stunning achievement and devastating self-destruction.

When I met Julius, he was one of a group of transient queer youth crashing in a little white house at the northern end of Crystal Street in Brooklyn’s rough-and-tumble East New York neighborhood. He was confused about many things in his emotional life at the time, but on one thing he was clear: he didn’t fit in. “I’m always dressed up like, you can tell that child’s a faggot from a mile away,” he sighs. “From the way I walk, you can just tell.”

The old, two-story fixer-upper on Crystal Street has a warm hominess that mitigates the swirling chaos it often hosts. The living room and kitchen are splashed with bright, bold, defiant colors—oranges, yellows, reds—and a giant mural depicting an underwater wonderland covers a long stretch of wall connecting the two big open spaces. Beadwork designs of moons and seascapes cover the cabinets. The bedrooms upstairs are cramped, sure, but also cozy. The basement’s been converted into a comfortable but cluttered office, its walls lined with books and posters bearing the slogans of social change movements.

Crystal Street is a typical East New York block. Small one- and two-story homes sit cheek-by-jowl along either side of the street, some with their few feet of front yard fenced off in a vague nod at suburbia, others with short, blunted stoops that dump straight out onto the sidewalk. Squat, brown apartment complexes are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, their facades spotted by window-unit air conditioners, fire escapes zigzagging up and down the front and back. Corner stores, universally known as bodegas by New Yorkers, mark most major intersections, though here their shelves are crammed only with dried goods and potato chips and snack cakes rather than fresh fruits, and the fridge is stocked with tallboys of beer rather than with protein shakes. Both the homes and the apartment buildings are uneven. A line of dilapidated apartment complexes will be interrupted by a new, prefabricated-looking structure of oddly pink-tinted bricks, framed by freshly laid concrete sidewalks and steps. The houses that are occupied are tended to fastidiously, with freshly painted siding and homey flower arrangements. But a neighboring structure’s windows will be boarded up with wood planks that are warping and fading in a sign of just how long they’ve sat in place, the remnants of a sun-bleached eviction notice still stapled to the door.

East New York has long been the sort of place people conjure when imagining post-apocalyptic urban worlds. The sprawling neighborhood sits on the far eastern edge of Brooklyn’s landlocked central corridor, a vast urban interior that connects the borough’s Atlantic Ocean beaches to the ring of cosmopolitan enclaves that creep inward from the East River. As Manhattanites spill farther into Brooklyn in search of deals on old brownstones, increasing swaths of central Brooklyn are agonizing over the push and pull of development and gentrification. Historically Black and Caribbean neighborhoods like Prospect Park and Bedford-Stuyvesant are today in the throes of volatile economic and racial change. But East New York doesn’t yet have such lofty problems. Few come to East New York other than those who already live here; it’s been that way for decades. While New York City enjoyed a record low murder rate in 2007, East New York’s rate went up and was the highest in the city.

“When I was a kid, this neighborhood, for me, was scary,” says Carlos, a stout, soft-spoken 25-year-old Puerto Rican. He was one of a number of young, gay East New Yorkers who started hanging around the Crystal Street house after Julius and the other queer kids moved in there. Carlos is describing a peculiar fear, one rooted in familiarity rather than the unknown. Unaffiliated bystanders in the era’s open-air drug markets were never targets of the often-deadly violence, but they could nonetheless get caught in the crossfire—becoming accidental prisoners inside the battles of well known, and often loved, combatants. “We knew a lot of the people that worked on the drugs. We knew a lot of people who were doing bad things, who were in the community. And they might have been family members as well, you know, but they contributed to that.” Carlos shrugs. “You couldn’t really enjoy yourself. As a child, you had to be cautious.”

Geographic proximity notwithstanding, this whole scene couldn’t be more distant from the iconic gay neighborhoods of New York, with their cute boutiques selling rainbow tchotchkes and designer clothes. There are at least five gay community publications in New York City; none circulate in East New York. Hundreds of businesses target gay New Yorkers—from bars to coffee shops to bookstores—and nowadays they can afford to specialize even further, with a number catering to Black and Latino queers in search of their own aesthetic. None do business in East New York.

All of which is why the owners of the little house on Crystal Street would have never expected their home would turn into a makeshift youth shelter for queer kids like Julius. But in a city where conservative estimates say anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids are sleeping on the streets every night, safe spaces fill up fast. So when the owners opened their doors to some of the queer youth they worked with as community organizers, they were soon deluged. At its peak occupancy, nearly a dozen young people crammed into the four bedrooms of the commune-style home. There was the 14-year-old who’d been kicked out of his house and his school; the young lesbian who’d been squatting with a dozen kids in an empty building uptown; another young woman who still technically lived with her family in East New York but spent most of her time at the Crystal Street house, where she felt safer than she did on her own block. And there was Julius.
Julius’s day starts around two in the afternoon, at the computer in the basement. He loves tennis, and the first stop on his cyber rounds is always the Women’s Tennis Association website, where he checks the latest scores and doings on the circuit. He also likes to stay up on the news, so he’ll usually read the New York Times and check out some international news sites. Then there are his online games of canasta and spades, which he goes at for a couple of hours.

Of course, he’ll also do a few hours of work. Everybody staying in the house long-term is asked to at least make a good faith effort to come up with $200 a month, which gets funneled into expenses for the house and its affiliated community-building projects. Julius is perennially indebted on this score, but lately he’s been making good money as a “ghostwriter” for students at the technical college where his friend Miriam is studying to be a medical assistant. Julius is good at learning things, once he gets his curiosity revved up. He’d been an honor student at his high school in Florida before he ran away from his abusive foster family down there and turned up in New York. So when he started tutoring Miriam in some of the program’s basic math work, her grades shot up. She brought an exam home one day, and he did it for her; copies circulated at the school, and a small business was born. Now he gets $50 a pop to write students’ papers for them.

“I’m fucking reading these books online about urinalysis,” Julius says, bursting into an expansive, high-pitched laugh that falls just shy enough of a squeal. He cranks out 15 or so of the short papers a month, hitting everything from “administrative competencies” like working with spreadsheets to briefs on various diseases and conditions. “Everyone says, ‘How can you do this?’” He shrugs, sucks his teeth and dismisses the question as absurd. “Miss honey”—that’s Julius’s standard windup when he’s about to break something down—“President Bush did it! He didn’t go to school. He was hanging and fucking somebody while somebody was doing his papers and studying for him. So, why not?”
But the irony of the whole thing’s not lost on a guy as bright as Julius. The Crystal Street house is the tenth place he’s called home since arriving in the city from north Florida three years ago. He’s stayed with boyfriends, bunked in city shelters, even made a run at teaming up with roommates in their own place, subsidized by a local housing program. None of it has proved permanent. The bottom always falls out, turning his life upside down and sending him scurrying back into the streets in search of the basics—food, shelter, good company with which to pass the hours.

In this respect, Julius is sadly typical of queer youth of color who are trapped in locales like East New York—isolated from the purported sexual freedom of modern America, boxed in by myriad external barriers to their own sexual development and desperately elbowing out space for themselves. They are among the most worrisome in that social category that has come to be known as “at risk”—for Julius and thousands of young people like him are indeed at the top of the list for a disturbing array of today’s worst ills. Homeless services providers have long estimated that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth account for anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of young people without homes. One study found that more than a quarter of gay youth surveyed had dropped out of school, citing harassment as a leading reason. Another study found a third of gay high school kids had attempted suicide in the previous year. Still more have found gay youth more likely to use drugs, alcohol and tobacco. And among all of this bad news, HIV/AIDS looms largest, particularly for young Black men. In the mid-1990s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found HIV infection rates among 15- to 22-year-old Black gay and bisexual men to be as high as 14 percent—a number on a par with the worst epidemics globally and twice that of their white counterparts. In 2005, the CDC reported that new HIV infections among 20- to 24-year-old gay men of all races spiked a whopping 47 percent between 1999 and 2003; 60 percent of those infected were Black.

So the question must be asked: What drives all this risk? Certainly Julius and his cohorts have made a series of choices that leave them vulnerable to physical dangers. But what contexts are those choices made within? Risk is, after all, an entirely relative concept. And the physical vagrancy of Brooklyn’s gay kids is indicative of a larger emotional reality: they are cultural refugees, wandering in search of an identity and a belonging. For some, it begins in early childhood, for others not until adolescence, but the gap between themselves and the worlds they navigate too often defines them—and it is in that divide where the question of risk must be examined.
It’s a question that vexes Julius. He spent just about his whole life feeling caged up in foster homes before he fled up to New York City at 19, but now he’s mixed up about how to take charge of the wide-open life he’s carved out for himself. Sitting in one of the sparse delis along Crystal Street, he tries explaining this to me, and to himself, but he’s not finding the words. “I feel complacent,” he begins awkwardly. “I can’t, for some reason, do…something with my schooling, with work.” It’s already late on a slow summer afternoon, so our food had been sitting all day in hot plates by the time we ordered it. We sit picking at our Styrofoam boxes of stale rice and overcooked chicken, sweating in the deli’s thick, still air, and we can both feel the torpor pulling on Julius better than he can describe it. “I can’t do anything other than just being in circumstances, just moving and struggling from one thing to another, one thing to another. I am so over it.”

He’s particularly discombobulated by sex, both by the years of sex work he’s done and by his private exploits. Like everything else in Julius’s life, sex has been an area of waxing and waning struggles to wrest control and self-determination—although, in this particular realm, the battle is waged not with some external force like his foster parents but with himself. Who drives his sexual decisions? Does he make choices, or are they made for him? Or, more precisely, does he choose to have the terms dictated for him? And where does the sex end and the romance start? Or is it all the same thing?

By the time Julius moved to East New York, he was pretty well over trying to untangle these kinds of maddening and tiresome questions. Things had gone terribly wrong with his latest boyfriend, who he’d really thought it might work out with, and he’d found himself once again looking for a place to live, with no money. It’d been like that ever since he’d gotten here—a steady stream of relationship misfires and one failed effort after another at stabilizing his life. So now he’s content to let whatever happens, happen.

Today’s youth are renowned for their electronic multitasking, and Julius is no different. As he’s online in the Crystal Street basement, reading news and playing games and researching papers, he also logs on to Adam4Adam, a dating site where thousands of largely Black and Latino men go to cruise for sex, love and all manner of virtual connection with other men. Dating and cruising sites targeting gay men are plentiful, often subdivided by genre, geography and even fetish. Most of them blend an unabashed sexual ethos with the social networking typical of websites more familiar to popular culture, like MySpace and Friendster. Members create profiles with pictures of themselves and descriptions of their likes and dislikes, but in addition to hobbies and bands those preferences can include favored sex acts and characteristics of the guys you want to do it with. Adam4Adam is distinct in that it’s a site that, over time, has become a space nearly exclusive to Black and Latino gay men. Gay America is no different from the rest of the country in that it is deeply segregated on matters of love and lust, and on most gay chat sites, users regularly spell out in their profiles which races they’re willing to be approached by—“sorry, only into whites and Asians;” “no blacks, just a preference;” “hung blatino guys a +++;” and so on. Such distinctions aren’t necessary on Adam4Adam, because the few white guys you’ll find there have already made their proclivities clear just by logging on to the site. Instead, the prohibitions broadcast in Adam4Adam’s profiles are more likely to involve gender, with members of all gender expressions in seeming agreement that butch is good and faggoty is bad—“no sissies,” “be a man,” “real niggas only!”
The site is wildly popular. Ages range from Julius’s 18-to-22-year-old set on up to guys in their ‘60s. Log on at almost any hour in any major metropolis around the country, and you’ll find hundreds of men there chatting and e-mailing back and forth. And even with all of the cut-to-the-chase sexual language, there are as many people looking for simple friendship and connection as there are horny guys looking for quick hookups. Indeed, as on all the gay chat sites, members often seem to have their wires crossed on what they want to get out of the virtual space. Members build profiles that accept and reinforce a tacit agreement that the space be reserved for meeting physical needs, but then back into pleas that it accommodate emotional desires as well. So one profile after another leads with overt sexuality—naked pictures and graphic descriptions of sexual skills—only to then wind into protestations that the person’s really more than a sex act, that he needs and can give something else too: “Don’t be fooled by my profile name,” a typical refrain will go, “not just looking for a fuck, so come correct.”

But Julius isn’t one of those people—he’s clear that he goes to Adam4Adam for “no-strings” sex and has built a stable of fuck buddies there, 15 or so guys he turns to in the numb hours between when he gets bored with the computer and when he goes out clubbing or climbs back into bed. There’s “NYCBiggestPimp,” the nameless Secret Service officer who’s “a weird guy, but good in bed.” There’s Marty, who has a couple of girlfriends—or, as Julius puts it, “baby mama drama chicks.” There’s Doug, who Julius is fond of but who lives sorta far away—meaning not on the subway line that intersects with Crystal Street, thus requiring either a bothersome train transfer or a $20 cab ride. Julius’s preference for guys who live near the A train line or, better still, in walking distance, draws up the incongruity of these trysts: they’re not compelling enough to go out of the way for, yet are so essential that he has as many as three of them a week.

Julius is also careful to limit the intimacy of his sexual encounters. None of the men knows where he lives or how to reach him outside of e-mail. If you’re to fuck Julius, you don’t call him, he calls you. And there’s no chitchat or lingering after the deed is done. “When it’s over, it’s over,” Julius insists.

Still, the emotional distance isn’t such that it compels him to use condoms. With all the time he’s spent in and around social service programs, he knows more about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases than most people. He knows, for instance, that since he’s more often than not a bottom—the receptive partner in anal sex—his risk is heightened because HIV is far more easily transmitted through the porous lining of the anus than through the relatively resilient skin of the penis. Yet he figures he uses a condom maybe one in five times he has sex. “Why?” He shrugs helplessly and draws a blank. “It boggles my mind.” His risk-calculation formula, however, is uncomplicated: if the guy puts on a rubber, he’s cool with it; if not, same difference.

“There was a month that I was just like a sex machine,” he recalls, “almost every day—until I got sick. I had like a high fever, all that shit. I thought I caught something.” Often, a couple of weeks after someone contracts HIV that person will have symptoms that feel like the flu or mononucleosis. That’s the brief, acute stage of HIV infection, where the virus replicates by the billions a day as the immune system ramps up its counterattack. HIV-prevention campaigns ominously advertise this physiological red flag in ads published in gay periodicals and posted in gay neighborhoods around the city: “Are you sure it’s just the flu?” The idea is to draw people into testing and thereby either catch a new infection before it spreads to someone else or shock people into being more safe next time. The intervention, as such things are called in public health parlance, worked for Julius, for a while. “I got my results, and I was fine,” he explains with relief. “I said, maybe that’s a warning! So I stopped for two weeks.”

Julius is again at an uncharacteristic loss for words when asked to explain why he has so much sex in the first place. “It’s an escape,” he suggests, conceding that he’s certainly not just so horny that he needs casual sex three times a week. “And the funny thing is, I do create some sort of attachment with these people—I mean, they e-mail me so much—and then I neglect them. Why? I don’t know. I don’t develop much attachment, but it’s almost like I make them get attached to me.”

Around seven or eight o’clock, he chooses one of his would-be paramours to spend the early evening with. He rolls a joint and glides out onto Crystal Street. Julius is hyperaware of his homosexuality when walking through East New York. The easy swish that draws him welcome attention in other settings feels misplaced here, the sidelong glances tossed his way seem piercing rather than longing. It’s the way he dresses, he figures, the way he color-coordinates his outfits and squeezes into one-size-too-small tank tops and jeans. “I’m so self-conscious,” he frets. “Even when I sit on the train. I always read something. I always read a book so people don’t look at my face.”

Not that he’s cowering in anything like a closet, or that he’d ever even consider such a thing possible. Indeed, it’s his very refusal—even inability—to be discreet about his sexuality that’s the problem. He’s just out of place in East New York and unable to conceal the ugly fact of it. So he walks briskly as he travels up Crystal and makes his way over the few harrowing blocks he must travel to the subway, and he tries to project strength, if not masculinity.
The most thorough research available on risk and youth is probably the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biannual survey of teens, with the literal-minded title “Youth Risk Behavior Survey.” It’s a treasure trove for all manner of researchers, as it asks thousands of anonymous high school students dozens of questions about themselves and the potentially unhealthy things they do. It asks about how much exercise the kids get and what kind of diet they have. It asks if they smoke or use other forms of tobacco. It asks about sex—how often they have it, at what age, under what circumstances and with what sort of safety precautions. And it asks about drugs and alcohol, again drilling down on the details of when, where and how. So you can learn, for instance, that four out of five students who rode bikes in 2005 never wore helmets, and that Black males were particularly unlikely to wear one. Or that Hispanic males were the most likely to have tried cocaine, with a whopping 15 percent saying they’d done so.

But the survey has its limits. For one, you’ve got to be both enrolled in and actually showing up for school to have your answers counted. And for all its probing around sex, gender and race, what the survey doesn’t ask is if you consider yourself gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or even just unsure on the matter. Which means that on the question of risk, researchers interested in gay youth have been left groping around in the dark, cobbling together small, localized data sets in an effort to understand. One place they’ve turned for help is the state of Massachusetts. Each state acts under CDC guidance to conduct its own survey, which the feds then patch together to form a national picture. And in 1995, Massachusetts added questions about sexual identity to its survey. Given the results, it’s hard to imagine how other states genuinely interested in youth risk behavior haven’t followed suit.
In 2003, six percent of Massachusetts students identified themselves either as being gay or having had some same-sex sexual contact in their lives. You’ve got to look hard at the rest of the survey to find something public health officials consider risky that those gay students aren’t doing more of than their peers, and by wide margins.

The survey showed, for instance, that gay kids were more likely to use every form of intoxicant and to do so with greater intensity. Half of them said they smoked, which was double the general student population. Sixty percent said they drank, and 44 percent did so in “binges,” compared to 26 percent overall. Half also said they currently used illegal drugs—ecstasy, pot, coke—compared to 29 percent of the overall population.

The survey also found gay kids’ lives to be riddled with violence. A quarter of them said they carried a weapon (compared to 13 percent of students overall), and more than four in 10 said they had been in at least one fight in the previous year (compared to three in 10 overall). Counter to what most would expect, they were also far more likely to have been in a gang than straight kids, by a margin of 23 percent to 9 percent. Other answers suggest they carry weapons and join gangs because they feel they need protection—22 percent said they’d been threatened with or injured by a weapon at school (compared to just 5 percent overall), and 42 percent said they’d been bullied, twice the rate of the general student population.

Gay teens also had far more active sex lives than their peers. More than three-quarters said they’d had sex, and one in five said they’d done so by the time they were 13 years old. Comparatively, 39 percent of the overall population said they’d had sex, and just 4 percent had done so as preteens. Gay kids were also more than three times as likely to say they’d had at least four sexual partners as the overall population and, in a counterintuitive fact, were twice as likely to have either been pregnant or have gotten someone pregnant. But here again, violence is pervasive. Forty-one percent said they’d been forced into sexual contact against their will, compared to 8 percent overall. Thirty percent said they’d experienced some sort of dating violence, compared to 9 percent overall.

The litany of increased risk goes on and on in this fashion. Gay kids are less likely to participate in sports, more likely to be obese, more likely to skip school. They’re even less likely to wear seatbelts.

And none of this has escaped the nation’s culture wars surrounding sexuality. Religious Right organizations that argue homosexuality is a disorder—one that can and should be treated and cured—say all this risk is just one more sign of the condition’s depravity. In July 1998, after a landmark study mined the initial Massachusetts survey data to tease out the gay-specific trends, conservatives pounced. In a full-page New York Times ad, a coalition of “ex-gay” movement groups urged the nation to rally behind “hope and healing for homosexuals.” Among other things, the ad cited the Massachusetts data as reasons for the need to treat homosexuality, declaring the survey revealed “a high degree of destructive behavior among homosexuals, including alcohol, drug abuse, and emotional or physical violence.” It went on to interpret these evils, arguing that they represent “the visible response to a broken heart.” The ad ran in major dailies around the country throughout the month.

Chicago’s Dr. Robert Garofalo was the study’s lead researcher. He had been working with gay youth since 1995, both as a clinician and as a researcher, and he countered then and maintains now that all of this risk actually stems from “isolation and rejection.” To Garofalo, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a terribly blunt tool for understanding risk, because it fails to examine the larger context in which these disembodied choices about sex and drugs are made. “I don’t think ‘risk’ itself, in the way we talk about it, is particularly helpful. We talk about it in terms of pathology,” Garofalo argues. But risk-taking is neither unusual nor inappropriate for adolescents.

“Find me an adolescent that isn’t an ‘at-risk’ adolescent, and I’ll show you one who isn’t healthy,” he quips. “All adolescents take risks. It’s just about making those risks calculated.”

And that’s the rub for Garofalo—that gay kids are both more likely to get backed into a set of dangerous choices and, perhaps most importantly, are less likely to have someone with whom they identify available to help make those decisions in a calculated rather than haphazard manner. “It’s the milieu, the environment that these kids live in,” he says of young people like Julius. “The one thing that I think would help is to have some sort of adult role model to turn to.” And yet his research shows that to be a woefully unlikely resource. He led a team that surveyed 500 Chicago youth about a range of things, including whether they have “someone they look up to.”  Preliminary findings were that a disproportionate share of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids said they did not. And among those who said they did, in fact, have someone, “by and large they were unavailable people—Beyoncé, Oprah, people who were not available to them” in any personal way. That reality leaves young gay people wrestling with all of the commonplace but nonetheless difficult choices of adolescence on their own, with no standard to measure their personal calculations against. What’s a gamble and what’s a sure bet? What’s a reasonable ante just to play? Are the stakes of letting this crush or this sexual encounter or this argument go by as great as they seem? Are they worth betting my health or my education or even my life for? Julius and others like him have no formula for deciphering answers to these questions. So they tend to just go all in.
From the moment 19-year-old Julius stepped off the Greyhound bus from Florida into the hustle and bustle of Times Square, he felt his grip on the control he sought slipping away. His goal had been to break out of the emotional and physical bondage he’d been mired in, and that much he’d accomplished. He was now free, to be sure, and right up until his abrupt departure from the city three years later, he’d profess himself to be living out the best years of his life. But his was an odd sort of liberation. The alternately abusive and confusing life of Florida no longer held him hostage, but making it on his own with few resources or life skills would mean learning lots of lessons the hard way.

Barely more than a month after his arrival in the city, Julius was entirely broke. He checked into the Covenant House youth shelter, and for the remainder of his stay in New York his independence tied him to shelters and other temporary housing arrangements. “My first couple of weeks at Covenant House were really traumatic,” he recalls. Julius was subject at Covenant House to just the sort of abuse services providers who deal with gay youth charge is commonplace in the massive national network of Catholic shelters. “I was robbed, and all my clothes were stolen. All the other kids made fun of me. I got in a fight with one guy who beat me up pretty badly. I had never been so lonely in my life.”

For Julius, however, that torture was but a temporary part of his time in the shelter, and he considered it a small price to pay for the family he slowly developed on the streets of New York City. “I made a lot of friends at Covenant House,” he testified, “who are still my friends today. My three months there were beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.” This duality would be typical of Julius’s New York life—trauma in one moment, freedom and belonging in the next, or often happening concurrently and in the same space. Covenant House is, for instance, also where he learned how to do the sex work he’d regularly turn to in order to finance his freedom.

Still, the plainly harsh realities of his New York life do nothing to alter the equally clear fact that Julius’s time here was the most authentic he’d ever spent. From the moment he walked out of the Port Authority, he burst into a new, truer self. It may not have been the life he had imagined as he climbed into the Greyhound, but it was in fact his own, one he’d built from scratch and one in which he made his own decisions. Even if surviving in New York still meant making tough choices, like those about when and how to sell his body, he nonetheless made them of his own volition. Whatever this life was, it felt like freedom, and that was enough. The associated risks could be damned.

Kai Wright is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Visit kaiwright.com.