To Heal a Mocking Bird
By Randevyn Pierre
Stories from Silent Survivors of Divine Punishment:
Faith and Loomy Juice (Pt. 1)
In the early 2000s, the drive from Birmingham to Atlanta was short enough to make happen with just $20 in gas and a single night’s change of clothing. During that time, nothing felt sexier than being in my 20s and living out of a backpack while dancing the night away over the weekend in A-T-L.
Just years before, Sundays for me and Sam were all about crisp, white, starched shirts and creased dress pants as we followed our community choir from church service to church service—screeching out tenor notes at the top of our vocal range.
Modern Black church choirs in the 2000s were marked by their dramatic, wobbly vibrato spread thick across a vibrant gospel tune. Mister Quinn, an older gay man, had become known for hand-making the boutonnieres for the choir’s tenor section. He was also known for his bellowing, operatic tenor voice that lit the path for all the other men in the section.
Although Sam and I laughed uncontrollably the first time we ever heard it, we’d soon after perfected Mr. Quinn’s brand of tenor for ourselves. We didn’t have very many (if any) openly Black queer men as mentors; still, we knew something about Mister Quinn was warm and familiar.
Of all the guys and girls who sang together, Sam stuck out in our crowd of friends; he was naturally more outgoing than I ever was. Sam was constantly planning activities at church, high-fiving everyone on our college campus, dancing with the J-setters in his fraternity and laughing louder than anyone in the room. Somehow, I knew it was only a matter of time before he’d be drawn to a place big enough to hold his personality.
Every chance we got, we’d break out of our Alabama bubble and jump into my old, rickety car, making our way across I-20 towards our good trouble in Atlanta.
We were young and broke, but it seemed there was so much more to see and experience there compared to our quaint corner of the South. We shared meals, showered at truck stops, and even slept in the car during our weekend getaways to the big city. The momentary thrill of a good time made it all worthwhile!
Sam left first; I missed him, but I understood why. It was just too difficult for many of us to explore our full identity in a small, religious town where people talked too much, and everyone knew someone who knew your mama.
The prospect of living in a large city, free of judgment and the constant curious eyes of familiar faces was a dream we all aspired to. It didn’t hurt that Atlanta was becoming known as a city stocked with young, attractive Black men who were looking for us as much as we were looking for them!
Once I’d finally moved to Atlanta, Sam had already gotten a job at the local hospital through a temp agency. Being the charmer he was, he helped me get on as a food service worker.
We worked most of the same shifts, and Sam showed me up every single day with the unique way he sported his black and white uniform, carrying his confidence up and down the halls, entertaining patients as he cleared their trays.
I loved my friend’s stylish swag, his charismatic way, and his infectious sense of humor. I was also aware of his difficulty maintaining adult responsibilities and how he’d spent much of his post high school life couch surfing between jobs—and Atlanta was no different.
It wasn’t long before ‘that call’ came from Sam, asking to crash at my place for a couple of weeks until he could get himself settled.
The Darlington was a large, glassy twin tower turned low-income apartment building where many young African Americans took residence while sprinting toward their big Atlanta dreams.
It was like living in a college dorm all over again; everywhere you looked—there was a good time either happening or waiting to happen.
Sam was so much of a delight to be around that I didn’t even think twice about letting him crash with me for a few weeks. We would go out on the weekends, trade boy stories, sing those roaring tenor parts with from our choirboy days, puff and pass in silence, and even share a meal or two every now and then. For me, Sam was part of the joy that brought me in Atlanta.
I learned more about Sam during that time; he was dedicated to his faith (even at a time when there was no parental mandate to attend church). Still, no matter how devoted Sam was to God or church activities, his father always seemed strangely emotionally sterile and withdrawn from him.
While we shared a living space, I also noted that Sam took a keen interest in his health. He swore by Loomy juice, an increasingly popular natural drink in the mid 2000s, rumored to contain ingredients with organic healing qualities. Sam seemed to drink multiple bottles a week, and even got me thinking I should start on the same regimen!
After being fired for missing too many shifts, Sam started asking me to help him keep up his Loomy tradition—but the juice didn’t stand a chance next to the priority of rent on the 1st.
Two weeks turned into a month.
Sam was still on the couch, and certainly not tracking in the direction of standing on his own two feet. Although he was naturally slender, his clothes began to fit differently. Sam didn’t have money to buy food, and many times, I struggled to feed myself. Our economic reality seemed to be showing up more and more through Sam’s changing figure.
I started thinking that perhaps the stress of not having a job and relying solely on the generosity of his close friend started to take a toll on Sam. I noticed him turning down meals during times when there was enough food for us both. For weeks, he’d lay around the apartment, softly complaining of stomach pains.
The pattern of Sam’s daily cycle broke the night his stomach cramps got so bad I had to take him to the emergency room. Sam was crouched over waiting for hours before being taken to the back—and admitted. After giving him fluids and running a series of tests, the conclusion came fast and furious.
Sam was given an AIDS diagnosis.
I didn’t know much about HIV or AIDS. Back home, all folks ever said was that AIDS was something sissies and punks got—from being sissies and punks. There was no conversation about how to avoid it, deal with it—or live with it.
Over the next few weeks, I came home to check on Sam between my night shifts only to find him curled over in a fetal position on the floor; somehow, the bed was too uncomfortable for him to bare. No amount of Ensure I’d bring home could settle his stomach. Sam couldn’t even hold down water, and the stomach pains just got worse.
Getting a call from our friends helped lighten up the ominous haze that seemed to be looming over the apartment during the past couple months. Much like those weekend trips to Atlanta we used to make, it was supposed to be good time when our old buddies from Alabama turned up for the visit we were promised.
Although a group of us were in a congested space, we were all happy not to have to spend the night in my car this time!
My apartment didn’t have much furniture, and so Sam’s belongings took to the closest available surface for storage. The entire space was about to get a wakeup call at 2:00 a.m.
What the hell!
Why wouldn’t you tell us this?”
The authentic anger and confusion from the tone of her voice temporarily arrested the apartment.
The medical documents from Sam’s emergency room visit happened to be in a place where our friend, Tara, could easily see.
While Tara ranted, Sam was laid out on a blanket toward the corner of the apartment on the floor, where he’d been the entire weekend, too weak to muster the strength to go with us anywhere. He seemed to know exactly what Tara was referring to instantly. Sam didn’t even look up.
“We could have been helping you! Taking you to get meds—something! You don’t have to deal with this on your own!”
In that moment, nothing could calm Tara’s thunder. It was indicative of the love we all had for each other. If it weren’t my couch Sam was on, it would have been Tara or one of his other friends from home.
The tears that followed Tara’s outburst reminded us of how much we had really become a family over the years. Still, there was little any of us could do to reverse Sam’s condition.
After two more visits to the emergency room within the coming weeks, doctors told Sam that he should stop coming in. They insisted that there was nothing else they could do for him and he needed to get on an HIV treatment plan.
In the years to come, I would realize the many barriers that made it difficult for someone like Sam to get into (and remain) in care.
When it comes to healthcare, every aspect of our identity and the way we experience our lives matters. This is a term in public health known as “social determinants of health (DOH).”
This term outlines the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life related outcomes and risks alike.
Sam was poor, Black, gay, religious, uninsured, unemployed, not knowledgeable about the healthcare system, and so sick he could barely stand. It seemed his circumstances made him a bit more unlikely to clear the hurdles built into the criteria for the State’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) at the time.
The program required applicants to attend an appointment with a case manager and complete a full application, provide proof of residence, proof of income (or lack thereof), identification, a viral load lab, and a CD4 count lab.
If Sam cleared all these hurdles, he would’ve had to be added to the waiting list of other Georgia patients. Only the sickest of all were granted slots after someone died, missed their re-certification appointment, acquired health insurance, or moved away.
This process could’ve taken months (optimistically), and if he’d been added to the program, he would have had to figure out how to pick up his meds each month from the pharmacy, which was about 5 miles up the road.
Despite his challenges, Sam was sure he had the answer. The church Sam attended (before his sickness trapped him in the apartment) offered its members facing illness Loomy Juice that had been “blessed” by Sam’s pastor. In Sam’s devoutly religious mind, this was a solid path to curing his illness (if he could just find a way to pay for it).
Even as a church kid myself, I didn’t believe this could be true. I tried to break the news to Sam. As I gently challenged his theory, I could see hope slipping from his eyes for the first time. I realized that Sam needed care—and in a serious way—far beyond me helping him on and off the couch.
As young, Black, queer, Southern men, we didn’t have any older adults to turn to for support. I didn’t feel comfortable telling my mom about what was happening. After all, we had our own unresolved issues around my sexuality.
Over the years, Sam’s identity became a wall of awkward energy between he and his father, a devout church member who seemed embarrassed to the point of emotional paralysis by his son’s sexuality.
But things had gotten bad for Sam. Really bad. I was going to have to call his dad.
These stories are a collection of first-person narratives taken from anonymous lived experiences; names have been substituted.