Felix, the Stabilized Cat

Well, to this reporter, Felix Forte does not resemble even a partially bloody eunuch as he moves through the kitchen and living room like a nervous boxer waiting for the bell. He's skinny; he says that's because of "stress and aggravation, but in the beginning it was due to the medicines. My doctor says I'm going to have a heart attack before I ever die of AIDS." Lighting up a Kool, he continues without irony.

"I haven't been sick in three years, except for the medicine."

Felix Forte was born 37 years ago on Staten Island into a huge clan of Italians, lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. His folks separated when he was "really young."

At 18 he got a job in demolition through his pals Jim at the labor union and Vinny, boss of the outfit. They manually destroyed downtown buildings--"You can't use explosives in the middle of Manhattan." Felix found that he was good at it.

"I was this skinny little 130-pound kid . . . they put me on top of this building in Greenwich Village right down there on Spring Street, the old Archives Building. First day on the job I almost got killed. Me, I wanted to show that I had guts, and I'm up there with a 90-pound jackhammer and the floor caved in. After that they got to like me 'cause I was the only white guy who would climb the steel." He became a foreman, a troubleshooter, and "did the asbestos at Madison Square Garden."

At 31 Felix tired of the demolition game, and when his wife suggested a move to Arizona, where her family had relocated, he said, "What the hell?" He had a van, a friend "owed me a favor" that was paid back with a new engine, he took the van "around the corner, packed it, and me and my wife came out here."

That was six years ago. Felix still has not quite taken to Arizona.
"The only thing I like about Arizona is Tempe," he says, gesturing plenty. "I'm kind of a neurotic, but I'm pretty calm in Tempe." As for New York, "I like going to the Guggenheim. I like going to the Met. I like getting on the Staten Island Ferry. I like getting on the train. I like going to sit in Little Italy and eat at Angelo's. I like to go to the corner and get a decent slice of pizza. I like to go to a delicatessen. That's what I miss." In 1992, the couple had a daughter, and Felix took a job with Southwest Airlines, at first cleaning out ashtrays on planes, later washing aircraft.

"It was a good job," he says, shrugging. "Seven, eight bucks an hour, benefits, 401(k); I sustained myself and everything was going real good."

Then Felix got sick, but he ignored it as best he could.
"I came down with pneumonia. I was washing the airplanes, and all I wanted to do was work-work, and Southwest treated me wonderfully. I couldn't leave 'cause my work and my family was my life. I had my home; this was the greatest thrill of my life. But I was sick, talking to myself. When you're sick, you don't realize what's going on, you can't figure it out, and the chemicals inside my head were all fucked up. I was a sick, sick man. Very sick, but I was functioning . . . I was coughing, down to 119 pounds [some 40 less than usual]. At first they thought it was valley fever, they thought it was this and that, and I refused to go into the hospital, I didn't want to go to no hospital, but I finally had to go.

"Then you get diagnosed. And it bothers you because I had everything I wanted. I didn't want no big house in friggin' Paradise Valley, I was happy with my little home here with my wife and my daughter. That's all I wanted. Food on the table, good close circle of friends, we were doing all right. And then this hits you.

"AIDS gets you, and you have to tell your mother. Then you have to worry about the test on your wife and your daughter, that was in my head. They came back negative, so they were all right. But to have to tell your mother, to know that your mother might have to bury you, that she might have to bury her own son, that's got to be one of the worst things that any parent can do."

Within three months of his diagnosis of "full-blown AIDS," Felix was back on the job. Which was also the beginning of telling people--family, friends, co-workers--why he had been off the job.

"I had it, but I had to face it. And facing it and dealing with it are two opposite things," Felix says. "For a while, I was out of it. I didn't know how to handle it, but I got help. I went to the Malta Center [a Phoenix support service for people infected and affected by AIDS], and my family, and my in-laws, everybody flew out here from New York; it was an event. And they dragged me out.

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