Many is the time I have seen this guy come into the neighborhood bar I frequent. He pulls up on some kind of enormous chopper that looks like a Revell model, parks the thing right in front of the bar, next to the bicycle racks, and saunters in, stabbing the walkway with his cane. A cane despite that he's late 30s, tops. The guy is hard to miss. Tall, wiry, plenty of tattoos. He speaks in a thick Noo Yawk accent, conveyed with plenty of hand gestures and massive grins that change into squinty looks and a gallery of other precise expressions, depending on the emotional direction of the particular sentence.
He knew some guys I knew at the bar; they were from The City, too. Listening to them talk, it wasn't hard to tell. Early on, I guessed that if I kept eavesdropping, he'd refer to himself as a guinea. I was right.
Then one afternoon, one of our mutual friends--I believe it was New York Richie--introduced me to him; his name is Felix Forte. There was lots of loud conversation that I no longer remember, but somewhere in there Felix mentioned that he had AIDS. I asked him if he would tell me about it, and he said he would.
I go over to Felix's Tempe house on a Saturday afternoon, pull up and walk across the lawn a bit hung over. He greets me with, "Hey, man, how you doin'? You look like you got AIDS!" The place is neat and clean and shady and quiet. There's a bumper sticker on his mailbox that says "The New Teamsters." His 4-year-old daughter is off with her mother, from whom Felix recently separated.
Inside, there's a stereo on a bookshelf blaring Harry Belafonte, and one section of that shelf is devoted to all kinds of Felix the Cat memorabilia.
Felix, the man, has a blurry blue tattoo on his chest that he shows me; it's Felix the Cat holding a rifle. He got it a long time ago on Coney Island, and he thinks maybe along with it he got the disease that he's been fighting for three years now.
But it could have been somewhere else.
"I worked for a medical-waste company," he says. "I got stuck with a needle. And I worked cleaning out crack houses. Once I reached into a bag, into some blood, and I had cuts on my hands. It wasn't from heroin. It could have been from cheap women. The bars in New York don't close 'til five in the morning, so I had my share of women. I inhaled, okay? Have I been with a prostitute? Yeah. When I was a single guy, 17, 18. I did a lot of things."
But that was in the past. He does a number of other things now, some of which are caring for and absolutely worshiping his daughter, and taking "about 50 or 60 pills a day. I can hardly keep up with it." Felix has all those pill containers lined up like plastic sentries on the kitchen table. A few are:
Yoxidin, Diflucan, Marinol, Nystatin, Zithronax, garlic oil, garlic capsules, Marinol, vitamins D and E, AZT, L-lysine, Humponin, needles to inject himself with Vitamin B, and Value Wise extra-strength aspirin. There's also a Nebulizer, "an electronic pump you fill up with a syringe and it vibrates, it fogs up and you breathe it in." And testosterone, when necessary.
"It gives you some oomph," Felix clarifies. "You got to shave your balls to put it [ointment] on and you put a blow-dryer on it so it sticks on there. I'll loan you one. You'll run around with a woody all over the fuckin' house, knockin' down irons and shit."
Even more effective than all that are three newly available, apparently breakthrough drugs that are making headlines worldwide. Ten years in development, the so-called protease inhibitors can put a stranglehold on the protease enzyme, which plays a large role in the reproductive cycle of HIV.
"You take 12 Invirase, 12 of the Retrovir and two of the Epivir a day . . . they're the new magic bullet," Felix says. They've shown an amazing ability to drive the AIDS virus into submission.
Though Felix still suffers from slight chronic fatigue syndrome and peripheral neuropathy (it leaves his feet numb, hence the cane), there is no denying the significant positive effects. When I ask him if they work, Felix strikes a pose on display, Fonzlike.
"Yeah, it helps me. I'm still here, I'm still alive and kicking."
Which is not to say that Felix is currently tap-dancing down to buffets all over town; here is a sampling from his doctor's "Not List" of delicacies, all from the "C" category:
"Cabernet (all wines, really), cake, calf, Camels (all cigarettes), candy, cannelloni (a pity, as Felix says he "cooks the best fuckin' Italian food you ever ate"), cereals, chewing gum, chips, cellophane-wrapped foods, Chivas Regal, Coors (all beers), Coke (all soft drinks and cocaine), cold cuts (the sweepings from meat factories), crack, Crisco, crullers, city water!"
He says he does a good job with all of this, almost.
"My attitude is, I wanna live somewhat normal. I have my drinks and my cigarettes and maybe it defeats my purpose sometimes, but I want to be somewhat of the same person. I don't want to sit here and be a total bloody eunuch the rest of my life, you understand?"
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.
"When I went back to work . . . I was all scared, all anxious. Some people didn't want me around, but [from] the majority of people, I had more support than negativity. They knew what type of person I was before. When I got sick, they'd come over for breakfast and next thing I'd know, underneath the tablecloth there'd be $1,000, $400, $100; you know what I'm saying? The guys at work, when I first got sick they handed me $3,000 cash, they were just unbelievable, these people. More class, more caring than I've ever seen.
"When you ask somebody how they get AIDS, well, in the beginning, I used to say, 'I'm straight.' Fine. But now I find it's an insult to the gay community, because I was a homophobe in my own right, I come from a guinea-Irish-Italian neighborhood basically, and telling them people is a bit harder than telling my new friends out here, but still, people don't care. It's a common, everyday event.
"So now I tell everybody. I don't give a shit. Like Richie at the bar. I'll tell you a story, we hit it off the first day. Ever see that movie Papillon? Steve McQueen takes a scarf from the leper and the leper goes, 'How did you know I wasn't contagious?'
"It was the same thing with New York Richie. We had a few drinks at the bar, we met each other, and we're talking for two hours and I say, 'Richie, I got AIDS.' He takes my cigarette and he smokes my cigarette. I mean, I go into our neighborhood bar, I get kisses and hugs. Nobody ever, except for a few people, was scared.
"I was depressed for a real long time, but I always had family events, and I always did what I have to do, and I had the money. Shit--I get AIDS, and my father hits the lottery twice in California. Ain't that a kick in the groin!"
Physically unable to work anymore, Felix resigned from Southwest on July 26. He has insurance and help from family to cover medical bills that run into the thousands each month. He also has the drugs that seem to have given him a reprieve from death; he's lucky. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, between 650,000 and 900,000 Americans are currently infected with HIV; of that number, 60,000 are using the new drugs.
"A lot of us thought we were going to kick the bucket, but now we have positive things to look forward to," he says. "There's people living normal lives. My life is normal, except I have AIDS. But I have to differentiate--am I not feeling well today because of AIDS, or is it the medicine, or because I'm depressed, or I got bills on my mind?"
It makes you wonder--at least it made me wonder--if God was somewhere in the mix.
"You know something? I'm not going to be a friggin' hypocrite. I didn't pray to God much before, so now that I'm sick, I'm going to insult my higher being and say, 'Oh, please, God, I got AIDS, make everything better'? If it was me, I'd say, 'Well, where were you ten years ago?' God knows basically I'm a good man, I hope, and if He wants to let me in the gates of heaven, fine. I'm not going to be a monk, and I'm not going to retreats--God bless people that want to do that, but I'm not into that. I just can't find that kind of spirituality. And I'm not going to find it at this point.
"Right now it's learning how to deal with the situation at hand--marriage. I try and hold my head up, clean my house, watch TV, go to a movie, go to a baseball game, have my coffee. I'm a retired man, that's how I consider myself right now."
We stop the tape recorder for a while, and Felix shows me his daughter's room. As Buckingham Palace is the home of the Queen of England, this is the bedroom of a little girl. Bright yellow walls. Things dangling from the ceiling. Group portraits of mom, dad and baby. And enough stuffed animals to clog the rip in the Titanic.
"I resigned July 26 because I really can't work no more. I'm too tired. All I want to do is really take care of my daughter," Felix explains. Felix's daughter also spends time at day care provided by the Women's Task Force, an organization of which the man cannot sing enough praise.
"It's kind of hard, because you have to tell your daughter that daddy has a virus. We've spoken about death to her, we've told her that daddy might be with the angels and we look up at the stars. You got to teach the kid, we all have a natural fear of death; I don't want her to be afraid of death.
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"I would like to see my daughter have her first communion, get married, but they give me ten years now. I can live for ten years. So what do I do with these ten years? But maybe in two years they'll find something else out. Eventually, AIDS is going to be like diabetes. But nevertheless, I'm in a dilemma. I have a daughter to take care of, I have my home, me and my wife are separated."
I ask him if the separation is because of his diagnosis.
"I don't know. We had an inability to make a commitment. Maybe AIDS did have something to do with it, or maybe we lacked something prior to that. That's the best way to put it. She has to live her life now. It's like the old saying, there's nothing constant but change. So I just keep my garden in the backyard, keep the roses up, and maybe my wife will come home someday.
"I'm sick at times, but I don't consider myself ruined or nothin' like that. I have a lot of hope. I never give up fuckin' hope. It's just what do you want your hope to be?"
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