From Far Rockaway to Sing Sing, the children of an inmate with
AIDS hold a family together.
New York City's Hell's Kitchen has
undergone dramatic changes since I moved in six years ago. Disney
has colonized Times Square, and all the sex shops now hawk trinkets.
But one neighborhood ritual has remained constant: the buses that
leave from Ninth Avenue and 45th Street every Saturday night, bound
for prisons upstate.
On those evenings, the line at Smiler's Deli is dozens deep --
women, mostly, with children in tow, waiting to buy sustenance for
the night's long ride. From all points of the city, hundreds of
wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, head north each week.
Some spend all night on buses bound for facilities near the Canadian
border; others travel just an hour to prisons in neighboring
Veniece Cid, 23, makes the trip with her brother, Joey, 19. Every
three months, they board a train to visit their father, José Cid, an
inmate at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. Since José tested
positive for HIV in 1994, Veniece has been his rock of support. With
one year of college and experience as an administrative assistant,
the sharp, articulate young woman is also coping with the family's
financial struggles. These days, Veniece is not only looking for
work but looking after her mother, who is laid up at home with a
Veniece's parents separated when their daughter was 8. At the
time, José was leading a fast life -- using and selling drugs,
gambling and sleeping around, and facing regular run-ins with the
law. At one point Joey shut José out of his life, but Veniece has
remained devoted -- despite the drastic limits that her father's
four-year incarceration has placed on her ability to care for him.
The last time she and Joey saw their father, he was in the
hospital with a 107-degree fever, so delirious he could barely
recognize his own children. "The doctors will not disclose
information to me, even though I'm his daughter," she says. "I have
to be persistent and many times, rude, because no one wants to let
me know anything, not even his medications."
She has responded by bombarding José with articles about new HIV
findings and treatments. Through letters, Veniece, Joey and their
father have become closer than many families who live together.
"It's hard to get money in jail," she says, "and still, he sends us
Saturday, August 1, 6:20 a.m.
For Veniece and Joey, getting
to Sing Sing in time for visiting hours means getting up at 3:30 in
the morning. From their home in Far Rockaway, Queens, they hop the A
Train at around 5 a.m., which makes endless local stops before it
reaches Manhattan. Once they get to Grand Central, they eat
breakfast at the only restaurant open at that hour, McDonald's. Then
they catch the 7:20 train to Ossining.
We have arranged to meet outside the information booth in Grand
Central at 6:30. I get there 10 minutes early, but Veniece and Joey,
as well as André, our photographer, are already there. Soon, over
breakfast and coffee, we are trading personal histories and Asian
astrological signs. "My father and I are both Tigers," Veniece says.
Warriors, I think. Bruce Lee's sign. "This is supposed to be our
year," she adds hopefully.
On the train ride up to Ossining, the asphalt of
the Bronx gives way to the green hills of the Hudson River valley.
Joey, in his third year of a sports-medicine program, says his
friends are all aware of what he's going through. "If I lost any
friends because of my father," he says resolutely, "I didn't have
their friendship in the first place." Joey says he gets his openness
from his father. Since his diagnosis, José has been unusually frank
about his HIV status with fellow inmates and officers. And Veniece
recalls him sitting down with family members, some of whom he hadn't
seen in years, and telling them he had tested positive. "I really
look up to him for that," she says. "I'm always going to remember
Once we get to Sing Sing, Veniece, Joey and I are
told by a guard to wait at a picnic table outside, beneath an
enormous wooden shed. There's a playground with swings and a slide,
children running amok, couples touching and kissing with a startling
lack of self-consciousness. Through the barbed wire that
surrounds us, there's a sun-dappled view of the river. But
Veniece, who brings me coffee, reminds me of where we are. "If I
offer you a cup of coffee, it's not a big deal," she says. "But for
an inmate in here, it's 'Here's a cup of coffee. Now you owe me.'"
When José finally emerges from the dark, fortresslike prison,
he's beaming, as tall, handsome and charming as Veniece had led me
to believe. He envelopes his children in his arms.
As he tells his story, I see a glimmer of the fun-loving father
Veniece recalls from early childhood -- the man who always had a new
joke to crack, who let the kids out of bed to watch the tube until
all hours, who could rustle up a mean scrambled eggs and beat anyone
at paddleball. Now he exudes the kind of grace one only earns from
hitting bottom and rediscovering the meaning of faith. When he found
out he was HIV positive, José was serving his second sentence for
selling drugs. The news brought him to the lowest point in his life.
"I was knocking myself in the head," he says, "feeling guilty about
losing my son, losing my daughter, losing my life. I destroyed my
marriage and my relationship with my children." Two years later, a
dangerous bout of PCP landed José in the hospital. "I wasn't on
medication," he says. "I wanted to die." But Veniece told him to
hold on and to expect a call from Joey, who had kept a painful
distance for more than a decade.
"'I don't care what happened between you and Mom,'" José recalls
Joey saying when he got on the phone. "'What's in the past is gone.
Don't die on me.'" It was the deliverance José had been waiting for.
José stops abruptly and takes Joey in his arms. We're all at the
brink of tears, and suddenly I feel like an intruder. What's more,
witnessing their love for each other, I experience the last emotion
that I ever expected while visiting a man living with HIV behind
bars -- envy.
Sunday, August 2, 10:30 p.m.
The next day, I call Joey and
Veniece to ask them what they thought about the visit. Joey sounds
almost peaceful; telling their story, he says, "felt like a load
But Veniece is at a loss. Because José isn't a citizen, when he
completes his sentence in a couple of months, he will be deported to
the Dominican Republic. "They don't even have AZT there, much less
protease inhibitors that have kept him going," Veniece whispers.
People with AIDS, she says, are still treated as pariahs there. "I'm
praying for a miracle."
On the platform at Ossining the day before, waiting for the train
home, I felt as if a miracle had already happened. Looking out at
the constellation of white sails dotting the Hudson, I remembered
José saying that he planned to use his deportation as an opportunity
to collaborate with government and relief agencies in the Dominican
Republic, to shatter the silence shrouding AIDS and to improve the
country's prospects for treatment. Where others might see a death
sentence, he sees possibilities.
"I don't consider myself to be in jail," he said, back at Sing
Sing. "That fence doesn't exist, because my mind is free."
"You want to help HIV positive inmates? Cure their loneliness. Set up a pen-pal program. PWAs in here feel alone and alienated-- imagine being behind bars."
-Mond Kelley, Indiana Department of Corrections, Pendleton, Indiana
"When I explained to the head nurse that I had read up on anemia, she said that knowledge can be bad for someone who is sick."
-Dean Curtis, Maine State Prison, Thomaston, Maine