By Justin Hayford
In Jim Pickett's words, he is and always will be sick.
"And my shit stinks and will always stink," he once wrote in his insolent, earthy, and terrifying newspaper column "Sick: A (Body of) Work in Progress," which has chronicled his life as a gay man with HIV. "While I smile and sweetly remind you that it smells of apple blossoms and spring showers, we all know better. But everyone else's shit stinks too, always will. Way worse than mine, real stank, like someone died up in there. Jeez. Whoa. Light a match, I think I'm gonna be sick."
That HIV plays havoc with gay men's lives is hardly news, and there's been no shortage of testimonials from those living with the virus. But in keeping with the current trend of sound-bite journalism, most tend to be simple and one-dimensional. "So much of what you read out there is either 'Oh, it's a horror show every day' or 'It's all triumph, every day climbing a mountain and kayaking,'" says Pickett. So in the fall of 1997, when he worked as an editor at Gab magazine, he set out to capture the unceasing emotional contradictions of living with HIV.
He writes in an everything-at-once gush that captures the ever-equivocating mind-set of trauma. "Whoopee. What a great patient I am. Give me a star for my folder. Let me put my liver enzymes and platelets and undetectable viral load on the fridge next to my drawing of mommy. God am I good! So compliant. And yet I'm feeling more and more depressed, more and more out of control. Because I hate these fucking drugs. They've trapped me."
Since beginning "Sick" three years ago he's held nothing back, tearing himself to shreds in column after irrational column. He hates the doctors who put him on highly toxic medications while loving them for keeping him alive--then wonders if, in fact, they're killing him. He spits contempt at his foolhardy HIV-positive friends who refuse to take any antiviral drugs while swooning jealously over their carefree lives without crippling side effects. He berates himself for the unsafe sex that got him infected while reveling in the memory of love without latex.
"I need to get it out," he says, "to express what's going on, the ambivalence of being positive."
Such a fervent, unapologetic crusade for truth is the last thing you might have expected from Pickett had you known him in the days before HIV came calling. He moved to Chicago in 1987 after dropping out of Marquette University "to explore a fascinating career in waiting tables." Six years later he was a career F & B--food and beverage--man, having worked hash-slinging gigs from the neighborhood Indian restaurant to the Ritz-Carlton. "I thought, this is what I'm going to do," he says, contented to live in relative obscurity.
He'd even created an alter ego, Margie, to help him get through the drudgery of F & B. "My friend Owen and I found these name tags at a function we were working, 'Margie' and 'Brenda,' so we'd always wear them under our vests. We decided they were hard-core, long-term banquet waitresses, can lift 20 dinners with one hand. Work, work, work. World-weary, cynical but detail-oriented professionals, 80 years old with big hair and working alongside 20-year-olds. Tough, tough women. Women I love."
But even with Margie's companionship, Pickett's days in the service industry were numbered. Lying on the beach one day in 1993, he realized how unhappy he was. "I was not fulfilled, worrying about salt shakers and polishing silver," he recalls. He'd enjoyed writing in college, and thought of writing for a gay paper, but Chicago's gay press held no allure for him. "It was just all boring, no life, very dusty and dry."
Then he picked up the gay bar rag Babble, which he'd brought with him. It was full of catty gossip and cattier ridicule. "I see this irreverent, sassy, goofy magazine that made fun of everything, and I couldn't wait for it to come out each week. And then it dawned on me--I have this character. I could do something for them."
There on the beach he dreamed up "Poop Stain With Miss Margie, Lifelong Waitress & Celebrity Confidante." "It was called 'Poop Stain' because, as waiters, you exist at a very base level," he explains. "We would share poop stories every day. Who had a close call, who had a near miss, do you have a poop stain in your panties? It was just another diversion while you're doing this mindless, hard work."
He was determined to turn Miss Margie into a Babble columnist. "So I sexed her up. I made her a lot younger, supermodel beautiful. She was so gorgeous that every designer wanted her on the runway, but she came from a long, proud line of F & B workers. So she felt strongly about her career. Very professional, very sexy, and obsessed with poop stains."
He wrote out his first column in longhand and then headed over to Babble's office in Boys Town. "I was so retarded. I slid it under the door and ran back down the stairs because I didn't want them to know who did it. I wanted them to believe there was a real Miss Margie."
The column ran, and soon Babble's publisher, Malone Sizelove, asked him to become an editor. "The conversation was 'Do you want to be editor?' 'What does an editor do?' 'I don't know.' 'OK.' The beauty of that place was, none of us had been involved in a magazine before. Whoever walked in the door, we'd say 'Stay a while.' Drag queens, drug addicts, geeky people, everything. We were making it up. We had no rules. We could do anything we wanted, we could print anything we wanted. If we wanted to run the dictionary, we could run the dictionary. Which we did as an April Fools' issue."
Pickett went whole hog chronicling Miss Margie's misadventures. "At lunch I get stuck with Brownie McKeen as my backwaitress," one typical column begins, "which means every last one of our fucking orders got screwed up, royally. And there's me, Miss Margie, running her ass off to cover for that bitch and still maintain flawless relations with my guests. This is my bread and butter, baby, I don't rely on some spongy dick with ear extensions to pay my bills."
He started doing celebrity interviews--Lili Taylor, Christina Crawford, Pedro Almodovar, John Leguizamo--and creating other ridiculous characters. "I did a cartoon called 'The Adventures of Bottomboy,' or something like that. He was a superhero bottom who protected bottoms around Chicagoland from nasty tops, insensitive tops, tops who don't wait around for you to get your nut, whatever. I did a column called 'World of Fashion,' two seven-year-old boys who were fashion obsessed. I was always hiding behind a persona."
Then in August 1995, at age 29, his HIV test came back positive. He knew all about HIV and how to protect himself; he'd been counseled again and again about safe sex as a participant in the Howard Brown Health Center's "Sexually Active Male" study. "I knew better. I knew that if you play in the mud you get dirty. I still played in the mud."
Getting the news left him depressed, angry, resentful, and confused. "The weird thing about it is, everything changes, and everything stays the same. You go through this whole melodramatic thing, you know, 'I'm going to be dead, dahling,' and thinking about your funeral and how morbid and gross it's going to be. But you still have to go to work, the sun still comes up, the sun still goes down, the lake is still there, everything is exactly the same. It's a total mind fuck."
It was two years before he could begin to write about what he was going through. By then Babble had renamed itself Gab, as a means of maneuvering around a lawsuit. "I felt the need to come out from behind made-up stuff and just be real," he says, "to be naked and exposed, show it, warts and all. And this was a way to do it.
"It sounds trite, but it's therapeutic to write. Even when I was writing 'Margie,' I worked out a lot of issues. She had a very violent streak, she would always tell people off, kick people's asses. And you do work things out. So writing 'Sick' made the disease into something that's apart from me. I can talk about the most grueling thing, or a very sad thing, and it's still there but it doesn't overpower me anymore."
In May, Pickett left Gab and took "Sick" with him. Windy City Times briefly picked up the column, but when that paper folded last week Pickett's chronicle was left to wither on the vine. He's shopping for a new outlet, but in the meantime his gig at the Chicago Department of Health allows him to continue his mission to tell the truth about AIDS. The department hired him to help write a book called The Faces of AIDS: Personal Stories From the Heartland, which presents profiles of midwesterners living with HIV. Unlike other similar coffee-table books that have presented people with HIV as heroic warriors or noble victims, The Faces of AIDS allows its subjects to be people rather than poster children. Eva, a former addict who was diagnosed HIV-positive in prison, declares, "I'm gonna stay right here the best that I can, as long as I can, and then I'm gonna go out with a bang." Madeline, a professional in her mid-30s, had unprotected sex with her boyfriend once after he lied about his HIV status and remains really pissed off about it. And Derrick, an executive director at a Chicago not-for-profit, declares, "In the next five years I probably won't be here," and then goes on to imagine his funeral.
Like "Sick," The Faces of AIDS reveals a world of contradictions and confusion. The first edition of the book, featuring 23 stories--11 contributed by Pickett--came out a few months ago and was mailed to all midwestern congresspeople just as the Ryan White Care Act came up for reauthorization. A larger version will come out next May, with "more difficult" material, in Pickett's estimation. "You know, positive people talking about having unsafe safe, the inability to put down the needle. Issues that are a little more complex and human, and which we don't hear enough about. And which you don't necessarily want to put right in front of a legislator when he's thinking about funding to help people with HIV."
A companion photo exhibit of the same title will have its first public unveiling on Friday at the NAMES Project Visitors Center, at 3732 N. Broadway. "It's a series of huge photos of people with HIV, each with a pull-out quote," Pickett says. "Some are melancholy, some are defiant. One woman, who's transgendered, her quote is, 'You know, you just make lemonade.' Someone else's quote is something like, 'I'm really mad, it really pisses me off, I hate it, I'm sick of dealing with it, I'm sick of talking about it.'"
Soon Pickett will head off to Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas to gather more stories for the next edition of the book. "I want to get out of the urban ghetto and find out what HIV is like in Oklahoma. What does it mean there? The hunt is on. I can't wait."
Whether writing his own story in "Sick" or letting others speak in The Faces of AIDS, Pickett understands the subtle political agenda behind his truth seeking. "If the stories are human, the people could be your buddy, your next-door neighbor, your mother. They're no longer just statistics, abstractions, stereotypes, acronyms, IDU, PWA, ABCDE. A GWM is more than his behavior. And maybe people will read and think, 'You know, we all have troubles. How can I turn my back on these people?'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.