Child in the Streets | Feature | Chicago Reader

Child in the Streets 

By the time he was 16, Timothy was a gay hustler, a drug runner, and a dedicated occultist. Now he's a born-again Christian with AIDS-related complex.

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"I went to do a drug deal, OK, and there were two girls on the bed--it was a small one-bedroom apartment, and they were making out," says Timothy, his sentences tumbling fast one after the other. "And the guy came in. The guy was good-looking and young. And I'm getting the drugs out. And I turn around, and he takes a full Coke bottle and totally clobbers me, OK? And I'm like down. I went down. I mean, you can't help but go down when you're hit with a thick, full Coke bottle, you know? Right there." He points to his temple. "I'm lucky I'm not blind. I'm lucky that it didn't shatter.

"I went down, and he was taking my money. I was going to die. You know when you're going to die. I was going to die, and the girls are giggling.

"Yeah, it was sick.

"Someone came to the door. He had a chain on the door, and he opened the door that much," Timothy says, spreading his hands, "with the chain on it, and said 'What?'

"I took that opportunity--and this had to be God--I got through that space. I got out." He shakes his head.

"I jumped over a second-story railing, landed on the ground, jumped over a small fence, ran in the road in front of a cab, and stopped it and got in."

Timothy had the cab drive him to a friend's place, where he went upstairs and fell asleep. While he slept, the friend heard noises downstairs and went to check them out. There he was robbed at knifepoint, tied up, and shoved into a closet.

"Somehow in my actions I had set this up," Timothy says. "Somehow. That's the way it's got to be, you know? Because I'm responsible for it. That should have been me that went down. I think I was the one who was supposed to go down, and I would have been killed."

That was six years ago, when Timothy (which is a pseudonym) was 16 and living on the streets of Chicago. He did drugs and sold drugs; he was a full-time prostitute and deep into the occult. He has struggled to define and redefine himself, tried to control himself and, failing that, tried to control those around him. He has now been off the streets for three years; a year ago he became a born-again Christian. Looking back, he says his life was on a track headed for death, and he couldn't see any way to change its course; even when he was 12, he was sure he'd be dead by the time he was 17. "I should have been dead so many times," he says. "And I'm alive."

In many ways Timothy's life on the streets is typical of thousands of teenagers around the country. Last summer, the American Medical News reported that as many as 200,000 teenagers--most of them homeless--become prostitutes every year. In Chicago, there are an estimated 10,000 homeless youths who are under 21; 4,000 of them are under 18. Leon Intrater sees a lot of them. He is the director of the Neon Street Center, one of very few programs in the city for homeless kids. He says the kids who come through his program have often lived on the streets for years, and they're ineligible for or ignored by most service programs. "We're not talking about kids whose pictures are on milk cartons," he says. "We're not talking about kids whose pictures are posted on tollbooths. There's no one out there looking for these kids."

Some of the kids who come to Neon Street are runaways. Some of them are throwaways. Some are the younger siblings of kids Intrater saw when his program started two years ago. Some have committed crimes. Many have psychiatric problems and are suicidal. Most are very bright. The majority have been making their living as Timothy did--as prostitutes.

Timothy, who is white, was 14 and living in Florida when he first ran away from home to live with a man and woman he called his uncle and aunt, though they weren't related to him. When his mother moved to Chicago with the man she was soon to marry, Timothy drove up with them and stayed with them for a while. But he was severely depressed and hostile--he had recently tried to commit suicide--and shortly after coming north he entered a mental institution for a short time. After he got out, he says, his mother threatened to send him back, and he ran away for the second time. He was 15.

This time he wound up in a Salvation Army runaway shelter in Chicago, where he spent the night. He was awakened in the morning by the screams of a woman who was being raped in the alley. He yelled down that he had called the police, and the man disappeared.

"But right when that happened, I knew: I'm on the street," he says. "Right upon hearing her scream--looking out the window and seeing a woman being raped--I knew that this was the beginning of a very hard time in my life. That was a foreshadow of my whole life on the street.

"I had no other option. All of a sudden, it was just a realization of something very futile. But still, you put that at the back of your head and realize you have to make the best of it. From that moment on, it was a major shift in consciousness. I wasn't a kid anymore, you know? I hadn't felt like a kid since I was 14 years old. Now I knew I was not. Kids do not see women being raped."

Timothy called a friend. She said she knew a good social worker, and he went to meet him. Periodically over the next few years, Timothy accepted his help. It was he who was robbed and tied up while Timothy slept.

For the next four years, Timothy went in and out of friends' homes, mental institutions, foster homes, his own apartment when he could afford it, his mother and stepfather's house, and his father and stepmother's house in Louisiana, where he went after being busted for driving a stolen car. He also spent a lot of time just living on the streets.

Where he stayed depended in part on how angry the people in each possible refuge were with him--and in part on how much money he had. Timothy was doing drugs and needed a lot of money. He slipped quickly into selling drugs, then into selling his body.

"I remember one guy--a dope dealer," he says. "He wouldn't take my money. If I wanted his dope, this was the arrangement. Fat, ugly, you know, just--yeck. But boy, when you like dope, and you're used to having it every day, and you don't have any and haven't had any for a week--you'll do it."

It was actually a short slide into prostitution for him. By the time he was 15, Timothy had decided that he was gay, and he became sexually active early. He was young and attractive in the pretty, androgynous-child way some gay men like.

"I was hit on continually by people, made a sex object. People walking down the streets--I would get whistled at. I mean ever since I was a little kid. I don't know," he says, looking puzzled. "Maybe I oozed sexuality or something. Or innocence or something. I don't know. But it attracted many, many people."

He is still attractive: tall, slim, boyish, graceful--all set off by casually elegant clothes and an easy laugh.

He walked the same streets over and over--down Halsted to Belmont, over to Broadway, down to Diversey, and back around--listening for car horns, watching for the right eye contact, asking any possible client for a cigarette--sometimes for no other reason than that he wanted the cigarette--almost praying on days when he had no money that someone would pick him up.

"Most people have probably talked to, passed, been asked for a cigarette by a street hustler. And they didn't even know it--because he looked so much like their son," he says.

He went to school for a while, hustling tricks on his lunch hour, and then dropped out. He got his GED later when he went to stay with his father.

When it was cold or raining, he haunted places like adult bookstores, where he only had to pay a dollar to get in, and where he might make some money from the older men who hung out there. "Trolls" or "chicken hawks" was what the teenagers called the older homosexuals who wanted children. "They called us chickens, and so we called them chicken hawks--because that was all they wanted."

Sleeping could be a problem, especially when the weather was bad. "If you could afford it," Timothy says, "you went to a bathhouse and slept in the shower room or the orgy room, or if you had enough money or someone paid for it, you had your own room. You know? And then if you stayed awake at night, which most of the kids do--you stay awake at night because you get busted at night--you can have more work at night, and you can go to sleep on the beach during the day.

"In the winter, the biggest thing is to go home with somebody. You find somebody in a bar, and you go home. You find somebody else the next day, and you go home. You get picked up on the street, and you go home, and you stay until morning. Hopefully you have breakfast, depending on how kindhearted the person was when they woke up with a hangover."

Timothy was often fed.

"You've got to remember that a lot of them are older, a lot of them are not as good-looking. So when they turn over and they see a good-looking young man lying next to them, they actually have a sense of pride, so they might even want to feed you breakfast. And then during the middle of the night while they're sleeping, you go through their wallet."

He stole frequently. He had to, he says, to survive, though he drew his own line as to what was permissible.

"I never took any thing. That's not nice," he says. "Money is money. Money is the stuff. So I didn't feel as bad. I mean I felt bad about stealing, but I would have felt even worse about stealing something. I don't have much respect for money. Never have.

"I remember rolling people in the park who go there to find sexual activity. They go for walks hoping to bump into another homosexual or whatever. You'd be surprised. And you get them into a position--back in a corner, if you will--and you assure them of your strength. You lure them first, and then you assure them of your strength. And you assure them that, yes, they're going to get what they want, but you're going to get what you want also. And then they don't fight back. They allow whatever takes place to take place.

"I remember doing that on numerous occasions, you know? You're doing, uh, doing something you shouldn't be doing, and you're on your knees, whatever, and their pants are down, and you're going through their wallet. And they don't even know it. You get quite talented.

"Quite honestly, I think I probably stole less than the majority of them do. A lot of them would steal your whole wallet. A lot of them would steal your credit cards. A lot of them would steal your property. I'd always leave money in the wallet. For two reasons. Number one, I never wanted to leave anybody broke because I know what it's like. Number two, I figured if they thought there was some money in there, they might think 'I must have spent it.'"

Timothy even stole from the social worker who had befriended him, a man he describes as a very caring, sensitive man, who took a special interest in him and stuck with him through everything. Once he walked into the social worker's office and, when nobody was looking, took his own file out of the file cabinet. "I ripped it to shreds. And that man sat down and taped it back together again like a puzzle," he says, still amazed and touched by the gesture. "Every bit of it. And it was a thick one."

In a good week Timothy could make $1,000, though sometimes he made only $100. Much of it went for cocaine, acid, and marijuana. Not surprisingly, the prospect of serving hamburgers for $3.50 an hour never interested him.

There were many other teenagers who hustled the streets alongside him. They all knew of kids who had mysteriously died or simply disappeared, and so they often looked out for each other, writing down the license-plate numbers of cars their friends were driven off in and telling each other where they were being taken. One acquaintance of Timothy's went home with a man who tied him up and kept him for 12 days without food before he managed to escape. Late one night--outside the New Flight, a leather bar on the corner of Clark and Hubbard that closed in April, Timothy jumped and landed on the spot where he said a boy he knew had been killed. He remembers that the boy had been taken home and brought back by a man who later came back and stabbed him a dozen times.

The police offered no protection, Timothy says, and the teenage prostitutes were usually too afraid of them to ask for help. For one thing, the police were likely to bust them and send them home to their parents. For another, the police sometimes ignored them when they did need help; Timothy says he watched friends of his being beaten up outside bars while cops just drove by. Even worse, he says, the police themselves sometimes beat up the kids and demanded payoffs.

As he sank deeper into the patterns of street life, Timothy grew more cynical, more angry. Much of that anger was directed at himself. He nearly died several times from drug overdoses, some of which were deliberate suicide attempts.

"I was a very busy person," he says. "Always in trouble. Always getting out of trouble. Always trying to hurt myself in one way or another. Maybe trying to hurt somebody else because I wanted to hurt myself.

"I do care about people. I didn't care about myself. That was my problem. I was really good about working through other people's problems, even on the street. Grown men would talk to me about their problems. For some reason I had some sort of insight into things that they were going through, and I could offer them wonderful alternatives to what they were experiencing. And yet I could not do it myself."

He wavers about where to place the blame for many of the mistakes he made. "If I can put the blame on somebody, it's our parents' fault and our parents' parents' fault," he says. "I made a number of bad choices that were based on how I had learned to be. And I didn't have any choice in that."

Asked what the adults in his life should have done, he says: "The responsibility of the adult is to give us the necessary information so that we can make the necessary choices. I think it is the adults' responsibility--or it used to be the adults' responsibility--to teach the children."

Instead, he says, the adults around him reinforced many of his bad decisions. "Adults were the ones making the passes," he says. "Adults were the ones teaching me that sexuality was that kind of expression. Adults were the ones who were paying me to do this. Adults were the ones who were selling me the drugs. Adults were the ones that owned the bars. The adults were the ones who made no effort to make me feel as though they were trying to help me for me."

But he also blames himself for his mistakes, saying that he now understands that life is a series of choices. "Responsibility ultimately is on the child, because who else is going to do it?"

"We were mistakes, my sister and I," says Timothy.

He was born when his mother was only 18. His sister had been born three years earlier. His mother never finished high school. Before Timothy was born, his father left his mother to raise the children on her own, and only occasionally returned to visit.

"There was no continuity in my life other than lack of continuity," Timothy says. "My mother would be very hurt by this, but it's the truth. But then again, I have to qualify that by saying, what do you expect from a child trying to raise two kids? Without any help? Without any qualifications? That's what you get.

"My mom was a child. She knew the things a child knows: to be good, to love, to share. But she says this with her mouth, yet she was constantly arguing with my sister, constantly yelling, hitting, throwing things.

"That's why I moved when I was 14. Because I could no longer take the ridicule. It wasn't just my mother. I remember sitting there in my bedroom bawling my eyes out because my sister and mother were fighting. I just couldn't take it." He says that one of the pleasures he found in homosexuality was that he could be as sensitive as he wanted, and no one would ridicule him for it.

He is quick to say that his mother did love him, though he just as quickly qualifies the acknowledgement. "My mother's exceptionally overbearing. But that's how she expresses her love. You know? In her 'I'm giving you room to breathe--I am giving you room to breathe,'" he says, laughing. Then he adds guiltily, "I didn't have it that bad. I really didn't have a bad life. I was just very sensitive to the bad."

He also seemed to be crying out for someone strong enough to control him. When he first met his stepmother, he poured a glass of water over her head, and she promptly stuck his head under the faucet. He says he respected her for that and always liked her. But he could never stay long at his stepmother and father's; when his father tried to control him, Timothy insisted that because he had abandoned him, he had no right to demand obedience.

Whatever the reason, something was twisted inside Timothy. "Just the fact that [my mother] loved me put me in a box. I wanted to lay down behind her car so that when she'd back up, she'd run over me. That's how much I wanted to hurt her for loving me. Why? Because I didn't love myself. I wanted to feel pain. I wanted to be free to destroy myself. I don't know exactly why."

He saw his first psychiatrist when he was very young. "They thought I was a little emotional, a little much," he laughs. "'This kid is just a little too intense to be a kid.' So I used to go and see this guy, and just totally wrap him around my finger." Then he looks serious. "There was something wrong with me."

He saw various psychiatrists now and then over the next several years, and he often seems to use their analyses in his own. He watched himself die many times in his dreams--saw himself drowned or smashed on rocks--something he says a psychiatrist told him rarely happens. He was also prone to anxiety attacks, and has been free of them only for the last several months. "An anxiety will come over me--like imminent death, imminent danger. And I'll lay down, and I'll have to close my eyes. And I know that when I close my eyes, I'm going to die. A lot of times, I'll fall asleep, and then I'll wake up and be very freaked."

Timothy first tried to commit suicide when he was 12. He had been roller-skating, and he stopped in a public washroom. He put one foot into a toilet and jammed a paper clip into an electrical outlet. The shock blew him out of the stall. Realizing that he had failed, he simply picked himself up and skated off.

At 14 he tried again--pills this time--and was saved, he says, by his mother, who called him from out of town because she had a feeling that something was wrong. She rushed home and took him to a hospital, where his stomach was pumped. At 15, he went to see a psychiatrist in Evanston, who promptly hospitalized him. "I do believe," he says, "that I was homicidal, suicidal, at that point. Absolutely.

"I was quite a dangerous person. I pushed a girl on the el tracks, tried to electrocute her," he says. Why? "I was upset with her," he says, embarrassed. At this point, he says, his mother was afraid enough of him that she had the locks on her doors changed.

The stay in the hospital didn't help, "That was a joke. They don't do anything for you there. They hold you there and they feed you. They expect you to get better yourself." But he was alive. He was back in a hospital for another overdose when he was 17.

It was worse when he signed himself into the Elgin state hospital at 18. "It was scary," he says, letting out a short laugh. "There were crazy people there." He woke up one morning to find standing over him a man who said he would rape him if he ever got the chance. Timothy screamed so loud that the man fled.

In some ways, he says, his prostitution was part of his self-abuse. "I think it's survival," he says, "but for me it was also a way of receiving affection which didn't threaten me. I have a real hard time accepting affection from people. Accepting love. And having sex with somebody you don't love is a way of receiving a physical comfort without being threatened, without there being any love involved to ruin it." He laughs softly. "To say, 'OK, I'm here for you.' Unh uh. No way. I'm here for you. And you're paying for this.

"You make a little money. You have a little fun. Sometimes." He pauses. "Not much. And you get to degrade yourself, which is also an important part of prostitution, I think.

"I received affection. I don't know how, I don't know why, but I know what happens. And I know that it happens in a majority of the kids on the street. There's an inability either to express or to receive love--or both.

"You become very hardened. When you love, you open yourself up to feel pain. And when you're on the street, feeling pain isn't it. You've got to feel joy, you've got to feel fun, you've got to do drugs. You've got to put the rest of it behind you and live a totally unconnected life. Because if you do that, there's never any pain. At least, there is a lot of pain, but you do your best to stay one step ahead of the pain. Continually."

More effective perhaps than anything else Timothy did to escape his pain was his interest in the occult. He says that many of the kids he knew were also involved in the occult. "Where you find runaway children, or kids who are selling themselves, or kids who don't have anywhere to go, you will find the occult," he says. "I guarantee it."

Leon Intrater agrees that the occult is an interest of many of the teenagers he sees at Neon Street; as he has come to know them better, he has learned that many more than he ever suspected are involved, though to what extent he isn't sure. He says their interest shouldn't be surprising. "They have had little or no proper role modeling," he says. "They hook onto anything they possibly can that looks like some kind of structure."

All his life, Timothy says, his family has been plagued by paranormal experiences. "I remember being in my room and seeing--my mother says this isn't true, but I remember it--I remember my Aunt May, little May, her spirit in the corner of my room looking at me. And the next morning--I thought I mentioned this to my mother, but my mother says I did not--I went back to school, came back home from school, and my mother said Aunt May had a heart attack and died."

He also remembers that when he was about eight years old, his mother saw eyes staring at her from inside the attic. Later he saw a figure jump out of the attic, a figure that was identical to one his uncle had seen. While a friend stood guard, Timothy went up into the attic, where he discovered a satanic bible.

"Even at that point," he says, "I knew, I could sense it, and I kept it on my bookshelf--even though I was not Christian--between two Bibles. Pretty astute, actually. I mean I was never taught Christianity--it wasn't even a part of my life--but what I did know was that this must be the opposite of it. And I kept it embedded between what I know now to be the word of God.

"And I would take it out, and I would understand it. And as soon as I found that book and started reading, things just started happening. Keys disappearing. Things being thrown from nowhere. You know, something coming from the corner of your home here when there's nothing there--a button, a key, whatever." He pauses. "It was usually directed towards my mother's boyfriends."

He was raised, he says, to be open-minded; he did yoga, and took Silva mind-control classes at 12. He read books on demonology that he checked out of the library, invented potions of his own, and made up a fire ritual to make it rain. "My mother might dispute that," he says. "My mother might just say I was a nut. You know? That I was a little kid who loved to play with fire--which I was. But my mother knows very little about who or what I did, or who I am."

He called himself a "ceremonial magician," and as he grew older, he learned to make more and more things happen. When he lived on the streets, it was he who drew in deeper many of the older homosexual clients and sugar daddies who were involved in witchcraft--though for many of the young prostitutes, it was the other way around.

"Metaphysics was very deep for me, OK? I didn't think, like, oh, like witchcraft and satanism," he says with a deliberate lisp. "I really felt like I understood the fundamental lines that existed through reality, that one meshed together to create reality." And, he adds, "even though I was doing evil things and didn't know it, my number one goal was to know the truth. Not evil."

By the time he was 19, and living in a nice apartment in east Lincoln Park that was paid for by his sugar daddy, he was nearing what he calls his zenith in the occult. He wrote all his experiments and rituals down in a book, and made sure that whatever he achieved was witnessed by someone else so that he could claim it had really happened. Others in the occult told him he was going too far, but the danger only seemed to intrigue him.

At one point, he says, he trapped a force that he'd found in a graveyard. "What I had done was like a new chapter in the occult," he says, laughing. "So I went through the whole thing, I mean, I did this whole--This baby was mine from its inception to its conclusion. I decided what it would be, how it would be, how it was going to work. I put all the laws of occultism into practice. I exercised laws that people hadn't read about or heard of for a long time. They just wouldn't deal with these things. These were things like necromancy.

"I thought I was creating, taking a spiritual force, splicing something new into it, and creating something totally new. And forcing that into an object, actually keeping it in an object till that object couldn't hold it anymore. That was the point that I called its birth, and I would let it out."

He sent invitations to his many friends in the occult, asking them to come watch the release of the thing, but no one wanted anything to do with his ceremony. So he set it free by himself in his Lincoln Park apartment.

The thing went straight to a sign he had painted on the wall. At first, he says, it seemed benign. But it wasn't long before it started changing, started attacking or throwing things at his lover or at friends. He says he thinks it changed "simply because I gave it room to. I gave it room to be what it was. Rather than being a strict parent and making it what I wanted it to be, it became what it was originally."

Not long before this, Timothy had got sick and had been given a series of tests, including one for the AIDS virus. He tested positive for AIDS. He has no idea when he was exposed.

The discovery made him even more reckless in his experiments. "I had already been diagnosed with ARC [AIDS-related complex]," he says. "So at that point, it's kind of like, well, what do I do? Why hold back anything? So I figure, you can get afraid all you want. I'm going to press on and get as much done as I can.

"I felt like I was working, I was discovering. I felt as though I were making some very great headground as far as the occult was concerned, and as far as ritual magic was concerned, and the ability to manipulate pure energy. To whatever end you wanted.

"I wasn't like these wretched creatures who call themselves witches," he says, almost sneering, "who sit around over bubbling pots on their stoves conjuring up wind spirits. This was taking pure energy and forming it. Manipulating it. Totally being its creator--outside of its being energy in itself, already created. Like being a sculptor: you have the mud; now sculpt. And that was as pompous as you can get. But what allowed me to be conned even more was that I was getting results."

Timothy is well aware that many people can't understand how he could believe these things really happened. Even now, though he calls the occult evil and a con, he is convinced that what he saw was real and not drug induced. "It's all so strange. You tell this to someone who's never had anything like this happen to them, and they think you are a lunatic. But if you tell this to someone else who's in the occult, or whatever--they might not have experienced it, but they're all so intrigued and like, 'Oh, yes.' It's so real to them."

At times, when he describes what he did in the occult, Timothy still seems proud of the respect other people had for his accomplishments. Sometimes he is even proud of the results he got. "I've made it snow, I've made it rain. As silly as that may sound to people, I'd love to see them do it," he said one night. Then he laughed as he caught himself. "No I wouldn't actually."

He says the thing, the force that he trapped in the graveyard, finally turned on him, attacking him and scaring him out of his own apartment. When he came back, he had to smash a window to get in. In a rage, he picked up a piece of the glass and started carving the numbers 666--the biblical "mark of the beast"--into his arm. It was only then, he says, that he finally realized that he had been dealing with something he had to call evil.

It had to have been, he says. "In order to keep me going along the same lines that I was going. Because the more powerful I thought I was becoming, the more I was doing it. And since I'd been doing this for years and years and years and years, I thought I was to end all. You know? Absolutely. Especially in my robes. Oh, just, just--What a sight!" he says, and bursts into laughter.

But he was badly shaken. Within two months, he broke up with his lover and moved out of the apartment. Using money his sugar daddy gave him, he headed for college in Wisconsin for parts of three semesters. There he took philosophy courses, which he found simpleminded, and dabbled in "lighter" occult practices.

His great uncle died that fall and left him an inheritance. "I had assumed all of my life--I had been brought up somehow to think--that when my great uncle died, I would be a wealthy man," Timothy says. But it didn't work out that way. He received several thousand dollars--much less than he'd expected--in installments. He invested part of it, but he admits he's never been able to handle money. As checks arrived, he would take off for various parts of the country, spending and lending until he was broke. Within a year it was all gone, and those he had lent money refused to pay him back.

"Nothing went deeper than I did," says Timothy. "But Christ did."

On the day before Halloween in 1986, Timothy had done a gram of good cocaine in a bathhouse in Wisconsin. He says he had already come down when, standing alone in a room, he had what he calls his first conversion experience.

"This image came to me in the mirror, and it was Christ," he says. "And I'm like, 'OK. What are you doing here?' For seven hours I didn't leave that room. And we held a conversation for seven hours, and he kept telling me--he kept asking me questions and giving me answers. And saying, 'Why are you here?' You know? 'What brings you to a place like this? You're not like this.' He'd ask me questions like 'What's wrong with you? Why do you feel this way, when this is how you should feel?' And he would explain.

"This was a projection, I understand, OK? I'm just saying that I had a conversation in the mirror with an image who looked like Christ. And who spoke like Christ, and who said things that Christ would say. I knew it was my reflection.

"It was all this stuff about how I'm worth so much more than this. And why would I do these drugs and pollute my body like this, and then come to a place like this and waste my spirit away with people who don't care? And it's like, 'Why don't you want life? Why don't you want the good things? Why don't you desire the things which make you happy rather than these things that drag you down?' And just seven hours of this conversation, back and forth." He laughs. "Sometimes he told a few jokes that were just hilarious.

"And it was just like from then on out, well, you know, I'm not doing that anymore. I'm not going out and doing drugs and having sex, and all that stuff. So that was the beginning of a celibacy and the beginning of a pseudo-Christian type of existence."

Pseudo, he says, because he hadn't really changed that much. He just found new excuses for continuing to do what he wanted to do. Maybe he didn't do cocaine again, but he still did acid and smoked dope. He still had sex with men, he says, "but I allowed them to seduce me, you see?" He also started writing a paper in which he tried to combine occult practices and Christianity.

Five months later he had his second conversion experience. He had taken acid and gone dancing with several friends at the Orbit Room on Broadway. The music began to sound like screaming, he says, and he danced as if he were possessed, while the others in the room cleared a space for him in the center of the floor. He freaked out and wound up puking in the bathroom. Two of his friends eventually took him home. While they sat talking, one of the friends, who was also into the occult, told him he could see Timothy's face changing, shifting through his past lives. For a moment, Timothy wanted to believe him.

"This was the conversion experience," he says. "The other one was the setup for the conversion experience. At this point I believe I was faced with a choice: now that I've seen and I understand, make a choice.

"I saw a line. I'm not saying that I saw with my eyes a line. But in my perception of what was going on, there was a line. And I was standing right on it. And it was like, if I step over here, I'm dead. Dead. OK? I had all the necessary information to make a proper decision, and I had had it for a long time. And if I choose not to make the proper decision now, I will pay the consequences of that decision.

"It's like knowing that if you pull a trigger, you're going to kill someone. And still being tempted totally to pull the trigger. And I saw this onrush of things instantaneously, of like what's described in Revelation. Just destruction and death and stuff that people had brought upon themselves. It was like I was in the midst of it.

"It was very, very frightening, and it was up to the point of the coming of Christ. There's a point when he comes and touches Mount Olivet--I know all this information now, but I didn't necessarily then, especially the specifics. I knew the split moment before he was going to be there, and I was praying out, 'Take it away from me!' My heart was beating so fast, my blood pressure was so intense, I thought I was having a heart attack. I was just like begging that I wouldn't see it, because if I saw it, I'm too late."

He didn't see it. "I had made the choice. I realized that [before] I hadn't accepted Christ. I had accepted him up in my mind, and not accepted him in my heart." At this point, he says, he suddenly felt as though hot oil poured down over his head, and he could feel nail holes in his palms. He also started reciting prophecies from the Bible. At that point, he says, he knew he had been saved.

Timothy had finally found something that could scare him more than anything he could conjure up. He had also found something that would set limits for him, something that would define his ideals for him, something that would help him accept the likelihood of his death. Christianity, he says, was the only thing that got him off the streets; "a transition from death to life," is how he describes his conversion.

"I had tried everything," he says, "from drugs to counseling to--everything to change my life. I'd tried many religions. I'd studied philosophy.

"The only way out is a sense of self-respect, self-honesty, and the only way to have that is with a relationship with God. That's it. Some people say it doesn't matter which God you choose. I went through heavy forms of paganism. It's very poetic, it's a nice expression, but it's extremely detrimental to you because it doesn't place any real boundaries. We do need some boundaries. We need to know that hating someone is not good. We need to know that feeling a superiority within yourself which is totally based in anger is not good."

Describing the occult as he now sees it, Timothy says, "It's anger, and it's hate, and it's evil, and it's selfish, and it's real. That's a part of the holistic way I see life--that it's there." But, he says, "The occult is even more subtle than prostitution in how it sucks you in and destroys your life."

Nevertheless, he says, "I praise God that I am an extremist. Because it is only at the extremes where you find the truth. Because if something breaks down at its extreme, then it's not true, it's not real. When you take it to its extreme, you reach that line where you can see. I must have gone as far with it as I could have gone without, honestly, saying, 'Satan is real, and I will serve him.'"

It was a little over a year ago that Timothy had his second conversion experience. He joined a small but growing born-again church, and started seriously reading the Bible and attending Bible-study classes. He believes the Bible literally, including the searing book of Revelation and its prophecy of horrible death and damnation as well as the coming of Christ--an end he sees looming ahead. He believes that so long as he has faith, God will provide for him; in fact, he believes that God has already provided him, among other things, a job and an apartment, and once even a warning that there was a speed trap ahead.

He rarely misses his pastor's Sunday sermon and felt terrible one day when he did, though it was only because he was exhausted. He now sleeps 11 hours a day on average, though he can live normally otherwise. He isn't seeing a doctor now, he says, because he isn't sick. "There's nothing a doctor can do for me except charge me."

In church, he says, he's "one of those people who, in the middle of the sermon, will raise my hand." It pleases him that he knows the Scriptures as well as he does, and he laughs when he says that sometimes he can even point out passages that illustrate a point better than ones the pastor chooses. Though he prays before every meal, he's not always completely reverent; one afternoon he made a sandwich, bowed his head briefly, and said, "Thanks for the food, Dude." Then he grinned.

In choosing to become a Christian, he lost many of his old friends, though he quickly made new ones. He also had to renounce everything he had done in the occult, in particular his book of rituals--which was the same as renouncing his life's work up to that point.

"When I became a Christian," he says, "other occultists actually asked individually and at the same time: 'I will pay you this much for your book. I will pay you that much for your book.' And they were outdoing each other on how much they'd give me for my book. "I burned it," he says with satisfaction. "Right in front of them." Thrown out with the occult were a lot of other things. "I can lie," he said one day, laughing. "I can lie like a rug. The only thing that stops me is because I'm not supposed to do that." Another day he said, "I would never purposefully go out to harm somebody, because that's expressly forbidden." Forgiveness and love are Timothy's new imperatives.

Drugs and smoking were out. So was homosexuality. One night a gay man asked him why he chose to be Christian and not something that would let him be what he wanted to be. "As if you could go to a supermarket and choose your religion," he says angrily. He says he doesn't condemn other homosexuals, only that his own conscience condemns it in him.

But maintaining his faith is not easy. He has made, he says, a number of mistakes that have nearly cost him everything he has gained. At one point he said he didn't want to talk about the occult anymore, for fear that he was glorifying it in some way, for fear that he might be tempted back into it.

He also admits to an "unbelievable sexual desire," a drive that occasionally--if less often--sends him into gay bars and then home with someone. He is, after all, only 23, but there is anguish in his voice when he admits he has had sex, even if it was safe sex. It would be easy to slip back into his old life, he says.

One night late in March, he took me to a bar, one of his old haunts, to show me a place where prostitution was thriving and to show how easy it could be to make a living at it. Outside the bar, Father Peter Brick of the Northside Ecumenical Night Ministry stood on the sidewalk, talking to the teenage prostitutes who passed by and handing them condoms when they asked for them.

As soon as he entered the bar, Timothy automatically pushed up the sleeves of his leather jacket and pushed his hand back through his hair with a toss of his head. He hadn't noticed he'd done it until I pointed it out to him.

The dim, smoky bar was full of men, mostly older men and a few very young ones. A pale young man who couldn't have been more than 16 or 17 walked up to the bar, where a heavyset man who must have been at least 60 was sitting. He gave the man a halfhearted hug from behind, then retreated to cling to and argue with a middle-aged man who stood by the wall. Then he went back to the old man.

Timothy sat down at the bar next to an older man, and within ten minutes the man had put his arm around him. Timothy then put his arm around the man. Outside the bar, he explained that the man had told him that his wife had left him years before and that he was terribly lonely. He said he told the man to look for happiness in Christ, but when Timothy got up to leave, the man offered him $ 100 to spend the night with him.

A large new American car pulled up and sat outside the bar with its engine running. The driver ducked to look out the side window at Timothy. There was a time, Timothy said, when he would have been in the car in a second. A young man who'd been walking up and down the sidewalk got in the car, and it drove off.

Timothy says his sexuality is the least of his problems now. Worse, he says, are thoughts that are part of old patterns: his pride, his anger, his wish to control other people. "I still on occasion catch myself before I exercise an ability to implant thoughts into other people," he says. "I catch myself sometimes thinking, 'OK, I need money. I know they're not going to give me any money, but I could make them give me money.' I refuse to do it because I know what I'm doing."

He also fears his own ability to change his mind. "I really believe you can cross a line of belief and disbelief," he says. "From belief to disbelief or from disbelief to belief. I think that once you are an unbeliever and become a believer, if you become an unbeliever again, I think that's a hole that you might not be able to get back out of again.

"I am the only one that can convince me one way or the other, and I know I can convince myself one way or the other. I have to watch myself. I really do."

Timothy now lives in a small studio, one room of which is a jungle of huge plants that hang over wicker chairs. On one wall is a bright, abstract painting that his mother's brother did before he died; above the door is a crucifix. He has a fish, a bird, and a cat. He says it is still hard for him to show physical affection to people, but he has no such trouble with his cat, which follows him around the apartment, even crying outside the door when Timothy disappears into the bathroom.

He sometimes has difficulty accepting all of the responsibility that he now believes belongs to him. He admits, for example, that he is still a bit self-centered. "I am a little selfish," he says, "but that's because people let me be selfish. I can get away with it." He also seems embarrassed that for much of the last year he lived on general assistance. Yet in the past two months, he found three jobs and then quit them one after the other. He wants to pay his bills promptly, but says he hates doing the only kind of work that's available to someone with little training--cooking, waiting tables, making telephone solicitations--and finds it difficult to work regular full-time hours. He could model, which he once did, and he now checks in regularly with his agent, but there isn't much work right now. He's nearly broke.

Timothy is very bright, and he is clearly frustrated by his inability to find work that demands something of him. "I want a job where I have to think," he says, almost petulantly. He is considering going back to school in the fall, but he'd have to get a scholarship or a loan. He says he would first take philosophy courses so he could be sure of doing well, then he might take up theater.

He says he always wanted to write, and has written notebooks full of poems and stories. One afternoon, on a walk along the lake, he read one of his poems. It was full of pain and very abstract, but powerful. He once had other books of poems that he wrote from when he was 8 to when he was 15; a girlfriend burned them years ago. He has also written a couple children's stories that he thinks about trying to get published.

"See, life is turning around for me this way. I've always been around unprofessional people," he said, laughing, one afternoon. "I do have creative ability. It may not be good, but it's there. You know? And I always told myself that someday when I get right, life is going to start getting right for me, and I'm going to meet people, I'm going to know people. They're going to be nice, they're going to be kind, we're going to get along. And they're going to be talented, too. And we're all going to work together." He sighed. "Again, this very idealistic idea. But that's what life's for, isn't it? Isn't that what living is?"

He ran out of the room and brought back a large portfolio. He unzipped it and pulled out several designs he'd done for ads. "I love taking ideas and putting them into form," he said excitedly. Then his voice turned childlike, almost pleading. "See, I have ideas, and they're good ideas."

Timothy is most proud of the things he is doing to help other people. He is now taking a class to learn to teach illiterate adults to read. He has spoken at large community meetings, where he has described the constant danger that homeless teenagers face. When the weather was cold, he volunteered at a shelter for the homeless, something he did even when he lived on the streets; he could always say the right things, he says, even if he didn't follow his own advice.

More than anything, he would like a job working with homeless kids, and he believes that no one could be more effective than he would be if he was out showing them that alternatives are possible. They'd trust him, he says, because he's been where they are--a place few social workers have been. But he says no one he has talked to wants to give him a job because he has no credentials. So now he wants to set up an outreach program through his church. He is adamant that he will start, with or without his pastor's blessing, when he has "got the go-ahead from God." It is the best thing he believes he has to give.

"I know that Timothy and the rest of it is going to be gone someday. I will not be around. But I will be around--Timothy who loves, Timothy who cares, Timothy who helps, Timothy who is there, the Timothy who recognizes permanence. That concept, that idea, that spirit will remain. All the rest is going to fall apart.

"I'm going to be who I am. I'm not going to be who I've been set up to be. I've been set up to be dead. Eventually I'm going to die. I have contracted the AIDS virus. I'm actually in the ARC stage, OK? I'm showing symptoms. Swollen lymph nodes, things like that. Tired. So, I've been diagnosed as ARC for two years, which means that if I were like everyone else, I'd be reaching the stage where I'm going to get real sick. But see, I don't. I mean--I have ARC. OK? Someday I'll die." He shrugs. "I'll die anyway."

But behind his acceptance is a howl of anger that he quickly muffles. He believes he would never have contracted the AIDS virus if adults had somehow kept him off the streets, somehow kept him out of prostitution. But then he says that people did try, and he didn't listen. "I'm not laying a guilt trip," he says. "I'm simply stating what's done is done. But now I'm an adult, and I'm going to be responsible for the kids of this age. And what happened to me is not going to happen to them unless they know all the options and choose it.

"Because I got the virus, I am going to make sure that fewer people get it. I am going to tell people. It's a harsh lesson. But it's only one person out of a million having a harsh lesson. And the benefits of that harsh lesson stretch far beyond one person. I've seen people in wheelchairs--you just don't understand why they would have to be crippled like that. But they are an inspiration to other people."

On a walk along the streets where he used to hustle--while pointing out his old dealer's apartment, the hotel where he was smashed in the head with a Coke bottle, the bench where he used to sit till the cops told him to move on--he said he has noticed that there are fewer teenage prostitutes walking the streets than there were just three years ago when he was last out there. Bars, phone connections, and prostitution agencies are more popular now, he said. In addition, says Leon Intrater, teenage prostitutes are spreading out into new neighborhoods--Albany Park and Rogers Park on the north side, for instance--and their numbers are growing.

Timothy says that when he was on the streets, he had heard about AIDS as a scare, but he hadn't really known how easily he could get it. Nor, apparently, is the danger clear to many who are still on the street. Although there is a strong education program at Neon Street, there is no guarantee that a teenager who is handed a free condom is going to use it. "These kids need to survive," says Brother Randy Palmer, the outreach program coordinator for Neon Street. "They don't need to have someone tell them that AIDS is deadly. Living on the streets is deadly." He pauses, and then adds, "When we don't see somebody for a month, we wonder if they're dead." Dead from AIDS perhaps, or dead from overdoses or run-ins with gangs, pushers, gay bashers.

Timothy picked up a copy of the Windy City Times to look at the obituaries. Two men were listed as having died of AIDS. He says he's afraid of all the pain he'll cause when his obituary is printed because he can't even imagine how many hundreds of people he contacted.

He has made peace with his mother and spends a lot of time with her. He still argues with her and sometimes deliberately irritates her, but he also sometimes backs down so she won't get upset. He has also got close to his sister, who is now pregnant with twins. "I thought that out of everyone, this was going to affect her the worst. You know, possibly, if I did die. But I think now if she has two babies, it won't be so bad."

He still dreams about dying. "It seems, you know, death is there," he says. "I've gotten depressed once or twice since I've been a Christian. And not thought about suicide really, but it did flash into my mind. And I simply said, 'Go away.' Because it wasn't my thought." But then he pauses for a long moment, and adds, "See, I don't think this world is meant for me. Or I'm not meant for this world."

Once he may have wanted the freedom to destroy himself, he admits. "But I was a child. I wanted to hurt myself. I'm an adult now, and I understand what living is and what living is for--to some extent."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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