An article in the Dec. 2 Style section inaccurately described a building at Seventh and T streets NW as empty. It does have tenants: The top three floors of the four-story structure have been rented. (Published 12/6/2005)
At the edge of Howard University, across from Wanda's Hair Salon and the Dragon Express, a guy in a black wool coat and Timberland ski cap hunches against the cold, holding a clipboard and calling to passersby, "Free HIV testing! Free HIV testing today."
The passersby keep walking.
"Free HIV testing -- World AIDS Day -- only 20 minutes," outreach worker Byron Graham keeps trying.
Not a person breaks his stride.
"How 'bout some free condoms?" Graham finally offers, as if he needs to hear at least one yes -- to something.
"Nah," one guy answers, somewhat confessionally. "I ain't doing nothin' anyway."
Elsewhere in the world, Chinese children are painting their palm prints into a huge, red World AIDS Day ribbon, and President Bush is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building giving a World AIDS Day speech, and people in Stockholm are holding a candlelit World AIDS Day vigil, and students at Bethesda's Westland Middle School have been encouraged to wear red in honor of World AIDS Day.
And here on the corner of Seventh and T streets NW, just after 10 a.m., World AIDS Day is hitting the street.
A half-hour passes. Forty-five minutes.
No one comes into the Whitman-Walker Clinic mobile testing van. Graham paces on the sidewalk. Waiting next to him is Rose Weathers, the HIV counselor and tester who has been doing AIDS outreach for 13 years -- in a city where, today, an estimated one in 20 adults has HIV and one in 50 has full-blown AIDS, making Washington one of the worst hot zones in the nation.
Shivering in her coat, with the collar turned up, Weathers watches a guy across the street strut down the sidewalk, holding a winter coat above his head and shouting, like an old-fashioned newsboy selling copies of a late-morning extra, "North Face! North Face!"
Under the eaves of an empty building, cater-corner to the van, huddle a group of men who vanish when a police officer rides up, alongside the van, on a bicycle and waits at the traffic light. Another guy on a bike watches the cop's effect on the other corner, then slows to point out to Graham, "Look what happens when The Man appears. They scatter like flies!" and he laughs.
"There's a 7-Eleven down the street," Weathers finally says. It's cold. The corner feels desolate. And she's hungry for a hot chocolate and doughnuts. Graham is, too. So they take a break, drive to the store, then return to their same spot, on T Street, parallel-parking next to a Howard University lot and a CVS. Once again, they wait.
Weathers is sipping her hot chocolate and starting her first doughnut when Graham opens the van door and exults, "We got a client!" He tells the girl now wobbling up the stairs, "Sit right there, baby."
She's got unfocused eyes and wears a white, puffy coat, faded jeans and white sneakers with untied laces. She sits in a chair, in a small room with a sliding door. Weathers sits across the table from her and begins, "My name is Rose. I'll be doing your testing," then shuts the door. Seconds later, the door opens again, and the girl lurches out.
"No," she says, her eyes darting around the van. "Y'all might be trying to take my money." Weathers watches her disappear out the door and marvels at how fast the girl -- whom Weathers surmises is "on medication" -- moves. Weathers hadn't even started her spiel, the one that begins, long before she does the test by swabbing their lower and upper gums, "If you should come up positive on this test, are you going to harm yourself or someone else?"
(And if they answer, "Yeah. I'm gonna kill someone" -- Weathers relates this in a chillingly believable growl, like she's not unfamiliar with this response -- her spiel is finished. "Then I can't test you," she tells them.)
Outside the van, an older man with a cane stops to talk to Graham. Griping about how "that [expletive] snitched on me!" the man unzips his pants and leaves a puddle like a welcome mat at the door to the mobile testing unit. Disgusted, Graham gets into the driver's seat and moves the van, with its huge, "Livin' Healthy" disco-gold letters, back a few feet.
Often, Weathers says, when they're stopped at different corners around the city, people they invite in for testing "already know their status: 'I'm already positive,' " she says they say. " 'I don't need to be tested.' "
In the District, African Americans account for 75 percent of AIDS cases; Latinos have the second highest rate for new AIDS diagnoses, as they do nationally. The nonprofit Whitman-Walker Clinic has two mobile vans, which, between June 2004 and September 2005, tested 4,300 people -- of whom about 1 percent were positive, which is the national average.
Washington's rate of infection is alarmingly high -- at Whitman-Walker's clinic in Southeast the positive test rate is 6 percent -- and it's not going down. In 2001, in cities with more than a half-million residents, the relative numbers of Washingtonians infected with AIDS outpaced the country's other big cities, according to a thick report on "HIV/AIDS in the Nation's Capital," released in August by D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a public interest organization.
So. To recap. Each of the numbers below represents the number of AIDS cases per 100,000 residents in 2001:
Washington -- 119
Baltimore -- 117
San Francisco -- 67
New York -- 64
Philadelphia -- 58
In 2003, two years later, D.C.'s number had jumped to 170.
And still, in pockets of the city, the myths persist.
To cure AIDS or prevent HIV, you can:
* drink a bottle of vinegar;
* exercise regularly;
* eat garlic.
It's been nearly a quarter-century since the first AIDS case was recorded in America, in 1981. And yet, last year, when D.C. Appleseed held focus groups with African American men in Southeast Washington (many of whom were needle-injecting drug users) and African American women in a housing program in Northwest, a handful of people in both groups offered up these misapprehensions.
"I've heard some of that," Graham says, nodding his head about the vinegar and garlic. Now 53, he's a recovering drug addict who spent time on the streets, homeless. "Ignorance will always be a killer."
The clock nears noon, and a young woman in a corduroy skirt, brown boots and a coordinating scarf comes into the van.
"Do you stay on the side of the road, testing people?" the Howard student asks and sits down at the table, across from Weathers.
"We go to different communities," Weathers begins, "but being as today is World AIDS Day -- " She closes the door.
Twenty minutes later, the young woman emerges, grinning. Her test was negative. She leaves the van into the thin but warmer sunlight of midday, and heads back toward campus.
Weathers goes outside, too. She's a grandmother whose only son has died, and she worries about giving his two children a good Christmas. She lights a cigarette and stands, with Graham, and they wait.