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Steering His Own Future: Housing Works’ Client Gerry Brown Talks about His First BRAKING AIDS™

Steering His Own Future: Housing Works’ Client Gerry Brown Talks about His First BRAKING AIDS™

Image by Alan Barnett Photography

Gerry Brown wasn’t always so comfortable talking about living with AIDS. In fact, during the course of our conversation one Monday afternoon in April, he relayed that during some of his darkest days in the late 90s, his only daily activities involved taking AZT and antidepressants, forgoing social contact out of fear and frustration.

But you would be hard pressed to find that same Gerry now.

When we spoke on the phone and I asked him to tell me a little bit about himself, he cheerfully complied, finishing with, “I’m single too. I don’t know if that matters!” And so set the tone of our conversation, with Gerry cracking jokes and thoughtfully reflecting on his life with HIV/AIDS. He described it as a “roller-coaster of a life,” telling me that his t-cell counts reflect these ups and downs. “I was originally diagnosed with HIV in 1995, and over time my t-cell count reached as high as 580—around the time that I was diagnosed with AIDS.” He adds, “Right now my t-cells are at 361.”

His enthusiasm and good humor are irresistible, and are almost, almost enough to convince me to also sign up for the BRAKING AIDS™ Ride that he is embarking on, a fully-supported three-day bike ride from Boston to New York City that will raise funds for Housing Works. I sat down with Gerry to ask him why he is riding this year, how he has been preparing for the 285 miles, and what Housing Works means to him.

-Sunny Bjerk, Housing Works’ Communications Manager

Sunny Bjerk: Hi Gerry, thanks so much for speaking with me today. Why don’t we begin with where you’re from and how long you’ve been in New York?

Gerry Brown: I grew up in New York City and have lived here my whole life. I’m 58 years old and currently live in the Bronx.

SB: During your lifetime, what sort of changes have you seen in the treatment and cultural acceptance of HIV/AIDS and the people living with the disease?

GB: Wow, I have seen so many changes. Well for one, people are living so much longer with the disease than ever before, thanks to all of the treatments and resources available. I remember when AZT was first introduced and changed so many lives, and now, there are even more effective treatments available for living with the disease.

I have also noticed a change in the way that people living with the disease are treated. Before, you had to be on your last breath of air for people to pay attention to you because there was so much fear and stigma about AIDS. And if you told someone that you were positive, they would look at you with one eye shut, like “Oh my god,” and they would turn their back on you and would try to avoid you altogether.

But now, I feel like people can live openly with the disease and advocate on their own behalf. People tend to know more about the disease and some of that ignorance is gone, though a lot of stigma still exists.

SB: You have lived your whole life in New York—how did you first hear about Housing Works?

GB: Well, I found out I was positive in 1995. And when I found this out I was confused and angry, and I didn’t want to interact with anyone. I would go to the grocery store and get my food, but then would go home right away and just shut myself off from the world. It was a dark time for me.

And then one day in 2009, my daughter asked me to go to her house Upstate and help her watch her kids for a little bit. So I moved up there for a few months and helped get my grandkids ready for the day, packing their lunches and walking them to school, and somewhere during my time up there I realized that there was a whole world out there and I was just letting it pass me by. And so I resolved to get myself back out there, and my friend told me about Housing Works and all of their wonderful work, and so I started going there about three years ago. And once I started going, it felt like home, and I’ve been going there ever since!

SB: I understand that you were a crew member on last year’s ride. What prompted you to become a crew member?

GB: Well, last summer, I just gotten back from the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC and I wanted to get involved right away, I just wasn’t sure I could raise $3,500 in order to participate. So instead of riding I decided to become a crew member.

I was actually really shy at first and wasn’t sure where I fit in, and probably seemed stand off-ish to a lot of people. But after three days, I really enjoyed it and got to meet some wonderful people I wouldn’t have been able to meet if I hadn’t got involved in the crew.

SB: What were your responsibilities as a crew member?

GB: I worked to set up the Oasis stands at each rest stop, where we would set up food and water for the riders at checkpoints throughout the three-day ride. Other crew members rode behind the riders to make sure that all of the riders finished each day and no one was left behind.

SB: And why did you decide to become a rider in this year’s BRAKING AIDS™ Ride?

GB: The honest truth is that I saw Charles King riding last year, and I said to myself, “If that old man can do it, then I can do it.” And so I decided to get started right away.

Matt Nasser, a Housing Works’ staff member who rode last year, sold me one of his old bikes, and I think I’m doing pretty good but I know I’m still a rookie. My butt hurts a lot of the time, but I think the seat is too small. Other than that, it feels great to be riding and to be a part of this community working to help end HIV/AIDS.

SB: Have you taken on a fierce training regimen in order to prepare for this year’s ride?

GB: Oh yes, I ride my bike every weekend, if not also during the week. When it’s nice out I ride from my house in the Bronx all the way down to Housing Works’ 13th Street location in the West Village. That takes me about two hours each way. It’s a nice ride, but as a rider you have to be careful because there are cars that will run you off the rode, people who double park in bike lanes, and taxis that cut you off, so it’s also a little bit stressful. But I make sure to ride safe and cautiously, but for the most part I prefer to ride in the parks.

SB: How has your fundraising been going so far?

GB: Well, I have lost some time fundraising because I got pneumonia a while back. But right now I have raised $100 from a Housing Works’ employee who donated to me, and I have some friends who said that they will also donate to my fundraising page, so I guess I have some collecting to do!

SB: I understand that you also work at Housing Works’ West 13th Street location as well.

GB: Yes, I do. I do a little bit of everything there. I water the plants, DJ all the parties, clean the gym, anything I can do to help out.

SB: You DJ all of the parties? That’s awesome!

GB: Oh yeah! I bring the music, and I have all the lights too, so I put on a good party. It’s great too for me to keep busy because for me, idle time is the devil’s time, and I have been clean since ‘95, and I want to maintain that.

SB: You said earlier that Housing Works feels like coming home—what makes you feel that way?

GB: I accept everyone for who they are, and Housing Works does the same thing. No one judges you there.

I also noticed that when I was at the International AIDS Conference and working at the Housing Works’ booth in the Global Village, that so many people from all over the world wanted to buy Housing Works’ t-shirts. I mean, how amazing is that that you have people from all over the world that want to buy these shirts? And it felt so good to be a part of an organization that is so well known around the world, I mean, what are the odds of that?

SB: Do you have any plans for the summer, besides riding?

GB: I want to get to know my grandkids, I want to be in their lives. And so now it’s their turn, they get my undivided attention.

Visit Gerry’s fundraising page and make a donation online to support him in BRAKING AIDS™ Ride.

To learn more about the Ride, register, or sign-up for a Ride Preview, visit brakingaidsride.org.

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