Gettin' Naked for Needles 

When some East Bay needle exchange advocates found themselves cringing for fundage, they dropped trou.

The idea arrived, as so many do, after a few drinks. They were all sitting on a porch in Berkeley late one night, gulping red wine, tossing around those sentences that begin "What if we ..." and "Wouldn't be cool if we ..." when, all of a sudden, out came, "Let's get naked, make a calendar, and raise money."


"It was one of those ideas that was so great, your friends say, 'You're never going to do it,'" recalled Catherine Swanson, a needle-exchange advocate who turned out to be the calendar's project coordinator. "But it gets better. We actually did it."

Swanson recalled this story two weeks ago when she hosted a BYOE party -- Bring Your Own Everything -- at the Long Haul on Shattuck to celebrate the arrival of the newly printed "Hotties of Harm Reduction." Guests brought the requisite organic chips and hummus, along with bowls of mixed nuts and a tub of chocolate-chip ice cream. Swanson and other models pulled calendars from cardboard boxes and signed X's and O's to a few adoring customers.

Model Russell Wagner had his Sharpie in hand while he recalled how he came to be Mr. April. "They just approached me and told me we're doing a photo shoot that night," he said. "And they said, 'You're going to be the Cotton Fairy!'"

In the long line of underfunded nonprofit groups, the needle-exchange advocate usually stands at the very front, hat in hand. Maybe no other health group has to do so much begging. Thanks to the stigma beholden upon the needle user, according to Swanson and other advocates, there are no federal, state, or city funds dedicated to purchasing clean needles -- unless, of course, the city or county declares a "public health state of emergency," which Berkeley has done.

Last year, the city spent $52,000 on needles, which is downright bountiful compared to a city like Sacramento where, as recently as 2002, officers arrested a prominent needle-exchange worker for distributing drug paraphernalia. Still, Berkeley's pocket change doesn't cover the cost of the estimated half a million rigs that went out to city users last year, according to Peter Geissert, a volunteer coordinator with the Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution, or NEED.

"We're still coming up short," Geissert said. "We've had to scale down on some things recently; we don't stock the premium condoms. ... If we have to scale down to just needles entirely, we will."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2002 about twelve thousand newly diagnosed AIDS cases began with the use of a dirty needle. Put another way, about one in three of the new AIDS cases that year were passed along the spike. In addition to Berkeley's half a million rigs, Oakland and Richmond volunteers distributed another million and helpers in San Francisco another two million. All of the clean needles are purchased through a patchwork of grants, crumbs from health budgets and, sometimes, via ultracreative fund-raising efforts.

In short, needle-exchange workers often mirror their clients: There's a continual jones for cash to get the next fix.

"We're always strapped," Swanson said as she signed a calendar that sold for ten bucks. "We're always thinking, 'How can we get more money?'"

At the corner of San Pablo and Hearst last Thursday night, the fluorescent glow of a Midas sign shone down on NEED's Geissert, who has been coming to this corner for three years. On this night, about twelve thousand needles were unloaded from the van in dozens of small cardboard boxes. Half a dozen volunteers worked the long buffet-style table, filling tubs of condoms and stacking fliers that gave directions to a free clinic. The sidewalk was still wet from the rain that had just passed, and the fog was rolling in. Wet weather tends to keep the users away, Geissert said.

On a typical night, Geissert will see about forty walk-ups. There are stats kept for grant purposes, and according to those figures, the typical person who arrives at the table is generally aged 35 to 40, white, and there to pick up on behalf of himself and another five friends. The most common needle size requested is the .28-gauge full barrel.

There are the regulars, the guys who give Geissert a nod and a small "Thank you." And then sometimes the regulars disappear. Sometimes they vanish and return one night only to say, Thanks, man. Got cleaned up, gonna take a shot at this sober living thing. But those are rare, and not necessarily the goal of workers, Geissert said. Instead of turning lives around, the idea is simply to give a user a clean needle.

This night, the clients arrive in the following order:

Client Number One: A white guy in short-sleeved plaid shirt à la Forrest Gump. A box of .28s.

Client Number Two: An older black man with pep in his step and backpack over his arm. "Good evening," he says cheerfully, as if he's here to pick up some chocolates for his wife at home. "One box will do," he says.

Client Number Three: A rail-thin hipster in a black leather jacket. He puts his box of needles in a brown paper bag and scurries back into the fog.

Client Number Four: A buffed-out older white guy in a tight white T-shirt. He has a full-sleeve tattoo. He's also eating a yellow Popsicle. Between chomps, he thanks a worker and walks away.

Client Number Five: A small black woman in a Phat Farm sweatshirt and tan worker boots, unlaced in the hip-hop style. She carries away a thousand needles.

Client Number Six: A sixtyish woman who looks like the school librarian, wearing the Berkeley Grandma uniform of Gore-Tex, fleece, and Birkenstocks. She puts her needles in her tote bag and walks away.

"You can't really say how many people are being saved from these needles," Geissert said. "It's not so easily quantifiable. The best we can do is say, 'Hopefully, somehow, this clean needle is getting back to someone who needs it.' Because when you have a clean needle, you can use a clean needle, and that potentially saves a life."

Back at the calendar party, Russell Wagner remembered how he went home the night of the photo shoot and got his wings. He was to be the Cotton Fairy. He dabbed on some glittery makeup above his eyes and slipped into bikini underwear. At about 8 p.m., when it was his turn to get in front of the camera, he palmed a bunch of tiny cotton balls, and held them as if he were going to blow them into the camera's lens.

It cost him nothing to sit there and pose. Same with the others. The calendar got printed, it sold, and what, put at least another thousand clean rigs on the street?



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