[oasis] [columns]

Doug Ferguson

October 1996

Many of us believe that we live charmed lives -- that guardian angels stand watch over us from comfortable perches upon our sturdy shoulders. Without fail, we always seem to be in the right place at the right time, bumping into celebrities on the street or meeting that person who just happens to have the perfect job for us.

Things fall into place like a self-arranging puzzle. There's seldom any work involved, and while others seem to be scrambling vainly to get to the top, we're riding the express elevator and filing our nails. Our lives read like storybook fiction. Exciting things that always happen to "the other guy" happen to us. We are "the other guy," and although we sometimes feel sorry for those poor schmucks who just don't seem to have the amazing luck that we do, you won't hear us complaining too loudly.

But what happens when our guardian angels get caught with their pants down?

I was walking to my Chicago apartment late last summer when I decided to sit for awhile and observe whatever creatures of the night were slinking along the city streets at 3 a.m. I wasn't far from my apartment, but I wasn't ready to sleep yet, and I was curious about what I might see on Halsted Street at that late hour. It wasn't long before I was approached by a woman who obviously had lost her guardian angel long ago.

"Do you live in this building?" she asked, a faint look of hope dawning in her eyes. "Because if you do, maybe you could let me into the lobby so that I could find some place to sleep. I'm homeless, you know."

For just a moment, I thought about taking her back to my building and letting her inside. After all, I probably wouldn't know the difference, and she seemed harmless enough . . . but I thought better of it. Someone else had been letting homeless people into my building fairly regularly, and they often ended up asleep at the top of the stairs, just outside my apartment door.

"No, I'm afraid not," I replied, thinking that my response would send her on her way.

Instead, she just stood there. Although she faced in my direction, she seemed to be looking at some faraway place. I got the feeling she was searching for something, so I decided to ask a question. The minute I asked it, however, I realized how prying and pompous I must have sounded.

"How did you get to be homeless?"

After pausing for a moment, her sad eyes focusing on me for the first time since she approached, the woman haltingly began telling me a story of her past. Although spoken with a vocabulary that seemed to imply an advanced education, the story that followed was disjointed and rambling. Sentence fragments blended together in ways that did not quite make sense, although a basic theme began to take shape.

This woman, who was obviously intelligent, had come to the city from a suburb somewhere -- leaving behind at least one child and whatever other family she had once known. Her story was too jumbled for me to figure out exactly how she had come to this place, but I began to suspect mental illness or drug abuse. I had no other explanation for why a woman of her intelligence would be on the streets telling a perfect stranger a barely understandable story.

"Was it drugs?" I asked, again feeling a little intrusive.

"It couldn't be," she responded quickly. It was clear that I had struck a nerve.

"I mean, everyone is doing drugs, right?" she pleaded. "But they still have their jobs. No one has taken their child away. Why would I lose everything just because I did drugs when everyone else is doing them, too?"

Her last question sounded eerily familiar to me, and I didn't know how to answer it right away. I became a little uncomfortable as I began to see myself in her, and I decided it was time to go. I said goodbye as I stood to leave, and we wandered off into the night with her unanswered question hanging heavily between us.

"There, but by the grace of God, go I," I thought as I neared my apartment. A cold chill wracked me despite the muggy night.

All of us who are lucky enough to have guardian angels sure do put them to the test, don't we? We make stupid mistakes. We do things that should get us into trouble, even if we get away with them. And so many of us are secure in the belief that -- with the protection of the courageous cherubs on our shoulders -- we are invincible.

But even the most tireless of angels takes a five-minute break every once and while, don't they? And if they're running to the john while we're driving drunk, shooting drugs, or having unsafe sex, our luck may very well run out. Even the best of us slips up on occasion. And if our timing is off, our angels might never return.

I guess my angel took a break on that unfortunate day two years ago when I was stupid enough to have unsafe sex with my boyfriend. Before that day, I also believed in the power of my angel, who had always come through for me in a pinch. Since then, however -- on the days when self-pity overcomes common sense -- I have sometimes wondered at why I became HIV positive.

After all, I see people all around me doing exactly what I did -- and worse. I see men and women mixing alcohol and drugs with sex. I see men and women taunting fate by going from one partner to the next. I see men and women working their guardian angels to the bone. But they're getting away with it, aren't they? Are they?

What happens when their guardian angels get caught with their pants down?

I am what happens. That homeless woman on the streets of Chicago is what happens. Believe it or not, we also had guardian angels once. And there, but by the grace of God, go you.

Over the next month, and during the week of World AIDS Day (December 1), I plan to focus more specifically on the dangers that HIV poses to all of us and on the way the virus has directly affected my life. I do this with the hope that this information and my experiences will prompt you to put more trust in your own good judgment and common sense, instead of in your weary little guardian angel. After all, your life is too precious to put your faith in luck.

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