Where business and social service meet
by Keith R. Green
The concept of Nightsweats and T-cells was born out of frustration.
In the late 1980s, gay author, poet and activist Paul Monette and his best friend Victor Brown were on vacation together when they befriended a radical social worker from Cleveland.
Honey, as she was affectionately called, worked in the infectious disease unit at a local university hospital. She expressed great concern regarding the overwhelming number of her clients and friends across the country whom she witnessed die relatively quick and horrific deaths due to complications with AIDS as the U.S. government and the rest of its citizens sat idly by doing nothing. Paul and Victor, both living with HIV, could completely relate.
The three of them spent hours sharing how they had each been personally affected by the disease and lamenting about the devastating effects that it was having on the gay community at large. From their discussions, they idealized a fictitious company that would produce and distribute a line of T-shirts brandishing strong, provocative messages about AIDS—messages such as, “All I want is a cure and my friends back,” or “I just can’t have another day like tomorrow.” These messages, they felt, would force AIDS into the face of the general public, in everyday places such as the grocery store or on public transportation, making the subject matter difficult for anyone to ignore.
Upon her return home to Cleveland, Honey began work on a project which required that she have custom T-shirts designed. She learned that there was a local screenprinter in town who was living with AIDS, and sought him out for the job.
Michael Deighan had just started his own screenprint shop and was excited about the work that Honey brought to him. Not only did it provide a source of income for his fledgling business, but the nature of the project itself was powerful in a way that gave his work a purpose.
Honey shared with Michael the conversations that she had had with Paul and Victor and, before long, Nightsweats and T-cells became a reality. Initially, they were selling shirts out of Honey’s car and giving the money away to people with AIDS (PWAs). Their primary objective was to get their messages out into the world.
“People were dropping like flies,” said Michael. “These were very scary times and we wanted to have T-shirts out there that we thought were important.”
As the demand for their shirts began to increase, so did the need for more manpower to assist with the workload. However, instead of placing an ad in the classifieds for part-time help, these innovative entrepreneurs devised a plan that many at the time considered irrational. In the pre-protease inhibitor era, they conspired to put people with AIDS back to work.
Their logic came from the fact that although they were witnessing countless numbers of people die from the disease, they also knew a significant number of survivors. They realized that it wasn’t necessarily the virus itself that was killing these people, many of whom were gainfully employed before they became too ill to work full-time. Instead, Honey and Michael observed, many of them were dying of sheer boredom.
Sure, life with AIDS was no walk in the park. But most PWAs were usually not sick every day, but maybe only four or five days out of the week.
With this understanding, Michael and Honey agreed that rather than give the proceeds from the line of shirts away to people with AIDS, they would bring some of these same people in on the days when they weren’t feeling so sick. They would teach them the ins and outs of screenprinting, with the intention of providing them a source of income and a sense of dignity. Their idea became an instant success.
Eventually, more for the sake of keeping his sanity than anything, Michael merged his custom screenprinting business with Nightsweats and T-cells. Around the same time, he met and fell in love with Gil Kudrin. Gil worked as an engineer in a local hospital and believes that he’s been living with HIV since the early ’90s.
His new found partner’s passion for the work that he was doing at Nightsweats and T-cells compelled Gil to become involved. But it was Gil’s creative vision that would take the company to the next level.
“In 1992, we took the business outside of Ohio for the first time,” says Gil. “We went to the AIDS Quilt when it was in D.C. in October of 1992.
“I borrowed my brother’s van, we got a vendors license and set up a table, and then a couple of amazing things happened. First, we couldn’t take money from people’s hands fast enough once they found out what we were doing. More importantly though, people with AIDS from all over the country started coming up to us saying, ‘This is so awesome! I would love to work the two days a week when I’m not sick. Do you know of anything like this in my city? Are you guys gonna franchise?’ ”
By the end of the weekend, they learned that a project similar to Nightsweats and T-cells was operating in New York City. It was called Multitasking Systems, and it was a temp service staffed with people with AIDS.
Unfortunately, the man who told them about this other organization was suffering from severe dementia, and wasn’t able to provide any type of contact information (and you have to remember that this was the early 1990s, and the luxury of the Internet was not as widely available).
For the sake of exchanging ideas about running an operation such as theirs, Gil was determined to connect with the folks who had organized Multitasking Systems. His persistence paid off and in 1994 he co-presented a groundbreaking workshop with them at the National Skills Building Conference, which later became the United States Conference on AIDS.
“This was the first time that employment issues for people with AIDS, not talking about giving us disability but talking about getting us jobs, was addressed on a national level,” Gil remembers.
“But out of 3,500 people, only six people showed up to the workshop. Everyone was trying to bury us back then. People thought we were nuts. They would say, ‘People with AIDS can’t do that much work. We can’t run a business staffed with PWAs.’ ”
Infuriated, Gil reminded them of the contrary.
“I said, ‘Well, who do you think built your agencies? We built a whole care system for people with AIDS. There is nothing we can’t do. We’ve already proved that to the world.’ ”
The seeds that were planted that day were not lost on unfertile ground. One of the six attendees was from Oklahoma City and, upon returning to his home town, he wrote a grant and was funded to start a temp service there.
Nightsweats and T-cells remained a unique entity unlike this newly created organization, or even like Multitasking Systems, in that it has opted to not go the not-for-profit route.
“We don’t want to have to stop doing the kinds of shirts we do,” says Gil (they are currently working on a shirt in support of Barack Obama, to complement the ones that strongly criticize and ridicule the current administration). “We want this to be about being self-reliant.”
That self-reliance, however, has not come without cost. When asked about the single most challenging aspect of running a shop such as Nightsweats and T-cells, both Michael and Gil respond, without hesitation, that it is getting work.
“Sometimes just getting people within the AIDS industry to support us is a challenge,” said Gil. “The AIDS industry has become an industry, and people change jobs all the time. We’re constantly having to re-introduce ourselves to people in ASOs all over the country.
“We travel to conferences to reach people with AIDS and to harass the drug companies. We’ve never had a pharma company do business with us. All those thousands and thousands of bags you see at all those conferences. We’ve never been allowed to bid on one of those bags. They get them mass produced in China somewhere, where they can pay less money.”
To sustain itself and continually increase opportunity for people with AIDS, Nightsweats and T-cells extended the reach of its line of shirts to store shelves in places as far away as Hawaii and London. They have also maintained a loyal base of customers who frequently use them for custom work. Their customer base ranges from families wanting T-shirts for their annual reunions, to the restaurant on the corner, agencies such as TPAN and Broadway Cares, to Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore.
“Our prices are competitive and we do quality work,” said Gil. “The people who created Adobe Photoshop do business with us. In fact, they sent somebody to us for advice on how to do the four-color process.”
Gil admits, though, that even with all of the financial obstacles, Nightsweats and T-cells is very different from other companies, where the bottom line is money.
“Our bottom line is staying alive,” he says.
In 1995, Gil’s deteriorating health forced him to quit his job in the hospital and take on a more full-time role with Nightsweats and T-cells.
“I just got too sick to continue working there,” he says. “I was exposed to way more pathogens than most people with HIV would normally be exposed to.”
And, the truth of the matter is, a work environment such as what he’s helped to create at Nightsweats and T-cells is far more favorable for people with AIDS.
He recalls an incident where a reporter was coming to the shop to interview him about the work that Nightsweats and T-cells is doing, and he had an “accident” following his morning dose of meds.
“I was able to yell from the bathroom, ‘Somebody go and get my spare shorts because the reporter from the gay press is on his way,’ ” he says, laughing hysterically. “And that could happen five times a week here and nobody would bat an eye.”
He says that organizations like Nightsweats and T-cells are still relevant today because, contrary to what you hear, the AIDS epidemic is not over. It simply has a different face. And, even in 2008, employment opportunities for people with AIDS are limited.
All of the local social workers know Nightsweats and T-cells, and call upon them when they’re trying to find work for some of their most “unemployable” clients—former sex workers with no traceable work history, or men who have been recently released from prison who no one will hire because of their rap sheet.
The social workers call on Nightsweats and T-cells because they know that such people, particularly the ones who are also infected with HIV, will be welcomed with open arms at Nightsweats and T-cells.
One PWA staff member came to Nightsweats and T-cells after 20 years in prison. With two years of work there under his belt, he was able to step up to a much better position somewhere else, where he’s been for the past three years.
“Someone who has been selling their body on the streets for the last 15 years can sell the hell out of shirts,” Gil says seriously of some of the staff members who’ve come their way. “They know how to sell. They’ve been selling their whole lives. They are salespeople. It’s just a matter of us looking differently at our surroundings. And, hopefully, we are a role model for that.”
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