Christian is a handsome young man of nineteen–or would be, if not for the many ways in which he’s disfigured himself. His high cheekbones are twisted with the ritual scars he’s placed there. His cheeks are traced with symbols of ancient significance. His face is a virtual chain-link fence from all the rings placed through every available fold of flesh, to say nothing of certain other adornments that he “can’t show me in public”. His hair has been dyed so many times he’s forgotten what color it really is. Christian is a leader in this urban underworld. He is a rebel without a cause, a drug addict, and a sexual outlaw. And as of two weeks ago, Christian is a leper.
“Yeah, an old friend of mine from Intensive Care hooked me up. I met the vector downtown, we went into an alley, and I contracted.”
Christian is a member of a new subculture among the “modern primitives”, for whom piercings, scars, and tattoos have come to seem too inert, too mechanical. These young men and women have chosen to express themselves through the deliberate contraction of virulent, contagious, and often disfiguring disease. The “vectors” and “hosts” of this new urban tribe, equivalent to the pushers and junkies of an earlier age, comprise a bustling marketplace of illness. Any new disease is in huge demand.
“I’ve already had a bunch of hosts wanting to contract from me. I don’t know, though. I usually only vector diseases I didn’t like, and leprosy is pretty cool. The nerves in your skin die, so I’ve been able to get some pierces I wasn’t able to before. It’s a trip. I’m looking forward to the part where the fingers fall off.”
Christian got into the disease scene at the very beginning. “Well, a bunch of us were getting into the clinic every couple of weeks for the clap or something, and we started having a little competition for who could find the most exotic STD. After a while, we branched out, and it just took off from there.”
Christian has had “leprosy, tuberculosis (twice), syphilis, mononucleosis (repeatedly), gonorrhea, chlamydia, CMV, hepatitis (all varieties), cholera, the plague (bubonic and septicaemic–I’m looking for pneumonic), pneumonia a few times, meningitis, several types of worms. . .and oh yeah, I had chicken pox as a kid.”
But why do these youngsters do this to themselves? What makes them engage in this fatal game of chicken? Christian claims a fairly good relationship with his parents. “The only hostility I hold towards them is that they vaccinated me for so many things.” He believes that this practice, rather than empty rebelliousness, is “our generation’s way of crying out against a world which sees the sickness in itself and doesn’t care, an ironic satire of this society which feeds on its own pathologies. And personally, I like the taste of phlegm.”
Christian is not, however, the hopeless nihilist one would think. He has hopes, goals, and dreams just like any other young man. “I have this friend who knows where the last vial of smallpox is stashed. Someday soon, we’re gonna break in, get the goods, and have a big party so all our friends can contract off it. That’ll be awesome.”
Originally appeared in the Yale Record