Survival Guide Survival Guide
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There is no address posted outside the squat brick building on West 76th Street. No storefront. No signage. Just a single garage door flanked by dust-covered windows giving it the appearance of a long-abandoned auto body shop.

Armed with an aerosol can, the 59-year-old hovers over a manual screen-printing press that unfolds before him like a large robotic flower. Beneath bright blue screens that tilt toward the ceiling, Kudrin sprays adhesive on one of four wooden boards that extend from the center.

Quickly, Kudrin grabs a red T-shirt from a nearby pile and pulls it over the board, tugging the fabric until the nape is pressed tightly to the surface. He presses his wrinkled hands into the cotton blend to work out any kinks. When the shirt is set, Kudrin spins the wheel to load the next one onto the press.

The tee Kudrin just finished gets whirled to his business partner, who fills the screen overhead with white ink and presses it firmly to the fabric. 

With a wooden squeegee, he pulls the ink slowly across the design toward his chest. He lifts the screen with a grunt and turns the wheel again to imprint the next shirt Kudrin has lined up. Once all four boards are full, Kudrin puts each shirt on a conveyor belt that runs through an industrial dryer at the center of the shop and ends in a container where they lay waiting to be folded and shipped.

Although today’s design is simple, they have just seven days to create 700 shirts for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an HIV and AIDS advocacy group in New York City. In white letters across the front, it reads:

GMHC

End AIDS. Live Life.

35 Years

#Persist

“I’ve been knocking on their door for 25 years,” says Kudrin of their first-time client, as he loads the next shirt in the lineup.

Persistence has been a key to Kudrin’s success. He is a long-term survivor of AIDS and the public spokesman of Nightsweats and T-Cells.

Aptly named for the extreme perspiration produced by HIV infection and the white blood cells that gauge the immune system’s health, Kudrin’s company has turned bodies into billboards over the last 27 years by employing those with HIV and AIDS and creating T-shirts to end stigmas.

In its heyday, the shop was bustling with up to 10 employees who came in whenever they were healthy enough to work. Today, the shop operates with a core team of three — Kudrin, his business partner, who requested not to be identified, and another long-term survivor named Gordy.

“Gordy can’t work as much as he used to because he’s older and he’s sick,” says Kudrin. “A lot of my money goes to support people like Gordy.”

On a small shelf at the back of the shop, Kudrin keeps records of the designs they’ve created over the last three decades. Parading positive messages such as “Annoy them SURVIVE” and “HIV+” in bold, hard-to-ignore neon pink letters, their shirts have been sold in shops from London to Hawaii. Their advocacy has led to partnerships with national nonprofit agencies such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and even Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“We’re part of a living history,” says Kudrin, smiling.

Long-term survivors make up more than 50 percent of the population living with HIV and AIDS, according to grassroots organization Let’s Kick ASS-AIDS Survivor Syndrome. But long-term survivors are living in a vastly different world than when they were first infected. More than 35,000 people are newly diagnosed with HIV every year. But thanks to advancements in health care and medical research, the disease no longer carries the death sentence it once did.

“Everybody thought we would all just die,” says Kudrin, placing another shirt on the conveyor belt to dry. “I always believed that some of us would survive.”

Kudrin knew something was wrong with him before he knew what to call it.

In 1978, the 20-year-old Cleveland State University student found sanctuary in popular discos and gay clubs where he was safe and accepted. On his second visit to Traxx, an electronic disco known for its all-night dance parties, he fell in love under its reflective lights. From the bottom of a winding staircase, Kudrin saw a 25-year-old blond-haired blue-eyed angel descending in a plain black T-shirt and jeans.

“He wasn’t in anything glittery,” he says. “He just looked like some guy you went to high school with. I fell for him right away.”

They were mostly inseparable except for when the boyfriend traveled to New York for what he said were business trips. But little more than a month into their relationship, Kudrin’s boyfriend became ill. Doctors suspected he had Crohn’s disease. He recovered after a few weeks, though, and the couple traveled to Toronto for a weekend getaway.

“When I got home, I was violently ill,” Kudrin recalls. 

With flulike symptoms and swollen lymph nodes, Kudrin saw a doctor at Lakewood Hospital where he worked in the maintenance department. Although antibiotics seemed to stave off the illness, another one was never far behind. For two years, Kudrin suffered from a series of staph infections. Puss-filled holes opened in his arms. Shingles spread across his legs.

“My best friend was a doctor at the hospital and he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” says Kudrin. “I just never got better.”

So he ran up to 10 miles a day, pushing himself down Lake Avenue, along the lakefront and into the Cleveland Metroparks, all the while visualizing that he was beating back his illnesses.

The relationship had ended by 1981, when the earliest reports of a strange pneumonia affecting members of the gay community were beginning to flow in from the coasts. Men who frequented bathhouses in New York and San Francisco said they were experiencing fevers, swollen lymph nodes and severe weight loss.

Then in June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a rare cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma was affecting gay men, causing purple-hued lesions to break out across their skin. By 1982 the epidemic was given its official name: acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It would be another year before the human immunodeficiency virus — the pathogen that causes AIDS — would be isolated. But a collective hysteria was already taking over the nation.

Every six months, new infections doubled. By the end of 1983, more than 2,000 had died nationally from AIDS-related illnesses. Those living on the coasts started coming back home to the Midwest as refugees to die with their families.

“Patients who we saw were just tragically ill and goddamn young,” says Michael Lederman, associate director of the Center for AIDS Research at University Hospitals. “We could treat the infections but really couldn’t do much to reverse the course of the disease.”

Religious fundamentalists were calling it the gay plague. The medical community announced it was largely transmitted through sexual intercourse, but the belief that even casual social contact could mean immediate infection had contaminated the mind of the general public.

“From the very beginning, HIV was so inextricably linked and wrapped up within homophobia, race, class and gender,” says Earl Pike, director of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland from 1997 to 2010. “If you were dealing with HIV, you were dealing with how people felt about gay people, which meant you were dealing with fear and anger.”

Although Kudrin hadn’t yet gone public about his disease, he had been outed at work as gay. When he’d sit in the cafeteria, other employees would vacate the table. His boss even threatened to fire him.

“It was horrifying,” says Kudrin.

By the time the first HIV antibody tests were made public in 1985, Kudrin’s life was changing too. He had become a surrogate father to a 12-year-old boy in the neighborhood whose father had abandoned him.

“I had a rough childhood and I have had mentors in my life that I really, truly believe saved my life,” says Kudrin, looking back. “I always knew I owed back.”

So he volunteered at MetroHealth’s Thomas F. McCafferty Health Center and at Cleveland’s Lesbian-Gay Community Center but avoided being tested for HIV. 

A doctor friend had told him not to bother. “There is no medicine,” Kudrin remembers him saying. “They’re just going to tell you to go home and wait to die.”

When Kudrin was hospitalized again that year for a staph infection in his right knee, he finally took the test. The diagnosis came back positive. Additional tests revealed Kudrin only had 230 T cells — the white blood cells needed to fight off infections and support the immune system — compared to 1,500 in an average healthy person. Without treatment, Kudrin had only six months to live.

In the hours that followed, Kudrin contacted his parents and went home to tell the boy he was raising. When Kudrin sat him down to talk, the boy burst into tears. 

“It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life,” says Kudrin. “I promised him I wouldn’t die. I had things to do. I couldn’t die.”

In the corner of his kitchen, Kudrin has a framed screen-printed portrait of loud-mouthed Larry Kramer, the founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act Up, a radicalized protest movement that swept the nation in response to the AIDS epidemic.

“Larry Kramer used to say, ‘Survival is activism,’ ” says Kudrin, sipping coffee out of a small white cup. “Without Larry Kramer, I would be dead.”

Those early days were mired in grief. As the virus spread throughout Northeast Ohio, it fell on nonprofits, social workers and others living with AIDS and HIV to take care of themselves and those dying around them.

“We were going into people’s homes who had been abandoned by their families — who just left,” says Kudrin. “People were literally dying in bed.”

So Kudrin and others got them out of the house, took them on weekend retreats and created support groups to lift each other up. It was here in 1990, in the midst of saving each other, that Kudrin met the social worker and the HIV-positive screen printer behind the initial idea of Nightsweats and T-Cells.

Kudrin speaks of its origins as if they were steeped in urban legend.

He talks of the Cleveland social worker as the original beating heart of the operation. She had been friends with Victor Brown, a greeting card illustrator living with AIDS, and his best friend Paul Monette, a West Hollywood author who wrote memoirs of his survival. In conversation, they’d share striking things people said within the community.

“I just can’t have another day like tomorrow,” said one, expressing how every day living with the disease was worse than the last.

“Patients aren’t stupid,” said another, in a time when the medical community seemed to be flailing its arms for a cure.

So they took their dying words and placed them on the front of T-shirts. “If that was on a T-shirt and you wore that T-shirt to the grocery store, then nobody could ignore that part of AIDS,” says Kudrin.

When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive, Nightsweats created a shirt that read: “We need more than Magic!” 

While the NBA superstar was being hailed for the attention his diagnosis brought to the cause, the shirt became the company’s first slam dunk design by pushing for even more advocacy and awareness. By upping their game, though, it also increased their risks. 

“We made a decision at the beginning that it was a very dangerous thing to be out locally, but somebody would have to be out,” says Kudrin. For their safety, those associated with Nightsweats would remain anonymous   — except Kudrin. “When that person died, someone else would do that job.”

He pauses, hand to his chin, and then begins to laugh so hard he starts wheezing.

“I just never died,” he says, in disbelief.

In a way, Nightsweats gave Kudrin everything he needed to survive.

“Instead of my life getting smaller like what happens to most people with HIV, I saw this as a way out,” he says. “This was an opportunity to stay engaged no matter how ill I got.”

Originally, they made shirts out of a small shop in Kent, marketing to local LGBT Pride festivals and giving them away at medical conferences, healing weekends and lectures hosted by people living with AIDS and HIV. 

Each design took hours, sometimes days to create. On days they were ill, they lay in bed and made calls to potential clients. But no matter how hard they worked, death never stopped. “We were all burying our friends every day,” says Kudrin, eyes glazing over.

So they opened their doors and provided meals and transportation to and from the shop for those living with HIV and AIDS who were well enough to fold shirts a couple of days a week. For people like Gordy, who had been on the brink of death as a 35-year-old black refugee from San Francisco, it meant a renewed sense of purpose.

“When you lose your job, a lot of times you lose your identity,” says Gordy. 

He had previously worked as a merchandiser for Saks Fifth Avenue and a gay apparel shop in the Castro District of San Francisco, but he had returned home to Cleveland, bedridden from illness. He used his skills in the shop by folding shirts and putting together the displays when they attended conferences.

“Nightsweats was the only place I could work,” he says. “I needed to work to keep my sanity.”

While Nightsweats had started to make a name for itself locally, everything changed in 1992. The entire AIDS Memorial Quilt was returning to Washington, D.C., and Kudrin and his staff wanted to visit since there was no guarantee any of them would be alive the next time around. 

He also saw it as an opportunity to get the word out about Nightsweats. So, Kudrin maxed out his credit cards to buy about 500 T-shirts for production, rented a hotel room for six employees and bought a street vendor’s license to set up shop on a table outside of his brother’s van along the National Mall.

For three days, they sold tees with neon pink letters proudly displaying “HIV+.” 

On the last day, Kudrin sold the shirt off his back. “We literally could not take money from people fast enough,” he says, smiling.

The event also allowed Nightsweats to make important connections, including with members of Act Up and a New York staffing agency which was also employing people with AIDS and HIV. 

But running a shop employed by people who were dying was costly. Every penny they made went toward supporting each other. On weekends, Kudrin invited everyone to his home for a potluck breakfast. They would eat and pore over medical journals, treatment newsletters and The New York Times to keep up with the latest news.

One Sunday, Kudrin discovered Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was looking for a merchandise manager. So Kudrin answered the ad. By the end of the year, he had established a partnership with Broadway Cares to make shirts for the Tony Award nominees and for Broadway productions such as Wicked and The Book of Mormon. 

Connections they made in Washington opened doors to selling their designs nationally in gay apparel shops and through organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. By the end of 1993, Nightsweats had garnered enough notoriety to place an ad in The Advocate. 

Still, it was never easy.

“We were living on the edge all the time,” says Kudrin.

As Nightsweats was gaining national notoriety, pressure was building at home.

In 1992, Frank Jackson, as chairman of City Council’s Public Health Committee, introduced an ordinance that could criminalize those living with HIV and AIDS.

In Jackson’s proposal, authorities had the power to test anyone charged with a criminal act that could result in the transmittal of AIDS, AIDS-related illnesses, HIV or a sexually transmitted disease. Anyone who failed to “take reasonable measures” to prevent exposure to the virus risked indefinite confinement.

“It’s hard to find a constitutional right that isn’t violated by this type of ordinance,” says Susan Becker, professor emerita of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at CSU and general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “The existence of these laws significantly increases the stigma and reinforces the fear of different groups of people.” 

But 25 years later, Jackson says the legislation was nothing more than a prod in the right direction.

“It was like having an 800-pound elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about,” says Jackson. “The legislation was never intended to be passed. It was intended to raise the profile, garner attention and then make it controversial enough where people began to have a discussion around it.”

Over the course of the next three years, council held public hearings on Jackson’s ordinance to discuss how to address the ever-growing epidemic in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. 

By 1995, the AIDS epidemic had become the ninth leading cause of all deaths in Cleveland. In the city, more than 2,000 cases of AIDS had been recorded and more than 6,000 people were living with HIV. 

Although white male homosexuals were the largest population of those infected, women, children, intravenous drug users and minorities were the fastest growing populations dealing with the disease.

So, in January 1995, Mayor Michael White called a state of emergency, drawing $1 million in new federal and state grants to create prevention programs, further education efforts and provide medication to the desperate populations in need. 

But it wasn’t enough. 

By October, local AIDS activists were losing faith in Cleveland’s administration. They argued the city had been dragging its feet to spend almost $360,000 of state money to pay for five AIDS health educators.

“All my friends were dying,” says Kudrin. “It was our Auschwitz. It wasn’t an option to remain silent anymore.”

On Dec. 1, 1995, Kudrin led the charge on City Hall with a caged bust of a female mannequin wearing the bright pink-lettered “HIV+” shirt from Nightsweats and T-Cells. 

Wearing black ski masks to protect their identities, they carried her inside a chicken-wire cage — as if to symbolize Jackson’s quarantine and the money city officials were holding hostage. “Arbeit macht frei” — work will set you free — was spray-painted on the front.

“I’m not their enemy. I’m really their friend,” Jackson told a Plain Dealer reporter, at the time.

“We tell the truth,” says Kudrin. “That was our job.”

Less than six weeks later, Jackson stepped down as chair of the Public Health Committee and became chairman of the Community and Economic Development Committee. 

In 1998, Jackson’s committee devoted $1 million of block grant money to AIDS-related services. Jackson’s ordinance never saw a vote and was tabled in 2008. 

With the implementation of new protease drug inhibitors — the drug cocktail designed to further extend the quality of life for those living with AIDS — the work around long-term survivors evolved.

“HIV care became not only about helping people dying but helping them figure out how to live,” says Pike.

The walls of Gordy’s Lakewood apartment are covered with bright blue fabric and lined with gold ribbons.

“If I had a tombstone, I would want to put on there, ‘Glue guns saved my life!’ ” he says, laughing briefly before dry mouth turns it into a cough.

He doesn’t have the money or the means to paint, so he’s improvised, creating a bright white and blue paper chandelier hanging over his dining room table. In the center of the room, two yucca plants with elephant-ear-sized leaves spread out like open arms.

“This adds life to the place,” he says. “This is growth.”

Gordy isn’t afraid to talk about death. When you’ve survived endless bouts of pneumonia, skin cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and a quadruple heart bypass, death becomes a part of your reality, a part of your native tongue. He’s already paid off his cremation services.

“Put the wailers down front and keep the little weepers in the back,” Gordy says, laughing again. “If anyone wants to throw themselves on the coffin, keep the aisles clear.”

As he talks, his hands rest on his knees, slightly gnarled and always shaking from neuropathy. He goes to physical therapy three times a week and takes more than 20 pills a day to maintain his health. For the last 25 years, the same AIDS Taskforce case manager has provided his medication and food, and helped pay for his apartment.

In March, the Taskforce unexpectedly lost its federal grant funding administered by the Ohio Department of Health and in turn, filed a civil suit against the department. They argued that the loss would impact approximately 350 clients — including Gordy — whose health and welfare could be severely impacted by the loss of nine full-time case management staff. 

“Activism today is lonely, because people believe [AIDS] is either eradicated or so manageable that it doesn’t matter,” says Bob Candage, director of clinical services at the Taskforce. “It’s not necessarily the fear of the virus anymore, but it is fear of people finding out who you are, what that means, and who’s going to reject you or accept you.”

Advances in HIV prevention and medication have created a wave of new challenges for long-term survivors like Gordy keeping up the fight. For Nightsweats, it meant they had to adapt. “People just didn’t want to deal with AIDS anymore,” says Kudrin.

During the late ‘90s, Nightsweats splashed “Team HOMO” across T-shirts, hats, sweaters and mugs. The rebranding allowed Kudrin to branch out without the AIDS baggage. One of the company’s best-selling T-shirts asks, “What if the Hokey Pokey is really what it’s all about?” with whimsical shapes bent and spread among a variety of stars.

“It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to sell,” says Kudrin. “But it was our entree into people saying, ‘Oh, our AIDS agency is doing work, and that’s my favorite shirt.’ ”

Last summer, when 49 people were killed in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, it sent ripples of fear and sadness throughout the world. That same night, at the 70th Tony Awards, Lin-Manuel Miranda received a Nightsweats and T-Cells shirt in a Tony Awards swag bag that had the signatures of all the award nominees — a project Kudrin has been doing for Broadway Cares since 1993.

Within days, Miranda had enlisted Kudrin to print more than 15,000 shirts with a design based on the final words of his Tony Award speech, with “LOVE NOW” boldly displayed across the center.

For three months, Kudrin’s shop came alive. To fill the orders, he recruited help from local case managers working with HIV-positive and AIDS patients. As Kudrin and his partner printed and dried the shirts, the new crew tagged, folded and packed them in boxes, shipping them out. It was a sign of what Nightsweats and T-Cells has always been and what it continues to be: a safe space, a resuscitation center, a movement.

“I have become reinvigorated,” says Kudrin. “I’m looking to the next generation who’s going to come in and manage this as we go away.”

On Wednesday, May 31, eight black men ages 20 to 67 gather around a table at the AIDS Taskforce for a weekly support group. The newest member, a 20-year-old newly diagnosed with HIV, sits alone at a nearby computer separate from the group.

Around the table, each one checks in about their most recent struggles and accomplishments. One wearing a white ball cap hasn’t attended in months. He’s been diagnosed with HIV since 1985 and talks about returning to school for hospitality management.

“You’re never too old to get your education,” he says with a slight Southern rasp. “Sometimes if you get a job, it’s not for the payroll, it’s just to help people. To be a significant and proud person of society.”

He leans forward, pounds his small fist onto the table. “I’m never going to be free from HIV,” he says. “But I’m not going to let that stop me from progressing ahead.”

The others nod, feeding off of his energy. But when the conversation swings to a 27-year-old wearing a blue hoodie in the corner, the room changes. 

“Last week, I felt like I wanted to give up on everything,” he says.

He struggles with depression and talks about feeling alone, the kind of isolation that comes with the disease.

“But I was reminded of something I feel is very important,” he says, leaning forward, eyes scanning the rest of the group.

“I want to help those who are basically just like me, who are young, who are HIV-positive, who are dealing with mental issues most places kind of ignore.”

He wants to start an open mic night where HIV-positive youth can express themselves. He wants to find more volunteers to help out at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.

The old-timer in the ball cap cuts in with a wag of his finger at the younger guy. “I’m proud somebody like you is stepping up to the plate,” he says.

“It’s not just about me,” the younger man replies. “It’s not just about trying to help these people.” 

He stands up and unzips his hoodie. Underneath, he’s wearing a black T-shirt with a pink triangle and the words “SILENCE = DEATH” underneath. It’s from an Act Up event he attended last summer.

He launches into the importance of activism, about how people reacted in Public Square when he tried to pass out wristbands, pamphlets and free condoms, and those who came back asking questions later in the day. For him, the T-shirt is a symbol of power, a reason to keep going, to carry on.

“If that’s what it takes to free yourself, I’m happy for you,” says the long-term survivor, tipping his cap in his direction.

Back in the shop, Kudrin sifts through the breadth of work they’ve created over the last 27 years. An early shirt displays a periodic table with 78 squares. Each slot is reserved for a drug meant to keep HIV and AIDS at bay or tackle illnesses that creep up in response to the overwhelming surge of medication needed to stay alive. Below the table, there’s a list of side effects from bone marrow toxicity to kidney damage and even death.

“The price of survival was sometimes an additional sickness,” says Kudrin’s partner, his back turned at the other end of the shop.

Kudrin knows that reality well. In his three-bedroom ranch in West Park, he holds a small pharmacy in a room he dubs ‘The Pill Room.” On the top shelf of a small cabinet, bottles of Aleve, allergy medicine and vitamins lay helter-skelter beside supplements to help with macular degeneration — loss of central vision not usually seen in someone until they’re well into their 70s.

Although many long-term survivors have developed resistances to AZT, Kudrin still takes it alongside three AIDS-specific drugs — nearly all of which cause bouts of nausea, dizziness and fatigue.

A host of blood pressure and cholesterol medications sit next to sleeping pills that offset the insomnia — all side effects of the medications that suppress his virus. Last year, Kudrin’s medications cost $67,000.

“There is no reasonable explanation as to why I’m still alive,” says Kudrin, laughing.

And yet he’s here in the shop every day hell-bent on fulfilling a mission to stay alive and remain relevant. 

He pulls out Nightsweats’ all-time best seller, a shirt with a quote from Monette’s Last Watch of the Night in a perfect circle: “All I want is the cure and my friends back.”

“Even if they cured AIDS today, for people like me and other long-term survivors, this would never stop,” says Kudrin, looking at the design. “Our friends aren’t coming back. You don’t lose 200-plus people out of your life and think that will ever stop. It just doesn’t.”

He pauses and takes a breath.

“This is all about love,” says Kudrin, putting the screen back on the shelf.

“It’s bigger than me,” he says. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”

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