Then, in walks a skinny man in a black baseball cap, with soulful eyes and a nose that juts forward like the prow of a ship. He stops at a folding table set up between two video screens showing continuous reels of gay pornography.
He strips off his black leather jacket, flexing toned biceps in a black muscle shirt. He sets up a red hazardous-waste bin as nonchalantly as if it were a plastic juice jug from Costco, arranges some Band-Aids and a bowl of lollipops next to it, and pulls out a syringe.
This is Demetre Daskalakis, a doctor and gay activist who has come to spread the message that a new health threat has emerged among the city’s gay population and that he is there to stop it.
“Have you been vaccinated?” he asks, smiling, his voice warm, as the half-naked men walk by.
A new, casually transmittable infection — a unique strain of bacterial meningitis — has cast a pall over the gay night life and dating scene, with men wondering whether this is AIDS, circa 1981, all over again. Seven men have died in New York City, about a third of diagnosed cases, since 2010. And in the last few months, the contagion seemed to be accelerating. It has targeted gay and bisexual men, and nobody knows exactly why.
The city’s best hope to curb the outbreak is to vaccinate as many at-risk men as possible, focusing on those most in danger: men who regularly hook up with other men whom they meet at parties, bars, clubs and through apps like Grindr. Dr. Don Weiss, the director of surveillance for the city’s Bureau of Communicable Disease, has called it “Russian roulette sex,” because “sooner or later, you are going to come across this organism and be exposed.”
The health department’s own vaccination efforts at several gay bars have had limited success. Men out partying want to have fun, not be told that they may fall prey to a lethal disease by doing so.
Hence Dr. Daskalakis’s early-morning club crawl, medical bag in hand. Being a nonthreatening gay man who does not wear a white coat helps. So does his empathy and sense of humor. When this reporter sent him an e-mail expressing a wish to remain fully clothed while out cruising, the reply from his iPhone was instantaneous: “I will be in a burkha :)”
Every half-hour or so, the owner of Paddles, Michael Aulito, makes a public-service announcement: “If you haven’t gotten a shot, please go talk to Dr. Demetre.” Once, he adds, “Not Dr. Demento, Dr. Demetre.”