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Crystal Ball
The party drug crystal meth is fueling a new epidemic of unsafe sex — and, Ethan Brown reports, some experts fear the party's only just begun.

Late on a quiet Friday night in the Flatiron district, a handful of men in cutoff jeans and sleeveless T-shirts cluster outside an office building on 25th Street, smoking cigarettes and exchanging numbers. "Are you a member or a guest?" asks a man bearing a clipboard. "We're here to see Rick," offers my companion. "Rick's not here right now," the doorman says. "He just left for the L.U.R.E."

Minutes later, at the cavelike S&M club the L.U.R.E., Rick is nowhere in sight. Rick (not his real name) sells crystal methamphetamine, also known as "Tina" or "party favors." And unlike dealers of other drugs — who live by the credo "don't get high on your own supply" — crystal dealers tend to use heavily, so they're often as speedy as what they sell. To update the famous Lou Reed lyric, you do not wait for the man, you actively chase him.

Back on West 25th Street, the sun is starting to rise. "He's still not here, but you can go upstairs if you'd like," says the doorman. "Take the elevator to 6E." The elevator rumbles to a stop at the sixth floor, opening into a loftlike television studio. Dance music pounds and gay porn plays on TVs hung from the ceiling. In the reception area, a bored-looking Latino guy — who's checking not just coats but clothes — takes tips from a line of men waiting to get in. Muscled, naked men pace around, towels slung over their shoulders, while others masturbate quietly, their eyes transfixed by the video screens.

An attractive African-American man approaches. "You guys need Tina?" he asks. "Sixty dollars for a quarter" — a quarter gram. I hand over three $20 bills; he fumbles through his knapsack for a bag of crystal, which looks like shards of broken glass. He introduces himself — we'll call him Peter — and asks a stream of rambling questions. "Where are you from?" "What were you doing before you came here?" "How long have you been partying?" Before I can answer, Peter says anxiously: "I gotta go."

But Peter doesn't go anywhere; he simply moves to a different couch, stationing himself beside a naked man with a barbed-wire tattoo around his forearm. He whispers something in the man's ear, then quickly produces another bag of crystal. Just after 6:30, Peter kisses a man dressed in leather gear and heads for the elevator. "When can I see you again?" I ask. "Here's my number," he says. "But if you can't reach me, Rick and I are always here."

Name a drug — any drug —- and a social scene springs to mind. Marijuana is smoked by hip-hoppers and hippies, ecstasy consumed by wide-pupiled clubbers, cocaine snorted by socialites and social climbers. But rarely has a drug been so intertwined with one subculture as crystal meth is with New York's underground gay-sex scene, which has been flourishing of late, particularly post-Giuliani. "Ecstasy might give users an ecstatic feeling, which is perfect for dance clubs," says Robert Klitzman, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, who has studied the drug habits of gay men. "Crystal, on the other hand, can make users ravenously horny. There's even a phrase for it in the gay community: 'crystal dick.' "

Crystal — a stimulant that produces reactions ranging from hyperactivity to euphoria — has become an epidemic among gays in New York. "Four years ago, 10 percent of our clients had a problem with it," says Paul McCabe, program director of the Pride Institute, which provides substance-abuse and mental-health treatment to the gay and lesbian community. "Now we're up to 40 to 50 percent. And it's 70 percent for our clients under 30." Marc Berkley, party promoter and head of gay weekly HX, says it never used to be that way: "A few years ago, you wouldn't see crystal. We had a joke about it: 'The queens in L.A. do crystal because they're three hours behind and want to catch up with New York.' "

"What we're hearing about crystal meth is alarming," says Bridget Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for the city of New York, who took down one of the city's first sophisticated, highly profitable crystal-meth rings last summer. "Plus, the crystal meth we're seeing is not diluted. With coke, it's broken down by suppliers. With crystal, how they buy it is how they sell it." And though the drug is still expensive in New York, its remarkably long duration (one "bump," or sniff, can keep users wired for hours) makes it an economical alternative to coke, which requires line after line to keep you high.

That crystal — a drug long associated with the West Coast, where it's used by everyone from ravers to truck drivers — has taken root in New York among gay men is no accident, says Klitzman. "The dealers know the demand is small right now, so they're focusing on the gay scene, which has always been one step ahead in terms of narcotics trends. It's really only a matter of time before we have a wider crystal epidemic."

On a recent Tuesday night, about 40 men sit on folding chairs in a room in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street. They're here for a Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting, one of three CMA gatherings that now take place at the center every week. The meeting, which is so crowded that it spills into the hallway, immediately dispels the notion that all gay crystal addicts are club-hoppers: There are muscled Chelsea boys, but also grandfatherly men in their sixties; lithe, dreadlocked black men; and even nine-to-fivers toting briefcases.

John is one of the group's original members. He, too, evades type: With his gym-toned arms, intense blue eyes, and neatly trimmed, slightly graying hair, John looks like a healthy, hip middle-aged man. And his past is hardly typical of a heavy drug abuser either. While his Catholic-high-school classmates in suburban Virginia smoked pot and drank heavily, John stayed clean — "I was a total drugs virgin."

But after moving to New York in the early eighties, John came out of the closet and became friends with a group of men who fanatically frequented the downtown nightclub the Saint. One night in 1982, underneath the strobe lights, someone handed him an ecstasy pill. "That night completely changed my life," John says. "It was the first time I was able to feel a bond with a large group of people." Soon, he was partying with the best of them, taking MDA (a chemical cousin of ecstasy) and ketamine (an animal tranquilizer). After the Saint shuttered in 1988, though, he felt burned out, tired of all the drugs but also searching for a better one.


From the April 29, 2002 issue of New York Magazine.



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