But he was given unusual leeway because AIDS, thanks to New York State reimbursement levels, was exceedingly profitable for St. Vincent’s. On peak days, AIDS patients filled 120 beds, more than a third of the hospital’s overall capacity, with even more waiting in the hallways, according to Torres. “There was just mayhem. Gurneys everywhere, people with IVs in chairs, IVs running out of fluid. A nursing shortage. I mean those days were absolute craziness.”
There also was a staggering amount of suffering and death. Despite their efforts, every year close to a third of St. Vincent’s AIDS patients passed away.
Instead of being disheartened, Torres sacrificed everything for the clinic and his patients. Increasingly in demand as a public speaker, he folded his honoraria back into the operating budget. He hardly took vacations, or even a weekend away. “It was more stressful to try to go away than to stay and work,” he tells me. “Not only did I have a lot of patients in the hospital, but a lot of them were my friends. I couldn’t leave them.”
Torres’s ingenuity and passion for the work made him a kind of cult figure. I attended a medical conference once where he stirred up an ovation just by walking into the room. A small number of top AIDS doctors enjoyed similar acclaim. Paul Volberding, who directed the San Francisco General AIDS clinic and is a global leader in AIDS research and care, keeps a letter that reached his office mailbox from England though it was addressed simply to “Dr. Paul, San Francisco.”
“Of course these people got lost—I almost got lost,” says Rodger McFarlane, the first executive director of GMHC. “Nobody talks about it, but it was the most fun I ever had in my life. It’s like wartime.”
But even among his peers, Torres stood out. “There was no bigger star,” says Dr. Victoria Sharp, director of AIDS programs at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt. “The thing about Gabe was, he went to Columbia. He published. He was gorgeous—drop-dead gorgeous. And he was so humble. I mean, there was nothing missing.”
Or so it seemed.
Until the mid-nineties, Torres was as sober as one of the nuns who float through the halls at St. Vincent’s. He says he still doesn’t drink; wine gives him a headache. He claims to have smoked exactly two joints in his life, and has no desire to try again. But in 1994 or 1995, one of his friends offered him Special K, or ketamine, a horse tranquilizer then popular as a club drug. He experimented with it for a while. It was, Torres says, the perfect drug for a hopeless epidemic. “You just wanted to deaden yourself,” he says. “K anesthetizes the pain.” But the minute he felt the drug impeding his life, he declared it off-limits. Besides, there was much to celebrate all of a sudden. Beginning in 1996, new drug regimens Torres helped bring about abruptly changed the course of AIDS, ushering in the first good news in the fifteen-year epidemic. Almost overnight, people grew healthier and the daily inpatient population at St. Vincent’s dropped from 120 to 70, then 40, then fewer.
Soon, friends say, Torres was turning to crystal. It was a time when the drug—methamphetamine, long popular as working-class speed, with a following in rural America —was beginning to claim a foothold among urban gay men. Most weren’t reckless kids. “The biggest meth demographic is gay men who survived AIDS and are now in their forties,” says Peter Staley, an HIV-positive recovering addict. “I’ve always called it the perfect midlife-crisis drug.” Berkeley, California–based psychotherapist Walt Odets calls meth use an understandable reaction to the severe and repeated losses from the worst plague years. “This didn’t have some kind of clean ending,” he says. “I read a quote from Mike Nichols, the director, who said once, ‘That’s all blood under the bridge.’ That’s what AIDS is like.”
The drug quickly had Torres in a bind. “He was going through several thousand dollars a week on meth,” according to Darren Allumier, who was Torres’s boyfriend for ten years. “He’s always had this amazing ability to—what’s it called?—hold his liquor and drugs and still function normally. But at home, he was the complete opposite.” Allumier narrates a behind-the-scenes fall into addiction marked by sleeplessness, violence, and repeat calls to 911. It first came to a head one Friday afternoon when the two were leaving for Fire Island. The trip seemed to cause Torres great anxiety, stirring up insecurities about his impact as a doctor. He began to berate himself. “He took a fistful of keys and began pounding himself on the head and neck and back until he was all bloody,” Allumier says. According to both men, violence between them escalated over the following months, culminating in a final breakup in the spring of 1998, followed by endless ad hominems and, briefly, a charge of attempted murder.