Crystal Ball

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.

Then, in the mid-nineties, “a friend asked, ‘Have you tried smoking crystal?’ ” After his first hit, John knew he had found his new drug. “I thought, This is fabulous. I want to do this all the time. There was a subtle, warm euphoria, a strong feeling of eros. I knew that I would have to work very hard to not become a drug degenerate.” He laughs. “That didn’t last very long.”

John kept his crystal use in check for a few months, but after his boyfriend moved out in 1997, he became unhinged. “During the summer of ‘97,” he recalls, “I smoked crystal – and had sex – on every square inch of Fire Island.” One particularly memorable bender lasted from Gay Pride Weekend, in late June, to July 4. “I basically went ten days without sleep.”

John confessed his problem to his therapist, who suggested that he go to an AA meeting. But he noticed that there were crucial differences between the addictions. “Alcoholics are often introverted types,” John says. “But with crystal, you’re out all the time, you never miss a day of work. You’re like Superman.” (Also, as he points out, “most alcoholics wouldn’t know what it’s like to masturbate for three days straight.”) In July of 1999, a local CMA chapter was started. “I’ll never forget the first meeting,” he says with a laugh. “It was just me, a transsexual, and another guy.” It’s a growing fraternity: Now there are more CMA groups at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis than any other twelve-step program.

Crystal is having a devastating effect on gay men not only in New York but in other big cities. “Look at the syphilis rates in Seattle,” Klitzman says. “They’ve skyrocketed along with crystal’s popularity. People’s judgment is decreased on this drug, which leads to wildly unsafe sex, which can in turn drastically increase the risk of HIV infection.”

“We’re seeing a strong correlation between crystal and HIV infection,” agrees McCabe of the Pride Institute in New York. “People who have weathered years of staying safe are getting into crystal and then testing positive.”

The crystal-sex connection becomes clear at the CMA meeting, when the moderator warns the group not to be too explicit in relating stories of “crystal-triggered” sex; such tales could easily cause a relapse. Moments later, one man cuts short a story about a threesome. And if recovery from most drugs is measured in days and months, time away from crystal seems to be clocked in minutes and hours. A handsome, well-dressed guy begins by mentioning that he’s not a New Yorker at all; he’s here on business. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t use while here, but gave in over the weekend. Another admits that just this morning, on his way to work, he ran into an ex–drug buddy and before he knew it, he blurted to his friend: “I wanna get high.”

“I have to never, ever run out of this.” those were best-selling author David Sedaris’s thoughts when he took his first bump of crystal way back in 1980. To Sedaris, who was working as a waiter in North Carolina, the drug’s appeal was simple. “With ecstasy and cocaine, you’re always chasing that first high,” Sedaris explains. “But with crystal, you find it every time.”

Sedaris quickly became friends with his dealer’s customers – they even formed a crystal collective of sorts. “We used the word manifesto a lot,” Sedaris says, “and we were into creating these bizarre abstract art projects.” Typically, Sedaris offers a counterintuitive take on crystal as aphrodisiac: “I’ve heard about guys staying up for two days and having sex, but that would never happen with me. I’d be trying to hustle the guy out the door so I could paint envelopes.”

But the drug soon consumed Sedaris. “I once told a friend that I left my keys on her kitchen table, just so I could get in there and steal her drugs,” he admits. And colored envelopes aside, it took a heavy toll on his creative life. “I look at the stuff I wrote then and it’s just complete trash. Nothing would have happened during the course of the day, but somehow everything meant something.”

His withdrawal was also unexpectedly painful: “I couldn’t get out of bed, and when I wasn’t in bed, I was curled up in a ball on the floor crying. It was like Lady Sings the Blues! I remember thinking, Oh my God, I am a drug addict. I thought I was an artist, but I really was a drug addict.”

Still, Sedaris says that crystal’s lure remains potent. “There are times when I think, God, if I had some crystal right now, I could get so much done,” he says. “And if there was a drug that combined coffee and crystal, I’d be finished!” Sedaris pauses. “But all I have to do is look at my writing back then,” he says. “And I’ll think: Nah.”

Precisely why crystal – whose side effects range from heart attacks to psychosis – is so tough to kick is a question that stymies public-health officials, even though it is chemically similar to prescribed drugs such as Desoxyn and Ritalin. “What we do know, however, is that the drug is highly addictive,” says Klitzman. “The brain develops a desperate need for this substance, which makes the road to recovery long, very painful, and filled with relapses.”

Recovering addict J.L. is in the midst of that struggle: After a disastrous three-year affair with crystal that included a bitter split from his partner and testing positive for HIV, he fled New York for a rehab clinic in Minnesota. An actor and voice coach, J.L. says that being away from the city he loves has been tough – his first relapse came when he read a story in the New York Times about a play his ex-boyfriend had worked on coming to Broadway. “That blew my mind,” J.L. says. “He was going to Broadway, and I was in rehab. I immediately went out and used.”

J.L. is clean now, but worries that gay life provides daunting challenges to sobriety. “How do I stay sober and meet gay men? How do I exist as a social gay man and not come into contact with drugs?” He laughs. “And this is Minneapolis!”

Like many of his fellow New Yorkers who’ve moved to midwestern rehab centers, J.L. sees little but danger in returning to the city. “Some of the guys say they’ll never come back to New York, and I’m not sure I can either,” J.L. says. “You have to understand: Once you’re in the loop in New York, there’s a place to go and party every night.” He pauses for a moment. “Nothing can compare to crystal, it just keeps you up there,” he says in a voice that sounds both awestruck and sad. “Life only gives you that in moments.”

Crystal Ball