My Pal Tina: West Hollywood, Waiting Tables, and Crystal Meth
August 1, 2018
When I talk about my experience of using crystal meth, I often joke about it. I'll say things like, "When I was on meth, I was so skinny I could wear a garbage bag, belt it, and look fabulous!"
Crystal methamphetamine has a lot of nicknames: "tweak," "rocket fuel," "ice," "speed." "Redneck cocaine" has a charming twang to it. "Scooby snax" sounds like the name of a kid's breakfast cereal.
My favorite moniker for the powerful addictive drug is "Tina." Tina sounds like your crazy friend, you know? Hang out with Tina, and you don't know where you'll end up: maybe at a bar, maybe at a cool party, maybe at a sex club, maybe in jail. Adorable Tina.
It was 1998. I had spent over a decade living in New York City, failing to succeed at an acting career. I realized one day that my career wasn't as an actor, but as a waiter. As the Broadway dream died, I countered that death by numbing myself with ever increasing amounts of alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine. I couldn't keep a waiting job, and I was couch surfing. I decided to leave New York, and my best thinking lead me to move to West Hollywood.
When I Met Tina
I moved into a building on Formosa Avenue called "The Merry Lee." It was kind of a gay boy sorority house. Instead of our own names, the mailboxes campily listed "Julie Newmar," "Greta Garbo," and "June Cleaver." I was "Holly Golightly." I lived on the second floor, and the drag queen building manager, "Marlene," lived beneath me.
I had no plans when I moved to L.A. No dreams of making it big in the movies. I did what I did: I waited tables. I begrudgingly told people the specials and picked up their grimy plates. And I was bitter, resentful, and drunk, looking for further escape.
I don't remember who first introduced me to Tina, and it doesn't really matter. After my first taste, I knew I wanted more. Tina made me feel strong and cool, and something I rarely feel: sexy. Oh, I was the most slinky, sexy little minx of a gay guy you could ever meet if I was on crystal. The speedy drug encouraged me to indulge every sexual whim, every naughty, dirty little thought.
My memories of this time are blurry, like the view out the window of an accelerating runaway train. In the few years I lived in WeHo, my use of Tina increased, and I decreased things like sleep and food. For nutrition, I cleverly invested in six packs of Ensure.
I was awake and high for days at a time, then I'd crash. I'd managed to get a job as a room service captain in a swanky Beverly Hills hotel, working the graveyard shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. At work, I often stayed awake via the plastic pouch of powder in my pocket. I went straight from work to a divey gay bar on Santa Monica Boulevard that was open at that hour, catering to others like me who'd been up with Tina for a day or three. The most eligible bachelors are available at saloons in the morning.
While some of the experiences with said bachelors were fun, mostly they were just drug-fueled, jittery, sweaty encounters. I'm sure I was as meaningless to them as they were to me. There's nothing safe about that kind of sex. As a friend once said: "Crystal has the power to make condoms just POOF! Disappear!"
There were times when I was in danger from these encounters. There were times when I had to physically push men off me and run out the door. I was threatened, stolen from, shoved, and hit. Compared with being high on Tina, these were minor troubles: the cost of doing business.
The Downward Spiral
As my drug use increased, I stopped contacting my family. I have a loving, wonderful family, one that cares deeply for me. When I hadn't talked to them in weeks, they drove -- my parents, two brothers, and sister -- from my hometown of Phoenix to L.A. to find me. They spent two days going from my apartment, to my work, to friends' houses, and I managed to evade them. My life was none of their fucking business! I was pursuing sex, drugs, and rock and roll, baby! And I wanted none of their concern or love, or anything that might dissuade me from my best friend, Tina. My family left L.A. without ever seeing me. I'd fooled 'em. Or so I thought.
In a message given to me by a friend, my mother exclaimed: "Why are you doing this? Why are you avoiding us? We know you. We love you." I didn't hear it. Or if I did, I didn't care.
My ability to pay the rent was shaky. There were several months when building manager Marlene tapped her nails on my door, and I pretended not to be home. There were some nights when I was so paranoid of running into her that I stayed out all night and all day in fear. Once, I slept in the park because I couldn't pay the rent.
One evening, I'd been up for a couple of days. I decided to go to my favorite bar for happy hour before my graveyard shift at the hotel. Usually, I carried my stash of Tina either in a pocket or in my sock, but for some reason this particular night, I didn't take it with me. At around 8:30 p.m., I scurried out of the bar to try to catch the bus to work. A policeman spotted me and drove his car on the sidewalk to stop me. The officer said he was stopping me for "suspicious behavior." He searched me and found no weapons (as if!) or, thankfully, illegal substances. However, the officer ran my name through the system and found a warrant out for my arrest. A year earlier, I'd received a DUI that I never took care of.
Tina Takes Me to Jail
As I sat in L.A. County Jail, serving a 30-day sentence for that DUI, I thought: "I'm not supposed to be here. My life has taken a severely wrong turn somewhere." It never occurred to me that drugs or alcohol might be the cause.
Another joke I often make is that jail is not nearly as sexy as it is in porn. While that statement is very true, jail is also an incredibly frightening place. In L.A. County, they segregate gay men from the general population for our safety, but there were still bloody fistfights every day in my housing facility. People fought over jailhouse boyfriends, over the homemade hooch pruno, over coming down off drugs, or over what was for lunch. I was fortunately never in a fight nor targeted, but I felt the tension and threat every day that I was there.
When I was released from the downtown jail (early, after 16 days), I ran for about six blocks, just running and running. Then, I had to figure out how to get back to my apartment. I had no money, but I had to find a way. I had a stash of Tina waiting for me.
I'd lost my job at the hotel (going to jail made it a "no call, no show" situation), my apartment was once again in jeopardy, and I wasn't feeling so sexy anymore. Mostly, I felt desperate and desperately lonely. Turns out, Tina's a pretty selfish girl. Like most addictions, she demands all your time, all your attention, all your money, and if she can get it, all your life. In less than three years in West Hollywood, my life was in shambles. Crystal was my problem, and to get away from crystal, I needed to get away from California. I got on a Greyhound bus and got the hell out of Dodge.
That was the end of my Tina relationship, but it was another ten years before I could dump my first love: booze. In that ten years' time, I was diagnosed with AIDS (in 2003). When the doctor told me the diagnosis, he said that he thought I'd been positive for a long time and just didn't know it. Taking care of my health had never been a priority. It took another seven years before I became drug and alcohol free.
When I look back at that tumultuous time, I can't believe that I made it through alive. I fought so hard to be the cool, sexy guy hanging out with Tina. I wasn't. Yet, I made it through to the other side. I'm healthy and sober. I have terrific friends and a great relationship with my family.
Not to be too kumbaya, but there must have been a guardian angel or higher power or something looking out for me. And that's no joke.
Charles Sanchez is an openly gay, openly poz writer/director/actor living in New York City. He has written for WritingRaw.com and HuffPost's Queer Voices. As a performer, musical director, and director, he has worked in venues ranging from Lincoln Center and off-Broadway to dinner theater in Arkansas. His award-winning musical comedy web series, Merce, is about an HIV-positive guy living in New York who isn't sad, sick, or dying.
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