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9 min

The cachet of crystal

One man's gradual slide from West End comfort to the street

Credit: Chris Howey photo. Aedan Saint model.
The Fortune Apartments

You could reach out of David’s huge front window and touch pine needles; immense ponderosa pines loomed as high as the sixth floor.

 
Downtown Vancouver in the mid-1990s may have seemed a forest of building cranes, but the Fortune Apartments, an older building in the centre of the West End, was a tranquil corner snugly protected by trees. David and his partner rarely pulled the blinds down — why obscure the view of English Bay and Point Grey? 
 
A large raccoon sometimes perched on one of the tree branches, intrigued by the activities in the apartment: David baking chocolate biscotti or cutting vegetables for a stew; his partner noisily unloading the dishwasher.
 
Occasionally some unkind words passed between them; a casual remark about a dirty dish might lead to a discussion of responsibilities and sharing. Then his partner would retire for a nap and David would retreat to his den, the heavy smell of marijuana floating from the partly open door.
 
Sitting pie-eyed in his Archie Bunker chair, David was surrounded by things that he loved: shelves full of books, a collection of Japanese teacups, pottery, photos, a tiny silver rabbit. A blue wall covered with art: his partner’s David Hockney and Joe Average prints, David’s small Tony Onley and Bill Reid originals.
 
On another wall, some of his Japanese teacups were displayed in a framed poster from an exhibition he curated at the University of British Columbia in the first of his careers. One of the draws to the museum profession was, he said, “to be surrounded by beautiful things.” 
 
***
The Murray Hotel
 
The Murray Hotel is one of Vancouver’s better single-room-occupancy hotels. Attractive wide palladium windows top the stone and brick facade offering a visual variety to the nearby towers — the blue glass-sided Wall Centre has taken over the entire neighbouring block.
 
The Murray’s wood-panelled lobby is cottagelike: many overgrown plants, shelves of books, a white cat that lounges on the iron radiator. The residents inhabit a warren of cubicles each furnished with a single bed, wardrobe, small table and sink. 
 
David still pays great attention to his décor; it’s 10 years later and he possesses one of the Murray’s most adorned rooms. A saw-toothed rotary saw blade hangs in the centre of a wall; he’s fashioned a curtain rod from a broken aluminum crutch and it holds a beautiful piece of torn blue fabric. The wooden knob on the table drawer is carefully painted silver.
 
On the floor there is an open suitcase full of silver: metal bits, memory boards, chains — whatever caught the light on one of David’s dumpster dives.
 
Dirty clothes and boxes are piled in the corners. Under the sink there is a collection of rubble, bits of wood, metal rods and refrigerator grates — my friend mentions a future building project, some shelves above the sink. The floor is filthy with sand, broken glass, a squashed banana, ashes. 
 
David finds his propane torch with little trouble and lights it effortlessly. He carries it casually about the small darkened space, the long fierce flame almost touching objects, fabrics, skin. He turns the silver valve and the fire diminishes, comes to rest against the small glass pipe that he has picked up from the table. The smoke smells like talcum and cleanser. He inhales.
 
***
Numbers
 
“What if we could taste the virus, would we spit those lovers away?” David loved to juggle expansive concepts in his chatty way.
 
Late night at Numbers, the Davie St gay bar, getting to know him. At the same time I was slightly put out because all eyes were on him, the blond muscled golden boy. We took turns going for beer, and occasionally David disappeared into the alley to smoke pot. 
 
We were both working in the education department at AIDS Vancouver. David was my supervisor, his second career. Those were the days measured in T-cell counts.
 
Once, for one of our brochures, I created a graphic of the AIDS continuum: an ugly narrow tombstone, a tide line near the bottom marking the point of HIV infection and darkening grey bricks suggesting opportunistic infections along the way, then “full-blown” AIDS, and finally a small bit of black — just a little, not to be too scary.
 
At the side a suggested timeline measured in months; fortunately, within a couple of years it would become thoroughly inaccurate. 
 
David and his partner both happened to be HIV-positive. David was fairly new on the AIDS continuum and so far without symptoms; his partner was in the dark grey with a life expectancy of 12-18 months.
 
Back at the Fortune Apartments, they managed to keep their separate collections of pills out of sight. With their reasonable incomes, there were regular trips, dinners with friends, movies, pub runs and afternoons spent at the pool or the gym. They concocted elaborate meals. But David’s partner continued to lose weight.
 
Eventually David was “let go” from his job and awarded a disability pension: the disability being depression. As David put it, “Life’s complicated, it’s hard. I’m not used to it yet.”
 
*** 
The Murray Hotel
 
The propane torch now sits on the table, the glass pipe wedged into a coffin-like chunk of Styrofoam. Before filling his pipe, David wasn’t shy to show me the powder in a tiny plastic bag. Jib is the word he prefers for crystal meth, though it has many current street names: Tina, tweak, glass, ice, krank.
 
Perhaps to him jib sounds cool, musical, playful; to me it sounds harsh and cutting — appropriate considering its possible manufactured contents include ephedrine from cold medicine, battery acid, ether, solvents, Drano. Probably cooked in the basement of a local home or at a cabin in the Gulf Islands; recipes are available on the internet.
 
David the gracious host serves me, or rather I am encouraged to serve myself coffee and muffins. The coffee machine is my recycled Christmas gift; the dubious muffins are likely from a food bank or possibly one of Vancouver’s downtown dumpsters.
 
He is eating sugar, his priority staple, eats it by the bagful — could explain the missing teeth, but more likely he lost them because crystal meth causes the blood vessels to the mouth to shrink. I think of the child or teenager who eats just the icing on the cake. But David is no youth, he is 42.
 
David puts his blue torch and the glass pipe into his knapsack, a bag of powder into a special pocket. His night awaits and he’s going on a voyage deeper into the city. I look out his grimy window, six feet across to a view of an identical but barren and starkly lit room.
 
***
Mrs Simpson’s
 
Early 1996, a weekend meeting in blizzard-bound Washington, DC. I was on staff at the XI International Conference on AIDS. The program for the upcoming summer conference in Vancouver was a blank chart and we were here to begin filling the squares.
 
Our team met up at Mrs Simpson’s, a pleasant restaurant close to our hotel. Inside, the conference coordinators expressed their agendas: This would be a good-news conference. Fear and pessimism had reigned so far during the course of the pandemic. Now news that drugs called protease inhibitors were working for some AIDS patients. In combination with other drugs, they reduced the amount of HIV in the blood.
 
***
Burning Man
 
David’s partner became a candidate for the new drug regimen: a lot of pills, at specific times of the day. The new drug cocktail worked, he put on 20 pounds; his T4 count went up. 
 
David tried new drugs too, out and about all the night, blond and buffed, the golden boy.
 
Some friends from Alberta visited. Nice guys. Great travellers. Vancouver was a layover, their calendars shaped by their status on the gay “A list” party circuit: Carnival, Rio; Mardi Gras, Sydney; Volcano, Honolulu; Bunnies on the Bayou, Houston; Freedom Party, NYC; Black & Blue, Montreal; Altitude 6, Whistler.
 
Thousands of gay men from around the globe attend these immense dance parties; they are usually fundraising events, giving up to 100 percent of profits to AIDS groups. 
 
The guests were in the dining room. David brought in a cookie tray covered with aluminum foil. Cut and divide. But David and the guys weren’t handling cookie dough. Colourful pills covered the silver surface of the tray. The friends were casual dealers for their circuit parties; all those plane tickets to pay.
 
David and his partner would soon join them on a trip to one of the closer events, the White Party in Palm Springs.
 
David’s partner compiled an album for each trip they took. The latest, a road trip to the Black Rock desert in Nevada: Burning Man, the ultimate community gathering, the annual Woodstock of the 1990s. Pictures of their new second-hand camper, the desert, the heat, dust storms, the crowds, the rain, clay-mud stuck to naked bodies. Art cars, bone towers, smut shacks, glitter camps, metal dragons, performance art, the towering fire. One photo showed a young man with big letters on his T-shirt, DRANO RULES.
 
David’s partner wasn’t sure what drugs David consumed on this trip.
 
*** 
The Murray Hotel
 
The last time I’d visited the Murray, David’s room was dark but the door stood open a crack. David was in bed, impervious to the hard knocks on his door. He was in his three-days-off mode — stupor, slumber, sleep — that inevitably followed the three-days-on spree of stoned, spaced, sleeplessness. 
 
But today he is brilliant, his words like fiery torches. Cultural anthropology remains his specialty, and he explains the significance of a glazed Chinese wooden bowl, a slightly damaged find from the city’s garbage.
 
Then his non-stop words torque to the subject of Marie Antoinette, her use of language and her oft-quoted response to protests that the masses had no bread to eat: Then let them eat cake.
 
He explains that this was actually not an illustration of ignorance or insincerity but of practicality: the word brioche that she used referred not to a sugared delicacy, but rather the remains stuck to the sides of bread pans that was usually discarded.
 
I always learn something from my friend.
 
*** 
The Fortune Apartments
 
Wax and ashes. Multi-coloured masses mixed with white, lumpy streams and puddles, wax drips from candleholders, dishes and ashtrays. Ashes everywhere.
 
The house of David. An ever-changing mix, furniture from the alleyways scattered here and there among what remained of his usual nice stuff.
 
Missing was the antique buffet, the massive pine coffee table, furniture of substance that his partner loaded one night into a van.
 
He moved to a small town in the mountains. With good genetics, a house, a dog, a garden, family and new gay friends: a new life. Faithful to a daily drug regimen and regular in his visits back to his doctor in Vancouver.
 
David’s ex-partner’s health was now monitored by viral load. It equals zero: This is excellent.
 
***
Haro St
 
David’s grand new six-sided saltwater tank cast a beautiful blue light, accenting its fairytale mountain of natural pink coral. There wasn’t much light in the Haro St alleyway apartment: all that David could find following his mid-December eviction from the Fortune Apartments. The aquarium was tall and narrow, a delicate affair to sustain: a question of surface area and oxygen.
 
He regularly maintained the huge Cadillac of a canister filter. But soon David would pull the aquarium apart — loving the siphoning ritual — rearranging, redecorating at least once a week. Certainly contrary to healthy aquarium stewardship, creating a stable self-sustaining environment for your fish. Considerable stress for the Yellow Tang, Blue Damsel, Clownfish and Coral Catfish: their frequent sojourns in a bucket.
 
But otherwise David had done all the research. Costly shrimp cubes in the freezer, the heater continually monitored.
 
The fish all died. A few days without electricity, no filter, heater, light: the apartment’s hydro bill long unpaid. Then there was the matter of the rent.
 
*** 
The Murray Hotel
 
His interesting life. David wants me to interview him. But he is high, another time, not today. He has plans to write a screenplay about his drug community. Marginalization sells, he assumes, and someday he will become rich and buy a condo.
 
A well-known artist is part of this community; David says he’s put some of his rare prints in the storage cube his faithful family maintains for the remains of his old life. Why people separate him into old and new, David says he doesn’t understand the difference.
 
Some days he is utter paranoia: a murder he has witnessed, assassins await, gangs are at his beck and call. People conspire against him and top of that list is family and former friends. International drug lords have his name, and he has theirs. All according to the vagaries of the dopamine control centre in his mind. 
 
Today is a calm day and David thinks I could use some anti-depressants. He opens a fruit box full of pills: Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, Serzone and anti-psychotics. He’s had no trouble adding to his collection on visits to the doctors over the years.
 
He makes recommendations then asks me to choose, and I politely accept a sample. Too boring for his own consumption, these pretty pills, but something he thought I needed to get through the November rains. He believes in self-medication.
 
The subject of addiction is not a taboo subject for my friend, but David says he is not an addict, he can stop any time; addict is just a label imposed on him. Rather he says he is cutting edge, an adventurer in a new world. Jib has romance. He pauses, professorially pleased, carefully chooses his words. “The cachet of crystal.” 
 
The question of intelligence. I doubt it has anything to do with whether you become addicted or not. On the contrary, a surplus of smarts allows invention and eloquent subterfuge. All tenants of the imagination can help maintain an addiction. Yes, at some level drugs work well for my friend. 
 
The next time I visit, I discover David has been thrown out of the Murray Hotel.
 
*** 
Bute St
 
Windows of the weary gay and lesbian community centre overlook the corner of Bute and Davie streets. This corner became crystal central in the drug’s heyday, and everyone seemed to know. But today musicians play and people are dancing in the street. It is Davie Village day; our progressive city council is encouraging community building in the West End.
 
A white tent replaces the makeshift stalls where the binners normally sell their scavenged wealth. Some street people watch. Beside me a hooded figure in black moves away. He has David’s hands. A phantom of the West End, he heads off down the alleyway. A glint of the sun reflects from his knapsack; it’s of a transparent plastic, a little child’s carrier case, full of colourful and carefully curated stuff.