A few years ago, I talked to a guy in his mid-30’s on Grindr who said he wanted to have condomless sex with me. He assured me he was on Truvada. I declined but kept in touch. When I started writing my first Truvada story in late 2013, I wanted first-hand accounts of PrEP users so I reached back out to him in an attempt to interview him. He flaked on me multiple times and I didn’t hear from him again until a few weeks ago. He hit me up on Facebook to tell me he missed our interviews because he was on meth at the time. Furthermore, he had just gotten out of Rikers. He told me if I ever wanted to publish something about what it’s like to be a (white) gay man in that jail, I should hit him up. I agreed immediately, met him for brunch, and had him tell me his story. He asked to remain anonymous. The first-person account below is the result of our interview.
I first relapsed on a plane headed to the Arctic Circle. I was in business class, and the flight attendant came down the aisle with a small tray of champagne. For years, I had been saying no in situations like this, but it was being served in these cute little crystal glasses. In my head, I said, “No, I’ll have water,” but my hand reached out and picked up the champagne. Before we’d even taken off, I grabbed two more.
Within three weeks of arriving in Finland, I’d met this muscle daddy from Helsinki on Scruff. He was my Tom of Finland fantasy in the flesh. He had a needle of meth already prepared when I arrived at his place. That freaked me out, but I did agree to do some GHB with him. GHB, I’d heard, is produced by the body, so it couldn’t possibly hurt me too bad, I reasoned. After the G, I figured, “Well, shooting up isn’t that bad, right?”
I’d never shot up before, but I had done meth. Before boarding that plane, I had eight years sober from crystal meth and alcohol; about a year before I’d stopped attending any meetings. I was in Finland, working 80-hour weeks as a consultant for the largest computer company in the world. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend of four years. I guess I was lonely.
I shot meth for three days with Tom of Finland and then flew back to the U.S. I never even called in to work. I never went back. I pretty much stayed high day and night for two years. I started selling meth and GHB to support my habit.
I come from a really nice family and I’m a really nice person. On a spiritual level, I think we have to discover what is not okay with us so that we can discover what is okay with us. But I’ve always taken that to an extreme level.
My drug use was directly connected to sex. Crystal meth and GHB in combination really heighten your sexual virility and desire. Chemically, crystal meth causes the highest release of dopamine of any addictive drug. The rush is very, very intense. It makes everything that is usually pleasurable more pleasurable. On crystal, you don’t feel out of your head, although you are. You feel like you’re in hyper-control. You feel like you have the world by the balls. But actually, you’re unable to plan even the simplest things, like paying rent. You can’t control when you go to sleep or when you wake up. You can’t really have a job. Some people can, but it’s rare.
I would PNP—shorthand for “party and play”—for days at a time. These parties are all group sex and drug use. I actually got tired of fucking after a while. At first it’s like, “Oh my god, I can have sex with as many people as I want.” Toward the end, I was like, “I want to just cuddle with someone and watch TV.”
I would probably have sex with about five people a day. Maybe if a party lasted two days at time, I’d have sex with five different people over the course of those two days. Do the math and that’s about 20 to 35 guys a week, every week.
Since I was selling crystal meth and GHB, I was always invited to the party. The parties were usually at someone’s apartment or in a hotel room. The crowd was generally nice, although a lot of the attendees seemed kind of tweaked out. The vibe of these parties is as disconnected as possible from intimacy, but at the same time you feel like you’ve just made five of the best friends of your life.
Sex is supposed to be two (or more) people focused on each other, but crystal changes that. The focus is on something else. People would be so interested in looking for the right porn to play for the party that they wouldn’t even have sex. They would spend literally 12 hours looking for the right porn online—clicking and scrolling and clicking and scrolling and clicking and scrolling. They would search and search to find the right song to put on. They would attempt to hook up their Apple TV so that we could play porn off their iPhone, all the while, not being able to complete a thought or the task at hand. I saw people take 30 minutes to dim the lights properly. I saw people cruising on Grindr or whatever app, hyper-focused on finding the next person, no matter how many people had already arrived.
In my two years of attending these parties, I never saw a condom once or heard anyone talk about using one. I have no idea how I’m still HIV negative and hep C negative. I was on PrEP at one point, but I quit as soon as I relapsed. I didn’t know what time of day it was—how could I take a pill regularly?
Occasionally, I had my own place. I lived on St. Marks for a while using Airbnb. I lived in a lot of hotel rooms. That makes little sense, since it’s more expensive than an apartment, but you can use cash or a cash equivalent (a prepaid debit card or whatever). Plus, when you’re on meth, you’re always afraid someone’s after you, so you keep moving.
Eventually, someone was after me. I had started making fake IDs and credit cards using my computer. They were really good. I was making them for different drug dealers who were using them at the airport. People had gotten arrested with them. The Cybercrime and Identity Theft Bureau of the D.A. started observing me, I guess. Eventually they busted me at my storage unit.
They hauled me to Rikers and I was detained for about six months.
I was arrested on a Thursday and I didn’t get a bed until Monday night, though I’m pretty sure there’s a law that says you’re only supposed to be in there for 24 hours without having a bed. Until then I was kept waiting in a bullpen, which is essentially a small cage with about 30 other people. The floor was concrete; roaches and rats scuttled around on it. It smelled permanently terrible, of unwashed people going through detox for three to four days.
I was placed in C-95 (aka AMKC), the largest of Rikers’ 10 jails. It houses about 5,000 inmates and it’s a unit for people with drug problems or mental issues. Methadone and Librium are doled out to addicts to keep them from going through horrible withdrawals. My detoxing wasn’t as bad some people’s appeared to be. When you stop doing meth, you sleep a lot and you eat a lot. I gained 50 pounds when I was in jail. I hadn’t eaten or slept in so long.
Since Rikers is a jail for detainees or those with prison sentences that run under a year, it’s not like a normal prison. There’s more fighting at Rikers. At a prison, you know you’re there to stay; you know you’re going to be seeing these people for years. At Rikers, someone is always trying to fight to be the top of the food chain. That’s especially futile since the population turns over with such frequency.
You quickly learn that if you’re not willing to fight, you have to give “it” up—it being your ass. That’s just an unwritten rule you hear from other people. Forget whatever prison porn fantasies you have, there’s no one hot at Rikers. Maybe I’d hoped for that, vaguely, but it just doesn’t exist. It didn’t seem there were many people with a full set of teeth at Rikers.
The sexual assaults happen in the bathrooms or the showers. I am really quiet, I have big hands, and I set my face into an intense scowl so that people seemed to be a little bit afraid of me. Maybe if I looked and acted a little more feminine, things would have gone differently for me. I know that the more feminine gay guys and the trans women have (consensual?) sex a lot. But they also fight a lot.
The trans women were kind of scary, but they were also respected, in a way. The way they gained that respect was by being violent and by having boobs. They kind of received special treatment.
Rikers’ culture in general doesn’t like homosexuality, but the inmates let it pass if you look like a girl. I never hid my sexuality and I wouldn’t lie when it came up in conversation. When I finally got my bed, it was located in one of the less violent areas. I wasn’t with a lot of younger gang members. It was mostly older gang members, and they don’t fight. It’s the ones between 18 to 24 that you have to watch out for.
You’re with people for 24 hours a day. The people that I was around basically figured out that I was gay—I wasn’t talking about my wife or girlfriend—and I didn’t deny it. Some of my friends were like, “We know you’re gay...but it’s all right.”
I had an easier time, probably, than most gay guys there. Nobody ever tried to rape me, not that I’m aware of, at least. And although I never saw rape, it was always the unspoken reality, an imminent danger. The older convicts would say things like, “Man, they’re gonna take him back in the shower and take that ass.” People were always talking about it like it was just about to happen.
At Rikers, homosexuality isn’t accepted but forcible gay sex is. People are looked down upon for what they are, while rape is treated as just the way it is. I’m not sure that the concept of irony is something that’s ever discussed in jail.
When you’re in there, your brain changes. You’re always hyper-vigilant. I slept with my shoes on because you can fight better if you have traction on your feet. I never knew when I was going to have to wake up and fight.
I got jumped twice. The first time was five Bloods. I have no idea why they wanted to target me, unless it was related to me being gay. They called me “faggot” several times: “Take that faggot,” while they were stomping me. I think my sexuality was what the attack was related to, but also “faggot” is a word that’s thrown around a lot.
It happened when I was visiting the clinic because I had a cold or something. There was a small group of about five people there already gathered there. I could tell the guys were really familiar with the guard. They knew each other’s names and they were talking. Both times I was jumped, there were guards present, but the guards are involved with the gangs. Many of them are members. Most of the guards come from the projects. They’ve grown up next door to the people in gangs. You hear, “This guard’s a Blood;” “this guard’s a Crip;” “this guard’s a Latin King.”
This guard was sitting there with the door open, just chatting to them. Soon after I arrived she told them, “Oh so this is [name redacted].” They somehow pulled out a copper pipe, like the kind used for a sink drain, and as I was walking out of the cage, they hit me on the back of my head. Then started stomping on my head until I started having seizures.
Next thing I know, I wake up in Bellevue. They said that I had eight seizures up to that point. I had a concussion and closed brain trauma. I was in Bellevue for about a week having seizures. They sent me back to Rikers and they were supposed to put me in a medical observation unit. That’s what the doctor ordered at Bellevue, but what’s really fucked up is they misread it and put me in a mental observation unit. They call them M.O.’s and they’re for people that have really bad psychiatric or developmental issues. That was even worse hell. There are gang members in that unit who pretend to have mental issues so they can avoid going to the box, which is solitary. They don’t send people to the box if you’re on psychiatric medication because I guess it’s too hard on you psychologically since it’s 24-hour lockdown, no TV.
I don’t think the attack was an attempted rape. They wouldn’t have done it in a public area if it had been sexual in nature—those attacks happen exclusively in the bathrooms. When I was in the hospital, I remember the gang unit came and interviewed me and said they were going to prosecute all five of the people for a hate crime. Knowing I was going back to Rikers, I didn’t want to participate. That would make me a snitch and being a snitch would make me a bigger target. But the Department of Corrections is so stupid and incompetent there. I don’t know what happened with the case. No one has contacted me. I don’t know if they really prosecuted them.
The entire M.O. unit was run by the dozen or so Bloods that were there. They controlled the food, which was distributed by a system called “in-house feeding”: The kitchen would send food there and it was served on a buffet. They had something called “house gang,” which is supposed to be the inmates that serve the food and help out cleaning, but that was all the gang members. They wouldn’t let anyone have the proteins. They’d save all the chicken for themselves and give double portions of vegetables, disgusting food, to the rest of us.
Everyday, they were jumping someone, just so violently. There was a guy that they said they’d heard was a child molester. I have no idea if he was or not. After they started jumping him, he tried hiding under his bed. The way the room is set up is like a dorm, there are 50 beds—basically metal racks that have cotton tops. He was underneath, trying to keep them from jumping him, and they pulled him out by his ponytail and stomped his face until his cheek collapsed. They stomped him until his insides came out. Guts, blood, and feces were everywhere. He didn’t die, not right then, at least. He was taken away. I have no idea what happened to him.
The guards were so scared of the people who did it that they made the M.O.’s take the ticket—they blamed the people who had disabilities, instead of the people who actually did it. Even though it was on camera. It was then that I realized how hopeless my situation was. There was no one to go to, no one to protect me. The concepts of right and wrong, as I knew them, were twisted and upside down if they existed at all.
After about a week in the M.O., some Bloods jumped me again. The second assault wasn’t as bad because I fought back harder. I just swung everything I could. I broke both my hands with boxing fractures. That time I went to the quack doctor at the hospital on the island, not Bellevue.
They moved me to a jail called C-73, which is more like an honor jail. You have to have good behavior to be there. I was also in a drug program there. It still sucked, but it was much better. There was no fighting. If you fought you were kicked out of the program. They had group meetings and I had a job in the mess hall.
The program was the best-case scenario, the least uncomfortable way for me to run out the time. I don’t think that I learned any magical philosophy to help me survive any better, I was just lucky that I got placed in a different jail. A different building, with different people.
I didn’t call my parents when I was arrested because I was mortified. In fact, when I relapsed, I stopped contacting them just out of embarrassment. My mom’s an attorney. It was that overwhelming shame again of me knowing I’d messed up. I didn’t tell them anything until I was in the hospital at Bellevue, two months into my stay at Rikers. It was really hard for them to hear. I think they were relieved, though, that I wasn’t dead, and that I wasn’t high.
I called them from the hospital and my dad helped me get an attorney, which was a lifesaver. He wouldn’t pay for my bail, but he did pay for an attorney. You really, really need a private attorney. The public defenders are horrible.
After about six months at Rikers, I finally got a plea agreement. It’s not literally probation, it’s a plea with the D.A. I’m considered a first-time offender, so if I complete it, they’re dropping my felony charges to a misdemeanor. Part of my agreement is that I have to stay sober for six months. I also have to complete a substance abuse program.
I was out for two weeks when I relapsed again. I went to stay in a halfway house in Williamsburg but everyone there was still using. My roommate was on heroin and he was getting really sick from withdrawals. He asked me to go across the street and pick some up for him. He was so sick he couldn’t get up. I told him no but he kept begging. Eventually, I went down there and when I was getting it, I was like, “Here’s another $10, let me have some, too.”
And so, for the first time in my life, at age 38, I did heroin. First I snorted it, and then I ended up shooting it. Then I was back on the same hamster wheel. I got kicked out of that halfway house. Right after that, I called all my meth friends and started using again. I was up for 21 days. I thought all the taxis were undercover cops. I knew that it wasn’t real, but I still thought it. And then I thought, “What is happening? How did this happen?” The whole time I was locked up, I told myself, “Never again, I’m done.”
The night before I dragged my ass down to Beth Israel emergency room and told them, “I need to detox,” I didn’t have anywhere to go. The people I’d been partying with were tired. My phone was messed up. I had no place to charge it. I was walking around New York in the middle of the night, carrying a bag, looking for places to charge my phone. I finally found a 24-hour McDonalds in Union Square. It was the only place I could stay and I just thought, “How did I get here again, washing my ass in a public bathroom in Union Square?”
I went to detox and then rehab and now I go to meetings. It’s amazing. Somehow, my relapse didn’t complicate my plea agreement. They gave me another chance.
My life when I had eight years sober was just amazing. I could manifest almost anything just by working for it. So easily and quickly. I had the job of my dreams. I was really good at it. I made more money than I ever thought I would in my life. I’m lucky that I’ve had that experience to compare to.
I’m kind of celibate at the moment. I don’t have a whole lot to offer anyone in a relationship right now. To be completely honest, I’m a little insecure because I gained weight. I’m not 9 percent body fat anymore. I have a lot of insecurity related to the fact that I don’t have an apartment right now and am living in a halfway house. I’m kind of tired of sex. I mean, I’d probably like some, but I’ve had a lot. I’ll go on Scruff and talk to people, but I haven’t met up in a while. At least 60 percent of the time, someone asks me if I’m partying. “PNP?” This happens even though my profile says, “I do not PNP. I’m trying this new thing.” Below that it says, “I repeat: I do not party, unless you consider partying going to bed at 10 p.m.” And then underneath that, it says, “No, I do not do meth.” And still I get offers to party and hook up.
I feel like if I continue to be diligent on focusing on my recovery and my spiritual experience that I can live sober. I’m in a back-to-work program. I really think that I can contribute a lot to society. I’d much rather be contributing to, than taking from. It’s impossible for me to do that if I’m high on drugs. If I’m high on drugs, I’m just sucking life out of the universe, and contributing to my spiritual death.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]