My husband sleeping by my side, I woke from a Saturday afternoon nap two summers ago to my friend and downstairs neighbor, whom I’ll call Keith, passionately kissing me. My Tower Grove apartment building, which we called “the Melrose,” was like a big gay frat house back then, a place where it wasn’t uncommon for neighbors to let themselves into their friends’ apartments. Still, this was highly unusual.
“Dude, I’m rolling,” Keith said before nonchalantly turning to leave.
“Rolling,” as I came to learn, means tripping on ecstasy. My drug is alcohol, which enables me to roll past these kinds of situations without much thought in the moment.
I’d vaguely known Keith dabbled in some sort of drugs on occasion, but he held down a good job, paid his rent and, despite his bad-boy reputation, seemed more or less together. In the coming weeks that facade would fall away, along with our friendship. Keith left his job to become a full-time drug user and dealer, running drugs out of our building. As things spun out of control and Keith pushed meth, fentanyl and GHB on everyone in his orbit, our mutual friends and neighbors split into two distinct camps: those who used and those who didn’t.
I began to notice friends losing weight, which I’d always considered a good thing, but they were evasive when asked how they were doing it. Soon, however, the reason became obvious.
The downstairs apartment was now a main distribution site, and I felt the crisis forming concentric circles around me. Addicts living in and running in and out of my building. Friends in Tower Grove South relapsing after long being in recovery, including a friend who lost his long-term relationship and life as he knew it after starting to use again, locking himself in a friend’s bathroom and absolutely destroying it. The third circle consisted of high-profile people in the local LGBTQ scene, including a title holder in the bear community who resigned to focus on recovery and a former news reporter whose meth-arrest mugshot went viral.
I also noticed the social media innuendo about the latest young person in the community to die. It’s something everyone talks about without ever talking about it. “Another gone too soon,” they write. “Senseless.” That’s followed by dozens of comments where nobody answers those asking, “What happened?”
While I knew our community had several high-profile dealers, I felt my home was radiating destruction. A situation I had created by recruiting friends to move in had become a cancer on the city.
Opioids may be getting all the mainstream headlines, and they certainly impact our community, but the crown jewel of our drug habit remains crystal. A 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that gays and lesbians were significantly more likely to have used illicit drugs in the last year than our straight counterparts. Gay men, the report found, are four times more likely to use meth than straight ones.
And while meth is initially presented as a fun party drug, it’s far more insidious, as I’ve learned while observing its impact on the men living in and visiting my building.
It’s not like the drug and the issues around it were new to the Melrose before Keith’s downfall. Months earlier, a resident had an attractive trick over who was clearly high and consumed with paranoia; he became convinced a siren in the distance was a signal to the apartment building. When the guy left, too distracted to consummate the rendezvous, he hung his leather harness on the street sign out front, apparently in defiance of those he believed were tracking him. (Surprisingly, in a neighborhood rife with both package thieves and harness enthusiasts, it remained there all night. I discovered it when I left for work in the morning, correctly guessed who it belonged to and returned it.)
Such paranoia, I came to learn, is par for the course. “Meth made me lose my mind. It takes you to the darkest places imaginable,” says my friend Brandon Reid, who used for a decade and went to prison four times on meth charges before turning his life around and becoming a counselor. “You think everyone is out to get you.”
Aside from learning it’s not uncommon for meth users to spend three or four straight days at the bathhouse, the most surprising thing I learned while researching this piece was that meth often induces psychosis, which is similar to schizophrenia, and the drug can even be an “on switch” for schizophrenia.
“I heard entire conversations that weren’t actually occurring,” Reid
Longtime user Jimmy Eden, who shocked the St. Louis community this past summer by sharing photos on Facebook of the meth-related cellulitis superinfection ravaging his face, says he hears numerous voices — something Keith attempted to mock him for when they ran into each other a few months ago. Looking the newly gaunt Keith up and down, Eden replied, casting shade, “And you look like the picture of good health.”
Walking through Bellefontaine Cemetery, where we’d been discussing friends he’d lost to drugs and suicide, Eden explains the various personalities of the voices — which he says are both male and female, black and white — and the things they say to him.
“Basically, my psychosis voices are all of my fears and insecurities. ‘You’re getting evicted, you’re going to prison, you’re stupid, you’re disgusting, you’re going to die’ — which is actually the most feasible and realistic, and sadly the one I cared least about. I’m smart and logical enough to know that after the, I don’t know, 50th time, that this isn’t reality and these things aren’t going to happen. But aside from that, it’s less than fun to say the least, and completely illustrates the infinite insanity of meth addiction. Because I’d keep doing it.”
During one of our interviews, I experienced firsthand the paper-thin walls of Eden’s 1950s south-city infill apartment, where one of his neighbor’s entire conversations could be easily heard. The voices Eden hears, he says, sound just as real.
“Sounds as real as neighbors talking through walls or the floors above me. Particularly sounds like the unit above me. You have to keep in mind using heightens your senses, including hearing. And obviously paranoia. I think your mind draws from white noise, creating these sounds. Definitely much worse and many more conversations to be had when the A/C unit is on, for instance. I’d say there’s about five to ten voices. But I also keep in mind the fact that I’m not that important for five to ten people to fuck with me for three days straight.”
Can’t Trust Anyone
“Anyone who sells it uses it. That’s how they afford it. I’ve never been down that road because I know how it ends: prison or ratting someone out to avoid prison,” Eden answers when I ask if he’s ever sold drugs.
I could almost feel Brandon Reid shaking off the cold as he recalls his old life of addiction. “Meth showed me things I’d prefer not to have seen. A very dark side of the gay community, a different world you didn’t even think was a world,” he says. “The people you meet, dark people, it’s a subculture. Everyone is up all night, and they’re inside all day because they look terrible. The mentality is get them before they get you. I was conniving. I was manipulative, I’d steal and help you look for it.”
I saw similar treachery play out firsthand when a drug war erupted between Keith and flamboyant dealer Brian Ray. I describe Ray as flamboyant because of his brazen openness about his profession, to the point of handing out business cards complete with prices. Keith, according to Ray, had violated every possible code of conduct among dealers and, to add insult to injury, was cocky and disrespectful, to the point of trolling Ray’s right-hand man over the rape and murder of the guy’s mother.
The walls were closing in on Ray — he would be arrested in a raid within days if not hours of sending a cryptic message to his enemy in July 2018: “You deserve this.”
A photo of a nude Keith smoking meth while holding a baggie was distributed to many who had a beef or business with Keith, myself included. Additional photos of Keith’s drug use, as well as images of S&M sex scenes in the common basement of the building, followed, as did screenshots of numerous conversations Keith was involved in. The one taunting Ray’s associate was forwarded to my inbox: “I wonder how gaped your mom’s [expletive] was after they lit that [expletive] on fire.”
Someone who was a regular at Keith’s admitted to me that they tipped off the authorities to Ray’s operation. Ray had several meth arrests under his belt when his motel room was raided on July 11, 2018, according to federal court records. Police seized more than 50 grams of meth, including an envelope ready for distribution with a handwritten note that read: “HAVE A DOPE A$$ DAY :)” He ended up being charged in federal court on four counts of possession with intent to distribute. Prosecutors allege he’d been busted with more than 50 grams of meth on two different occasions.
On November 6, Ray pleaded guilty under an agreement with prosecutors. He faces sentencing on February 21, 2019.
But for Keith, the repercussions continued. He was asked to vacate the building within days of Ray’s attack.
No Longer Fun
When Jimmy Eden began regularly using meth in 2005, he was 27 and working at Faces, the legendary East St. Louis nightclub. A veteran of the rave generation, Eden was no stranger to substance abuse. He saw “Tina,” as meth is often called, as just another designer drug, akin to ecstasy. “I’d say the appeal was the loss of inhibitions for someone such as myself lacking confidence, sexual or otherwise. And of course the numbness was huge. It made me not feel the longest. I don’t like to feel feelings,” Eden says.
Meth’s grip, Eden quickly realized, was much tighter than expected. Thirteen years on, he still hasn’t found his way out. Increasingly, he sees death as the way.
“Meth’s often cut with fentanyl now, which causes shallow breathing, much like when you die. I always think, ‘I hope it kills me this time,’” Eden says.
“It no longer even feels good. The psychosis voices, the visual hallucinations …”
One reason he does meth even though it’s no longer enjoyable, Eden says, is that it’s the only time he has energy. “When I’m sober I’m always tired. One thing I want to convey is the exhaustion of it all. The exhaustion of always starting over. Always having to learn a new job.”
The events around my small apartment building seem like a microcosm of what’s going on community-wide. Some who weren’t using last year now are, some who seemed to be maintaining are self-destructing, and the rest of us are witnesses to the devastation.
The golden “Barbary Lane” age of our building lasted about a year, when everyone enjoyed amazing camaraderie, when we’d gather for big meals together, and when we’d wander in and out of one another’s places. We were a family of sorts. The shift was abrupt, like when a cold snap hits after an unseasonably warm fall. And like that plant you forgot to bring in before the first freeze, there’s no bringing it back.
Most, but not all, of the Season One cast has left the Melrose, and new characters have taken their places. Meth would probably not be the reason anyone would give for leaving, but the party was clearly over. What was for a beautiful moment one proud tribe became two distinct and distrustful factions, and brotherhood turned to hate.
Only one member of Keith’s tribe remains, and like the paranoid trick who hung his harness on the street sign, his motivation seems to be defiance. Simply holding on to the wreckage of what was, like a ghost wandering the Titanic, seems to somehow gives him a sense of purpose.
Just blocks away from this building, however, there is hope for addicts. A Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting occurs every Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m., with a goal of helping people like Jimmy Eden — who does often attend — finally beat their addiction. And there are stories like Brandon Reid’s: in recovery for five years, Reid is now living a healthy and rewarding life, and says the option is out there for everyone, if they’re ready. °