(The names of the interviewees and some incidentals were changed to protect the privacy of those who agreed to be interviewed.)
Thursday night, one week before Thanksgiving:
It was my intention to interview several crack dealers and a few of their customers.
Since I knew no crack dealers, I decided to try to find one or two, who might be persuaded, on condition of anonymity, to tell their story. I started by asking their oftentimes desperate and crack-addicted customers to introduce me, perhaps in return for a small compensation.
As I drove down Niagara Street, I noticed prostitutes working. One that I had interviewed before stood on the street. She had told me before that more than half of her earnings went to the purchase of crack and she was homeless.
I stopped. She hopped into my car. I asked her if she knew a crack dealer. She made a phone call. She said there was no answer. Then, she said softly, I don’t know if I want to get involved.
After I dropped her off, she did not have to wait long for work. Within thirty seconds, a car stopped and she hopped in.
It was a busy night.
I remembered another prostitute I had interviewed. She was pregnant and ill, but continued her work on the streets to support her crack addiction.
I went to her apartment and knocked on her door. The curtains moved. She softly called out, she was with someone. Come back in 20 minutes, she said.
She was working for her addiction.
As I went from her door, from out of the shadows at the side of the house, a woman appeared. She was walking fast, but limping. She saw me and asked for a ride to 10th Street.
She was a middle-aged woman, probably over 50 and Hispanic.
What do you do? I asked.
What don’t I do? she said.
Do you smoke crack?
Now here was a chance.
Do you know where I can get some? I said.
You’re not a cop?
No, I said.
She used my phone to call and apparently someone answered.
Hello, this is Chris. Can I met you somewhere? .... 20th and Ferry? Ok …. 20 minutes.
After she hung up, she turned to me. How much do you want?
I explained I did not want crack but an interview with a dealer. I would pay the same amount he would make from a crack customer for a brief interview and pay her $10 for setting it up.
We drove to 20th near Walnut. We were early and parked a few blocks from where we were to meet the dealer. As we pulled over, I saw a black man who appeared to be about 30, walking on the sidewalk from behind the rear of the car, toward the car, carrying what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun, clutching it close to his chest, like a halfback carries a football. His stride was brisk.
He came up alongside the car, still on the sidewalk, then turned around and started walking back behind the rear of the car. He was dangerous, or demented, or both.
I decided to drive further down the street.
As we passed Walnut, we stopped and parked behind an SUV. The driver tapped his brakes and the brake lights went on, then off. This was his signal, Chris said, and she went to the SUV.
After a minute, she came back. He won’t talk to you. Absolutely not.
After dropping Chris off, I decided to try the convenience stores. I had found it intriguing that five out of seven of the 24-hour stores in that neighborhood sold crack pipes. Thinly disguised as pens or decorative items, they had only one kind of customer, crack users.
No sooner had I arrived at this store, a man walked up to me. He was drunk and wanted beer. Then soon afterward, a gaunt, near skeletal man approached. He begged for cigarettes.
Do you smoke crack? I asked.
No drugs. I don’t do all that.
It was fairly busy. I thought I might have luck at last.
A moment later, a car pulled up and parked next to mine. A middle-aged woman, not slender, whose eyes seemed to be protruding somewhat, was the driver. Beside her in the passenger seat was a middle-aged man, slender, rough looking. Not very tall.
They went into the store. The man was carrying a shopping bag.
He came out of the store still carrying the bag and now approached my car. He showed me the contents of his bag: what appeared to be six packs of the beverage called Red Bull.
He said to me, I sell them for six dollars apiece. You can have them tonight for five apiece. I really sell them to these stores for $7.
I declined but asked if he could help me find a crack dealer to be interviewed.
His name, I learned, was John.
The guy or the female, John asked, they don’t have to display their s---? They don’t have to put their crack on the table? These m—f- don’t want to be tripped up.
How much money I make?
$20 for setting it up. Do you use crack?
By now the woman he had come with came out of the store and she heard the last question.
I be honest, I do, she said softly, and perhaps a little eagerly.
John, on the other hand, was angry or feigned to be angry. See, just because I use crack you try to belittle me.
You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, I said. I’d like to interview you, too.
Then back to the question. How about 30 bucks?, he said. Can I smoke me some crack while I’m being interviewed?
I explained to John that I required a dealer and all payment was contingent on this. John pulled out a cell phone and stepped away. A moment later he came back and asked me to follow his car.
I followed in my car behind John and the woman who was driving, whose name I learned was Janet. We drove to a dark street in the shadow of the 26-story Seneca Niagara Hotel. It was a quiet street. No traffic. Dark and desolate. Janet got out of the car and, as she did, I noticed a man coming from between two houses. He was black, dressed in dark clothes and a hood covered some of his face. He walked up to her car and got inside.
Janet came toward me and I invited her in my car. John is arranging the interview, she said.
How long have you been using crack? I asked.
Since I was 29. I’m 50. I had like four years clean, she said. Then my son got killed in 2006. Got shot 13 times. Twenty years old. He was going to buy some stuff, a couple ounces to sell. They robbed him of $3,000.
Did they catch his murderer?
No. It’s a cold case now.
How do you make money to pay for crack?
Whatever I have to do. Whatever. Whatever.
Selling stolen goods?
Yes. I get in a car. Sucking a p----.
When was the last time you used?
I’m working on it right now.
I noticed the man with the hood and John got out of her car. The hooded man, whose name was TJ, came inside my car. John stood outside, listening by my window.
No cameras, right? TJ asked.
With some prompting, TJ spoke about his work. As he got into it, he seemed almost pleased to discuss it. He was definitely not unfriendly or paranoid. He was 40 years old.
I’ve been doing this thing since I was 16, TJ said. I got started because my mother was a heroin addict. I would get her heroin to keep her from going out and doing what she was doing. That’s how I learned the business. I started as a runner, running for somebody else. Got my clientele. Got started making my own money. Started getting my own packages. This crack thing is the game so I just switched my product.
How many clients do you have?
I got six regulars. That’s good for $300-500 from each, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And then the people that I hit up and down the streets. I pick up $500 a day, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Sometimes, a thousand.
Do you think you’re doing harm?
I gotta eat. This is how I make my living. If you did not get it from me, you was going to go down the street and get it from somebody else. So I might as well get my money out of it. If you don’t care how you live, why should I care?
You don’t use yourself?
The golden rule: ‘You don’t get high on your own supply.’ I smoke weed but that’s about as far as I go.
Did you ever smoke crack?
Never. Once you get that s---, it does something to your brain that no matter what’s going down you want some more of that s--- . I see what crack does to the people out here so I gets my money. And I don’t give credit. That’s how you come into violence. I’ve been shot. I’ve been stabbed. Yes it happens. It’s part of the game.
Do you have competitors?
Easily over a hundred.
Do you work alone?
Yes, I do. That all I need.
At my car window, John seemed impatient. He went back to the car with Janet.
They are higher than a m--- f--, TJ said of them.
Just then a car started coming toward us down the street, driving slowly. TJ seemed concerned. Was it a cop? We waited until the car passed to resume our conversation.
Do you plan on staying in the business?
Until they catch me or I dies. I did six years. Next time is going to be like 7 ½ to 15. I’ll do like 9 years. If one is not willing to accept the consequences that come behind it, you shouldn’t be in it.
But I be careful. Nobody knows where I stay. I don’t come out with more than six grams. I can chop that up and make anywhere from $700-800 off those six grams. I bring that out a day unless my day is going real fast then I might have to do that one and come back and get another.
If I don’t know you and you coming to buy something, I will take you to a spot and give you something free just to watch you smoke it first so I know you legit. You see it nice and quiet on this street and I do regular business. I got doctors, nurses. The professional people, they own their homes. They take care of their business, but this is what they do. I got one dude that owns his own business on Grand Island and a couple other professional people. My nurses, they get paid every two weeks so they will go through $1,200 on a weekend. Drugs can happen to anybody. I don’t judge them. I just do my business.
TJ started a mock dialogue he might have with a customer: ‘Where you at?’ ‘I’m round the corner.’ ‘I got five.’ ‘Alright I be there in 20 minutes.’ I go over there, take them off of their $500. Before I get back to where I do my business at they calling me again. ‘Can you come back?’ ‘On my way.’
How much does $500 buy?
A quarter; maybe a half. I take 14 grams of cocaine, put it in a Pyrex dish, start heating it up, measure out seven grams of baking soda. Once it starts bubbling, I put baking soda in it and stir it up. Throw some ice in there and next thing you know you got something coming out of the pot. That’s how I do my business.
Is Janet a regular?
Tonight she done spent around $300.
Where would she make 300 bucks?
Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t question.
If you had a son, would you get him into the business?
I do have a son. I couldn’t tell him not to since I do it myself. My son got done doing five years fed time.
How much do you make a year?
I’d say about $130,000. My kids’ mother has her own home. My mother has her own home. My sister drives a brand new car. My kids are taken care of. My grandkids are taken care of. So I’m doing pretty well.
Do you carry a gun?
I choose not to answer that question. But I’ve been shot and I’ve shot at.
I paid TJ for his interview and he got out of the car.
John came to the car and got in for his interview.
How do you make your money, John, to pay for crack?
I do whatever comes natural, whatever comes in play. A little bit of that. I boost (shoplift).
Did you steal the Red Bull?
Someone else stole it. I can finesse whatever I want. I’m a people person. I can be who I am. I’m one of the world greatest salesmen.
How much money do you spend on crack per day?
That number is countless. A good day might be a thousand. It’s crazy. I lost everything. I was one of the ones that was highly blessed and favored. I lost my home. I lost my wife. I lost my business.
When was the last time you smoked crack?
Maybe like a couple minutes before I ran into you.
When will you smoke again?
As soon as you give me your money.
I gave John my phone number and paid him. He went to TJ who had been waiting in Janet’s car. A moment later, TJ got out and a quite visible cloud of smoke filled the car.
I was hoping to find another dealer to interview so I returned to the road.
It was about 25 minutes after I left, when John called me.
How much will you give me if I get you another interview?
$20, I said.
Can you come right away?
I drove to another street where he introduced me to Ken. He was 39 and had been selling crack for 20 years. A soft-spoken man, he seemed relaxed as we spoke in the car.
I’m not trying to get rich off this s---, Ken explained. I’m not trying to be a kingpin. I just want to make enough to survive, take care of my family, my kids.
How much did you sell tonight?
A couple grams. Nothing major.
Ken explained his business model. I don’t deal with powder. I get it already cooked. I chop a gram up into 20’s. Certain people, they have been out here a long time so you have to hit them properly. Sometimes you can get over on certain people. If you come to me, but you’re not somebody I deal with on a regular basis, I probably give you like maybe half and that’s how you cap.
The way s— goes, say I’m sitting up in this building and I have someone that smokes and they have a little bit of change. They got 10, 15 bucks. I hit them for a little, and they may go out and find others that’s looking for it and from them bringing me customers, now I got to hit him off too. Not only did he spend his little bit of change with me, but he’s going out doing work for me so for every hundred he bring me I hit him off with a $20.
How much did you make this past week?
Three, four hundred dollars. I take care of what I need to. As long as I can take care of my weed habit and pay my rent and pay my cell phone bill, I’m good. If my son’s mother calls me and says my son need something then I know I got to get out there and make a little extra. I have some regulars and when they’re not calling me, I get out and hit the blocks.
You deal with all types. Some of them are funny. Each person got their own quirks. Certain people I deal with are carpet crawlers. They take a hit and every little thing they see on the floor, they think is a piece of crack so they picking up everything, tasting everything, trying everything. Then there’s the paranoid people who stay at the window. ‘Oh, did you hear that? Oh, cut down the music. Oh cut the light off. I think somebody outside.’ There is one female I know, she take a hit, and she gets butt naked every time. As soon as she takes a blast, she takes everything off. That’s what she like to do and she sits around and she’s tweaking and her eyes are all big. She’s a white chick. It turns you off. But normally, if you was to see her on a regular basis when she’s just living life, she’s a very pretty girl. Crack takes her somewhere else. I have old customers too. One guy is 76, 77 years old. I’ve had kids 14, 15 years old.
How did they start so young?
Keeping it honest, I don’t care. I don’t know who started them, how they started, whatever the case may be. I know I did not start them. I never turned nobody on. I ain’t started nobody to smoking.
As Ken spoke, he was interrupted by a phone call. He admitted it was a customer.
John came up to the car.
Are you going to use again tonight, John? I asked.
No, I’m not going to say no, because my disease is going to want more. My heart really don’t want it, it’s the body and the disease. My disease has taken me from top to bottom. This disease is going to want more.
When Ken got off the phone I asked him, that, since John says crack is his disease, will he sell him crack tonight?
Yes, this is business. I don’t care what he does with it.
As Ken started to explain more about his business, John became more nervous and impatient.
I was looking for a word to describe John, when Ken volunteered ‘animated.’
To quell his impatience I gave John $20 he was promised for setting up the interview.
What are you going to do with the money, John? I asked.
For me, to smoke a hit.
After getting the money, John said to me, Don’t take up too much more of my time. I’m eager to get on to the next phase from out of here.
But you’ve been paid.
When you going to be done with Ken. He’s mine and I don’t want you to let him slip away.
Ken would wind up with all the money paid to both him and John tonight, I thought.
When we were finished, I paid Ken and he, with John escorting him, went inside an apartment building.
It was enough for tonight. I drove home. No sooner had I arrived than the phone rang. It was 5:30 am.
It was John calling to tell me he had another crack dealer to talk to.
How soon can you come? he asked eagerly, almost begging. Can you be here in 15 minutes?
No John, not tonight.