After 15 endless minutes – mostly spent trying to decide who in this crowd is going to rob me when I leave – I reach the Plexiglas wall at the front of the check-cashing place. I shove my paycheck, all two hundred and sixty five dollars of it, along with my Massachusetts driver’s license through the little scooped out divot carved into the counter. The stone faced, rail-thin and straight up tough-looking, black woman on the other side of the glass examines the check and then pushes my documents back to me, along with a ballpoint pen with an extra twelve inches of grey duct tape extending from the top of it. I sign my check, noticing the stream of heated air coming through the hole. It feels nice. The proprietor of this establishment must not feel compelled to provide heat to us – the animals – on the other side of the glass.
I watch the woman’s calloused hands far too quickly count out my meager pile of cash. It doesn’t look like much – but it’s gotta last me for the next two weeks – at least theoretically. I know implicitly it will not be enough. No matter the amount, it’s never enough. I’ll be broke and dope-sick again before I know it. With my luck I’ll get robbed on my walk home tonight.
She pushes the bills through to me and waits, unblinking for her next customer. I stoop slightly and say “thank you” – though it’s doubtful she can hear me – as I attempt to fold the bills and shove them into my front pocket out of the view of any prying eyes. It’s a pointless exercise – silly even – trying to disguise the fact that I am now carrying cash from a check-cashing place, but habit – and paranoia – dies hard. I spin on my heel and dash out the door and onto the crowded Avenue sidewalk.
A half block south I hit a bodega for a pack of Marlboros and divvy up my cash. I put a hundred dollars in the fold of my knit-watch cap and a hundred in my sock. I leave the remainder in my front jeans pocket. I light a smoke under the canopy that covers the fresh cut flowers and join the churn of humanity to speed walk downtown. I’m on autopilot, my thoughts swirling but oddly optimistic, envisioning my trip back to my hometown, now just hours ahead of me.
When I cross Second Avenue I consider in earnest detail the most important decision I will make today, that being where to cop a bundle (10 bags) of dope. That much heroin at once is a big investment for me. By rights my first stop should be at my apartment in order to stash some of this cash, just in case I was to get jacked. Carrying all my money – despite the pitifully small amount – makes me nervous. I’ve got the bug, though. Drug use is in my very near future and the thought of a precautionary delay is implausible. I must score and get the drugs inside of me. There’s no time for a pit stop.
Fortunately, I have options as to where to buy my drugs as the East village has a plethora of dope spots on offer. This neighborhood is kind of like a shopping mall for drugs. It’s wonderful. It’s impossible to know all of the spots, as they come and go so quickly, but you can be sure there are always options. They pop up in storefronts that make no pretense of being anything other than a store in existence to sell drugs. They also appear in vestibules and apartment building lobbies or occasionally just on a street corner that has good sightlines. If there are 3 or more people gathered in any one spot then there’s a reasonable chance something illegal is going on.
Further south, down below Houston Street, the Lower East Side is also rich with dope spots but I don’t know the area as well. There are often better, higher quality drugs to be found in Louisada, as it’s called, but I’ve been mugged at a higher rate down there, so I tend to avoid it unless it’s daytime. It’s really a half-dozen of one, versus six of the other scenario but my general feeling is that I’m safer in the East Village. I’m well aware of the reality however, that I’m not safe at all, but there is little choice involved here. I’m a captive consumer.
Tonight I’m going to try and score some “Bat dope,” a brand of heroin that comes in a little black glassine with a Batman emblem stamped on it. I’m impressed by these drug dealers efforts to draft on the Hollywood marketing barrage for a new Batman movie in order to move more heroin. Not that they need much help. “Bat dope” is a solid product and the spot where they deal it – on 2nd Street near Avenue B – is generally pretty easy to get into and out of. I scored a bunch over the weekend and haven’t been able to get it again. All in all it’s a winning formula. A spot that’s conducive to copping, a quality product wrapped up with fun packaging makes for a great heroin buying experience!
When I reach the corner where Saint Mark’s meets Thompson Square Park I turn right and walk south on Avenue A, which has a fair share of foot traffic. I try to ignore the gaggle of gutter punks – a group of 7 or 8 kids, runaways most likely – huddled against a building before the Odessa restaurant. One of the fuckers, a handsome kid sporting a massive green Mohawk – he looks like he’s almost my age actually – holds piece of cardboard with “Spare change for heroin” scrawled in black magic marker on it. Very funny. He spots me and tries to catch my eye but I’m not having it.
“Help a brother out?” he shouts.
What an annoying motherfucker! I want to lecture him and explain that, “I have to work to support my heroin habit! So shouldn’t you!” But I don’t.
Instead I say, “I’m not your brother,” and keep walking.
“Asshole!” he shouts after me.
Despite it being a weeknight, there are small crowds going to and fro, into and out of the various eating and drinking establishments on this, the last avenue heading East with viable dining options on it. Unlike me, these people must be feeling the spirit of the season. All street life though, holiday or otherwise, falls away when at Second Street I turn east. In the space of 20 feet I leave an avenue of the living and enter a street cast in shadow.
Somehow, if there ever were streetlights on this block, they have been extinguished. It is dark. Despite this, I can sense people lurking in the shadows – in the recess of a building or in a vestibule at the top of a stoop – I’ll catch sight of a lone black or Latino youth just hanging out watching. They are busy doing their job as lookouts. It’s foreboding but also strangely comforting to know they have a vested interest in this illicit transaction going smoothly.
As I make my way toward the middle of the block I feel like Spiderman, hyper-aware of all the activity going on around me. A high-pitched human whistle – an urban whistle – pierces the night from behind me. Shouts of “cop” and “five-oh” echo down the block; it’s a giant game of telephone. A ways in front of me somebody else shouts, “Close it up!” and still another voice screams, “walk!” A moment later a loose crowd of people, of all races and ethnicities – all stationed at different levels down the junkie food chain – come fast walking towards me. These people were the former line of customers queuing for the dope spot that was just told to scatter.
In another twenty feet I come upon a rotund black man, a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes. He leans cross-legged against a fence and chants, “keep walkin’, keep walkin’, keep walkin.’” I pass him and then I’m in front of the door where they dole out the product, but they’ve shut it down. I can’t see the police that have started this chain reaction. All I can do is try again, by walking around the block or go try some other spot. My decision ends up being no decision and instinctually I turn south on Avenue B. Hopefully the police will have moved on in the 5 minutes it will take me to come around.
I try to slow my pace as I head back West again on Houston Street. Traffic screams past at sixty miles an hour, just inches to my left and jangles my nerves. I am not sick. I am not in physical need – I can’t be, I was nodding off a few short hours ago – but knowing drugs lie in my near future has my brain is in full on Pavlovian expectation. If I don’t score soon I feel like I’m going to die!
After jagging north on Avenue A again I hold at the corner of Second Street. Other customers, junkies are doing the same thing, walking aimlessly but trying to stay close. Has the spot opened for business again? I see a boy, a big kid – judging by his baby face he can’t be more than 13 years old – standing on a stoop. Is he a lookout? He catches my eye and nods. That’s good enough for me! I cross to the North side of the street and haul ass as fast as I can, outright running by the time I reach the big dude in the baseball cap.
“Get in there while the getting’s good.” He says, low.
I fall into place in a quickly forming line about 20 feet from the tenement doorway. I have to pant a bit to catch my breath. I’m not in the best shape these days and I can’t remember the last time I ran.
Here, there’s another man, this one tall and rangy looking, maybe Dominican, but tough despite his slim build. He’s shouting “Line em’ up! Nice and orderly. I take pride in my line! Don’t mess it up!” I’m third in line. It’s a fucking miracle! I’m sure to get in!
There’s a middle age dude first in line and then a girl a few years older than me – a cute goth chick who is prematurely losing her looks, most likely to the drugs – after him and then me. It’s a funny thing being in a line to buy drugs. It’s just like you were at a supermarket or a bank except you are on a cold street corner attempting to buy heroin. Nobody engages in small talk. Occasionally someone will ask about the quality of the product but that’s about it, but even that’s rare. I doubt any of us are proud to be here, but still, there’s a vicarious thrill to scoring on the street that hasn’t entirely worn off for me.
The man is in and out after 30 seconds. The girl goes in and takes a bit longer, but soon the Dominican dude is shouting “Next” and I’m on my way over to the doorway. A big fat motherfucker holds the heavy metal door open for me. A Puerto Rican or Dominican dude with a fanny pack over his stomach stands by the mailboxes at the end of the hallway.
“How many?” he asks of me as I approach, my hundred dollars out from the inside of my hat and in my outstretched hand.
“A bundle for $90?” I ask. I hand him the money and he pauses momentarily, sizing me up. I assume. Please, please, please save me ten bucks. I’m not gonna turn around and leave – obviously – if he refuses. If he agrees it’s just found money. And ten bucks is a bag of dope.
“Yeah ay-ight.” He says with a lip twisted down on one side in a sort of grimace.
“That’s a hundred there.”
He wears black mesh bicycle gloves and his fingers are black with grime. Maybe from handling all that cash? He methodically counts the bills and shoves them into the front compartment of his dirty, overstuffed canvas fanny pack. He pulls another pile of bills from his pocket – which is weird, why doesn’t he take my change from where he put the money into the fanny pack? – and pulls off a ten dollar bill, which he then hands to me. He’s working in slow motion. It’s killing me. He puts the roll of bills back in his pocket and zips closed the money part of his pack. He then pulls a zipper on a different compartment and pulls a bundle of the little black envelopes full of drugs from the several that immediately visible. The bundle is held together with a rubber band, which he removes and places carefully back into the compartment. Jesus man, hurry up! I hold my hand out and he counts the bindles as he drops them. Somewhere around 6 or 7 there’s a flurry of action out on the street. We both hear a shout. It’s indistinct, but definitely a shout – it sounds like “Yo!” or “No!” and then something softer – then the heavy metal door swings open and bangs – loud – against the wall. At that exact moment he finishes the count to 10. I’ve got my drugs! The big doorman yells down the hall at us, “Cops! Go! Go! Go!”
Good Christ! No!
“Run!” The dealer shouts. He shoves off of me, turns and takes off up the staircase. Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! Should I follow him? I pause and look over my shoulder to see his sneakers disappear around the first landing. He would have said, “Follow me!” right? I have no idea what’s up there! I run for the door. There is shouting outside and it gets louder as I reach the door. I push it open at speed – the big ass doorman has disappeared – and I’m staring directly at a ruddy-faced cop running full speed right at me! He’s not in uniform but he’s got the badge hanging round his neck. He’s a big guy, clearly not to be messed with.
What the fuck am I gonna do? My fucking parents are gonna flip! I’ll be fucking kicked out of school, no money ever again! Oh my god! Oh my god! How could I be so stupid! I should have gone to another spot! What the fuck was I thinking! You had to push it! You had to go for the “Bat dope” you pathetic sap!
“You holding?” the cop shouts at me, putting a hand on my shoulder and manhandling me to stay facing him as he slows. I’m shaking my head, the drugs are burning a hole in my front pocket. I feel like they are outing me like Pinochio’s nose. “Answer me! Don’t you fuck with me! Are you holding!?” This is it. I’m fucking done for!
“No officer, no!” It’s all happening so freaking fast!
He spins me around – effortlessly – and full on kicks me in the ass! “Get the fuck out of here, shithead!” He’s got like boots on or something (or at least heavy shoes) and his kick hurts! I run a few steps. There are police vehicles pulling up to the curb and uniformed police are swarming the building. Holy shit! Oh fuck! My instinct is to run, but somehow, something is telling me that would be the wrong tactic, so I slow to a walk. Once I’ve turned away from the building, I don’t look to see what’s going on behind me. Nothing good can come of it.
When I do finally make it around the corner and onto the avenue it’s quiet. It’s like turning out a light or waking up from a bad dream! All of the hub-bub, the police action behind me is now a world away. New York is funny that way. Each block is a world unto itself. I can’t believe my luck! My breathing is still fast but I know I’ve just dodged a major-fucking bullet. Sometimes things just fucking work out, you know? And I got a bundle for $90! Fucking A!
I’ve got 10 fucking bags of heroin burning a hole in my pocket and it’s fucking Christmas, mother fucker! Shit Yeah!
Jesus Christ though, where I went when I saw that cop… My fucking parents? Talk about pathetic! When the chips are down, it turns out I’m scared of what my parents are gonna think. Never mind being dope sick in a holding cell – getting beaten up and worse by lord knows who – I worry that my parents are going to cut off my tuition checks. Never mind the fact that I’m 22 years old and I’m a man with a life of my own. Pathetic. Sometimes I just make myself sick…
Oh well. It will soon be forgotten. I quicken my pace for home.