Where Crack is King
Rick Lyman | The Philadelphia Inquirer | August 1988
NEW YORK – Summer’s vapors hold the old apartment block in a muggy embrace as Larry Cain, a tour guide of sorts, scans the figures clustered on the crack-house doorstep. “Here it comes,” he says.
“Ta-te! . . . Ta-te! . . . Ta-te! ”
Larry laughs. “You’ll hear that a lot up here,” he says.
It’s a street signal. It means watch out, someone’s coming. Cops, social workers, any unknown white person – it doesn’t matter.
A young, plump woman, sitting in a battered lawn chair, shrills the warning into the dark building and makes a barely perceptible gesture to those around her – a pair of scruffy teenagers, a man pretending to wash his car, a young mother slouching in the gutter.
The mock pageant suddenly gains tempo; the teenagers swagger with more brio, the man swathes his rusty wreck in virtual torrents of suds, the scrawny mother begins to move her lips in a voiceless lullaby.
“Ta-te,” (pronounced TAH-tay) the woman bellows again, and high overhead, a dozen stories above the hot streets, tiny heads appear along the roofline.
“Lookouts,” Larry says. They lean over the edge, fierce and motionless, like ghetto gargoyles.
Larry pulls the blue denim skirt over his long legs and fiddles nervously with his seashell earrings. Fresh from the methadone clinic, all dosed up, Larry feels none too bad.
“To them, life means nothing,” he says. “They will take you out so quick.”
So greetings, of a sort, from Larry’s World: A place where 14-year-olds sport Rolex watches and jumbo gold jewelry, where every neighborhood has its own “brand” of heroin, where virtually naked teenagers sell roadside gratification, where homeless addicts with full-time jobs routinely blow their monthly paychecks on a three-day crack binge and where everyone waits, with a spectator’s detached amusement, for the inevitable blood bath between rival Jamaican and Dominican crack gangs.
In other words, it’s the South Bronx – that hilly, desolate corner of New York just across the Harlem River from Manhattan, caught in crack’s hammerlock and bubbling with the sounds and aromas of Africa and the Caribbean.
A place where a guy such as Larry – a 32-year-old transvestite methadone addict – can still dream of transforming the abandoned, half-burnt wreck in which he squats into a hospice for AIDS patients but who can’t stop chasing ”that euphoria high that gets you to a point where you don’t have to deal with reality. ”
It’s the urban American nightmare in the hot, foreboding summer of 1988.
“I’m drinking methadone every day like a zombie,” Larry said one recent afternoon, one of a dozen bored faces in the waiting room at a South Bronx drug clinic. Something stands out about Larry, though. It’s the lucidity peeking out from the methadone haze.
Sure, Larry said, he’d be glad to lead a tour through the borough’s drug- infested neighborhoods, talk a little bit about the local customs, point out all relevant points of interest and, who knows, maybe even explain something of his own story along the way.
Larry slides into the passenger seat and rolls down the window. “Head on up Third Avenue and turn right on 165th.”
He scans the street corners for signs of action. “The city men’s shelter is up there in that big building that looks like a castle. The heroin around this neighborhood is called ‘Obsession.’ See that empty lot? Way in the back – you can’t see it now – is a place you can go to smoke called the ‘Sugar Shack.'”
The people on the sidewalk glare at the passing car, but no one says a word. A half-block ahead, a man with a long, broken stick is chasing another man down the middle of the road. “I didn’t do nothin’! I didn’t do nothin’!” the man screams, disappearing into the Romanesque archway of the men’s shelter.
The car cuts across 179th Street (“the heroin here is called ‘Leo Power’ “) and back down Washington Avenue, among the busiest and most brutal of Bronx drug strips.
“Here’s where you cop your crack. See them guys over there, lined up along the building? They’re waiting to cop. Sometimes, people think you in a cheese line, they so many people.”
Instead of carrying nicknames, as heroin does, crack is sold by color. It comes in tiny vials with plastic lids – yellow, red, blue, whatever. “That way, you can go along the street and ask people what’s kickin’ that day,” Larry says.
Since the highly addictive cocaine derivative first appeared in the Bronx about three years ago, it has easily become the dominant drug of choice, particularly among the young. The price has steadily decreased, as has the purity of the pellets, now cut with everything from tranquilizers to kerosene.
“You can buy a vial for, oh, $5 or $10, depending on if they know you. Or you can buy ‘woolies’ – that’s reefer and crack mixed together in a joint. Or ‘blunts’ – giant crack cigars,” he says.
The young dealers who preside over Washington Avenue – “they can make $5,000, $6,000 a day, and they will kill you without a thought” – often drive custom-made Mercedeses or, the latest rage, four wheel-drive Jeeps with so much high-tech gear “the inside is like a computer.” And they all wear ”them chains, them thick chains.”
Why? “I don’t know – it’s so gaudy. But you know, gold is status. ”
The other status symbol is a beeper. “Some kids wear broken beepers on their belt, just for the status. To have a beeper shows that you’ve moved up in status, that you got your own customers and you doing enough business that you need a beeper to keep it all straight. ”
The car glides past a red-brick schoolhouse, iron grating criss-crossing the dirty windows.
“This is the meanest school in the Bronx. These kids, I’m tellin’ you, are mean. This is where the drug dealers recruit a lot. You see, the youngest kids are the ones who actually hold the drug. That way, if there’s a bust, the only ones holding go into the juvenile system, which ain’t nothing.”
Born in Fort Bragg, N.C., to a black father (an Army officer) and a white mother (brought back from Italy at the end of World War II), Larry was one of 10 children. After a short stint at the University of North Carolina, Larry came north, joining his twin sister in Newark, N.J.
“But I became fascinated with the fast life in New York. Here, you could be or do what you want to do, somewhat. Or so it seemed to me. ”
For the first time, Larry found a community of sympathetic friends, where he didn’t have to hide his homosexuality. Gay bars, clubs, guys just talking on the street corner. And drugs.
“I started living a different life. I never shot up drugs. I started right off with methadone, because it was cheaper. ”
He transferred to the New School in Greenwich Village, but his attendance was spotty. In 1975, his mother died, and that sent him reeling.
“I just got disinterested. I decided I was going to collect unemployment. I’d see these guys hanging around the street corners all day and think, ‘Why should I go to class? Why should I work?'”
His family tried to nudge him back toward school and enrolled him in a couple of detoxification programs. The first was in a faceless office building in the mid-Bronx.
“It was like a prison; there was criminals there. I’d never been to jail. I couldn’t deal with it.” He stayed the minimum-required 48 hours and then fled.
A guard at another center told him about a methadone clinic a few blocks away. “My position, at first, was that I was going to be here only two years. But it’s extremely addictive. ”
That was 10 years ago.
The car moves along 163d Street – “Crack Alley” – a concrete canyon between desolate blocks of public-housing complexes.
“Not many kids out on the street now,” Larry says. “Too early in the day. Come here at night and the girls be coming right out to the car, reaching through the window, talking about sex and trying to reach into your pocket. The boys, they sit around in clusters, like over on that park bench. You can buy whatever you want. ”
Over on Third Avenue, he peers expectantly into a narrow, weedy lot. “I hear they moved the ‘Enterprise,’ ” he says, and sure enough, the lot is empty.
The “Starship Enterprise” was an abandoned bus in which crack users could, for the price of a portion of their stash, sit and smoke and use the ”owner’s” collection of pipes. The bus became known as the “Enterprise” because, in street slang referring to the old Star Trek TV show, one “beams up to see Scotty” when smoking crack.
“I wonder where that bus got to?” Larry says. “I wonder where it beamed down?”
Along Prospect Avenue, following the borough’s rocky, north-south moraine (“the heroin here is ‘Dom Perignon'”), lookouts perch on the stoop of what appears to be an empty building, except that behind them is a tiny hole through which a pair of hands can be seen, waiting for a customer.
“Hurricane! Get it right here, all you want. Hurricane!” the lookouts shout into the passing car.
Hurricane means cocaine.
The Colombians, who control virtually all of the shipments of cocaine from South America, are “the big money men,” Larry says, “but you don’t see them on the streets. Down here it’s all Dominicans and Jamaicans.”
As the car passes through the neighborhoods, past dozens of crack houses and countless congregations of street toughs and adolescent desperadoes, Larry delineates the invisible boundaries.
“This neighborhood is controlled by the Dominicans. . . . This one is controlled by the Jamaicans. . . . This one is Dominican. . . .” And so on.
Except that a lot of the neighborhoods are controlled, uneasily, by both.
“They are both a very cruel element,” he says. “A lot of them are illegal, just off the plane, and they haven’t been exposed to American jails. They’re used to chopping up people who give them trouble.
“And they have no respect for American blacks. They tell us that black Americans are very ignorant and cowardly. They’re real macho men, and they talk in that Rasta language. You can hear the little kids mimicking them now.
“But everybody knows: It can’t last much longer. There’s too much turf at stake. They’re going to have to fight it out. ”
Larry stares out over the ragged skyline. “There’s gonna be a blood bath here.” It sounds as if he thinks that might not be a bad idea.
And what about Larry? Where is his life going, he is asked as the car pulls up outside the decaying, two-story house at which he is a squatter.
“What I’d really like to do is raise the money to buy it and then fix it up,” he says. “And, after that, I can turn it into a place for AIDS patients to live so, at least in their last hours, they’ll have a nice place to stay.”
He rummages distractedly through boxes of trinkets and gadgets.
“Then, at least, I’d know that my life was not a waste.”
Writer bio: Rick Lyman wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years. Prior to joining the broadsheet in 1982, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting with a group of Kansas City Star reporters who covered the deadly collapse of hotel skywalks. He left the Inky in 1997 for The New York Times, where he currently serves as the Central and Eastern European Bureau Chief.