Cracks Back

Or perhaps it never really left

The room was maybe 12 feet by 12 feet and jutted out from the back wall of the house. Against the back wall was an old leather sofa, the middle cushion of which was patched with duct tape. Beside the sofa was a low plastic table supporting a lamp that gave off a weak light. In the far corner, there was an old plastic-webbed aluminum lawn chair. The floor was covered with worn green carpet. In front of the sofa was a smear of something brown. There was a scattering of fast-food wrappers; in the corner, there was a toy plastic tow truck that might have been part of a set with the castoff dump truck on the walkway. The room was smoky and hot and dense and filled with an odor that reminded me of mildew and cotton candy. Two white guys who looked about 30 years old sat on the sofa; both wore jeans and Windbreakers. One guy had on an Angels baseball cap, his long dark hair straggling from beneath it. The other guy, who wore glasses, had his head shaved almost bald. He was holding something on his lap covered by a piece of newspaper. They peered at us intently.

As if he were the host, Ricky grandly waved me to the lawn chair and sat on the floor beside me. The two guys stared at us a little longer; then the guy with the Angels cap shook his head and gave a snort. "Shit," he said. He half-turned to the bald guy beside him to ask, "You got my horn?"

The bald guy stirred and tossed away the newspaper, searched between his legs, and then held up a length of metal tubing—his horn.

"Break me off a piece; stoke me up," the guy in the Angels cap said.

"I'm workin', man; I'm workin'."

"Oh, man, break me off."

"Listen, man, don't get in my mix, man. I'm working here. Don't get in my mix, I'm tellin' you."

They kept chattering. The guy in the Angels cap jumped up, went to the window, peered out intently, and then went back to the sofa and sat down. The bald guy got his lighter working, fiddled with the piece of pipe, and then brought it to his mouth, all the while watched ravenously by his friend. He applied the lighter. He inhaled, shook, laughed and shook again; the tremor continued down his body. He fell back against the sofa. The guy in the Angels cap grabbed the pipe, fiddled with it, lighted up, and went through his own laughing and shaking routine. Then they sat there for a while, laughing and shaking and goofing at each other.

Meanwhile, Ricky was putting his own equipment together. He whistled a little as he checked it out and loaded it with crack.

I watched. It is hard for me to describe to you what I was feeling. I was nervous, of course, and not a little apprehensive—in my youth, I had tried almost every drug that was available then, including coke, but crack was something entirely new. All the horror stories rang through my head, and something in me kept whispering, "Just get out; just get out while you can." On the other hand, there was also a strange, giddy exhilaration. Here I was on the verge of a new adventure. Here I was in the heart of a new country—a potentially dangerous one at that.

Yes, adventure.

The pair on the sofa became embroiled in an argument over who got more. "Man, I bought the fuckin' twennie," the bald guy kept telling the other guy. "Y'know what I'm sayin'?" Their argument continued as they slid off the sofa and got down on their knees to examine the carpet for wayward bits of dope. As they crawled around, they occasionally looked up at Ricky and his stash in a calculating manner. The air in the room had grown more dense from the new smoke, assuming a kind of opaqueness through which everything shimmered as in a dream. My pulse did weird things. (Is it possible to get high on second-hand smoke from a crack pipe?) I heard whispered voices and thought for a moment I'd lost it totally; then I realized the voices were coming from outside. I turned and pressed my face to the grimy window, expecting to meet the gaze of a cop, but it was only the guy in the puffy jacket and his buddy. They looked up at my face in the window and gazed at me a moment, their expressions as blank as those of the dead.

And then, like two players who had missed a cue, they wandered off into the night.

"Okay," Ricky said and handed me the pipe.

These, then, are my brief adventures in the crack trade.

Crack is a form of cocaine freebase. Making freebase is complicated and can be very dangerous because the process involves ethyl ether, which is highly flammable. This is what almost killed Richard Pryor. Making crack, on the other hand, is easy and safe: take some coke and mix it with baking soda, and then add water and heat. As it heats, a white substance precipitates out. The precipitate, which you dry, is crack. Crack is smokable; the name comes from the sound chips of it make as they burn in your pipe.

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