Cracks Back

Or perhaps it never really left

Its development was basically a marketing ploy. For a long time, cocaine was so expensive that its use was pretty much associated with movie stars, rock musicians and upper-income yuppies. During the early '80s, the South American acreage devoted to coca doubled, the purity of the drug tripled, and its price dropped four-fold. Faced with a surplus of product, street gangs began to package crack—whose high was more intense but less efficient than that of powder cocaine—in little plastic vials containing enough for a couple of hits and costing only a few dollars. It was a big hit. There were crack houses and basing galleries everywhere. The crack trade became the single-largest employer of minority youth in the country. Crack became a culture described and glamorized in books and movies. It even got to be such a big deal that it spawned a conspiracy (the CIA now admits it worked with known coke traffickers throughout the 1980s) and a conspiracy theory (that the agency's real goal was to destroy black America).

In the early and mid-'90s, the craze died down. Maybe it was just that the media got bored with it. Maybe people who had been using it started discovering new highs. Or maybe because it was a drug identified with the inner cities and otherwise easily forgotten people, it just wasn't something we felt we had to bother about anymore.

Anyway, we stopped hearing about crack.

But, of course, it didn't go away. No easy way to make money ever goes away entirely. If you want to buy crack, there are dozens of neighborhoods in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Fullerton where you can hang around a bit and easily buy it. There are places in Dana Point and Orange. Pretty much anywhere, actually. And it's still real cheap—10, 20 bucks for a good party. Of course, then you immediately want more.

Most of my homeless or sometimes-homeless friends in downtown Santa Ana smoke crack or used to smoke crack. In some cases, smoking crack is part of the reason they ended up on the streets. In other cases, they smoke crack because when they found themselves on the streets, crack took them away for a while. And then they were addicted. If you met them on the streets, you probably wouldn't guess they smoked crack. (For that matter, you might not even guess they were homeless and sleeping in a doorway or a mission or some fleabag motel.) We have this image of the crackhead: wasted, uncaring, a dissolute junkie. But the people I know are all basically presentable, personable, interesting and well-spoken. They don't spend all their time thinking about crack—maybe just two-thirds of it. Of course, if they are trying to quit crack, then they do spend just about all their time thinking about it. I don't mean that it's at the forefront of their mental processes 24-7; I just mean that it's always a hovering presence to them.

I'm not really sure why I got interested in crack. I have a homeless friend named Mark. One day, we were talking, and I asked him what it was like smoking crack. "Well," he said, "for me it's like, you take a hit and it's like bells ringing. You can't hear people talk; you don't know anything except this really good feeling. But that only lasts about 10 seconds, and then you immediately want more. You want more shit."

We were sitting in a Denny's and having breakfast. It was a Sunday morning, and the place was full of families out for Sunday brunch. Mark was sitting across from the Sunday families and talking about crack in this emphatic, almost flamboyant way he has, and the couple at the next table kept giving us weird looks.

"With crack," Mark said, "the jones is . . . it's just . . . I don't know. . . . It's like you're doing it, and all the time you're doing it, you're thinking about how you're going to get more. It just does something to you. It's like, 'Damn, what can I do to get more?' Man, you just think scandalous. You just want more and then you feel guilty, but you do whatever you need to get more anyway.

"You spend whatever you have on it. Man, you'd steal a puppy and sell it to get money. Whatever you're hiding from, it doesn't matter: your spirit justifies getting more. A puppy, for chrissake!"

Now the people at the next table were really looking.

Mark and I would get together from time to time, and when we did, I would ask him about crack. He told me, for instance, about different phenomena associated with smoking crack, like "window parties." Smoking crack makes you very paranoid. Even if you are in a safe place—somebody's apartment or a room a bunch of you have rented in a cheap motel—you are afraid somebody is going to come and rip you off or the police are going to come and arrest you. So, about every two seconds, you're jumping up and going to the window and peering through the blinds. Thus, a "window party." Mark also told me about "rug farming." People will be sitting around, smoking, when they realize all the crack is gone. But they couldn't have smoked it all! Something must have spilled! So they'll be on their hands and knees, combing through the rug, looking for the imagined treasure—"rug farming." Then everybody will yell about who got more, about who got into whose action. Their voices get louder. Furniture gets thrown. Maybe somebody runs out naked. (Because of the raucous nature of crack parties, people often pool their money and rent a room in a cheap, nearby motel—say, along First Street. You can be loud and crazy, but the manager is probably not going to call the cops because he doesn't want to add to the reputation his place already has.)

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