Cracks Back

Or perhaps it never really left

The more we talked, the more fascinated I got. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was just remembering my own experiences from the '60s and '70s—now here was something new. But in the midst of all this, Mark stopped smoking. Got sober. He was really determined to get off crack, get a job and get off the streets. In part, a new girlfriend had given him motivation. When we talked, I could see that it bothered Mark a bit—all this conversation about the devil—although he was always gracious enough to say that it didn't really. So I suggested he put me in contact with other people, thus taking the pressure off him.

One of the people he introduced me to was a guy I'll call Peter. He was in his late 40s, dressed neatly, well-groomed, had a haircut, looked good—you wouldn't know he was homeless. Like everybody on the streets, he had a story, and he told it to me, and I pass it along without comment. He told me he had a pre-disposition to addiction, having come from five generations of abusers of various substances. He said he could often see similarities between the self-destructive behavior of his father—who was an overeater—and himself. He told me he was well-educated, had once attended art school in San Francisco, and had a family. From his college days, he played around with drugs: coke, smack, all of it. How the downward spiral —there always is one—occurred was a little confusing, but apparently what happened was that while working a good job in the construction industry, he had an accident that left him in severe pain and unable to work. That led to bouts with drugs, particularly crack, and to the streets. (He was also fighting severe depression.) Drugs consumed him. Peter told me that at various times, he had tried to fight the addiction. Once, he said, he was sober for five and a half years. But he went back; he always does.

"That first hit is a bell ringer," Peter said. "Just 30 seconds, but nothing like it."

His preferred method of operation was to go to people he knew who dealt at the ounce-to-quarter-pound level—that is, lower-level dealers, the guys several steps down from the Mexican cartels. He would rock up some crack for them, and they'd kick back to him some of the product for his personal use. (Peter said he has never sold crack. "I don't like the people you have to deal with," he said. "They're the most scandalous people on the street.") Then, with a large amount of crack in hand, he would go camp in the mountains and smoke to his heart's content, coming down only to acquire more. But if he couldn't work out some exchange with a dealer, he would get money any way he could—"pawning, burglary, ripping off dealers, home invasion-style things"—and buy powder cocaine so he could mix up his own crack. This was more economical than buying crack itself, and it also gave him control over the quality.

"Crack is what I do," he said. "Smoking crack separates me from everything I have a problem with. I talk about remorse sometimes, but it's like a third person talking. I'm just emotionally detached from it."

We were sitting over glasses of iced tea. For some reason that I still can't figure out, I asked him if he had ever thought of killing someone.

"Hasn't everyone?" he asked.

We drank our iced tea.

At this point, Peter said he had to go. He wanted to get some crack and smoke it; he said I could come along. As we discussed this, it became clear that Peter thought I would be buying the crack for him—apparently, he had gotten this impression from Mark. I told Peter I didn't know if I could do that. He inclined his head and said he had to go to the bathroom—meanwhile, I should figure out what I wanted to do.

While he was gone, I did try to straighten out what it was I was feeling. What I decided was that I didn't trust Peter enough to go with him into a situation where I risked getting arrested, but what I told him when he came back was that it just didn't feel right to me. Why precisely it didn't feel right was something I left hanging.

He looked at me with an expression that was a strange compound of condescension and pained self-awareness. And then he nodded and went off into the night.

Another friend Mark introduced me to is a guy I'll call Frank. Lanky and almost distinguished, Frank was 48 years old and a former structural mechanic for McDonnell-Douglas. He lost his job 10 or so years ago, couldn't cope with it, and ended up on the streets and smoking a truckload of crack. When I met him, he had just gotten out of jail after being arrested for buying a macadamia nut.

What happened was that one day, he wanted to smoke. So he drove to Walnut and Bristol in Santa Ana, where there are a number of dealers and where he had bought crack before. This was about 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon. He drove around the area to check things out and saw a police car parked in an alley. This did not deter him. He wanted some crack. He was on a mission, and he thought he could get in and out okay. He was also not deterred by the bad vibes of the place or by the fact that people on the streets seemed to be gesturing to him strangely. He spotted two guys standing there. They were both Hispanic; in their late 20s; and wearing jerseys, jeans and Nikes. As Frank recalled it, the two guys made eye contact and kind of motioned with their heads. He parked and went up to them. Face to face, things seemed weirder: the two guys just didn't talk right. But this was Frank's fourth stop of the day—everywhere else had been dry—and the fever to buy was on him; he just didn't like to go on a mission and come back empty-handed. So Frank gave the guys 40 bucks for four pieces—about eight good hits. They put the product in his hand.

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