Cracks Back

Or perhaps it never really left

Photo by Jack GouldThis was the day we were going to score. Ricky was waiting toward the back of the Burger King; he's a small, nervous guy in a coat that's two sizes too big, with his feet up on the opposite bench, keeping time. His gas can was on the floor beside him. As I sat down, he shook a slim stack of grimy ones and fives at me.

"Twenty-five bucks, and that was just a couple of hours this afternoon," he announced. You could see he was thoroughly pleased with himself; he almost bounced on the seat. Ricky was making his living in various ways, one of them being with his gas can. He would station himself at a street corner or freeway ramp, holding the gas can, go up to anybody who stopped and—with a pathetic look on his face—give them some story about a sick girlfriend or whatever and how he'd run out of gas and could they spare 5 bucks. All in all, it was hard work, standing in the fumes. So, as I said, he was happy and bouncing, like any worker after a successful day on the job.

He jumped up, got us coffee and made a point of announcing, "Buyin' you some java!" Coming back to the table, he flirted with a girl who was sweeping the floor; she turned her large brown eyes up to him. He dumped half a dozen sugars in his cup and fanned it vigorously with his hand. He whistled a soundless little tune. We talked about this and that and drank some coffee, with Ricky occasionally waving at the girl.

Then he tapped the table and gave me a look. "Okay, man. So, you wanna go?" he asked. "You ready to do our thing?"

"Sure," I said.

But Ricky kept looking at me, his little boy's face suddenly hard and angular. "I mean, okay, you're really sure you wanna do this?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"I mean, really sure."

I offered the most sincere look I could and then nodded. "Yeah, I am," I said.

But, of course, I wasn't.

"Okay, bro," he said. "Mission time."

We took 17th Street to Bristol and then headed south. Over the Pacific, the sun was fading as night dropped down. As I drove, Ricky chattered and fiddled with the stereo. "Goin' on a mission," he kept saying. "Goin' on a mission." Each time he said it, I got more nervous. I wanted to smack him. Around First Street, Ricky had me turn and then turn again. It was nearly dark now, with thick shadows spreading everywhere. Ricky kept talking, but now it was slower and softer, and I did not respond. We traveled narrow streets of small, fading stucco houses; low apartment buildings; and abandoned markets. Somewhere, a sad ranchera played. We turned again. Dim, coppery streetlights shone through the bones of struggling trees. There were people on the sidewalk here and there, and Ricky studied them all. He was silent now. Then he waved his hand and had me go around the block.

"Pull in behind that pick-'em-up there," Ricky said.

He gave a little shake like a dog and then got out and went up the sidewalk to two guys standing beside a stunted tree in front of a dark house. A cigarette lighter flared, and they nodded together. Then Ricky shook hands with one of them, a guy wearing a puffy silver jacket with stripes on the sleeve. He then turned and waved at me. I shut off the car, took the key out of the ignition and sat there. Ricky waved again, this time more urgently. I got out and walked toward them. Their faces loomed out of the shadows and turned toward me. Ricky smiled, but the other two wore no expression. I stood beside Ricky; my arm brushed his, and I could feel tremors running up and down his flesh. From somewhere not too far away came two loud reports that might have been gunshots but were probably just backfires; nobody paid attention. A siren started up—also not far away—but they ignored that, too.

"Hey," the guy in the puffy jacket said to me. He nodded briefly, but there was only blankness on his face. He looked about 20 years old, and he had a scraggly mustache and a tattoo on his neck. The guy with him didn't speak. Ricky nudged me with his elbow and then held out his hand: in his palm was a rock of cocaine about the size of a fingernail. "Okay, bro?" he asked. "We're cool." Then he turned to the guy in the puffy jacket. "You said back that way, around the side of the place?" he asked. The guy nodded once; his face remained blank, and after he nodded, he turned abruptly away, and he and his companion faded into the shadows.

I followed Ricky along a little cement walkway that ran beside the dark house. I tripped over something, looked down and saw that it was a little toy dump truck. At the back of the house, there was a small, enclosed porch, with a dim lamp glowing inside. I heard a murmur of voices and a quick laugh. Ricky motioned for me to wait while he mounted some steps to the porch, tapped on the door, opened it slightly and said something I didn't catch. After a few moments, he came back and led me up into the little room.

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.

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.)

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.

And then they arrested him.

The two dealers were actually undercover cops employing the latest anti-drug technique: what they had sold Frank were pieces of macadamia nuts, which have the color, shape and texture of crack.

According to Frank, though, this all turned out to be a good thing in many ways. Because it was his first bust, he was able to get into a diversion program and serve only a little time in jail. Also, he said: "All day, every day, I was on a mission to kill myself, and I didn't realize it. But the Lord stopped me and sent me back to the drawing board." When I talked with him, Frank had been clean and sober for several weeks.

Frank told me a little about his drug days, and there was a mixture of pride and relief in his voice. "I never got scandalous in my behavior," he said, "and I was never unscrupulous. I never robbed nobody." It was his feeling that this reflected back on him—like some form of street karma—and generally kept him out of trouble. There were close calls, however. Once, he watched dealers with whom he had just done business jack another customer in a violent fashion, roll him up in a piece of discarded carpeting and throw him in a dumpster.

Another time, he was smoking in some guy's apartment in a hardcore part of Long Beach. He had a large cache of crack with him. The walls were thin, and on the other side of one wall, he could hear a couple of dealers talking about him. "Let's jack that guy and take his shit," they were saying.

"Lord, just get me out of this," Frank prayed and slunk away.

"Everything worked out," Frank said. "The Lord, he's bringing me back to zero and letting me start again." That afternoon, he was going to see his children, who live with their mother in the Valley.

When I first called the Santa Ana Police Department to ask them about the crack problem, the lieutenant I spoke with told me that as far as he knew, crack really wasn't a big deal anymore. He later called me back and said that, well, the patrol officers deal with it at a street level, and I should get in touch with Sergeant Jeff Owens. So one Sunday afternoon, I went down to police headquarters to talk with him. It wasn't a long conversation. Owens was friendly and wanted to be helpful, but there just wasn't a lot he felt he could tell me.

He said he couldn't offer me any figures on crack use because the available statistics weren't broken down by type of drug. What he told me was this: "From our perspective, activity is down in these selected areas." What I understood him to mean was that if complaints are received about a lot of crack-related activity in a particular neighborhood, the police target that neighborhood for enforcement—the result being that activity is then "displaced" somewhere else. In other words, there's no real way to judge the level of crack use except anecdotally, and Owens was not the type to tell anecdotes.

He did offer that crack "crosses all lines. It can affect anybody. It's not strictly for the poor. We've contacted people from affluent areas, people driving nice cars, rolling up in a Mercedes-Benz."

I asked Owens about enforcement techniques, what the cops do to bust buyers and sellers and dealers. "I'm not going to talk about that," Owens said.

"What about the macadamia-nut thing?" I asked. "Selling people macadamia nuts and then arresting them?"

Owens gave me a little inscrutable nod. "I'm not going to talk about that," he said.

There are a variety of devices that can be fashioned for the smoking of crack. First you buy a Chore Boy, one of those metal scouring pads. Then you go into a liquor store and buy anything in a glass tube—a flower or a horoscope. You throw away the flower or the horoscope and keep the glass tube. You break off a small piece of the Chore Boy, roll it up into a ball and hold it over a flame to burn off the coppery coating. You push this into one end of the glass tube. You drop your piece of crack into the other end so that it slides down and rests against the screen of Chore Boy. Then you hold your flame to it. Voilŗ! A "straight shooter"!

Or you can take an empty soda or beer can and punch a couple of small holes close together on the top. Also punch a hole in the side. Place your crack over the small holes on top and then draw in the smoke through the tab opening. (I'm not sure if this device has a name.) In short, you can basically use any sort of readily available tubular device. Remember how a couple of years ago, everybody was getting the radio antennas broken off their cars? And you thought it was just senseless vandalism? Mostly, it was crackheads securing a piece of metal tubing through which to smoke.

Ricky's device was a bit of screen torn from some window and stuck into one end of a piece of metal tubing he found somewhere. Loaded with a piece of crack, he handed it to me. We were on that dark, smoke-filled porch of that dark house in Santa Ana on that night I was telling you about. I took the proffered flute, held it and looked at it. Ricky leaned forward; his lighter flared as he gestured with it. "No problema, dude," he said. "You the guest; you first."

The other two, the bald guy and the guy with the Angels' cap, were still into their act—rug farming on their hands and knees. The bald guy held up something between his thumb and forefinger and peered at it intently. "Whoa," he said.

The guy in the Angels cap crawled over and studied it. "Kibbles, man," he said. "I don't even know what the fuck it is, but whatever it is, it's a fucking crumb."

"No, man."

"Look at it, you dumb fuck."

"I am."

"I mean, look at it!"

"Shit."

"Yeah, I guess," the bald guy said and flicked away whatever it was he had found.

Ricky was still holding his lighter toward me, toward the loaded flute he had passed to me. He was looking at me with expectation and a smile. I started to raise the piece of tube but hesitated. I looked at it in my hands—just a piece of metal.

I had a weird flashback to a time long ago in Greece. I was sitting in a room, listening to the Doors on a transistor radio with a long-haired girl in a black sweater and a paisley vest leaning toward me with a spike in her hand like an offering. Those were days of drugs and adventures on the long road to India. Hash and opium and smack, the Big H—but never slammed, only snorted or chipped. Days long ago and long past. The girl passed me the spike, and I held it up. It gleamed like a jewel in the candle glow, and the weird, lonely music jangled in the Acropolis night. That was the night, and then we passed on eastward. And it was all an adventure.

Now I sat in this place full of acrid smoke, my eyes stinging. The two crackheads were back on the sofa, arguing their gibberish, goofing and geeking, their round paranoid eyes trying to see past the dark of the windows. From the floor, Ricky regarded me—Ricky the gas-can artist I had met one day as he panhandled a Garden Grove Street; Ricky who lived for the moment in a fleabag motel with stains on the floor and ceiling and wild shouting in the night.

This awful room in some awful place but someone else's adventure now.

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