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Bourgois In Search of Respect

IN SEARCH OF RESPECT

Selling Crack in El Barrio

Second Edition

PHILIPPE BOURGOIS

University of California, San Francisco

3

CRACKHOUSE MANAGEMENT:

ADDICTION, DISCIPLINE, AND

!

. DIGNITY

Hell, yeah, I felt good when I owned the Game Room. In those days everybody be looking for me; everybody needed me. When I drove up, people be opening the door for me, and offering to wash my car. Even kids too little to understand anything about drugs looked up to me.

Felix

The logistics of selling crack are not dramatically different from those of any other risky private sector retail enterprise. Selling high-volume, inexpensive products is an inherently boring undertaking that requires honest, disciplined workers in order to be successful. Such businesses are inherently rife with traditional management versus labor confrontations, as well as internal jealousies or rivalries within employee hierarchies. It is only the omnipresent danger, the high profit margin, and the desperate tone of addiction that prevent crack dealing from becoming overwhelmingly routine and tedious. The details of how the Game Room was run during the years I lived next to it provide a good example of these dynamics.

Living with Crack

Ray did not found the Game Room. The person who actually established the z yc-square-fcot video game arcade as a crackhouse was a childhood friend of his named Felix, who was also Primo's first cousin. Felix did not run a tight operation; he reveled too much in street-corner glory and consequently did not insulate himself from the police by hiring a manager, or at least some intermediary worker-assistants, to make the actual

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In Search of Respect

The Game Room crackhouse. Photo by Philippe Bourgois.

hand-to-hand sales. Instead, for the first year after opening shop he ran every detail of his crackhouse operation with the exception of the "cooking" of the crack - its processing - which he delegated to his wife, Candy, in traditional patriarchal style. The bulk of Felix's energy at the Game Room was devoted to cultivating sexual liaisons with addicted women - especially teenage girls.

During this early phase of the crack epidemic in late 1985, Primo was one of Felix's steadiest customers. He had lost his job as a messengerclerk at a typesetting shop, had broken up with his wife, and had abandoned all pretense of supporting their two-and-a-half-year-old son. Instead, he had returned home to his fifty-year-old mother's nineteenthfloor housing project apartment, where he shared a cramped bedroom with one of his three older sisters. While his mother sewed all day in the living room for an off-the-books garment subcontractor to supplement her welfare payments, Primo dedicated himself full time to hustling and robbing for his crack habit.

In later years, in front of his friends, workers, and even his customers, Primo enjoyed reminiscing about the desperate year he spent as a crack addict:

Crackhouse Management

Primo: I was in my own habit world. I didn't give a fuck about anything.

Let me tell you about one time when I was on a mission [crack binge}. I wanted a blast [catching the eyes of his crack-addicted lookout Caesar}.

Caksar: [spinning around from his position in the doorway} Yeah, yeah. Your only worry was making a cloud in your stem [glass crack pipe}.

Primo: One time I was with my homeboy and his girl. We saw this Mexican sleeping on the floor in the lobby of my aunt's building. He was just probably drunk. He looked like he had a job, maybe, because a homeless would not have had a gold ring.

As soon as I saw him, I just went, "Ti; times la bora" [You got the time}? And as he got the time [making the motion of looking at a wristwatch], I grabbed him by the back of the neck, and put my 007 [knife}! in his back [grabbing me in a choke hold from behind}, I put it in his back - right here [releasing me to point to his lower spine}. And I was jigging him hard! [grinning, and catching his girlfriend Maria's eye}.

Caesar: Them Mexican people get drunk like real crazy man.

Everybody be ripping them off; they easy prey 'cause they illegal most of them.

Primo: I said: "No te mueua cabron 0 te voy a picar como tin pemil" [Don't move motherfucker or I'll stick you like a roasted pig}. [we all chuckle.}

Yeah, yeah, like a piece of pernil - a pork shoulder ... like how you stab a pork shoulder when you want to put all the flavoring in the holes.

Caesar: Everybody take Mexicans like a joke. It's a little crime wave. Mexicans be fucked-up with crime in New York. That's like the new thing to do.

Primo: The Mexican panicked. He looked like he wanted to escape, but the more he tried to escape, the more I wouldn't let go and the more I was jigging him.

And I had a big 007. I wasn't playing, either, I was serious. I would have jigged him. Ifhe would have made an attempt, I would have went like CHKKK [grimacing painfully while twisting his wrist forward in a slow-motion stab}.

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In searcn OJ «espea

And I'd regret it later, but I was looking at that gold ring he had. [chuckle].

I put the Mexican to the floor, poking him hard, and my

homeboy's girl started searching him.

I said, "Take everything, man! Search for everything!"

She found his chain. I said, "Yo, take that asshole's fucking

ring too.

He was going: [imitating a high-pitched whine] "Oh no! Por

favor, por favor!"

It must have been like a thing he treasured, maybe. He was

saying "Take whatever else, but not the ring." I said, "Fuck that shit, you don't have enough money homeboy. [gruffly barking his words like a foreman at a construction site] Take the fucking ring

off his finger!"

After she took the ring we broke out. We sold the ring and then

we cut out on her to go get a blast.

Caesar: Yeah, yeah. You was smoking heavenly.

Primo: We left her in the park, she didn't even get a cent. Caesar: Smokin' lovely.

Primo: She helped for nothing - got jerked.

Caesar: [frazzled by his images of smoking crack] The only reason I get high is because I love it. The first blast is the best'est one. It's like a Ruffle potato chip. You just can't have one. You need more, 'cause it's good.

It's a brain thing. It's thick. Once you take that first blast, then

the whole night is going to be a total adventure into madness. It's just a thing, you have to have more.

Primo: Chill the fuck out Caesar! Why you always be interrupting

me when I'm talking with Felipe?

At the height of his own crack-smoking days, Primo's life took a dramatic turn when Felix's out-of-control machismo provided him with a brand-new, well-paid job opportunity.

Felix was hanging around with some woman in a hotel in New Jersey. It was on the second floor, and Candy - his wife - had found out about it and came looking for him.

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Cracebouse Management

And so Felix jumped off from the second floor landing and he fucked up his foot, so he couldn't work.?

The next day Felix asked me if I would help him out. From that day on, I just stood working here.

Once Felix's ankle recovered, he maintained Primo as manager of daily sales in order to devote even more time to hanging out on the street. He came frequently to the Game Room to display his "sexual conquests" - usually crack-addicted young women. Felix's antics allowed Primo to keep his job, which provided the stability and sense of self-worth that finally allowed him to kick his crack habit after twelve months of steady smoking.

Primo's dream of going straight almost came to a crashing end when Felix's wife, Candy, who was six months pregnant at the time, shot Felix in the stomach to punish him for sleeping with her sister. As soon as Felix recovered from his hospital stay, he was sent "upstate" to prison to serve an unrelated two- to four-year prison sentence for weapons possession. Candy immediately sold the rights to the Game Room for $3,000 to Ray, who himself had just completed a four-year sentence upstate for assault with a deadly weapon, following his $14,000 rooftop shoot-out above the heroin den he was holding up.

Restructuring Management at the Game Room

After a tense week or two of negotiations, which temporarily drove Primo back to binging on crack, Ray maintained Primo as manager of the Game Room on an eight-hour shift from 4:00 p.m. to midnight. The price of vials was dropped to five dollars to make them more competitive with two new teenage outfits operating in the stairwells of the housing project opposite the Game Room where vials were selling for three dollars and even two dollars on discount nights. Primo was to be paid on a piece-rate basis, receiving one dollar for every five dollars he sold. Primo had been held up at shotgun point several weeks earlier and obtained the right from Ray to hire any lookouts or assistants he wanted, so long as he paid them out of his own piece-rate wages. Ray imposed stricter limits, however, on the behavior of noncustomer visitors in order to reduce crowding and noise levels on the stoop in front of the crackhouse.

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In Search of Respect

Ray proved to be a brilliant labor relations manager. Over the years, I watched him systematically extract higher and higher profit margins from his problematic workers. Having grown up in EI Barrio as a gang leader in the early 1970s, he knew how to discipline his workforce firmly without overstepping culturally defined rules of mutual respect. He knew exactly where to set violent limits, and when to express friendship and flexible understanding without ever revealing vulnerability.

Ray was particularly skillful in his manipulation of kinship networks to ensure the loyalty of his often addicted and violent workers. The majority of his employees were blood-related kin, or were affiliated through marriage, or had been incorporated through a fictive kinship arrangement. He asked Primo, for example, to be the godfather of one of . his sons, thereby establishing a com padre relationship. The institution of compadrazgo is a powerful tradition in Puerto Rican culture that sanctifies solidarity and reciprocal obligations between men. Ironically, several generations earlier, back in the mountains of rural Puerto Rico, local landlords had probably manipulated this same paternalistic godfather institution to coerce the indebted day-labor of Ray and Primo's grandfathers or great-grandfathers. 3 In his more modern context, Ray also benefited from the contemporary street-culture kinship arrangements that oblige women to establish serial households with different men through their life cycles. Hence, his childhood friendship with his employee, Luis, was cemented into a quasi kin-relationship by their having fathered children with the same woman.

In the first few weeks following his takeover of the Game Room, Ray's business acumen - specifically his lowering of prices and his raising of the quality of the product - made business boom. The Game Room easily ourcornpeted the low-quality powder cocaine sold out of a grocery store four doors down as, well as the budget-rate crack hawked by teenage crews in the project stairwells across the street. An immediate crisis for control of the site erupted, however, when a police offensive against drug dealing in public school playgrounds pushed several Dominican-run heroin companies onto the block. All of a sudden our sidewalk was swarmed by half a dozen four-man teams, each with two lookouts, one pitcher, and a runner. After some tense face-offs, Ray pressured the Dominican managers to respect his space and move across the avenue.

Within a few months, Ray had invested his, Game Room profits into

Crackhouse Management

opening two new franchises: one - which was relatively short-lived _ in the second-floor apartment of a condemned building being renovated by New York City funds to become subsidized public housing; and the other, the Social Club on La Farmacia's corner by the Hell Gate POSt office. During this initial period of expansion Primo basked in a distinctly privileged position within Ray's budding network of crackhouses:

I was the first one of the regular crew to start working with this guy [Ray]. I was saving money; I wasn't getting high _ only a few beers occasionally. And I used to hang out with Ray. At that time, he didn't have no cars yet. He use to be on foot. And I use to stay with him, hanging around every night .

Both of us used to go home with a knot [wad of bills] and save a coupla' hundreds. The next day, I used to come down with change - you know, thirty or forty dollars - money in my pocket to spend while I was working.

As a formal, founding member of Ray's growing organization, Primo was eligible for the benefits that are part of a crack dealer's pay _ such as bail money and lawyer's fees, bonus payments during special holidays (Christmas, Easter, and Father's Day), periodic gifts for his son, and an occasional lobster dinner at Orchard Beach, Coney Island, or Far Rockaway. Primo's lookouts, on the other hand, were a step lower in the hierarchy. There is probably no work site in the legal economy where Primo could ever aspire realistically to becoming a manager, or even a privileged employee within his first year of being hired. Toward the end of my residence on the block, I frequently asked Primo to give me retrospective accounts of the half-dozen workers he had hired over the five years I knew him at the Game Room.

Primo: [sitting on a car hood in front of the Game Room} The first one that worked for me was Willie. I used to feed him and give him a coupla' dollars at the end of the day.

After him came Little Pete - I used to give him a hundred and fifty dollars a week. Strictly one fifty - plus beers - things like that. After Little Pete came Benzie because Little Pete got promoted fast by Ray to the Club [on La Farmacia's corner}.

In Search of Respect·

I used to pay Benzie daily. I used to give him thirty-five or forty dollars, sometimes fifty on a good night - which is not a lot - but I was treating Benzie better than the others. So after a while I let Benzie keep half and half. Me and him, we used to split everything.

I hired Caesar permanently because of problems between Benzie and Ray. Before that Caesar was only part time because he was always acting too stupid: He used to get jealous because of Benzie. But I told Caesar, "You can't sell, 'cause you're a crackhead and you fuck up."

There's always a problem paying Caesar. I don't know what to do with that nigga' [waving dismissively '~t Caesar, who was standing in the doorway]. He's been acting stupid. I gotta talk to him.

Philippe: You sound like a fuckin' hard-ass boss, complaining about your workers' attitude problems.

Primo: Nah Felipe. I don't act like no boss. I don't bitch. I have never succeeded with power in here. Even when I had little thirteen-year-old Junior helping me out - you know, Felix's son - he would say "Okay, okay, shut up already" to me when I would tell him to do something.

The only time I have fulL authority is when I'm really pissed off, but I don't really want to boss you around just to boss you around.

I have to keep things from getting too fucked up here because I'm responsible. If anything is missing, I'm gonna hear it from Ray.

All of them [waving disdainfully at Caesar again] used to like to take over the whole show.

[loud gunshots]. Yo! Chill out Felipe. Why you so petro?

So . . . after I put Benzie to work, he used to act like he owned the whole show. It's like he feels power just because he's dealing, so he feels like he could diss [disrespect] all the customers. He used to dish [mispronunciation of diss] some good people, especially all the men.

He dissed them, like ... like they were kids - like shit. And these guys, they do what they do, but they're human beings and they're cool, you know. I used to tell him lots of times to "cool the fuck out." I'd have to tell him "I know this guy; talk to him nicely. Respetalo, bro!" [respect him]. But he wouldn't play by the rules.

CrackhoZlse Management

He was treating people like shit. So I brought Caesar back, but tambiin [also] he thinks he's running the whole show.

Philippe: Isn't Caesar worse than Benzie?

Primo: Bohf [both] are bad. But Caesar is worser because he don't give! a fuck about anybody. I don't even trust him anymore.

Indeed, I vividly remember Benzie chanting triumphantly to oncoming Customers, "That's right, rnah' man! Come on! Keep on killing yourself; bring me that money; smoke yourself to death; make me rich." Of course, Primo ultimately was not much more Courteous to his clients. He sometimes joined his colleagues in ridiculing the walking human carcasses that so many street-level crack addicts become after several months of smoking. In the Game Room, this was often conjugated by an explicitly racist and sexist dynamic:

Caesar: Felipe, you shoulda seen these two dirty moyo motherfuckers who came by here earlier. It was a moreno [African-American]4 and his girl.

Primo: [laughing] She slipped on her ass walking out the door. Caesar: And she rnusra broke that ass, 'cause she tripped and fell face first.

Primo: I saw her limping ...

Caesar: She got damaged, man, because she hit that iron thing that we got there stuck in the cement.

She limped off. She limped away real fucked up. But homeboy didn't give a fuck that his woman fell down; he just walked away. [perhaps noticing my silence, he shook his head righteously] It was wrong, boy.

Primo: [ignoring me and laughing at Caesar's righteousness] No man, he was thirsty!

Caesar: Yeah! Yeah! He was like, "Fuck her. Ah'rn'a' smoke." [inhaling deeply with a blissful grin, and then spinning around to face me] I don't care what you think Felipe, morenos be more fucked up and eviler than Puerto Ricans. Because when she fell I said, "Oh, shit, you all right there?"

But her man, he was like . . . he jumped over her and walked out in front of her.

Curbing Addiction and Channeling Violence

Primo's close friendship with Caesar was a complicated one. Caesar's drinking often unleashed uncontrollable outbursts of aggression and when he binged on crack - which was almost every time he got paid - he ended up borrowing or stealing from everyone around him. Nevertheless, for the last three years of my residence on the block Caesar and Primo were inseparable. Caesar lasted the longest of all the lookouts and other crackhouse assistants whom Primo hired.

Sometimes I thought Primo tolerated Caesar's poor work discipline because he sympathized with Caesar's crack addiction. He seemed to be providing Caesar with the same kind of supportive environment for quitting that he had been afforded by Felix when he was first hired to sell at the Game Room. At other times I suspected that the reason all of Primo's subcontracted employees - Willie, Benzie, Little Pete, and Caesar - were crack addicts was because this enabled Primo to pay them lower wages and to impo_se more dependent working conditions. Often he substituted payments-in-kind (vials of crack) for cash remuneration at the end of the shift. Of course, Primo did not have much choice since most of the people in his world were crack users. On a few occasions, Primo acknowledged his manipulation of the addiction of his workers as well as his own dependence on Ray for steady cash to buy powder cocaine and alcohol for himself.

Primo: It was stupid slow tonight. The shit we're selling is whack. I've only got thirty dollars for me, and I gotta give half to Caesar.

But since it's so slow we just don't give each other money, we just spend it together.

Plus, you see, we had already borrowed motley from Ray from before so we have to pay himback little by little.

As if to illustrate his words, almost without breaking stride, Primo handed a ten-dollar bill to an emaciated coke seller who happened to be standing in our path, and pocketed a half-inch-long vial of white powder. Caesar had walked ahead of us and did not hear Primo whisper to me:

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Primo: Caesar doesn't really keep track of it. I can jerk him. It's not no fifty-fifty thing.

Despite regularly drinking liquor and sniffing cocaine with Caesar, Primo genuinely tried to wean his friend and worker away from his more destructive and uncontrollable crack binging. Over the years, he experimented with half a dozen different schemes to rehabilitate Caesar and convert him into a more disciplined worker.

Caesar was always fucking up. He always wanted me to pay him each night, but then he'd take the money and break Out to smoke. He'd come find me later, begging me for more money.

I'd say, "You stupid? I paid you already. Don't do that shit to me. You crazy, boy? Don't ask me for no money. I gave you your fucking pay."

Then the next day, he wouldn't show up for work or he'd come late. So then I didn't use to pay him daily. I used to pay him at the end of the week when Ray pays me.

Even that didn't work. [pausing to sniff out of a folded dollar bill full of powder cocaine] I was tired of him doing that to me. So one day, when I paid him, I said, "If you go and fuck this up and don't come in tomorrow. I'm not going to keep on working with you no more, because I'm getting tired of you."

Shortly after that is when I hired Benzie, who was still one of my customers at the time.

A year or so earlier, Primo had fired his friend Willie - nicknamed "O.D." because of his overdose-style of binging - for exactly the same reason. According to Primo, O. D.'s addiction was even more unacceptable since he smoked during work hours. Under pressure from his father, Willie joined the army. He was the only person in Ray's network able to enter the military because he was the only one to have a high school degree - which he had obtained on a fluke affirmative action program in a downtown elite private high school that has since declared bankruptcy. Trained as a tank driver, he miraculously escaped the Gulf War in January 1991 when he happened to be on furlough in East Harlem binging on crack. He simply prolonged his binge and went AWOL.

Despite Primo's perennial complaints - compared to an addict like OD or a street culture prima donna like Benzie - Caesar did an excellent job as lookout. He personified the personal logic of violence in the street's overarching culture of terror by intimidating everyone around him with his reputation for unpredictable outbursts of rage. The only person who ever disrespected the Game Room premises while Caesar was on duty was a jealous young man high on angel dust. He was subsequently carried away from the premises with a fractured skull. I cannot forget hearing the nauseating thump of the baseball bat that caught the offending man squarely on the forehead just as the Game Room door behind me shut as I was fleeing the scene. Primo later confided in me that he had to restrain Caesar after three blows to keep him from killing the man while he lay unconscious on the floor. Caesar loved to remind me and anyone else within earshot of the event. It was good public relations for ensuring the security of the premises. 5

Caesar: That nigga' was talking shit for a long time, about how we pussy. How he fuckin' control the block and how: [putting his hands on his hips and waving his head back and forth, imitating a spoiled child's taunts] "I can do whatever I want."

And we were trying to take it calm like until he starts talkin' rhis'n'that, about how he gonna drop "a dime on us [report us to the police}.

That's when I grabbed the bat - I looked at the ax that Primo keeps behind the Pac-Man but then I said, "No; I want something that's going to be short and compact. I onl~ .gotta swing a short distance to clock the shit out of this motherfucker."

[shouting out the Game Room door] You don't control shit, because we rocked your fuckin' ass. Ha! Ha! Ha!

[turning back to me} That was 'right when you ran out the door Felipe. But the bottom line, Felipe, is survival of the fittest - or survival with a helmet, because I had got wild.

Now I gotta try to get Ray to lend me his Lincoln.

Another benefit Caesar derived from his inability to control his underlying rage was a lifelong monthly social security insurance check for being - as he put it - "a certified nut case," which he periodically reconfirmed by occasionally attempting to commit suicide.

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In Ray's judgment, Caesar was too out of control to be trusted, and he was never formally hired into the network. Ray was much more cautious than Primo about whom he hired. Only in exceptional cases did he give breaks to full-blown addicts or excessively violent individuals. Caesar was acutely aware of Ray's rejection of him, but nevertheless continually aspired to f?rmal inclusion in his organization.

Caesar: Ray don't pay me directly, I'm subcontracted by Primo. If I go to jail, I'm Primo's responsibility but Ray will look out for me, 'cause he likes to keep me around too, for security reasons. He wants to slide me into the organization.

Plus I don't got no felony arrests. I got the cleanest [criminal] record out of anybody working for Ray. If I gOt busted, he knows I wouldn't jerk him for the bail money like Benzie did. I'd keep going to court and I wouldn't drop a dime.

Benzie, the lookout who replaced Caesar, was also a crack addict, but unlike Caesar he followed Primo's example and used his position as drug dealer as a trampoline for overcoming his crack addiction by substituting it for a less virulent powder cocaine habit occasionally supplemented by heroin. This allowed for a less hierarchical relationship and Primo promptly promoted him to partner. Particularly interesting in Benzie's case is that he had originally been holding a permanent legal job as a janitor's assistant at an exclusive men's club in midtown Manhattan at the time that Primo offered him the position of lookout. It was only once he fully immersed himself in street culture's underground economy as a powerful figure - a dealer - that he was able to stop using crack. In other words, Benzie started using crack while working legally, and not until he quit his legitimate job to work full time as a crack dealer was he able to kick his crack habit. The responsibilities of his new position as a street seller forced him to straighten out.

Primo: After I fired Caesar I started working by myself again until, somehow, some way, this guy [pointing to Benzie} started giving me hints that he wanted to work, and I liked'ed him. [pausing to sniff again]

So I started asking him, "You wauna work here?" 'Cause I

In Search of Respect

wanted to take it easy. [sniffing from the tip of a key dipped into a ten-dollar glassine packet of heroin and passing it to Benzie}

Benzie: [sniffing] At the time I was working legit with my Pops at the Yacht Club as a maintenance engineer. I used to come over here [to the Game Room] after work.

When Primo hired me that gave me two jobs.

You know at what time I used to get up to get to the Yacht Club? Five o'clock in the morn in' because I used to have to be there at seven - and right on the dot! From seven until three-thirty I be at the Yacht Club. Then at four I had to be at the Game Room [sniffing heroin].

Primo: So I told him, "Thirty dollars a day, six days a week.

'Cause I don't work Sundays."

He said, "Yeah, yeah, that's good." So he hung out.

And after that, time went by. I saw he was cool - that he wasn't smoking so much. I used to take him to the [Social] Club and buy a bottle of Bacardi and feed him food, and we'd be sniffing. [pausing to crush a fresh vial's worth of cocaine in a dollar bill}

So one time, I told him, "Go ahead, serve." Then after a while (sniffing cocaine), I told him, "Whatever we sell, we gonna divide equally each day. That way, you could make some money."

Because I was gettin' paid back in them days. [throwing his head back and sniffing heavily} I used to get like two hundred, two-fifty, three hundred, even four hundred dollars a night for eight hours work. The least I would get is two hundred - two-fifty dollars a night.

Benzie: Yeah, we was making money then, boy! Bohf making

two-something a night.

Primo: We used to clock, man. This shit [pointing to the back of the Pac-Man machine, where the crack vials were stashed} used to

sell like hotcakes. I

I'm a fuckin' idiot man. I should have bought something so that my money would have been still here.

But as soon ~s Benzie started working with me it was all party.

And my money is history. That money just flew, boy. I spent it (spitting the words) on hotels, coke, liquor. It was easy come, easy go. I used to treat for everything with everybody - Benzie, Caesar,

Crackhouse Management

O.D. - everybody. I just wanted friends. Everyday we was horeling it. Hotels cost money, man.

It's too bad I didn't see you a lot in those days Felipe. We could've really enjoyed you. (grabbing my arm with the instant affection 'that a sudden rush of cocaine can generate in the rollercoaster e6bs and flows of a speedball - heroin-cum-cocaine - high] And we probably would have been more cool if you would've been there. 'Cause you can't get into no trouble. Instead we used to break everything in the room.

I was hanging out so roughly trying to be a, Mr. Big Star. (sniffing and catching Benzie's eye] 'Cause we had cash and we used to enjoy it. (slapping five with Benzie and erupting into loud mutual laughter]

Minimum Wage Crack Dealers

I finally solved the mystery of why most street-level crack dealers remain penniless during their careers, when I realized that their generous bingebehavior is ultimately no different from the more individualistic, and circumscribed, conspicuous consumption that rapidly upwardly mobile persons in the legal economy also usually engage in. The tendency to overspend income windfalls conspicuously is universal in an economy that fetishizes material goods and services. Crack dealers are merely a caricaturally visible version of this otherwise very North American phenomenon of rapidly overconsuming easily earned money. Their limited options for spending money constructively in the legal economy exacerbate their profligacy.

A more complex dimension of the crack dealers' relationship to the mainstream economy is their interaction with the legal labor market. A systematic discussion of this complex, antagonistic relationship is the basis for Chapter 4. I shall explore briefly here, however, how this tension with the legal economy affected day-to-day operations at the Game Room, because the appeal of the crack economy is not limited to a simple dollars-and-cents logic.

Street dealers tend to brag to outsiders and to themselves about how much money they make each night. In fact, their income is almost never as consistently high as they report it to be. Most street sellers, like

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In Search of Respect

Caesar displaying cash and three bundles of crack inside the Game Room. Photo by Susan Meiselas.

Primo, are paid on a piece-rate commission basis. In other words, their take-home pay is a function of how much they sell. When converted into an hourly wage, this is often a relatively paltry sum. According to my calculations, Ray's workers, for example, averaged slightly less than double the legal minimum wage - between seven and eight dollars an hour. There were plenty of exceptional nights, however, when they made up to ten times minimum wage - and these are the nights they remember when they reminisce. They forget all the other shifts when they were unable to work because of police raids, and they certainly do not count the nights they spent in jail as forfeited working hours.

It took me several years to realize how inconsistent and meager crack income can be. This was brought home to me symbolically 'one night as Primo and Caesar were shutting down the Game Room. Caesar unscrewed the fuses in the electrical box to disconnect the video games. Primo had finished stashing the leftover bundles of crack vials inside a hollowed-out live electrical socket and was counting the night's thick wad of receipts. I was struck by how thin the handful of bills were that he separated out and folded neatly into his personal billfold. Primo and

Caesar then eagerly lowered the icon riot gates over the Game Room's windows, and snapped shut the heavy Yale padlocks. They were moving with the smooth, hurried gestures of workers preparing to go home after an honest day's hard labor. Marveling at the universality in the body language of workers rushing at closing time, I felt an urge to compare the wages paid by this alternative economy. I grabbed Primo's wallet out of his back pocket, carefully giving a wide berth to the fatter wad in his front pocket that represented Ray's share of the night's income - and that could cost Primo his life if it were waylaid. Unexpectedly, I pulled out fifteen dollars' worth of food stamps along with two twenty-dollar bills. After an embarrassed giggle, Primo stammered something to the effect that his mother had added him to her monthly food stamp allotment, and now gave him his thirty-dollar share each month to spend on his own.

Primo: I gave, my girl, Maria, half of it. I said, "Here, take it, use it if you need it for whatever." And then the other half I still got it in my wallet for emergencies.

Like that, we always got a couple of dollars here and there, to survive with. Because tonight, straight cash, I only got garbage. Forty dollars! Do you believe that?

At the same time that wages can be relatively low in the crack economy, working conditions are also often inferior to those found in the legal economy. Aside from the obvious dangers of being shot, or of going to prison, the physical work space of most crackhouses is usually unpleasant. The infrastructure of the Game Room, for example, was much worse than that of any legal retail outfits in East Harlem: There was no bathroom, no cunning water, no telephone, no heat in the winter,

. and no air-conditioning in the summer. Primo occasionally complained.

Primo: Everything that you see here [sweeping his arm at the scratched and dented video games, the walls with peeling paint, the floor slippery with litter, the filthy windows pasted over with ripped movie posters] is fucked-up. It sucks, man [pointing at the red forty-watt bare bulb hanging from an exposed fixture in the middle of the room and exuding a sickly twilight].

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Indeed, the only furnishings besides the video games were a few grimy milk crates and bent aluminum stools. Worse yet, a smell of urine and vomit usually permeated the locale. For a few months Primo was able to maintain a rudimentary sound system, but it was eventually beaten to a pulp during one of Caesar's drunken rages. The same thing happened to a scratchy black-and-white television set that Primo had bought from a customer for the price of a five-dollar vial. Of course, the deficient infrastructure was only one part of the depressing working conditions.

Primo: Plus I don't like to see people fucked up [handing over three vials to a nervously pacing customer]. This is fucked-up shit. I don't like this crack dealing. Word up.

[gunshots in the distance} Hear that?

Why then did Benzie ecstatically forfeit his steady job as maintenance engineer to work with Primo under thes-e conditions?

Benzie: I lost my job for hanging out with you [pointing to Primo and sniffing more cocaine].

At first even if we broke night [stayed awake partying 'all night}, the next day I went to my job. I was chilling and I JUSt walked in like nothing. Nobody - my boss, my supervisor - said nothing to me, because I was a maintenance engineer and I did everything.

Everything! No matter what it is, you do it.- You got to fix everything in the hotel. They call and complain, you gotta go and fix it, no matter what it is.

You know, like when the john leaks - whatever it is. Pipes - all that shit - you gotta go up and fix it.

And I had union and everything man, because when you're in the New York Yacht Club Union, you get union shit - I mean, you know, all the benefits.

That's a high-class place over there! I saw Mayor Koch eating there! Yeah I saw what's his name ... you know, that guy from the news! Man, I seen a lot of people eating' there.

It's like a membership shit. You gotta be a member of a yacht ship or some yacht shit! Those are people who got yatch'es. They rich! They got like little models of yatch'es all over the place. It's only whites eating there, like I seen alor'a' whites there.

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I never had no problem with white people. It was always: [bowing and imitating an upper-class accent} "How you doing?" [bowing again deeply, but then pausing to sniff} "Good morning." They're nice people though.

I lasted there. A long time. Like a year and a few months. I was making four jbills [$400} man! For five days work.

[continuing soberly} Now, the way I lost my job: I never forget that day: it was me, you [pointing to Primo}, Candy, and Flora and we stood at Candy's house and we broke night.

In a way, it was my own fault. I started messing around with Flora. And I was still with her in the morning.

I didn't go to work. I fucked up. I was sniffed up and I didn't call or anything the next day. I stayed with Flora.

Ultimately, Benzie pushed his macho street culture identity to its logical conclusion. He could not tolerate Ray's authority and ended up stealing money from him and forfeiting a court date for an arrest in a stolen car that was unrelated to crack dealing, but for which Ray had posted $2,500 worth of bail. After a brief stint in prison, "on Riker's," Benzie came full circle and found just above minimum wage employment in "food prep" at a health food cafeteria in a fitness gym - once again, surrounded as a subordinate by powerful whites. He managed to limit his alcohol and cocaine-cum-heroin binging to weekends. He enjoyed coming to the Game Room for visits to lecture Primo on the glories of legal employment. On cold nights after the Game Room was closed, we would often take refuge in a housing project stairwell where Primo and Benzie would sniff speedballs and we would all drink malt liquor until well past daybreak, tape-recording our conversations. 6

Benzie: The best way to be, is legal. Survive. Make your money and make everybody love you [opening a ten-dollar packet of heroin and handing me a quart of malt liquor to open].

I want you to be like that, Primo. I've been doing it a year, Primo. Look at this, box, [holding out a small plastic object] look what it says here. One year, this is a tie tack, this is a tack that goes on a tie. But it's because I've made a year. That's what it says there.

Do you know why I've made a year at this place? [sniffing heroin]

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Because I've been through fuckin' coke; [pointing to the cocaine Primo was crushing into sniffable powder in a folded dollar bill] I've been through fuckin' crack; I've been through marijuana; I've been through fuckin' every drug. I always was rroubulared. But now I'm finally getting mines - my capacidad [self-worth} - I've finally got to that stage that I won't do something. [pointing again to the cocaine} I'm tired of fuckin' crack living. [waving his arm at the vials littering the stairway} Serious, man.

Like right now [pausing to sniff cocaine] I do not do drugs.

Fuck! Look at my face. [moving it aggressively to within an inch of mine and taking the malt liquor bottle] I got a round face. When you do drugs you could tell by sorneone's face. [sniffing delicately from the packet of heroin, using Primo's key as a dipper].

All of a sudden as if a cocaine rush in his speedball high had triggered some particularly aggressive pathways 10 his brain, Benzie defensively addressed the difficulty of maintaining respect in the entry-level legal economy.

Benzie: But don't you ever disrespect me or dish me.

Primo: [soothingly] You're a working nigga' and I respect you the way you are right now. [turning to me] I respect him.

Benzie: [unmollified] I don't want someone to ~espect me. I want to respect myself.

I respect myself, man. [jabbing both forefingers into his chest} I changed. I'm a different person. I love myself. I'm not trying to brag or anything, you know. [swigging from the quart of malt liquor]

Primo: [to me reassuringly] It's like an outburst, Felipe. 'Cause Benzie feels so great, he feels so wonderful.

\

Benzie: [calmer, passing me the bottle] Man, I'm making eight

dollars a fuckin' hour. I'm a prep. I'm an assistant chef. I make eight dollars an hour. I make close to three hundred dollars a week. Okay, they take almost a hundred dollars, you know, in taxes and ... I get, like, two seventy-five - shit like that.

If you was to go home later on, you could see that I'm telling you the truth. And after taxes - they take like ninety, eighty

Cracebouse Management

dollars out of my shit. Like I would come home with my two seventy-five.

Primo: [proud of being privy to legal working-class hustles} That's because you only have one dependent. I always used to put three dependents.

Benzie: Btlt yo, I love myself. I'm proud of myself. You know, who's really fuckin' proud of me and who loves me, bro? My father, bro. He loves the shit out of me now.

My father's been a working man all his life. He came from PR when he was twenty-one. Right now, he's fifty-three years old. He's been a waiter all his life.

Primo: [in a low voice] Man! I don't want a job that's supposed to last you for your whole life. Man! I don't want to work for tips. I wanna work the way I wanna work.

[abruptly changing the subject} Let's go get another beer.

In private, especially in the last few years of my residence, Primo admitted that he wanted to go back to the legal economy.

Primo: I just fuck up the money here. I rather be legal.

Philippe: But you wouldn't be the head man on the block with so many girlfriends.

Primo: I might have women on my dick right now, but I would be much cooler if I was working legal. I wouldn't be drinking and the coke wouldn't be there every night.

Plus if I was working legally I would have women on my dick too, because I would have money.

Philippe: But you make more money here than you could ever make working legit.

Primo: Okay. So you want the money but you really don't want to do the job.

I really hate it, man. Hate it! I hate the people! I hate the environment! I hate the whole shit, man! But it's like you get caught up with it. You do it, and you say, "Ay, fuck it today!" Another day, another dollar. [pointing at an emaciated customer who was just entering]

But I don't really, really think that I would have hoped that I

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can say I'm gonna be richer one day. I can't say that. I think about it, but I'm just living day to day.

If I was working legal, I wouldn't be hanging out so much. I wouldn't be treating you. [pointing to the 16-ounce can of Colt 45 in my hand} In a job, you know, my environment would change . . . totally. 'Cause I'd have different friends. Right after work I'd go out with a co-worker, for lunch, for dinner. After work I may go home; I'm too tired for hanging out - I know I gotta work tomorrow.

After working a legal job, I'm pretty sure I'd be good.

The problem - as discussed in detail in Chapter 4 on the relationship of the crack dealers to the legal market - is that Primo's good intentions do not lead anywhere when the only legal jobs he can compete for fail to provide him with a livable wage. None of the crack dealers were explicitly conscious of the linkages between their limited options in the legal economy, their addiction to drugs, and their dependence on the crack economy for economic survival and personal dignity. Nevertheless, all of Primo's colleagues and employees told stories of rejecting what they considered to be intolerable working conditions at entry-level legal jobs. Benzie's case, for example, illustrates the complex role that subjective notions of dignity play in the process of rejecting legal employment and becoming a crack addict and then a dealer. Another one of Primo's lookouts, Willie, also had a legal-labor trajectory Defore being hired by Primo that illustrates the forces propelling a young man to seek refuge in the world of crack. Contradictorily, while Willie rejects the brutality of the working conditions he encountered in the legal labor market, he embraces an even more violent alternative that has him wreaking destruction on his neighbors and community.

In my whole life, I never got paid over six 'dollars an hour. The most I ever got was my last job when I worked at the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty t\) Animals]. It was like two hundred and thirty dollars a week straight - then there was the taxes.

I remember my first day on the job. I had went there pretty well dressed and I'm working with this good-looking girl, so I'm like,

Crackhouse Management

I'm gonna rap with this chick. And then they pull out the carts full of gassed animals.

So I'm standing there with these rubber gloves, right? But I'm trying to stand back, you know, because I can't deal. I love animals ... youj know, I got three chihuahuas upstairs .

But the boss knew there was going to be trouble so they had overhired - that's how they always do it. They get rid of one person. So when the boss said, "You and her, do this," I did it.

But then I looked at this dead animal, and I got sick. And I've got on a button-down shirt, slacks, and I'm at this job in this big garage-type room with rubber gloves on, putting these laundry carts full of dead dogs, cats, baby dogs, baby cats that have all been gassed into a garbage truck.

I couldn't do it for long.

So one day they call me into the office and tell me, "You're not right for this job." So I got fired.

Management-Labor Conflict at the Game Room

Primo's options in the legal job market were no better than those of any of his employees, but on the stoop of the Game Room his vulnerability was not visible - especially when contrasted with that of his crackaddicted Customers and workers. He looked and behaved like an effective boss. Ultimately, however, Primo's relative autonomy and importance within Ray's network was eroded when Ray expanded his franchises. The Social Club's prime retail location on La Farrnacia's corner made it far more profitable than the Game Room. Ray instituted a double shift at the Social Club, keeping it open for sixteen hours every day except Sunday. Perhaps also because of his own personal fondness for the spot _ having grown up in the building - he invested in renovating the physical infrastructure. Soon the Social Club had a pool table, a powerful sound system, a flush toilet that worked some of the time, an air conditioner, and a heater. Ray also established an after-hours bar at the site, serving beer and Bacardi. For the upscale Customers and for hard-core intravenous cocaine users, in addition to the nickels of crack, he offered half-grams of relatively unadulterated cocaine for twenty dollars.

The expansion and diversification of Ray's network allowed him to be

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more manipulative in his management of labor relations. He began leveraging increased levels of discipline and higher profit margins from Primo at the Game Room. This initiated a protracted juggle for power between Primo and Ray. Ray's first action was to supersede Primo's right to hire assistants. He imposed his own choice of secondary employees to work as lookouts and sellers side by side with Primo. Primo rebelled against Ray's encroachment on his operational autonomy. He did not want to be demoted from manager to senior salesperson.

Ultimately, Primo lost out in this struggle for workplace autonomy, and his position as "manager" became increasingly ambiguous, until by the last two years of my residence on the block, Primo had lost all fiction of control over Game Room operations. Ray even managed to lower his piece-rate commissions from $1.00 to 75 cents per vial sold, although he did maintain an extra incentive by increasing the commission to $1. 75 per vial on nights when seven bundles [175 vials] were sold. Ray claimed that Primo had precipitated the changes because of his tardiness, absenteeism, and ineffectiveness in curbing violence and noise at the Game Room. For one ten-month period, Primo became so marginal that another three-quarters-time senior salesperson, Tony, was, hired and Ray limited Primo to only working two night shifts per week.

Primo responded to his lowered wages, reduced work hours, and lost managerial autonomy by escalating his alcohol and substance abuse. He became an even less punctual and more undisciplined worker, provoking Rayon several occasions to lay him off in retaliation for probationary two-week stretches. Part of the problem was rooted in the laws of supply and demand. The competition across the block in the project stairwells had permanently dropped the prices of their vials from three dollars to two dollars, and a conglomerate of companies located on another crack corner two blocks away had cut its prices from five dollars to three dollars, while simultaneously increasing the quality of its product.

Ray made a last-ditch effort to retain market share by upgrading the Game Room's locale. He moved operations upstairs to the newly vacated premises where three licensed doctors had formerly operated an illegal Medicaid-funded pill mill. This temporarily raised morale among his workers but did not affect sales significantly. We critiqued and debated the boss's management strategies in much the same mundane way that anxious employees in a retail enterprise in the legal sector who are in danger of being laid off, will speculate on the reasons for declining

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CrackhoztSe Management

Primo feeding cocaine to Caesar on the benches of a housing project courtyard, after closing the Game Room. Photo by Susan Meiselas.

business. Relaxing after the end of the night shift in my apartment living room with Primo and Caesar, I tape-recorded one particularly anxious conversation. For the preceding two weeks, the Game Room had been shut down because of intensified police sweeps, and upon reopening that night, Ray had introduced a lower-quality product. (The Dominican wholesaler who formerly supplied him with cocaine at the kilo level had been arrested and his new connection had provided him with inferior cocaine.)

Before speaking morosely, Caesar opened a glassine envelope of heroin, sniffed from it, and then tossed the packet Onto my coffee table. He then immediately reached for the folded dollar bill containing cocaine that Primo had just crushed. Primo pulled the cocaine away from him,

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saying, "Chill man, let me feed youl" and turned to me for emphasis: "I hate it when this nigga' gets thirsty." Primo then scooped a folded matchbook corner into the pile of cocaine and held it up to Caesar's nose for him to sniff with a grimace that effectively closed off one nostril while opening the other one wide. He repeated the motions three more times until Caesar finally sat back calmly on my couch, nodding a thanks

to Primo.

Caesar: [speaking slowly} Tonight was slow, we only made twenty-two dollars and fuckin' fifty cents. And I be risking getting snatched and dirt yin' my (police} record for chump change from

that fat-assed nigga'.

Ray's gonna lose a lotta business with no light up there. And no

one wants to walk up those stairs.

Primo: No, it's not the place of the business. It's just that we're

selling two-dollar bottles for five bucks [sniffing}.

Caesar: Yeah, the bottles are toO small. (gravely} Lately Ray's been fucking up with the product, man. He's like switching product. It'll be good; then it'll be fucked up; then it'll be good; then

it'll be fucked up.

Primo: The real problem is that they be small bottles.

Caesar: Plus it was a major mistake to be closed all tha~ time and

then the first time we open we be selling shit.

How you gonna open up and sell fire? 'Cause that's what the

customers said it is. The cracks taste like fire. That shit isnasty!

He's fucking us up because a lot of people don't come back, man. And people be complaining that we are selling fire.

[picking up his tempo, feeling a rush of energy from the cocaine}

, \

I done told Ray, "What's up? This shit is garbage." But he's like,

"Fuck youl I sell it like that."

Primo: [sniffing} I never tell him shit, especially tonight. I think

he had a roach up his ass, 'cause it's slow. He was pissed off 'cause the electrician from Con Ed [New York City'S electrical utility

company} didn't show up today.

When I pushed the conversation into a discussion of how they could tolerate being minimum wage crack dealers, they responded with selfcongratulatory, glorifying reminiscences of nights of record sales. Perhaps

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C rackhouse Management

the same types of dialogue could be tape-recorded after-hours among heavy-drinking used-car salesmen during a recession in the local economy.

Caesar: [sniffing more cocaine from Primo's upheld matchbook] Nah, Felipe, it's not so bad. It's slow tonight because it's Monday, and the end of the month, and nobody ain't got no money. [excited} Primo left out of here the other day with almost three hundred bucks all by himself.

Primo: [smiling] It was the first of the month and everybody had got paid.

Caesar: [taking more cocaine} It was a huge day for selling.

Everything comes on the first of the month: all the checks.

Primo: Yeah! Everybody got paid [grinning}. Because the first of the month is like when welfare checks, rent checks, social security checks, all come. The first of the month is definitely monneeey [licking his lips}.

Caesar: For everybody! Veterans' checks, pensions, social security, welfare, Jew checks ... [noting my raised eyebrows] You know, Jews be into crazy scams, making money with papers ... you know, insurance, real estate, shit like that. The Jews be picking up checks. [wiggling his forefingers greedily with a devious grin}

On the first of the month, money flows.

Primo: Everyone was coming. Welfare recipients and workers. sold twelve bundles.

Ray's sales remained slow for the next several months and morale among his workers continued to plummet, while tensions mounted. Ray ordered Primo to fire Caesar following a series of loud drunken arguments, but Primo refused. Ray retaliated by switching Primo's schedule to working on Monday and Tuesday nights instead of Thursday and Friday nights. Thursday is an especially coveted night to sell on because it is payday for municipal employees.

In a classic example of the internalization of labor-management antagonisms, Primo and Caesar redoubled their hatred for Tony, the replacement employee whom Ray had hired a few months earlier to discipline Primo and Caesar. Tony reciprocated their antagonism. This escalated into a potentially lethal confrontation when three bundles of crack disap-

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in Sean» oj l(espea

peared from the stash inside the Pac-Man video machine during the interval between Primo's Tuesday night shift and Tony's Wednesday shift. Everyone professed innocence, but there was no sign of forced entry and Tony and Primo were the only two people besides Ray to have keys to the locale. Ray wanted to kill - or at least break the legs - of the culprit, but he could not decide whom to punish.

The following Thursday, another three bundles were stolen from the overnight stash, which had been rotated to a live electrical socket for protection. Ray was not only furious but also helpless - a condition that made him even more dangerous than he normally is. To save face he began deducting the value of the stolen bundles from both Primo's and Tony's wages on a fifty-fifty basis. Sales on Primo's Mondayand Tuesday night shifts, however, were so low that Ray had to set up an installment plan for his reimbursement. Primo and Caesar were allowed to keep their full Monday night commission in return for surrendering all of Tuesday night's receipts until their share of the $450 worth of missing merchandise was accounted for.

Sensing that he was the prime suspect, Caesar was especially vocal in denouncing Tony as the thief. He repeatedly advocated "wasting the motherfucker." Those of us who frequented the Gan:te Room regularly were convinced that Caesar had stolen the crack. Primo could not help but share this suspicion. It depressed him that his best friend and employee - his "main nigga' " - could have disrespected him so profoundly. It was during these tense weeks that I tape-recorded many of Primo's most insightful denunciations of how he was trapped in the crack economy.

The mysterious disappearance of the six bundles was. finally resolved with the anticipated life-threatening beating, but neither Tony nor Primo nor even Caesar were the victims. The thief was Garo, Ray's jack-of-all-trades maintenance worker who had renovated the new locale upstairs from the Game Room. In the process he had hollowed our fake paneling under the floor, to which he had access after hours via the abandoned building behind the Game Room. He knew the kinds of places where Ray kept his stashes because he repaired all his video games and maintained his electrical systems. In fact, he was the one who had pirated the electricity to the new crackhouse our of a neighboring bodega. We could not help but feel sorry for Gato when Ray brought him back to the Game Room three days later to start working off the debt he

104

owed by fixing Some newly acquired broken machines. Gato climbed awkwardly out of Ray's Lincoln Continental limping heavily from the beating he had received three days earlier. He avoided eye COntact with all of us. We all left the premises hurriedly when he started unscrewing the back of a broken video game because he reeked from the acrid smell specific to homeless crack bingers who have no access to showers or clean clothes. That he was still alive with no bones broken was a testimony to his childhood friendship with Ray, whom he had faithfully followed as a teenage member of "The Cheeba Crew" (TCC) Some dozen years earlier.

Ray took advantage of the tensions generated by this incident to renegotiate Tony's salary from a piece-rate commission to a set wage of $100 per shift, regardless of how many bundles were sold. This was especially profitable for Ray because Tony worked on the nights when sales were at their highest volume, Wednesday through Saturday. Relations were too strained between Tony and Primo for them to coordinate their demands for a higher proportion of Ray's profits. In fact, in a classic divide-and-conquer scenario, neither worker even knew what kind of payment arrangement his nemesis had negotiated with their mutual boss.

The Crackhouse Clique: Dealing with Security

Primo's subordination to Ray was not immediately visible to the clique of parasitical friends, acquaintances, and wanna-be employees who congregated in front of the Game Room on most nights. When Primo was on duty, he appeared to his hang-out crowd to be well in control. He was exceptionally generous, and he regularly treated his friends co beer, liquor, and occasional sniffs of cocaine. I had assumed originally that Primo cultivated a large hang-out crowd to fulfill a psychological need for power and domination, especially vis-a-vis the teenage women competing for his sexual attention.

It took me several months to realize that the people reclining on car hoods, squatting on neighboring Stoops, or tapping their feet to the ubiquitous rap or salsa playing on sorneone's radio, served several different useful roles for the crackhouse. They provided strategic business information on competing drug spots and on the changing trends in tastes and market shifts in the underground economy. As long as they did not become too rowdy, they also served to camouflage the comings and goings of the emaciated addicts, making the crackhouse look more

In Searc» ot «espect

Hanging out in the Game Room. Photo by Oscar Vargas.

like a youth center than a place of business. A subtle touch of "normalcy" was added by the presence of Primo's adopted grandfather, Abraham, who was responsible for collecting the quarters from the video, machines. Whenever potential undercover narcotic detectives entered the Game Room, this hopelessly alcoholic seventy-two-year-old man pretended to be senile. He exuded an aura of helplessness and gentleness that was accentuated by the homemade black patch covering his left eye, which he had lost when a mugger stabbed him while he was home from his job at

the cafeteria of Lenox Hill Hospital in the early I 980s. 7 '

Most importantly, the hang-out crowd complemented the lookout's

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job by protecting the Game Room from excessive violence and aggression. Primo's best and cheapest insurance against physical assault was to surround himself with a network of people who genuinely respected and liked him. His crowd of friends became an effective army of detectives for investigating foul play; for warning him of potential stickup artists who might be casing the premises; or for shielding and witnessing when an attack actually occurred. Indeed, assault by thieves represented Primo's greatest physical danger. Whenever two people walked into the Game Room at the same time or at a fast pace, he always tensed up. He also usually suspected new people who joined his hang-out crowd of being emissaries gathering intelligence for a future holdup crew.

Primo's fears were well founded. During the five and a half years that I documented the Game Room's operations, it was robbed twice by masked men bearing sawed-off shotguns. Primo confided to me that during the first robbery he had urinated in his pants with his attacker's shotgun pressed against his temple while he lied about not having a stash of cash. Nevertheless, when he reported the theft to his boss later that night, Primo had exaggerated how much money and crack was stolen in order (0 keep the difference.

Prin.o considered somewhat insulting my functionalist interpretation of whj ie treated his friends and acquaintances so generously. Nevertheless, in. his counterexplanarions he reaffirmed the sense of tension and imminent danger he was forced to endure every night. More subtly, he made me realize that the hang-out crew was more than physical protection, it provided a stabilizing social atmosphere for him to counterbalance the anxiety that constantly threatens to disable a lonesome seller. His peers distracted and relaxed him from the dangerous reality of his work site:

Primo: I don't need anyone to protect me, Felipe. Naah. I can handle myself alone. It's just like I want my people to be there for me.

It don't have to be O.D. here. [pointing to Willie, who was working lookout that night] It could be anybody that's keeping me company. It could even be Jackie [his girlfriend at the time].

See, just so long as there's someone I could talk to, to keep me company. It could even be just Maria [his former girlfriend, whom

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In Search of Respect

he had temporarily broken up with]. But Ray don't like Maria hanging out; he don't know her all that well. She's not from the block.

You understand? I just want someone to accompany me ... just for the company. You know, it's hard to just be in this dump by yourself.

Because if you're by yourself you know you feel ... you be more edgy. It's boring and I need to be more relaxed.

And if anything, you always want a witness or somebody to be there . . . you know.

Ironically, it took me several years to realize that Primo's enthusiastic friendship with me was part of the unconscious logic for why he maintained a hang-out crew in front of the Game Room. The disconcerting presence of a white face at night in an EI Barrio crackhouse was probably an even better deterrent to potential stickup artists than Willie's large frame, Caesar's reputation for irrational -violence, or anyone of the teenage girls flirting with Primo. Stickup artists are simply not willing to take the risk of assaulting anyone who could possibly be confused as an undercover police officer. There are too many other easy targets around.

Another crucial service fulfilled by Primo's hang-out network as well as his lookouts was to screen for narcotics agents. Crack dealers have to have organic ties to the street scene in order to be able to recognize the bona fide addict or user from the undercover impostor. The best lookouts and street sellers are those who have hung out in the streets all their lives and know everyone in the neighborhood. When Prime-did not recognize someone or sensed something suspicious about a customer, he checked first with his lookout, or with one of his friends outside on the stoop, before serving them. The most frequent confusion arose oyer men who had just been released from prison and had not yet destroyed their bodies on crack.

Primo: Yo Caesar, who were those two morenos? I didn't even know the motherfuckers. They could be fa jara [the police].

Caesar: Yeah, it's okay. They were good-looking and dressed well, but I know that big black Alabama. He's cool. I know him. He's walked in the Game Room before, it's just that you don't remember,

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"

,~

C rackhouse Management

He musca just came outra jail because that nigga' looked fresh union. That nigga' was healthy. He was like a Buster Douglas size.

In the five years that I knew Primo he must have made tens of thousand" of hand-to-hand crack sales; more than a million dollars probably passed through his fingers. Despite this intense activity, however, he was only arrested twice, and only two other sellers at the Game Room were arrested during this same period. No dealer was ever caught at Ray's other crackhouses, not even at the Social Club on La Farrnacia's corner, even though its business was brisker. Ironically, the Social Club was raided half a dozen times, because it doubled as a pool hall and bootleg bar. The large clientele of omnipresent regulars confused the police; they never knew whom to arrest. They could not expropriate the landlord, because the City of New York was the owner. The original proprietor had long since defaulted on his taxes. Instead, on two occasions the police smashed the pool tables into kindling wood, ripped out the electrical fixtures, and boarded over the entrance. On one raid, they ticketed Candy for serving unlicensed liquor to an undercover officer, but they were never able to apprehend the primary seller-manager in the act of a hand-tohand narcotics sale. The biggest threat to the Social Club came from the New York City fire marshals, who sealed the place on several occasions for violating fire codes following the much publicized arson of a social club in the South Bronx that took the lives of eighty-four people. 8

The invulnerability of Ray's crackhouses to police control was largely owing to the generalized public sector breakdown of the neighborhood. Inner-city police forces are so demoralized and incompetent that for the most part they do not have to be systematically corrupt - although they often are - in order for street-level drug dealing to flourish in their precincts.? The attitude of honest officers is too hostile toward the local community for them to be able to build the networks that would allow them to document the operations of the numerous drug-dealing Spots in the neighborhoods they patrol. For example, after five and a half years of being practically the only white person out on the street after dark on a regular basis on my block, which hosted almost a half-dozen drug-selling Spots, the police never learned to recognize me. Even after I began attending their community outreach meetings for combating drugs, they continued to fail to recognize me on the street. 10

Ray and his workers took certain basic precautions to minimize their risk of arrest. They never made sales outside the door on the street, and they usually asked customers to step behind a strategically placed PacMan machine at the back of the establishment before touching their money and handing them the vials of crack, in case the police were watching with binoculars from a neighboring apartment building. Most importantly, at no point was there more than twenty-five vials - one bundle - visibly accessible. Depending on the night and the season, additional bundles might be strategically hidden in rotated stashes, such as the live overhead electrical socket, the linoleum wall paneling, or the entrails of one of the video games. Depending on supply and demand, runners periodically delivered extra bundles and picked up cash receipts.

Sellers have to develop the crucial skill of judging when it is necessary to stash their vials in the event of a raid. This was what saved Primo, for example, from four years of incarceration on his last arrest. As the police were battering down the Game Room door with their portable ram he flicked thirteen vials from his current bundle into the back of a Mario Brothers video machine. The police found nothing in their search of the premises. At the same time, if a seller becomes overly paranoid - petro - of every suspicious siren and revving car motor, the smooth operations of the crackhouse become excessively disrupted. Dealers have to juggle between relaxation and acute premonition. In Primo's case, strategically dispensing beer and cocaine to his friendly hang-out clique was crucial to maintaining this delicate balance of calm alertness.

Primo, Caesar, and other dealers provided me with dozens of accounts of close calls with the police. They had developed complex, riskminimization strategies.

Caesar: [drinking from a 16-ounce can of malt Iiquor] I'm not gonna get caught with the stash on me. I'll pitch it or hide it fast. I gOt a clean slate. So I don't even think I would even get bail. They'll call it being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I don't sell to people I don't know, never. Pops only made that mistake a coupla' times in the Game Room, but that was when it was wild man.

Primo: [also drinking from a separate 16-ounce can of malt liquor] Yeah, I only got caught once like that, in a buy-and-bust. But there's been times when cops came to buy but I knew it and I was cool.

110 Way back when my grandfather Abraham was still hanging out here. I was reading in the newspapers about that guy, Larry Davis, who killed those cops. I was chilling, reading.

Caesar: My cousin's in jail with Larry Davis in Louisiana on some wild federal charge.

Primo: Shut up Caesar, let me finish.

So I 'was reading that Larry Davis thing out loud to Abraham, because he can't read English, when this guy in an army jacket came in - but he was white.

I don't even know why they sent him. He looked like an obvious cop. I pretended I didn't see him, when he walked in. I kept reading like that [peering deeply into an imaginary newspaper]. So he walked past me, to the back and asked Abraham for the shit. But Abraham realized quick what was up and he just went, "Wahhhh?" [imitating a senile old man slobbering at the mouth]. And I was in the front, reading the paper like this [crossing his legs awkwardly perched on a milk crate] and there were kids playing, and it was cool.

Then he said to me, "They still sell crack here?" but I just went, "I don't know," and kept reading my paper.

He was a cop because I seen the man in the day, with the regular blue suit on.

Primo attributed to carelessness the one time he was successfully arrested and convicted.

Primo: I gor my [criminal} record back when O.D. was hanging with me. Oh man, I got jerked! I was Outside with a mirror, trimming my hair like that. It was early in the day; it was like four o'clock. I used to open earlier in them days. Like one or two, because Felix was like, "Gotta be there, boy!' .' I used to hate that.

So Abraham calls me, because I didn't notice the guy go in because I was talking with O.D., trimming my shit.

So I went in and he was pretending he was playing Pac-Man. So then I didn't even bother to look at him, it was like he had a gold chain, short pants, and everything.

So I took the shit from where we kept it right there in a little thin box [pointing in the direction of the current stash]. He tells me he wants five. And when I was serving him, was when I looked at his face; I said to myself, "Shit, I don't know this motherfucker!" He looked like so clean-cut, y gordito [and chubby]; I was like [waving his arms in confusion}.

So I tell him, "How do you smoke this? Put it in the pipe; or do you smoke woolas [a crack and marijuana mixture]?" He said, "You got that too?" and I said, "No, I'm just asking." So he left.

And when he left, I told O.D., "Yo, wait a minute. Let me stash the shit." Because I didn't trust that dude. But O.D. followed me. He was talking to me so much shit about his problems that I got distracted [drinking).

And when I turned to put the vials away, like that [going through the motions}, right there they pushed me [coming over to me and throwing me against a video machine in a half-nelson]. I thought it was Eddie just fucking around so I continued; but when I finished I looked and the cop was already ready to blow me away like that [holding an imaginary gun up to my temple] - or whatever. He was taking precautions. Them niggas just rushed us, boy [drinking). He pulled the shit out and said "This is what we're looking for" [holding out a handful of crack vials and grinning cruelly] .

I got jerked for selling five vials - two-to-four, years probation [shaking his head sadly, drinking, and handing me the bottle].

A year later, as the New York state penal system spiraled into a crisis owing to overcrowding following the precipitous increase. in drug arrests and the toughening of drug-sentencing rules, an exasperated judge declared Primo's suspended sentence to be completed a year early, in order to clear his overburdened docket. Primo had been arrested for failing to report to his probation officer, a violation that under n9rmal condi rions might have resulted in his incarceration for the full term of his probation sentence.

Following his second arrest for a hand-to-hand sale of ten dollars' worth of crack to an undercover officer, once again the mayhem of New York's drug enforcement strategy in the early 1990S saved Primo from becoming a predicate felon and having to serve four to six years in jail. II In their disorganized haste to boost arrest statistics, the Tactical Narcotics Team officers who engineered the buy-and-bust operation on the

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Game Room confused the identities of Primo and Caesar in the COUrtroom. The jury was forced to free Primo when Caesar derailed the prosecution's case by insinuating under oath - but with the protection of the Fifth A,imendment - that he had actually been the one who had sold the crack to the undercover officers. Ray and several of the crackhouse habitues had the pleasure of watching the judge rebuke the district attorney for having wasted the COUrt's time with a sloppy case. Primo was fully vindicated, and the Game Room stayed in business for another year with no police raids. 13

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38