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Summer 1991
City Journal Summer 1991.
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  U rbanities

Letter From a Crackhouse
Terry Williams
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Washington Heights lies just to the north of Harlem, between 155th and Dyckman Street. Through the years, it has been transformed from an elegant brownstone outpost of the upper classes to a refuge for successive generations of tired and poor folks yearning to breathe free. Today the neighborhood is a complex mosaic of newly arrived Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Koreans, and West Indians, overlaying the remaining earlier generations of Jews and Italians, a few of whose shops—fish stores and pizzerias—linger.

Tonight, I am standing in front of a five-story faded brownstone with green copper arches. Sitting between Leona’s Discount House and Perfumery and Victor’s Travel Agency, there is not much to distinguish it from hundreds of similar buildings in the neighborhood. Residents recognize it only by subtle signs: the jammed door, the furtive glances of white suburban buyers, the quick steps, the pocket-plunging users hiding their recently purchased cocaine packets, the unshaven lookouts with sunken eyes. It is a crackhouse.

I have spent a lot of time in the last three years in and out of crackhouses like this one, discovering a culture far different from what I imagined or what most people might expect from reading the daily press. A crackhouse is not, generally speaking, a marketplace but a home. It is not primarily a place where cocaine is sold, but where it is used. Most of the many crackhouses I have visited do not allow selling. Those that do are usually still in transition: former “crack spots” (retail sales operations) in the process of becoming true crackhouses. The typical crackhouse is created by an ex-cocaine dealer or his girlfriend. Crackhouse operators have descended from occasional cocaine use to heavy abuse. Enthralled to the drug, they can no longer deal resourcefully or profitably; setting up crackhousekeeping, they turn from primarily selling cocaine to primarily consuming it.

Crack, oddly enough, is not the drug of choice in most crackhouses. Most of the time, crackhouse habitués smoke freebase cocaine instead. Both base and crack are cocaine with the hydrochloride boiled away, but crack is usually pre-cooked and mixed with other chemicals, while base is not. Other drugs are represented as well: Cocaine sniffers mingle freely with freebasers, needle shooters, and marijuana smokers.

Tonight, as usual, many crackheads hide in the outside stairwells. Like sentinels they stand to the left and to the right, wearing jeans and half-laced sneakers. Staring blankly they wait for a buyer to beg from, a stranger to steer, a scaleboy (who manages day-to-day drug selling operations) to run an errand for, a friend to whom to complain. On a given night between ten and twenty people come to the crackhouse. Some are just visiting from out of town or stopping by on the way home from a party. But each crackhouse has its regulars, who live in the house and in many ways form a family.

Since the late 1970s there have been lots of new arrivals on the street: the mentally ill, the undomiciled, drug dealers, mendicants, and addicts. Many of these young men, women, and children, castoffs from the above-ground economy, become vassals of the vast underground multinational cocaine industry. By some estimates as many as 150,000 people in New York may be working in the cocaine trade on a daily basis. Some are selling. Others act as runners, stash catchers (who stand behind the building and are thrown bags of drugs in the event of a police raid), steerers (who steer buyers to places where drugs are sold), and spotters (who keep watch and alert dealers of approaching police). Some are lookouts for the cocaine and crack-spot operators, pulling in thirty dollars, two meals, and a gram of crack for a 12-hour shift. Others pace crack-spot halls searching for specks of crack a hapless consumer may have dropped. But many or most are volunteer lookouts, hangers-on waiting to seize upon any opportunity that will reward them with enough crack to continue what one devotee calls “pleasurable suicide.”

By the early Eighties, the fashionable sniffing culture which made a home for itself in after-hours clubs was dying out, and a new freebasing culture emerged in its place. Coca leaf cultivation in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia exploded from 220,000 acres in 1980 to over 520,000 acres in 1988. The price of a kilo dropped from $50,000 in 1980 to roughly $12,000 today. Crack, packaged in small quantities and selling for as little as $2, offered a new chance to expand the market to a new class of consumer: the persistently poor. As the price plummeted, so did the social class of its users: Cocaine addiction moved from the glamour professions to the street.

By 1984, cocaine users were firmly ensconced in “basing galleries,” or what later came to be called crackhouses. The frequenters of crackhouses were, by and large, of a different class than those who haunted after-hours clubs, which were designed to meet the needs of the largely upper- and upper-middle-class sniffers who first popularized cocaine use in this country. Addiction knows no class boundaries, but those who can command resources are rarely found in the confines of a ghetto crackhouse, an institution that emerged to meet the needs of poor addicts.

Inside the brownstone now, the stench is immediately recognizable: human odors mixed with garbage, crack freebase, musty halls, and unwashed floors. The entry hall retains signs of its former elegance: The marble floors are braided with yellow and red designs woven down the long hallway. From the ceiling light fixtures, gargoyles look down with their mouths wide open. Only two sculpted faces remain, however; the other fixtures have been replaced by cheap lightshades. Scattered about are vials, stems of glass, and broken lighters. It is three in the morning.

In the darkened hallway leading to the crackhouse, which properly speaking, is a single apartment in this building, I see two women standing against the wall lighting up a pipe. “You’re losing it, you’re losing it,” the tall one with the hoarse voice mumbles, meaning the lighter is too hot and the crack is burning too fast to inhale. “Let’s go inside,” the other says.

The interior is not much to look at. A set of stark, neglected rooms provide a minimalist sensory arena for guests and family. The doors are always open to a steady mix of people: men and women, Latino and Asian, black and white—but more than half of its regulars are women under 25. Women do not run crackhouses, but they do play a key role in crackhouse culture.

Everybody is here to get high. The center of attention is a small glass vessel, known as a shaker, in which small particles of cocaine are mixed with baking soda and water. Once mixed and dried, the cocaine particles turn into a “rock,” a hardened smokable mass. Preparing the drug is an aesthetic experience. Ritual is used to focus attention, to help strip the mind of outside concerns so total absorption can take place.

Those around the table sit with a glass pipe in each hand—”the devil’s dick,” one woman calls it, “because the more you smoke the more you want.” They place a small pebble in the mouth of the pipe and inhale deeply.

Reactions to crack cocaine use vary. Some people become active, moving about the room, touching people and things. They rise slowly, retreat to a favorite location, a chair, a room, a corner spot—depending on whether they are interested in sex or just conversation. Others freeze momentarily in static poses, their eyes closed, trying to see “Scotty.”

The crackhouse has a language all its own, much of which, oddly enough, has been transported from the old television show Star Trek. A search for new drugs, for example, is known as a “mission” (as in “Its five-year mission: To boldly go where no man has gone before”). And the characteristic cocaine high goes by the name of the Enterprise’s chief engineer (“Beam me up, Scotty”). They speak about him intimately, in matter-of-fact tones, lending a surrealistic quality to the conversation. “The first time I met Scotty,” or “when I fell in love with Scotty,” or “when Scotty fell in love with me,” are typical crackhouse utterances.

The smoke and despair are everywhere. Ambient smoke penetrates my skin, covering my clothing, rushing in through the pores. The place is so full of odors competing for the olfactory senses: marijuana, tobacco, sulfur matches, butane torches. The night rituals have begun: the cooking, the smoking, and the compulsive sex. As for the despair, all here know that the she-wolf, crack cocaine, is insatiable. The more she devours, the more she seeks to devour.

In case you have been wondering why I am here, I am an ethnographer. My profession is probing urban nocturnal subcultures that thrive far from the sunlit mainstream. Tonight, my Virgil is Headache, the street name of a Jewish man who turned to cocaine. Headache, who introduced me to the Washington Heights crack scene, is 46, short, and powerfully built. His hair is streaked with gray. He has cauliflower ears and a Kirk Douglas dimple. Born into a family of wealthy merchants, he graduated from college, married, and became a salesman. He bought real estate in Harlem and began using cocaine and procuring it for his wealthy downtown friends. To avoid being an absentee landowner, he says, Headache moved into this Washington Heights apartment. Eventually he started freebasing with his girlfriend, an imposing West Indian woman named Joan. His apartment became a crackhouse.

My Beatrice is a Puerto Rican woman named Monica. At 23, Monica is one of the crackhouse regulars, a woman with little means, large lips, and elegant vulgarity. She struts, talking constantly, pressing others to respond. Her blouse is open at the top, to tease. It is Monica who gives me precise instructions about how to navigate the many passageways where crack and women cohabit. Headache, like Virgil, could only take me so far. I need to know about the women, and Monica takes the lead.

“There ain’t but two kinds of women out here,” she says, lighting up her glass stem. “And that’s touchers and buffers.” The crack scene, she tells me, is the half-world of the touchers (women seeking affection) and the buffers (women who give oral sex). Both are looking to exchange their sexual labor for the pleasures of cocaine.

There are the nontouchers too, those who refuse to be touched because they have been touched too much. But it is the buffers that attract the regulars to the household, and thus keep the crackhouse together. “Most of the girls will give a bj, if they know the guy will give them something to smoke for the night,” Monica says, lighting her pipe for the third time.

As in any household, there are certain instrumental relationships that keep the crackhouse from exploding into pure chaos. Headache is a worker, Monica is a buffer. He brings in money to keep crack in the pipe and food on the table. She keeps people coming into the house. When Headache’s money runs out, Monica can trade sex for crack.

Three principal activities take up time and give cohesion to life in the crackhouse: missions, which bring in the cocaine; work (both regular and irregular jobs), which bring in the money to buy food and cocaine; and sex. Sex is the chief currency of the crackhouse. The crackhouse regulars here tonight have various sources of funds: Joan works odd jobs and occasionally delivers cocaine to middle-class clients. Headache works as a messenger on Wall Street; Tiger gets Social Security; Venus steals. But sex is the great final resource that both attracts people to the crackhouse and sustains their life there. When there is no money, sex will buy cocaine.

Crackhouse roles are structured to keep the high going continuously with only brief periods of depleted supply. As in any household, people share, lest no one share with them. Violating the sharing rule would almost certainly shatter the fragile peace in the edgy, nervous world of the crackhouse.

As in any household, the air is thick with suppressed feuds and petty jealousies. Tiger and Liz and Sonneman, for example, think Headache is too soft on Joan: “She has a tendency to take control and to take advantage of him.”

Joan has a different point of view.

“Yesterdday,” Joan states angrily, “he beat the f—- outta me. And he did it because I didn’t wanna hear f—-ing Spanish music.” The fight which precipitated this unusual outburst of profanity from Joan was caused by her rivalry with Liz. Liz likes Spanish music and Joan does not, or at least not when Headache is getting too much attention from Liz. When Joan complained, Headache hit her. When so much cocaine is coursing through the system, the threat of violence is always there.

At last, the supply of crack is depleted. The last smoky spiral ascends to the ceiling. It is time to get more. Time to go on a mission. One of the younger women volunteers: “I’ll try my luck tonight. Anybody got any money? “

The search is on, the thirst is growing. The dance will continue tonight and tomorrow, and compulsively on into the unknown but easily guessed future, not only here but also in hundreds of other crackhouses throughout the five boroughs. A few habitués will be rescued by family or friends. But for many the union with cocaine will be sundered only by death: from AIDS, from chronic self-neglect, from street violence. Sometimes I ask crackhouse residents whether they think the drug should be legal. Every person I asked said no.

The crackhouse is a world about which we know far too little, so we do too little. Many who made their way into the crackhouse do not seem to know or understand how they got there. Many of those I met in the crack culture want to escape reality, but just as many want to escape crack.

 

 


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