The drug dealers in Washington Square Park are a constant in my life: I pass through a gauntlet of them when I return from work each day; I dodge them at every turn when I go for a run around the park. On weekends I find them clustered outside my front door on West 4th Street, busily working the park-bound crowds. And during the week I see them from my window, chatting among themselves while they await customers in the park's Chess Corner.
But as often as I encounter the drug dealers, I can't get used to them. Quite the reverse: I've come to despise them. It's not because they're selling hard stuff; 99 percent of the time, they're "only" selling marijuana. Nor is it that they're aggressive: most back off the instant you decline their services. I can't even get too worked up about the encouragement that they probably give to other sorts of crime: Greenwich Village is pretty safe these days. What I can't stand about the drug dealers is that they ply their illegal trade so brazenly, so publicly—and with seeming impunity.
The dealers in Washington Square Park have certain standard come-ons, muttered under their breath as you pass them by: "smoke," "buds," "ganja," "weed." A few try to be more imaginative: "This is the stuff President Clinton didn't inhale." The warier ones want to make sure you're interested before attempting a sale. They say, "What's up, big guy?"
When I first moved into the neighborhood, I was never sure how to respond to these pitches. Like a bumpkin, I would shake my head in a polite "no thanks," as if a waiter had just offered me a second cup of coffee. Before long, I started following the example of other pedestrians: I would see that I was approaching a drug dealer, avoid eye contact, and shuffle by quickly, anxious to avoid any entanglement or tacit suggestion of approval. It felt a good deal like fleeing from a bully on the playground. Big guy indeed.
Indignation has since gotten the better of me, so now I talk back—a tactic sure to get me knifed one of these days, my wife helpfully volunteers. It took me a while to settle on an appropriate retort. I started off badly: "Stop selling drugs—it's against the law." Too abstract. "Stop selling drugs—or I'll get a cop." Too unlikely. I finally hit on a formula that sounded and felt right: "Stop selling drugs in my park. I live here."
My campaign has not gone over too well with the dealers. Unsurprisingly, not a single one has yet said, "So sorry. I didn't realize." Most of them shower me with obscenities. Several have called me a racist, and one has declared himself a libertarian, informing me that it was his right to sell drugs to willing customers. Still, they don't like the attention and often will just slink away—their turn, for once.
Of course, they're back in a few minutes. That I might actually bother to go find the police holds no fear for them. "Go ahead, get a cop," they've taunted me more than once. It's not just that it's hard to catch them with the goods. They know full well that the Criminal Court judges who handle these cases refuse to sentence even repeat offenders to anything more than the "time served" between arrest and trial, usually a day. The judges—appointees of the mayor, it should be noted—could put them away for as long as a year. As one exasperated beat cop told me, "The judges have essentially legalized pot."
I got a list of Washington Square Park's most incorrigible dealers from the police, and it made me wish I knew the names of the ones I've had run-ins with. Perhaps someday I'll encounter Derval Bradbury, who's been arrested for selling narcotics in the park 53 times, or Keith Smith, who's been taken in 61 times. I may even meet up with the grand old man himself, John Outerbridge, whose 84 arrests stretch back more than 15 years. I suppose that these career criminals would correct me if I gave them my little speech. The park, in fact, is theirs.