They left T’s Jaguar on Third Avenue in a nice neighborhood so it’d be there when they returned, and took a battered VW bug down to the street. It was Friday, a busy time, and twilight was filling out rich and blue. A mild temperature and lack of precipitation gave the night a crispness Alvira found comforting. Almost felt like nothing could go wrong under such ideal conditions. But he knew the feeling to be without substance. A misleading calm prevailed as they descended on Alphabet City. The biggest smack emporium on the East Coast stretched before them as they drove through narrow bombed-out streets. Blacks, Latins, blancos, shadows in somber colors; lips tight and drawn down, eyes dead but active with the scuffle. Waiting, watching, copping, splitting. Lots of verbs on the street.
“Alvira, you’ve heard of the Sun Belt, the Snow Belt. This here is the Dope Belt. We’re going to cross above the main action, then ride Avenue D into the thick of it,” T said, hands gripping the wheel. “We’ll be pretty safe inside, but keep the windows up just in case.” Anyone gets in front of this car in a mean way is gonna have tire tracks across his forehead.”
They passed rows of abandoned buildings thick with clusters of crew workers and customers. Hostile cautious eyes observed their every move. Blancos could only be doing one of three things here. Copping, getting mugged, or making arrests.
“I’m not worrying, T,” Alvira said with lazy unconcern. He had complete confidence in T’s ability to negotiate junk turf. Tommy’s instincts on the street consisted of a finely tuned receiver system refined by years of practice. In the old days almost all his scoring buddies had been mugged a few times on these very streets. Some slid around easy, befriending a crew worker, staying cool, avoiding the cops and muggers. But some had been cut, beaten, robbed, even killed, over a few bags of dope. There were gangs that specialized in ripping off whites who came into the neighborhood for drugs, and that was the only reason they came, so it was safe for a thief to assume that any blanco who looked even vaguely like a junkie would either have money or bags in his possession.
That was only part of what was uncool about junk turf. The shooting galleries and scoring spots were in dingy apartments in abandoned buildings, set up so that you usually had to walk a few dark, crawling flights. Often someone was waiting in a corridor or apartment ready to tax the next pair of legs coming down the stairs. Nothing personal. Give up your dope or your life. Usually you scored on one flight and took off on another. Then if you were lucky you made it to the street again and got your ass out of there. If unlucky you might end up stuck in an apartment with your money, watch, wallet, shoes, coat, maybe even pants gone. Not to mention your medicine.
Years ago someone had tried to take Alvira off in a building on East Third Street. Alvira took a deep cut over his left eye before the sleazoid got an ice pick between the ribs for his effort. Alvira thought of finishing him off but took pity on the junk-sick slumbum as he lay squirming in his own blood. So he just kicked him in the face a few times, broke the fingers on his knife hand, and walked out of the building with the mugger’s bags as well as his own. For years Alvira’d chastised himself for not wasting the sucker. A citizen has a duty to rid society of elements that prey on the innocent. Oh, well…
“Put that reefer out, Alvira!” T barked. “Our asses are on the line here. Aside from crooks and thieves we have to watch for the man. Rare they bother customers, but it happens. My parole officer would skin me for a pot pinch.”
“I hear you,” Alvira said, rolling down the window just enough to dump the reefer. “I left my smoke in the Jag, T. I’m clean now.”
“Cool. Now here we are, so watch what happens.”
T pulled up on the corner of Eighth Street and Avenue D. Immediately two boys in green shirts and blue jeans approached.
“Green Tape is on,” one of them said. “How many?”
T slid the window down two inches. “Get us six bags of Green Tape, frien’, but make sure the bags are stamped and sealed. I know a dummy when I see one.”
The boy’s eyes were pinned, reading them as he took the order and received the information that his customers were not new to the street and knew the score. He told them to wait a minute, then split into a basement ten feet away.
“They work this corner in crews, Alvira. The Green Tape boys wear green shirts or caps. The Black Mark boys wear black caps. Those are the two main ops. Others come and go. Dr. Nova also works here from time to time, but they’re harder to spot. You have to know a face or go to their social club on Rivington Street where they’re covered and more relaxed. Dr. Nova puts out a better bag, but Green Tape is easier to score.
“A year ago this corner belonged to LaTuna,” Alvira reflected. “When you were in the can I scored here a few times.”
“LaTuna is legendary lotus, Alvira. Best street bag in years. The crews that work this corner allow only bad competition. But LaTuna is around. Their headquarters is in Brooklyn, right over the Manhattan Bridge in a mostly Jamaican area. They’re covered over there, and nobody fucks with them. Over here they catch shit. Their main op now is to move into an abandoned building, set up their steerers on the street, and do business up towards the roof for a few days before moving on. Their steady customers seem to find them. They leave a touter at the old spot to hip regulars to the new spot.”
Alvira knew the wrinkle. You scan for a familiar face, and the face leads you home.
“Here comes our Green boy,” Tommy said.
The runner bopped up to the driver’s side, his right hand in a tight fist.
T let three crisp twenties slip through the vent window, but only after examining the stamp and seal on each bag. “Thanks, B,” he said. “If we like these we’ll be back.”
“Aks f’René,” the slumbum said. “I always be here. ‘Member the name. René treat j’ri’, poppa. These otha guys be passiri dummies ebery chance dey get. I gib j’goooood shit.”
“I hear you, René.”
“Take care, poppa. Enjoy j’medicine.”
T slid René an extra five and closed the window. The VW pulled away from the hottest curb in lower Manhattan and took D straight down to East Houston.
“Now, Alvira, we’re gonna give these bags to Joey Giggles for analysis. I wanna know what’s sellin’ out there, and being that we’re the ones with the most to lose, the market research falls on our asses.”
“Say, notice how René looked at us. Checked us both good. He is in the business of remembering faces. Pop up in three weeks and he’ll know you.”
They drove back to the Jag, stashed the bags, went back to junk turf. “Next stop’s an abandoned building on Third between B and C. This is LaTuna, for today at least. No telling where they’ll open tomorrow. I hear they’re putting out a very good bag these days, but it’s not really the original people, so you never know. There’re a multitude of tricks. Powdered barbiturates and Valium, injectable methadone. Just don’t know what you’re getting, even after you shoot it. Giggles will have to do a breakdown of the composition.”
They parked around the corner from their destination. This scene was considerably more dangerous because they had to get out of the car and walk into a deserted building. One of the LaTuna guards recognized T, and they got in with no trouble.
“That guy knows my face from the joint.”
Inside, a practiced crew kept traffic organized.
“LaTuna has the best communications system in Alphabet City,” T said as they labored up the narrow, unlit, crumbly staircase. “Guys on the rooftops watching the man. Long before heat arrives the bagman’s ditched his stash and may be whipping out a pack of cards or a Bible, or tryin’ to beat it out of the building. Very hard to catch’m with the bags. It happens sometimes, but…”
The building was an old abandoned red-brick jumping with shadows. Steerers organized the flow of junkies with precision. A theater of ghosts.
“I don’t like this, T. Wish I had my piece.”
T had insisted Alvira leave his .25 automatic in the car. Alvira had the rep of being less than discreet when it came to pulling iron. T kept his own .22 strapped flat to his tight belly. A loose beige unconstructed jacket hid the print of the piece under his shirt.
“Just get the cake fanned out and make the buy, Alvira. Don’t look hard at the bagman. Makes’m nervous. Act preoccupied with the bags he’s counting out.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard.”
They both engaged in a chilly laugh from another lifetime.
On the fourth floor another worker stood in the corridor, blocking the stairway. The thick young Latin eyed them suspiciously under a pulled-down navy watch cap, then pointed towards an apartment at the end of a dark passageway. The hall was lined with blanco customers standing one behind the other, pressed against the wall. Occasionally a few went into the apartment, and the line moved up. Then a few came out, obviously having scored, and more entered. Everything seemed rehearsed and perfected. Aside from the bagman inside the apartment, there was a worker at the door regulating traffic, and another walking the length of the line over and over, checking faces, saying, “Hab j ‘money ready. Fan it out face up. Hey, shuddup on line, I gotta hea’ w’z goiri down. Dinero fanned o’ j loose j’turn! Cop’n split! Don’ run!”
Alvira fanned out tens like a poker hand. When it was their turn the door worker tried to break them up. “We’re buyin’ together, B,” he told the man, slipping him a deuce.
The apartment windows were caked with dirt or lined with ripped paper. Two flickering candles provided the only light. As Alvira approached the bagman he became aware of another crew worker. The apartment had a foyer off the main room, and in it sat a huge honcho with what looked like an Uzi draped across his lap. The candles flickered, and soon all Alvira could see was the glow of the man’s cigarette.
“Gimme six,” Alvira said, passing the fanned-out bills to the bagman.
“Five! J’payin’ f’five,” the bagman said, almost looking up over the rim of his hat, catching himself before he made eye contact.
“Gimme six f’five, baby. Don’t I get a play when I score half a bundle?”
The bagman’s teeth glinted in the dark as he smirked at the dumb blanco. “Where you been, poppa? No mo’ play no way. Buy nine hundred ninety-nine bags, I gib j’one free.”
“Damn, you people used to give me a nice play back—”
“Nobody git no play. It’s better shit. Cos’ more t’operate. I yus’ a workin’ man, poppa. M’boss say no play. Now split. I gotta keep the line movin’.”
“Sure,” Alvira said as he closed his fist around the halfbundle, turned, marched indignantly out the door.
There was a shooting gallery on the floor below, and on their way down someone asked if they wanted to get off. Three bucks if they had their own works. Otherwise six. It was a hard sell. The man said his friend inside could hit so professional there’d be no marks.
“O’ how’z ’bout a jugular hit, m’man?”
“Thanks. We pass.”
“You know, sometimes they raze one of these buildings and find corpses stuffed all over the fuckin’ place,” T said. “In the basements, apartments, just about anywhere.”
“Makes sense. That jugular dude must make a fortune with skills like that.”
“Alvira, this scene is too frantic for the likes of me, but this is where the real money is. I mean, you can set up as a house connection, and if you’re lucky and establish the right clientele you’ll sporadically make out. You know, middle-class customers always cleaning up on you when you’re holding. But the street spells infinite demand and limited supply. It’s nothing for a good crew to turn eighty grand a day. LaTuna is sold out before the sun goes down. They start the morning heavy and sell out before the noon drop. The afternoon stuff is gone by seven or eight.”
“What about Green Tape?”
“Goes all night. Also Black Mark. Twenty-four hours of goodness. That whole corner is nonstop no matter what. If they run out of one there’s the other. Run out of both, they just tell you to wait or walk around and come back. That’s bad because customers accumulate and make the vendadors nervous. The heat know what’s happenin’ when they see a swarm of floating blanco flotsam hanging around. So the crew workers don’t like the wait any more than the customers. They try to facilitate fluid in-and-out traffic. If they’re well organized there’s an extra stashman to pick up the next batch while the bagman works what he’s got. I know one of the bosses, a guy named Chu. He was just fired from LaTuna. Chu’s Dominican, and the Puerto Ricans in LaTuna gave him a hard time. He’s the dude who’s going to take us to the ShyWun. The crew leaders are supplied by the owners, who are supplied by the Cuban mobs and others. Lots of independents these days. Run it a week, get rich, cool out. Longer action requires connections. Chu knows a major player who’s going to do us a lot of good. Not on the supply end. I have my Uncle’s people for that. But the ShyWun can see to it that we don’t step on toes or draw excessive heat. Forget about us selling to existing crews. The cash in this business is in retail. What we need is protected space where we can run our crews. These brand-name scores are run like conservative businesses; workers get a commission on a per-bag basis, except for touters and lookouts, who’re on salary. Green Tape comes out of the basement our man René ran into on Eighth Street, although sometimes it shifts to a doorway, a van parked on the street. Sometimes you see the bagman sitting in a parked car in broad daylight feeding the runners as if he had a license. No one seems to notice. They rarely get busted, never ripped off.”
“And Black Mark?”
“One of our people told me the Mark walks over in a baby carriage. Never the same girl pushin’ it, and no idea with who or where it’s dropped off. Seems to change. A tight ever-evolving system. Very complex; procedurally repetitive but confusingly unpredictable. Obviously the work of a highly developed criminal computer of some sort.”
“Jumpin’ Jesuits!” Alvira said. “Order one for me!”
Read the full issue here.