from The Corner (1997) (pp. 60-74) by David Simon and Edward Burns
The Fifty Year History of Baltimore’s Drug Epidemic
Consider the corner, for a moment, as something apart from a social disaster, as something that has instead become organic and central within our cities. In the natural world, much is often made of the watering hole, the oasis in a small stand of acacia trees to which creatures great and small come for sustenance. The life-giving elixir brings them all-- predators and prey, the vast herds and the solitary wanderers, the long of tooth and those new to this vale. Brick and mortar, asphalt and angles-- the corner is no less elemental to the inner cities of America. Day and night they come, lured by coke and dope, ignoring the risks and dangers as any animal in need of a life force must. Wildebeests and zebras, no; the predominant herds on this veldt are the hollow-eyed gunners and pipers, driven to the water's edge by a thirst that cries out from every last cell, each doper or coke fiend reassured against risk by the anonymity of the crowd, by the comfort that greater numbers allow. There are the big cats, the dealers, who rule the turf on reputation and occasional savagery, and the jackals who follow them: burn artists and stash stealers roaming the fringe, feeding on the weak and inattentive. The hyenas, the stickup boys, are nocturna1 outcasts whose only allegiance is to opportunity itself. Lumbering elephants? The police, perhaps, who are heard from a distance and arrive with bombast. They rule only where they stand.
Once, it was altogether different. Generations back, it was a hipster's game, a fringe hustle played out in basements and after-hours clubs. The dope peddlers were few-- and anathema; the users cool and carried by bebop rhythms, their addiction more or less a function of social rebellion or alienation. And the numbers? If there were two thousand addicts in the Baltimore of 1958, then the city police department's three-officer narcotics squad had its hands full. But came the 1960s, and that early innocence was followed hard by the heroin wave that crested in every East Coast city.
In Baltimore, there were $1 capsules for sale in all the Pennsylvania Avenue nightspots, and a single dollar of that ancient shit would drop a dope fiend for the entire day. Demand moved beyond the musicians and beats, out into the back alleys, inching its way toward a handful of corners in the worst housing projects. East side, west side-- the dealers, once defiantly anonymous, became success stories for an increasingly alienated ghetto world, bona fide gangster caricatures with territories and soldiers and reputations. Little Melvin, Big Lucille, Gangster Webster, Kid Henderson, Liddie Jones, Snyder Blanchard-- these West Baltimore names still ring in the ears of the older players and fiends, names that produced organizations and inspired the next generation of street dealers.
Overnight, the money got serious. The users, an army unto themselves, were serviced daily in back alleys and housing project stairwells by men who were, on some level, careerists, committed to distribution networks that paid them, protected them, paid their bails, and took care of their people when they went away to Hagerstown or Jessup. These men were professional in outlook, lethal but not reckless, and by and large, they lived with an acknowledged code, to wit:
They didn't use what they sold. They didn't serve children or use children to serve, just as they wouldn't sell to wide-eyed virgins looking to skin-pop for the first time. They carried the threat of violence like a cloak, but in the end, they didn't shoot someone unless someone needed to get shot. When a bullet was necessary, there were always pros available-- Dennis Wise or Vernon Collins by name-- men willing, in the Pennsylvania Avenue gangster parlance, to get in close, take aim, and hit the right nigger. What was bad for business was hunted with a vengeance: stickup boys, if they survived, carried a bounty on their heads; burn artists were driven deep into the shadows.
This earlier generation stayed serious, cautious. On a business level at least, they understood responsibility and were therefore responsible with the package. More often than not, the count was exactly right and all the cash got turned over on time. They took
precautions; they wouldn't sell to just anyone who came past. They knew what a dope fiend looked like. If they didn't know your name or face, they'd check your shoe leather, your clothes, your build, the veins on your arms-- all of it was scrutinized because, in the end, it was pure humiliation for them to serve a police. They were a fixture in the neighborhood, but they were discreet. They took your money, but ten minutes might pass and they'd be half a block away before some other drone handed you the glassine bag. They could jail if they had to, but they tried their damnedest to stay out of the cuffs. To them, a charge was something to be avoided at all costs, and, by and large, when a charge came, they didn't snitch; they worked the lawyers to limit the time. By the mid-1970s, a succession of federal task forces had knocked down most of the name dealers: Melvin was in Lewisburg; Liddie, in Marion; Gangster Webster would soon fall to a fifty-year bit; Kid Henderson was dead and Big Lucille Wescott, dying. But the seeds they planted surpassed them and grew to maturity. Their children numbered in the tens of thousands and were now down on the neighborhood corners, no longer a mere irritant on the periphery, but out in the open and in full opposition to the community. The organized drug rings shifted, merged, diverged, then shifted again. Still, on some basic level, the code was maintained-- at least until the coke came.
Cocaine changed the world.
The heroin trade was limited to the hardcore, but the arrival of cheap, plentiful cocaine in the early and mid-1980s broke down all the barriers and let everyone play. Both are white powder, but each has a distinct, pharmacological flavor: Dope is the downer, the heavy: a couple of trips to the corner, a $20 investment and a fiend has enough in him to suffer the day. Coke is the rush to the wire, all of it gone in a flash and never enough to slake that thirst. With heroin, even the hungriest fiend can look to a limit; coke demands that every bill that can be begged or borrowed or stolen goes up to the corner. And unless a fiend is set on firing speedballs, coke can go in clean-- no need for any squeamishness about the syringe. A pipe and a nugget of ready rock does fine; even a quick snort is enough for the rush. In the beginning, they said it wasn't even addictive-- not like dope anyway; they called it "girl" or "Jane" or "Missy" in feminine contrast to "boy" or "John" or "Mister" for king heroin.
But coke has a power all its own. When coke hit Baltimore in the mid-1980s, it went beyond the existing addict population, gathering a new market share, for the first time bringing the women to the corner in startling numbers. More white boys came for it, too, some of them from the hillbilly neighborhoods just down the hill, others from the farthest reaches of suburbia. And many of them kept coming back-- four or five times an hour-- feeding their frenzy until the money ran out. And where once the coke fiends began their tour with a snort, by the late eighties most of the trade was on the pipe, smoking up that boiled-down rock. Crack, they called it in New York. Ready rock, cried the Fayette Street touts. Got that ready.
By the turn of the decade, the survivors graduated to speedballs, mainlining the coke and dope together for the ultimate rush. The heroin was the base; it leveled you out and got you well. The coke went on top, for that extra boost that morphine always lacked. Baltimore stumbled and staggered through the decade-long cocaine epidemic, emerging in the mid- 1990s as the city with the highest rate of intravenous drug use in the country, according to government estimates. And of the tens of thousands of hardcore users, the vast majority were using coke and dope simultaneously. Even those fearful of the needle could find snorting-heroin that was 60 percent pure, then top that off with a pipeful of ready.
Old-time dopers were disgusted. To them, heroin alone seemed a reasoned lifestyle choice when compared to the havoc that followed. Watching the pipers and speedballers get bum-rushed on the corners, they would shake their heads and mutter. Even to them, it was low-bottom addiction. Even to them, it was pathetic.
With heroin alone, the sources of supply seemed finite and organizational; access was limited to those with a genuine connection to the New York suppliers, who had, in turn, cultivated a connection to a small number of importers. The cocaine epidemic changed that as well, creating a freelance market with twenty-year-old wholesalers supplying seventeen year-old dealers. Anyone could ride the Amtrak or the Greyhound to New York and come back with a package. By the late eighties, the professionals were effectively marginalized in Baltimore; cocaine and the open market made the concept of territory irrelevant to the city drug trade.
It didn't stop there either. Cocaine kicked the dealer's code in the ass, because as the organizations gave way, so did standards. On every corner, street dealers began using minors, first as lookouts and runners, then as street-level slingers. In the beginning, these were the toughest kids, the criminal prodigies born and bred in the most distressed families, welcomed by dealers who were contending with stiffened penalties for sale. It made sense to hire juveniles for the street work: Why risk a five-year bit when any fifteen-year-old with heart could sling vials, take a charge, then carry whatever weight a juvenile court master might put on him?
It was a reasonable strategy at first, but ten years down the road the internal logic was no longer valid-- amid chronic prison overcrowding, few adults were getting time for street-level drug distribution in Baltimore; probation and pre-trial time served was the order of the day. Yet the children stayed on the corners, not so much as camouflage, but because good help was hard to find.
The code had failed: the touts, the runners, even the street-level dealers were violating the cardinal rule and using their own product. And not just dope-- which might have
permitted some stability-- but coke, or coke and dope together; the pipeheads graduated to heroin, the dope fiends speedballed. And somewhere in this wild cocktail party, the packages started coming up short, the money began disappearing, and the touts and lookouts were suddenly wandering off post. Down on Fayette Street, reliability was out the window and not even the threat of violence could stop Country from putting a quarter of Scar's package up his nose, or Eggy Daddy from claiming that he had to give sixty dollars of Gee Money's profit to some imaginary stickup boy. What was a slinger to do? The children weren't exactly captains of industry either; they'd mess up in their own way, if you let them. But most weren't using anything harder than weed, and most were ready and willing to work conscientiously for a bit of pocket money. In contrast to the hardcore fiends, dealers came to see that you could extract some loyalty from adolescents, or intimidate them if necessary. The teenagers would, in turn, bring in younger kids to sling and run for them, until, at last, the day of the ten-year-old drug dealer was at hand.
The trend only accelerated as more young mothers went to the corner chasing coke, and single-parent families already under pressure began to implode. More than heroin ever did, cocaine battered at what had for generations been the rock-hard foundation for the urban black family. Heroin had been claiming its share of West Baltimore men for thirty years, but the cheap cocaine of the 1980s had turned the women out, bringing them to the corner in numbers previously unthinkable. Where once, on Fayette Street, there had been a network of single mothers who managed to get the essentials done, there was now raw anarchy in many homes. And where a discussion of single-parent households once seemed relevant to places like Fayette Street, now there loomed the new specter of children who were, in reality, parentless.
Unattended and undisciplined, these children were raising themselves in the street, free to begin their inexorable drift, drawn not only by quick money, but by the game of it. Thirteen-year-olds who had cut classes and played hoops and run the back alleys together now banded together as a crew, playing gangster, slinging vials, and ducking the police. In West Baltimore, the corner became the funhouse, offering camaraderie and standing and adventure. What, after all, could compete with the thrill of suddenly being The Man, of having your own bomb of a package on a corner, standing there under the sodium-vapor lights as grown men and women seek you out and commence to begging? This one wants a job as a tout; this one is short four bills and asking to slide; that one offers her body for three vials. And in the end, it wasn't just the valedictorians of Hickey School and Boys Village and every other state juvenile facility out there on the corner, it was all save the stoop kids-- the well-parented few who weren't allowed beyond their front steps. All across the inner city from Lafayette Courts to Sandtown to Cherry Hill-- slinging drugs was the rite of passage.
When children became the labor force, the work itself became childlike, and the organizational structure that came with heroin's first wave was a historical footnote. In the 1990s, the drug corner is modeled on nothing more complicated than a fast-food emporium, an environment in which dealing drugs requires about as much talent and finesse as serving burgers. No discretion, no precautions; the modern corner has no need for the applied knowledge of previous generations.
Where once a competent street dealer would never be caught touching the dope, the more brainless of his descendants now routinely carries the shit in one pocket, money in the other. Wiser souls might work a ground stash-- a small inventory of coke or dope hidden in the weeds or rubbish a few feet away-- but ten minutes after selling out, they'll be out under a streetlight, counting their grip, manicuring the $10 and $5 bills into a clean roll and fairly begging for the attentions of a knocker or stickup artist. Close scrutiny of customers has become anachronism, too. The new school serves anyone-- known fiends and strangers, ragged or well-heeled, white or black, young or old, in battered pickups or fresh-off the-lot BM-- -with an indifference as careless as it is democratic.
The precision and subtlety of the game have been replaced by raw retailing-open-air bazaars with half a dozen crews out on post, barking the names of their product like Lexington Market grocers. Corners are crowded with competing crews, each pushing the claim that their own product is true and righteous. With heroin, labels are stamped right on the glassine packet: Killer Bee, Lethal Weapon, The Terminator, Diamond in the Raw, Tee Nine. Free testers are tossed out every morning as word-of mouth advertising for the coming package, and the touts are constantly trumpeting blue-light specials: two for the price of one, or a free vial of coke with every dime of dope, or family-size packets offering much more blast for just a little more cash. Where only $10 vials of coke are being sold, a fresh crew can carve a niche with a $5 offering. And if one crew's product is too good to match straight up, a competing group might lace its package with a little strychnine-- a bomb that might or might not drop a fiend dead, but definitely gets his attention either way.
Dealers and fiends alike go about this business with a herd-like
trust in their own overwhelming numbers to protect them from the random drug
arrest. Violence, too, is no longer the prerogative of the professional but a
function of impulse and emotion. The contract killers and the wellplanned assassinations of earlier eras are mere myth
on these corners. Now, the moment of truth generally comes down to some man child
with hurt feelings waving a .380 around and spraying bullets up and down the
block. The accidental shooting of bystanders-- a rare event in the organizational
era-- is now commonplace. As for snitching, that part of the code is also dead
and buried. No organizational ethic makes sense when everyone is shorting and
getting shorted by everyone else, literally everyone, even within a crew that grew up together. In
the new order, anyone can and will say anything for even the smallest
When the arrests come, they are regarded as routine misadventures, small setbacks that in most cases mean little more than a few nights on a city jail tier, followed by an appointment with a state probation officer that is, more often than not, ignored. Worse still, the absence of a real deterrent has bred a stupidity in the new school that is, for lack of a better word, profound. Few seem to learn from the experience of getting caught; they take the same charge time and again, jacked up by the same police who use the same tricks to gather the same evidence from the same corners. At times, the younger ones senselessly provoke the charge through pride and bluster as no old-timer would; eye-fuck for eye-fuck, curse for curse, insult for insult, until Collins or Pitbull or Peanuthead is out of the cruiser and swinging the nightstick hard, enraged at being called a bitch by some seventeen-year-old hopper.
Once charged, there is no strategy or defense, nothing for the lawyers to work with, no attempt to limit time because, in most cases, there is no time. When someone does finally go away for a year or two on a fourth or fifth offense, well, it's all in the game. Prison itself is regarded with vague indifference: The operant corner logic is that the hardcore gangster stance is what matters, that if it's time to jail, then you jail. You carry it like it means nothing, telling yourself the old prison-tier lie that says you really only do two days-- the day you go in and the day you come out.
Cocaine and the expanding marketplace have changed the landscape of the corner, forging a boomtown industry that has room not only for the professional criminals and the committed addicts who have lingered on the fringe of the neighborhood for so long, but for everyone and anyone. Men and women, parents and children, the fools and the clever ones, even the derelicts and outcasts who had no viable role when drug distribution was a structured enterprise-- all are assimilated into the corner world of the 1990s. At Fayette and Monroe and so many other corners in so many other cities, it's nothing more or less than the amateur hour.
And why not? Consider the food chain of the average drug corner, the ready fodder for all the ambo runs and police calls: At the top are, of course, the dealers, ranging from disciplined New York Boys to fifteen-year-old locals who manage to parlay Nike and Nautica money into a package of their own. The stereotypes no longer apply; every now and then a showpiece with gold chains and an Armani shirt pops out of a Land Rover with custom rims, but for the most part, there's little flash to the drug slingers making real money. There is no singular connection, no citywide cartel to enforce discipline and
carve up territory. Looking up the skirt of the wholesale market from Fayette and Monroe, the drug sources are random and diffuse. A supplier could be a twenty-five-year-old Nigerian fresh from airport customs or a New Yorker in his thirties with a line back to his uncle in the Bronx, a seventeen-year-old junior at Southwestern who sat down next to the right kid in homeroom, or even a fifty-year-old veteran of the old westside heroin organizations, coming home from Lewisburg or Marion after
doing ten of a twenty-five-year stint and hooking up with some younger heads for one last fling.
The product itself is, by and large, ready to sell. Gone are the days of uncut dope on the table and four or five gangsters battling the scale, trying to get the purity down and maximize profit. Gone are the cut-buddies, who could wield the playing cards and mannitol with skill to ensure a proper package. Much of what sells on a Baltimore corner is purchased as a prepackaged item with little assembly required. A G-pack of a hundred coke vials, sold on consignment, can make you one thousand dollars, with six hundred kicked back to the supplier. Do that a couple times, then ride the bus or the rails to New York, catch the IRT up to Morningside Heights or the Grand Concourse and lay down the grip; what comes back is pre-cut product, with the equivalent number of vials all neatly wrapped. No math, no chemistry-- a sixth-grader with patience and a dull blade can fill the vials and be on a corner inside of an hour. Do that two or three times, ride the rails with one thousand dollars or so and you can come back home with two full ounces. Turn that over and-- even allowing for short counts and spillage and fuck-ups-- you've got five or six thousand. Same game, different numbers with dope, but either way, you're a businessman. On most corners, if you can last two weeks without messing up, you're the reincarnation of Meyer Lansky. The bottom line is this: Anyone who can work the numbers, dodge the stickup boys, and muster enough patience to stand on a corner for six hours a day can call himself a drug dealer.
Serving the larger street dealers are a host of employees, a few working for profit, most for product, but all within a fragile hierarchy, a structure predicated on such short-supply qualities as trust and reliability. You get to be a runner because a dealer trusts you to handle the dope and coke directly, to bring it in small quantities from the stash to the corner all day long without succumbing to the obvious temptations. A runner who proves himself time and again, who won't cheat his boss by lightening the product, can step up. He might handle some of the money or, in the dealer's absence, supervise the street sales. He might just make lieutenant. On the other hand, a runner who fucks up is on his way to becoming a tout.
Touts, less trusted, are there to promote the product and bring in business. All are fiends: Some are ten- or twenty-year veterans of the corner, and consequently, only a rare few-- Fat Curt for one-- can be relied upon to handle product. Touting is day work, a meat-market selection, with the dealers hiring
their help each morning and paying them for the most part in dope and coke. Touts serveas living billboards-- walking, talking advertisements for the chemicals coursing through their bodies. A tout who staggers to his post and simply stands there-- vacant-eyed, at a thirty-degree junkie lean, telling passersby that the Spider Bags are a bomb-- is earning his keep. Rain or snow or gloom of night, he's out there on a double shift for three or four blasts a day and, if he's lucky, ten or twenty or thirty dollars in cash. No health benefits. No supplemental life. No pension. As much as any working man, the drug-corner tout is a soul in desperate need of a union.
Below the touts are the lookouts-- the last hired and first fired of the corner world. Standing guard at the frontiers of the empire are the very young and the very damaged. For the children, it's a lark: trying their hands at the game for the first time, scooting around on bikes or riding the top of a mailbox. It beats the hell out of sixth-grade social studies and for a few hours' effort, you're up twenty or thirty dollars with very little risk. For the walking wounded, the low-bottom dope fiends who aren't allowed within a block of a stash, standing lookout is the last chance to get a free shot. They also serve who stand and wait, eternally on the spy for knockers, rollers, and, of course, the stickup crews. They spend hours chained to their post, watching the endless flow of traffic for the blue bubbles of the marked cars, or the small trunk antennas that are the tell-tale badge of an unmarked Cavalier. And God help the lookout who forgets to look both directions on one-way streets like Fulton or Fayette; most of the rollers will play the sneak and drive their cruisers the wrong way. Stray off post or take a nod and a lookout stands a good chance of seeing the business end of an employer's aluminum bat. And so all day, every day, they're raising up, sounding the alarm with a loud bark, or a whistle, or the standard shouts of "Five-Oh" or "Time Out" ringing from the four points of the compass, giving warning that Huffham or Pitbull is looking for an easy Jock-up, or that a stickup artist like Odell is on safari with his four-four. On the demand side of the market are, of course, the fiends, grazing around the oasis day and night, wandering from one crew to the next in search of the perfect blast. And they, too, must be serviced by a coterie of specialists.
The shooting galleries-vacant or near-vacant rowhouses, battered by the constant traffic, emptied of all valuables-- are manned by a service industry all their own. The keepers of the inn guard the door, charging a buck or two for entry, maybe Jess if a fiend is willing to share some of the hype. For the price of admission, you get a patch of solid floor, a choice of bottle caps, a pint or so of communal water, and if you're lucky, a book of dry matches or a shared candle. You bring your own spike, but if you don't have one, there will likely be someone else at or near the gallery selling works for a couple bucks. Either that or you can walk the block or two to the established needle house-the home of some
profit-minded diabetic-- and get fixed for a dollar. At last, when you're equipped and ready but can't seem to find a vein, help is as near as the house doctor, the happy troglodyte wearing shoes decorated with candle-drippings, the healer who spends all night and day hunting wayward arteries for fiends lacking the skill or the patience or both.
But it doesn't end there. At the urban watering hole, the employment opportunities of sellers and users compete with those of the vanguard of raw capitalism, the true hucksters trying to sell steakless sizzle. Anyone can market dope and coke on the corner, but it takes a special breed to serve up nothing and call it something. Baking soda or bonita-and-quinin-eBand Q -as dope, oregano as weed, battery acid as ready rock: once chased from the corners by the organized drug trade, the burn artists have returned to a golden era. They stand where they want, sell what they want, and risk only the rage of their victims, or in a rare instance, the ire of a street dealer whose business or reputation suffers by proximity.
There are the other outcasts, too, those with no temperament for sales or service, just a willingness to risk all for a chance at the mother lode. The stash stealers, who will spend time watching the runners and touts, tracking them to the ground stash and then waiting for the ideal moment. Or the stickup boys, the crazed loners who gather information about this corner and that, tracing a product back until they're coming through the door of the stash house in an adrenaline rush, staking everything on the premise that no dealer will come back on them, that their ferocity will not be matched. A few of West Baltimore's stickup men have survived a decade or more, but most carry the doomed, thousand-yard- stare of short timers. Once, a stickup boy could go into battle relying at least on the organizational structure; they knew who they were going up against and the consequence of those actions. But today, when even fifteen-year-old hoppers have a loaded .380 hidden in the alley, the job is little better than a death wish.
Crowd them together-- each pursuing his or her immediate ends-- and what governs the corner no longer resembles either a corporate model or the orderly economics of the marketplace. It is, instead, the raw anarchy of the natural world. At the watering hole, the strong survive, the weak perish, and self-preservation and self-gratification dictate that any conceivable act of brutality or betrayal can and will occur. Social norms, morality, the values of the civilization that created the American cities-- precious little of it remains at the oasis itself, where everyone must come to drink, regardless of the risk. Though it began as a criminal subterfuge and grew to become a neighborhood bazaar, the urban drug corner is now the social framework through which almost every soul in these battered communities must pass. Some, perhaps, will destroy themselves immediately, others will lose themselves in the mix, and a few stoics, astonishingly, will pass through the corner unscathed and uncorrupted. But pass through they must, because in places like Fayette Street, the corner is the neighborhood.
Yet there are still rules to this place-- even anarchy creates its own axioms. The old code of the dealers is useless now; the new rules are different and have to be. Because, by necessity, any new logic must allow for a mother to stand on Monroe Street and tout Red Tops with her two year-old in tow. It must allow for a fiend's theft of the television set from the recreation center, of chalices from the corner churches, of the rent money from his mother's bedroom. And the rules of the corner cannot stand if they prohibit a thirteen-year-old from holding up a single vial of coke and telling a playmate with brutal honesty that for one of these, your mother will step up and suck my dick.
Make no mistake: No one likes to play under the rules, no one on Fayette Street respects them or regards them as fair or worthy or in any way justified. Even the lowest needle freak knows guilt at the instant he's doing dirt, but knowing it changes nothing. The rules are not to be trifled with; they are not arbitrary, nor are they simply an afterthought or rationalization. The new postulates and proofs of the corner embrace the chaos, written as they are in an environment perfectly indifferent to any thing beyond dope and coke. To exist in that environment-- to seek or sell dope and coke-- and at the same time to carry the burden of an outside morality is to invite abuse and failure. To ignore the rules, to try to live above them, is to walk blindly into the maw of the thing, risking destruction for something as ethereal and vague as human decency.
The rules of the game are a two-step program to non-recovery, as valid a living credo as anything on those pamphlets that get tossed around at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. First among them is a basic declaration of intent as all-encompassing as the first commandment to roll down the slopes of Sinai.
Rule # 1 Get the blast.
Get it and live. For whomsoever believeth in good dope shall live forever, or if not forever, at least for that sugar-sweet moment when he chases down a vein, slams it home, and discovers that what they're saying about them Green Tops is true: The shit is right. And if the shit ain't right, if he cooks it up and guns it home and it's B-and-Q, or just enough to get him out of the gate, then the first rule still applies. Go back to the corner and get the blast. And then do it again. Because the next one, or the next one after, will be the true dose, the one to justify all faith. Ten or twenty or thirty years of addiction-- it doesn't matter. Every fiend in the street is trying to re-create that first perfect shot of dope or coke, the one that told him this was what he wanted in life. The fiends are at it morning, noon, and night-- none
of them ever quite getting there, getting just close enough to feed the hunger. And if by some miracle one nails it, if he catches that perfect wave and experiences the chemical epiphany in the back bedroom of some rotting two-story pile, swaying and nodding and scratching to some angelic melody in the kingdom-to-come, if he can stumble back against the flaking plaster and paint, smile stupidly and, with utter reverence, proclaim the shit a bomb, then what? What price glory, save for another caper for another ten dollars and another trip back to the corner, hoping against hope that the vials are still packed, that whoever put that good dope on the street hasn't watered down the back end of the package.
If faith and spirituality and mysticism are the hallmarks of any great church, then addiction is close to qualifying as a religion for the American underclass. If it was anything less, if at Fayette and Monroe there was a single shard of unifying thought that could compete with the blast itself, then the first rule would be null and void. But no, the blast is all, and its omnipotence not only affirms the first rule, but requires the second:
Rule #2: Never say never.
On the corner, the survivors do what they've got to do and they live with it. When mere vice is sufficient to get the blast, it ends there. But eventually, it's sin that is required, and when sin falls short, absolute evil becomes the standard. Those who play the game and deny the progression, who insist that there are some moral limits that they will not violate, are forever surprising themselves. Never say never, cry the sages, because a true believer pays absolute homage to addiction, he turns to face it like a Muslim turns toward Mecca. The transformation is gradual but certain, and wrapped in a new vernacular of moral denial.
In the thought and speech of the corner, misdemeanors become not crimes, but capers. Those selling drugs are no longer peddling dope, but serving people; those buying the drugs are not addicts or junkies-- perjorative terms of an earlier era-- but dope fiends, a term that captures the hunger and devotion of the corner chase, rather than simple dependency. A player who undertakes an armed robbery, a street shooting, or a carjacking is no longer committing a felony, but simply doing a deed. A burn bag sold to a friend, a stash stolen from a first cousin's bedroom, is no longer a betrayal, but merely getting over. When you do these things, of course, you're simply playing the game; when these things are done to you, it's the work of a crud-ball, a cold motherfucker with no feelings or conscience. The term is never self-applied; corner logic doesn't work that way. One's own crud-ball adventures are not, of course, regarded as such; the most successful of them are recounted by the perpetrators in a bemused tone that suggests professional pride. The rest of the herd, too, can often manage a grudging respect for a player who breaks new ground in doing unto others, so that a crud-ball act that consistently yields a profit can easily rise in stature. It becomes, in corner parlance, a dope -fiend move.
It's almost better to be born into the world of the dope-fiend move, and stay there, than to arrive there as a matter of necessity, burdened by ethical baggage that serves no useful purpose. That can only make a player vulnerable. So it is with Gary McCullough, who can't easily justify anything worse than the penny-ante caper. And so it is with Fran Boyd, who has acquired an arsenal of fiendish moves only to be constrained by a lingering sense of obligation to her sons.
In the end, the corner best serves the hardcore, the junkyard dogs with neither the time nor inclination for pity. It's for Ronnie Boice, Gary's girl, who never misses her shot, though her children are running the streets; or Jon-Jon, training twelve-year-olds to sling his bags on Gilmor; or Bunchie, who can make the rent money disappear month after month, knowing that in the end, her brother Scoogie will shell out what's needed to prevent the eviction; or Dink-Dink, selling burn bags to fiends three times his age and almost hoping that they come back on him, figuring he'll go to his nine and catch himself a body.
By nature or by nurture, the mindset of the dope-fiend move, once acquired, becomes a lifelong companion. Once in the game, it's hard for a player to forget the lessons learned and operate in the legitimate world. The dope-fiend move becomes the immediate answer to all problems, the short-term response to life's long-term struggles. Off the corner and loosed upon the legitimate world, it's the lie on the housing application, the copied essay on the community college midterm, the petty theft from the register, and ultimately, the justification for returning to the world of the corner. It's a new way of thinking that can't be challenged with jobs or educational opportunities or drug treatment, because once you see the world as a dope fiend does, you can't see it any other way. A few years in the mix and the only voice in your head becomes the collective wail of the corner itself.
How could it be otherwise? Day after goddamn day, the corner proves itself and, by extension, every idiot on the corner is proven as well. Touts, runners, fiends-- they're always where you expect them to be, stand around-and-serve prophets of the new logic; they speak and you believe. So when you go up to Fayette and Monroe and hear that your rap buddy just fell dead after slamming some Red Tops, you barely miss a beat. Fuck it, the prophet tells you, he didn't know how to shoot coke, not the way you do. Never mind that you were gunning with the dead man for a decade, never mind that you shared a hype with him a hundred times, never mind that he's pounded on your chest to bring you back more than once, he ain't shit now. Just another no-doping, skin-popping, scramble shooting punk, says the corner. Nigger wasn't serious like you; couldn't handle the good shit. And you believe it; you want the Red Tops.
The corner prophet knows.
You go to court and the downtown judge gives you five years suspended, tells you you're on supervised probation. Fuck that, says the prophet. If you report and then mess up, they can find you; if you don't report, they ain't got no record of you. And you, of course, do like the prophet says, thinking you're getting over when you ain't. A month or two later, you take a charge and they drag your ass from city jail to the down town courthouse. The same prune-faced judge looks down at you, talking about how you're in violation of probation, talking about how you're gonna eat the whole five years. And you do the bit, come back from Hagerstown, go back up to the same corner and find that motherfucker. Yo, what up?
And the prophet just looks at you like you're some kind of fool, talking about how you can get locked up for that shit, saying you should have reported.
And you don't miss a beat. You nod your head in agreement because, the man's a got-damn prophet; his shit has to be true. And when the next problem comes around, there you are again on the same corner, looking for more of the same.
"I'm saying, I can't get rid of this hole, man," you tell him, rolling up your sleeve to show a dime-sized crater. The prophet just shakes his head and a neophyte jumps into the lull, offering advice.
"Ain't no hole, man," says the newcomer. "That an abscess. You gotta get some ointment. Go to the emergency room, they got to give it to you. Clean it right up."
"Fuck that," you tell him. "I'm saying, you go there, you got to wait all day. Man, they don't got no time for no niggers. See, what I'm saying, I can't be doing that, man. I'm saying, this nigger got things to do."
And, of course, the prophet finally steps up. "Shit, you want to clean it up or what?" he asks. "Yeah, what I'm saying . . . "
"Get yourself some eggs, two should do it," the prophet says. "Boil 'em up in a pot 'til they hard. Then you gotta peel 'em real careful like. You want to get that thin skin, be under the shell? You know what I'm talking about, be under the shell?"
"You got to peel that off and stick it over the holes. Wrap it up in some gauze. Word up: two weeks. It be like these."
The prophet shows you the back of his left hand. "Them the kind of scar you get."
You're not sure.
"Fuck it, I don't give a shit if your motherfucking arm falls off," says the prophet. "That's on you."
"No, I'm saying I ain't heard about doing that. That's all. I'm saying, it might work. You probably right."
Two weeks and a dozen eggs later you're pulling the gauze off your arm and, of course, the hole is
now the size of a quarter. And when you go back to the corner prophet, he tells you he don't know shit about eggs. Potatoes, he tells you. Boiled potatoes are the cure. For a moment or two, you shake your head and curse the prophet, but two hours later you're pricing spuds at the Super Fresh, though in the end, you'll say to hell with it. No time for boiling shit up or waiting around emergency rooms. The corner knows; you're not about fixing the hole in your arm, you're about that blast.
So you learn: The prophet never lies; he can't be wrong. As it is for every other wandering animal, the watering hole is the only truth you can afford. It owns you, uses you, kicks your ass, robs your mind, and grinds your body down. But day after lonesome day, it gives you life.
For twenty on the hype, you believe.