Using and Losing on Times Square

Hustling the Deuce

I’m Joe Monday. I’ve worked in the sex business for the last few years. I’ve been a cashier at hetero and homo adult theaters, porno actor, live sex show performer. This arti­cle is about my friends (and enemies) who hustle guys on the Deuce. A former $100-a-night call boy and porno actor who’s probably as close as you can come in reality to those “$1000-a-week hus­tlers” quoted in all the AIDS articles­ — the ones who claim that scenes now in­volve fantasies and uniforms instead of actual sexual contact — had his own thoughts on the subject. “Towards the end, I wouldn’t fuck. I used to meet peo­ple who wanted to get abused, cursed at, fist-fucked. I stopped fist-fucking people because the person could die — you’d be responsible. Except for women, escorting is dead in New York. The diseases — nobody wants to do anything. With all these people getting sick, those people who hustle in Times Square are crazy.”

All names of people (and a few identi­fying details) in this article have been changed, as have those of bars and movie theaters still in operation and my own — ­Joe Monday is neither my real name nor the pseudonym I use as a porno perform­er. Quotations have been culled from ca­sual conversations, not formal interviews, but the people are real, not composites. Here are their stories.

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Joey looks like an archetypal white junkie. Scraggly blond hair under a baseball cap; a gaunt, mustached face; long sleeves in any weather; dirty, baggy dungarees dropping off his nonex­istent ass. His hands and feet are all puffy — the veins in them have been used up long ago.

“I grew up in Manhattan. Uptown. I’ve been hanging out on 42nd Street since I was 17, hustling since I was 20, 21. Fifty­-third and Third, too. There was more money around years ago. My father was a transit cop. I never really knew my moth­er — she left when I was very young. My dad’s retired now. He’s got a dick like John Holmes, a dick that any homosex­ual would love to suck. I always used to say to him, ‘Dad, did you find me on a park bench or somethin’?’ because I’m not, like, particularly well hung. I think he knew I hustled. I’d like to settle down — I’m 32 now — before he dies, give him peace of mind. I love him very much.

“I’ve been gettin’ high for the last 15 years. Drugs were much better then. Cheaper, too. I was clean for four months earlier this year. I was in jail for boosting. I do one, two bags a day even though I could handle about five. I can cop any­where — East Harlem; Ninth Avenue, Harlem Harlem, Lower East Side, South Bronx. I mostly go to East Harlem. It’s still $10 uptown for a bag of dope. I can’t see spending $15 on Ninth. I like doing coke, but when I do it, I can’t control my­self. People like Manny — they chase after that coke all day. That turns me off.”

Joey is the sort of guy who will walk 20 blocks to cop the best dope he can find and then walk another 10 blocks to look for a gallery. He has no qualms about using other people’s works. AIDS? “You get it, you’re dead. That’s it. But I don’t think I’ll get it.

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“I used to hustle a lot at Blackjack. Blackjack changed. There’s other peep places I can work out of, where I know the people, even though they have those signs up. There’s not too much money for me at Eddie’s, even though I have a few regulars. I got one guy, he makes me jerk off in the back of his car. This other one, he pays me $10 for each Spanish boy I bring him. I’d like to pawn this jacket so I can get a bag of dope, but I gotta see the john that bought it for me.”

Joey is generally around the Deuce, al­though he doesn’t make as much money hustling as he used to. Sometimes he’s walking with an old queen, sometimes he’s giving that “cocaine cocaine” rap. “What you do, you put a bit of real coke on top of stuff you get at a head shop. The person tastes it and thinks it’s real. Just beat out-of-towners, Jersey or Long Island people, people who are here just for the weekend. I don’t want to be look­ing over my shoulder all night.”

He’s what some people would call a criminal type, and what appeal he has as a hustler is probably that of low-risk rough trade. Boosting, possession, at­tempted male prostitution, hopping the train (the street term for fare-beating) ­Joey has been arrested over 50 times. “But I’ve never been in a fight all the time I’ve been on the Deuce. Niggers would try to start with me and I’d just yell louder than them — ‘YOU THINK I’M A PUNK? HUH?’ Guys on the Deuce, they’re all mouth, all mouth. I got straight yesterday by boosting address books from Lamston’s. They were worth $3 each and I sold ’em for a dollar apiece. One of them fell out of my jacket as I was leaving and I almost got caught. I sell Tylenol I steal from Red Apple to that drugstore over there.

“When I’ve been really sick I’ve picked a few pockets, taken johns off. I’ve seen hustlers who say they don’t suck cock suck somebody off. Maybe the guy was sick — I wouldn’t say anything about it. I wouldn’t do it. Never sucked anybody off, never got fucked in the ass. But if somebody said, ‘Here’s $500, lemme fuck you up the ass,’ I’d say, ‘Here it is.’ ”

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That’s what they all say. Hustlers al­ways claim to play the top role, but this isn’t true for a few dollars more. Joey needs money so badly that he’ll do any­thing for $10.

“I’m on welfare. I get a rent check. I get $50 worth of food stamps and cash ’em in for $35.” He had a room in East Harlem but shot up the rent money. Now he stays anywhere — the Port Authority, an abandoned building, subway benches, all-night theaters if a cashier he knows lets him in free. He constantly bums ciga­rettes or change for food.

“I like to fuck girls. TVs, transsexuals, too. They chase after me like crazy. Even though they have dicks, I’ll fuck ’em. Every time I get my welfare check, I spend 50 cents and check out a loop at that peep place. Saw one where some girl fucks a pig — wild. In another, this girl is supposed to eat shit but the shit looked fake. I dig big tits. I was in a couple of loops, magazines. I was the submissive. It wasn’t much money — $50 a day — but it was $50 that I could get high with.

“I’ve worked as a cook, gas station at­tendant, auto mechanic. The best time I ever had was working as a dietary aide in a nursing home — bringing the old folks their food. Made eight dollars and change an hour. I had my girlfriend working the streets out here for me. She pulled $1000 a week. A john was writing checks for me like crazy. I had an apartment, a stereo, a color TV. But then I lost my job due to excessive absences — I was getting high so much I wouldn’t leave the house for days. My girlfriend got too greedy with the dope and left me. I collected unemployment for six months … and now, this.”

It’s gotten so tough for Joey to earn his daily get-straight cash that he went on Methadone. “I can’t take it anymore. The program I’m on is only $7 a week. They started me at 40 milligrams, raised me to 50 even though I would have been com­fortable at 30. The idea is to keep you on it. It’ll take years for my hands to heal. No more sticking needles in myself. Ev­ery Saturday I get a take-home. I can sell it and buy a few racks.” Soon Joey is spending every cent he makes each day on cracks. They have replaced dope as his get-high.

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Times Square has always been a freebasing haven. Area folks who “can’t deal with tracks, better off piping it” include porn movie perform­ers, live sex show couples, and strippers. The catch to freebasing is that you’re never satisfied. People will spend their last dollar attempting to recapture that first rush, running their expenditures into the thousands.

In order to freebase, you’d have to start with a 50 ($50 worth, approximately half a gram) of coke, know how to cook it up into a rock with baking soda, get a large glass pipe (at least $7), and, frequently, buy a torch. Therefore, less well-off Times Square denizens would have to chip in with others. Cracks, just invented a few months ago, are designed for them.

Cracks are sold in dime rocks, enough for four small pulls. A large pipe and torch is unnecessary — all you need is a small glass tube sold in head shops and a lighter. You can do them anywhere — in a movie theater, a bathroom, on the street. Far from the pure cocaine Jane Gross described in the Times a few weeks ago, they are the freebasing analogue to the nickel cokes intravenous drug users buy on the Lower East Side or in East Har­lem. At their best, nickel cokes provide a strong rush and taste of cocaine, but there is always something else in them — ­pseudocaine and/or cheap speed. Like­wise for cracks. They give a strong blast to the head, but the high doesn’t last as long as real freebase. Again, there’s that “something else.” The uninitiated will experience stomach cramps. And cracks vary enormously in quality. People who purchase pre-cooked base from the Cu­bans on 145th Street and Amsterdam Av­enue consider Times Square cracks un­trustworthy at best. They leave no one satisfied. The user either repeatedly heats the carbon left in his glass tube, vainly hoping to get one last hit, or starts to get another $10 together. Not to men­tion that any sort of prolonged coke us­age wreaks havoc on the mind.

Cracks are sold all over 42nd Street and in Bryant Park. The park salesmen are a more hyper version of the black kids who just sell sense (homegrown sin­semilla): “Crack it up, crack it up.” For such a new phenomenon, crack is omi­nously popular. Its terminal results are already visible on many users.

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At the Narcissus Theater, the talent scout tries to avoid hiring dancers who are “cokies. The minute a dancer looks stoned, like he’s going to fall off the stage or some­thing, we let them go.” Jorge is typical of Narcissus dancers — guys who strip before working the audience for tricks. He’s a young Latino guy with more than a slight touch of effeminacy — a “cha-cha queen.” Jorge’s get-high habits have never been detected by the Narcissus management because, like a lot of drug users, he doesn’t give a fuck about coke. “With coke, I get paranoid. Me and my lover, we got into freebasing for a while — it really runs into a lot of money.

“That’s why I do dope. It’s a mellow high that lasts a long time, like eight hours. It’s cheaper — you can do it once and stay high — you don’t have to keep doing it like coke. With this sort of high, I can stay sociable. Unless you’re into it, too, you wouldn’t know I was high.

“I go down here — Ninth Avenue. Nev­er been to 118th Street or to the Lower East Side. I live right around the corner. The brands of dope that really affect me are Blue Moon and Paradise. There’s two people I know who sell Blue Moon. I’ve never used anyone else’s works in my life. I always get a new set if I can because I don’t want to get tracks. I do it two, maybe three times a week — I don’t want to get stuck with a habit.”

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Ninth Avenue from the mid-40s to the low 50s has al­ways been a dope spot. $21 Heart or the $22 Mercedes. Now, small groups of dealers purchase bundles (10 bags of dope) on the Lower East Side or in East Harlem and sell a dime bag for $15. The $5 extra is supposedly the cab-­fare you would’ve spent on a trip out of the neighborhood. Sometimes you can cop short — say, four bags for $57.

Transactions on Ninth Avenue take place largely between buyers and sellers who know each other and proceed to take a little stroll. The amount of legitimate business traffic makes it even harder for Officer O’Leary to detect what’s going on. If you don’t see a dealer you know, one of the regular runners will lead you to someone who’s selling for a tip or a taste. The corner of 48th Street and Ninth Avenue remains a magnet for all manner of flotsam and beat artists. There are a few shooting galleries left.

Diabetic works are sold on Ninth Ave­nue for $2 to $3 each. These have a short, undetachable point, unlike the blue-tip works sold elsewhere. Since they are of­ten sold unsealed, with just a removable plastic cap, some people will try to get rid of “half new” works — ones which have been used once or twice (moisture inside the barrel or blood marks near the point are a tipoff). Also available are 20s of coke, which are more like $15 worth on the Lower East Side. Everything’s more expensive midtown. Ninth Avenue and 51st Street remains a big spot for cocaine and Dilaudid (a synthetic opiate), but is under closer police scrutiny as of late.

Ninth Avenue is known for weird cuts in the drugs. Some buyers felt Heart was all sleeping powder, crushed downers that dissolve in water. Others feel that dealers tap the bags, replacing the dope they’ve stolen with a little sleeping pow­der “for that heavy nod effect.” There was also the recently defunct Smiling Faces $7 bags of “cocaine.” Joey claims, “It was all speed. People would say they were buying coke, but when they ran there every day because their bones hurt and their noses were running, they were going to get a speed fix. When they closed, a lotta people got sick.”

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Runners and dealers in midtown are an odd bunch of Latinos who shoot and snort their own products. After a few trips there, you see the same faces over and over: the Brothers, the Cuban and his Wife, the Midget Lady, the Dirty One, the Old Man.

The Old Man has been an area fixture for the past 15 years. Arms covered with tattoos and tracks, he walks with a pro­nounced limp. “I got this way from a car accident. I’m a crazy driver.” Always has new, usually sealed works and is the ar­ea’s most trustworthy runner. About his clientele, he feels that “a lot of the guys that come here to buy — they get the money because they trick with the fag­gots.” When asked if he had ever turned tricks when he was a young man, there was a long silence, followed by a hesitant “no.”

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How to describe a typical Times Square homosexual john? Baldhead, notorious director of “chicken clas­sics” gay hard-core movies, puts it best. “Gay and straight johns are the closest looking people in both sexual tendencies. That coat, that business suit, their whole attitude is not queeny — you never see a queen paying for boys, they’re too pretty to do that. It takes having a realistic view of yourself. He knows what he is, he likes to suck a big dick and is willing to pay $30 for it. The sort of guy that could pass in a supermarket for a cashier, usually. Dressed straight to the point you can tell they’ve worn those clothes for 20, 30 years. It’s not some­thing they put on yesterday. The hair may be slicked back a little, nicely bar­bered with kind of a cheap smell from the cologne. That Death in Venice look with the hair painted on. A lot of them are professionals. Some Eighth Avenue johns — ones that wear suits. but don’t have jobs, just little scams — are as bad as the hustlers. Johns that get high with the hustlers — both of them are losers, basically, trying to find out how to communi­cate. When the dick is in the mouth, they want to have something just a little extra in common. You can find a john that is smart enough to leech off the hustler. Former hustlers, something like that. Some of the johns, when they think they are dressed up, they think they are ele­gant, wear a red blazer that’s a little short, a golden emblem on its breast, and a matching handkerchief. The hustlers that go with all these types of johns all suck dick — it’s like a vacuum cleaner, that mechanical.”

Hustlers primarily work out of two bars: Eddie’s and La Tropicana. At Ed­die’s you find some ethnics and a lot of white, tough, no longer kids. Baldhead describes Eddie’s hustlers as “extremes — ­very loud, criminally oriented. The worst white trash I’ve ever seen.” The place is big and flashy, on a street frequented by strippers, theater-goers, and junkies on their, way to cop. La Tropicana is small, and darkly lit, with mostly black and Puerto Rican hustlers. A lot of minority drag queens hang out here. Girlfriends of Eddie’s hustlers tend to fall in that not-­quite-hooker, not-quite-fag-hag realm. For various reasons, they’re not into guys from regular heterosexual society. It turns them on to know a guy sells his body. Some mention must be made of the now defunct Haymarket on 47th Street and Eighth Avenue. Drugs, minors, drag queens, runaways — all behind an Xmas-­lights front with pseudo-saloon doors.

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Male “strippers” work theaters like the Crown Jewel, Narcissus, and now defunct Follies and Gaiety. Since dancers at these places earn ridiculously low wages, often $5 a dance, the idea is to get tricks in the audience, quickies in the theater or planned rendezvous for later if on-prem­ises hustling is forbidden. Tourists fre­quent these places.

Possibly because they’re married, many johns are paranoid about diseases and will participate in “safe sex” with the hustler. This fear preceded the AIDS panic. Mutual masturbation, often non-­orgasmic, occurs in theater stairwells or hotel rooms. This is such an easy trick, and so many guys are willing to turn it, it’s only worth $10 or $20. Some johns don’t care and get involved in anal and oral sex: Only occasionally will you hear a hustler claim he uses condoms for anal sex.

Then there are the big scores that hus­tlers hope for amid the $10 tricks. Times Square has always had its freaks and fe­tishists, people who can only get off sexu­ally in a tenderloin district. Like the weirdo who came into the Ecco Theater drunk at 4 a.m., sweating, sniffing pop­pers. “Tell me I’m garbage, tell me I’m shit.” Besides being talked dirty to, this guy liked to have his cock and nipples pinched. He gave out $100 bills.

“Sometimes weirdos would come to the Narcissus,” says Gary, who used to dance there. “There was this one guy, he had all four of us dancers piss on him and gave us $100 each. And Lardass. Must weigh 350 pounds. Always wears these green stretch pants: Pays you $40 to lick your ass.”

Footsie. Everybody on Eighth Avenue knows Footsie. A pepper-haired, worried-looking man, dressed unflatteringly in a running jacket, but always so he can be spotted. Makes the rounds of most of the Eighth Avenue theaters, straight and gay. A shrimp queen. Pays the grungiest mi­nority guys $20 to $80 to suck their toes. Spends $100 to $200 a day doing this. There has been much speculation as to how Footsie makes his money — an area hotel owner and New York Times bigwig are but two of the rumors. The guys he goes with are always hanging around the theaters, waiting for him, asking for him.

A typical example of a john who gets high with hustlers is JoJo. Says Joey: “I used to hustle with JoJo on 53rd and Third years ago. You could tell he liked what he was doing. He was skinny then.” Now he’s a fat slug after any Puerto Ri­can boy with a big dick. Buys them a bag of dope, gets off with them, sucks their cock. “I’ve been hanging out on 42nd Street since I was 16,” he says. He looks it.

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“I’m a complete professional. I han­dle all sorts of scenes. I am a mon­eymaking muthafucka.” Manny has been a fixture on the Deuce for the past four years. You can see him in front of the peep places any time of the day or night making his mon­ey — “I never take less than $20.” A tall Puerto Rican, about 28, with a big Afro and a thin, biblical face, arms heavily tattooed, always clad in dirty blue run­ning outfits. From his build, one would think he’s hung like John Holmes, but his average-sized cock looks small on that body. Understandably, this is a sensitive matter with him.

Manny’s a speedball junkie. He gets off three or four times a day, spending $100 to $150 by evening. “I buy the $15 bags of dope down here, from the guy with the hairnet — he usually has Checkmate — or through the Old Man. By the time you go uptown, take a cab, spend $3 for a gal­lery, it comes out to the same thing.”

“Mostly, I chase after that coke. Shoot­ing coke — it’s the ultimate. I like that stuff from the building near the pizza place — it’s the best shit around here. I don’t bother with nickels or dimes — too much cut. I’ve done extremely pure coke where I thought I was gonna black out, but I never do. When I used to lift weights, I would shoot coke right before and people thought I was gonna bust my heart.

“Coke is a hallucinogenic drug. I’m gonna do this 20 in one shot. Then I’m gonna start hallucinatin’.” He stares in the mirror, begins thinking that people are following him, becomes totally paranoid. Sometimes he uses coke to stay awake for three days at a time so he can make money and spend it on more drugs.

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“I don’t wanna get no AIDS, so I don’t use anyone else’s needles. I have a friend who takes insulin, so I get free diabetic sets.” But the sets he uses always look well used and never properly cleaned. If he doesn’t have one on him, it’s “Can I use your works?”

Manny has that sort of charm, that glint in his eye that makes him instantly likable. But he does so many awful things that everyone who likes him eventually gets fed up with him. Not content with $40 from Footsie, he hits him up for $60 or $80. Follows the poor old guy on the street and harasses him until he forks over more cash. Goes into a john’s car with another hustler and then splits with both their fees. Takes people’s money to go cop for them and never returns. Rips off johns. “He’s one person I’d love to see get it,” says a Narcissus employee.

Manny used to work a lot out of Blackjack. Once the grungiest 42nd Street peep place, it’s now a sparkling clean adult video store. “It’s not like I’m not allowed in there, it’s that there’s nothing for me in there.” His main hustle is having a “faggot” suck his dick in a peep booth. He had a girlfriend working the streets for him, but that ended when he beat her up. Though he claims to be “straight,” Manny is actually a chickenhawk who preys on other, younger Hispanic hustlers.

He takes periodic breaks from the scene to recover. The last one was to be “moving to this nice house in Jersey” with a black drag queen. It never came through. He gave up speedballs for cracks and now spends all his money on them. “I didn’t get dopesick at all. I was doing mostly coke.” Manny now looks worse than when he was speedballing. His skin is jaundiced, his throat is swollen, his voice is hoarse.

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There’s not a man in here,” says Hanky, surveying the crowd at the Ecco Theater. “All queens. No tricks, no trade, nothing.” The Ecco shows old 16mm straight hard-core porn for an audience predominantly made up of black homosexuals and sleepers. Since the place is open from 10 in the morning to six the next morning, it’s the cheapest hotel on Eighth Avenue.

Life is a Mobius strip of sex for cash and cash into drugs for hustlers, but most of them manage to travel beyond a four-­block radius. Hanky conducts all busi­ness within a stone’s throw of the Ecco, which is, in effect, his residence. Each day is an endless cycle of tricks, cracks, hanging out, and stops at other all-night theaters.

In his twenties, very tall, with light black skin, Hanky is a disconcerting blend of masculine and feminine traits. His Afro is worn somewhat like a wom­an’s, his lips and eyes are also womanly, but his body is big and muscular. A queen, but never one to put on a dress. Always ready to respond to the insult “faggot” and never one to run from a fight. There’s a lot of man under that woman. “I’m more of a sadist than a mas­ochist. I’m a Taurus.

“I’ve had sex with 15,000 people since I was 14, For $10 or $20 tricks around here, I’ll give a quick blowjob. I like to get fucked. I always come prepared.” A little leather bag he carries contains Vaseline, douche, Listerine, and a small basepipe. “With all these diseases going round, you never can be too clean.” A lot of Hanky’s tricks are straight-looking guys who like acting out a parody of heterosexual sex with an effeminate boy. “That old man over there — you’d never know it, but he’s a trick. Worth $20. Nice guy, too. One of my regulars should come by tonight.”

On screen at the Ecco, a black guy and a white guy are forcing themselves on a 60-year-old woman. The movie is called The Big Man. “The Big Man — huh — the big nellie more like it. I’ve been in every theater around here except the gay ones. I would never go into a gay theater. The Sheik on 42nd Street — it’s open all night. They cleaned it up a little, put video in, but they still didn’t get all them drag queens out. Real ugly ones. They go in the theater dressed as men and go in the bathroom and change. The Pearl shows the new porno movies, but there’s still a lot of drag queens there, too. One girl who works in there — she’s worse than those drag queens. Charges faggot prices and 20 minutes later you still see her suckin’ on that same dick for the same $10. The Roxy shows good movies, like those 12 horror pictures. It’s that video theater on 42nd Street that’s open all night. They don’t allow cruising but it’s clean and they keep the pickpockets out.

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“I love coke. When I’m not here, what I be doing is working for this coke house near where I’m from in Queens. Dope — I gotta be in the mood. I’ve done it but it gives you this awful mask that everybody always knows you’ve done it. When I was 17, my cousin did coke in a needle. He OD’d and died. I was in the house right with him and didn’t know what to do. So I’ll never use a needle — just through the nose and smoke them cracks. I got some stuff on 51st Street and Ninth Avenue that I really liked sniffing. The count wasn’t great but it was really clean. When I base, I can’t be bothered cooking tip coke with baking soda and all that. I’m sure the cracks I get in Bryant Park and on 42nd Street are real — I always go to the same people. I’m not like other peo­ple with cracks — I can base and still go to sleep. I’m not addicted to them or any­thing.” There are dark circles under Han­ky’s eyes from long nights smoking crack after crack. An hour later, he’s off to 42nd Street to buy another one.

A group of people who work some of the same turf as hustlers and are in­volved in another kind of sex-for-money scam are pickpockets. Mostly black men who hang out at all-male theaters, they lift wallets when engaged in sex, cut the pockets of dozing customers, or do quick toilet mug­gings: Some pickpockets are violent and have been known to stab victims. Others, like Curtis, have their profession down to an art. A mark will cruise him, and in the blink of an eye his wallet’s gone. Curtis says, “The business has picked up at the theaters on weekends since those places like the Mine Shaft and the Anvil have closed. You’ll even see tourists with money going in dumpy ones like the Queen and the Samson. But these diseases — they’re gonna kill everything. In six months, you won’t see these theaters any­more. I don’t want to get AIDS. That’s why when I get high I don’t use needles — ­I freebase. And not these garbage cracks down here, either.”

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Junior is a pest but a charming one. He works at different Times Square establishments, gets fired, charms his way back. He’s a muscular Latino guy, 32, with a hook nose and silly grin. He’s spent the time he was in stir for “sticking up a cab, hoppin’ the train, things like that.” He usually wears worn imitation designer jeans and one of those “New York” sweatshirts. Junior is kind of goofy-look­ing but is considered by many area folks to be what one guy called “a nice piece of Puerto Rican trade.”

He used to work at the Narcissus and Ecco Theaters. “Projection, lifting prints, painting the theater. They pay me $20, $25 a day. But don’t ever mention me there or that you seen me. After they fire me for stealing, I hang around. It was Christmas Eve. I was broke. I wanted to get my daughters a present. There was this fat South American guy in the box office. I tell him I’m broke. He say, ‘Here, Junior, take the money.’ I tell him to give me the pay envelopes, too.” (Exactly how this occurred has never been clear to anybody, including the police.) “I go to Ninth Avenue and get me a 50 of coke and two bags of dope. Two hours later, I call the box office. The guy sound like a dead man. He say, real slow, ‘Junior, b-b-bring the money back.’ I tell him, ‘Are you crazy? I just spent $100 of it and have $400 left to go.’

“This summer, I work for Mr. Kim. A Korean guy. He have a store where you buy wigs and New York T-shirts. I steal at least $50 a day from him. This guy was blind. But one day I don’t show up. He say, ‘Take a vacation for a year.’ Now, I work projection at the Lounge Theater, the place with the live sex show. Remem­ber when they always used to try to keep me outta there?

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“I’m a regular straight guy. I was mar­ried, but my wife and me, we fight a lot and I catch her with my best friend. Got two daughters. So when I go with a guy, it’s for money. It’s not, like, I like guys. I don’t give no head, don’t give up no culo.”

Culo — Spanish for asshole — is some­thing Junior is no stranger to. “I tell the faggots I like, ‘I tie my hands behind my back and you can take just the tip up your ass. Just sit on the tip.’ This guy Julio — he pay me a lot, $30, to come to his house in the Bronx and fuck him up the ass. But I gotta call him when his wife’s not there.

“I know a lotta faggots around here. This black guy, he work for the theaters on 42nd Street in their office. He pay $20 to suck my dick. Big Wally, the night manager at the Lounge, he suck me, too. Sometimes I run into faggots I know in the peep places. This fat guy, he go in there, he play with your balls for $10.

“I used to turn tricks at that bathhouse where the fire kill all the people. That’s why I always sign my real name when I go in there, in case something like that hap­pens. Once, I made two customers, one for $20 and the other for $25, in there. I go cop and then shoot up in my room.

“In the Ecco Theater, there was an attic above the projector room where I take tricks.” One of Junior’s regulars was Footsie until he hounded him too often. Junior’s way of asking for Footsie: “You seen my father?” He still hangs around the entrances to the theaters Footsie fre­quents, hoping for a quick $20.

People who worked at the Ecco with Junior found him “sexy.” He’d always come out of watching the sex movies with a hard-on. One of things that makes Ju­nior so attractive is his huge, thick, uncir­-cumcised cock, which he’ll whip out at any excuse. But does it work? As one employee puts it, “I blew Junior when he was working here. Maybe he was fucked up or something, but I’ve heard this from other people who had him. He kept going ‘yi yi’ and ‘Aye chihuahua’ but he couldn’t get a full erection or come.

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“He’s another one who says he doesn’t get fucked or give head, but if he needed the money, believe me, he’d do it. One time, he was in the theater men’s room with a midget. Junior came upstairs and said something about $5. The midget came up and said, ‘I thought you’d take $2! I thought you said $2!’ Junior’s a nice guy but he got messed up from being on the Deuce so long.”

Junior was born in Puerto Rico. “My parents were real old. When I was five, my father left me and my sister some­where and this couple take us in. They took us from Puerto Rico to New York. I grew up on the Lower East Side. Avenue A, B, C — I live all around there. That’s where I start getting high. When I was in high school, 15 years ago. They used to sell these $3 bags of chocolate brown dope in the park. I’d put $1.50 up, my friend would put the other $1.50 in. We shoot up in the bathroom at school and be noddin’ for hours offa that half.

“I can shoot up anywhere. Bathrooms, abandoned buildings, even did it on the Roosevelt Island tram. I have this spot right here on my arm. I just hit it, I don’t need to tie up. Sometimes I do it in the dick — get a hard-on and put the point in real slow.” Junior’s cock has tracks.

“I never had a habit. When I worked at the Ecco Theater, I do it, maybe, once a week. Mostly I smoke reefer and drink beer. Now, I do one or two bags a day. I go to Ninth Avenue or 118th Street, but I can cop anywhere. I know places in the Lower East Side, the Bronx, Williams­burg. I can stop anytime I want and not get sick.

“I like to do coke. I wouldn’t know how to sniff it, just do it this way. But I like to continue after I start. Sometimes I do a whole 20 from 51st Street at once. Some­times I do a little at a time. I like the dimes on 11th Street — they have a big count.”

A big count, but a good deal of it is cut. The general rule is that if it doesn’t dis­solve in the spoon you don’t want it. Un­deterred, Junior would cook up the cut and inject it, even though this can lead to diseases like endocarditis. His behavior after doing coke ranges from paranoia to hysteria — ripping his clothes off and mimicking ex-girlfriends, looking at skin mags, jumping around naked while flap­ping his dick.

Junior would use anyone’s set. He finds bottlecaps on the ground he uses for cookers. The fact that a friend of his “was in the hospital with AIDS, used someone else’s set” had little impact on him.

Between stealing from the box office and running dope for the hookers work­ing the Lounge, Junior ran up a nasty jones-five bags of dope and $50 worth of coke a day. The theater closed. He worked briefly at another girlie place, only to be fired after his boss caught him getting off. No job, no nothing. When last seen, he looked pale and withered. “May­be I should take up hustling full time again. But I’m an old man.”

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Of all these guys, Gary is the closest to a contemporary version of Midnight Cow­boy‘s Joe Buck. Tall, den­im-clad, blond and boyishly handsome, also from Texas, with a big empty smile. His odyssey in New York City is like that of a lot of young men who come here to “make money off faggots.”

Gary originally worked as a dancer at the Narcissus Theater. Dancers do shows at four three-hour intervals over a day. They strip individually, all come out on stage nude for the big finale, and then look for tricks in the audience. In the words of Denny, the guy who hires them: “We generally hire black and Puerto Ri­can dancers — they’re the ones who need money the most and they’re reliable. The white ones — they make one big score and disappear for the rest of the week’s book­ing.” But Denny is also prone to hire whoever catches his eye, so Gary got a job.

“Do you know where I can find a room? I tried a few places around here, but they’re outrageous, just outrageous. More than $150 a week for nuthin’. I’m stayin’ with tricks, at the Port Authority, anyplace. Some guy picked me up on the street the other night. A real nut. He tied me up in a hotel room and left me there. I can only work here. The Gaiety won’t take me — I’m too crazy for them.”

Gary’s gig at the Narcissus ended. He started to look bad. He had bags under his eyes and lost a lot of weight. He’d pace up and down in front of the theater, asking for work. The answer was always no. Denny called him “a pain in the ass.”

One night, he was standing in front of Eddie’s. “I’m lookin’ for some easy mon­ey. They’ll never take me back at the theater. I love coke. But I’ve been shoot­ing it, banging it. I’ve got tracks all over.” Most people who get off on coke speed­ball it with dope to take the edge off, or at least take something like Valiums to come down. Shooting coke by itself leaves you with a nervous head for hours after the initial rush is over. “Dope’s not my thing. I tried it twice — once in a speed­ball — and I got sick and threw up. I’ve got such a mellow personality that I nev­er get crazy. I don’t like to come down. I like to rush.”

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An hour later, he shows up at the the­ater. “Hey man, can I come in? Use the projector room to get off? Can you get somebody off? I can’t hit myself.” His works look well-used, like the barrel of one has been attached to the point of another. “You should see some of the works I use. I get ’em off other guys at Eddie’s. Forget about booting it, just do it in one quick shot.” The pleasurable rush is over. Gary leaves the theater, babbling.

He wasn’t around for about a month. One day, he was on the corner opposite the Narcissus, where the pizza place is. “I went home for a while. Got hepatitis from dirty needles. I can’t use narcotics until I’m better. Hey man, I got these diabetic sets. Nobody’s used them. They’re new. I’ll sell ’em for $3 each — that’s what they sell ’em for on Ninth Avenue, isn’t it?” He has two customers, an Eddie’s hustler and his girlfriend. They turn the corner.

“Hey man, you’re working the night shift at this theater, the Ecco, now. Tried gettin’ Denny to hire me again next door, but forget it. I’m all better. Saw a doctor. No more hepatitis. I got sick of Denny suckin’ my cock, anyway. He tricks with all the dancers and gives you nuthin’.

“I made $40 today. Two tricks. One was at the Sheraton with this guy I met at Eddie’s. The other was in that peep place over on Seventh Avenue. Easy ones. I’m stayin’ with a trick over on 47th Street. One thing I don’t like to do is fuck people up the ass. I mean, I’ve done it for money, but I’m not into it.

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“I’m gonna get somethin’ from that building over by the pizza place. I go there every night. They have the best shit around here — 20s in machine-sealed bags.” A dime of coke is usually enough for one good shot. “Yeah, you can do two good shots from it, or do a whole 20 for one excellent shot. It all breaks down — there’s no cut left over. The place was hot as hell for a while. They were closed. Somebody overdosed and died in there.

“I bought works today from the Old Man. You told me about him. One shoe is bigger than the other. He sells ’em for $2. I only use my own works now — don’t wanna get AIDS or anything.” Gary pulls a well-used set out of his sock, one that hasn’t been cleaned out. “I learned how to hit myself.” His arms have long tracks, all with reddish coke burns. “The only thing wrong is this swelling in my legs, it’s like they fill up with water.”

Gary is eating his evening snack of 25-cent lemon creme cookies. “I gotta make some money. Only got $2 on me. Last night, I did a 25 from 50th Street. I want­ed to rush but didn’t. It just felt like I did a lot of coke. Very disappointed.” He yells at a girl on the street. She ignores him. He yells at another. Though Gary claims to “have a girlfriend,” he’s never around any women. He says hi to two ancient johns.

“Hey, remember those nickels you told me about on the Lower East Side? I went down with this other guy to Tiger near Houston Street. I felt half a nickel. They look more like dimes.” He walks into Ed­die’s. “This is my spot, right here. I never buy a drink here — just stand around and wait for some sucker to buy one for me. Well, this is where I work. See ya.”

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“Money is like manure — if you don’t spread it around it’s not worth anything, it’s just a pile of shit.”

It seems like you run into him every time you turn a corner in midtown. Wearing that “Jack Wrangler Live” T­-shirt, a glazed look on his face as he digs through the garbage for returnable cans. From one garbage can to the next he goes, his eyes glassy from narcotics.

His name is Big Tom Buck. Tom used to be a movie star in Baldhead’s gay mov­ies, movies which still have a big follow­ing today. Now he works a $15-a-day shift at the porno theater where he lives, spending all his free time in search of bottle money. It used to be coke, then it was dope. Now people say it’s the cracks. He never has a dime in his pocket. He’s 40 years old.

Tom was a nice guy — still is — but something seems wrong. Now he’s like a blank spot. Nobody wants to trick with Tom ’cause he looks too sickly. So Tom gets the cans and whenever Tom has enough cans he gets high. And that’s all Tom ever does. Money is like manure. If you don’t spread it around it’s not worth anything. Hustling. ■

Joe Monday is a sometime contributor to Sleazoid Express.


Tears of a Clown: Charlie Barnett Cracks Up

ON THE THIRD STAIR of the sidewalk entrance to the Palace Hotel on the Bowery I catch an unmistakable whiff of aging vomit; halfway up the steep concrete stairs I step on a purple jumbo vial and shatter it, then tiptoe through a small, multicolored minefield of empty vi­als up to the front door, which is decorated with a wreath of plas­tic holly and black magic marker graffiti reading, “Don’t Smoke Cwack.” The tiny lobby looks like a cage: straight ahead is a fenced-in reception desk papered with admonitions for transients and “ticket men,” nonpaying émigrés from the men’s shelter next door. A steel-gate door to the left leads to a long narrow hallway of rooms, a steel-gate door to the right opens onto the “dayroom,” a huge holding pen of a rec room, smelling of Lysol and hissing with the static of a TV tuned to an empty station. Five or six desperate-looking men are sleeping as far away from the TV as possible. I ask the stubby-bearded desk clerk if he’s seen Charlie Barnett. “Never heard of him,” he says, suspicious. Turning to go, I ask how much the rooms are. “Six dollars, 50 cents tax,” he answers. “But you don’t want to stay here.”

It’s been a long morning already, mak­ing the rounds of comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv for news of Charlie, hearing one How the Mighty Have Fallen comment after another. “You know about his films, all those TV shows?” Sylvia, the day manager at the Comedy Cellar, asked. “God, Charlie had it made.” There was a time Charlie en­joyed carte blanche in these places, drop­ping in at midnight after a day of street shows, stealing the prime spots from the scheduled acts; moving on to another club for more. Nobody was surprised when he Made It, a little over four years ago, and abandoned the clubs for the West Coast and stardom, and there’s a polite but noticeable relish of his hubris and low profile since coming back. “Two years ago,” said Sylvia, “he was in Holly­wood. La dolce vita. Now he’s back out on the street — 3rd and Avenue A, maybe the Palace Hotel. Poor Charlie.”

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Out on the street is where Charlie al­ways was, performing on Bleecker and Thompson, behind the newspaper kiosk on Sixth Avenue and 3rd, Washington Square Park, any semi-enclosed spot where he could set up shop, start yelling, and get a crowd. His half-hour shows, wired with the racial and sexual humor of early Richard Pryor, were revved up by pyrotechnical, viciously funny exchanges with his audience: winos, druggies, tour­ists, local professionals, professional loi­terers. Greg Mullins, a William Morris agent who lives in the Village, “discov­ered” Charlie one afternoon in 1980, per­forming for about 300 hysterical people in Washington Square Park and signed him up for bookings in “some of the better clubs across the country.”

He also got Charlie an audition for Saturday Night Live during the crossover from the original cast to the next genera­tion, which Charlie made good on, being called back a number of times for further tests. Jean Doumanian, the show’s pro­ducer at the time, remembers Charlie and his talent affectionately, but not the de­tails, and nobody at the current SNL goes back far enough to comment. The “inside story,” sworn to by someone close to the show, is that he lasted through final auditions on the strength of his own material, only to lose the spot to Eddie Murphy when it was learned Charlie wasn’t literate enough to read cue cards.

Charlie’s “break” came in 1984, when the casting agent of D.C. Cab saw him passing the hat in Washington Square Park, then filmed a performance in the Comedy Cellar and sent director Joel Schumacher a tape. Schumacher, looking for performers with a “raw, spontaneous edge,” says he “fell in love with Charlie at first sight,” and cast him opposite Gary Busey, Mr. T, and Adam Baldwin. Within weeks after the shoot, Charlie went bi­coastal, shuttling between New York and a new condo on Sunset Boulevard, with week- and nightlong stopovers at clubs in Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas.

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He aced his next shot at the Big Time, a spot on an early episode of Miami Vice, playing a police snitch called the Noogie, a character that proved popular enough for 10 more episodes over the next three years and which served as a springboard for three low-budget films, more than 10 HBO comedy specials, and an episode of T.J. Hooker. Every two or three months, he’d be back in Washington Square Park, talking about how different blacks are who’ve made it big (“Out in L.A. they got big-lipped, blue-black Alabama porch­monkey Negroes lying in the sun trying to tan their asses white”), how Abe Lin­coln nodded out on his monument while waiting for Mr. T to deliver his one line of the evening without fucking it up, and how rewarding it is to work your ass off and finally get what you always wanted: Enough Cocaine To Last the Night.

Though he was funnier than ever, over the next few years it became increasingly apparant something wasn’t right with Charlie: longer and longer pauses began to crop up in his formerly seamless shows, Charlie staring at his audiences like they were made of ether, coming down to the park looking like he’d just fallen out of bed, performing for 15 min­utes, then taking off. Mullins remembers this period with fond exasperation. “You’d get to the office and your first problem was a Charlie Barnett problem: Charlie’s cancelled a date, Charlie’s missed the plane, Charlie’s in the office for a check that’s not due for another few weeks. On Miami Vice they loved his character, his performances. But Charlie could bring confusion to any set he walked onto. And then there were the drugs. Finally, a year and a half ago, I had to cut it off with Charlie. He just got to be too much to deal with.”

A little over a year ago Charlie dropped out of sight: no more movies, TV, or street shows. A few months back a friend saw him performing in Washington Square Park, badly, and said Charlie looked completely cracked out.

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A BLACK ECONOLINE VAN with Jersey plates is backing up to the curb in front of the Palace. Four mid-thirties leather boys step out, rough and ready, wearing mascara, eyeliner. I watch them unload a stack of well-traveled Marshalls into CBGB next door, grateful for their hard­core, harmless presence, only gradually becoming aware of a finger poking gently into my arm from above. A heavily beard­ed man in a beat-up, pea green corduroy jacket is standing on the first step of the Palace stairs, smiling warmly as he tells me in a rapid-fire Negril patois not to worry, he’s got what I want, we’ll go for a walk, just call him Bigger, everyone does. Does he know Charlie? Of course he knows Charlie, Charlie’s a funny man, personal friend. As we turn onto 3rd Street, stopping at the men’s shelter so Bigger can talk shop with three guys named Stretch, Frenchie, and One-Eyed Shorty (everyone here seems to go by monikers), I understand he’s trying to sell me something, but I can’t figure out what it is. Bigger sounds more like an advance man for the Palace than any card-carrying crack dealer.

“Some very respectables come here,” he says as we complete our first lap around the block, never losing his sales­man’s smile. “The suit, the tie, the stock­broker, the chemical engineer, people, like yourself. Journalists. But they cannot compete with the people who live here. In the dayroom, when we past the drug, having lunch, watching TV, you see our quality of people — singers, entertainers, civil engineers, people like yourself. Jour­nalists. Those people who come to the Palace in their limousines, go to the Prince Town University, they cannot compete with men like I, who spend 75, 80 per cent of his life on the street. You learn too much on the street. Is the big­gest college there is.”

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As we turn onto Second Avenue again I lean against the fence penning in a va­cant lot to catch my breath, while Bigger says hello to a few of his colleagues speeding around the block. All are selling crack, Bigger tells me, except for a short, sweet-looking old-timer named Hook, selling $75 “Perry Ellis” shirts for $3 apiece, and a good-looking kid in stonewashed jacket and jeans, 16, 17 years old, who looks like he’s just begun the training program. “Now I feel secure for the first time today,” the kid says, appraising a new K57 switchblade he holds opened in his hands.

As he watches the knife go by, Bigger’s face is absent its smile for the first time. “Everything good and bad must come to an end,” he says, turning professorial. “Thirty, 40 per cent of them get out from under the crack, the rehab program. The John Belushi, the entertainer, Charlie, 90 per cent need something to hype them onto the stage, keep them going after the stage is finished. They come to see me, they know it is an event, something’s going to happen.”

Bigger watches two huge gray rats scavenge by the fence; he smiles, musing, “Charlie once must have had a lot of money. On a personal note though,” he says, turning around, “I have been com­pletely honest with you. How come you no give me two, three dollar?” I give him some money, asking where I might find Charlie. “You just miss him by an hour,” he says. I ask Bigger why he thinks some­one like Charlie would throw it all away. “The same reason as we all,” Bigger says. “Because he is addicted.”

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A TWILIGHT CONGREGATION of 50 or so stands under an elm tree near the arch in Washington Square Park, blowing into hands for warmth, laughing and scream­ing. In the center of their circle sits Char­lie, his little butt crammed into the top of a wire wastebasket, talking about how hard it is trying to fuck a prostitute in your room at the Palace Hotel when you’re cracked out of your mind. He’s picked up a few decibels since I last saw him, and has added some of the staccato cadence and gestures of a Southern Bap­tist preacher: he sounds like a man testi­fying, but proud, unrepentant, with an “I alone have survived to tell the tale” deliv­ery. After an afternoon’s rafting through the stream of hyperkinetic zombies on 3rd Street, I recognize the sentiment.

“I had me a fine room there,” he’s yelling. “Finest room $6.50 can buy. And a stack o’ rubbers” — he raises the imagi­nary stack in his left palm, Exhibit A. “I was prepared … to meet the virus. And I had me a stem,” he lifts his right hand, ” — and $50 of what goes in it. And I had me a beautiful black woman. And she was willing, brothers and sisters. She was fuckin’ desperate.”

Charlie lowers his right fist and inhales for a long time, closing his eyes. He looks like he’s seeing something horrible when he opens them again. “When you smok­ing crack,” he says with a lowering voice, “you get paranoid. Like a motherfucker . I’d be checking out the woman, the rub­bers, then back at the bitch. And she be saying, ‘C’mon Charlie, I wanna get down.’ And I get mad. Furious. ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales, glowering, his eyes growing wide until he looks furious, dan­gerous. ” ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales again, “‘I am gonna fuck the shit out of your black ass. Just as soon as I finish.’ ” He inhales once more, then looks at his left hand. “I’m so paranoid now I put on all the rubbers. Sixteen of ’em.”

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Everyone starts howling as Charlie mimes it, each one more difficult to force on. “Even my rubbers was paranoid!” he screams. “By the time the last one’s on, they’re yelling, ‘No Charlie! Please! Don’t make us go in there! Let’s go in that bathroom and massss-tuhbate.’ ”

Two elegant kids with matching dou­ble-breasted suits, gold wire-rims, and Grace Jones coifs fall to their knees on this last joke, pleading, “Oh shit, oh shit.” Charlie checks them out, rising from his garbage can. “Jesus!” he screams. “There’s two of you mother­fuckers. The rhinestone asshole twins. But I like my man’s hair,” he points to one, strutting the width of his circle like a five-foot-four Jake LaMotta, making eye contact with anyone who’ll dare. “Looks like a fuckin’ shoebrush.”

As he settles back into the garbage can to do his imitation of a crackhead vet pirouetting paranoically down the Bow­ery in his wheelchair, a six-foot-six, 250- pound wino spills out of the crowd to join the fun, coughing up ugly fluids, roaring like a hippo. He gets an ovation from the crowd — seemingly the only response he’s had in months — and decides to stay. Charlie, who’s been dealing with occupa­tional hazards like this on a daily basis for over a decade, borrows a dollar from someone, then, like a matador, holds it up to the man, saying, “Here, Papa,” till the man sees the bill and goes for it, repeatedly, as Charlie leads him safely out of the circle.

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“How many you people like my show?” he asks, returning the dollar; he gets a huge round. “Good. Because now I collect for real. I want you to pay me! I don’t drink, I don’t steal, and I haven’t had any drugs in … excuse me, what time is it?”

The last time I saw Charlie, I realize as he passes by with his monogrammed leather baseball cap in his hand, was in this spot, but that was over a year ago. I’ve forgotten how small and fragile he is, how childlike his features are, how lean and adolescent his body looks. All his clothes seem outsized, like he’s still a few months shy of growing into them: his cap (worn backward), plain blue T-shirt, un­laced Avias, cuffed Levis, always clean and ironed. He looks more like a well­scrubbed Little Leaguer heading for a full day at the playground than a 34-year-old man who’s spent the night in an SRO.

“SURE, I’ll TALK TO YOU,” Charlie says while he’s signing autographs, con­firming an amorous Columbia Grammar student’s suspicions that it was him she saw on all those episodes of Miami Vice. Once the fans are gone, he counts the coins and bills in his hat. He isn’t pleased. “I had me a lot of money once,” he commiserates with himself. “So you want to talk about drugs, right?”

Struck a little dumb by his directness, I ask after his resume, and Charlie reels off a list of performances: his movies, a ton of cable specials, a film he wrote and starred in called Terms of Enrollment: Charlie Barnett’s Guide to Higher Educa­tion, a role in Nobody’s Fool, the list goes on. I ask if he made a lot of money for his biggest movie, D.C. Cab. “Yep, and a $1.2 million contract for three movies. Plus points and all that bullshit. Fucked that up good. Plus 10 Miami Vice episodes — ”

“What was it like working with … ?”

“Don’t like him. Don Johnson? Don’t like me either. Had a fistfight with him, right on the set, first few days. ‘Cause I stole the episode. It was called ‘Cool Run­nin’.’ I stole it. They were talking about how this black guy’s great, and the man just started fuckin’ with me, saying ‘You been on this show for a week and you think it’s yours.’ And so I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and we got into it.”

“Did you get in any good shots?”

“Nah, it turned into a wrassle. The teamsters grabbed us and dragged us off. He called me and apologized. I just did another Vice, a year ago.”

I tell him I can’t connect all that with doing street shows for chump change. He shakes his head, telling me that isn’t the problem. “I made $200 one show last Saturday and I woke up on a bench in Tompkins Square Park next morning. I did even better that night, and I was standing in the food line Monday morn­ing. I’m trying to handle these drugs.”

A woman who looks faintly familiar to Charlie comes up to talk. A friend of a friend, she tells him about the rough time she’s had since coming to New York, and Charlie reaches into his hat for a $5 bill, a substantial fraction of what’s in there. “Listen,” he tells me, “I gotta walk. Let’s do this tomorrow or something.” “Fine,” I say, then watch him walk her to the corner and say goodbye, patting her shoulder warmly, making a couple of jokes before he turns round and heads east, toward the Bowery, walking faster and faster till he’s out of sight.

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THE NEXT DAY COMES but Charlie doesn’t, nor the next or the day after. Saturday, a gorgeous day, brings a mob to the park, and an almost medieval array of performers sets up shop in the center of the fountain: Joey Joey, a unicyclist/ sword-swallower; mimes; a martial arts juggler; a six-five transsexual in green body paint imitating the Statue of Liber­ty; the Calypso Tumblers, flipping and flying over each other and making a ton of money. Everyone but the prince of fools.

By Wednesday it’s cold and rainy. The main attraction in the park is a squad of bearded men in yellow T-shirts talking in relay about the Power of Darkness With­in You, arguing with a homeless Hispanic woman who refutes all of their points with the simple reductio, “I’d marry a pit bull before any of you godless excuses for men.”

Late in the afternoon, I witness some­thing nasty: a black man in his thirties, leaning awkwardly over a chess table in the corner of the park, an intense, vacant look on his face as a patrolman with a size-18 neck frisks his torso, arms, and legs from behind. Finding nothing, the cop snarls some unacknowledged words to the wise and takes off, and the man sits down at the empty table to gather his wits. I recognize him suddenly: Alex, a weak but iron-willed chess player who used to be here constantly, falling into lost positions all over the board, then finding one saving move after another till his opponent finally dropped. It’s been some time since I’ve see Alex, and the change is frightening. Six months ago he was a gentle, solvent professional who didn’t seem a day over 25.

A few tables over, a friend of mine named Eddie has stopped his chess clock to watch the proceedings. “Damn,” he says, starting his clock as Alex takes off across the park at breakneck speed, “Alex is gone.” I ask where he’s gone to and Eddie, flashing his opponent a how-stu­pid-can-this-white-man-be grin, says, “East. See? The man’s gone east on im­portant business. What I hear,” he con­cludes, sacrificing a rook with an angry flourish, “business is booming.”

AT TWILIGHT I FIND CHARLIE sitting by the fountain, wrapped up in a polyester-­filled ski coat, watching a comic named Albert try to perform while a THC-­crazed kid standing nearby aims karate kicks at his head. Charlie greets me warmly, putting his arm around my shoulder, and together we watch Albert’s show disintegrate. “It’s getting cold,” he says. “People gotta go to work tomorrow. I hate to do this, but — ”

Charlie walks 20 yards away, drops his coat on the ground, and starts screaming, “Showtime. Showtime, motherfuckers.” Minutes later, he has every cogent person in the park in his corner and the show begins, Charlie down on his knees, pounding the bricks, screaming, “I hate that bitch. I hate that bitch. Robin, Bitch, Ass, Fuckin’ Givens wants $20 mil­lion for eight months of marriage and I know for a fact the Champ didn’t get to fuck her ass but four times. That’s $5 million a fuck. I know a woman on 3rd Street for $20. Yo, Mike,” he whispers, “spend the extra buck on the rubber — it’s worth it. And I knew,” he raises a fist in solidarity, “I knew she married my man for his money. Think about it. Would a bitch that fine fuck a gorilla for free?”

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And on he goes, one racist, sexist, ho­mophobic joke after another, each laced with some rage or foolery so extreme he can get away with all of them. Charlie is always acting something out, something childish and familiar; whether he’s mak­ing fools of the audience or of himself, he’s making you an accomplice, his witness; if the joke doesn’t get you, the anger or panic on his face will, getting Japanese tourists to laugh about their big cameras and tiny dicks, black men to laugh about how they’ve never seen a subway token in their lives, Puerto Ricans to laugh about how they’re born with knives in their hands and live 4000 to a room, women about how they sound like a small rodeo when they’re coming, jokes about every­one and everything.

Thirty minutes later, Charlie’s feeling good, with a hat full of money and a gaggle of admirers around him, easing the bridge from showtime to reality. His girl­friend, Marcie, a 27-year-old cellist with two masters degrees, has returned from visiting relatives in Germany, and he’s living happily, and — this week, at least — ­drug-free out in some obscure part of Jersey with her again. He’s been offered a movie about sea monsters that will film in Florida over the winter, and is booking himself into the New York clubs for the month ahead, the weather dropping too rapidly for him to be able to count on street shows for a living anymore.

I go over to watch Marcie sing soprano with Zeus, Chicken George, and Jodi in an a cappella quartet called The Village All Stars. It’ been a while since I’ve heard good four-part harmony, and I’ve forgotten how beautiful it can be, how much meaning it’ll lend even the most insidious tripe:

In the words of a broken heart,
It’s just Emotion,
Breaking me over … 

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A few feet away, Charlie is settling accounts with some neighborhood credi­tors — the shish kebab man, the hot dog man, a guy who lent him $5 last week­ — everyone who asks, seemingly, but for one grinning, desperate-looking charac­ter, who seems completely unfazed by Charlie yelling at him to go fuck himself, to go fuck his mama. “You just remember that next time you come to me,” the man says with a smile.

“I hate those motherfuckers,” Charlie tells me, leading us to a bench nearby. Realizing this is my formal interview, I get the tape running and ask my first question: What motherfuckers?

“Motherfucking drug dealers. They want me to kill myself,” Charlie answers. “They always smiling, saying, ‘Hey, Charlie, how many? You got my money?’ Nah, I can’t do it. It’s a fuckin’ nightmare. Heroin, you get to nod out of reali­ty. Cocaine, you hear the least little sound. Lots of guys you see are doing speedball, they say it’ll slow you down, you won’t go back and buy coke right away. And I say, ‘Wait a minute, me and you both go running back to the drug spot, you buy the speedball, all I’m buying’s cocaine, how much is it slowing you down?’ It’s just, I’m the one making the money, and they figuring, they get me into heroin, I buy 10 bags a day.”

So on a day you’re smoking crack, a typical day …

“In the life of Charlie as Crackhead. Let’s see, I do a show. I walk that way [points east]. Toward 3rd Street. When I disappear, just like that, then I’m going to get high. Over by the Palace, the men’s shelter. Tons of fuckin’ crack. Five-dollar vials. Get a stem, light it up, suck it in, blow it out. ‘Come on. Poh’lice. ‘Sgetouttahere. Try to keep the stem on.’ ”

So how much will you do at a time?

“The whole thing.”

Which whole thing?

“Whichever whole thing there is.”

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Somebody I don’t get a good look at passes by, telling Charlie he shot his girl; from the look on Charlie’s face, I get the feeling the guy isn’t joking. When Marcie comes over in between songs and nestles into Charlie’s shoulder, I ask if he’s funny at home. No way, she says, the lazy fuck just sleeps all day, then she slaps his face and goes back to her quartet. On cue, a six-foot, 85-pound Morticia Addams look-alike drifts over to say she loved Charlie’s show, smiling at him like he’s the Charlie Manson she’s been waiting for. Charlie says he’s being interviewed, explaining, “That’s an old-fashioned junkie,” as she wanders off. Then he identifies what some of our neighbors are on; half are drugs I’ve never heard of. I ask what the crack high’s like.

“Paranoia,” he says. “I was high now, I couldn’t sit here, I’d be looking around, thinking everyone’s trying to get in my pocket.”

When ‘s the last time you smoked?

“Seven days ago. I still haven’t recov­ered. It got to a point, recently, where I couldn’t even — not that I wasn’t funny, but I’d only do $10 shows. Soon as I could get $10 in the hat I’d end it.”

So why do you do it?

“I don’t know. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a high I cannot stand. Drugs make me work my ass off. I got good at being funny ’cause I needed the money to get high.”

Do you think you ‘re punishing yourself for something?

“Probably. ‘You got a low self-esteem/if you like to beam/and it ain’t what it seem/’cause you’re chasing a dream/down 3rd Street, the Devil’s beat.’ ”

Sounds like a rap song.

“Me and Marcie wrote it together. It’s called ‘Third Street.'” He takes out a dog-eared, typewritten copy of the lyrics and starts reading:

… This drug is a drug
that will kill your ambition
but ya jus’ won’t listen
coz ya can’t stop dissin’
and you’re always in position
for goin’ on a mission
it’s an everyday tradition
on Third Street.

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I get the feeling Charlie’s self-conscious about reading, and I look down, nodding to his faltering beat, surprised at how lame his rapping is, how little snap is in his bravado. Charlie’s a consummate clown, capable of becoming anyone in­stantly, and this would seem a simple enough persona. By the last page his voice is almost inaudible, incredibly plaintive, and I look up. His eyes are closed and I realize he’s no longer recit­ing, that he never really was:

I jus’ gotta get high and I don’t know why
I wanna take away the pain but then it’s back again
I’m just sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ greedy and needy and seedy.
I’m finished with the filth and the crime
crack crack crackin’ it up all the time
crawling through the gutter and slowly dyin’
Jus’ can’t stop buyin’
on Third Street, the Devil’s beat. * 

I wait out a long moment before re­sponding: Sounds pretty dreadful.

“It is. Right from the start. I want to stop. I’ve been running good and bad with it, going to NA [Narcotics Anony­mous] meetings. One day I’ll smoke, then I’ll stop for a week, then I’ll do it for a month. Pure paranoia. If your hand was here, I’d watch my bag. I don’t trust nobody.”

I look at his hands, which are enor­mous: huge, spatulate fingers, each fin­gernail as wide as two of mine. “I’ve got these E.T. fingers,” he shrugs. “I was born with an enlarged heart, then I got rheumatic fever when I was a year old.”

Where were you living then?

“Well, I was born in Boston; when I got that they said I was in North Carolina.”

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Charlie talks a little of his past, sketch­ily, and with a tenderness that belies the content of what he’s saying. His mother, he says, “was fucked up, stepdaddies and shit.” His one memory of his real father takes the form of a joke: “My dad cracked up in the Korean War; by the time I was a year old he’d told enough neighbors he was Jesus they put him in the nuthouse for five years. When he came out, he didn’t say he was Jesus anymore. He said he was God — which was fine, ’cause that made me Jesus.”

Charlie doesn’t have any jokes to tell about his childhood in North Carolina, just some bitter, impressionistic memo­ries of being largely uncared for by rela­tives, of the stigma of his semiorphanage and complete poverty, of being beaten by teachers in class and by the kids after school. “They used to never promote me in school. I used to always get whuppings. The kids used to beat up on us afterward, and it was an embarrassment to play with the Barnett boys. My older brother and me, the black sheeps on the street. My mother dumped us off down there, and I didn’t see her for 11 years.”

When he finally returned to his moth­er, at the age of 12, she was “still fucked up” and he was practically illiterate, which in the Boston of the early ’60s meant an effective end to his education. (After the Saturday Night Live auditions he taught himself to read.) He remembers adolescence as a series of racist reform schools in Massachusetts, which taught him only “how to fight, to stay alive, and what drugs did what for your head.”

“Comedy,” he says, “came much later, as a kind of gift I never knew I had. I learned I could make people laugh, that I loved to do that, and that after a while I could make a living at it. I never thought of making it, I never thought of audition­ing for anything. Everything I ever got came from someone seeing me on the street and wanting me.”

Joel Schumacher, his director on D.C. Cab, remembers an “incredible need to succeed in Charlie, and a shyness and innocence that I formed an immediate attachment to. He was like a kid who’d fallen asleep dreaming up one of his street shows and then woken up on a Hollywood set. A lot of people got very interested in Charlie very quickly,” he recalls, “making him all kinds of offers. It confused him, brought on all sorts of con­flicts and doubt. I felt a little culpable, and wondered if I wouldn’t have done better to have left him in the park, where at least he knew the turf. He’s such a complicated, fragile person, a true origi­nal. Over the years he’s really paid the price for being so. Even when everything was going so well, there was a kind of Judy Garland-John Belushi side to Char­lie, very angry, self-destructive, very much the same anguish, finally the same response. In our Marie Antoinette era, we say, ‘Just Say No to Drugs.’ But what does that mean to someone like Charlie? Just say no to a lifetime of anger?”

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Greg Mullins says that Charlie’s is “the saddest case I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in the business 14 years. I remember one night, during one of Charlie’s drug-free periods, I took a colleague to a show of Charlie’s that just wasn’t working. He was clearly uncomfortable onstage, un­funny, not like himself at all. My friend said, ‘Greg, how do we get him back on drugs?’ It’s a cruel story, but it illustrates the point: Charlie’s humor comes from his life, and his life’s been a cruel one.”

“I’ve had a fucked-up life,” Charlie nods. “My life is fucked up. I’m an angry man, and I’m an angry comic. I’m funni­est when I’m mad. But you have to be on, and you’ve got to be quick. My brand of humor, you can’t be, shit, what’s that word? The audience will take over, you have to be so bold they’ll just accept you, so they say, fuck it, we have to, ’cause he’s too crazy for us to reason with him. I say all that vulgarity — sex, all that shit, people will — I get hecklers. They don’t like what I say and speak on it. So I dog ’em. You can’t be laid back worth a fuck. Some women get angry during the shows, ’cause that’s where a lot of my anger comes from and that’s where it goes. I used to have a hell of a temper, used to always beat up on women.

“It’s funny though, my father died this summer, and I went to see my mother, first time in years. When I was a year old, she was in trouble and sent me away for 11 years. When I came home, she was in trouble, and when I saw her this summer she was still in trouble. Only now I was a junkie, and I had to forgive her a lot of shit. We both just started crying.”

“Charlie,” Marcie told me later, “has lots of sides to him: his image side, which is really up for grabs, day-to-day. He’s got a very ‘personal’ side — the ‘Fuck it, I might as well just be honest’ side. He’s got what he calls his nigger side, which is very proud, and pretty cutting. And there’s the real Charlie, that only people like One-Eyed Shorty know, bums and addicts. More important, it’s how Charlie knows himself. King of the Park. Lots of times we wouldn’t have enough money to eat, and Charlie’d give them half of it, ’cause they had nothing. It comes from knowing what it’s like. Sometimes he’d be walking through the park at 7 a.m. after a night of partying, without a dime and hungry. He’d yell, ‘OK, I’m collecting for yesterday’s show,’ and they’d pay up-a quarter, 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but at times like that it can be a lot of money.”

The Village All Stars are retiring for the night. There’s no one left in the park to sing for but the Rastas selling drugs by the chess tables, and they’re here for the night. Charlie really wants to go, rushing Marcie, saying a quick goodbye to me. Last week this time, Charlie was east­bound once the show was over, and it’s clear he’s still programmed that way, strongly, only what he wants now is to go home while he still can. When the five of them head up Fifth Avenue, Charlie’s a few steps ahead of the others and looking back over his shoulder, impatient at their dawdling and singing, which he keeps telling them is “completely homeless.”

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THE COMIC STRIP on 82nd & Second is a welcome anachronism among the nou­veau quiche cafés and boutiques of the Upper East Side, a place you’d sooner expect to pop up in some Jack Webb vehicle of the ’50s. Inside is the warm comfort of old wood, old beer, and old jokes; the clientele at the dimly lit bar (ex-comics, mostly, and comics waiting to go on) arguing about George Bush seem like they might as well be talking about Duke Snider or Abe Beame. I find Char­lie, glum and angry, sitting with Marcie in a graffiti-scarred oak booth opposite the bar. He’s been given the best spot, at 1 a.m., but there are four comics on be­fore him, and he says he doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be anywhere.

It’s been a month or so since I first met Charlie. I’ve gotten a powerful second­hand taste of what running good and bad with a major league drug habit’s like, the good time spent largely recuperating, the bad in tremendous isolation, in a place where I certainly can’t follow him. Char­lie is remorselessly candid about his life (it’s the source of his comedy, and he doesn’t seem to know how to be any other way), but piecing it together from what he says is puzzle work. Events he describes in a deeply historical tone often turn out to have taken place two days before, and his mood swings are baffling and sudden: one afternoon, I’d find him performing in the fountain at the top of his form, wearing his sleeveless CHOOSE LIFE T-shirt, doing a perfect moonwalk as he explains he’s just trying to get the shit off his shoes, then I’d witness one of his $10 corner shows and quick getaways lat­er that week. The end of it all seems to be the mood I find him in now, depressed, hostile, confused, utterly disgusted.

Still, things are looking up. There’s a tentative two-week offer from a big club in Fort Lauderdale, coinciding nicely with the sea monsters he’ll be costarring with nearby. Charlie, a professional comedian above all else, knows how to take the good in the same stride as the worst of it. Though he’s feeling like shit, he’s all busi­ness tonight, hustling agents who’ve come to see him, talking shop with club-­owner Richard Tinken, a big man in the comedy field and someone in a position to do him some good. He settles back in the booth and tells me about life in L.A., how he got sick of the condo swimming pool after a month, then retired every afternoon to the sauna in his apartment, sweating the drugs out. After a cold shower he’d walk down Sunset Boulevard past the Chateau Marmont (the luxury hotel where John Belushi OD’ed) to the Comedy Store or over to Venice Beach to do a street show. I ask Charlie how the clubs in L.A. compare to New York. “Same shit,” he says, “nice places.”

The Comic Strip’s eight-by-10-foot stage is only a few inches above the audi­ence level, so well-lit it’s practically glow­ing in the dark, 200-seat room surround­ing it. It’s a full house tonight, 98 per cent white: aging jocks from the boroughs in threes and fours, awkward, half-drunk couples, flocks of tourists. A lot of the women look like they’ve been dragged here, and it is a fairly macho scene. The beginning of a 10-man, all-night bachelor party has a lock on the first-row tables; the groom, a kind of Spuds MacKenzie on two legs, has an audible head start in the booze department and pride of place under the microphone. He’s been heck­ling the shit out of the last two comics.

Limited to 15 minutes, Charlie hits the stage running, and by his second joke is walking up and down in front of the first-­row tables, asking the two black couples in back to smile so he can see them, giving high-fives to Bachelor #1, yelling “How the hell are you, fuckin’ A, how’s the wife, how’s my kids?” then stepping onto a second-row table to ask a stony­-faced middle-aged woman where she’s from. “From St. Louis,” she says. “Do the women there masturbate?” Charlie asks politely. Apparently they don’t, or would rather not say, and this enrages Charlie. “You lying bitch,” he yells, walk­ing to the stage and flopping on his back. “What the fuck is this?” He puts a finger to his groin and starts convulsing up and down the stage until the woman, who can’t believe what she’s looking at, snick­ers under her hand a little. Charlie keeps it up, his mouth open and gagging, his eyes going white, and finally the woman starts roaring, louder than the bachelors in front of her. When he finishes, Charlie leans back on an elbow. “Now you re­member?” he asks, nodding his head. “I thought you would.”

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AFTER HIS SET, I offer Charlie and Mar­cie a ride to Port Authority in the cab I’m taking downtown. Turning onto Times Square, wall-to-wall crowds at 3:00 a.m., I ask Charlie, who’s been pretty quiet the whole ride, if he’d ever perform in a place like this. “I do perform here, all the fuckin’ time,” he says. “That corner over there.”

I take a long look at the furtive little congregations forming and unforming at the “Meat Market,” the corner of 42nd and Eighth; it’s been said that over $1 million changes hands on this corner ev­ery day. To me, it’s like watching a bee­hive, only more alien, dozens and dozens of people moving back and forth, no one seeming to leave. To Charlie it’s just an­other crowd: “Huge audiences,” he says, looking out the window with me, “any time of the night. Hookers, winos, crack dealers, heroin addicts, drag queens, pimps. They pay real well. You’d be amazed at how well they pay here. Good place to work on your heckler lines, any new material. I learn how to time my routines here.”

I’ve never heard Charlie talk about ma­terial before, or timing or routines, any of the buzzwords of his work; it’s easy to lose sight of his craft. I ask if there are any other comedians he likes, and he says, “Richie,” really softly, with incredi­ble tenderness. “Lenny.”

At risk of patronizing Charlie, I ask him: “Why on earth would men like that destroy themselves with drugs?”

Charlie turns to Marcie and says he wants to go for a bite before getting on the bus back to Jersey. I wonder if he hasn’t heard me, or if he’s just impervi­ous to such questions. “Because he’s a drug addict,” he finally says, looking lost in thought as he steps out of the cab. “What more reason do you need?” ■


1980-1989: The Crack-Up

The Decade of the Quick and the Dead

IN THE SUMMER of 1979, Reverend Ike was king in Harlem — not the slick preacher of the gilded temple in Washington Heights, but the pepper­mint-scented portion of parsley in miniature coin envelopes. Sold in a row of brownstones on 123rd between Sev­enth and Lenox, and 112th and Fifth­ — Dust City — these bags of PCP were stamped in red ink with names like Rev­erend Ike, Busy Bee, Improve, and Red Devil. In the minds of many of the moth­ers and grandmothers shopping for chick­en and pot roast in the Pioneer super­market on Friday, and the preachers and the elders in the Seventh Day Adventist Ephesus Church on Saturday, PCP had not only brought Harlem to its knees, but closer to the end of the world.

A friend and I shared our thoughts one night, smoking up a trey (three-dollar) bag of Red Devil on the front steps of the Ephesus Church, one hellish summer night. We both had the same hallucina­tion, something right out of the Bible, that the moon was turning into the color of blood. We had walked around a lot that night, after we got zooted up; I don’t know whether it was a few steps or a few miles, but he said he was tired, and his feet were soaking wet from stepping into a puddle, so we went back to sit on the steps of the church. We looked at the sky, we looked at each other, and then he started crying.

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“This shit is wrong, man,” he said. “We here gettin’ high in front of the house of God. Look at all these people,” he said, pointing to the long line of cars, many with out-of-state plates pulling up to the brownstones as the young scram­blers ran out and exchanged envelopes for bags, chanting in singsong, “Dust, dust, make ya head bust.” ’23rd Street was jammed with customers and mer­chants, like some huge open-air psychic bazaar. “Man, the world got to be coming to a end. Got to be.”

I nodded as he sobbed again; not in agreement or disagreement, it just felt good to shake my head and feel as if the world was a big ferris wheel. Then my buddy started laughing: “Yo, Bee, is it raining? Do you feel wet, ’cause, yo, my feet is like soaked.” We looked down; he had lost his black-suede British Walkers, and a pool of blood trickled from his feet into a tiny crimson lake near the corner of the church steps. We cracked up with laughter, and I don’t remember the rest.

It was the beginning of the ’80s.

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HEROIN EPITOMIZED the ’60s; after the deaths of Malcolm, Martin, and John, after the fiasco of The Great Society, the urban riots, and the nightly magnums of blood poured onto our TV dinners — via the CBS News scorecard of the Vietnam War — we were ready to go to sleep. Once we’d dozed off, the ’70s were the dream — ­and PCP was the symbol. It seemed like every week around the turn of the decade, friends told me about somebody smoking some dust, buggin’, and then jumping out of a window or off the roof of a housing project, stabbing someone to death, de­capitating someone, or jumping into the Harlem River with their clothes on trying to swim to Yankee Stadium side, only to find out midway that they can’t swim. It sounds unbelievable, but the ’70s were an unbelievable decade: Nixon, Watergate, Ford, Carter, Superfly, “Kung Fu Fight­ing,” platform shoes, orange-and-green checkered double-knit pants, waterbeds, Pet Rocks, mood rings, singles bars, Sat­urday Night Fever, Saturday Night Live, Star Wars, the Iran hostage crisis — and the election of Ronald Reagan.

IN THE ’80s, it was Morning in America and we woke up to find that our night­mares were real: it became the Decade of the Quick and the Dead. Spike Lee opened Do the Right Thing with a morn­ing call to Wake Up! and crack-cocaine obliterated the night. Crackheads and Wall Street junk bond traders lay on their cardboard boxes and futons, staring at the ceiling and grinding their teeth, trying to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, the lucky ones counted dead presidents. Reagan and his posse, the Reaganites, reinvented the game of Monopoly, and the rich played it with Crazy Money. Ivan Boesky, Mike Milken, Tom Wolfe, Oliver Stone, and Michael Douglas proved it could be won with style. Douglas’s Gor­don Gekko gear (the Alan Flusser and Ermengildo Zegna suits) and slicked-back slimecoif became the fashion rage in the pages of GQ and Vanity Fair. The street version featured the fat, telephone cable–­thick gold chains, MCM and Gucci leath­er jackets, and beepers of the New Jack dopeboys and it was copied by the subur­ban kids of New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles.

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It was the decade of If-You-Blinked­-You-Missed-It: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins throwing head fakes, transforming towering men into manne­quins, and house-dunking it for two points; Florence Griffith-Joyner breaking the land speed record in the ’88 Olympics; the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft right before our eyes. And NJC even created its own music, via Harlem-bred Teddy Riley: a fast rap-funk mash called New Jack Swing, that kicked as hard as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie did in the ’20s. Bobby Brown became our Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, and his Prerogative was to teach little white kids in Danbury and Omaha and San Antonio how to do the shaka-zulu, the running man, and the Mike Tyson, as their parents scratched their heads. Rap music became so fast and complicated, it wasn’t rap music anymore; it is now speakology, with master speak-icians like Kool G Rap and D.J. Polo, Eric B. and Rakim, KRS ONE, Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, and the Jungle Brothers.

While he napped, Reagan’s No Doz de­cade created the mutant inner-city envi­ronment known as New Jack City that ran 24-7, a multropolis — a cityscape with distinct characteristics that multiplies and spreads — created by the exorbitant profits from crack, and decaying moral nucleus. This floating city of the damned was built on neglect: it was the under­class’s reaction to the elimination of vital community programs, afterschool recre­ation centers, neighborhood youth job core programs, college scholarships based on need.

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Millions of people lost hope, and the roaches decided to capitalize. Cocaine started as the new champagne of the night world; an exquisite, fast high. It was accelerated as free base, speedier, more expensive. When the market ex­panded and the price was knocked down from $20 to $5 a vial, sad people came in droves. Soon, whole city blocks were con­sumed by crack, woolah joints (crack and reefer), crackhouses, crackspots, empty vials with multicolored tops, tiny plastic baggies, acetylene torches crackhead zombies beating up their grandmothers and taking the VCR, the microwave, the heirloom ring that’d been in the family for 50 years, glass stems, scraping the black residue from the glass bowl. 230-pound people who became rail-thin in less than two weeks, 40- and 50-year-old men who became crackheads because they hung out with $3 hookers who got them high to steal their money, fresh­-scrubbed Bronx Science princesses who turned into scuzzy, emaciated, blowjob queens and lost so much weight they had to chug liquid protein drinks like Nutra­ment to keep their customers coming, 15-year-old kids promising older heroin junkies a couple hundred dollars and a few bags of china white to pose as their fathers while they dumped shopping bags of cash at their friendly neighborhood BMW dealer, the mob of homeless young men who congregate on street corners to strategize and dole out assignments of song and spiel before getting on the sub­way to guilt riders out of their money, rows of discolored newborns on respira­tors in city hospitals, crack, the end of a decade, the end of an age, the end of the world, crack.

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HERE’S MY MENTAL diary of the decade:

On Monday, my white pillow was soaked with blood that had run from my nose and I swore off drugs forever. On Tuesday, I was kissing both of my new­born sons on their pinkish-red foreheads in the delivery room of South Baltimore General Hospital. Wednesday, I watched my five-year-old on stage singing “Noel, Noel” and “Silent Night” with his kinder­garten class, while my two-year-old was sitting on my lap, begging me to buy him some kind of freaking teenage mutant ninja turtle. On Thursday, I met a kid — a Baltimore Yo Boy, a teenage hitman/dope merchant — who was bragging to me about the four people he’d squeezed off before he was 14. On Friday, he was a 21-year-old junkie, anesthetizing himself against his memories, when he died of complications from AIDS. On Saturday, I watched Connie Chung introduce a “reenactment” of a dope buy, packaging the misery I’ve experienced and selling it back to the masses.

On Sunday, I woke up from Mourning in America and looked back at the wasted decade, searching for an answer. I blame Ed Koch, 970 numbers, civil righteous phonies, the whole Reagan administra­tion Just Say No, the Medellin cartel, the New York Post, and whoever invented the word wilding. I blame fax machines, cellular phones, and laptop computers with multi mega megabyte for this sand-in-the-hourglass effect, pushing time further away from us.

I try to make up for the time I don’t get to spend with my sons, or my suns — ’cause they shine, you understand — by taping them with a JVC video camera, and playing it on a Toshiba VCR away from home, rewinding their smiles and giggles over and over, and then putting their “I love you, Daddy” on pause. But that only lasts five minutes. ■


Pop Goes the Decade: Car 54 — Wherever You Are, Stay There
by Eddie Gorodetsky, as ranted to Jan Hoffman


Crack Drama “Snowfall” Can’t Get Its Game on Track

Days before the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me premiered, the news hit that John Singleton’s original script for the project opened the rapper’s story with Tupac being raped in prison. Singleton had left the ill-fated film twice before Benny Boom stepped in to helm it, but it was clear from that first screenplay that Singleton wasn’t fucking around. He was striving for the kind of gritty but stylized realism that distinguished his debut, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.

With a slick look and a punchy logline — the series promises the origin story of the U.S. crack epidemic, told through fictional key players in 1980s Los Angeles — FX’s Singleton-created Snowfall certainly delivers some grit and realism, and it has an unnerving male-rape scene of its own. But Singleton the trailblazer has here come up with a series that’s more derivative than it is original, one without a clear focus — or the heart of recent series such as Fox’s Shots Fired.

Snowfall compares too easily to any number of peak-TV dramas. A slow-burn, less-is-more aesthetic comes courtesy of The Americans; a multitude of interlocking story lines and insider law enforcement knowledge owes something to The Wire; and a wry humor that dances with absurdity, along with a long-con narrative, recalls Breaking Bad. What’s surprising, though, is how many similarities Snowfall shares in form with a comedy: Silicon Valley.

That HBO series frustrates and delights (but mostly frustrates) with its cyclical narrative, in which the leads’ every success builds to a downfall, until everyone, every episode, is right back where they started. Snowfall functions similarly, with three main characters each plotting his own ascent — by pushing coke on the street, or being the muscle for a wannabe drug kingpin, or dealing powder to secretly fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Franklin (Damson Idris) is a good African American kid with entrepreneurial spirit. Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is a gentle giant in need of cash. And Teddy (Carter Hudson) is a sometimes befuddled, sometimes brilliant CIA agent in need of redemption. All fail miserably. Again and again. And it’s frustrating as hell. Only the spot-on casting and performances keep this show from spinning its wheels grave-deep.

Snowfall adjusts its visual style for each of its protagonists. Vintage yellows follow Franklin around like he’s living inside an old Polaroid, while Gustavo gets a grimy green filter heavy on the shadows, and Teddy is layered in a sterile blue tint. A fourth character on the fringe — eccentric Israeli drug lord Avi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), who seems ripped right out of Boogie Nights — soaks up a sunny, neutral light and acts as the fulcrum on which these three characters’ stories balance.

Every house Franklin enters — aunt’s, uncle’s, cousin’s — has a set of funky beaded curtains hanging between rooms, which seems more metaphor than period detail; this ambitious young man has the ability to see through obstacles, through the next door, but can’t help getting tangled up along the way. When he grows tired of playing it straight as a corner-shop cashier, he stumbles into Avi’s world to ask for a kilo of cocaine to move — money’s on his mind. The kid’s clean-cut, the kind of guy Bill Cosby would laud for good posture and grades, so it’s delightful to see him opposite Avi, as the silver-haired, Speedo-clad kingpin giggles, testing out bulletproof vests by shooting at his own drunken, hard-partying henchmen around the pool. Every scene with Avi pops with unpredictability and dark humor.

Meanwhile, Gustavo, a part-time luchador by the name El Oso, quietly objects to the outrageous demands of his new bosses, Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa) and Lucia (Emily Rios), who ask him to break into Pedro’s dangerous dad’s house and steal thousands of dollars. Every inch of Gustavo’s enormous body sighs, “I’m too old for this shit,” but he has no choice. Rios, best known for her role as Jesse’s love interest on Breaking Bad, shines in her role as a gutsy, thoughtful criminal. When an obstacle’s thrown in Lucia’s way, she grinds her teeth, her eyes shifting until they land on Gustavo, the solution to her problems.

And in the CIA realm, Teddy is an unexpected and welcome detour from the archetype of a jet-set agent. The first time we see him, he’s not charming ambassadors in a tailored suit; he’s in a humdrum office, shredding documents on a lazy Saturday. When another agent overdoses — after a sexy woman blows coke up the man’s ass — Teddy is pulled into an elaborate scheme to fund the war in Nicaragua by moving cocaine in the United States. (Though it’s fictionalized here, a similar operation actually happened.) We then see him don a Members Only jacket and pep-talk himself into character to meet with Avi. Hudson reveals immense depth in Teddy, a man who can shiver and howl with fear after finding a leach on his arm and, in the next second, suavely impersonate a cunning drug dealer.

For all that is glorious about the acting, directing, and individual scenes — many of which etched themselves in my memory — Snowfall is a collection of unique, beautiful flakes that don’t quite coalesce into a drift. More than halfway through the first season, the three story lines are still spiraling in opposite directions, with little indication that they’re ever going to tie together.

Snowfall airs Wednesdays on FX


Cy Vance Goes Gangbusters In Harlem; “Flow Boyz” Crack-Slangin’ Operation Takes Hit

If you’ve been buying your crack at East Harlem housing projects, you may need to find a new commodities distributor — the crack distribution operations of two alleged gangs were shut down yesterday, and nearly 20 alleged gangsters are on the hook for multiple crack-related felonies.

The two gangs — the “Flow Boyz” and “20 BLOCC” — operated out of the Wagner Houses and Taino Towers housing projects in East Harlem, where Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance says the thugs operated an “open-air drug market,” and residents were forced to “pass through a gauntlet of drug dealers” just to get to their homes.

“The defendants are accused of holding their neighborhood hostage for three years while they dealt crack cocaine on sidewalks, playgrounds, in residential buildings, stairwells, lobbies, and even in front of a community center,” Vance says. “By working with the NYPD and NYCHA, we are doing our part to make New York safer neighborhood by neighborhood. It is my hope that this case will help return the community to its residents and families.”

Authorities have been investigating the crack-slangin’ operations for nearly three years. During that time, authorities captured video footage of several alleged gangsters selling what was later determined to be both crack and powder cocaine. Additionally, undercover NYPD officers made hand-to-hand deals with some of the defendants.

When asked this morning why it took so long to make the bust — considering these gangs have been on the radar of law enforcement for years, and they allegedly sold crack to cops — Vance says the investigation needed to be thorough “so when the take-down happens it’s impactful.”

Authorities say the two gangs are “loosely knit,” and don’t have a traditional top-down organizational structure.” But investigators were able to identify leaders of the gangs through surveillance over an extended period of time.

Vance says the two gangs weren’t necessarily working together, but they were “not in opposition” to each other. He says they operated as separate entities, but that if a gang from another housing project stepped into their respective territories around the Wagner Houses, they would join forces to run them out.

This is the seventh major take-down of a drug-distribution ring in Harlem in the past 18 months. In the previous busts, a total of 132 gangsters were taken off the streets for various crimes, including gun trafficking and distribution of PCP.

In yesterday’s bust, 19 alleged thugs were hauled in by police for various crack-related crimes, including criminal sale of a controlled substance and conspiracy. At least one gun — a 9-millimeter handgun — was recovered during the bust.

“They thought they were immune from law enforcement,” Anthony Izzo, chief of the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, said this morning. “They thought they could operate with impunity. This case illustrates that clearly they were wrong.”


Junk Food Might Kill Kids with Video Games: Report

New British research suggests that junk-food companies really don’t have kids’ best interests in mind, as they knowingly shill unhealthy eats to unsuspecting minors, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Groups like Kellogg’s and Cadbury try to lure kids into eating fatty, sugary snacks by setting up websites with video games and pairing cartoon characters with products, claims the British Heart Foundation and the Children’s Food Campaign, which conducted the research.

The companies have also taken to Facebook and Twitter — and sending email directly to kids — to attract underage customers, the newspaper reports.

In Britain, advertisements for these foods cannot run during children’s TV programming — but no law bars the conglomerates from marketing online.

The paper notes that some Britons want tighter regulation of these Internet adverts, since kids can’t tell whether they’re consuming ads.

Critics say these advertisements are designed too discreetely — so that youth often assume they’ve just stumbled upon online freebies.

Among the not-so-nutritious picks marketed on the sly: Krave cereal, Cheestrings, Nesquik, Sugar Puffs, Capri-Sun, Rowntree, Chupa Chups, and Cadbury Buttons, the Telegraph reports.