Kid Kingpin: The Rise and Fall of a Drug Dealer

ST. JOHN’S IS A SQUALID residential building at 651 Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx, near a stretch known to law-enforcement officers as the Westchester Strip. Outside the building, four lookouts walk. Others perch on nearby fire escapes while two runners steer the streets. The thick metal door to a first-floor apartment, 1C, is framed with cement, sending a familiar message to the people who occupy the building: You-don’t-pause-here-unless-you-want-some.

Behind the hole in the door stands a pitcher, who hands out glassines. Red, yellow, and green bulbs flash him instructions from a homemade panel nailed to the floor. Upstairs, in another apartment, the dealer works. He places the tiny bags of heroin in the dumbwaiter and sends them downstairs. The pitcher has no way out of the first-floor apartment but up. Sheet metal, pipes, bars barricade all windows.

Listen closely as Boy George briefs the novice pitcher — he’s certain to explain, but he won’t speak loud and he’ll say it once:

If I look out the window and I could see a cop, I give it the yellow switch. You see it, and you slow down. If there is no movement in the upstairs apartment — no signals coming — you know something’s up and you bum rush. Bum rush. If I hit the red switch, pack everything up, get in the dumbwaiter, and go. Green’s green dude. The material come down and the money go up. That’s all you need to know, ready? Breakfast or lunch or dinner? Send a runner for a hero and one of those big, big Cokes.

At your service, right down to the food.

There can be no skimming of the product because there is no conversation because there are no phones. It is very organized. The lookouts signal to the dealer — a raised baseball hat, a touch to the face — and the dealer hits the appropriate switch, translating his instructions into color. The pitcher responds to light drop after drop, only knowing how much heroin to deliver; the steerer just knows how much he takes in, the exact amount to be offered up.

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At the end of the ’80s, while America concerned itself with the consequences of crack, and crack dealers continued in that hyper trade, Boy George was running five heroin locations in the South Bronx, including 139th and Brook, one of the oldest and more profitable heroin venues in the borough.

Whoever acts gets the prize — experience taught Boy George that. And the more severe the action, the better the prize. According to federal prosecutors Henry DePippo and Patrick Fitzgerald, by the time he turned 18 Boy George was a dealer of the major league. In late 1988, when he was 20 years old, Boy George was the primary source of heroin in the South Bronx, employing more than 50 workers and grossing about a quarter of a million dollars a week. The brand name of this teenager’s heroin was Obsession. The logo on its little bags was a red king’s crown.

Although he was an accomplished businessman — manipulating forms of threat and people’s fears — Boy George remained a child. Personality was his certain gift — ­impudent, streetwise, disarming, as cautious as he was searching, Boy George was charming. And mean. He always was a tough boy, but he earned his way to living large — expensive toys and outrageous risks and an entourage of eager, less well-­equipped kids. Government documents describe the estate he bought in Puerto Rico, with $140,000 in cash, and the stable of cars he kept in America —BMWs, Porsches, and Mercedes Benzes. He customized his favorites with $12,000 Ostrich-skin interi­ors, 630-watt stereos, 10-track CD players, televisions with VCRs, cellular phones. Several were worthy of James Bond, whom George revered: rear license plates that slid into side compartments and exposed blind­ing beams of light, secret compartments for guns. One Mercedes 190E released gobs of oil from its tail, another, large nail-like tacks.

Boy George’s business, which he called Tuxedo Enterprises, positioned him at a height from which he could only fall hard. “I have to be in a place where I can manip­ulate the market,” he explains from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he spent much of last year in segregation (for threatening to kill former employees’ families and for the discovery of a hit list — ­in his handwriting — that included the two prosecutors and the federal judge involved in his case). “That’s my goal,” he says, “that’s what I am — a manipulator. And when it says manipulator in the dictionary, it says, ‘see American.'” And so, on this October day in 1990, halfway through the three-month trial that will end in his being sentenced to life in prison with no option for parole, Boy George continues with his dreams at the age of 23.

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When he is not preparing for his trial, Boy George studies shorthand in order to keep his note taking of the court proceed­ings up to speed. When he’s not doing that, he reads the Bible: “I can take arguments out of there,” he says. Otherwise, he relaxes with Yachting magazine. He redesigns his favorites — the 200-footers, the luxury yachts. He adds Jacuzzis to their decks, he customizes. “I get a scrap paper,” he says, grinning, “and I draw.”

Now, in the dank visiting room, a mouse scurrying on the floor beside him, he shad­owboxes. He speaks proudly about training with Hector Roca of Brooklyn’s Gleason’s Gym before his May 1989 arrest. Boy George still says he will someday beat Ty­son. Now, in his baggy orange suit, he sits solid in the chair, scrubbed face, new leath­er hightops, steady eyes. “You can’t read about it in books, and you can’t look at it in the movies,” he says, explaining his ambi­tion. “I was born with something inside of me that says, ‘George, that’s a pretty girl. Go and get her. George, that’s a pretty suit — go and get that suit. George, this is something out here, it’s for you.'” He enunciates the words spoken to him by his inner voice. “We don’t know exactly how long you’ll have it, or how wide a span it’ll get, but you could get it and all you gotta do is just put your mind to it. Don’t think of nothing else. And ask about it, think about it, think with it, act like if you were it and change the shoes around like it was you. And then you’ll see.”

He starts to box in slow motion, his words like incantation now: “Ahhhh, he wants to come at me this way, but what if I go that way?” He ducks, shadow jabbing. “‘C’mon and do it this way,’ he says, well, let’s go that way.” Boy George dodges. “And when you get a feel that you’re almost that thing, you reach out and grab it and it’s yours. You have to have a lot of sleep­less nights, but Lord behold, it’ll paint a picture.”

Back up to the summer of 1985, when George Rivera has just become Boy George. He is 17 years old, sleeping on Bronx park benches. He brushes his teeth and rinses his light-brown face in the drib­ble of fire hydrants. He has always been meticulous about his appearance, and with­in this control lies one of two emerging maxims: The first is that power grows in proportion to what you make other people see. The second is that people’s most firmly rooted perceptions are based in fear. What is visible of his life just now would inspire fear in many people: derelict blocks of ghetto, a summer morning, urban heat, a Puer­to Rican boy standing on a porch that reeks of piss and funk, two black dealers right beside him — watchful, quiet, still.

Washington and 166th is easily one of the South Bronx’s most dangerous loca­tions. Rusted stoves jut out of broken win­dows; scrap yards interrupt lot after lot of garbage rot. George arches his thin chest off the wall. Already it is an ancient gesture, but it has a residue of boyish pride (he’s just been promoted from lookout). He lopes toward a slowing car and moves his head side to side as if underwater — left-right-left-­back-left, then down smooth to the shoul­der. George takes the money. He heads into the dingy hallway and a minute later comes back out, then he’s done. He steps back up on the porch and another dealer’s already out to the next car; the third dealer moves across the street where junkies lurch toward him on foot.

In this square neighborhood the only oth­er businesses, besides narcotics, are run by tired men in crumbling caves: stray mat­tress shops (where soiled mattresses are hocked, then reupholstered) and auto-parts shops (the same, but with cars). The sounds are a mix of infants, gunshots, the reverber­ating shouts of “Radar!” (the day’s code word for undercovers), and singing. The last comes sounding out from the storefront churches, the voices of grandmothers and still-young-enough children.

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Move up one year to the spring of 1986; nothing on 166th and Washington has changed. Except the teenager standing on the porch. Now Boy George pulls up in his new white Mercedes Benz. He wears clean Levi’s, a pressed Izod, a sweater, beside him sits a pretty girl. He is a manager now. The Torres brothers allow him to collect their money — count it, pack it, do payroll, drop it — and to supply their dealers with Blue Thunder, the brand of which Boy George is partially in charge. He hires em­ployees, some triple his age. “If I can trust you, I can kill you,” he will say.

And he’ll also say that he hires individ­uals, not hoodlums, not freaks, not bums. These uncles and ex-cab drivers and teen­age sons of ex-cab drivers open the spots by 9:00 a.m. and run them through to the next morning. If the dealers or runners or lookouts or steerers need weapons, need assistance, if they need to talk to someone at any time, they beep Boy George. He shows up instantly. If he beeps them, cod­ing in his “666,” they call him back immediately. Workers are not to leave their spots to go to City Island to eat or to the movies or to White Castle, or to fuck no fucking girls, or go standing, blase, blase, blase with their crew. If the spots aren’t fed and they don’t got no reason why, if there is any problem, he will confront them once. And if a customer or dealer has a complaint as to the quality of Blue Thunder, Boy George delivers: If-this-isn’t-good-you-give-it-back=­to-me-and-I-get-it-back-and-I-give-you­-something-fresh. Done. “I don’t like to not have the answers. I don’t like the I-don’t­-knows. Excuses are for assholes. Everybody has one. Just set me up right, don’t trick me.”

Luis Guzman (his name has been changed), a South Bronx legend, gave George his street name around this time. “It was a joke. It stuck,” Boy George says. “It’s nice, it’s different. It’s not like calling somebody Chino, or calling them Red or Lefty, or Fingers. When you say Boy George you’re talking about the singer or you’re talking about me.” That it was Luis Guzman who provided him with a new identity must have meant a lot to George. Years earlier, when Luis was pitch­ing heroin in an empty lot George was afraid to walk by him on his way to elementary school. To have been christened by Guzman, Boy George thought in his childish willfulness, was an omen and a good one.

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The Obsession organization — Boy George ran other brands named Candy Land, De­lirious, and Sledgehammer — leased a pool of 10 luxury cars from OJ’s car service in Queens. The drivers, all men, could be paid up to $100 an hour to remain on call. It was at OJ’s that Boy George met Ward John­son, an older Jamaican hustler better known as Six-O. Six-O became Boy George’s first lieutenant, and when the Ob­session operation fell, Six-O would become the prosecution’s primary cooperating wit­ness. Six-O’s testimony fleshed out the in­ternal workings of Tuxedo Enterprises and freed his own son from the consequences of his involvement. Six-O himself pleaded guilty to a grab bag of charges — conspiracy to distribute heroin; using and carrying fire­arms in relation to narcotics; possession of 10.46 kilograms of heroin; evading taxes on $491,550 in income in 1988 — but he is yet to be sentenced and recently testified in another Obsession trial.

Tuxedo Enterprises originated with Boy George cutting and bagging heroin at the kitchen table of his Bronx apanment with Six-O, a kid named Weasel, and their girl­friends. Weasel was from the neighbor­hood. Weasel rarely lifted his head or his eyes but he was malleable and seemed eager to please. The product sold well and George rented another apartment as a mill. He revived the Obsession brand name by mak­ing it his own; its original managers, conveniently, were dead.

Boy George would buy units of heroin (usually about 700 grams) from his Chinese suppliers — whom he privately referred to as “Fried Rice” — and pass them along to Six-O, who would store them and distribute them to the cutting mills. At the various mills — South Bronx walkup and project apartments and some hotel rooms in Manhattan and New Jersey — the “food” was cut (diluted) and packaged in prestamped dime bags for retail sale.

As much as its distributors and custom­ers savor its purity and smell, heroin is not a product anyone keeps around. When ev­erything runs exactly as it should, it takes less than 72 hours for the drug to make its way from the distributor to a customer’s nostrils or veins. Since time can be lost setting up mills and orchestrating distribu­tion strategy, all workers must remain on call — hence the beeper.

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Boy George’s mill workers were girl­friends of his male associates and their friends (who often became girlfriends them­selves), and it was their job to cut the heroin with mannite, weigh it, and bag it in the prestamped glassines, each with its red­crown logo. They would then tape the glass­ines and package them in bundles in counts of 10. Five bundles, wrapped in newspaper, made a brick. One former mill worker, now serving 11 years with no parole for conspir­acy, said they sometimes snorted coke to stay awake through the long shifts. Older women, often the mothers or grandmothers of workers, could stamp the bags with the Obsession logo from their own project apartments, while they baby-sat the children.

According to coun records, lieutenants, like Weasel and another Obsession worker named Ralph Hernandez, delivered the bricks — packed in shopping bags, knap­sacks, or suitcases — to the managers of the locations, which were known as stores: 122nd Street and Second Avenue; the block-long building on 139th Street and Brook; 153rd-156th Streets and Courtlandt, which was a playground in a public housing project; 651 Southern Boulevard (St. John’s), also near a school; and 166th Street and Washington, the 10 square feet of cor­ner where Boy George got his start.

When all the glassines were gone, the location manager would beep Weasel or Ralphie and they would take a driver from OJ’s to pick up the money and bring it to Six-O, who recorded the transactions and did the payroll. Six-O kept very good records. Location managers generally made 10 to 20 per cent of the profit (depending upon the location), and were responsible for pay­ing the lookouts, steerers, pitchers, and runners out of their share. Weasel and Ralphie, who also became a cooperating witness, earned $2500 a week; Six-O made $12,000. Women filled the lower ranks of the opera­tion; for 12-, 15-, sometimes 20-hour shifts, they usually received $100. Boy George made roughly $45,000 a week.

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In April 1988, on the first anniversary of his empire’s founding, Boy George set up a deal with a man named Tony, a jobber. Tony introduced Boy George to Sinbad, to whom Boy George handed over $600,000 in cash. Sinbad stepped into a duplex and left through a rear exit with the money. Boy George had not cased the meeting point himself, but the problem was his. For sever­al hours, Tony was beaten by George and others, then taken to the Henry Hudson Parkway, near 86th Street, where Boy George shot him four times at close range. According to court papers, George then re­tained Juan Diaz, a/k/a Cong, to track Sin­bad down, while he paid off his Asian source with $600,000 of his own. George’s quick response to the slipup reinforced his relationship with the Asian connection and strengthened his reputation on the streets.

By the end of May, Sinbad was dead and Cong earned a full-time place as a son of bouncer. Court papers state that for $1000 a week he kept discipline within the Obses­sion operation. Hear Boy George brief him:

Don’t fall for the tricks about, Oh, I’II see you tomorrow blase blase blase, when you are dealing with someone who owes me money. You say, Listen homie, I want to eat today. So I’m not going to wait to tomorrow to eat. I want to ear right now. I want to eat today, I’m hungry. Pay up dude. That’s it.

At George’s behest Cong killed a man named Todd Crawford in the parking lot of the King Lobster Restaurant that June. In November, Boy George arranged to have Cong meet Yvette Padilla in Ferry Point Park. Yvette had been accused of stealing a gold and diamond-scripted Obsession belt buckle from Ice, the supervisor of George’s Sledgehammer brand, whose real name is Walter David Cook. According to prosecu­tors, Cong shot Yvette; then, say Obsession employees, he dumped her body off the Triborough Bridge. Cong received a few vials of crack, a $5000 cash bonus, and an invitation to the Christmas party.

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On Christmas Eve, 1988, the Riveranda stood waiting for Boy George at World Yacht’s 23rd Street dock. When he arrived at 7 p.m., everyone was clapping, and then they all boarded the ship. According to the captain’s report, “At 10:00 p.m. we left dock for a 2-hour cruise that was quite memorable.” Cruising out into the New York harbor, 150 teenagers in black tie.

“My brother threw some good partis,” says George’s younger brother, Indio, “but this one was kicking. In other words, it was live.” Big Daddy Kane accepted $12,000 in cash for his 15-minute rap. Safire pocketed $3000 without even performing (she re­fused to sing for the originally agreed-upon $7500 because she didn’t have a private dressing room). The menu included steak tartare, skewered lamb, bocconcini, prime rib, $12,000 worth of champagne. There were raffle prizes, “winners to be an­nounced by the host”: first prize a loaded Mitsubishi; second, $20,000 in cash. Home entertainment centers, a Macy’s gift certifi­cate, a trip to Disneyland, a “nite on the town.” According to the captain’s report, nobody bothered to claim the $100 and $200 prizes. Everyone who had done any­thing was there. Six-O received a gold Ro­lex and $50,000 in cash; Ice was given a brand-new Model 750 BMW. George also gave diamond-inscribed gold Obsession belt buckles, appraised at $7500 each, to four of his other top men. There were fights and there was flirting. One guest challenged a drunken dealer — perched midway on the tip of the ship’s bow — to swim ashore (he didn’t). Another guest was stripped down to his underwear and left on the deck after a group beating — he’d allegedly attempted to steal a young woman’s diamond pendant.

The seating arrangement was carefully planned, by location. There were lots of pictures taken — guys leaning forward, toasting, bloodshot eyes, abundant tables; groups of girls in off-the-shoulder taffeta swirls. It was a prom, open bar, no chaper­ones. Boy George paid for the tuxedo rent­als, for everything. His bill from World Yacht alone ran to more than $30, 000 and he paid for it all in cash; the guests didn’t pay a thing.

All paid dearly for the pictures later, though, when federal prosecutors pinned enlarged reproductions of them on the courtroom bulletin boards for the Judge and jury to see. Giddy hard-earned glory boast­ing on the water. Image after image of fear­lessness, of tired eyes, of youth. And like a little boy, Boy George had a Christmas wish: A half hour before the ship docked, he asked if he could visit the captain, and up he went. It was a rare moment of parity, where life reflected and respected Boy George’s vision of his rightful self.

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Boy George’s first childhood memory is of taking a bath in the kitchen sink and getting burned with hot water. His next is of look­ing out his apartment window and seeing a cat get hit by a car in front of his Tremont Avenue tenement. He remembers crying for the dead cat. He didn’t have friends. “We were always moving around,” he says. “I loved pets. I tried to keep dogs, but they were always getting hit too.”

Indio learned a lot from George. How to carry yourself, how to be careful: “He would always say to me, ‘Choose what you want in life. You got to be serious when you do things. You have to stop being a little faggot boy.’ He showed me how to read. ‘Look, you don’t know the words? Break it down.'” Indio’s earnest face carries the family legacy of bruised affection. “My mother is a heartbroken person. My own heart gets broken quick. But when it comes to heartbreaking matter, George knows how to deal with it professionally. He was the bravest in the family. He was the one who had the balls.”

George’s father left when George was six months old and the boy would visit him whenever he could; sometimes there were yearlong gaps. “I think he’s very bright,” says George Rivera Sr., 46, a suspicious, handsome man who now owns a car service in Queens. “He used to turn things. In my mind I said, ‘This kid, he has something coming.'”

George’s relationship with his mother, Monserrate, 39, had always been tense. In court papers, George claims she beat him and Indio, regularly and badly, a charge Indio confirms; George remembers her us­ing an extension cord. The brothers also say that she was overly possessive of them, es­pecially when it came to girls. George ran away when he was 10; his life was his busi­ness. His mother eventually received a PINS (Parent with a Child in Need of Su­pervision) order from the court when George was 12. Soon after, he was sent to the Pleasantville Diagnostic Center, where he spent three months, then to St. Cabri­ni’s, a group home in New Rochelle, where he was the youngest boy.

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The eight Cabrini kids all lived together in a one-family, brick-front corner home with four bedrooms, a lawn, fruit trees, skunks and racoons. The house was in the transitional part of town, where the work­ing class spilled into the upper-middle and then onto the rich. The Cabrini kids attend­ed the local junior high and high schools. They felt the normal pressure to assimilate, but, since all of them were poor, most of them withdrew from the New Rochelle kids instead.

George was the only Puerto Rican on the New Rochelle High football team. To play, he had to quit his nighttime job stocking shelves at a nearby Shopwell. He got invit­ed to the rich kids’ parties, the girls’ houses on “the hill.” According to Al Bowman, his counselor at the home, George dragged his Cabrini friends along.

After one party, George and two friends made away with the host family’s silver­ware and he convinced his crew to take their talent to the surrounding sprawling homes. The police caught up with George at the local pawnshop. According to Bow­man, George took the rap for his crew and was sentenced to 13 months at Valhalla, a juvenile detention center upstate.

What the Cabrini Director of Group Homes, William Jones, remembers best — ­after 28 years of throwaway city children, it is striking that he remembers George at all — is George’s loyalty. “A lot of the Span­ish kids hang out with the black kids in the homes, but when they get around the white kids, they act like they don’t know them at all. George never forgot that his friends were his friends.”

George says that Cabrini made him into a man. “At home,” he says, “you can’t spread out the way you could around dilfer­ent people. When you’re home with your Moms and stulf it’s you and your Mom and your brother, that’s it. I had a chance to spread out, wide, wide-angle, like a wide­-angle lens. I got hip to everything that I would need to get hip to and I started analyzing and analyzing.”

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Another mentor of George’s was a man named Holland Randolph, who is now a supervisor at the Episcopal Mission in Manhattan. Randolph had just gotten the job at Cabrini’s, and on his first Sunday night of duty George showed him the ropes. While Boy George was still a resident he offered to lend the drug counselor $2000, but Randolph says he never got the loan. “He was going to loan me money at some point in some regard, but I lost contact,” says the counselor. Randolph distinctly re­members one of George’s return visits: It was Randolph’s birthday and George took him out to eat in New Rochelle. They drove to the restaurant in a brand-new Mercedes. “He really pulled out the car­pet,” says Randolph, “so to speak. He was a flashy guy. He had class — unfortunately, the wrong kind of class. He knew how to present himself to talk to people of a higher stature and knew when people were playing a con game on him.”

George kept in touch with Al Bowman, too. “He never called asking for money, and those were rough times,” says Bow­man. “But he was floundering. It was in the things he asked for. It would be this way: Can you get me a gun? Things like that. He was into petty stuff. Then finally he hooked into something, and from there … Well. You watch someone you care for get caught up in a whirlwind and all you can do is say, Take care, man. Insulate yourself.”

Boy George did his best: He employed childhood friends, friends of friends, fam­ily, recruited Cabrini alums. His workers’ own safety grew in proportion to the per­ception of his retaliatory powers, and he earned a vicious reputation and gave Ob­session fine PR: Lieutenants and managers received gold belt buckles with their names scripted in diamonds; top dealers received red-and-white leather baseball Jackets wnh “CCCP” written on the back. The orna­ments protected his workers and ranked them, publicly, in the order of their impor­tance to the organization and in their prox­imity to him. A wise incentive program­ — and an investigator’s dream.

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At the beginning of 1989, Boy George purchased more real estate in Puerto Rico and, with the help of a financial consultant, looked into the possibility of opening a fast-food mall with a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut and a Church’s Fried Chicken. He also began to transform the Puerto Rico estate into a permanent home. Wiretaps placed by the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force (NYDETF ) offer detailed dis­cussions about the renovations, which were overseen by Blanca Marti, his girlfriend, who stayed at the estate with their sons, Giovanni Lord and Chris Rivera. Work­men installed electronic security gates and paved a basketball court. George had “Ob­session” inscribed in tile on the bottom of his swimming pool, alongside the initials “B.G.” The inscription may have been done in a moment of indulgence, or it may have been a young boy’s success signal, reaching up to the Puerto Rico gods. San­ford Katz, a veteran public defender who represented one of George’s street manag­ers, thinks differently: “If you want to advertise I AM A DRUG DEALER” he says, “then bring a Porsche into the South Bronx. You’ll have every investigator and snitch paying attention.” (Boy George did and they were.) “But to have the logo of his brand of heroin, which can be found all over the Bronx, on the bottom of his swim­ming pool? That was very Abbie Hoffmanesque. He was saying ‘Fuck you’ to the world.”

The expensive objects George flaunted surely said at least that to the poor streets that produced him. As did the dead com­petitors and colleagues planted as warnings each step along way.

From the crying Puerto Rican kid in the tenement window, Boy George, only 21, had drastically upped his threshold for pain. According to government evidence, in 1986, while he was still working for the Torres brothers, George shot one competi­tive associate and injected another with heroin. Like most top-level dealers, the man did not use drugs. In 1987, after shar­ing an extravagant shrimp scampi dinner, he shot his dining companion and dumped his body off a bridge. The victim had disre­spected Boy George to a friend, whose sis­ter — unbeknownst to the victim — Boy George was dating. From then on, whenev­er a colleague or competitor needed that kind of taking care of, it was referred to as “eating shrimp” or “being taken out for shrimp.” Eventually, the phrase became an in-house Obsession joke. That same sum­mer, 166th and Washington became a wanted spot. George organized an ambush to clean out the competition and, at the end of the shooting, an uninvolved bystander was dead. A September 4, 1990, letter filed by the prosecution briefly notes another murder, this one of an unnamed man, an incidental three-sentence episode in a long list of violent acts that never made it to the jury. The encounter best reveals the blind spot where George’s boyhood and ego crossed.

That day, Boy George had a routine meeting with a higher-up and pulled his new Mercedes Benz off the FDR to wait. A drunk driver bumped into his car and didn’t stop, so Boy George followed him and forced him off the road. He then stabbed the man a number of times, leaving him for dead in the front seat of his car. It didn’t make any difference to George if the driver was dead or not — he’d done what he did.

This blindness — most obviously to the worth of a human life — marked the inter­section of boyhood and ego that would re­sult in the loss of Boy George’s freedom for the rest of his life. That he lacked a finely tuned sense of the larger balance — that peo­ple existed beyond their utility and ability to service him, that people, in effect, have a right to their own time — is a failing com­mon among men, but one to which children might be temporarily entitled.

The grace period of a liberal arts educa­tion might have modulated his need, just as an outstanding mentor may have tempered his arrogance, but it’s not likely. His view of the world, like a child’s, remained two­-dimensional. The most significant dichoto­my — Before the money and After — was the most encompassing and intense. Before the money, life was the only thing. After, it could be carelessly flaunted or thrown away. Before, he trusted nobody, because he thought anyone could hurt him. After, he thought he was so powerful that nobody could. And while Boy George worked his way through the chaos of his increasingly complex future, with guns and the other dangerous tools of his trade, the past snuck up from behind, an accumulation of two years of behaving like an extremely arrogant and savvy and talented unsophisticat­ed kingpin kid.

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Back in August 1987, Boy George had met Luis Guzman outside the Baychester Diner. Luis had a connect. Proud of finally being considered the older dealer’s real peer, Boy George went to the meeting himself. He was especially impressed with Luis by then because he fully appreciated the accom­plishments of the life. Street years are like dog years and Luis dodged raps better than anyone.

At Luis’s encouragement, Boy George sold two ounces of rock heroin to an unfa­miliar man. He also bragged that his busi­ness grossed $250,000 a week, discussed his estate renovations, bemoaned the difficulty of shipping cars to Puerto Rico, flashed his diamond Rolex, and accepted $12,000 in cash.

Days alter his meeting with Luis, Mount Vernon detectives knocked on the door of the apartment George kept for Blanca and her mother at 156th street. The police were looking for George on an outstanding bench warrant for gun possession. George allegedly fled out a fourth-floor window, and Blanca’s brother wouldn’t talk. On their way out, the policemen noted a 1987 Mercedes on the impoverished street and started asking questions.

Spooked, Boy George arranged for Six-O to move the hot car. Just to be careful, he also told him to fold the cutting mill on East 213th Street and to set up shop at the midtown Marriott Marquis Hotel. As an afterthought, George told his mother to stop by 213th Street for a final double check.

The Mount Vernon detectives had tracked the Mercedes, New York plates PZY-148, to Six-O’s family home on Prospect Street in Yonkers (Six-O kept several other apartments with other girlfriends at a weekly cost of $1000 each). Six-O spoke to the detectives: He said that he had received a call from George on August 30 to pick up the car on 520 East 156th Street and that he worked for George.

The cops moved on to 213th Street and, believing George was inside the apartment and possibly armed, made a forcible entry. Six-O had made a sloppy departure: Inside, in plain view, the cops found quinine, razor blades, white powder covering a table, glassine envelopes, and scales. A search un­covered shotgun shells, .38 caliber shells, 9mm shells, rifle shells, a rifle with a scope, three shotguns, a tranquilizer gun, a bullet-proof vest, three bags containing large amounts of cash and drugs, and other boxes of ammunition. According to the detec­tives’ report, George’s mother, Monserrate, then arrived “in a hysterical manner, in­quiring as to what happened to her son.” She said she’d last seen him on August 21. Then, distraught, terrified, or perhaps even vengeful, Monserrate began to talk: Blanca Marti made her son into a dealer. Blanca took out a student loan and set George up with the money. Her own Mother’s Day gift from her son — $5000 in cash — he took back to buy more drugs and it was Blanca’s fault. George had $125,000 stashed at Blan­ca’s house, too, and he always carried a gun since he got heavy into drugs. The Mount Vernon detectives alerted the 47th Precinct, and the Drug Task Force sent their people in.

Meanwhile, the midtown Marriott be­came a dorm. Six-O arrived with boxes of glassines, scales, and a silencer, as the shifts of mill workers were beeped in. “It sounds fucked up,” says one convicted mill worker, “but if George wasn’t around, it was a lot of fun sometimes. It was like you’d all be sitling there, like a family.” Hunched over card tables, their surgical masks on, in for the underpaid shift. The jokes begin, hands move together, separate, and seal.

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Around this time, Boy George launched a new brand name, Delirious. It was the same cut as Obsession, but its blue logo — a crazed-looking man with a bulbous nose — ­spooked junkies. Within two months of the test market, Boy George shut down the line. He instructed the mill foremen to return production to Obsession full-time, believing that — for a change — it was best to play it safe.

The same week, Boy George met Luis and the undercover again. This time for lunch at Willie’s Bar and Steak House, near the intersection of Westchester Avenue and Beach Street. George unloaded 600 leftover bags of Delirious and took $5000 home. He’d promised to supply a grinder — the undercover told George he’d had a hard time grinding down the rock — but Six-O warned George that the guy might be a cop, so George didn’t return the connect’s calls to his beeper.

The arrests and seizures continued for months — still unconnected. On September 20, 1988, 100 glassines of Obsession were confiscated from the second-floor apart­ment at the St. John’s location, along with $4400 in cash. Two months, the NYDETF arrested a St. John’s dealer, who was carry­ing 400 glassines of Obsession. A steerer, Anthony Briggs, also led an undercover to a 10-glassine sale on January 5, 1989. Five days later, the same undercover bought 40 glassines from Briggs’s brother at the same spot. While surveillance of the location in­creased, Boy George was discovering box­ing. He became so enamored of the sport that he hired Hector Roca of Brooklyn’s Gleason’s Gym to train him. Not counting traveling time, the workouts lasted a good four hours a day.

The Briggs brothers benefited from George’s lack of attention and were pro­moted to manage St. John’s. They were arrested on February 8, just as they were passing $10,000 in cash between them in a brown paper bag. The NYDETF agents made their move into St. John’s that same day: The first-floor apartment yielded a loaded .22 caliber, a .357 revolver, a .38 caliber, and a .357 magnum inside a safe. During a search of the Briggs’s East 165th Street apartment — St. John’s stash house — ­the agents discovered $50,000 in cash and 5600 glassines.

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The mill had by then been moved to 740 East 243rd Street. The Task Force knew it: the investigators could also identify whom they believed to be the key players of the operation. On April 6, 1989, Boy George ran a yellow light and was stopped by two policemen. They wrote him up and confis­cated his box — a common practice, accord­ing to South Bronx kids — then let him go. Six-O later testified that Boy George often lost his beeper, that he’d get angry and drop it sometimes, too. But this time the care­lessness eventually mattered: In a Bronx precinct office, Boy George’s beeper, flash­ing phone number after phone number of his incoming business calls.

On the two-year anniversary of Obses­sion’s founding, at the same time a federal judge was granting investigators permission to place a 30-day wiretap on Boy George’s Morris Avenue home phone, he moved to remedy the slipups, pull in the reins, and increase control. “I gotta write my shit down somewhere secret and shit, I gotta code it up,” he said to a friend, on April 5, 1989, the day before he was stopped for running the light, and less than a month before his arrest. Other phone conversa­tions, which were eventually admitted into evidence, use pig latin as his teenage orga­nization’s attempt at communication in code. In the following, during a period when shipments of heroin were delayed, George discussed the possibility of opening crack locations with Ice:

W. DAVID COOK: I got plenty aper-pay though.
GEORGE RIVERA: Oh, I got plenty, but still I just don’t wanna fuck around and one day starve and shit, that’s not the thing about the aper-pay it’s just that, you know what I worry about the most man, the, the orey­stays.
COOK: Yeah.
RIVERA: That’s all I worry about cause them niggers there man if I catch them niggers making aper-pay somewhere else, ah man, we’re going to have a crucifixion out here.
COOK: Well!
RIVERA: That’s all I worry about is them dickheads.
COOK: I know what you mean, what if they elly-say aggies-bay in the otty-spay?
RIVERA: Yep, you know what I’m a do, too, I’m a open up ackie-jays man.
COOK: Ackie-jays for what?
RIVERA: Just for fucking emergency pur­poses, brother, you crazy? Right now, it would’ve been cleaning up, you dig what I’m saying … Oh, you know Calvin is gonna get hit with something.

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This would become the most incriminating telephone conversation — the jury reading “crucifixion” as evidence of Boy George’s ruthlessness. But Boy George believes that it was Luis, his childhood hero and, accord­ing to George and his defense lawyers, a confidential government informant, who did him irreparable damage. Six-O, whom one former girlfriend and mill worker claims Boy George treated as a father, did at least as much.

On April 30, police officially established surveillance of the 243rd Street mill. Late that morning, Weasel and Ralphie left the building, each carrying a white plastic bag, jumped in an OJ car, and rode off. Soon after, the driver was arrested — 13 bricks of heroin(10,400 Obsession glassines) in tow. That afternoon, Weasel and Ralphie were arrested as they left the mill with another white plastic bag — 800 Obsession glassines to add to the climbing total. Early in the morning of May 1, at 2:35 a.m., investigators entered the building. Eleven mill work­ers were apprehended, with, among other things, blocks of mannite, eight boxes of empty glassines stamped with the Obsession, Sledgehammer, and Delirious brand names, five grinding machines, and strain­ers. There were boxes of sealing tape and three triple-beam scales. A ledger held attendance and payment records, complete with notes on workers who arrived ‘late.” And the police found the standard protections: face masks, two .38s, a 20-gauge pump shotgun, an automatic shotgun, and a 9mm MP9 automatic rifle, better known as a Streetsweeper, all loaded and ready to go.

Federal agents had been listening to Boy George’s phone calls throughout the night. Earlier that evening, in a conversation with Ice, Boy George talked about “breaking out,” of “doing the Jimmy-James [Brown].”

At 11:06 p.m., as key people were being hauled in, Six-O called George and told him he couldn’t find some of their workers: “I came through Washington and … them niggers is gone. Dennis [a manager], I called his house. See a lot of these people I can’t get a hold to, man.” At 8:36 the next morning, hours after the mill had been cleaned out, Six-O woke George with an­other call. “I gotta see you right away,” Six-­O said. “Bad, bad news.”

He made arrangements to meet George under some nearby streetlights and advised him, “When you come out bring some money with you to break out.”

“Yeah,” Boy George says on the wiretap, and sighs. A half hour later he was under arrest. As he left his apartment building to meet Six-O, he found close to 40 federal agents waiting.

According to Boy George, the feds drove him through Central Park on their way to central booking. As he looked out the win­dow of the white Lincoln Mark IV, one of the agents pointed to a seedling. “See that plant?” the cop asked. “It’s gonna be a tree when you get out.”

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Thirty-three Obsession workers had been arrested in the sweep. Of those, 24 pleaded guilty. In September 1990, Boy George went on trial on 14 counts — among them, conspiring to run a continuing criminal en­terprise, also known as the kingpin charge, drug possession and distribution, as well as ownership of a page-long list of guns. He was found guilty of only two: auempted tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute her­oin.

He told his mother and girlfriends not to come to the sentencing if they were going to cry: he did not want anyone associated with him to give the prosecution that satisfac­tion. He deliberated over what to wear and expected a crowd. When the date arrived, in the spring of 199,m the judge told George that he was one of the most violent people ever to set foot in her courtroom and that she had not — in the long days of the pro­ceedings — seen any sign of regret or re­morse. Boy George shook his head ruefully and smiled. Other than his family and a Newsday reporter, nobody showed for him.

In the wake of the most recent South Bronx heroin busts — the same locations, another 30 workers, hawking the same brand of drug — stray Obsession trials con­tinue. Boy George works on his appeal: one Obsession worker, who allegedly continued the drug operation under George’s direc­tion from jail (using the brand name Raw), recently pleaded guilty to lesser charges: Ice was recently convicted on 14 of 15 counts: and Cong, the alleged hitman, is up in Jan­uary. On the streets and in the same loca­tions, the trade continues without pause.

A month ago, things remained the same 35 at 139th Street and Brook Avenue in the South Bronx. Eight fist-size holes, waist-level, punch through the corner building’s cement front wall. Imagine a moat sur­rounding the block-long building — that’s where the steerers roam. They pivot and backhand fistfuls of cash into the holes. Arms stick out and pass glassines of heroin in return. At the rear of the building is a playground, an asset to the business, providing fine visibility and a labor pool.

To have realized dreams as fierce as Boy George’s required a hunger that was large. The coursing traffic before the 139th Street location today proves that his strategy of attaining his was accurate: a cocoa Nissan, its white girl in waiting, her boyfriend hav­ing jumped out for the cop: one thin man pert in the driver’s seat of a dented Monte Carlo: countless sorry-eyed old-timers and some college kids, car after idling car in rows three-deep. And so Boy George was a kingpin — among junkies, hustlers, chil­dren — feeding other people’s fears. ❖


Where Have All the Dealers Gone?

Hi there. This is “R.” again. Remember me? Four months ago I wrote a story for these pages about my attempt to give up grass. It was called “A Month without a Joint (Except One.)” I’m back again with another dope tale, this time about frenzy and famine in the marijuana trade — the Panic of September One. 

You may recall that my month-long experiment in giving up grass came to an end on a note of cautious pessimism. I was forced to concede that I was not ready to face life without a bit of dope now and then, and mainly now. But I had pledged to hold myself down to no more than one joint per day. I was determined to skip entire days as often as possible. 

So far I have skipped the entire day of August 24, because on the night of August 23 a certain party was a piggy and smoked me down to my last shreds and crumbs. I was left with three slender joints and one big decision. September One and the big bad new drug law loomed a week away. For several weeks I had been hearing stories of frantic activity in the dope-dealing world: panic sales, informer tales, hasty getaways. The new law did not increase penalties for mere possession of grass, but the penalties for dealing were stiffer. There were wild rumors of a blitzkrieg narc crackddown right before September One, to catch slowpoke dealers before they could clean up, clear out, and lay low as many were beginning to do. 

So my big decision was this: Should I try to score one more high quality ounce before the September One deadline when the dealers disappear and the famine follows? Or should I smoke up my three slender joints and call it quits again, this time for good, allowing the coming famine to reduce the chances of backsliding?

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A Class Operation 

The first dealer I try operates out of a factory building on the fringe of the garment center. The guy who operates this place is one of the last aristocrats left in the dope trade. This guy —  “Dennis,” we’ll call him — runs a class establishment. A Bengali manservant to greet you at the door, a gleaming carpeted interior, distinctive painting and sculpture by sonic well-known customers, a courteous and intelligent staff. These are no dumb hippy dealers with tedious cosmic raps to lay on you all the time, these are no Queens head-shop owners selling floor sweepings as “Acapulco Green.” Dennis is one of the last dealers in the city to carry nothing but the finest marijuana. No speed, no coke, and consequently none of the creeps and poseurs who come with those drugs. A place with standards. And killer weed. 

So I’m standing on the sidewalk outside this factory building. At this time of night all the surrounding buildings are deserted. The street is deserted. The entire garment district is deserted. There’s just me out on the sidewalk pressing the buzzer, waiting for the Bengali to descend in the freight elevator and admit me. 

Then it’s not just me. One of those shiny new blue and white police cruisers has nosed its way around the corner and is heading slowly my way. 

I do not handle these type situations well.

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“They don’t sell sweaters up there this time of night, fella,” I could imagine the cop saying. “What’re you looking for up there?” 

“Well you see, officer, I’m planning this trip to Bangladesh soon. Relief work, you know, and I just happen to have a Bengali friend who lives in a sweater factory who … ” 

Inside the building the freight elevator is clanking down to the ground floor, and the Bengali is sliding open the grate. Outside the cruiser slows to a halt behind me. After giving some consideration to this situation and to the stabbing pains in my chest, I decided the clever move would be to reach up and ring the buzzer. This would show the cops, I reasoned, that I wasn’t just trying to break in. And if I kept on ringing it, I might warn the people upstairs of the raid I was certain was about to take place. I kept on ringing it. A long minute passes. Finally I hear the cruiser start forward and roll on past me. I stopped the ringing. The Bengali unbolted the door and passed me in, passing me, in addition, a reproachful look. 

“The buzzer works to your satisfaction, I hope?” he asked. 

Why did that police car pass by? It’s obvious: the better to bust me later when I come out of the building carrying a brand new ounce or two in my pockets. They’re waiting out there for me. They’ll bust me for possession, then try to make me turn informer. They’ll grab me as soon as I stop back out onto the street. That is what I am thinking as the lift reaches the top floor. 

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A Mysterious Stranger 

As soon as I step out of the lift into the bright interior of the place, I know something is definitely wrong. The place looks deserted. Usually on a Friday night like this a dozen or more people are gathered around the long wooden sampling table, rolling, smoking, and laughing. The Bengali served spiced teas and brandy to sweeten the palate between generous samplings from the fat bags of grass spilling out upon the tabletop. The clientele was a nice mixture of worlds, the talk was witty and silly — the place was a salon as much as a dope den. 

Tonight there is one lone customer at the long table. I had never seen him before. 

A pale, sandy-haired, bony fellow who looks like an off-duty accountant, he seems to be engrossed in a dog-eared back issue of National Geographic. He is staring sullenly down at a two-page picture spread. An equally sullen herd of water buffalo stares back up at him from their jungle mud-wallow. Neither side breaks off the staring match to take notice of me as I seat myself across from them and reach for the Marfil Freres rolling papers. 

There are just two other people in the big loft and neither one of them seems inclined to pay much attention to me for the moment. I take some dope from a bag in front of me. The label on the bag says “Columbian Buds-June 1972-$60/oz.” I roll myself a one-dollar joint and survey the uneasily peaceful scene. 

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Over in the corner behind the sampling table Andy, the Number Two Man in the operation, is yawning himself awake in front of a big Space Commander color set. On the TV screen Ralph Houk is walking to the mound to confer with Sparky Lyle. The bases are loaded with Tigers. 

The other person in the loft is Dennis. Dennis is sitting in his customary place at the head of the sampling table in his high-backed chair. He is not watching the ball game. He is gazing moodily at his triple I-beam pharmaceutical scale and his Cannon “Palmatronic” portable calculator. Finally he speaks. 

“What was all that buzzing for?” he asks me. “Look, you woke Andy up.” 

“Fucking Sparky Lyle,” Andy observed from the TV corner. “Fucking Ralph Houk,” he added. 

I told Dennis about the police car. “You don’t think the cops are watching this place, do you?” I asked him. 

“Of course they’re watching the place,” he told me carefully, managing a hint of a shrewd wink. “You want me to tell you how much it costs me every month to make sure they just watch it for me?” 

“Oh, sure, I see. Fine,” I said. “Let me look at the menu for today, huh?” 

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I was not as reassured as I was trying to sound. “He’s lying,” I thought to myself. “I’ve heard that ‘be cool, I got the cops paid off’ line from dealers before. They use it to calm down the kind of hysterical paranoids who can single-handedly panic an entire roomful of paying customers. Me, for instance, I’m figuring Dennis knows the place is being watched, maybe he knows they’re about to bust him, or they’re gathering evidence for a post September One bust and he’s trying to clear out, but he doesn’t want to scare off a potential quick cash sale, so he’s lying to me. Or on the other hand, maybe he’s not lying; he doesn’t know the cops are closing in, he really thinks it’s still safe, when any minute now they’ll be ringing the buzzer with warrants, but he won’t pay attention to my warning because he thinks I’m just paranoid. 

That’s what I’m figuring. I’m also smoking my one-dollar joint, so my figuring is getting more complex all the time. 

“Lions eat water buffalo for breakfast,” the bony Geographic reader announced, to no one in particular. Contemptuously be flipped to a snowy Antarctic photo spread. 

“What do you think of the menu today?” Dennis asked me with a bland look. 

I stared down at the price list he had handed me. Usually Dennis offers a selection of four or five grades of dope, each available in ounce units, with quantity discounts for quarter-pound and pound purchases. The whole price list usually fits on a five-by-seven card. Today it is a foot long. There are twenty or thirty varieties of dope listed in a long column. Many listings have a line drawn through them, meaning sold out. “OUNCES ONLY,” someone has written across the top of the list. 

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked Dennis. 

“The meaning of this is that I am selling my library.”


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The Great Libraries of Alexandria 

“Ten years. Every important dope that’s come through New York City for ten years I’ve saved a quarter pound or so, labeled with year, month, and origin. Sometimes I go back, pick one out, smoke some, and I remember how I was feeling back then. It all comes back.” 

“So why sell it?” 

“Didn’t you know I’m going out of business? I thought everybody knew I was going out of business. Everybody but you and him,” he said, indicating the bony accountant now frowning at the South Pole. 

“You know about the great libraries of Alexandria, right?” Dennis asked me. 

“What about them?”

“In the fourth century A.D. they burned to the ground and a thousand years of Hellenic civilization went up in smoke.” 

“Yeah? And?” 

“The great library of New York dope has been going up in smoke this month. I want it all smoked up by September One, when I clear out for good. Here.” he said, tossing me a Baggie full of grass. “Try some 1967. What’re you on now?” 

“Some seventy-two.” 

“Do yourself a favor. Do this sixty-seven.” 

“That’s when I first started smoking — 1967,” I said. I did some sixty-seven. 

“I’ll tell you about sixty-seven,” Andy said, wandering over from the Sparky Lyle disaster on the screen. “Houk said sixty-seven was gonna be a rebuilding year. Go with the young ballplayers. The jerk. He rebuilds them into the cellar. Look at him now. He’s leaving Lyle in there.” 

The buzzer bleated twice, then twice again. I froze, back in 1973 again. September One 1973 and the cops outside.

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“He says his name is Barry,” the Bengali reported to Dennis. 

“Let him in.” 

“You trust that Barry?” I asked Dennis. “I’ve beard stories about him.” 

“They’re probably true. But he’s never shorted me and he can move quantity fast. He’s a weird dude, but he’s not a cop, if that’s what you mean.” 

He is weird. The first thing he did when he had seated himself next to Dennis at the table was to take out his wallet and flash a New York City Police Department detective’s badge. At least it looked like a New York City Police Department detective’s badge. 

“You’re all under arrest,” he said. 

“You are a great one for the laugh, Barry. You must be a hit at parties,” said Dennis. “What brings you here?” 

“Take a look at this,” says Barry, removing a lid of dark brown dope from his pocket and placing it on the scale. 

Dennis takes a handful, kneads some between his fingers, sniffs it, and tastes it. “Not bad for Mexican these days. Buds all the way through?” 

“Buds all the way through. You want to see a pound? I can get almost unlimited pounds for you at one thirty-five. Up until the First. I’ll be right back with a pound, I got — ” 

“I told you I’m phasing out.” 

“You’re serious about that? This is not just for the First?”

“This is for good. Here, smoke some 1967, Barry.” 

“Where you gonna be on the First, Barry?” Andy asked. 

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Bisby, Arizona

“Bisby, Arizona.” 

“Turquoise?” said Dennis. 

“That’s part of it,” said Barry. 

“What are you talking about turquoise?” said Andy. 

“Some people I know, some ex-dealers, got a thing going bringing turquoise in over the border. They get a good price, and they all find it convenient to operate out of Bisby. They’ve got this abandoned copper mine outside of Bisby and they’re finding a very unique kind of turquoise in the pits. ‘Silver spray’ or ‘spider web’ or something like that, the Acapulco Gold of turquoise. But I’m not going to be dealing turquoise.” 

“So what are you in Bisby for on the First?” says Andy. 

“Real estate,” Barry says. “I bought some lots on a place called Brewery Gulch. Zoned commercial. I lucked out getting it. There are three or four dudes have just about bought up the entire town. It’s a tiny place inside a canyon, but land is going to get more important, what with this turquoise thing and the price of copper. My lots are tiny things, pint-sized down there, but anyone who wants to build anything in downtown Bisby, they got to deal with me sooner or later.” 

“You ever coming back?” Andy asked. 

“I may check things out after the New Year to see if there are any good businessmen left in the trade. It’s hard to find a dealer you can trust around town.” 

“You finished spreading your good vibes?” Dennis asked Barry. 

“Okay. I’m going. Listen, Dennis, don’t disappear without letting me take that lovely scale off your hands for a very fair price.” 

“Good-bye, Barry,” said Dennis. 

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The Bengali has returned from letting Barry out. He rolls a large, powerful-looking vacuum cleaner over to the far wall. He switches it on and begins carefully sweeping and re-sweeping the carpet foot by foot. 

“When we go, we go clean,” says Dennis. 

Meanwhile I am figuring again. About going clean. 

There is some great stuff here. Undeniably, I want the 1967 Gold. I want the 1969 DaNang Green. I want some 1970 Jamaican tops. I want the 1971 Original Chiba. I certainly want to taste the 1965 Original Micholocan. 

But l don’t like the haste with which this decade-old empire is being dismantled. I never liked the idea of stepping out into the street to face that prowl car when I’m loaded with dope, and now I like it less. 

Nevertheless, there are certain things that are just not done in a respectable dealing establishment. Walking in, rolling yourself one ­dollar joints, shooting the breeze, sharing confidences, and then walking out without buying a thing is one thing that is just not done. I decided I had to do it. 

“Look, Dennis, there’s something I’ve got to tell you,” I began. “That prowl car freaked me. I don’t think I could handle it if I walked out and had to look two cops in the eye.” 

Well, he was nice about it. He took me to the window and had me look both ways up and down the street and there was no prowl car. He explained patiently that the cops don’t waste their time hunting for cheap possession busts. He offered to send the Bengali down to the street to check things out first. He suggested I relax a little and offered me some of the last of his sixty-five. By this time it was clear he didn’t want my money so much as my confidence. Maybe I was his last customer. A decade of honest dealing comes to an end and he’s reduced to pleading with an obstinate paranoid who won’t take his word. 

“I’ll come back in the next couple days,” I said, desperate to get out of the mess I had created. “Save me some of that sixty-seven if you can.” 

“I won’t be here when you come back. The sixty-seven won’t be here.” 

“Dennis, what are we all going to do without you?” I said, stepping into the elevator. 

“I don’t know,” he said. 

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Someone’s in the Kitchen with Vishnu 

I found out. We’re going to end up in places like this. This being a sixth floor walkup in what used to be known as the West Village. This being sitting on the floor of the living room/dining room tub-in-kitchen area surrounded by stinking mounds of German shepherd shit. 

The huge animal is locked in the bedroom now, barking viciously and lunging against the inside of the flimsy door. I am trying to inhale this grass I’m sampling without retching from the dogshit smell. 

I am visiting the apartment of a small-time dealer who calls herself Blue Jay. It is one day before September One. A heat wave grips the city and a fever afflicts the dope world. I have failed to score at three other dealers’ since I scuttled away from Dennis’s place. I have had bad experiences at each place. I have smoked my last three joints long ago and I am getting desperate, which is why I am visiting Blue Jay. 

Now Blue Jay is a nice lady, but in addition to dealing grass, she has been known on occasion to stock certain pills. She has also been known on occasion to take these pills. Sometimes she will take these pills for days at a time and she will either be much too busy or much too relaxed to take Vishnu — that’s what Blue Jay calls the monstrous shepherd — ­down six flights of stairs to the street for a walk. Vishnu doesn’t seem to miss going outside as long as he can shit and piss on the floor. He does. Sometimes Blue Jay remembers to put down papers for Vishnu to shit on, but then again, sometimes she forgets. When the smell gets very bad, Blue Jay takes two further steps. She starts burning sweet strawberry incense, and she stops feeding Vishnu for a while. This puts the dog in a bad temper and makes him want to eat visitors. 

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Mao Is a Gemini

How did I end up here? Well, the night after I scuttled away from Dennis, I made three phone calls to respectable middle-level dealers. One was out of town, one was out of the country, and one was out of business. 

“Everything’s moving to Jersey,” the out-of-business guy told me. “The people I know are maybe keeping an apartment in New York for living, but they’ve shipped all their dope across the river, and they deal from there. That is, the ones who haven’t quit altogether. There’s a whole colony of dealers who’ve been putting away cash for a time like this, and they got themselves these incredible farmhouses — villas really — in County, Pennsylvania. They got it set up so they do nothing but consulting work — making contacts, arranging credit on very big deals — for these apprentice dealers in Jersey.” 

“Well, where might a person go if this person were interested in buying an ounce or so before September One?” I asked him. “Are there any dealers left in New York City?” 

“Well, have you tried Holy Bruce lately?” 

“I’ve been trying to avoid having to deal with him.” 

“Well, I haven’t seen him for a few months, but he travels light so he might still be in business.” 

There is some difference of opinion among his fellow dealers about Holy Bruce. There are those who say “Bruce is a true heavy. He’s light-years ahead of us all — that’s why we can’t understand him all the time. And you have to admit his dope is just about the best there is.” 

Then there are those who say “Bruce? At best he’s a simpleminded cheese brain. At worst? At worst he’s a cop. The only reason we let him come around is that he’s got the best fucking dope in town, but then he probably gets the run of the property clerk’s office to supply himself.” 

The disagreement about Bruce is not about his dope: “Look,” he says, “look how holy and/or groovy I’ve become from smoking the dope I sell. You could be like me.” 

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But Bruce’s rap tends to lose him more customers than it gains. Listening to it is like being buried alive in an avalanche of jargon. All the cliches, catchphrases, and Kozmic Koncepts of the past decade, from Marshall McLuhan to martial arts, jumbled and garbled together into convoluted abstractions which roll out of his mouth with a momentum of their own and little regard for what anyone else is saying.

“How ya doin’, Bruce?” someone will ask. 

“Oh, I’m into a media feedback loop with my kundalini, trying to reprogram my biocomputer to get the old Tai Chi mobilized behind the immobility of the masses’ conversion to energy. Like Mao says, and don’t forget Mao is a Gentini … ” 

Now some people can listen for hours with rapt attention to this sort of stuff, especially when fortified by a few puffs of Bruce’s notorious “custom blends.” Some people, on the other hand, after listening only five minutes, want to dash his brains out. I come somewhere between these two extremes. It takes about ten minutes before I want to dash his brains out. 

So it was with some gritting of teeth that I went about trying to contact Holy Bruce. It was not easy. I left a message for him with a clerk at a sleazy health-food store he sometimes visits and waited to see if he’d get back to me. 

Nobody knows where Bruce actually lives. Nobody knows where he gets his dope, at least he doesn’t deal with the usual wholesalers. Nobody knows where he stashes his supply either: He carries around only a few ounces at a time, all of them packed inside a hollowed-out Bible which his customers have taken to calling “the Good Book.” Nobody is quite sure what Bruce is in the dealing business for — it doesn’t seem to be money — unless its for the captive audiences he gets for his raps. 

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And Bruce does not deal ordinary ounces either. He deals only clean and manicured ounces of what he calls his “hand-mixed custom blends.” He is very touchy about his blends. He claims he has sampled “thousands” of varieties of cannabis, analyzed the “personalities” and powers of each of the strains, and has combined certain potent strains into blends for special purposes. He has a “religious blend,” a “creative blend,” a “visual blend,” an “intellectual blend,” “upper” blends and “downer” blends, even a “Tai Chi blend.” 

As with everything else. Bruce is capable of talking interminably about his blends. I can recall a party at which Bruce was busy laying a long rap about his “contemplation blend” upon two bored black dope dealers. 

“Hey, man,” said one of them. “Hey, man, how about blending me up some pussy grass. You got some pussy grass?” 

Bruce, of course, took him seriously. “I do have a kundalini blend which focuses upon the genital chakra and — ” 

“Hey, man,” said the other, “you let him have the pussy grass. I want some money grass. I want a whole key of money grass.” 

At this point Bruce put his “contemplation blend” back inside the Good Book and walked away. I think bis feelings were hurt. 

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Mr. Parable & Mr. Truth 

Bruce called me the next evening and told me to meet him at a third party’s apartment. “I’ve got something very heavy I want to lay on you,” he said. I was wondering what new blend he was going to introduce. 

When I walked in, Bruce was seated in a big chair with his trusty Bible perched on the arm of the chair. 

Bruce was in the middle of telling a typically vague and abstract Kozmic parable to three rapt or stupefied listeners. “It’s a parable,” Bruce explained for my benefit as I seated myself at his feet, “a parable about two dudes. One of them is named Truth and the other one’s name is Parable, dig it. This is the heavy trip I wanted to lay on you. You see, Truth and Parable are making this long journey, dig it, and …”

I dug it. My eyes glazed over. Would I endure this kind of suffering for the sake of an ounce of dope? I asked myself. I gazed at the Bible longingly. Just this once, I told myself, just hang in there, he can’t go on forever. 

He went on forever. It was never clear where Mr. Truth and Mr. Parable were supposed to be going on this “long journey” of theirs, but they seemed to be spending hours on the way debating the relative merits of truth and parable and the relationship between the two. I could swear I even remember hearing Mr. Truth use the word “biocomputer” in the middle of his digression upon the nature of man, but then again, it may have been Mr. Parable speaking at the time. 

Well, to make a long story short — and I wish I could have done so at the time — Mr. Truth finally wins the big debate when be makes the devastating observation to Mr. Parable that as Truth he could go naked, while Mr. Parable had to wear clothes. Or it may have been that Mr. Parable wins the argument when he says that he looks better in his clothes than Mr. Truth docs naked. 

Anyway, as soon as it seemed that this epic talc had ended, and before another one had a chance to get started, I shifted the subject to dope. 

“Why don’t you open up the Good Book and show us what you’ve got in store for us.” 

“I’m glad you asked,” said Bruce. 

He opened up the Good Book. I felt ill. It was a real Bible. With real pages inside. 

“Why don’t we turn to the parables in the book of Matthew,” Bruce suggested. “I want to show you how I got on the trip I’m on now, from the trip I used to be on then. I’m off what I was on, if you can dig it, and I’m on what I was off. You’re not dealing with a dealer anymore, you’re dealing with a born-again Christian now, and I’m only dealing in the gospel. Doesn’t cost you a cent, and gets you higher than you’ve ever been before.” 

“Higher than on your ‘religious blend’?” I asked, feeling a little mean. 

“Higher than on any blend of all the personalities of every grass I ever smoked, that’s how high straight Jesus gets you. Let me tell you how it happened because I think it can happen to you too, you’re searching for the same Perfect Deal I found, I can tell. It’s a long story, but you’ll see how it relates to this parable I’m going to explain in Matthew where … ” 

I didn’t stay to find out. 

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The Great Mescaline Bet 

Time was running out and things were going downhill. Three days left to September One and all the dealers I knew — all but one — seemed to be leaving town or going out of business. 

“I’ll tell you what’s happening,” said “Doug,” a movement veteran, sometime doper and acquaintance of mine. “A whole generation of original dope dealers, the freaks, the geniuses, the crazies, the ones who got into the business first because they loved dope a lot, those guys are clearing out of the city. It’s not that the new law is super-heavy on grass, it’s just that after all these years, who needs the extra hassle? September One is just a convenient excuse to retire …” 

“So what’s left?” 

“New Jersey. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jersey City or Newark turned into a kind of Marrakech for the New York dope trade. But you’ll never get the same class of dealers again.” 

We are having this discussion in a third party’s apartment while we await the arrival of a fourth party. The fourth party is a head-shop owner from Long Island who deals on the side. He is in the process of moving both his enterprises up to Vermont before September One, and he has been doing a little inventory clearance before the big move. 

Things go surprisingly well at first. It is nice stuff, the head-shop owner’s grass, standard Columbian but solid. Overpriced, but worth it, considering the circumstances. I was feeling good, glad to get all this silly chasing around for a single lousy ounce over and done with, when a hitch developed. 

The head-shop owner takes out a lid for Doug and me to inspect, when he makes the mistake of digging out a vial of pink tablets, turning on the Kosmic grin, and inquiring in a mellow voice, “I don’t suppose either of you two gentlemen might be interested in some very far-out mescaline?” 

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This was a mistake because Doug is very partial to mescaline. He took a lot once. He took a lot many, many times, in fact. He fell in love with the drug. Then, about three years ago, something happened. The psychedelic market became glutted with fraudulent mescaline — usually cheap acid, hog tranquilizer (PCP), and belladonna in various combi­nations. Real mescaline became harder and harder to get. Wrecked and disappointed time and again by pills he had been assured were mescaline, Doug began sending samples to a lab in California which specialized in doing chemical analysis of street drugs. For the past twelve months not one single pill of the dozens of samples he’s tested has turned out to contain real mescaline. (This is the guy who discovered that the “sacred mushrooms” you all loved so much this summer, the ones your friendly dealer told you were organically cultivated by Blackfoot Indian medicine men in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, were not so sacred after all. The lab reported that they’d had dozens of samples sent in for testing from all over the country and that they all turned out to be canned supermarket mushrooms dipped in a solution of acid and PCP.) In any case, when the subject of mescaline comes up, Doug only has one thing to say these days and he says it with the pain and authority of a lost love. 

“There is no mescaline,” is what he says. 

“There is no mescaline,” he told the Long Island head-shop dealer who was profferring to us a handful of the pink tablets. 

“Just try a tab of this, man. Pink Dawn, they call it out on the Coast. It’s mescaline, I can guarantee you. This dude from Laguna Beach brought it in special, he just dealt all but these to the road manager for —”

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“There is no mescaline,” Doug intoned firmly. 

“How much you selling that for?” I asked. 

“Two for five dollars. You know the drummer for —- ? Well, he says he took a hit of this before — ” 

“I’ll tell you what,” Doug told the dealer. “I’ll give you the five if you agree to make a little bet with me.” 

“What’s the bet, man? Look, if you don’t want the stuff …” 

“Just make the bet. I send these tabs off to a lab for chemical analysis and I bet you three hundred dollars that the report comes back saying there ain’t a trace of mescaline in them. You’re so sure it’s mescaline you should be ready to stand behind it.” 

Sigh. Conspiratorial smile from the head-shop man. “Okay, man, so it’s not mescaline. It’s acid and something else. If it gets you high, man, what’s the difference? Some people dig on the idea of a mescaline high and maybe can’t relate to acid, so I tell them it’s mescaline and they get a mescaline high. It’s what’s in your head, man, not what’s in the pill. Don’t be so caught up with words and labels.” 

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Doug said to me. “This is the kind of scum that’s gonna be left dealing after September One. There is no mescaline. Anywhere, anymore.” 

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The Land of Oil & Honey 

I wasn’t in such a big hurry to leave. I wouldn’t have minded letting the big mescaline argument go on a little longer if I could have dropped a few tens on the floor and picked up one of those lids of Columbian. But it seemed like such a point of pride with Doug — he was defending his mescalinity, I suppose — that I left without making the deal. That left me with two days to go before the deadline. 

The next evening I decided that — cop car or no cop car — I was going back to Dennis’s place and get myself some of that sixty-seven if there were any left, or maybe some Columbian buds, or maybe both. I took a cab up to the garment center, almost ran to the factory building, and pressed the buzzer twice. Then I pressed it twice again. No response. No sign of life inside. 

Time had run out on all my options but one. I knew I would have to visit Blue Jay. 

So here I am with 24 hours left. The German shepherd is snarling, the strawberry incense is burning, the pile of shit is stinking, and I’m trying to get high on this sample joint. It’s 96 degrees outside, and no ventilation inside. Blue Jay is in her stained nightgown — the only garment I’ve ever seen her wear — drawing pictures of Brian Jones, the only kind of pictures I’ve ever seen her draw. For two years, or however long it’s been since his death, Blue Jay has done nothing but draw pictures of Brian Jones — just the head, to be precise. She has pictures of Brian Jones’s head emerging from the gnarled bark of an old tree, Brian Jones as a Cadillac hood ornament, Brian Jones on the body of a snake, etc., etc. 

Once I asked her: “Why Brian Jones?” 

“If you were a Pisces you’d know,” she said. 

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Blue Jay looks up from her current effort, Brian Jones next to Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore. 

“Look, do you want the ounce? I’ll give it to you for thirty-five dollars,” she says. “But if you want it, you better take it now because I can’t guarantee I’ll be here tomorrow. I’m getting out of this city.” 

“You too?” 

“You kidding? Who needs the fuckin’ hassle? September One I’m leaving for Oregon. My lease runs out then anyway. I’ll let the fucking landlord clean up this shit. He’s welcome to it. You hear about that new law they got in Oregon?” 

“A little.” 

“Possession of one ounce of cannabis — any kind at all — is just a parking ticket. Can you dig that? I got this connection for oil out on the Coast. We’re gonna bring some very heavy hash oil into Oregon, dig it, this oil is the most concentrated form of cannabis known to man. It’s like honey. An ounce of hash oil is one thousand dollars against a parking ticket. We’re gonna be golden. Who needs this mandatory life shit? Look, is there something wrong with that grass? You want that ounce or what?” 

I couldn’t tell about the grass. Every time I inhaled, I took in a gulp of steamy sweaty shit-soaked air with the smoke. I wasn’t getting very high. I could have been smoking Hamburger Helper for all I knew. 

Thanks, but no thanks, I told Blue Jay. No grass for me. Three blocks away from her place I stopped gagging. You got to have some standards. 

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It is three weeks after the September One deadline as I write this. As you all know by now, there’s a dope famine in the Big Kilo. Of course, like the energy shortage, some of it has been encouraged by dealers deliberately cutting down on supply, the better to jump prices later on. But what can you do with the type of dealer left operating these days? Nevertheless, good dope is definitely less accessible these days, and there is confusion in the dealing world as whole new marketing arrangements have to be worked out. Most of them in New Jersey. 

As for me, I gave up trying to score. For a while that nightmare hour I spent at Blue Jay’s place breathing dogshit stew and trying to get high had the effect of anti-marijuana aversion therapy. I gagged when I thought of the weed. 

But I’m getting over that now. In fact, I no longer turn it down when it’s offered to me at parties. I like it when it’s offered to me at parties. It’s better than paying for it. I plan to go to more parties. I wish people would start having pot parties again like they did back in sixty­ seven. Even in New Jersey. I’d go. ❖


The Larry Davis Show: Rambo Rocks the House

Davis and I were sitting in the visitor’s area of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. The MCC is a large fortress filled with orange paint, thick Plexiglas partitions, and steel doors that constantly buzz, click, and whine like robots in heat. Davis had entered the visitor’s area through one of those doors, shackled along the wrists, waist, and ankles, a postmodern Kunte Kinte in federal prison browns. He was trailed by five male guards, one of whom held a video camera to record his departure from the holding area. Even in the joint, Larry Davis is a star.

“Sometimes,” Davis said quite seriously, “it’s good to pay attention to movies, because you get what’s really happening.” Before the movie ended on November 19th, what was really happening in the apartment overwhelmed what was playing on the TV screen: Davis, who was wanted for the slayings of four suspected South Bronx crack dealers, faced down almost 30 cops in one of the wildest shootouts in New York history. It was all over by nine, in time for the 11 o’clock newscasts to begin to make Larry Davis an outlaw celebrity. It was the night he became the talk of the town: a muscular young black man bursts his way out of a small apartment seiged by a 27-member team of armed police officers, wounding all of them in the process. It was the night he became an urban legend, a black Billy the Kid, an adolescent gunslinger outshoots an army of cops and lives to tell about it. It was the night Larry Davis became a star.

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In the weeks after Davis shot the six cops, faked out the costly, nationwide manhunt for 17 days, and held a major portion of the NYPD to a standoff in the Twin Parks Houses near Fordham Road, huge black-and-white mug shot-like photos of a starry-eyed, baby-faced killer adorned the front pages of the tabloids under headlines like “They Won’t Take Me Alive” and the local news anchors excitedly invoked his name at the top of every show. He was all the talk between assistant D.A.’s and reporters during court recesses, between rap DJs and MCs during songs at the Latin Quarter, between old Jewish women and their doormen on the Upper East Side. Did Larry Davis shoot and kill dopeboys and take off crack spots? Did he really decide (as a cop testified) that it was too crowded in his van one afternoon, and casually order a flunky to kill a man sitting in an orange Toyota for the extra room? Did he really cook a Chihuahua and eat it?

I started getting phone calls from friends who couldn’t stop talking about the B-boy renegade from the South Bronx. “That kid used to rock the fresh jams in the summertime in the P.S. 145 schoolyard,” one buddy remembered. Another told me that, in addition to playing cops and robbers, Davis had stroked the keyboards on “Goldie’s Hot Tracks,” a hip hop show on Manhattan Cable. I was told that Davis also sang, danced, and virtually, “turned the show out.”

Some of Davis’s acquaintances later told me he used to watch a videotape of that show over and over in his bedroom — a space that was packed with drum machines and keyboards and doubled as an eight-track recording studio — with “that look” on his face, a sly grin and a faraway, star-struck expression. Family members say it’s the look he had playing drums for the choir of the Rapture Preparation Church on Crotona Avenue in the Bronx. It’s the look of an impressionable young kid who sees his name in lights on the marquee of a hit movie with a long line, or his face 70 feet high inside the darkened theater, with the crowd screaming out his name.

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But instead of the customary head-in-the-jacket running crouch of the arrested criminal, Davis kept his head high, his face visible to the TV cameras, as he was hustled through the courtyard. Just before the cops carried him off, he made his now-famous declaration: “It’s a good thing to sell drugs. The cops gave me the guns.”

To would be revolutionaries, Larry Davis was Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas come to life, a South Bronx native son, a mindless killer spawned by white racism, poverty, and hopelessness. To black nationalists, Davis became a figurehead, an explosive life-sized model that defined the movement’s heartbeat: the oppressed striking back at the oppressors. To old lefties, Davis was a throwback to the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers; William Kuntstler, who took over Davis’s case from a Legal Aid lawyer, said to me, “Any black guy that shoots six cops and puts the fear of God in police officers, I think is great.”

After the police killings of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs, and the frustrated rage over the Howard Beach incident and the Tompkins Square Park riot, Davis’s stand against the police served as a metaphorical wheel of justice: whatever goes around, comes around. But much of white New York — and a significant segment of the black population — saw him as a real-life monster too true to be good; a heavily armed creature from the Bronx lagoon.

In all cases, Larry Davis lost his identity to become an ideal that is reviled or revered: Public Enemy and Soul Brother Number One, and nothing more. Mere publicity and hype to justify the ends of each group’s own means. But Davis would never object to being exploited: it soon became apparent that Larry Davis eats hype like some kind of weird food. Not long after he was captured, he began calling newspapers — most notably The City Sun and later New York Newsday — to give his version of his story. “Write this,” he would instruct reporters. If they added details that didn’t please him they would receive phone calls chewing them out. And if here stories didn’t appear, he would refuse to grant them further interviews.

Gradually, a truer portrait of Larry Davis emerged between the lines of the media frenzy. Here was a young kid, a semi-illiterate high school dropout who spent his time chillin’ on street corners but who felt a burning need to be known, to be recognized, to be listened to, to be larger than life. His plans to be a pop star fizzled and his street scrambling produced only a shadowy local celebrity. Then, all of a sudden, he was on the top of every New York City broadcast. What did that do to him? What would it do to anybody? Your heart would pound like a bass drum and your skin would be drenched in cold sweat, knowing you are in the biggest trouble in your life. The rush would play in your mind forever.

Larry Davis didn’t have to use his imagination. The newspapers he read every day replayed the images: the courtyard crowds, the mayor, the police commissioner, the cameras, the lights, the cheers and jeers, the “The cops gave me the guns.” it was splashed across the front pages and he fell in love with it, tumbled into it, became one with it. With the flick of a camera shutter, Larry Davis became the New Narcissus.

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In the street, the Davis legend is very real; Sunday’s triumphant verdict pumped his image larger than the Superman balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade. The inner city now gazes up at him with a mixture of victimized fear and vigilante pride. It reminds me of a hood from my teen years, who I’ll call “Igor Jackson.” Jackson was the scourge of 148th Street and Eighth Avenue, a wild man fueled by angel dust and barbiturates who killed because it amused him. He was a legend on the streets of Harlem in 1977 because he made more than a few victims — mainly the teenage operatives of heroin kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes — get on their knees and beg for their life, only to see Jackson smirk and savor his response, a cold, dry, “No.”

Like Igor Jackson, Larry Davis personifies a running character in rap music: the cartoonish hood LL Cool J portrays in “I’m Bad” as he taunts cops, buries the faces of musclemen in the sand, and wears a gold nameplate that says, “I Wish You Would.” In a bizarre sense, Davis fulfilled the ultimate goal of any young inner-city black teen who practices rapping over long hours with a microphone and a tape deck: to develop a voice, to make that voice heard beyond the confines of the street corner — as Big Daddy Kane brags in “Set If Off,” “Your vocals go local/on the m-i-c/Mine go a great distance/like A T and T” — and most importantly, to make those listening respect that voice. Davis had accomplished all three and his delivery was loud and bloody.

To those whose only knowledge of rap comes from watching the movie Colors or minicam reports after concert riots, Davis is the final, dreaded proof; the incarnation of the rap ideal, the bloodthirsty, nigger teen with a $3000 gold cable around his stiff neck whose only goal is to put heads in graveyard beds and cold-snatch money like the feds. But to the makers of the music, Davis — who had his own record label for a while, Home Boys Only — is the freakish exception, a flesh-and-blood lyric taken too far.

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In my secret moments, in the midnight of my living room, as the Sony earphones fill my ears with Big Daddy Kane waiting for the fake gangsters, “front artists,” to taunt and step to him so he can destroy them like “Jason” from Friday the 13th. I live vicariously through the sonic violence. It’s a release, a shot of dope that makes my blood race. Kane’s tune “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” gives me foolish courage every time a young sucker-punk busts a series of clips from his Beretta from the crackhouse from across the street. The tune, and maybe even the street-corner bravado of Larry Davis, whisper twisted, suicidal words of encouragement to me: “If you had an Uzi, you could take care of that problem across the street.” But the line is drawn when I remove the headphones — the violence belongs on the vinyl.

But for Larry Davis, the music never stopped. The sound panned from a Bronx schoolyard full of junior high school kids dancing to the music on his two turntables to a small Bronx apartment full of cops collapsing to the beat of bullets tearing through their bodies.

A tour of the South Bronx would convince anybody that Davis’s tale of night-crawling, street-racketeering, and dealing drugs for dirty cops is possible — in fact, if Davis wasn’t doing all he claimed, somebody is definitely is for some cop up there. The Bronx is a very big small town, a mesh of hills, valleys, concrete atolls, and dead ends. The streets are narrow, the city blocks wide, and the tenements, row houses, projects, and co-ops prop each other up. Flashing patrol-car lights provide 24-hour illumination; police and ambulance sirens mingle with hip hop, salsa, reggae, soca, and r&b like the fragmented strains of some strange carny pipe organ. The Bronx is a sprawling, Third World, urban fun house.

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The raggedy cityscape of East 169th Street is a perfect movie set for the type of clandestine meetings with corrupt cops that Davis describes. Fat and grimy Chevy vans dot the quarter-mile stretch of five-story urban wasteland like rusty camels — who knows what’s going on inside? Grant Avenue has so many abandoned pre-war buildings it looks like an estate of haunted houses. You can feel the action you can’t see: the teen scramblers who bring the crackhouse whores here for tag-team sex. who lure the snitches and rival crack czars for no-name murders; the crackheads who burrow into dank basements to get high and talk to Scotty on the Enterprise.

Not surprisingly, Davis gets a vote of confidence from a young kid I saw hawking “jums” — the abbreviated term for jumbos, the larger pieces of crack — on a 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. “The cops were comin’ to kill that kid that night,” he told me, “and Larry wasn’t with that program. He was about to expose their whole joint, and they had to keep him from speakin’ on it. This crack money is crazy large out here, and you know Five-O is getting put on to all the action. Drugs flow so freely in this neighborhood, it’s like they legal. I know — I’m out here every day.”

Davis’s firefight may have set a violent precedent, declaring open season on cops. In recent months the word on the street is that cops — from Officer Ed Byrne in Jamaica, Queens, to Officer Michael Buczek in Washington Heights a few weeks ago — are not superhuman.

Teflon-coated bullets, now available in the inner city, are made to pierce bullet-proof vests. And not everybody agrees who wears the white hats: with the long standing belief that New York cops are racist and the recent corruption in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct and allegations of police abuse in Queens’s 113th, many in the black and Latino communities are disgusted with New York’s Finest. They feel it’s more likely than not that the South Bronx cops are dirty, that Davis was working for them, and that they came to murder him because of what he knew.

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To say Larry Davis is intense is an understatement. The day I interviewed him in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the guy not only stared me down, he appeared to look right through me, and then discard my bodily contents. It reminded me of somebody chewing all the sugar out of a stick of Juicy Fruit and throwing it in the garbage. Davis gave the impression he regards reporters as nothing more than inquisitive ectoplasm that collect and distribute information.

By Larry Davis is no psycho killer. Davis is more insular than he is callous, more calculating that he is crazy. Prince, another self-invented idiot savant, treated me the same way when I interviewed him in 1980 at the Westbury Hotel after the release of Dirty Mind. There he sat (dressed in a gray trenchcoat, black stockings, and black bikini briefs), calmly reanimating his mythos for me: how his mother was white and his father was black, how he was the servant of both the LORD GOD Almighty and “the Other,” how all of his songs were autobiographical, even the incestuous “Sister.” When I pressed him for details, he slyly told me, “the clues are all you need to know.” As he continued his presentation, I began to laugh. The expression on his face changed from surprise to indignation to a self-realization that finally caused him to join in the laughter.

Like Prince, Davis spun me a yarn. He told me how he worked for the cops taking off crack spots, and then sold the drugs. He told me how he woke up one fine day in the Bronx and it was revealed to him that he was wrong, how “through the mercy of Allah, I realized I was brain dead, and I was going to tell the world I was wrong to work for those drug-selling policemen,” and how the cops came to hunt him down at his sister’s apartment to silence his Redemption Song. When I remarked to him that this was the same rap he gave The City Sun’s Peter Noel, and Newsday’s Len Levitt, Davis began to lose his patience. When I asked him to elaborate on the details — especially his whereabouts during his 17-day flight from the authorities — he told me pointedly, “Homeboy, you gonna have to wait for the movie.”

After giving me that look, he and I laughed. But the joke only served as another smoke screen: the interview was over and the real Larry Davis remained in the shadows. Looking at his expressionless face, I realized that was the way he wanted it. All I saw was a blankness that defied filling in. Is he Adam Abdul Hakeem — an Islamic name which means “lifeblood, servant of the wise” — the young, studious, and natty Muslim convert who sits quietly while others accuse him of mayhem and murder, and then sobs softly when vindicated?

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Or is he the frenzied madman who slashed at the Department of Corrections from the inside for 367 days — allegedly assaulting guards, spitting and throwing urine at them — eventually forcing a transfer to the higher security MCC, the federal facility in lower Manhattan?

According to those close to him, Davis is more like Prince than Charles Manson. Once acquaintance told me, “Larry is a musician. That guy knows sound. He’s written 200 great songs, he’s a singer — he sounds like that old guy, Billy Paul — keyboard player, arranger, producer, everything. He had a studio in his house. I couldn’t understand the sound he got from his room, from just an eight-track channel mixing board — it sounded like a 24 or 36-track recording studio.” The man speaks the truth. Davis’s bittersweet, Philly soul ballads “Silly Love” and “Loving You Is So Beautiful” could very well score on the music charts. His hard rocking hip hop tunes, like “I Ain’t No Popeye” and “Vultures of the Subculture,” melodic and rhythmically complex songs written almost three years ago, still seem far more advanced than most of the music on current radio. So is he a disillusioned auteur who turned to wild-style glamour when he failed to land a contract with a major label?

With Davis, like Prince, there are precious few times you are able to find the chink in the calculated persona, to see the true, naked person living behind the costumed exterior. It took me a few months of interviews with Davis before the moment came along. About three weeks before the acquittal in the first trial, he started bugging me for some portraits Voice photographer Joe Rodriguez took during the MCC interview. Since Rodriguez was busy with another project, I couldn’t get the photos. During the recesses, or even when court was in session, Davis would turn around and mouth to me, “Where are the pictures?” outlining a frame in the air with his fingers. All of the spectators looked at me, wondering, “Who is this guy and why is he so important to Larry Davis?” Embarrassed, all I could do was shrug my shoulders. Davis would wave his hand at me disgustedly.

Our Tom and Jerry routine went on for almost two weeks. Finally, during a lunch break, I coughed up the goods. As I handed the white envelope to his co-counsel, Lynne Stewart, Davis grinned. “Yo, man, come and see me,” he said in a stage whisper. “Let’s talk.” Davis smiled so wide, I thought his face was going to break. He took the pictures out and studied them. One by one. I had seen the pictures: four 8x10s, stark black and white close-ups of a young black man in an orange box with no escape hatch. Davis’s smile faded slowly and he stiffened, as if he was unable to move.

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Larry Davis was born May 28, 1966, the youngest of Al and Mary Davis’s 15 children. The couple drove up from Perry, Georgia in 1952 and settled into a weather-beaten white row house on Woodycrest Avenue in the southwest Bronx, a working-class neighborhood with clean, narrow streets and well-kept playgrounds. “Larry was a big and playful baby,” says Betty Patron, his oldest sister. “He was born big, a baby with big muscles.” Al Davis — who died a few months ago — supported his growing family working as a plumber, while Mary took care of the home and children.

Al Davis moved out around 1976; some say he left because of the pressures of raising such a large family (it would later grow to include more than 42 grandchildren). Davis, with a note of sadness in his voice, told me the two of them have stayed in contact. When I asked Davis if his father visits him in prison, he eyes fell, and he looked less like a slick new jack who shoots cops than a sad adolescent who is waiting for someone to come and take him home. “No. I don’t call him,” he replied. “My father would visit if I call him. I don’t call him, because it’s not not his position. Me being a man, I gotta face what has to come, or what won’t. I don’t feel that’s his position.”

Larry was 10 when his father left. Mary struggled on without Al, opening a thrift shop near the house and taking in foster kids, runaways, and homeless children. As her elder sons turned to crime (all four of Larry’s older brothers eventually served time for charges ranging from theft to assault), Mary Davis became increasingly devoted in the Rapture Preparation Church in the Bronx. Larry, who often went with her, had sung with the church choir since he was seven. By the time he was 10, he was also playing drums and piano for the group.

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But after graduating from fifth grade at P.S. 73, the bad times began to roll. He went to J.H.S. 145 where “he was not a good student,” according to principal Bernard Krasnow. “He didn’t come very often. When he did attend he was usually in trouble. He was quite an aggressive young man.” After a teacher found Davis with a weapon — officials can’t remember if it was a knife or a gun — the 12-year-old was transferred to J.H.S. 147. But “he was only here a couple of days,” recalls principal Calvin Hart. Later, Davis was transferred to P.S. 58, a special education high school in Manhattan. At 14 years of age, he disappeared from the school system altogether.

By 18, Davis had supplemented the weapons charge at J.H.S. 145 with arrests for resisting arrests, possession of a hypodermic needle, and harassment. His harshest fine was $60, which he paid; he never served more than 24 days in jail.

Despite its problems, the Davis family remained close and large-hearted. Charlie Addo, a 39-year-old Ghanian musician and part-time cab driver who boarded at the Davis house for a year (until just after the shootout), remembers Mary Davis as a kind woman who occasionally shared her private pain with him. “She used to tell me, ‘It would be a mess without me. They’d kill themselves without me.’ Sometimes she falls apart because she goes through so much. But she’s very strong.”

Addo’s fondest moments of the Davis house were the times he and Larry watched videos in the Davis bedroom. “Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop was one of Larry’s favorites,” says Addo, “because he liked to laugh. He also liked watching Rambo.

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Davis claims he discussed the deal a few days later with his buddy Rick Burgos. The two were close; Davis was the bossy older sibling, and Burgos was the loyal sidekick. Davis even bragged about Burgos’s fidelity to a confederate on a wiretap during his time on the run: “Yo, Rick will do 30 years before he talks.” Burgos had idolized Davis since hearing him kick bass tempo on Run-D.M.C. records in the playground of P.S. 145. Like Davis, Burgos — a short, scrappy kid with squinty, Humphrey Bogart eyes — came from a large family and started fighting the law at an early age. At 14, Burgos was arrested for spraying grafitti on the D train, and was sentenced to clean Crotona Park every other weekend for six weeks. In August 1986, he was accused of robbing and shooting a man at the White Castle on Webster Avenue.

Both Davis and Burgos knew that crack was catching on in the Bronx and Manhattan faster than the Asian flu. Whether it’s smoked in a glass pipe or mixed in a joint with reefer — the “woo-woo” or “woolahs” — crack hits are not only highly addictive, exhilarating, demoralizing, and deadly, but also big biz. A seasoned hustler who could sniff out money and opportunity, Burgos told Davis to go with the program and make the “stupid” money.

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Guys from my generation would’ve killed for the illicit carte blanche that Davis and Burgos claimed they enjoyed after they went into the business with the cops. Imagine — that is, if what Davis and Burgos are saying is true — using crackheads to make crack in basehouses throughout the Bronx like mad scientists in abandoned ghetto labs. Imagine breaking the law, with the law enforcers’ blessing. Imagine making piles — “coming off” — and Being Untouchable. Friends say the young “stunts,” the gangster groupies, went crazy over them like rock stars, while the fellas whispered and pointed at them with fear, envy, and admiration. It was almost like a bad joke; they dealt drugs and they couldn’t get arrested.

But the sweet scene turned on October 30, 1986 when the four suspected drug dealers were shot to death at a brickfaced apartment building, 829According to Davis, he had been in Norfolk. Virginia, for about two weeks, intending to buy his mother a house. If this were true — and Davis did come up with an alibi in the form of a Norfolk woman he was friendly with — it would make it impossible to place him at 829 Southern Boulevard on October 30. But after questioning by the prosecution before the first trial, the woman was unsure as to exactly when Davis was in Norfolk. Davis’s lawyers, Kunstler and co-counsel Lynne Stewart, filed a motion stating that the prosecution had intimidated her and placed doubt in her mind, thereby ruling out the possibility of her testifying at the trial.

Davis had additional problems in his first trial, and one was Charlie Conway. Many courtroom observers were surprised that he testified, including Davis. In a wiretapped conversation, Davis is heard explaining the finer points of street silence to Conway’s son, “Little Charlie”; “Your pops don’t talk man, that’s what I like about him. He do not say shit.”

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Big Charlie proved Davis wrong. He denied his willingness to testify was connected to any agreement that would help him out with his parole board (he’s currently serving an armed robbery sentence); instead he told the court, “I am tired. I’ve been involved with crime a lot of years, you know the dates. You went back to like ’65. I am really tired.”

Conway’s underworld weariness had not taken effect when he met Davis in 1984 through his son, Little Charlie, who was a student at J.H.S 145 with Davis. Big Charlie Conway, a former U.S. and merchant marine, testified he taught Davis how to bore out the barrel of a .45, making it difficult to trace. (Davis told me that the police showed him: “I got all my training from the police. They taught me how to bore out a gun.”) Conway also spoke of a meeting with Davis and James “J.J.” Patron on October 31, 1986 — the day after the murders of the four suspected drug dealers. That morning there was a knock on Conway’s apartment door. Conway asked who it was, and a voice replied “Rambo, Rambo” — Davis’s nickname. Conway let Davis and his nephew inside. In this meeting Davis asked the elder Conway if he’d seen Burgos. Conway said he hadn’t. Davis then told him, according to Conway’s testimony, “You all should have come up with us last night because we came off.” Patron then displayed a bracelet to Conway, and Davis said, “We had to pap-pap-pap these four guys.”

“Yeah man, one guy jumped on Larry’s back,” Patron chimed in, according to Conway’s testimony. Patron allegedly added that he shot one of the guys and then took all four men into a room where “Larry took care of them.”

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There were inconsistencies in Conway’s testimony. He seemed confused on names, dates, and places of past crimes. On one occasion, defense attorney asked Conway if he recalled an NYPD badge found in his apartment, and if was given to him by Larry Davis; Conway answered yes to both questions. But under questioning by assistant D.A. Brian Wilson, Conway said it was a security guard badge that Davis had given him in August 1986.

Between the time of the Southern Boulevard murders and the November shootout with police, Davis shuttled from place to place. Aside from various friends, he either stayed with his mother, his girlfriend Melody Fludd — the mother of his daughter Larrima — or his sister Regina Lewis. His lodging at Joe and Regina’s was the source of many arguments for the couple. Joe Lewis, a stocky private sanitation worker, didn’t like the fact that Davis stashed guns, blocks of cocaine in plastic bags, and large sums of money in their tiny apartment at 1231 Fulton Avenue; Lewis feared for the safety of his three young children, Joe Jr., Krystal, and Ravon. After one disagreement in the early fall of 1986, Regina reluctantly asked her baby brother to leave. Lewis soon reconsidered and welcomed Davis back into his home a few weeks before the shootout. Davis returned with the guns, drugs, and money in tow.

In early November, according to Burgos and Davis, the cops gave them 40 kilos of coke to sell to a Columbian dealer. Davis told me he met the Columbian and exchanged the drugs for $1 million in a suitcase. Both say that they kept all the money instead of handing the cops their share. The police “became worried” about Davis, Kunstler asserted later; “One, that he might tell on them, and two, that he took their money.”

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On November 19, 1986, Davis, Melody Fludd, little Larrima, Joe, and Joe Jr. were in the apartment watching a cassette. Although Davis remembers it being Rambo, the Lewises say it was Romancing The Stone (another example of Davis’s self-mythologizing?). Meanwhile, the other children, Krystal and Ravon, were playing in a rear bedroom.

Regina Lewis was on the phone in the front of the apartment when she saw the front doorknob begin to twist. She thought it was probably her prankster sister, Helen Mendoza, who lived next door. Regina got up, went to the door, and opened it just a crack. “Who lives here?” came a voice from the other side of the door. Curious, Joe Lewis got up and went to the door. Through the crack, he could see a brace of police officers with shotguns and flak jackets. They questioned Lewis for a second or two until they spotted Davis on the sofa: Davis saw them about the same time and made his move to the back bedroom.

“Somebody ran,” shouted one of the officers. About 13 cops rushed in, filling the tiny apartment with armed men. According to Regina Lewis’s testimony, no one produced a badge or a search warrant, not even Captain John Ridge, who backed her off iinto the kitchen, and told her to get on the floor. She began to scream. Sergeant Edward Coulter, who was called to testify by Davis’s attorneys, continued Regina’s account, saying, “All I could do was hear her screaming. There was a lot of screaming going on.”

The police hustled Joe Lewis, Melody Fludd, and her daughter out of the apartment. Joe said he wanted to run back and get Krystal and Ravon. “But there was no way to get them,” he recalled. “That’s where they were shooting.”

In the back bedroom, Davis said he pushed Krystal and Ravon under the bed. Davis also said that Detective Thomas McCarren — who William Kunstler maintained at trial was the dirty cops’ assassin — was the first officer he saw. “He ran in the back and asked me, ‘Where’s the money, where’s the money?’,” Davis told me. “I said, ‘I got your money, just don’t hurt my family.’ He was trying to act like Scarface or something. Next thing I know, his gun goes off, and he skinned the top of my head. If I get a close haircut, you can see the scar. So I shot back.”

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Sergeant Edward Coulter testified that he was standing behind McCarren when Davis was desperately rummaging around the room for a gun. “The detective [McCarren] kept yelliing, ‘Police, come out with your hands up.'” Suddenly, McCarren yelled, “Get back, he’s got a gun” and waved his arms desperately, falling backwards into Coulter. Coulter claimed Ravon, Larry Davis’s three-year-old nephew, then walked out of the bathroom. “I can draw you a picture of this kid today,” Coulter said on the stand. “The kid walked out of the bathroom, made a right, and started into the bedroom and as the kid got to the bedroom entrance, I heard an explosion. The guy fired a shot at us. We started to retreat. I … I don’t know if that’s the shot that hit the detective or it was a second shot or a … The gunfire, it was unstopped gunfire, just sounded like the range.” Coulter described shooting wildly through the walls of the bedroom at Davis, whom Coulter says he never saw.

Just as dramatic was the second-trial testimony of Officer Mary Buckley, who was shot in the mouth. On a wiretap recorded during his 17 days on the run, Davis told a friend that after Buckley said, “Freeze, you fuckin’ black nigger, I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ ass away,” she caught a bullet “in her mouth.” (Buckley has denied the slur.) Buckley, who has received more than 135 hours of dental work since the shooting, gave a visceral portrayal of the action. “It was like a knife cutting into my lip,” she told the court. “I realized that I was shot, and I thought I was going to die on some strange floor. I could feel all my veins turning to ice.” Within minutes, however, Buckley said she felt “very peaceful. I started to think of my daughter. She was nine at that time, and I didn’t want to leave her.”

Regina Lewis testified that after the six wounded officers retreated from the apartment, she ran to the bedroom and retrieved Ravon and Krystal from underneath the bed. “I started screaming because I heard the door open,” Regina Lewis told the court. “I thought the police were coming back in. And Larry said, ‘It’s me.’ I said, ‘Please don’t start shooting again.'”

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Davis darted out of the front door of the apartment. Outside, he spotted a few more policemen, and sprayed the hallway with gunfire. The cops scurried. Davis then shot the lock off of his sister Helen’s door and went inside. Looking out a rear window, he spied several cops in the backyard. Davis claims they saw his figure in the window but didn’t realize it was him. Mimicking a woman’s voice, he asked the cops what was happening. They gruffly told the “woman” to get back inside. After the cops left, Davis jumped from the first floor apartment window into the backyard and disappeared into the wilds of the Bronx. (This daring impersonation remains unverified; is it another product of the movie that plays in Davis’s head?)

After slipping in and out of safehouses for more than two weeks, Davis was cornered at 365 East 183rd Street in the Twin Parks West projects in the Fordham section of the Bronx on December 5, 1986. After more than six hours of tense negotiations between Davis and the NYPD — conducted over the phone and shouted through the front door of the apartment where Davis had taken two families hostage — Davis surrendered without incident at 7:30 a.m. He later claimed he gave up because he was concerned for his mother’s safety as well as his own. As a ring of cops led Davis down the building’s wheelchair ramp, he was showered with applause and cheers. Mayor Koch and Commissioner Ward patted each other on the back. The minicam crews raced back to their stations with the grand finale to the greatest show in the Empire State.

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Hunting for a conviction in the first trial (where Davis was charged in the Southern Boulevard murders), assistant district attorneys William Flack and Brian Wilson looked like mako sharks in NBO suits. They had a solid case against Davis; not airtight, but strong. In his summation, Flack likened the case with all of its testimony and physical evidence to “building a house.” He asked the jury not to be distracted by Kunstler and Stewart’s “landscaping and shrubbery” — the political dramatics — but to concentrate on the “house” itself.

With more than 50 witnesses, the prosecution’s case seemed stronger every day. There was the testimony of “Big Charlie” Conway, Addo, and a spacey crackhouse steerer named Roy Gray who claimed that, a few hours after the killings of the four suspected drug dealers, Davis, Burgos, and Patron robbed Gray outside a Washington Heights crackhouse (Burgos is currently serving a two-to-six year stretch at Rikers for this stickup). After Gray called the police and they arrived — and handcuffed Gray in the backseat of their patrol car just in case — the police chased Davis’s crew (driving a stolen car) all the way from 165th and Edgecombe in Manhattan to 167th and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. As Davis and company bailed out and scaled the sloping staircase from Jerome to Anderson Avenue, Gray testified that Davis and his boys fired at the cops. Flack and Wilson had evidence; the shells on the staircase and the fingerprints on the getaway car matched the shell casings and fingerprints taken from the scene of the murders.

Kunstler and Stewart ignored the murder case; their aim was to persuade the jury that corrupt police officers were out to assassinate Larry Davis. Kunstler’s theory was that McCarren, the detective who led the charge into Regina Lewis’s apartment on November 19, was out to “assassinate” Davis because he knew too much about police corruption and drug dealing. The defense team did their best to play to the frustrations and loyalties of the seven blacks and three Latinos on the jury.

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One person who figured heavily into Davis’s defense was his brother-in-law Joe Lewis. Lewis, who testified for the prosecution and later recanted, gave what appeared to be very damaging testimony. He claimed that Davis came to his house a day or two after the October 30 murders and said that he “went to rob some guys, but some static happened.” Lewis said Davis told him that one of the men rushed him and he shot the man. Lewis said Davis explained that the remaining three were shot and killed because Davis “didn’t need no witnesses.” Then the four were stripped of their clothing — one corpse did have socks on — tied up, and tossed into a bathtub full of water.

When I asked Davis what he thought of his brother-in-law’s account, he went off on me. “What’s the use of getting mad at the boy?” Davis asked sharply. “We know what they [the prosecution] is doing to him. The boy’s a punk, he’s scared, they tellin’ him he’s going to jail — he has children. I got a daughter myself. They scarin’ him. But they can’t do that to my family. They ain’t going for it.” And then Davis did something very brash. “Cut the tape off,” he said. Stunned and curious, I complied. “You see that tape recorder, how small it is? if you got a big coat, I want you to go to my mother’s house and interview Joe — but you can’t let him see the recorder. Take a pen and pad, but hide the recorder, switched on, in your coat pocket. He’s been telling people how he was scared, how they made him lie on the witness stand, how he didn’t want to do that, and I want that on tape.” I looked at Davis for a full minute as I let the full shock of his request sink in. Then I told him I couldn’t do that for him.

I did interview Lewis, however. He told me that right after Davis’s capture he kept getting calls from the Bronx D.A.’s office; he avoided them until the morning he was picked up by two detectives who drove him to the courthouse where he was interrogated for more than two hours by an assistant D.A. and a detective. According to Lewis, when he denied any knowledge of the murders or the shootout, the assistant D.A. told him, “You do know something. Why are you being stupid?” The detective allegedly added, “You asshole, why mess up your life for this bastard? Everybody here is telling on everybody anyway. We already know everything.” (The prosecution would not comment on the Lewis interview.)

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Says Lewis, “He had me thinking that it was other people that had already told on him, and they had all they needed to pin Larry. Then come to find out they only had me as a witness. They used me as a little sucker. I didn’t think it would be my testimony that would hang my brother-in-law. Larry used to call me and say, ‘Yo, don’t let them do this to me, don’t let them hang me.’ I told him, ‘I just put shit together from the newspapers. They was threatenin’ me so much, I was scared, tears was comin’ out of my eyes at the time.’ Then he told me, ‘Joe, stand up to them. Tell what they did to you, so people could know.’ They tried to use me, and I didn’t dig that. So I told Larry not to worry about it.” On the witness stand, Lewis avoided looking at Davis, his mother-in-law, and his wife.

On Sunday, February 14, Mary Davis called Stanley Cohen, Davis’s Legal Aid lawyer and one of the architects of his defense. After inquiring about his health, she said, “Somebody wants to ask your legal advice.” Joe Lewis took the phone. Cohen called him back and taped his recantation on an answering machine. Judge Fried did not allow the recantation because Lewis took the Fifth when asked whether his previous testimony was untrue. Fried also told the court that “Mr. Cohen did suggest the answers [for Lewis] outright.” But the next day the papers wrote about Fried barring the recantation. It was discussed on WLIB, and there is speculation that the jurors — who were sequestered upstate — got wind of it.

On March 3, 1988, after nine days of deliberation — the longest in Bronx county history — Davis walked on the murder charges. Objectively, the prosecution should have won, but crack and police corruption have filled the minds New Yorkers like sweet smoke spreading through a glass pipe. When it came down to choosing between “dirty” cops, unsympathetic victims, and poor leadership in the county’s judicial system on the one side and, on the other, a kid who may or may not have been lured into police corruption and no-name murders, Larry Davis was the people’s choice.

Mary Davis rocked with her eyes closed, her family fell on her and cried, her Pentecostal sisters raised open palms, on the brink of an unknown language. An older black man in the back of the courtroom shouted, “Alright now! Next, win, Jesse, win.” Stanley Cohen trembled, and then he cried. Lynne Stewart beamed and hugged Kunstler who tried to remain cool, but said, “I’m delirious. This is great, just great.” And he put his arm around Larry Davis, who sobbed into the sleeve of his lawyer’s charcoal gray suit.

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The acquittal in the first trial not only vindicated Davis, but it also bolstered his credibility, confirming the street-level perception that he was telling the truth about working for the cops. It was also the sort of surprise ending that suggested that the second trial (for the attempted first-degree murder of nine police officers, aggravated assault, use of a firearm, and criminal possession of weapons) would deliver even more drama.

After three months of false starts — involving possible racism in jury selection, subsequent empaneling and dismissals, until not one white sat on the jury — Davis II began in late July with the hoopla worthy of a new Martin Scorsese film. For the first couple of weeks, the courtroom was standing room only. As in the last trial, there was a broad cross-section of spectators: radicals, Muslims, Pentecostals — prayer capped women from Mary Davis’s Rapture Preparation Church — detectives, cops, reporters, and the legion of Davis’s family and supporters. I even remember small wagers made between reporters that Davis II would eclipse the hype of the Brawley mystery, which, at that time, was at it’s peak.

For a while, it seemed that it would. First, there was the tearful testimony of some of the wounded officers. Emergency Service sergeant Edward Coulter, who was wounded in the hand and thigh, broke down as he recounted the story of how he and his fellow officers were felled by the flashes of heat and light from Davis’s gun. Kunstler went as far as to show the courtroom a videotape of a police training lecture that depicted a much calmer Coulter describing the same event to fellow Emergency Service officers in a January 1987 meeting. Indeed, Coulter seemed to have a firmer grip on his emotions when I witnessed his testimony back in February. If anything, his steady delivery held the court spellbound, with his claim of Davis shooting first, even with a tot in the line of fire.

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Four of the other five wounded cops followed Coulter to the witness stand (four cops have filed civil suits against the city for negligence). The injured officers include Captain John Ridge who was grazed in the head (and who, according to a Newsday article, had a trace of alcohol on his breath during the post-shootout hospital examination, though he denied on the witness stand that he had been drinking), Officer John O’Hara, who was shot in the eye, and Detective Donald O’Sullivan, grazed in the head and hand. Throughout their testimony, Kunstler maintained the same position he outlined for Newsday on the day of the opening arguments: “You don’t assemble an entire task force with cops from all over the place, including ESU [Emergency Service Unit], get denied a request for a warrant from the DA’s office, and then still make a raid on the house with bulletproof vests, sawed-off shotguns, and 34 men unless you are hellbent on killing him.”

Bolstering the testimony of these and other officers on the scene that night were the daily sea of blue uniforms in the first two rows of the courtroom, including the wheelchair-bound Steven McDonald. McDonald, the officer disabled by a teen gunman in Central Park, was a quiet but powerful cheerleader for the cops. At the beginning of the second trial, he told the Post, “I consider them [the wounded officers] victims, and I’ll continue to be here as long as I am physically up to it.” Kunstler countered that McDonald’s presence was “a trick to win sympathy from the jury. It’s a shameful exploitation. I feel sorry for him.”

Perhaps the trial became too taxing for McDonald, because he didn’t show up in the courtroom for a while. Or maybe he just lost interest. McDonald’s absence was just one indication of the public’s lethargy during the bulk of Davis II. Despite the police parade of witnesses and the visceral testimony describing the melee, empathy had began to wane not only for the cops, but also for Larry Davis. Most people didn’t seem to care anymore; many said it was because the image painted by the cops of Davis using his toddler nephew as a shield in the shootout. Others said that the cop-shoot had been tried already in the murder trial; once you’ve seen the surprise ending, the thrill is gone.

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The disaffection of the general public grew despite the defense’s theatrical presentation. Davis, Kunstler, and Stewart did their best to pump a case that was in danger of becoming a mundane installment of Superior Court up to the level of a Hitchcock thriller. The most unexpected twist came in the October 5 testimony of Davis’s mother. Mary Davis, 65, told the court that on October 31, 1986 — the day after her son and two accomplices allegedly killed four suspected crack dealers at 829 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx — she was visited by four police officers. She testified that one of the officers, Joseph Nealon, said, “You know what you did? You raised a dirty bastard.” He went on to tell her, “You tell him, we’re going to put a f—in’ bullet in his head. You tell Larry we are going to kill him.” She informed the police Civilian Complaint Review of this harassment just in case “anything did happen,” (Nealon received a minor reprimand from the department for pushing and verbally abusing Mary Davis.)

Two weeks later, Kunstler, former Tawana Brawley advisers C. Vernon Mason and Al Sharpton, and other supporters staged a six-hour sit-in Brooklyn Criminal Court (over a judge’s decision in another case) that ended in a mini-riot and a group sleepover in a holding cell. Next, Davis developed a back problem that delayed the trial for a week. Were these carefully orchestrated blows against the system or were they acts of desperation? Well, Davis’s problem may have been genuine; months before he made the complaint, he told me had injured his back in a car accident that happened when he was being transferred from the Bronx Courthouse to the MCC. But there was widespread speculation that Kunstler was stalling because he had run out of ammunition.

Last week, the defense rested, the jury was charged, and deliberations began. as the trial drew to a close, the public revved itself up once more as if, having slept through the dreary exposition of the movie, the audience was waking up just in time for the car chase. Reporters who weeks ago were filling their notebooks with doodles suddenly scrambled to get to the fourth floor courtroom an hour early, because waiting for the verdict was the uptown ticket that’s as hot as Waiting For Godot. And Larry Davis was the hottest topic on the street corner again.

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Like a sequel that tops the original movie, the verdict in Davis II realized its great expectations. On Sunday afternoon, Larry Davis was found not guilty on all of the most serious charges — nine counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault — and found guilty of six counts of weapons possession. The press room on the ground floor of the Bronx County Courthouse swelled with reporters who were stunned into silence; meanwhile, shouts of “Hallelujah!” and revolutionary war cries caromed down the halls on the fourth floor. Soul power was alive and well in the Bronx.

Larry Davis will continue to be a figurehead for factions in New York. To the ruling class, he is society’s nightmare, a horror-film monster who keeps coming back every time you think you’ve put him away for good. Worse, he is not a lone gunman: he is the advance man for an urban earthquake that is rocking society from the bottom, a terrifying state of flux that can no longer be ignored or reversed. But to the powerless, Davis is a resistance fighter, decorated with the blood of the occupational forces and crowned with victories on the enemy’s home turf, the halls of justice that have traditionally been nothing more than corridors of white power. By paralleling Davis with Bernhard Goetz immediately after the verdict, Kunstler has (quite brilliantly) forced Judge Fried into choosing between either imposing a minimal sentence that matches Goetz’s penalty or a heavier one that implies the court is racist. If Davis serves any substantial length of time on the weapons convictions or if he is jailed on upcoming murder charges (he still faces two unrelated counts of murder), his name will be invoked the way Hurricane Carter’s was for years: as the patron saint of black victims.

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The triumph of Davis II has fueled the hunger for the kind of black hero that has been missing since the days of urban riots, Black Panthers, and Malcolm X. While Jesse Jackson has assumed the highest profile of any black leader in America today, there are many who feel his careful mainstreaming leaves a vacuum on the radical side; the rally to Davis’s bloody banner is a return to Malcolm X’s credo, “By any means necessary.” How could a crack dealing strongman be compared to a great visionary? “Hey man,” one Harlem professional told me recently, “remember that Malcolm used to be Detroit Red [a pimp and a drug dealer] before he became El Hajj. Everybody makes mistakes. It all depends on what you learn from them.”

I have heard the analogy between between Larry Davis and Malcolm X made so many times recently, it’s almost beginning to sound like an article of faith. But what the hopeful believers ignore is that Malcolm X was weaned on the black struggle through his father, a Marcus Garvey acolyte: Malcolm X was schooled to be a powerful beacon. As much as I believe God can rewrite any soul, and as much as I want to believe in Davis’s Islamic epiphany in prison, I can’t. I don’t think a true prophet would tell me to wait for the movie. ❖


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?” ■


Keep Dope Alive: Why the Hip Hop Nation Is Getting High on “The Chronic”

Blunt Posse: Why the Hip Hop Nation Is Getting High on “The Chronic”
June 22, 1993

Something has happened. The spliff, the holy weed of devout Jamaican Rastas, has mesmerized a generation of Black Ameri­can wannabe “rude bwoys” who are now talking about naturalness, even going back to God when they “take a likkle whiff ’pon di sinsemilla.” No more “suckin’ on the glass dick” — Crack “slangin’,” ya duds, is wick-wicky-wickable wack.

The hip hop nation is getting high on “the Chronic.” I see them everywhere, with their bald heads and edge-of-the-ass baggies, slitting the sides of cheap Phillies Blunt cigars­ — gutting and stuffing the cavity with sticky California skunk grass, Indica, Afghan, even Africa’s exotic Durban Poison weed.

“Blunts have made it fashionable to smoke pot again,” says Ilchuk, 32, a cross­bred Latino and first generation B-boy who grew up on da Loisaida. “Just about no­body in hip hop circles smokes crack or cocaine anymore. In the last two years, I’ve seen ganja make a big difference in terms of less kids smoking crack, angel dust, and all the other dangerous drugs.” Since he over­came a serious crack addiction six years ago, pot has been his only high. “The spiri­tual side of ganja was definitely brought to me by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. I learned the hard way that not all drugs are spiritual.”

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Used to be that Black American kids would see me (a Trinidadian) on the streets, check out my dreadlocks, laugh, and say, “Hey Rastaman, teach me to build a spliff?” Now they’re puffing on their own macho blunts, blowing smoke rings through Flavor Flav gold teeth.

I am surprised, though I shouldn’t be. After all, what did homies do in the mid ’70s, after Kool Herc and other Jamaican DJs in the South Bronx taught them the art of toasting, rhyming over a rhythm track? Brothers took it, reinterpreted it, and rein­vented it to a beat, rhythm, and style of their own bigger-than-life reality. They cre­ated hip hop, a music that is loud, impos­ing, impossible to ignore.

Though they borrowed the technique of the Jamaican DJs, few of the rappers and little of their audience took up the spiritual­ity. But by the early ’80s B-boys began heeding the message of marijuana carried in reggae music. In September 1980, Mar­ley initiated the bond at Madison Square Garden, headlining with the Commodores and Kurtis Blow, then the big hip hop star. It was Marley’s last New York perfor­mance, and he stole the show — introducing his music and his ganja to inner-city Black America.

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There began a vigorous intermarriage of the ghetto musics of Kingston and the South Bronx, a phenomenon best epito­mized by Shinehead, Yellowman, and now Shabba Ranks and Mad Cobra. In 1985, Run DMC’s “Together Forever” declared: “Cool chief rocker/don’t drink no vodka/I keep a bag of cheeba in my locker.” Now rap groups like Cypress Hill are in the news for sporting hemp clothing as part of their call for the legalization of marijuana.

It’s easy to forget that Pot Prohibition and its black market, has lasted 50 years — much longer than the other Prohibition­ — and that previously the forbidden plant had been a normal cash crop, with many uses. “Ganja is from the earth, it’s natural, God made it. I can’t question it the way I question all these other man-made highs,” says Ilchuk. Reggae turned B-boys on to the natural high. Now they’ve pumped up the volume and taken it to another level — ­blunts, the Chronic.

But what else is to be expected of the B-­boy, ambitious, restless, eager to be recog­nized, screaming, “I am! I am!”?

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He licks and rolls a bigger, more formidable-looking bazooka than anything Marley, Tosh, or any rude bwoy ever devised. Ras­tamen have always built their joints like ice cream cones: Women stay in the other room while their lions gather to pass spliffs or cutchie pipes, and reason.

Now see the B-boys building their blunts, bigger and longer, and brown too, like a big Black dick. That’s macho, that’s rebellious, that says fuck you in a big way.

Watching them pass blunts around to each other, enjoying the same potent, male bonding Rastas share when they drum round a fire at a Nyabinghi ritual, I’m hav­ing flashbacks. I’m sitting with Bob Marley on a bed in his Essex House suite. He grins, passes me the fat end of a big spliff, and says, “Di herb mek I see with a clear inner eye.” I remember Peter Tosh, after his ar­rest for smoking a spliff on a Kingston-Kennedy flight, standing in a Queens court­room, bellowing, “I am the Prime Minister of Marijuana, brought here by Jimmy Car­ter to legalize the herb!”

“The turn to blunts was definitely influ­enced by rasta and reggae,” says Hershey, a 24-year-old nonsmoking B-boy from a Trinidadian family, who’s an A&R man for Freeze Records. “If it’s keeping kids away from harder drugs, it’s definitely a positive thing.” The next record his company will put out? A tune called “Who’s at the Door, the Buddha Man,” by Sham and the Profes­sor.

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I’m standing in front of Jah Life’s record shop on bustling Utica Avenue, in East Flatbush. Jah is a big Rastaman, his dread­locks stuffed into a big round wool cap like a soccer ball concealed on top of his head. He’s a venerated reggae producer with a 20-year track record of developing artists like Sister Carol, Barrington Levi, and Mikey Jarrell. I look him in the eye and throw him the hard ball: Do you agree that rasta and reggae music are responsible for the popu­lar resurgence of marijuana as the drug of choice for urban America?

I could have said “partly responsible,” but I wanted him to hear it the way he is bound to hear it, when pop culture’s cur­rent romance with rude bwoys and spliffs, B-boys and blunts — marijuana, sinsemilla, hemp, cannabis, ganja, kaya, weed, cheeba, Chronic — runs its course, or is extinguished; when the time comes, as it always does, to hang the prophets.

Like me, Life is street-bred, ghetto, a survivor. He senses danger and is on his guard. He recoils and looks away. When again he meets my eye, the atmosphere has changed between us. His is a calm and studied stare.

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I half expect him to say, Who the fuck are you, asking me some shit like that? The CIA? The FBI? Are you trying to stab me in my back, brotherrr?

But instead, he studiously says, “Me no really feel Marley and reggae have so much to do with it, cause nuff youth who never even heard of Bob Marley are now smoking blunts. Me have fi say television, news, and the movies contribute even more than Mar­ley and reggae music.”

Yes, there have been high-volume warn­ings about drugs over the past decade­ — warnings that double as advertisements. Nancy Reagan’s JUST SAY NO!!! The co­caine death of Len Bias. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s proclamations against cigarette smoking. Reverend Calvin Butts painting over cigarette ads. Heavy D, Pub­lic Enemy, and other rappers railing against malt liquors and other mind-altering ghetto intoxicants. B-boys, their minds blown from crack and angel dust, running crazed and naked through the ghetto. Such apoca­lyptic admonitions and examples did help drag B-boys away from cigarettes, malt li­quor, angel dust, freebasing, crack, cocaine, methamphetamines. Was there nothing left but those primitive earth men and their natural high?

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Still, people with dreadlocks want none of the praise and none of the blame. Life hesitates, then admits that he smokes, though much less frequently than he used to.

“All smoking, including ganja, ‘the holy herb,’ can be bad for the body,” the Dread explains. “It is better to boil it and drink it as tea. Don’t keep a blunt on you all the time, draw it and draw it until you lose the feeling, the enjoyment of it. Whatever you do, don’t abuse it.”


Keep Dope Alive: The $1000 High

Reefer Madness: The $1000 High
June 22, 1993

If swapping one’s spouse for a million green borders on indecency, what about smoking $1000 pot?

The latter question is no longer hypo­thetical. Owing to the success of the Rea­gan-Bush crackdown, marijuana prices in New York City have doubled and tripled in recent years, with top-end product selling routinely for $500 an ounce, and up. The price can rise to four figures when the de­mand for designer weed converges with the scarce supply of something like Khyber Bush, an unusually potent and pleasing hy­brid of Mexican sativa and Afghani indica.

The concept of platinum-card cannabis offends Pete Gorman, a 42-year-old senior editor at High Times. “Yes, federal forfei­ture laws have driven out small growers and replaced them with semi-professionals who demand professional prices,” Gorman said over the telephone. “But the best stuff — I mean the best Humboldt, the best Thai — is still $350 an ounce. The rest is just taking rubes for more money. It’s just a plant; it takes light and water. Would you pay $1000 for dandelions? I’m an old hip­pie. I won’t buy their sneakers and I won’t buy their dope.”

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Ethics aside, what is it like to inhale $1000 dope? This writer was able to obtain a sample of Khyber Bush (dense, purple­-streaked, green-gold buds dripping with crystals and smelling like thyme) and recruit a jury of impeccably resinated testers with known ties to an alternative weekly newspaper. All but one considered the Khy­ber of serious McCartney quality. “It was like getting stoned for the first time,” re­marked a female head in her thirties. ‘”A third-eye opener,” asserted a veteran male herbalist. Here are their tales from the Khy­ber Zone.

Female Head: She was an ex-grower and dealer to media celebrities in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when even the most exotic strains cost between $300 and $400 an ounce. “This is textbook pot,” she ob­served. “I have never smoked more intense stuff or seen buds so thick. The genetic engineering is obvious. The only thing com­parable came from plants I tended myself. After two hits, I was extremely, pleasantly ripped. My desire was for food and wine rather than sex. It reminded me of when I was young and naive. I had the same purity of response, but without the teenage silli­ness. However, tolerance built up quickly.”

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Male Herbalist: Upon three measured puffs, he felt an unprecedented craving for food and sex, in that order. As he wondered how to satisfy his monstrous appetites, an estranged girlfriend telephoned and insisted on a housecall. “Before I gave her a new G Spot,” he reminisced, “I stopped by a land­mark deli and ate a hot pastrami sandwich with a side order of onion rings followed by a slice of cherry cheesecake, something I have not consumed in such perverse combi­nation in years. Although I have ingested native flora on Maui and Jamaica, this is the most splendid grass ever, a veritable octopus’s garden.”

The lone dissenter on the jury was a Hibernian hempster with gourmet tastes and Gore-Tex lungs. “The absolute best weed in memory was Nepalese buds that sold for around $400 in 1986,” he said. “This is trippy, a little speedy and certainly mightier than cheaper products available, but it’s vastly overpriced. Anybody who charges $1000 for marijuana is a war criminal.”

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Pete Gorman, an idealist when it comes to THC, goes farther. “Marijuana is almost completely in the mind,” he argued. “The other night I smoked 25 joints on a bet, but two tokes in the afternoon gets me no high­er. I still believe that one joint of anything can make any five people stoned.” Of course, the biggest disadvantage of costly marijuana is the tolerance time bomb. “If you smoke one or two joints a day for three days, you’re no longer smok­ing $1000 dope,” Gorman insisted. “Since you lose the effect so quickly, you might as well return to the cheaper stuff.”

From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Keep Dope Alive: The Noise of One Mind Tripping

Ecstatically Ordinary: The Noise of One Mind Tripping
June 22, 1993

This is my prose. 

This is my prose on drugs.

The theory, mind you, was to make it immediate. The last time I did ecstasy was November. Being no habitué, I wanted to refresh the synapses, so for veracity’s sake, I paid the cash and a day.

Sitting in St. Luke’s Garden, M. turns and asks, “What are you thinking?” I’m thinking about drugs, which surprises her. It sur­prises me that it surprises her. Doesn’t every­body? What I don’t say is that I am hearing deeply murmurs and sounds and voices — the wind, the tires on asphalt, the friends talking. That noise is the best thing about this drug; it is the payback, the astounding feed­back. If people like to dance on it, it’s not just because it’s speedy but because sound is different, vying more aggressively with the visual for perceptual primacy. I am also won­dering whether I would like the look of the brick apartment house across the Hudson, if not for a change in my internal weather. 

In the beginning, there was the word. On the bookshelf of the the den was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, with its marbled-orange cover jacket. Of course, I never read it, or saw the movie with Charlton Heston. Years later, there was Sir Kenneth Clark speaking, if you could call it that, about Bernini’s St. Theresa. There, badly projected on the screen of a Denver class­ room, was the face of ecstasy. I have always aspired for something akin to that paroxys­mal vision of the ecstatic — the religious piercing, the searing illumination.

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In Berlin, my friend S. kindly babysits me. I am day tripping and she is not. In a market underneath the train station, it takes. I stiffen some, the brainstem and stomach a little tight. The cacophony begins: muffled German melds with the squeak of a shopping cart and the clang clang clang of a register bell. I am convinced that Wim Wenders knows (in the biblical sense) this drug. After all, the first minutes of Wings of Desire are this sublime: it is the noise of the world heard and seen — all the suffered and achy whisperings in his town, our town. I am also convinced that what X has to offer can be achieved without it, and I try to prove this with S. by explaining how I am hearing the world: for much of the day she feels it. On the train from East Berlin a drunken man sits across from us and begins speaking. There is no fear. S. moves, leaving me alone with his raving and my dumb bliss.

“First of all, I don’t think ‘Ecstasy’ is a good name for MDMA,” said Andrew Weil not so very long ago in these pages, “because the state it produces is not ecstatic. It’s a state of great tranquility, relaxation, self-acceptance, and non-defensiveness.” Weil is the author of a book on the mind and drugs; it’s nice to have science support my research. Ecstasy is a great consumer-seducing name for a drug that reaps something quite different. But anything closer to the point would sound like Calvin Klein: Tranquility. Serenity. Calm. Or perhaps the name of a memorial garden.

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No raves, no outlaw parties on the corner between this and that, no midnight to mid­day marathons — if this is the drug’s profile, I don’t fit it. More solitary wanderer than group groper, I tend to do this and other drugs solo (though the sight of a pretty-committed-to-the-team queer girl smooch­ing her best boy buddies seems in keeping with X’s reputation as an orgy enhancer). I tend to take my drugs at exactly the times those PSA films from grade school warned not to: when alone, when depressed, anx­ious, etc. That one can do this with X and live to tell is one of its charms. There was the time I popped a leftover X tablet into my mouth as I began roasting a chicken for my parents, who were flying from out West to mark the first anniversary of Kevin’s death. That my brother’s passing coincides with a turning away, perhaps only tempo­rary, from the hardier, and less forgiving, hallucinogens to X is no coincidence.

On a beach miles south of Cancun, the sun is hot. Since this is precisely the kind of discomfort one might not notice on X, I am exceptionally tender and goofy with myself. Just so under this palm, just so in the water. Be naked. Be careful. Be steady. Don’t be afraid. Get cozy with the seaweed that freaks you out. Cool. Pretty. No one said drugs weren’t banal. Onto this beach I take my whole reason for being in Mexico: a stack of cards and letters Kevin sent when he lived in Paris. And on X, I read many. But I can’t make emotional sense of what I am reading. Instead I wind up looking, no, seeing, the cards, these tens of postcards he sent with gargoyles, with Paris, saturating them.

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Yesterday I did X, probably for the last time (though I could not have guessed this before I started). No anti-drug bug, just no­ticing the law of diminishing returns at work. X is a weird blocker of lows: you can take it and not miss the people you miss most desperately. But it muffles highs as well. As an epiphany junkie, I’m not sure I even yearn for a drug to deliver an acute awareness of the unbearable lightness of being. Still, I have a desire to work for rewards of the spirit, to like or live with the world, on my own. Like alcohol, X is not very labor-intensive. As drugs go, LSD is work, mushrooms are work; maybe not for everyone, but for me, Jacob and his angel come to mind. It’s a struggle, always; on hallucinogens, I am not necessarily a party.

Having the sense of bringing something to a drug — a lot of history, a lot of desire and confusion — something that it recom­bines with to make the adventure one’s own, that’s a weird escapism worth strain­ing for the escapism of being here. Of course your personal lab results may vary­ — this is my body, my very own chem set. On X, you may cry and feel less inhibited or, like my drug buddy, dance better, be beau­tiful all night long; and that’s more than enough to keep you buying. Different ambi­tions, different results. To make the quotid­ian adventurous, or deeply compelling, to make the obvious all that there is, and good enough — for awhile X suggested the way. Not so much these days. Still, one likes to remember that first time, that endearing moment when a gang of four X virgins made trips to the john, fascinated by nothing more than the act of pissing.


The Day They Got Mr. Untouchable, Nicky Barnes

The jury began its deliberations last Wednesday. By coincidence, that was the day Nicky Barnes’s troubles began. He came back from lunch and said he was feeling sad. One of his favorite women had taken it into her head to lay down guidelines. “I had to tell her that the relationship couldn’t continue if she were going to erect barriers,” he said. It was her scent, above all, that he would miss; he might have to go to the Far East to find a scent like that. He was going to wear black the next day. “Maybe she’ll wear black, too.” said Nicky Barnes. “And bring her whip!” A charge of electricity shot through him. He shook his hand from the wrist and grinned.

Nicky Barnes was standing at the rail with his feet planted firmly apart. The clothes he was wearing marked a metamorphosis from the muted blues in which he had wrapped himself for the trial. Against the rust-colored shirt, which fit his weightlifter’s physique like armor, he had placed a copperish tie and a wool jacket of a delicate gray-and-purple hound’s-tooth weave. His olive-drab trousers were cut as round as columns, and were held up by a lizard belt. His tan ankle boots were made to be coveted. He wore glasses that were tinted lilac with purplish frames; set into the arms were little metal discs embossed with the Playboy rabbit. He never did change into mourning.

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On Wednesday, the jury made the 14 lawyers happy. From the notes that the forelady sent out, it was clear that the jurors had put aside the first two counts — the con­spiracy count, which embraced all the 14 black defendants, and the criminal-enterprise count, which alleged that Nicky Barnes was the chief executive of the General Motors of heroin. They had plunged into the 10 substantive counts, which alleged specific acts of drug selling and possession of guns.

Due to an unprecedented decision by the judge Henry “Speed” Werker, the names and addresses of the jurors were kept secret. The lawyers and the prosecutors knew their occupations and the counties in which they live; apart from that, they were only numbers. The government had insisted that the jury be sequestered, which the defense considered a stroke of luck since it meant that fewer executive types from Westchester could afford to serve and more than the usual number of urban blacks were seated — five in all. As the trial progressed, the lawyers guessed that three or four of the whites were rooting for the prosecution — but the only one they knew to be an enemy was blond, Teutonic Number 7, a loan officer from Westchester. The lawyers called him “the Nazi.” One afternoon, from within the bus that was taking the jury back to sequestration, Juror Number 7 had stared straight at one of the lawyers, Paul Goldberger, and given him the finger. The judge saw no reason to query Number 7 about this gesture.

Now, each time the jurors came out to hear the court reporter read the testimony they had requested, the lawyers studied the faces, read the body language, and got happier.

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When Number 7 came out to hear the testimony, his face was flushed with anger. His ally, Number 8, the free-lance artist from Radcliffe, was pale and drawn. By contrast, the blacks looked serene and confident. The blacks were thought to be solidly behind their fellow blacks. Nicky Barnes’s lawyer, David Breitbart, became convinced that Number 3, the white lady with gray hair and glasses, was smiling at him. “Are you kidding?” said Breitbart’s partner, Paul Goldberger, “She was smiling at you when she came in, she was smiling at you when she went out, and she was winking in between.”

As the lawyers walked out of the courthouse on Wednes­day night, they were talking about the fact that the U. S. attorney for the Southern District of New York had never lost a narcotics conspiracy case. “What about Tuttino?” said one of the lawyers. “They lost Tuttino.”

“Yeah,” said another lawyer, “but they lost it the wrong way.” When the foreman announced the acquittals in Tuttino the defendants broke up laughing. They knew what the verdict was going to be because they had paid for it.

On, Thursday morning, when the fog came in, Nicky Barnes arrived in court an hour late and the U.S. attorneys threatened to remand him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center. This made Nicky Barnes furious. He stood behind the rail shaking his head, and there were tears of rage in his voice: “I got more motherfucking reason than anybody to be here,” he said. “What’s everyone trying to do? — try­ing to make a buck, right? I got $300,000 of them here. Three hundred thousand motherfucking bucks. And they don’t think I’m going to show up!”

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The other defendants sat around the defense tables playing tonk or dominoes, or reading car magazines. All day long the jury kept sending in notes, from which a definite pattern began to emerge: All of the notes requested direct testimony from government witnesses; none demanded cross-examination, in which defense law­yers had destroyed some of those witnesses. The lawyers decided that brainy Number 1, the Smith graduate who works at the Council on Foreign Relations, was running the jury, and wasn’t running it in a friendly way. Late in the afternoon, a note arrived that spelled death. The jury wanted to hear again the judge’s charge on the second count. Which meant that they must have already returned to the first count and found that a conspiracy existed. Now they were getting ready to conclude that Nicky Barnes was guilty of having headed a criminal enterprise.

When the clerk announced another note at 6 o’clock most of the lawyers looked as if they were going to cry. This had to be the verdict. The courtroom began to fill up with smiling U.S. attorneys in pin-striped suits. “They smell the blood,” said a morose lawyer.

But the note didn’t announce a verdict. It was a request to see the videotape of Stevie Baker removing large amounts of mannite for cutting heroin from the trunk of his car and taking it into his apartment. The smiles fell off the U.S. attorneys and the defense lawyers picked them up. Three television sets were set up and everybody craned his neck to watch the Stevie Baker tape, which was clear as crystal. Every so often the forelady from the Council on Foreign Relations would hold up a finger and the techni­cian would stop the tape, which caused the television image to fuzz up, obscuring the features of the putative Stevie Baker. When the viewing was over and the jurors had filed out, all the defense lawyers were ecstatic. “It wasn’t Stevie Baker!” they kept saying, even though they knew it was. Even Stevie Baker knew it was Stevie Baker, and had confessed after being shown the tape. But compared to certain death, anything looks wonderful.

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The next and final morning, Friday, found Nicky Barnes sitting in the empty jury box, looking bleary. His olive-drab trousers were badly wrinkled.

“You get any sleep, Nicky?”

“No man, they followed me all night. I couldn’t get any sleep.”


“Agents. It looked like a motorcade.”

Louis Diaz and Bobby Nieves, the same two agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration who had been watching Nicky Barnes ever since November 1976, and who had testified against him in court, had followed him to make sure he didn’t go to the Far East. “I didn’t want to take them home with me,” said Nicky Barnes, “so I went to a certain hotel. I don’t ever rent a room there. I always give the clerk $20 and I don’t sign the register.” The garage was closed, so he parked his $22,000 Mercedes right in front of the hotel, assuming that Diaz and Nieves would watch over it for him. Unfortunately, when the two agents went into the hotel they found that Nicky Barnes wasn’t registered, and that the clerk hadn’t ever heard of him. “They went crazy,” Nicky Barnes said. “Meantime, the NYPD come along and tows my Mercedes. That’s $75 to get it out, and I only got about $150. And when I get to the pound, they say it’s $300 with all the parking tickets I haven’t paid.” So Nicky Barnes was driven to court that morning by agents Diaz and Nieves of the DEA.

Early Friday morning, the jury sent in another note which made the defense take heart. They wanted to hear a tape from February 26, 1977, which the DEA had recorded from a bug in the office of the Harlem Rivers Motor Garage, 145th Street and Lenox, which the government said was the corporate headquarter of the Nicky Barnes drug ring. The government claimed that a fellow named Bucky Beaver could be heard saying, “…got to pick up a kilo out of Nicky’s car now.” The defense had put on an expert in sound analysis who swore that the word was not “kilo,” but “payroll.” Summing up the case, Assistant U. S. Attorney Tom Sear insisted that the word was “kilo.” He didn’t even bother to make the argument that the word “payroll” would be just as damaging if applied to someone who was supposed to be the boss of a large drug business.

The tape was played and the word was clearly, unmis­takably “payroll.” After hearing “payroll,” the defendants took off their earphones and leaned back. The jurors kept their earphones on and asked to hear the tape again. When the word “payroll” came up, several of them exchanged glances.

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The joy of the lawyers was unbounded. They were positive that the battle had turned, and compared themselves to the Russians at Stalingrad. The U.S. attorneys wore expressions of worry. Upstairs in the cafeteria, Tom Sear came down the aisle with a forced smile on his face and Jerry Feldman, another of Breitbart’s partners, asked him why he was smiling. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Just before 3 o’clock, the clerk came in and announced that the jury had reached a verdict. Some of the defendants started to fidget, and the tonk game stopped until Waymin “Wop” Hines, the smallest of the defendants, but also one of the toughest, said, “Motherfucker, deal another hand.” A few minutes later, the forelady rose and in her soft voice said the word “guilty” over and over again. A couple of women in the audience started sobbing, but none of the defendants turned a hair. Nicky Barnes sat straight in his chair and looked blandly at the jury. When the judge had thanked all the jurors, and dismissed them, the youngest of the defense attorneys, Edward Hayes, went over to Nicky Barnes and shook his hand. “I always thought you were 100 per cent man,” he said.

Nicky Barnes put his hand on Edward Hayes’ shoulder and said, “You know, kid, I never thought they were going to get me.”


Nicky Barnes: Geronimo Takes on the Man No One Can Convict

Nicky Barnes: Geronimo Takes On the Man No One Can Convict
October 24, 1977

The federal courthouse in Foley Square has a far more cathedral air than its poor neighbor two blocks to the north, the criminal courthouse at 100 Centre Street. The federal courthouse has cushions on the benches, ecclesiastical ceiling lamps, and clerks who make everybody stand up when the judge comes in. Federal cases, which often concern intricate infractions of capi­talist ground rules, produce long, lucrative trials. It’s the great Wall Street firms that make Foley Square their home away from home. But right now, something a little different is going down under the eagle seal. Fifteen of the city’s most sought after criminal lawyers are currently appearing in room 318, defending Nicky Barnes and his 14 codefendants.

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The 14 codefendants and their 14 lawyers are crammed along the L-shape of two long defense tables — the lawyers in ties, the defendants casual. The U.S. attorneys, in their dark suits, sit enclosed by the L, grouped around their gigantic tape record­er and its two black speakers. At the right hand end of the defense table, nearest the jury box, sits the star, Nicky Barnes, the most famous alleged drug dealer in the world. He is a muscular man, 44 years old, no taller than five foot eight inches, and precise in all his movements. Mythology holds him to be the most powerful man in Harlem. Perhaps for this reason, Jimmy Breslin recently put him in a suit of royal purple. That was the wee touch of the artist. The color Nicky Barnes actually favors for courtroom wear is a washed-out blue, in either corduroy or denim.

The cops have had Nicky Barnes under surveillance for years. Since 1973, he’s been tried for attempted bribery, gun posses­sion, and murder; but the police work was sloppy, the cases were shaky, and his lawyer, David Breitbart, was a scrapper. The street regards Barnes as the man no one can convict, “Mr. Untouchable.” Now the federal prosecutor has charged him with having run a massive conspiracy to distribute heroin from January 1974 through March 1977. Breitbart claims that his client is nothing but an extremely successful real-estate operator who’s being persecuted for flaunting his money, his fancy cars, and his aversion to whitey. Barnes hasn’t done any serious time since he went to Greenhaven 12 years ago on a narcotics rap. During his incarceration he subscribed to 37 law journals. A real-estate man can’t have too much legal training.

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The man who handed out turkeys last Christmas at 126th and St. Nicholas has attracted a following. The “defense” side of the courtroom, on the left, is usually crowded with his fans, and occasionally he leaves off his absorption in the law to do a turn for them. The other day, when the courtroom became overly chilly, he picked up a 14-foot window pole, pretending it was very heavy, and made a bravura show of closing the windows. His admirers burst into applause.

The U.S. attorney for the southern dis­trict of New York, Robert Fiske, Jr., is personally handling the prosecution — these big conspiracy cases can be tricky. On the opening day, he unveiled a chart that purported to represent the positions of all 15 defendants in the heroin empire. Here, at the bottom, were the street sellers; here, higher up, was the man who washed the money, changing small bills into large ones; and here, at the very top, almost totally insulated from contact with overt criminality, was the man they all called “sir” — Nicky Barnes. In ensuing days, Fiske has played tape after tape. The tapes contain the garbled voices of people on the chart, who complicate things by constantly referring to each other by aliases and nicknames: “Fat Stevie,” “Bo,” “Jazz,” “Radio,” “JJ,” “Wop,” “Bucky Beaver,” etc. The judge, Henry Werker, added to the confusion by informing the jury that in his youth he’d been known not only as Hank but also as ”Speed.” “I had a very heavy foot as a young man,” he confessed.

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Last week, U.S. attorney Fiske put on his first major witness, Robert Geronimo, a thrice-convicted flimflam artist whose spe­ciality was conning people into buying hot cars and TV sets. In the fall of 1976, when Geronimo agreed to cooperate with the government, the Drug Enforcement Ad­ministration wired him for sound and en­couraged him to get close to 21-year-old Wally Fisher, whom they believed to be a highly active street distributor for Barnes. According to Breitbart’s opening state­ment, however, Wally Fisher was employed as a simple car-washer until Geronimo came along and duped him into entering a scheme to sell “street garbage to the government for top dollar.” The defense is trying to show that Wally Fisher and Geronimo did buy large amounts of low quality dope with money supplied by a DEA agent posing as Geronimo’s cousin from California. According to the defense, the DEA had paid Geronimo $25,000 to get Barnes, so he simply made up a story that the heroin came from Nicky’s people.

When the cross examination started and Breitbart got first crack at Geronimo, the other lawyers were patently envious. Geronimo looks a lot like Tony Orlando but hasn’t had the same kind of luck with his recordings. Of the 60 tapes he made during the seven-month investigation, only one is alleged to contain direct discourse with Nicky Barnes. (Geronimo had at least one other wired meeting with Barnes; the tape came out blank. Breitbart showed that this couldn’t have happened unless someone deliberately unscrewed the microphone wire from the little Nagra strapped to Geronimo’s waist.) Breitbart challenged Geronimo to produce a single tape he’d made of Barnes’s voice; the next morning the government produced a tape Geronimo had made at Bubba Jean’s Emporium, using a microphone concealed in a cane and a transmitter in a plaster ankle cast. It was a tape they hadn’t introduced during the direct examination of Geronimo. When played, it turned out to contain mostly inaudible voices submerged beneath the din of Bubba Jean’s jukebox. “That’s Barnes,” said Geronimo. “I have no more questions,” said Breitbart.

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Breitbart also forced the unhappy and increasingly amnesiac Geronimo to admit that during a weekend when, according to his own testimony, he had been in Baltimore buying “angel dust” for the government, he had, in fact, been living it up with Wally Fisher and their respective bimbos at the Sheraton Pocano.

In his opening statement, Breitbart promised he would prove that “as Geronimo lay fornicating… with another woman, his wife was dying of asthma induced from drugs that he supplied; and that he brought the other woman to the wake and laughed about it.” As it turned out, he didn’t try to elicit any such testimony. But then, it was difficult to get anything out of the witness who took a full minute to answer when Breitbart asked him how old he’d been in 1973.

The government’s next big witness is named Promise Bruce. Fiske forthrightly informed the jury in his opening statement that Promise Bruce is a convicted drug dealer and murderer who has, in the past, supplied false information to the DEA. Next to him, Geronimo should look like a sweetheart.


Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” Is as Essential as Cinema Gets

A critical, financial, personal, and possibly even spiritual catastrophe that with each passing day feels more like a masterpiece, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie is one of the great lost films of the 1970s. Upon its much-delayed release in 1971, the mind-altering neo-Western nearly ended its director-star’s career, before seeming to vanish without a trace for decades. Or perhaps more accurately, it did end his career. Hopper just managed to resurrect himself years later, painfully and slowly, mainly through supporting appearances as drug-addled weirdos.

Now restored and back on the big screen where it belongs, The Last Movie benefits from multiple viewings the way 2001: A Space Odyssey or Eraserhead or The New World do; you catch through-lines and details you’d missed earlier, while also developing new mini-fascinations and obsessions. It’s the rare film that seems both clearer and completely different with each viewing. And like those aforementioned works, it has an immersive pull that makes you want to see it again — that demands you see it again. The representational fissures of cinema — the tension between the real and the imaginary, between imitation and inspiration — have been woven into its very fabric.

The director-star’s follow-up to the runaway success of Easy Rider, The Last Movie was based on a more classical screenplay (a good one, allegedly) by Stewart Stern, who had also written the James Dean/Nicholas Ray classic Rebel Without a Cause. (Hopper had become friends with Dean on the set of that film and Giant, and the young star’s death haunted him, as it also haunts The Last Movie.)  Decamping to the remote village of Chinchero in Peru, 14,000 feet up in the Andes, with a crew, some of his closest pals, and (apparently) a mountain of drugs, Hopper improvised much of The Last Movie, turning the story — about a self-destructive stunt coordinator’s alienation and ambivalence about his job, his affairs, and his life — into a wild reverie on, among other things, alternate planes of existence. He then spent more than a year trying to edit the film at his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, amid a miasma of unchecked, drug-fueled hedonism. (There is an excellent documentary about this chaotic, destructive period in Hopper’s life, called American Dreamer, which is also a lost classic. For a while there, The Last Movie was kind of like the Bermuda Triangle of cinema.)

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Hopper plays Kansas, an American horse wrangler and stuntman who decides to stay behind in rural Peru after the Sam Fuller Western he’s working on has wrapped. The death of a stuntman appears to be making him question his life choices, though his unease also seems existential and generalized. He shacks up with Maria (Stella Garcia), a beautiful young woman who used to work at a local brothel. Kansas may imagine that he’s saved her, but in truth, his work — the Hollywood shoot that’s come to town — has poisoned this society. A local priest (Tomas Milian) warns that the movies have brought violence and madness to the land. The chaotic production has captured the imagination of the locals, but in a surreally calamitous way: After the crew leaves, the townspeople re-enact the shoot, but whereas the filmmakers had real cameras and fake violence, this time it’s the cameras that are fake and the violence that’s real.

Early on, we see an image of a fake stunt church being set up next to a real church, and the moment feels less like a bit of movie-set practicality than a rip in the space-time continuum. The Last Movie is built around such dualities, as if myth and reality have been thrown out of alignment and a great, parallel evil has been unleashed upon the world. To convey this sense of everything being out of whack, the film is shot through with a crazy dream logic that takes Hopper’s rapturous vistas (shot by László Kovács) and immersive scenes and reshuffles them into a highly symbolic, stream-of-consciousness freak-out. Meanwhile, we see blown takes. We see repeated takes. We see actors lounging around behind the scenes. Crucial bits of narrative (well, “crucial” bits of “narrative”) are provided out of order. A “scene missing” card flashes on the screen in the middle of what seems a perfectly continuous scene. We forget which shoot is which: The Hollywood movie-within-the-movie, the mad-non-movie-within-the-movie, or the actual shoot of The Last Movie itself (which itself is sort of a nonmovie to begin with, if you listen to its detractors).

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But for all the structural lunacy and stylistic experimentation, there’s something almost conservative about The Last Movie. (As there was with Easy Rider, a cautionary tale that turned into a clarion call for the counterculture.) Kansas is a wanderer, and has the melancholy figure of a Western protagonist, but he’s no hero. Walking with Maria, he looks up at an empty hill and says he could be happy there, living a simple life; then he immediately talks about building a landing strip, and a hotel, and a ski resort. He cries at a Hollywood party, but he’s also a violent philanderer and a corrosive drunk, openly attempting to seduce a rich, married American woman in Maria’s presence and then knocking the latter around when she protests his behavior. The rottenness of the world has seeped inside him — or is it the other way around?

The vision of a film shoot turned on its head and given a terrifying new expression in the real world is a particularly rich one, speaking to both the ambitions and dangers of cinema. Every filmmaker wants to make a movie that takes on a life of its own, but they are also the first ones to say, “It’s just a movie” whenever something distasteful happens connected to their pictures. The Last Movie puts the lie to that wish, and confronts it. It seems to ask: If the movies represent a dream life, then what exactly is the dream?

And what happens if you can’t escape the dream? In one of the final sequences, we see Kansas performing a scene where he’s shot dead. Over and over, he performs it, in slow-motion, in fragmented cuts. Are they retakes, or jump cuts? Is the movie stuck? Is he trying to perfect his death, or escape it? Or is he punishing himself? And is the man we’re watching Kansas, or Hopper? Villagers stand around watching his death, as if it were a spectacle — a ritual, a celebration. He gets up, staggers and falls again, gets back up. Watching it now, you ask yourself whether anyone but Dennis Hopper, the veteran character actor who became an unlikely counterculture figure after Easy Rider, could have made this film. And could The Last Movie have had any other fate than to become the cause of both its creator’s greatest ruin and his greatest triumph — sending him off to wander the winds of infamy, a man become a myth, and a myth become a man?

The Last Movie
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Arbelos Films
Opens Aug. 3, Metrograph

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