Spin Magazine Cover Story-February 1986
By Barry Michael Cooper
(This was the first national magazine story on the emerging crack cocaine epidemic in America, months before both Time and Newsweek.)
It is almost midnight in Harlem, and the colorless summer night has painted the row of tenement buildings, storefronts, sidewalks, cars, buses, and people in shades of the unknown in this concrete netherworld.
Is this a jungle? The young lions are dressed in black nylon T-shirts and black Lee carpenter jeans rolled up at bare ankles to showcase shiny black Bally loafers. Sinewy arms folded across their chests laden with gold medallions, a silent roar creasing their lips in the guise of a sneer, the young lions usher their prey in and out of video parlors and misty hallways.
Is this a war zone? Loud, rapid machine-gun fire, in the form of recorded digital drums, blasts from a glistening metal boom box, the modern teenager’s portable iron curtain, repeating the most damaging bursts of ammo, shooting down all hopes of retreat from its demanding groove. Thick marijuana smoke is suspended in the air.
Is this an island? A jet stream of water punches out of the mouth of an open fire hydrant. A few adults and children, barefoot and frying in the melting night, giggle and play, carefree, in the cooling flow. The river of water circles the block, separating this patch of Harlem from the rest of the free world. In the street, the water babies instinctively sidestep the steady flotilla of crushed beer cans, greasy wine bottles, and empty miniature manila envelopes of reefer. There are messages in these bottles, cries for help tossed in a curbside sea. The fleet stops at the corner of Eighth Avenue and capsizes into an already gutted drain of moldy, splintered, and stagnant dreams.
This is 145th Street, “Crack City.”
Crack is the latest drug in New York, and its use is becoming epidemic. These white pellets of prepackaged freebase (cocaine in its purest form) are extremely frightening. Frequent users--peer pressured 13-year-olds to 60-plus grandparents--don’t associate its use with the savage addiction of heroin or the hallucinogenic insanity of angel dust, its two predecessors in Harlem’s crippling drug trilogy. But in the last year, crack has become the drug of choice; the exhilarating rush of its 5-to-15 minute high brings a distorted sense of power, a king-of-the-hill nirvana. Like Huxley’s “soma” in Brave New World, crack is, for many, escape, booster, stabilizer, and status quo. Known on the street as “the white genie in the bottle” (it is sold in vials), a rub of the crack lantern grants the wish for temporary residence in the dreamstate of your own design.
The crack phenomenon is so new that not much is known about it (or maybe the facts are not available to the general public) by the N.Y.P.D. or any other law enforcement agency.
Dressed in Sergio Valente jeans, Etonic T-shirt, and sneakers, the Harlem detective is small and wiry, with a deep tan and salt and pepper hair. In the Street Narcotics unit of the 33rd precinct, he speaks in hushed tones, and his mannerisms are closely guarded, as if the body language shouldn’t be talkative, either.
“I’ve seen some BMW’s, Mercedes, and Volvo’s with Jersey, Connecticut, and even Massachusetts license plates on 145th Street, where young, rich white kids are going to buy crack. How they are finding out about this, I don’t know, but soon it won’t be confined to the black community. It will be widespread.
“I can recall hearing about it in the last year or so. It looks almost like chips of soap, and sometimes when the dealers sell bad stuff, that’s what they use--chips of soap.”
There are only two kinds of places to purchase crack: basehouses and crack spots. A crack spot is like a take-out only service, operated from an apartment (with a small hole drilled in the door, through which goods and money are exchanged), a storefront, or a video arcade (such as the ones that line 145th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues)> Because freebasing requires elaborate paraphernalia, i.e., a small glass pipe and a pint-sized acetylene torch, basehouses have come into existence. They are similar to opium dens or heroin “shooting galleries,” where people gather to get high. A basehouse can be an apartment, an abandoned tenement, or an affluent building. Inside the more active ones there are usually four men: two at the door and two in the middle of the room, watching everyone and everything, armed with Berettas, Uzis, and MAC 10s. The room is stripped bare except for a long rectangular table, which has numbers written on the top from one to five. Behind each number are rows of vials of crack. Scattered around the basehouse are chairs and card tables, each with a pipe and a torch on top. Admission to the basehouse is $3, as is separate rental of a pipe and torch. The crack ranges from $10-$50 a bottle (hence the markings on the table). Sitting time is 15 minutes. To stay longer is to pay another $9. To try and take a bottle of crack without paying is to be chopped and grated by rounds of automatic gunfire.
“A lot of people seem to be freebasing in Harlem these days,” says Special Narcotics Prosecutor Sterling Johnson. ‘That’s what they call ‘sucking on that glass dick [the pipe crack is smoked in].’ That’s what’s happening. People are getting high. Dope dealers that had a million dollars yesterday are stone broke now. And they’ll tell you, ‘This is my woman, she never fails me. Base.’ You go up to the Riverton Projects [135th and Fifth Avenue] on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see some of the people getting out of their cars--women sucking on the glass dick, dudes sucking on that glass dick, and they’re in love.”
Cocaine’s absorption into the bloodstream depends on how it’s taken. Use through the mucous membranes, including the rectum, vagina, urethra, and nasal mucosa, and intravenous consumption (shooting up) produces effects within 30 seconds to a minute. Snorting coke produces effects in one to three minutes. On the other hand, taking cocaine orally may not produce intoxication until 30 minutes after use. The most rapid-acting method is smoking or freebasing, in which the substance is absorbed by the small blood vessels in the lungs, moves to the left side of the heart and then goes directly to the brain--in less than eight seconds.
On the late summer night in Harlem, Gary Martin is slowly being crushed by the murderous white avalanche. He is both a user and a salesman of crack. The beat he walks on this summer Friday night is familiar; he can recognize the pain and depression he sees on this path.
“The way I’ve made base,” says Martin, “is to get a little shake bottle [similar to a thermometer, but shorter], a half-gram of cocaine, a little bit of baking soda, which cleans the ‘cut’ [additive] off of the coke, and a little water inside. You cover the top, and place it into a pot of boiling water, and let it boil from three to five minutes. After that, you take it out--and since it’s in its purest form, you won’t see anything but pure liquid. You take out a few ice cubes, crush them, dropping a few chips inside the shake bottle and the remainder around the outside of it until the cocaine cools. After that, your pour the substance onto a silk scarf, which strains out any remaining baking soda. Sometimes it solidifies in pieces, and sometimes it’s in a big ball. If that happens, you take a razor blade and cut it up. And that’s crack.”
A lot of people, including Martin, started freebasing after Richard Pryor burned himself while smoking the substance in 1979 (making freebase becomes deadly explosive when highly flammable chemicals, such as ether, are used instead of baking soda to clean the cut from the cocaine). When the price of coke dropped nearly two years ago due to a national cocaine glut, crack gained a lot of momentum. Some “dopeboy” (the Harlem terminology for a young drug pusher) got the idea that a lot of money could be made if he brought an ounce of cocaine (going for $1,900-$2,000 today), and made and packaged his own freebase. Take away the exclusivity, mystery, and danger surrounding freebase, and place it in the hands of the average Joe. Tiffany drugs at Woolworth prices...
Read the entire "Crack" feature story from the February 1986 issue of Spin Magazine, in my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.