“Crack killed everything.”
– Nas, 2012
IT WAS A chilly spring night in 1984 and I was returning uptown from my cashier job at Miss Brooks, a fast food coffee shop located near Rockefeller Center. Working from four to midnight, after closing a few of the staff usually went out for drinks. By two a.m., I’d downed one more pint before walking over to Columbus Circle with the short order cook Xavier.
Although we both lived on 151 Street off Broadway, Xavier was a recent transplant from the Bronx and I had dwelled in that neighborhood since I was four. Today that nether world between Harlem and Washington Heights is now “Hamilton Heights,” but in those days, we didn’t really call it anything but home.
When I moved there in 1967, the working class neighborhood was a literal melting pot of races, religions and cultures that included southern Blacks, like my grandmother, holdover Jewish families who hadn’t migrated to Long Island, more than a few Puerto Ricans and two Asian families.
Like some kind of urban coming-of-age novel, I have fond childhood memories of 151st Street and apartment 1-E, many that include the array of friends who lived in our building at 628. Boys and girls together, we played stickball in the street, had Saturday afternoon trips to the Tapia movie theater, where we watched Blaxploitation and kung-fu flicks, and crowded into each other’s apartments where we spun the latest soul records, watched cartoons and had sleepovers.
From our place on the hill between Broadway and Riverside, the Hudson was down the block, and at night lights on the George Washington Bridge twinkled in the darkness. “That’s my favorite bridge in the city,” my mother often said.
My friend Stanley on the second floor was into comic books and could draw pictures of Marvel characters Thor and The Fantastic Four that looked exactly like the panels of our penciling hero Jack Kirby. Across the hall from me, Jackie shared my passion for novels and poetry; sometimes Kyle’s father took us to Riverside Drive to play football while Daryel’s dad once treated us to a Betty Boop film festival that changed my cartoon loving life.
At the end of the 70s, our small world began to shatter when my buddy Marvin from the fourth-floor, the same dude who gave me my first sex-ed lesson when we found a stack of porn magazines in the trash, moved away. Later, Daryel and Jackie’s parents did too.
Then in 1978, my mom announced that me, her and my baby brother Carlos were moving to Baltimore while Grandma would be staying in New York. Homesick from the moment I got off the Amtrak in the city of spicy crabs and the ghost of Poe, for the next three years I plotted my return to New York City.
Moving back to Manhattan in 1981, I stayed with my grandmother between stints at college and with various girlfriends for the next decade and witnessed the transformation of our community.
In the late 70s and early 80s, the latest immigrants, the Dominicans, began moving uptown in search of their piece of the American Dream. With the demographic shift, different stores and restaurants lined the blocks; different music blared from parked cars and apartment windows and a harsher tone of Spanish was spoken. Some folks, including my grandmother, resented the change, accusing the newcomers of being “loud and dirty.”
However, by 1984 the once small minority from the “D.R.” had become the majority and, when the then-latest drug “crack” hit the streets that year, the uptown Dominicans found an illegal business that would make them rich as modern day Joseph Kennedys.
Stepping off the subway one night with Xavier, we exited the 145th train station around 2:30. Standing on the corner, a young Black man eyeballed us from a few feet away and began muttering, “Yo, crack man, I got that crack.” We just shook our heads and kept on stepping.
Having never heard of “crack,” I assumed it was slang for the latest pot on the market, like Acapulco gold, Buddha or Sess. “I think I want to try some of that crack stuff,” I said, gulping from a forty in Xavier’s small bedroom. He looked at me like I was crazy.
“You don’t want to mess with that stuff,” he said.
“What are you talking about? Isn’t it just another kind of weed?”
“It’s not weed. It’s some stuff they mix with cocaine, like freebase for poor folks.”
Growing-up, I had read about coke, but as far as I knew the expensive white powder was something celebrities and other ritzy folks did in recording studios, on movie sets and in the back rooms of Studio 54; indeed, I believed, it had nothing to do with the people in my circle.
It can be scary when your world begins to change, but that is exactly what happened when crack usage began spreading through the community. It was as though someone dropped a lit match on a pile of old newspapers. The inferno blazed and burned steadily for more than a decade.
Of course, I knew people who smoked weed or angel dust, and had seen a few heroin nodders leaning on Amsterdam Avenue, but crack was another story, a sadder story, a wilder story as the brazen dealers stood on building stoops pretending to be Scarface while selling their product openly, as if the stuff were legal.
Packaged in plastic vials with prices that ranged from five to fifty dollars, one puff of “the genie in the bottle” was enough to make you a junkie for life, a fiend forever trying to capture the euphoria of that first hit.
Within the year of seeing my first crack dealing corner boy, many close friends became addicted to the “rock.” My friend Paula from the fourth floor, a smart Black girl who had gone to Catholic school and City College, began to lose weight rapidly and looked extremely paranoid. Two stories down, Stanley no longer drew comic book characters, but was often seen creeping in the shadows of the block, eyes wide and hair matted.
“I think Stanley is on that stuff,” grandma whispered (though we were in our own apartment). “He’s been acting real strange.” With grandma, that “stuff” could’ve meant anything from weed to wine, but in that instance, I knew exactly what “stuff” she was talking about.
“One night last week, he knocked on the door and told me somebody was in the dumbwaiter spying on him.” Yet, as everyone in the building knew, the dumbwaiters had been sealed shut for decades.
In addition to the drugs, a glut of high-powered automatic weapons (nine-millimeters, Uzis) hit the streets, and shoot-outs between dealers became the new symphony of the night. In many cases, those dudes didn’t know jack about aiming, so countless innocent bystanders were blasted by stray bullets.
Through it all, the cops virtually disappeared. The 30th Precinct was only two blocks away, but the cops were usually seen in clusters after something bad already happened. Still carrying six-shooters, many of them were scared while others were being “paid in full,” taking money or drugs from dealers, and then selling their own stashes as though Serpico never existed.
As the lawlessness became a regular part of the landscape, loco drug dealers began shooting out the streetlights, making it easier for them to operate undetected in the darkness.
Girls, who’d once upon a time been fine, like my pretty friend Barbara from across the street, were sauntering down the block offering to “suck your dick for five dollars,” and snarling pit bulls became the pet du jour. Sometimes, for no reason, either the junkies or dealers set the corner trash bins on fire simply to watch the blaze.
Grandma compared the decline to “the wild, wild West.” Yet, as an avid reader, I often thought of the neighborhood’s fall into drug ruin as though I were a existentialist character in Camus’ brilliant novel The Plague and the countless crack heads represented the dead rats littering the streets.
Around the same time, my grandmother’s best friend Miss Muse, who lived across the hall, began to lose her mind from Alzheimer’s. She walked-up the hill picking-up trash with her dirty fingers and calling old friends by the wrong name (she thought I was my grandmother’s husband), and a part of me truly believed that it was the sadness of watching her beloved neighborhood become a crack slum that brought on her dementia.
By the time the Culture Club sang “Karma Chameleon” on Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve, ringing in 1985, the communities of Harlem, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights had also changed colors as a massive black cloud hovered over us.
In the winter of 1985, as the neighborhood became bleaker than a Rza beat, I had the first of what would become a recurring nightmare. In that dreadful dream, the apartment building where I’d been raised was on fire, the rooftop and hallways engulfed in smoke and flames. Friends and strangers ran across the dirty marble floors screaming – incapable of escaping.
A few months after that first dream, my friend Barbara became the first crack causality that I knew personally. A tall, dark-skinned girl who could’ve been a model when she was a teenager, Barbara was working as a secretary at some downtown company. When exactly she’d started “beamin’ up,” I had no idea, but witnessing her fall into the crack abyss made me angry.
Sometimes I saw her outside, walking-up the hill to meet the man once again, and we’d talk. Sometimes, there was a glimmer of shame in her brown eyes, but most of the time she just kept on moving.
It wasn’t until one day I noticed that she was pregnant that I even bought up her problem.
“I hope you not smoking that shit while you pregnant,” I said, hoping to sound more like a big brother than a judgmental square. “That stuff can hurt your baby.”
“I’m not, Michael. Don’t worry, I’m not. I’m not that bad.” Whether she was smoking during those nine months, I don’t know, but a few weeks after giving birth, Barbara went on a binge and died inside a nearby crack house. Word on the street was that her lungs collapsed.
Later that night I went to my favorite bar the Oasis, had a few drinks and played a bunch of 70s songs on the jukebox. Spinning Lou Rawals singing “Groovy People” was a momentary reprieve from the madness happening outside the tavern doors.
At some point in the long night, a shapely soul sister began singing along with me and after last call, we stumbled together to the No-Tell Hotel on 145th Street for a drunken one-night stand. Sitting on the edge of the bed, the woman began digging through her purse.
Moments later, she’d fired-up a crack pipe and was toking like a pro. The smell was horrid, like burnt plastic. “Do you want a hit?” She extended the stem in my direction.
Although crack had become such a brutal force in our community, although my friend Barbara had just died from the stuff, although our streets were like a war-zone in some Third World country, I took the pipe and put it in my mouth.
“Fuck!” I screamed, dropping it on the stained carpet. Holding my mouth, I ran into the tiny bathroom, splashed water on my face and stared into the dirty mirror. Somehow, my klutz self accidentally turned the pipe around and put the hot end to my lips. A blister rose immediately. For a former altar boy at St. Catherine’s of Genoa over on 153rd, this was the Lord’s way of telling me that crack wasn’t for everybody.
Not everybody from the old block became crack heads; a few became dealers instead. Berry Hooks (name changed) who lived on the first floor of dead Barbara’s building was just one of them. A few years younger, we didn’t really start hanging-out until we were both in our twenties.
A Pisces-born elder son, Berry lived with his big family: grandparents, two sisters, one brother and an under-the-influence mother who was always intoxicated. Sitting on the stoop one evening sharing a forty-ounce of malt liquor, which the billboard advertisements throughout the community assured us would lead to riches and beautiful women, I asked, “How do you do it, man?”
“You know, some of these dope fiends look so pathetic and beat down, how do you keep selling that stuff to them?”
“You bugging. I don’t care nothing about them niggas. If they want it, I’m going to sell it to them. Somebody gonna sell it to them, why let the other man get them dollars? Fuck that, I don’t care who I sell it to or what they look like. If you became a crack head tomorrow, I’d sell it to you. If my own mother wanted some rock, I’d sell it to her too.”
Thinking to myself, that’s the coldest thing I’d ever heard, I took another swig of lukewarm beer and remained silent.
Months later, having fallen in love with a young downtown actress who lived on 24th Street and 2nd Avenue, I began spending more time away from the hood and more hours seeing arty films, dancing at trendy clubs and trying to digest the unreadable Naked Lunch. Still, every few days I’d ride uptown and visit my grandmother, and when I did, I always made time for Berry.
Unlike the crazed dealers depicted in urban gangster films, Berry wasn’t on some hyper ultra-violent power trip. I don’t even think he carried a gun, but if he did, he wasn’t into waving it around or threatening people. Although I did witness him beat-up a crack head who owned him money, he was usually a cool kid.
Every now and then, I’d go with him to the drug spot on 144th Street, so he could “re-up.” The spot was a desolate apartment on the third floor of a tenement building. Walking up the stairs, I could hear the sounds of crying babies and loud televisions.
Greeted at the door by a hulking jerri-curled dude carrying an Uzi, the transactions were done in the middle of what used to be the living room. There was a drug scale, an endless supply of cocaine and plastic bags. The coke was shoveled onto the scale using playing cards. Talking in fucked-up Spanish while “Tony Montana” spoke in broken English, Berry bought the blow (“Fish scale, poppi”) and cooked the crack at another location.
One Indian summer afternoon, he and I were standing on Broadway when a fight broke out between a two dealers. Berry knew enough of the language to know this wasn’t good. Grabbing me by the sleeve of my shirt, Berry screamed, “We gotta get out of here.”
“This ain’t time for questions,” he replied as we ambled down the block. Seconds later, shots were fired. Turning around, I witnessed one of the Dominican dealers shoot his friend six times. As the bullet-ridden victim fell, I threw-up and started crying. Berry looked at me and laughed.
“You’re not built for these streets,” he said as we headed back to our own block. Living in that area, I’d seen dudes shot and killed before, but it wasn’t something I’d ever get used to.
In 1991, I was living back uptown with my grandmother and working at a homeless shelter in Chinatown.
One afternoon I came home and found Grandma more nervous than usual. Sitting on the side of her bed listening to 1010 WINS and literally twiddling her thumbs, she said, “Go in the living-room and look at the ceiling.” I did and looked up to see a massive bullet hole.
Standing behind me, Grandma said, “I was sitting in here watch The Price is Right, and something told me to go into the kitchen. When I did, I heard a loud noise and saw this.”
Across the street at Berry’s crib, he introduced me to the drug dealers who lived upstairs. Although I knew there were a few drug apartments in our building, I’d never seen these guys.
“Poppi, I’m so sorry, but some asshole was playing with the nine (millimeter) and it went off. Tomorrow, I’ll send somebody to fix the hole.”
“Fix the hole?” I laughed. “Fix the hole? Man, you could’ve killed my grandmother.”
“We sorry, poppi. Did your grandmother call the police? Did she tell them we were drug dealers?”
Getting nervous, I answered, “I’m sure she didn’t tell them you were drug dealers, because she didn’t know you were drug dealers. Hell, I didn’t even know until just now.”
“OK, poppi. We’ll fix the hole tomorrow.” Two months later, with the massive hole still in the ceiling, Grandma packed-up twenty-four years worth of memories and moved to Baltimore with my mom.
Last summer, while researching my novel, I returned to 151st Street between Broadway and Riverside. The neighborhood, like many in New York City, was gentrified. Skinny white girls were jogging up the block.
Thinking about my old friends, I remembered that Stanley and Marvin were dead, victims of the crack years, while Daryel was now a schoolteacher and Jackie was court officer. Still, what was most surprising was glancing across the street and seeing Berry sitting on his stoop.
After greeting me with a brotherly hug, we shared a forty and talked about those dark days as though recounting a horror movie.
“See that chick over there,” Berry said, pointing to a beautiful Black woman walking down the hill. “She lives in your old apartment. She lives in 1-E”
“I’m sure they patched-up that bullet hole by now,” I replied, and we both laughed.