Every town has its man. You don’t always recognize him when you see him on the street, or in a café. He comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes, the man is brash and ostentatious, and these men usually end up in prison or gasping their last breath in a gutter. Sometimes they listen to the voice inside their head that says “enough is enough,” and they disappear as quietly as they came.
For a little while, I was one of these men in Manhattan’s lower east side, and heroin was my trade. I figure I’ve reformed enough at this point to tell my story, not out of pride or remorse, but simply a sense of hazy wonderment that yes, this was the person I used to be. This is the story of how I sold drugs to New York’s young and elite; my rise and fall.
All the names and many of the places have been changed.
The first person I ever sold heroin to in New York was a fat girl named Amanda. Two of my close friends, Paul and a guy we called Van the Man directed her to me, and eventually they would go on to help me find many of my clients. Paul was a WASP-y type who had dropped out of SUNY to be a day trader. Van the Man was a dreadlocked “homeless” teenager with rich parents. He would bum around the NYU dorms and attend classes on an infrequent basis. Both were pretty heavily into the stuff when I met them, but were still functional at that point. They were well ingrained into the scene, and later I gave them sizable discounts in exchange for new clients, which—god bless the addicted fuckers—they had no trouble locating.
Anyway, back to Amanda. She was my first, as you would say, and I recall the scene pretty well. I remember looking on with detached curiosity as she examined her arm, tracing a delicate finger along its fleshy underside, her veins still bright and viable. The belt wrapped around her bicep made them puffy, a muted blue like sky before sunset. She was really nervous. Her boyfriend had started her on the stuff and now he was out of town for a month and she was getting antsy. It was clear she’d never shot up by herself before.
A funny detail sticks out in my mind, Procol Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” playing softly from my stereo. I remember Amanda’s insane focus on the glint of the needle, the dirty amber liquid eddying inside the syringe. She pressed the point to her vein with a hesitation that would decrease exponentially with time
“Pull back the plunger before you inject,” I advised her. “You want to make sure you get some blood in there so you know you’ve hit the vein.”
Amanda wasn’t in any rush—not yet—but she pulled back the plunger and a thin stream of crimson swirled into the cloudy brown. She injected. The needle slid out and for a second nothing happened. Then, she closed her eyes and sank deep into my sofa as if a cresting wave has submerged her. Her mouth opened, her face contorted in ecstasy. A small line of drool ran down her chin.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I love this song.”
I remember it so vividly because it was the only time I ever allowed someone to shoot up at my apartment. I’ve never shot heroin, though I’d obviously seen plenty of people do it, and Amanda had confided to me that she had no idea how to do it without her boyfriend walking her through it. She was afraid she’d fuck up and OD if she tried it by herself. You could tell by her weight that she hadn’t been using the stuff for very long. If she OD’d that meant one less client, so I figured I’d show her how to do it “safely”. These kinds of trust issues are important in any buyer/seller relationship.
I remember unbuckling the belt from her arm with a weird kind of tenderness, and watching the muscles relax.
She asked me what I do aside from dealing drugs, and I made up some lie about being a waiter. I didn’t tell her I was a student at NYU.
She could believe whatever she wanted. I knew I had been recommended to her because I was “safe.” I was the Manhattan guy, the guy you saw when you needed a fix but didn’t want to deal with the gang bangers in Bed Stuy or Staten Island. My stuff was expensive, but it beat getting shot. Most of my clients would have had no idea how to buy drugs in the bad part of town. These were the trust fund junkies: college kids and yuppies still subconsciously trying to piss off their parents. They paid most of my rent, my utilities, and ensured my good credit. I liked the trust fund junkies.
I wasn’t quite sure if I liked Amanda, at that point. She was fat, like I said, but her face was a healthy cream tone, with eyes as blue as the latticework of veins and arteries crosscutting their way to and from her heart. She lacked the sunken eye sockets and craven stare that I came to associate with my clients in an almost Pavlovian manner. She didn’t yet need me. I gave her the other 8 bags and sent her on her way.
The four AM phone calls would come later.
I guess I should give some background about myself. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Camden, New Jersey. I never told anyone in New York where I was from. You hear Camden, you think poverty and crime. The truth was that Camden was a city with two faces: yes, heroin, and crack, was a huge, huge problem, and the gangs and drug runners fucked up the quality of life in a lot of neighborhoods. It’s one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country. But we lived by the waterfront, and I remember playing ball outside and walking my dog near the river like a normal kid.
My parents bussed me to a private school outside of town. They were both elementary school teachers for more than a decade, and in a place like Camden you need a saint’s patience to last in that job for more than a week. So I was their little angel, basically. I was smart, probably too smart for my own good, and once I got older they never really kept a close eye on my activities. I got straight As in school and never got picked up by the “fuckin five-o” as so many of my friends described them. I was a math whiz and likely would see a full scholarship to any college I wanted. They didn’t know that I had made acquaintances with a great deal of very unscrupulous fucking people.
I had shit jobs and no money throughout high school. I didn’t really gang bang, (probably because I knew I could figure out smarter ways to make money) but nearly everyone I knew did. I drank a whole lot, smoked tons of weed, sold a little on the side for pocket change. I was friends with the brother of a fairly notorious drug dealer. This dealer, we’ll call him Big L, owned a convenience store specializing in powder heroin. The thing to understand about Camden is that the heroin epidemic—and it really is an epidemic, the DEA has a big fucking red circle around Camden in their little black book—isn’t just affecting the gang bangers. There’s a whole ton of the stuff coming in, and most of it is way strong and way pure, and it’s the suburbanites from Cherry Hill and Colts Neck who are coming down and buying the stuff. So, if you’re savvy (and most of the dealers I saw were the exact opposite) there’s a bundle to be made.
Big L was actually pretty savvy, savvy but limited in his abilities. Some crazy stuff happened that I’d rather not get into, and I eventually alibied Big L and his brother for a shooting. Soon after I found myself helping him cook books in the back of his store. The details of how it happened are pretty wild, but it’s long and is probably a story for another day. The point is, I established trust, and the trust paid off. It’s far more important than guns, money, or drugs. In the end, everything comes back to trust
Big L paid me pretty well for my services and I soon learned that having a lot of money was something that made me very happy. It wasn’t all great—the town was still self-destructing, and I found myself always looking over my shoulder. I would come home from my perfect private school to see a whole lot of my friends end up dead or in jail.
When I turned 18, everything changed. My dad got a job as a professor at Rutgers. My mom’s rich aunt died and we came into some money, not a whole lot, but enough to get me a “cheap” apartment in alphabet city, provided I worked to pay off my share of the rent. Did I mention I got my scholarship to NYU? My parents were moving out of Camden to Piscataway, and I was headed to New York City.
Big L and my gang banger buddies were fucking proud of me, and a few nights before I left we all got trashed in his apartment. Big L was moving up in the world too—enough to buy a new house and a little more security for himself. In me he saw not only promise, but opportunity. He knew that he would be able to markup his heroin in Manhattan to a ridiculous degree. He wondered if I’d take a kilo or so up with me, just to see what it was worth in the big city. He was offering me a huge cut of the profits, enough for me to not have to consider it for very long, way more than the pittance he paid his runners in Camden. What the hell, I thought. I can get an education and be rich at the same time. If things went well, Big L told me, he might start a whole empire in New York, and I’d be the man running the show. I was awestruck, and a little flattered. He didn’t have to ask me twice.
My parents drove me up to NYU with 2 kilos of heroin wrapped securely in my backpack. It was the beginning of a long road for me.
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