On any given night Mason (name changed) is easily pulling in anywhere from $500 to over $3,000. It’s a high-risk reward game being the deliverer and maker of heaven and hell for one’s clientele, but this is Mason’s lot, the diminutive man sitting next to me as he wearily answers another phone call on his cell.
Being a crack dealer for those who have no idea is not for the faint of heart; it is a profession wrought with the unforeseeable, the demanding (as I will soon find out), and the ever present tension that anything can go wrong.
It’s a Sunday night and we’re whizzing down Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue, our eyes ever scanning the roads ahead of us.
“It’s hot, man. Getting hot all the time, man.”
Hot is Mason’s way of saying that he’s always vigilant for the prospective of being pulled over by a cop, or worse, being tailgated by a cop.
“I never let them out of my sight. See that black sedan, he’s undercover. Just sitting there watching that shit fly.”
We finally come to a halt and a scruffy man gets in the back seat, beads of sweat pouring down his face, his hands trembling, his next fix moments away.
He wearily looks at me as if to ask if I’m a cop, but Mason just grimaces and tells him to shut up as he presses his foot on the accelerator.
“How much do you need?” Mason asks, something that any salesman of one’s dreams comes to ask on any given day, except Mason isn’t really a salesman; he is just the facilitator to a kaleidoscope of escape.
“Five 20s,” the man in the back tells.
As we continue driving, Mason gingerly lifts up his trouser pant and takes out an impressive satchel and without once missing a beat whilst driving begins to reach past his right leg to give the man behind me his stash.
The 20s come wrapped in little black cellophane plastic bags, twisted to the side with a perfect bow tie, each the size of a dime coin.
As the man behind me now turns to hand over a bunch of crumpled notes, he asks Mason if he can spot him an extra bag.
“Man, what do you think this is, charity? You still owe me for last night.”
“C’mon Mason, you know I’m good for it,” the man moans.
Wearily Mason reaches into his satchel and passes him a dime, which is a smaller bag than a 20, which Mason will later tell me will give a seasoned user at least four decent hits.
Making sure the coast is clear, Mason suddenly cruises just in front of a bus stop and lets the man slide out as an unsuspecting passerby sidesteps Mason’s battered black Chrysler.
“Do you ever get tired of this?” I ask.
“Man, it’s just a job. Just like any other job. It’s just a way to make ends meet.”
He then sits deep into his seat and turns on some jazz music, some early John Coltrane, as we once again begin cruising the streets.
“Nah man, this is just a way to take care of the bills. Got to take care of the kids, the missus, the kids need new shoes, just a gig, you understand. Just a gig to get by. It’s a jungle out there.”
“But don’t you think you’re risking a lot for the gig?”
“Everything has risk. It depends on how you look at things.”
“But you don’t worry about getting busted?”
“I always make sure to keep my stash divvied up, just enough to claim that it’s for personal use. When I run out of my stash I just return to the house and come back out.”
Of course claiming it’s just for personal use might be a tall order (Rockefeller laws now mandate a five-year jail sentence if one is caught with five grams of crack cocaine) when at any given night Mason is driving around with 100-200 20-pellet bags of crack cocaine, but how and where he divvies that up he isn’t necessarily going to explain to me.
“Nah man, what worries me is the customers.”
He suddenly pulls down his collar to show me his neck.
“Some punks thought they could play me. Had me watched, they jumped me. Made off with my stash. Put their knife right up to my neck. Crazy motherf*ckers. And the worst part is it’s not that I could call the police or anything,” he starts laughing to himself, but I can tell he’s not really laughing.
“Yeah man, you get all different types in this business, and after a while you know which ones you can work with, which ones to never answer the phone for, which ones to give your new number to, and which ones that will never pay you back what they owe you. Yeah man, it’s just a hustle, just like anything in life. You got to make your bread, the kids need new shoes, you hear…?”
On any given night Mason starts his one-man show at 10 p.m. and finishes up around 2 a.m., but on the weekends he tells me he will be up until 5 a.m. delivering, making back-and-forth trips to his house.
“Yeah, I’ll spend the day cooking this shit up while the kids are at school, and then when they go to bed I tell them daddy has to go to work and then I just do my thing.”
Sitting next to Mason one might guess that he is just as hooked and addicted to crack cocaine as his users, addicted to the adrenaline, addicted to the hustle, addicted to the rush of making his chunk of change, addicted to the danger, addicted to the hit of the night …
As we’re driving his phone begins to ring again, and it will throughout the whole evening, with the voices of desperate people anxiously wondering where Mason is and why it’s taking him so long to get there.
“Man, these people, they don’t think I have a life? They think I exist for them? F*ck no. I pay them no mind. I’m supposed to just drop everything because you want your shit now? No, you get back at the end of the line. No one gets any favors here.”
Of course, who does get favors is James, the next man we’re about to pull up to a few blocks away from here.
James happens to be Mason’s point man at one of the hotels in the backwaters of Brooklyn that users go to rent rooms and smoke the good stuff. And rather than rushing back and forth to the hotel, Mason decided to work out a deal with the management to allow one of his point men to man a room from which he sells a limited batch.
“Yeah, it’s all good. Got to diversify. I can’t be at all places at once.”
At that moment, an older gentleman north of 60 wearing a golfer cap gets in the back seat and begins to shuffle out a wad of money to Mason.
The way the deal works for James, Mason later explains to me, is he gets just enough on the side to facilitate his own use whilst at the same time managing the needs of the hotel’s clients.
“You don’t worry he’s going to stiff you?”
“Of course I worry he’s going to stiff me. That’s why I only give him so much up front to play with, and once he makes his sales and gives me my pound I give him another batch to sell.”
James finally makes his way out of the beaten Chrysler and proceeds to walk the two blocks north back to the hotel room where he does his trade.
We once again set off driving, going from one part of Brooklyn to the next, zigzagging from a shabby part of town to a quiet, nondescript street where well-to-do clients quietly enter and exit Mason’s car.
“Yeah man, I’ve got businessmen who buy shit for them and their girlfriends, I’ve got the guy down the street who’ll buy a 20 just before he goes to sleep and chill out with it with a beer, and then I got these damn bitches who run the streets seven days a week.”
These bitches Mason is referring to are what is colloquially referred to as crack whores. Girls who sell their bodies to acquire their next fix.
“Often they’ll buy it for some john of theirs and smoke it with them. He provides the money and she provides the good times. Shit, I’ve had to stop them from smoking that shit in the back seat. People will be real crazy.”
“Do you ever hook customers up with girls?”
“Not unless they really ask me and I happen to know a girl who might be around later that night, but man, I don’t have time for that and people’s shit. I can’t be everything for everyone.”
I now turn around and ask him about his sources.
“So how much does it cost to buy the stuff you cook up?”
“It depends on how tight things are, if police got their hands on any shipments and supply gets tight. But I try to work with two to three suppliers, buy an ounce or two at a time. It depends, sometimes you spend $780 to $1000, which averages to about $28 to $35 per gram, and then by the time you cook it up and deliver it, and if you know what you are doing, you can make up to five times your money back.
But one thing about me and why everyone keeps coming back to me is I never stiff the customer. I never add that fake jazz. I just keep it straight up. You know what I mean. You can’t chinz the customer; the customer always knows someone else to go to …”
(Crack cocaine is made with a part mixture of baking soda, often four parts cocaine to one part baking soda.)
Mason begins to proceed to tell me how he grew up in the projects in Queens and how he first started as a runner, earning next to nothing picking up and delivering contraband for those higher up the food chain who were getting the lion’s share of the money while he got paid a stipend.
It wasn’t after years of going back and forth, working as a tradesman, selling for a few handpicked clients on the side that he eventually decided to make this his main bread and butter.
“Yeah man, it’s tough. One day I promise myself I’m going to get out of this. It’s just not worth it, dealing with the street, cops, never getting enough sleep, always having to fix the car when it breaks down (Mason later explains he always makes sure to drive a battered car to maintain as nondescript a presence as possible). But what are you going to do? It’s the American dream — you got to hustle, you got make your way. No one is going to give it to you. You got to give it to yourself.”
I then turn to ask him if he ever feels bad about supplying people with drugs, whether he feels a sense of guilt for their undoing?
“Does the guy selling pepperoni pizza feel bad when he sells you that extra slice? Does the guy at the bodega lose sleep when he sells you beer and cigarettes? What about the JPMorgan banker — does he feel bad when he’s ripping you off with his loan shark charges and shit?
Nah man, you can’t take this personal. It’s just a service like anything. Just got to be careful. The streets are always hot, just work with who you know and stay nimble.”
As we continue driving, delivering from one customer to the next, I ask Mason if he ever uses the product himself.
“You know the saying, ‘A good businessman never indulges in his own stuff.’ Yeah, each to his own. Yeah I tried it, years ago, but I really don’t care for it and it’s better that way. I need to have my wits about me.’
“Did you ever think this is what you would be doing? I mean, did you think about doing something different?”
“Just a gig, man, nothing special, just making my bread, getting by.”
We continue driving and then he suddenly blurts out:
“Yeah, I used to want to be a policeman. Can you believe that shit? I used to want to wear a uniform, get to live the beat. Yeah, but shit happens, you know, and I learn to deal with it.”
“Do you find you make more money selling big batches or small batches?”
“Small batches, always. You get to make a greater bread on the smaller pad. It’s a bigger grind, but the payoff is always better than selling in bulk, as the john always insists on the prices that you’re almost buying at. Fuck that shit, you know what I mean?”
“Is there another way to make more money selling crack besides selling in small lots?”
“Yeah by going over the heads of your supplier and buying the cocaine cheaper than what he sells it to you at. But I like to keep my distance. I don’t want to be too close to the heat, just work with two or three guys I keep tight under my belt. Keeping it real, keeping it chill.”
“Do you think I could meet them?”
“Haha, do you think you mind a gun against your head? No, that shit is real incognito. I even make sure that I don’t know who the real guy is at the end of the pole. Best not to if shit ever goes down.”
“Have you ever been locked away?”
“Yeah, here and there. Small shit. Lots of fines. Cops be tight. But I never got touched for selling this, just domestic stuff. That’s why I only buy small batches at a time; I never want to risk being found with large quantities at home, worst case shit and stuff.”
“Do your kids know what you do for a living?”
“They don’t need to know. I’m only going to do it until I save up for their college. Got to believe in the American dream. You hear?”
“Do you ever worry about cops one day knocking on your door?”
“Nah, yeah sure. But I keep it incognito. The real thing I worry about is them crazies knocking on my house door. I never invite anyone home. Want to meet me for a drink, I will meet you down the street. Want to come over to eat, I’ll meet you at some Caribbean place and have some roti. But bring people back? Nah man, I don’t have time for that shit. I don’t have time for friends. I got to hustle, make me some money, make the American dream …”
“What do you think of your average crack user?”
“Nothing. They’re just doing their thing.”
“Do you trust them?”
“Damn, you can’t trust anyone. Don’t give them an inch or they will have you for dinner. You think this is the first time I have been robbed?” he makes a slicing motion against his neck.
“Shit man, it happens enough. No, you can’t trust anyone on the street, it’s a hustle. Nothing personal. Just people looking to get high. Don’t get involved in their personal life, don’t tell them too much about your personal life and just keep on moving. Nah man, you can’t trust anyone, it’s a hustle, nothing personal, your bait game if you don’t watch your head.”
“What about the crack addict that tells you he’s quitting?”
“Never believe them.”
“But you’re quitting right? One day right?”
Mason turns and catches my eye and suddenly understands where I am coming from:
“Yeah man, one day I’m going to give this up, but for now it’s just a grind, a hustle.”
A hustle and a grind that Mason has been doing on and off for the last 15 years. A grind that he keeps promising himself he is one day going to quit, but can never just pull himself away from.
As we pull over to the curb to let me out I can hear Mason yelling at me:
“Yeah man, it’s just a hustle, just the American dream.”
He then turns up the stereo to an old Billie Holiday tune, the midnight sky unrelenting as Mason sets off to score himself another sacred hit.