New York City: The Crack Years

996747416_a95e0d9ac3_bI got to thinking about the heavy crack days. New York’s, not mine. Crack was like a tidal wave crashing across the city. I lived uptown, in the 120s. You know how, when you walk in the country at a certain time of year, you hear the leaves crunching beneath every step? It was like that in my neighborhood. Not leaves, though, crack vials.

I would get the train at the valley of 125th Street most mornings, at the only elevated stop on the original Manhattan IRT lines, thanks to the island’s sudden dip in altitude between Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights. I was usually the only person not jumping the turnstile.

I remember a crack-ravaged lost soul of a woman sitting across from me on the subway, trying to get a hit off her empty glass pipe, although you could detect a distinct burning odor as she tried, to the point where a crackhead-looking dude came through from the next train car and said, “Woman, what are you doing? Put that shit away on the train!”

Coming home late one night, I got off the train at 125th and walked down the stairs to Broadway. An absolutely beautiful, clearly smart and educated, and sweet and earnest, young woman said to me and my friends, “Excuse me gentlemen, would any of you like a blowjob? It’s only $10, and I have condoms.”

It broke my heart to see how crack had its hooks deep into this individual before the physical signs were apparent. I felt like I wanted to take her home, let her take a hot shower and get a good night’s sleep. In my roommate’s bed. He was traveling, and come on, she was still a crack whore.

But I can’t rescue everyone. I think it was Shelley, although perhaps Keats, who wrote, “Who will sa-a-ave your soul, if you won’t save your own?”

Lots of crack. And therefore lots of crime. One time, a guy who, we later learned from the cops, was recently out of prison crawled in through my roommate’s second-floor bedroom window. The reason we know is because my roommate was there, up above in a loft bed, making the room look empty to our visitor.

The guy stole two bikes from the living room and headed out from our building. Downhill. Think about that. If he had stolen ONE bike, he would have been long gone and blending in with every other bicyclist in New York. But when the police got my friend’s call that the suspect was last seen walking east, rolling a bicycle with each hand, they quickly found their man.

A friend I worked with downtown didn’t believe my stories of walking over crack vials on my commute. So one morning on my way to work I just scooped up a handful from where they had collected against a fence, put them in my suit pocket, and dropped them on my coworker’s desk when he got in. In retrospect, probably not a good idea.

In the end, the worst of the crack epidemic became tragically self-regulating. Many committed suicide-by-crack, but over a generation, give or take, many more saw its ravages and learned to steer clear. As P.J. O’Rourke once observed, “It’s as though, after years of trying, we’ve finally come up with a drug that’s as evil as our parents said dope was. It’s cheap, addictive, makes you feel like Donald Trump and act like Abu Nidal, and it keeps you awake to take more.”

Anyway, pretty good blowjob, it turned out.

Image via Flickr.

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