Native Sons

The Cocaine Kids: The Inside Story of a Teenage Drug Ring

by Terry Williams
Addison-Wesley, 140 pp., $16.95

Raw Recruits

by Alexander Wolff, by Armen Keteyian
Pocket Books, 274 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Source: The Rap Music Decade, 1980–1990

edited by Jonathan Shecter, edited by David Mays
$1.95

The apartment is crowded with teenagers, all wearing half-laced sneakers and necklace ropes of gold. Doorbells ring every few minutes, white powder dusts the table tops; jagged-edge matchbook covers and dollar bills seem to flow from hand to hand. The talk is frenetic, filled with masterful plans and false promises. Everybody has a girl. Everybody has cocaine. Everybody has a gun.”

The Cocaine Kids begins this way, with a description whose promise is as glib and as false, in the end, as the transient glow of cocaine intoxication that suffuses it. The scene is the snapshot by which all its participants would want to be remembered. It would capture a romantic vision of themselves, a souvenir of a golden hour when they were “living large.” It promises a kind of adventure. But Terry Williams has studied the child laborers of the cocaine industry in the Bronx too well to pretend to find anything exotic in their lives. We can better appreciate both his intentions and his discoveries if we take his opening tableau as documenting only the play rituals of a caste of adolescents so inured to being denied the substance of what they have been told they want that they consume their lives chasing after its shadows.

The Cocaine Kids chronicles the affairs of a small firm that traffics in an outlawed commodity. Most of its members spend sixteen hours a day at the office, sitting around with a dog and a gun behind a large steel door, serving customers, answering the telephone, watching television absently, as they wait for their “package” to arrive, preparing it for sale when it does, dipping and dabbing in the “product” to pass the time, which stretches days into nights into days of languid routine punctuated by occasional moments of special risk or reward. Others on the payroll “scramble” in the street, selling “jumbo crack” in little glass vials, dodging the police and predatory stick-up boys. In truth, “all the kids out here be scramblin,” observes Kitty, one of Williams’s subjects:

It’s a way of life…. Nobody stays in the street for long hustling like this and makes money without a crew. If they stay out there they are hooked in some kinda way to the life, the excitement, the nickel-and-diming, or the drugs. Right now, if you stay out here a few months you doing good…. I don’t believe most people make money over the long run, only in the short….”

Children became a labor force in the dope industry twenty years ago as an unintended effect of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws in New York, which required that adults convicted of selling narcotics be given mandatory sentences of a severity intended to be daunting. Because children are generally more focused, callous, less considerate of risk and more congenial to discipline than grownups, are usually broke, conditioned to be acquisitive, and relatively immune from rigorous sanction, they are well-adapted to working the dope stroll, a name for all places …

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