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The Possessed

Crackhouse: Notes from the End of the Line

by Terry Williams
Addison-Wesley, 156 pp., $17.95


by Richard Price
Houghton Mifflin, 599 pp., $22.95

The drugs that people take for non-medicinal reasons do more than numb pain or enhance pleasure or induce entertaining perceptual distortions. They are a weapon against the void. In his book on opium, Jean Cocteau wrote that every human activity “takes place in an express train hurtling toward death.” To take drugs, he proposed, is to get off that train. The potent illusion that drugs provide is called upon when the more commonplace illusions fail, and especially when life appears as nothing more than the conduit between birth and death. Drugs populate the empty landscape, supply the missing heaven, extend the movie into the third dimension. Drugs impose their own structure—customs and language, goals and priorities, rewards and punishments—on lives in which all belief has collapsed, and with it conventional structures.

The alternate world that drugs create is only made more concrete and urgent by the fact of their illegality. Users, suppliers, and agents of the law become locked into an unbreakable circular mechanism. Although individual users can, with great effort, free themselves from the cycle, the social causes are too profound for there to be any widespread solution short of social upheaval; the results, meanwhile, are all too apparent. The popular media and the popular mind—including that of the government—can do nothing more with this unbearable truth than to demonize it or turn it into an abstraction.

Terry Williams’s Crackhouse and Richard Price’s Clockers each examine different segments of the phenomenon, and although their methods are nominally different—the former is a sociological study, the latter a novel—the two works complement each other. Both are primarily concerned with the human beings caught in this treadmill, and as a consequence both are at war with reductive clichés, sensationalism, preaching, bureaucratic triage, vast solutions, moral grandstanding, willful ignorance, and all the other affronts to truth.

Terry Williams, an anthropologist, spent more than four years investigating crackhouses, hanging out, listening, meeting new people who led him to other houses, and eventually settled on one particular situation for concentrated study. This situation could be defined either as a house—an apartment rented exclusively for the ingestion of cocaine base and the activities accessory to such ingestion—or as a family, the group of people who lived there more or less consistently and devoted their lives to the pursuit of the high. The family in this instance was a particularly heterogeneous crowd, according only slightly with the popular image of pipeheads. In charge of the household, by virtue of being the leaseholder, was “Headache,” a man in his late forties born in Paris of Czechoslovakian Jewish stock who had formerly been a high-echelon salesman in the textile trade. His companion was “Joan,” two decades younger, an intelligent and rather imperious woman from a West Indian family. Others included “Venus,” who had left the Dominican Republic to become a professional baseball player but whose career had been cut short by a car accident; “Shayna,” a nineteen-year-old mother; “T.Q.,” a fifteen-year-old drifter; and “Tiger,” a sixty-year-old ex-boxer whose paychecks as a bus driver provided the group’s major financial resource until he was suspended for failing a drug test.

Although “crack” is a convenient shorthand reference for all applications of cocaine base, the term actually refers to base that has been precooked and accordingly adulterated by dealers. It is strictly a poverty high, selling in increments as low as $3 (although, of course, the habit will demand a great many such treys). Many users scorn it for its weakness and impurity, including the subjects here, who prefer to buy cocaine and cook it themselves with baking soda and water. It is popularly supposed that the crack or base high is fleeting, and is immediately succeeded by a craving for more. In fact, as the crackheads here insist—like all drug users, they obsessively discuss the minutiae of their pursuit—it is the initial rush that is so clipped; the high itself lingers, most often taking the form of “ghostbusting”: the manic search for stray granules and particles of cocaine on every available surface. That part of a basehead’s time not actually involved in the preparation and ingestion of the drug is spent in the search for and acquisition of more of it.

All drug use is highly ritualized. Much superstition surrounds the preparation and ingestion, as one fillip or another might affect the quality of high to a microscopic but seemingly significant degree. There is also the matter of language. The standard outsider’s explanation of drug slang is that it is intended to prevent authorities from understanding overheard conversations; in reality, however, the impulse is less to erect a wall around the pursuit than it is to honor properly the new cosmology with which drug use replaces the irrelevant conventions of the straight world. Ideas such as “God,” “family,” “job,” and so on slip away in the face of the immediate significance of the high and its pursuit.

As Williams points out, basehead jargon draws a great deal on the terms used in the TV series Star Trek. On that show, when the astronauts wished to be teleported back onto the Enterprise from whatever planet they were exploring, they would radio the ship’s deck chief, Mr. Scott: “Beam me up, Scotty.” This phrase was first applied to the act of getting high, and then its components were stretched, so that “seeing Scotty” can mean either to experience the rush or to possess knowledge of an available supply of the drug; “Scotty” has come to stand in for the substance, its primary effect, and a sort of deity who governs its use, who is invoked, pleaded with, and cooed to like a lover. Furthermore, the search for supplies is called a “mission”—another Star Trek allusion, and accordingly adorned with pseudo-technical frills, so that a comparison shopping expedition with no concrete result is called a “visual mission.” A purely gratuitous addition to the vocabulary is “the Book of Tech,” a nonexistent volume cited by users as authority for, say, permission to borrow paraphernalia.

Drug addicts cannot afford to be lazy. Their sources shift constantly, owing to variations in quantity and quality, dealers’ moods, trade disputes, relocations of suppliers for reasons ranging from paranoia to landlord problems to temporary inconveniences presented by the law. The police do not loom especially large in the lives of Williams’s subjects; their presence and actions are erratic, from some combination of futility, indifference, and corruption. Political pressure will occasionally result in flurries of arrests, but most of the time the cops are merely a nuisance. Dealers, whose vagaries are many, are much more feared and resented. The user perambulates constantly, from site to site, following leads, bargaining, bartering, observing politesses, and, of course, waiting.

Obtaining the wherewithal for drugs naturally occupies a great deal of time. Users may work intensively for a month or two at a regular job before absenteeism takes over—a few even manage to do this for years—while others try to tap the supply at its source by doing odd jobs for dealers, and some engage in burglary and the like. For young women, the principal medium of exchange is sex, because cocaine use enhances sex and vice versa, and oral sex in particular slots right into the orally centered ritual (e.g., the “double master blaster,” the infrequently achieved crackhouse grand slam, in which the basehead, male or female but typically the former, reaches orgasm while simultaneously pulling on the pipe). The lives of baseheads do not greatly resemble the lives of straights. Their hours are random; they sleep on the wing; they consume Little Debbie cakes and eight-ounce containers of reconstituted fruit juice; their interests are entirely parochial, not to say monastic. Theirs is a hunter-gatherer society, in which the end of every rush marks the start of the process of ensuring the next.

Nevertheless, Williams’s subjects are not only human, they are recognizable and likable. One of the many pleasures of this fresh and jargon-free study, which with unassuming candor and scrupulous observation handily shreds tabloid-derived preconceptions, is that the characters grow in complexity from chapter to chapter. Williams allows them their idiosyncrasies, does not judge them, patiently listens, draws them out, notes discrepancies, fantasies, and outright fabrications in their accounts without rancor. It might at first seem odd to the reader that he was permitted to observe as much as he did and for so long, but as he puts it,

News of my work actually helped form a sort of bond…the surest way to begin a conversation was simply to ask for help: the initial inquiry made it easy to ask, ‘What is going on here?’ People talk about themselves because they want attention; it is not difficult to get a life story by showing interest and listening.

Williams used the same strategem in his earlier book, The Cocaine Kids (Addison-Wesley, 1989),* in which he examined a group of youthful, mainly Dominican, apprentice drug dealers, but there the flow of the narrative was sometimes hindered by the volatility of his subjects, who were constantly scheming, getting in trouble, disappearing, and were generally less willing to reveal themselves. The baseheads in Crackhouse are the wounded, and they crave attention; if this does not make them more stable, it nevertheless makes them less guarded. Ultimately they have nothing to hide, and most of them have never before had an audience.

But Williams also managed to find an intelligent and relatively articulate group of baseheads for his study. Nearly all of them can become quite voluble on the finer points of group ethics or the shadings of their lingo. The term sancocho, for example, literally “to cut up in little pieces and stew,” has come to mean “to steal,” but its meaning in practice is something more subtle. Headache explains:

Let’s say there are four people and they have something right here, and you have a piece. Then one person goes out of the room and the three others take some of his stuff, and when he comes back they tell him they sancochoed him. Well, that’s sancocho too, okay? See, to me, sancocho is an affectionate word, not really a harsh word…. It’s something that’s acceptable but at the same time not acceptable.”

Minor theft is excusable as long as it’s immediately admitted, especially if the admission is made humorously; on such filigrees does the harmony of the crackhouse hang. Life in the house is an ongoing play of manners. Headache is the leader but he is viewed as weak by some. Joan is respected but also resented for her stinginess. Venus, ordinarily gentle, can become volatile, especially in his former role as head of a house, when faced with a crowd hungry for a high. A group of people living together, who all pursue a fairly solipsistic pleasure, must necessarily engage in a delicate balance of trust and suspicion, constantly mindful of the temptation, greed, and even violence that lurk on the margin of the day-to-day.

  1. *

    Reviewed by Arthur Kempton in The New York Review, April 11, 1991.

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