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.
Each of the tenants in turn alternately voices arrogant self-confidence and grave doubt regarding his or her control over the habit. Few, if any, plead extenuating circumstances as a justification, but all of them issue some version of the standard addict’s claim: “I will stop when it gets bad.” Headache, who gave up a high salary as a dry-goods salesman for the lure of a tenement crackhouse in Washington Heights, became involved with cocaine in a serious way when he moved into a Harlem building he had bought as an investment, and gradually began accepting drugs from his tenants in lieu of rent. Most of the women were turned by a boyfriend who dealt and had access to large quantities. All of them, one way or another, drifted into the life. This randomness governs their days, alternating inertia and urgency, and its staggered rhythm is echoed by the structure of Williams’s book, which cannily disposes its themes—work, lingo, sex, cops, etc.—at intervals along a continuum of the daily grind, empty afternoons and confused nights in the crackhouse and in the streets. An epilogue brings the story up to the present: the house has closed, some of the tenants have left town, one is in rehab, one in jail, some are still getting high. Although Crackhouse often has the texture of a novel, its honesty as a record cannot provide the luxury of an ending.
Richard Price turned himself into something of a street sociologist in order to write Clockers, hanging out with cops and drug dealers in Hudson County, New Jersey, on alternate nights and risking the suspicions of each group when they saw him fraternizing with the other. For Price this was not merely slumming. Although he has been a successful Hollywood screenwriter, he was raised in a Bronx housing project, and his four earlier novels—The Wanderers, Blood Brothers, Ladies’ Man, and The Breaks—have all charted the courses of innercity lives of his generation. They constitute his “four autobiographies,” as he has put it in more than one interview. So it is that Clockers—an ambitious, near-Balzacian chronicle of drugs and law in a bleak slum of the outer metropolis—possesses an authenticity that is more than journalistic and can only derive from the author’s identification with his subjects.
Clockers is structurally a very oldfashioned novel. It takes one of the hoariest crime-story conceits—the good-brother, bad-brother bit, the frame of everything from Manhattan Melodrama to Angels With Dirty Faces—and doubles it, in a way. The two pairs are Strike, aka Ronald Dunham, a small-time drug dealer, and his brother Victor, an obsessively hardworking family man, and Strike again, posed against the homicide cop Rocco Klein. The juxtaposition of the two brothers motors the plot, that of Strike and Klein drives the narrative, as the chapters alternate between their view-points. The story is this: Strike, wishing to advance in his trade, is assigned by his superior to knock off another, slightly more important, franchisee who has been skimming the take. Strike, whose whole personality resists such an act, is unable to follow through. He does, however, mention his dilemma to his brother, albeit in a very roundabout and clumsily misleading way. Hours later, the target is found dead. Days later, Victor, who has never been in trouble, confesses to the deed. Klein, meanwhile, is convinced that Victor is merely taking the fall for Strike, and is determined to uncover the truth.
The reader is kept from knowing the solution to the mystery until the very end of the book, and the mystery is entirely founded on character, its solution both surprising and not. Still, what engages the reader is not merely the mechanism of the mystery but the depth and spaciousness of the depictions. The book’s chief pleasure lies in recognition, that lure of naturalism rendered suspect by modernism, the immediate identification of people, places, and things we’ve maybe only glimpsed peripherally in life, but which are here suddenly presented in rounded trompe l’oeil, not to mention trompe l’oreille. There is, of course, more than a hint of voyeurism in our appreciation of this vantage.
Strike, who comes from a good family—poor but clean; hard-luck strivers—seems miscast in his profession, although he is motivated in the same way as every other drug dealer: the lure of immediate and abundant cash. He is fastidious to the point of compulsion, revolted by bad breath, spittle, stains, clashing colors, bad manners. Furthermore, his innards are in open rebellion against his occupation, and he feebly tries to ward off his growing ulcers by self-medicating with vanilla Yoo-Hoo (a convincingly authentic soft drink that Price made up). He sits, day in and day out, on the top slat of a bench in the courtyard of a housing project complex in Dempsy, New Jersey (apparently a composite of Jersey City, Bayonne, and Elizabeth). There he runs his crew of clockers, younger kids (Strike is nineteen) who actually peddle the bottles of base while he sets rules, referees disputes, metes out punishments, replenishes supplies.
He works for Rodney Little, who is in his late thirties, runs a two-bit grocery as a cover, and apparently spends his free time fathering children, of whom he has dozens, all by different women. Rodney is as self-confident and successful as Strike wishes to be, but he is also what Strike most fears becoming: a con man who has conned himself and who will never deliver on any of his grandiose claims. His car, to Strike’s distress and contempt, features half a dozen suction-footed Garfield cats stuck to the windows.
The cops are a constant, omnipresent source of harassment. They come in several flavors: the enormous, sneaker-shod housing patrol lunks who call themselves the Fury (after their car, obviously) and who have adopted street names: Thumper, Smurf, Crunch; Andre the Giant, the only black cop in sight, who lives in the projects and has made it his personal round-the-clock mission to clean them up; predatory opportunists like Klein’s partner, who runs a ghetto convenience store and sells crackheads their baking soda and Chore Boy scouring pads, not to mention the cop who runs a scrap yard where drug zombies cash in the copper pipes and stripped telephone wires they’ve scavenged. And then there is Klein, married to a much younger woman whose trust fund enables them to live in a Tribeca loft. Klein is about to retire, vaguely craves stardom or creativity or something, and is neither more nor less sympathetic than his bookend, Strike.
Every detail is in place here. Every T-shirt bears its telling logo, every fast-food joint dispenses cartoon theme napkins, every liquor store carries big stocks of Captain Morgan Spice Rum. Price’s ear is tuned to a phenomenally fine degree. Not only does he render speech rhythms accurately and sensually—people do begin stories with declarative sentences that end on a rising, questionlike inflection, for example—but he is sensitive to nuances of class and character among all his variegated characters, rendering the minute distinctions of vocabulary and emphasis in different kinds of black speech to which most whites would probably be tone-deaf. Volumes of significance loom behind the sound of white cops mockingly “talking black.” For instance, a group of uniformed police and plainclothesmen are watching a junkie stripping cables, an extraordinarily difficult procedure, with mingled awe and derision. Admitting that none of them could possibly manage the task, one cop says, “You just don’t have the need to strip that bad boy. You gots to have the need.” Only a hair’s breadth separates this from the sound of actual black speech, but that iota—the gratuitous “s” in “gots”—is enough to sketch in a great deal about the cop, who appears in the book for all of six pages. Cops say things like “That’s a heart-rendering story,” and use the word “fuck” in about a ten-to-one proportion to its use in the speech of black drug dealers. A drug dealer’s enforcer, a coldly affectless character called Buddha Hat, talks this way, taking in a display of swords and pikes in the window of a martial arts supply store:
“Man, this shit is clown show.” Buddha Hat pointed to a gold-plated sword, the blade the size and approximate shape of an adult dolphin. “What the fuck you gonna do with that? The nigger starts running away? You gonna have to chase him in a station wagon, hope he don’t hop a fence or run upstairs on you. I tell you one thing, though, with knives? I can’t negotiate knives. It take a lot of anger to stick somebody, you know? That’s like real personal.”
Rodney, addressing a crowd of adolescents he is taking into the business, lectures them thus:
“You got to start respecting yourself. The nigger that spend it as fast as he make it don’t believe it’s real. Don’t believe in hisself. He’s thinking with like a two-minute clock, thinking like a poor man, like his life is like day-to-day, minute-to-minute. He got no future ’cause he don’t think of no future.”
An activist or street preacher steps into a barber shop to harangue the customers so:
“Excuse me. I just want to say, I just want to remind the young men in here of the time. What time is that? The time for you to start respecting yourselves, the time for you to start taking care of yourselves, the time for you to stop victimizing each other, the time for you to pass on the easy dope money, the blood money, the time for this brother…to realize that chain gold is fool’s gold.”
The gallery of such differentiated portraits feels as limitless as a city.
Time, as the title suggests, is Price’s principal theme. It is not so much the drug clock—the crackheads here are mostly walk-ons or figures in a crowd—as the dealers’, the two-minute clock referred to by Rodney. This represents the lack of any sense of consequence beyond that of translating cash into flashy goods, in part because any farther view into the future reveals only death, if not what Price calls “the cycle of shit”—drug dealers turning out future generations of drug dealers; cops mistreating their children, who become junkies in later life. The cops, of course, are pinned to the wheel just as surely as their charges or victims are. None of them, besides Andre the Giant and possibly, grudgingly, Klein himself, has any vision of life that extends beyond personal enrichment, the nightly drunk, and the grim sport of their work. The moral distinction between the two sides of the law is so slight as to be invisible.
Clockers has the ring of truth to it. It is also a confection, a mystery novel, not entirely free of fortuitous coincidences and extraordinary parallels and set pieces that will look good in the eventual screen adaptation. But this merely comes with the territory, which is to say the territory of its genre, and it is in no way a liability. Its subject matter and the sort of documentary realism that it calls up bear a further burden of association: every station-house, every housing project elevator, every social services bureau cubicle, every homicide scene circled with yellow tape is familiar to the reader, but only to a small degree from life. Mostly, they are familiar from movies and television shows, from buddy-cop pictures and “reality-based” pseudo-reportages and roman-fleuve police serials and car-crash action spectaculars. The surface particulars of the inner-city experience have been represented with varying degrees of glibness so many times that they have become hollow conventions in the minds of most people who do not live there, no more substantial than the main street of Dodge City or the floor of Doc Holliday’s saloon, so that their bona fide counterparts on the evening news can be briefly perceived and then dismissed as abstractions.
Price means to counter these habits of mind with his scrupulous specificity, not to mention the empathy that informs his construction of characters. An author who can declare to an interviewer (misparaphrasing Flaubert), “Je suis Strike!” must hope that his readers, after closing the book, hesitate before they presume to judge any real-life Strikes who may cross their path. After all, while fiction may be fiction and owe no fealty to the matter it transforms, a novel that depicts an ongoing disaster bears a special responsibility. Price’s intentions are entirely noble, and his skills are more than sufficient to give them force. It may be, however, that no intentions or skills can contend with the poverty of realism in an age of documentary saturation. It may seem unfair to cavil this way at Price’s large achievement, but then it may be a measure of its success that it suggests a further step: that the reader, who can so easily and passively consume the experience of the novel, be made to work for it.
July 16, 1992