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Crack, a Tiffany Drug at Woolworth Prices: SPIN’s 1986 Feature

In the late fall of 1985, one of my editors, Rudy Langlais, came to me and said he had a remarkable young writer, Barry Michael Cooper, who was black and living in Harlem, and had an incredible story about a new, cheap, readily accessible drug circulating the ghetto. It was a supercharged form of cocaine, called crack, and no one had reported on this yet. No one had even heard of it “downtown” (i.e. the entire rest of the world south of 110th street in NYC).

When the story came in it was so well written and reported, and so alien from anything I had heard of, that I feared the writer made it up. The story was too good, too intact, too many colorful characters, too much dramatic, instant devastation. Lives, families, an entire community, were being shredded in weeks, not the years usually associated with drug addiction. People were selling their furniture, and themselves, for their next hit. It didn’t seem real. 

I called a close friend, Bo Dietl, who was a detective in the 25th Precinct in east Harlem at the time, and said, look, I have this story about a drug called crack, and I’m just afraid the writer may have made it up. I explained some of the scenes and locations mentioned in the piece, and there was a silence on the other end. Finally he said: “How the f–k do you know about that? We’ve just found out about it. It’s scary, scary s—t.”

Barry went on to write movies like New Jack City. Crack went on to ravage the nation for many, many years. This was the first major piece ever written about the drug.

— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, August 13, 2015

[The following piece was originally published in the February 1986 issue of SPIN. In honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]

It is almost midnight in Harlem, and the colorless summer night has painted the row of tenement buildings, storefronts, sidewalks, cars, buses, and people in shades of the unknown in this concrete netherworld.

Is this a jungle? The young lions are dressed in black nylon T-shirts and black Lee carpenter jeans rolled at bare ankles to showcase shiny black Bally loafers. Sinewy arms folded across their chests laden with gold medallions, a silent roar creasing their lips in the guise of a sneer, the young lions usher their prey in and out of video parlors and misty hallways.

Is this a war zone? Loud, rapid machine-gun fire, in the form of recorded digital drums, blasts from a glistening metal boom box, the modern teenager’s portable iron curtain, repeating the most damaging bursts of ammo, shooting down all hope of retreat from its demanding groove. Thick marijuana smoke is suspended in the air.

Is this an island? A jet stream of water punches out of the mouth of an open fire hydrant. A few adults and children, barefoot and frying in the melting night, giggle and play, carefree, in the cooling flow. The river of water encircles the block separating this patch of Harlem from the rest of the free world. In the street, the water babies instinctively sidestep the steady flotilla of crushed beer cans, greasy wine bottles, and empty miniature manila envelopes of reefer. There are messages in these bottles, cries for help tossed in a curbside sea. The fleet stops at the corner of Eighth Avenue and capsizes into an already gutted drain of moldy, splintered, and stagnant dreams. This is 145th Street, “Crack City.”

Crack is the latest drug in New York, and its use is becoming epidemic. These white pellets of prepackaged freebase (cocaine in its purest form) are extremely frightening. Frequent users – peer-pressured 13-year-olds to 60-plus grandparents – don’t associate its use with the savage addiction of heroin or the hallucinogenic insanity of angel dust, its two predecessors in Harlem’s crippling drug trilogy. But in the last year, crack has become the drug of choice; the exhilarating rush of its 5-to-15-minute high brings a distorted sense of power, a king-of-the-hill nirvana. Like Huxley’s “soma” in Brave New World, crack is, for many, escape, booster, stabilizer, and status quo. Known on the street as “the white genie in the bottle” (it is sold in vials), a rub of the crack lantern grants temporary residence in the dreamstate of your design.

The crack phenomenon is so new that not much is known about it (or maybe the facts are not available to the general public) by the N.Y.P.D. or any other law enforcement agency.

Dressed in Sergio Valente jeans, Etonic T-shirt, and sneakers, the Harlem detective is small and wiry, with a deep tan and salt-and-pepper hair. In the Street Narcotics Unit of the 33rd precinct, he speaks in hushed tones, and his mannerisms are closely guarded, as if the body language shouldn’t be talkative, either.

“I’ve seen some BMWs, Mercedes, and Volvos with Jersey, Connecticut, and even Massachusetts license plates on 145th Street, where young, rich white kids are going to buy crack. How they are finding out about this, I don’t know, but soon it won’t be confined just to the black community. It will be widespread.

“I can recall hearing about it in the last year or so. It almost looks like chips of soap, and sometimes when the dealers sell bad stuff, that’s what they use – chips of soap.”

There are only two kinds of places to purchase crack: basehouses and crack spots. A crack spot is a take-out only service, operated from an apartment (with a small hole drilled in the door, through which goods and money are exchanged), a storefront, or a video arcade (such as the ones that line 145th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). Because freebasing requires elaborate paraphernalia, i.e., a small glass pipe and a pint-sized acetylene or butane torch, basehouses have come into existence. They are similar to opium dens or heroin “shooting galleries,” where people gather to get high. A basehouse can be an apartment, an abandoned tenement, or an affluent building. Inside the more active ones there are usually four men: two at the door and two in the middle of the room, watching everyone and everything, armed with Berettas, Uzis, and MAC 10s. The room is stripped bare except for a long rectangular table, which has numbers written on top from one to five. Behind each number are rows of vials of crack. Scattered around the basehouse are chairs and card tables, each with a pipe and torch on top. Admission to the basehouse is $3, as is separate rental of a pipe and torch. The crack ranges from $10-$50 a bottle (hence the markings on the table). Sitting time is 15 minutes. To stay longer is to pay another $9. To try to take a bottle of crack without paying is to be chopped and grated by rounds of automatic fire.

“A lot of people seem to be freebasing in Harlem these days,” says Special Narcotics Prosecutor Sterling Johnson. “That’s what they call ‘sucking on that glass dick’ [the pipe crack is smoked in].” That’s what’s happening. People are getting high. Dope dealers that had a million dollars yesterday are stone broke now. And they’ll tell you, ‘This is my woman, she never fails me. Base.” You go up to the Riverton Projects [135th and Fifth Avenue] on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see some of the people getting out of their cars — women sucking on that glass dick, dudes sucking on that glass dick, and they’re in love.”

Cocaine’s absorption into the bloodstream depends on how it’s taken. Use through all mucous membranes, including the rectum, vagina, urethra, and nasal mucosa, and intravenous consumption (shooting up) produces effects within 30 seconds to a minute. Snorting coke produces effects in one to three minutes. On the other hand, taking cocaine orally may not produce intoxication until 30 minutes after use. The most rapid acting method is smoking, or freebasing, in which the substance is absorbed by the small blood vessels in the lungs, moves to the left side of the heart and then goes directly to the brain — in less than eight seconds.

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On this late summer night in Harlem, Gary Martin is slowly being crushed by the murderous white avalanche. He is both a user and a salesman of crack. The beat he walks on this summer Friday night is familiar; he can recognize the pain and depression in the faces he sees on this path. “The way I’ve made base,” says Martin, “is to get a little shake bottle [similar to a thermometer, but shorter], a half-gram of cocaine, a little bit of baking soda, which cleans the ‘cut’ [additive] off of the coke, and a little water inside. You cover the top, and place it into a pot of boiling water, and let it boil from three to five minutes. After that, you take it out—and since it’s in its purest form, you won’t see anything but clear liquid. You take a few ice cubes, crush them, dropping a few chips inside the shake bottle and the remainder around the outside of it until the cocaine cools. After that, you pour the substance onto a silk scarf, which strains out any remaining baking soda. Sometimes, it solidifies in pieces, and sometimes it’s in a big ball. If that happens, you take a razorblade and cut it up. And that’s crack.”

A lot of people, including Martin, started freebasing after Richard Pryor burned himself while smoking the substance in 1979 (making freebase becomes deadly explosive when highly flammable chemicals, such as ether, are used instead of baking soda to clean the cut from the cocaine). When the price of coke dropped nearly two years ago due to a national cocaine glut, crack gained a lot of momentum. Some “dopeboy” (the Harlem terminology for a young drug pusher) got the idea that a lot of money could be made if he bought an ounce of cocaine (going for $1,900-$2,000 today), and made and packaged his own freebase. Take away the exclusivity, mystery, and danger surrounding freebase, and place it in the hands of the average Joe. Tiffany drugs at Woolworth prices.

“I’m staying at my aunt’s place on 149th Street,” Gary Martin is saying. “It’s lonely at my house without my family. I can’t stand to be without them, but I won’t beg nobody to come back to me.”

Gary Martin’s walk ends at 145th Street and Broadway, where we check into a corner booth of a McDonald’s. Martin’s munching on a six-piece McNuggets. He looks like a phys-ed teacher: mild-mannered and bespectacled, nearly 6’2″, symmetrically streamlined like a swimmer, in a royal blue Nike jogging suit with matching baseball cap and jogging shoes. By day he works as a youth counselor on Staten Island; by night — until the bust of two of his main suppliers a couple of weeks ago — a crack merchant. He lives in a comfortable co-op in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan with his wife and two children. His double life is taking a toll on more than his emotional stability; it’s wildly rocking the marital seesaw, as well. His wife has left him several times. This time, she and the kids have been gone for almost two weeks. He smiles between munches of McNuggets and slurps of a large Coke, talking animatedly about the local summer basketball tournament called “Chick’s” and wondering why 113th Street basketball whiz Alonzo Jackson never made the pros. But this friendly chatter is just a masquerade to guard his hurt. Don’t try to read his actions or gaze into his eyes — they’re not a mirror to the soul — because behind the tint of his Cazeles, they’re cloudier than a thunderstorm before a tornado, just before the tail hits the ground, before the destruction begins.

But a word is worth a thousand pictures. Gary was awakened from deep sleep an hour earlier.

“I was dreaming about being in a big cage in a little zoo on this street corner,” he says. “The gorillas were my keepers. They laughed at me, throwin’ little ghosts at my cage that had scary eyes and turbans on their heads. And they were trapped in half-inch jars. Then I woke up, because out on the street or somewhere some kid with a loud gravelly voice was screamin’ at somebody named Kenny, dissin’ [disrespecting] him by calling him a faggot. You know, tryin’ to pick a fight, I guess. And then he asked some kid named Pushead to buy some more crack. He sounded like he was high.”

But that wasn’t what startled Martin from deep sleep. There was a rage in the air that wouldn’t let him sleep, an electric rage that aroused and wired every night crawler within earshot. The gravel voice embodied the stuff thrillers, even zombie movies, are made of. Stories about people like Sheila, a plump and gorgeous cheerleader and all-round goody-good girl. Some of her former high school classmates say she made her first mistake on graduation night, wanting to experience a dust high. Now, almost two years later, after her release from the psychiatric unit on Wards Island, she spends her days sleeping and her nights entertaining old men and demented dopeboys on sexual house calls. Anything goes on these nightly visits, while her year-old daughter sits crying and hungry in a raggedy stroller outside of these various apartments or in dark stairwells at 4 a.m.

On Saturdays, she takes a break — if you can call it that — after a three-day, no-sleep, freebase excursion and goes to 125th Street to argue with the Koreans in the dollar bargain stores about why she can’t buy shoes and dresses for her daughter with half a booklet of food stamps. She stands in the store losing her mind, her once voluptuous body racked with confusion, now barely 100 pounds. Sure, she doesn’t smoke angel dust anymore, because the little white genie is in the pimp business.

Then there’s Beanie, from Esplanade Gardens (a lower middle class co-op in Harlem). Beanie, with the flapjack-wide grin and Bambi-innocent eyes. Beanie, the altar boy at St. Charles on 141st Street. Beanie, the epitome of perpetual bowed-head humility and quiet, parochial school obeisance. Beanie, a kid who once looked so mild-mannered, he’d have given Pat O’Brien a run for his money on a good day. Beanie was an angel without a dirty face.

But a few months ago, shortly after his 21st birthday, Beanie changed. According to his friends, he became loud and belligerent, bullying kids younger than him and picking fights with guys who overshadowed and outweighed him by 50 pounds (he’s 6 feet tall and 160 pounds). He picked a fight with an amateur boxer in the neighborhood, and even after the light heavyweight bloodied and almost broke his nose, Beanie – whipped silly by a good left hook, hard body blows, and embarrassment —continued to egg him on for more punishment. The pugilist, tired of using Beanie’s jaw for a speed bag, decided to drop his hands and walk away instead of doing time for Murder One. Beanie ran around the development like a winning sprinter on a victory lap. His friends wondered if Beanie was a latent masochist. His buddies say he was just acting out his Cowardly Lion fantasies. But others said the white genie had simply given Beanie a brief but damaged reflection of what he already had: a broken heart.

And there is Dondee, the type of kid who gets killed. Dondee is tossing and turning, but he can’t fall asleep. He closes his eyes. Orange and red triangles, circles, and squares that flash. He opens his eyes, watching the nighttime light and shadow create reflections from the venetian blinds, which move like hopscotch traffic across the ceiling. He listens to the cars rumble through the Seventh Avenue darkness, the broken bottles splattering 132nd Street concrete snapping the thread between deep sleep and insomnia, the firecrackers and/or gunshots exploding on Eighth Avenue. Dondee, a 19-year-old Cardinal Hayes dropout and crack burnout, is tossing and turning, but he can’t fall asleep. And after a two-day crack binge, he leaves his bed, craving for more. Martin finishes the story.

“I knew Dondee from the pickup games at the basketball courts on 134th and St. Nicholas,” Martin says. “The kid was under 6′, but he could yoke the ball [dunk] with authority. For a couple of months, I hadn’t seen Dondee at the courts. I heard rumors that he was McCrackin’ [using crack], but he would be the last person I thought would do something like that; he was the All-American boy, from a strict Catholic family. I saw him one Saturday night, around 9:30 back in May. I was sitting on the stoop of a friend’s house on 132nd Street. Dondee came around, because he heard that I was trying to sell two black market video cassettes, Gremlins and Beverly Hills Cop. I have a special contact with a person who makes them. Dondee said he knew some people on 152nd and Amsterdam that would buy the tapes at two hunit dollahs apiece. So I gave him the tapes. Around 11, it started to rain real hard, storming, but Dondee wasn’t in sight. I waited at my friend’s house, and he called Dondee’s house and some of his friends, but they didn’t know where he was either. Midnight, one, two, three o’clock, and still no Dondee. Around 4:30, my friend gets a knock on the door. It was still storming outside. My friend opens the door, and it was Dondee. He was soaked, but he was smiling so hard it was almost scary. He told me he sold the tapes, but he lost the money. I started to punch him in his face, but I didn’t, because I felt sorry for him, I knew he spent the four hunit on crack, not just because I remembered there was a crack spot on 152nd, but his eyes told the story. Wide open and glowing, almost shining. He told me that he had to run home in the rain. That wasn’t a lie, because he was barefoot, and his left foot was bleeding heavy. My friend and I took him to Harlem Hospital.”

Martin says that there was a string of murders at a crack spot in the Bronx near Tremont Avenue. Five bodies, all male, one each night from Tuesday to Saturday. More than likely, they may have been trying to rob the spot. Not for money, just for the crack.

Gary Martin wasn’t sure whose gravel voice was screaming in his dream, but he could picture them: frantic, hyper, spastic, eyes as big as saucers, like those tired little characters you might see in a Feiffer or Doonesbury cartoon. Eyes that say, “miles before we sleep.” There was a rage in the air. The rage of a little monster in a tiny container.

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“Y’know, my wife and kids got everything, y’ unstan’, everything they could ever want. Yet and still, she left me. And it’s not the first time, either.” Martin flips the top off his soda and tilts the cup back to his mouth; swallowing, crunching, tearing the ice cubes. There’s anger in the crashing of tooth on ice cube.

Martin grew up on 114th Street and Eighth Avenue. A very bright student all through school, he used to get bored in classes he was several months ahead of, and his attention focused on things outside of the classroom.

“Nicky Barnes [the one-time top drug czar of the East Coast, now serving a life sentence] was the superstar of the neighborhood. Here was a man who grew up a few blocks away from me, used to be a dopefiend, and became a multimillionaire driving a new luxury car every week and sporting the flyest gear [the nicest clothes] I’ve ever seen! And I figured if he can do it, why can’t I?”

Martin began selling quarter-kilo bags of heroin when he was 14, a “soldier” (one who sells dope on the street) making about $2,500 a week. On Mother’s Day or the day the welfare checks came, if he had good “runners” (addicts who recruit other addicts for sales) he could make $5,000 in less than three hours, to be divided in a 60-40 split with his suppliers. He did this during the summer when he also had a Neighborhood Youth Corps job as a cover for when his parents asked where he got the money to buy all of his new clothes for school. Most of his profit, though, would go to replenishing his supply of heroin, which he would pick up at drop points as quaint as an elderly woman’s house on 117th Street, a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Eighth Avenue, a laundromat on Seventh. He sold drugs off and on during his years at Brandeis High, but it was causing him a lot of conflict.

“I guess I wanted things so fast — now! — and that’s why I went to selling drugs,” Martin says. “But it hurt me — and still does — because I come from a strong Christian family, whose values and principles are totally opposite of what I’m all about.”

In 1975, Martin dropped out of Brandeis in the middle of his senior year. He was nearly a year behind his classmates in the course requirements, missing so many classes because he was busy dealing. His girlfriend was pregnant with their first child, so they got married, and he went back to “scramblin'” (selling heroin on the street) full time to support his family. A few months later, he passed the high school equivalency test, got his diploma, and enrolled in Manhattan Community College where he received his A.A. degree.

While in college, Martin worked in a warehouse. After work, he started selling cocaine — from Monday night to the wee hours of Sunday morning. Business was so good — working at first from a basement apartment on 118th Street, Martin’s clientele included several white, Wall Street stockbrokers he met through his membership at the West Side Y — that he was forced to stay mobile and to use a beeper system. He would buy cocaine by the ounce (roughly $2,200) at various spots in Harlem, including the now-gutted Ansonia Bar on 134th Street and Eighth Avenue. After putting only one or two “whacks,” or additives, on the ounce (usually Manitol of Bonita, an Italian baby laxative) to increase the weight, solubility, and longevity of the cocaine, he made an average $6,500 profit on each ounce and a little over $13,000 a week.

At the pleas of his wife, who feared for the family’s safety, Martin stopped selling for almost four years. He became a counselor to emotionally disturbed boys at a state facility on Staten Island. Then, at the end of 1984, a friend turned him on to crack.

“A partner of mine who used to scramble with me as a teenager told me about the crazy gusto [enormous] amount of money some kids were making selling crack along Lenox Avenue. The reason, he told me, was that crack took less production in preparing than stan’ [heroin] or sniff [cocaine]. And it’s more addictive than any drug on the street, because the high is so powerful — but it don’t last long. And it makes you want more. That’s why people flock to buy this stuff. You heard of having a monkey on your back? Well, this is the whole f—kin’ zoo.

“The high for me is an exciting rush,” he says. “It hits me almost the moment of inhalation. It makes me feel awake, alert, really up, 10 times more up than when I’m sniffin’ regular blow. And you feel so happy, you can’t stop talking. Everybody’s your friend, the colors around you get brighter, the whole world seems like it’s a better place, and you can’t stop talking. You feel like Superman or something. The contact is direct, right into the blood stream, and then the brain. But like I said, it only lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and then this deep depression hits.”

Martin pauses and stares off into space, perhaps thinking about his wife and kids.

“If you have problems bugging you, crack makes them worse. It makes you dwell on the negative. It makes you feel guilty, like I’m feeling now. I use it, but I can stop anytime.”

Martin phrases the end of the declaration like a question. And then the contradictions begin.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why am I trickin’ [spending] money on this crack when I could be using it to the benefit of me and my family? Why was I selling crack and endangering me and my family? Why did I force my wife and kids to leave me when I know I’m in the wrong?'”

Another pause, this time highlighted by exploding ice cubes in his mouth.

“It’s a heavy weight to carry. It’s heavy money spent to get the crack. It’s heavy time involved when you are consumed by desire for crack. People start turning into zombies, like the creatures in that movie, Night of the Living Dead. You don’t wanna go to sleep, you don’t wanna eat, all you think about is McCrackin’. You can lose a lot of weight doing crack, too. A three-hunit pound guy can drop to 110 in less than two months, maybe even faster than that. But it’s a sickly looking kinda weight loss, like cancer or something. But that don’t stop people from McCrackin’.

“Some people crack from eight in the evening until three or four in the morning. They can forget about falling asleep right away, because crack makes you so up, so high, it’s too hard to come down. How can you go to work the next day when you have to get up at six, seven in the morning, and your body is just coming down from a crack high? You haven’t had any sleep. And that’s when crack starts talking to you [hallucinations come with heavy freebase use]. Saying things like, “It’s just me and you today, buddy. We don’t need nobody else. You got twenny dollahs?” That is the beginning of the end, when you start hearing those voices that ask you, ‘Do you have twenny dollahs?” Because that twenny dollahs turns into 40, 40 into 60, 60 into three hunit, and on and on, until you’re broke and broken. Then you start scraping your pipe for residue, trying to smoke that. It’s a heavy habit, because you start neglecting your essential needs. Like rent, food, clothing, your kids, your family. Somebody’s gonna starve to have that glass dick stuck in your mouth. Then you have those so-called conservative users, who think they know their limit using crack. But they go overboard, too, so really no one has control. I tell you, crack is the worst evil to ever hit Harlem. The worst.”

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Martin’s crack spot was in the Bronx, off the Grand Concourse. The operation was small, just Martin and a partner, both armed with .38 automatic pistols. The building they worked out of was known for crack. There were two basehouses in the six-story building. Martin supplied both of them as well as other crack users in the building. They sold their crack in three equal-sized pellets, in vials with tan caps. (In some instances, the vials are color-coded to differentiate quality.) The people in that area of the Bronx always looked for the vials with the tan caps. Martin and his partner had this particular spot for two months until his suppliers (Martin did not make his own freebase on this particular venture) were busted.

Martin didn’t work as hard as he did selling heroin or cocaine. He opened business around 3 p.m. and would usually sell out his stock (100 $10 bottles and 100 $20 bottles) in four hours. After a seven-day workweek, he and his partner would take a 60-40 split with the suppliers, a portion of a profit well over $21,000.

“The people who use crack,” Martin says, “go after it like it’s something to eat. I’ve seen grandfathers, grandmas with gray hair and canes come to buy crack. I know one lady in her early 40s who got a large settlement from a car accident, who has spent four hunit thousand dollahs in five months on crack. I feel sorry for her, and I know she should be home taking care of herself, but she was spending that money on that crack. I do feel for people, but I’m a businessman first, and I got to make that money, y’ unstan’? 

“True, I’m a little turned around now — with my wife and kids leaving and all — and the crack might’ve had something to do with that, but I’ll turn things back around. All I have to do is cut down on my McCrackin’ and make sure my next suppliers are not ‘toy’ [inadequate] jobbers like the last suckers. And, yes, if I get another opportunity, I will be back to scramblin’. Money talks, and bulls—t is a marathon jogger. You eat, or you’ll be eaten. I try to love my fellow man, but it’s always gonna be about that money for me. Money is the bottom line.”

Martin gets up, demolishing his last piece of ice. I wish the best for him and his family, and we shake hands. As I try to relax my hand in his lethal grip, he reminds me not to use his real name, address, or any of his vitals, because he knows where I live with my family. Watching Martin swing out of the McDonald’s into the steamy Friday night, I feel a cold chill shoot down my back. He would have disappeared into the mist, but that was kind of difficult with him straining under the weight of a cage full of zombies, genies, and laughing gorillas.

Photos by Getty Images