Crack cocaine swept across the Lower East Side like a plague in the summer of 1986. East 11th Street between Avenue B and C on the Lower East Side of New York was the destination of choice for its adherents. Hundreds of crack zombies lined the sidewalk before the tenement building on the corner of Avenue B. They called it ‘the Rock’. Teenage look-outs steered cokeheads into the tenement. The metal apartment doors were welded shut. A spyhole allowed the dealers to see their customers and a small 2-way slot permitted the exchange of cash for crack. Anyone trying to rip off the dealers was killed by their enforcers.
The city newspapers headlined the scourge. The president called for action and his wife came up with the slogan ‘just say no’. Unfortunately for the Lower East Side the ‘nos’ were drowned out by the ‘yeses’.
My Uncle Carmine lived near Avenue C and my cousin RickT rented the ground-floor of a renovated firehouse across from ‘the Rock’. Rival gangs fiercely fought over the sidewalks. There were no monopolies on the Lower East Side and the staccato of shots echoed down the block night and day. I never walked on ‘the Rock’s’ side of the block and no one ever saw the police. They were too busy getting payments from the coke dealers. Everyone had new cars.
One night Rick, Carmine, I were having dinner at the local Puerto Rican restaurant on Avenue C.
Three kids flashed by on the sidewalk. Four young men with guns were chasing them. No one in the restaurant lifted their head from their plates. It was none of our business.
“I can’t believe how fucked this neighborhood is.” Rick had lived in the bad part of Oakland. He owned a biker bar near the Holland Tunnel. He was skinny as a broom, but the Californian was no punk.
“It’s always been fucked.” I moved to the East Village in 1976. Buildings burned bright at night without a single siren disturbing the crackle of flames. I had spent the past 5 years in Paris. Nothing had gotten better in the Lower East Side in my absence.
“Not this bad.” Carmine had been born on East 11th Street. He weighed 60 pounds more than when he mustered out of the Merchant Marines. None of it was muscle, but a small Luger in the 55 year-old’s pocket comforted him on his brief walks on the block. “In the 50s it was almost normal. Poor, but normal. In the 60s the junkies took over the streets, but they were hippies in comparison to the crackheads.”
“The crackheads aren’t the problem.” I only had to put up with sinse dealers on my corner of 10th and 1st. They were human. During my years in France they had guarded my Yamaha 650cc. One gave me season tickets to the Nets the week before he served a year bid on Riker’s Island. My dealers were almost family in comparison to the murderers on East 11th street. “It’s the dealers.”
“It’s the crackheads and dealers.” Rick didn’t do drugs. “They rip off the cars, bikes, and houses. They steal from the old ladies. The city should hire a right-wing death squad from El Salvador to wipe them out.”
“Not all of them are bad.” Carmine gummed his unlit cigar and his false teeth clicked on his gums. “Look at Luis. He works for all the week. He doesn’t steal nothing. On Saturday and Sunday he gets high on dope and sleeps it off in my driveway.”
Carmine ran a plumbing business out of his property. Two buildings and a paved-over vacant lot. The back wall was constructed out of thick timbers. His wife Jane called it ‘King Kong’s wall’. It was topped by razor wire. Any junkie thief who dared to scale the barrier would have deal with his Neapolitan mastiff. Its name was Killer.
“Luis is a paragon of junkie saints.” Rick spooned a fried plantain into his mouth. His politics on this issue were similar to Reagan’s, although none of the dopers in the neighborhood were capable of saying ‘no’ for Nancy Reagan.
“We all have our faults.” Carmine signaled for the waitress to doggy bag his plate. His dog loved rice and beans. “I’ll tell you what the government should do to cure the crack epidemic. Transform Governor’s Island in the harbor to Crack Island.”
“Crack Island?” It had movie written all over it.
“Anyone wanting to do crack, dope, shoot up speed, drive drunk goes to Crack Island. You can do whatever you want 24 hours a day. The government supplies the drugs from whatever is seized by the Coast Guard and cops. You can go on without any questions, but if you want to come off the island, then you have to go through a one-year detox program. This way you empty the prisons, isolate crime, and give the Lower East Side back to the people.”
“What about casual drug users?” New York had a three strikes out program for repeat offenders. I had never been up to bat.
“System stays the same for anyone off Crack Island. Busted for drugs you go to prison, except for pot. That’s legal as long as you grow it for personal consumption.” His thick fingers toyed with his cigar. “And don’t say anything about tobacco. “
“But that kills millions.” Rick hated people smoking in his bar.
“Their own choice same as everyone on Crack Island.”
“Only one problem I can foresee.” I envisioned an island of sin; drugs, drink, casinos, brothels, suicides. Anything goes. “The island might get a little crowded.”
“That’s why guns are issued to every entree. To keep down the population and if it gets too crowded then the government can franchise it to other States or nations.” Carmine leaned back in the chair and rubbed his belly with contentment.
“What do you think the chances are of getting Crack Island on the ballot?” Rick wanted the street cleansed of dealers and users.
“All we need are 50,000 signatures.” Carmine’s chair creaked as he stood up. he paid the bill and we walked outside. “But remember once the criminals are gone from this neighborhood, it’ll be safe for the good people. Your rents will go up, the landlords will buy you out. The Lower East Side will become trendy.”
“When you moved here, how many shooting galleries were on 1st Avenue?”
“A lot.” I never counted them all.
“None.” Crackheads smoked on the streets.
“How many restaurants.”
“You got bankers in your building. Not big-earners, but they’ll come once they stop being scared.” Carmine was waiting for the day when Wall Street junior execs would live on Avenue C. On that day his buildings would be worth millions.
“So you’d rather see the neighborhood stay the way it is.”
“Nothing stays the way it is.” Carmine lit up his cigar. “But let’s say I don’t like squares.”
Across the street Luis was nodding off between two garbage cans. It was Monday. His weekend binge was running late. Carmine and Rick lifted him from the sidewalk. A couple huffed crack on the steps of a burnt-out building. Two PR dealers said hello to Carmine. A gunshot rang out from the other end of the block. None of us ducked.
We were all citizens of Crack Island.