Crack cocaine swept across the Lower East Side in the summer of 1986 and East 11th Street between Avenue B and C on the Lower East Side of New York was the destination of choice for its many adherents.
All day long hundreds of crack zombies lined the sidewalk before the tenement building on the corner of Avenue B called ‘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 cash was exchanged for drugs through a small 2-way slot. 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 skinny Nancy's call were drowned out by the choruses ‘yeses’.
My Uncle Carmine lived close to Avenue C and my friend Tem rented the ground-floor of a renovated firehouse across from ‘the Rock’.
"I thought things were bad before," said Tem and he knew bad coming from Oakland.
"And it hasn't come closes to hitting the bottom." Uncle Carmine has lived on the Lower East Side his entire life.
The old plumber was right. There were no monopolies on the Lower East Side and the staccato of gun shots echoed down the block night and day. I never walked on ‘the Rock’s’ side of the block and never saw the police. They were too busy getting payments from the coke dealers.
One night Tem, Carmine, and I were eating at the local Puerto Rican restaurant.
Three kids fled up Avenue C at fast-forward speed.
Four young men with guns chased them.
“Moherfuckers.” Tem owned a biker bar near the Holland Tunnel. He was skinny as a broom, but the Californian was no punk.
I moved to the East Village in 1976. Buildings burned bright at night without a single siren disturbing the crackle of flames.
“This neighborhood breeds them. Someone once gave me a revolver. I handed it back. I'd have emptied it before reaching the end of my block.”
"Down here it worst."
"Ah, you two don't know bad," groused Uncle Carmine.
I had spent the past five years in Paris.
"Nothing had got better in my absence."
“What? You expect change?”
Carmine had been born on East 11th Street. The bearded plumbing contractor 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 were a source of comfort on his 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. The sinse dealers on my corner of 10th and 1st guarded my Yamaha 650cc when I was in Paris."
"Just couldn't figure out if it was worth anything?"
"Franklin had given me season tickets to the Nets."
"The week before he left the corner for a year bid on Riker’s Island."
"Hey, he gave them to me." My dealers were almost family in comparison to the murderers on East 11th Street.
"Reefer dealers aren't like pot dealers and the crackheads 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.” Tem didn’t do drugs.
“Not all of crackheads are bad.” Carmine gummed his unlit cigar and his false teeth clicked on his gums. “Look at Luis. He works for me 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 timberstopped by razor wire. His wife Jane called it ‘King Kong’s wall’.
Any junkie thief who dared to scale the barrier would have deal with their Neapolitan mastiff. Its name was Killer.
“Okay, Luis is a paragon of junkie saints.” Tem spooned a fried plantain into his mouth. His politics on this issue were similar to 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. The government supplies the drugs from whatever is seized by the Coast Guard and cops. You can do whatever you want 24 hours a day, 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.
“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.” Carmine's thick fingers toyed with his cigar. “And don’t say anything about tobacco. “
“But that kills millions.” Tem hated tobacco.
“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 East 11th 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 Tem lifted him from the sidewalk.
A gaunt 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.