Let’s take care of the so-called “pusher”-problem first: dealers don’t push drugs. Drugs push dealers. Or, more accurately, clients push dealers. All the time: day or night, in the supermarket, at the gas station, the restaurant, the local bar (natch). Most of all, when you’re at home – after all, they’re up – why shouldn’t you be, too?
I remember commiserating with another dealer one day, both of us complaining about how the phone would ring and ring, each customer promising they’d be right over, so you’d hold off just a bit longer on that shower or meal or whatever, then the next one calling and saying the same thing and so on for hours at a time until you would just want to scream and tell them all to go to hell, but you can’t, because you need the money and besides that, you’re The Dealer, and that wouldn’t be professional now would it, not at all.
I’m retired now, and mostly glad of it, but I do still miss the phone ringing like that. I know that’s perverse. But sometimes I don’t get phone calls for several days at a time now, and I can’t begin to tell you how unutterably strange that is, the proverbial deafening silence. I feel a bit lost without that, some identity that I used to have now dead and gone. . . not that I really even had an identity, back then – but that’s really the whole point of this essay.
I was a drug dealer for twelve years, from 1980 to 1992, part-time at first, then full-time: my personal tribute to the Reagan-Bush years (and the statute of limitations has long since run out: sorry, guys). I was strictly small-time, a bottom feeder, not a big fish, though some of my suppliers were significantly higher on the food chain. It is not, repeat not, a glamorous life; sure, I saw Traffic too, and while there may be lots of Armani-clad, sunglass-wearing big shots in the trade, I was definitely not one of them, and neither was anybody else I knew.
The biggest dealer I knew personally was an aging hippie who had been at Woodstock, with a potbelly and a house in perpetual disarray, always caught in a maelstrom of renovations and dental work that harmonized in some peculiar but appropriate manner with the piles of lumber and other construction materials littering the house in some occult fashion. You might laugh. . . but I’ll never forget the time I came over to buy a lousy quarter-pound of weed for about $200 and they had $76,000 sitting on their Dial-O-Gram scale, just for fun. He was the only dealer I knew who dealt in hundred pound lots, not that I wanted to see any of that personally.
It’s not that all of the stereotypes are wrong, either: there was Joe, the dealer central casting sent my way, complete with Caddy and dice hanging from the rearview mirror, a married man and a pimp with a penchant for deals in parking lots. . . I hate parking lots. But his wife liked me; I always played the dumb naive college kid, but I knew damn well that she was the one who would have final say in some things – keep on her good side, just by being polite and teasing her just a bit now and again, and he’d be sure to cut me a better deal. He was pretty much always good to me anyway, used to bring in some beautiful opium; he said his brother in Houston brought it in from New York, and it got to New York from Lebanon. I sold it to some of the dealers I knew, who took it to some of the small towns in the hinterlands, who would in turn sell it to people from even smaller towns, more hamlet than town. Which used to tickle me no end, knowing the length of the chain of distribution that would end up in some little no name place who knows where – I never asked. That’s part of the rules, not asking things, and I always knew the good dealers from the bad ones on account of that; good dealers never asked questions, and neither did the good clients. . . I had some clients for more than a decade and they never asked. That’s why I kept them. Etiquette goes a long way.
What I dealt: I know you’re wondering. The answer in the negative is easier: I didn’t deal heroin, and I didn’t deal cocaine or crystal meth for a long time, until that last year or two. . . that’s part of the reason I got out of it. I did deal pretty much everything else; mostly marijuana, LSD, magic mushrooms (my personal favorite), and barbiturates pretty much throughout my career, then added in the cocaine and speed at the end, plus the occasional exotic: opium, hashish, designer drugs, ecstasy, peyote. It wasn’t usually a lot at any given time; I rarely dealt anything as large as a pound of weed or more than a sheet (100 doses) of LSD, a quarter-pound of mushrooms, a few dozen downers, a few grams of coke or speed. But it added up; whenever I went to a Grateful Dead show I would look at everyone there and think to myself that I had dealt enough drugs over the span of my career to turn on every single person in the stadium. . . . And no, it’s not a lot of money, not at my level; I think I might have cleared $10-15,000 annually, give or take a bit. Sure, I didn’t have to pay taxes, but there were other costs, and they weren’t the kind of thing you could deduct on your taxes; that’s another one of the points I’m trying to make here. Being small time was also safer; I wouldn’t be surprised if The Authorities knew who I was, but (hopefully) they decided I wasn’t worth the hassle, and I turned down opportunities to deal more substantial quantities even when I could afford them for the same reason.
To be a good dealer is, in my opinion, to be invisible. I think it must be a bit like espionage, or terrorism, both of which are, for the most part, exercises in the art of the mundane. Camouflage was my favorite color, and I set about my job as if it were designed to be a continuous test of my skills in that regard, an endless study in the technique of reconnaissance-and-evasion. It was my private task to identify and approximate, to incarnate, the mundane as closely as possible, to blend completely and absolutely, to become the vanishing point of everyone’s horizon. My task was made easier by my day “job,” i.e. being a college student at a large university. I deliberately mimicked the stereotypical dress and manner of what was, after all, an allegedly authentic identity. I wore jeans and T-shirts as if they were a uniform, arranged my household goods to conform to the studied lack of organization that defines a dorm room suite, complained loudly about my teachers and homework assignments, wore glasses ten years out of date, ate Ramen noodles or macaroni and cheese, and always lived comfortably close to campus in the middle of the local student ghetto with my peers. I rode a bike. On my budget it wasn’t really like I could afford to do otherwise most of the time anyway (and besides, have you ever tried to tail somebody riding a bike?). I was lucky, too; I am of exactly average height, weight, and looks, with a determinedly ordinary haircut, able to blend without any special effort, simulating the norm that I really was, for the most part
The only difference between me and my peers – to my mind, though, one of the crucial differences – was something much subtler, the awareness that the identity I assumed wasn’t wrong so much as it was incomplete.
One of my girlfriends, a former client, became my lover in part, I believe, because she believed in the stereotypes and wanted something more glamorous in her upper-middle class life. She was looking for Someone Bad, and was sorely disappointed to discover that my life, especially my professional life, utterly lacked the element of danger and glamour she had apparently hoped for. I remember becoming exasperated by her expectations and lecturing her on the nature of the trade one time: “If it’s glamorous and exciting,” I said, “then I’m doing something wrong, badly wrong. A good deal should be about as exciting as going to the neighborhood 7-11 for a quart of milk, and would ideally take about as long to transact” (with fewer surveillance cameras). She left me, in the end, for one of my business partners, a loser ex-con who dealt with the bikers and the Mexican gangs in the barrio. But at least he was exciting, I suppose; he supported her habit and she ended up with full-blown psychosis a few months later, spending time in the local jail and the county psych ward, despite the warnings I gave to her family. Maybe that’s what she wanted; I guess it was a lot more glamorous than what I had to offer.
To me, being a good dealer means being polite, persistent, and careful at all times. I took pride in my work, because I made it as invisible as possible, and yet I could make it happen – I had the knowledge gained by years of careful attention to detail and the cultivation of my contacts, earning their trust because they saw me as reliable, not prone to exaggeration, and yet able to make it happen without fanfare. It’s a skill and a talent, and most people probably couldn’t do it. Good dealers aren’t drug users; dealing when you’re high means making mistakes and possibly enemies or drawing unwanted attention. Dealing to support your habit is just plain stupid; very few dealers survive long that way. I didn’t smoke, and seldom drank, much to the amusement (and puzzlement) of my clients; every so often, on special occasions, I would go with some of my friends to a spot far away from town to party and do hallucinogens, but I doubt if I went more than once or twice a year – I couldn’t afford to be not in control more often than that.
Having to be continuously in control, however, also became one of the downsides of the business; you can’t ever relax fully: you never know who’s going to do what and when. The attitude I tried to project was one of utter casualness; internally I was trying to maintain something like a state of absolute watchfulness and wariness. But the fact that the commodities I trafficked in were highly illegal, the risk and potential penalties substantial, was downplayed as much as possible, both for the sake of our mutual psychological health and to reduce the risk by making it appear to be risk-free. It was a remarkably effective technique, though another downside of my success was more difficult to manage: since I made it seem so ordinary, clients responded by treating it in the same way, calling me to ask, in the most casual way, if I had any drugs for sale today. No matter how many times I would tell some people not to speak so bluntly on the phone, many persisted in doing so and refused to use even the most banal codes despite my protests, and eventually I would cut them off because of it – too risky.
Similar problems occurred whenever I crossed paths with any of my clients, which was often, not surprisingly; most of my clients were people I met as friends at school or at various local hangouts. To be a dealer is, as I said, to be on-call 24/7; it’s not the kind of job where you can punch a clock and leave that particular persona behind, and the clientele is not one to respect clocks much in the first place. The urge to do drugs can strike at any time or place, so that a dealer must necessarily be flexible in order to keep the customers happy and coming back for more, within limits. I never carried drugs on me unless I was filling a specific order, and refused to do business in bars or clubs, although the practice is increasingly common these days. I consider that to be the height of sloppiness, a wholly unnecessary risk, second perhaps only to dealing with total strangers – anybody stupid enough to ask someone they don’t know for drugs at a club or other public place is either a cop or (more likely) someone far too stupid to take on as a customer.
I was looking for casual users, not addicts; addicts are bad news and a poor risk – if they don’t ruin your life by calling you or just showing up on your doorstep at 4 in the morning, utterly incoherent, they’re bound to flip out altogether at some point and who knows what they’ll say or do (and to whom) at that point? I’m still amazed by the client who came to my house three times in the same night to buy, and eventually beg for, cocaine; the last time around he was quite literally on his knees in my living room at 2 or 3 in the morning, and simply refused to move until he got what he wanted. I had never believed in the “Rock Against Drugs” scripts prior to that, and spent a moment looking for hidden cameras, unconvinced that anyone would so unselfconsciously mouth the rhetoric of a cheap propaganda campaign. . . but I was wrong (and when I saw him the following day I told him that he was permanently barred from my house, a decision he accepted relatively gracefully, under the circumstances). If I were approached by people who could not or would not exercise a minimum of caution, I would usually plead ignorance or simply tell them to keep asking around, someone (else) would surely have whatever they were looking for and then it would be their problem, not mine.
I learned an immense amount about human behavior, information which has been surprisingly useful long after I left the trade behind. Much of it does not lend itself to being rendered in words, existing as it does at the level of body language, the indefinable sense that one person can be trusted, while another one is bad news, prone to instability, perhaps psychologically disturbed. It was, at the same time, a classic exercise in the propositions of Econ 101: in the absence of good information, with widespread competition and the various dislocations brought about by police interventions, local cartels and petty rivalries, the market for dealing and distributing drugs was horribly inefficient (though prices were surprisingly stable). As predicted by standard economic theories, other mechanisms arose to ameliorate the worst excesses of these problems. Thus my emphasis on the role of the reputation, ethos and credibility of the supplier as the essence of doing business (especially if credit was involved, as it often was).
So why did I leave it behind? I’ve mentioned a couple of things already: watching a few good people go down and never come back, including some of my very closest friends. The strain of being on call all the time, and the growing sense that the lines between my business life and “my” life were gradually blurring, never being entirely sure what the motives were among those who became my friends. The sense that I had been too lucky, too long (not completely lucky, however; though I never encountered official difficulties involving the police or whoever, I was ripped off on several occasions by clients and/or competitors).
But I think that what ultimately became the determining factor in departing the trade was the slowly developing awareness that I was becoming corroded by my work in a very fundamental fashion. Not as a matter of becoming ethically corrupt, but rather, in a way that is once more much harder to articulate, by a sense of being enveloped in vagueness and evasiveness. I was becoming the prisoner of the persona I inhabited so habitually for so long: no matter how innocuous the query or who it was coming from, I was virtually incapable of giving a straightforward answer to any personal question, even or most especially the most mundane questions: where have you been? what are you up to these days? Even if I really had just gone to the 7-11 for a quart of milk, I would simply say that I had been out for a while. Who had I just been talking to? “An [invariably nameless] friend.” Even when it wasn’t necessary to do so, I couldn’t help it; the reflexes were becoming too deeply entrenched. It eventually got to the point that I wasn’t sure I could give an honest account of what I’d actually been doing even if I’d tried. The amorphousness, the anonymity I’d embraced was so strong that it would take me a moment to recall my own name in conversations that had nothing whatsoever to do with business.
I didn’t notice this for a long, long time. . . but when I did, it frightened me. And it still does, in different ways; even though I left the trade behind a long time ago now, I am still deeply uneasy about reclaiming my “official” identity, like having identification with my name and picture on it. To this day, the physical addresses accompanying such pieces of identification are always false, and for the most part I always try to use a post office box number (registered to the false street address on my other ID) whenever possible. . . at the moment I have three of them (in different states). My bank accounts – I lost track of how many I have now – are also registered to the PO boxes. I don’t keep any utilities in my own name; my phone number is unlisted and unpublished – besides not being in my name in the first place. When I could finally afford a car, I fixed up a tiny, broken down import more than 20 years old in the dullest shade of brown you can imagine; when I could afford a new car I bought a compact car of a type favored by rental car agencies in dark green. I didn’t get personalized license plates and I don’t put bumper stickers or anything else that might stand out in any way that might, just conceivably might, be memorable; when I drive I automatically note the license plates of cars around me, just in case. In case of what, I don’t know; I did make enemies in the trade, and some of my former clients were never the most stable types to begin with (I still expect to pick up the paper one of these days and see one of them in particular being arrested or shot for opening fire at random in a crowded restaurant. Seriously). But I live hundreds of miles away from my old haunts, and it’s been almost a decade since I left that life behind. What have I done to myself?
I still can’t wear anything but jeans and T-shirts most of the time, no matter how counterproductive it might be, even though I can easily afford almost anything nowadays. . . but then I would be noticeable. Which isn’t much help when you’re trying to get a job or a date, though. I tell myself that it’s a screening mechanism, a matter of self-defense, and a test, too: if they can’t penetrate the façade, perceive its constructed and (presumably) artificial nature, then they fail – but so do I. How many people, how many opportunities did I forfeit because I have deliberately truncated, maimed, parts of my personality that might otherwise have flowered? Is this how those growing up under totalitarian regimes feel, taking refuge in the ordinary, the innocuous, hiding their essence, sacrificing their own uniqueness, the contributions that they and only they could possibly make, for the sake of safety, security? And yet, if they did so, they did so for eminently understandable reasons, to avoid risks that could be fatal or worse, while I did so for the sake of taking risks, and became lost to myself to such an extent that I can’t measure the loss any more, because I don’t know who that other person would be, the one who didn’t choose conformity out of apprehension or thrill-seeking or, perhaps, a combination of laziness and arrogance. But who could tell the difference now, and what would it be, what would that mean?
An ordinary criminal. It’s hard for me to label, to think of myself that way, hard for me to remember that my activities were crimes that, taken collectively, would ensure many, many years in prison. Like my own clients, I sometimes forget that, and refer to drugs in the most casual manner, and I’m invariably shocked when someone else is shocked, and then I remember again. Oh yes. Paying taxes (now), holding a reputable job, being a safe driver, crossing at the light, voting or just paying the bills on time isn’t enough; you have to do it all, obey all of the laws, to be lawful. And there are still those habits, the second nature Hamlet lectured to Gertrude about, though he exhorted her, attempted to interpellate her, into a life of virtue, to make her a good subject, not a bad one. Whereas the taint, the trace of my criminality lies in the very mundanity I haven’t been able to leave behind. I wonder if you or anyone else but me would notice it: the deliberate refusal, elimination or omission, editing and censorship of anything extraordinary in my life, an inability to state anything unequivocally, to give you the definite time of day or an identifiable itinerary; an inability to be anything but agreeable, acutely sensitive to the slightest tremor of undue attentiveness which provokes flight, disinformation, the effort to disappear without showing the effort. Perhaps I’m standing next to you right now, or sitting behind you on the subway, willing myself away or echoing you to the point that we become twins, dopplegangers, I the perfect mirror of you, self-effaced, occupying the vanishing point of your horizon, transparent to your gaze. Is this a moment of triumph, a moment of mastery, a priestly will-to-power, or does it signify the abdication of the self, a failure of being, an insidious, poisonous, ontological collapse, an irreversible spiraling down into a nothingness that is somehow not, I suspect, identical to Nirvana?
Editor’s Note: The author of this piece has requested anonymity.