This is a story about crack, and everything that cracks underneath its weight. For the uninitiated, some exposition is warranted. The genre of the gonzo drug abuse romp has had its day, and neither is this a PSA. It is a true story about segregation, class and race, and a kind of cultural dissonance that is brought into light by the sharp white flame of the crack lighter.
Crack cocaine’s superlative reputation precedes it, so much so that it’s entered common English as a qualifier meaning basically “a stronger version of the thing being described.” And it’s been this way for at least one hundred years: a long, cracky road from the time Henry Ford described automobiles as “like a wheeled barrow on Cracke” to the viral crackings of another Ford, former Toronto mayor Rob. The invocation of the drug as an all-purpose intensifier even made its way across the pond. In Nick Park’s acclaimed claymation Wallace and Gromit, the titular Wallace commends Gromit’s culinary acumen: “cracking toast!” Clearly, he is employing a variation on the American idiom. The toast is remarkably powerful; it is like “toast on crack.”
Okay, some aspects of this cultural mini-history may be apocryphal. But then what truth is there out there about this drug, one reflexively and unreflectively maligned by virtually everyone not already hopelessly in its thrall?
Motifs of crack use, and crack users, seldom stray from a predictable caricature. “Crackheads”–almost always depicted as Black–have an almost sub-human standing in the pop cultural and American moral imaginary. They’re seen as hobbled vermin, wretched moles burrowed into some squalid den of iniquity, itching open sores and clamoring for their pipe. Their human agency has long been evicted with the cudgel of a cruel, hungry Urge.
Although other hard drugs can produce similarly desultory, fiendish lives (and just as rapidly), crack is the only one entirely detached from any sheen of glamor. Crack addiction is not the sort of self-destruction that can qualify its victims for the status of sexy nihilist. Crack has no Zoe Lund, no Lou Reed, no Burroughs, no Panic at Needle Park. In some sense, I suppose it’s good that this drug addiction is not leveraged into a seductive commodity. But why only crack? One has to wonder if it’s got something to do with the demographic of its users.
At any rate, what is clear is that, for those who fit themselves in the counter-cultural stylings of the drug adventurer, crack cocaine stands virtually alone as the implicit exception to psychonautical promiscuousness.
Against such a backdrop of unanimous scorn, I decided to try smoking crack cocaine. I felt a sort of affinity: not necessarily for crack users, but for the drug itself. Consider this: for those brave social castaways in the know, I am capable of producing elated states. Perhaps laughter, perhaps even sensual euphoria! But yet I am, in a staggering cosmic miscarriage of justice, considered by many to be hopelessly uncool. So I set off to court this crude chemical, confident I could carve out a comradely connection with castigated crack.
Of course, I didn’t know at the time that this was my intention. My motive for transgressing what seems to be the very last transgressable thing in this doomed society was not exactly scholarly. Outside a Baltimore bar during last call, I was introduced to a comely woman who enthusiastically volunteered her fondness for crack cocaine. Between her endearing and somewhat disquieting candor, and my well-documented lack of impulse control, I was sold.
My friend Austin, the girl and I piled into her little car and headed off for one of Baltimore’s many Dead Zones. No streetlights, no trash pickup, no grocery stores, no restaurants, no trees. Roads the texture and topography of swiss cheese unearthed from prehistoric caves. Danny Brown, rapping about his native Detroit, illustrates the mise en scene more elegantly than I could: “Where I live,” he reports, “it’s house, field, field. Abandoned house, field, field.”
Neglect doesn’t quite cover it. Neglect implies oversight, even indifference. These neighborhoods are like this by design, part of a system of segregation that flatters tourists and fattens developers while quarantining poor and working-class Black communities like open-air leprosy wards. A panoptic police surveillance system looms over most every street corner, its ominous blue glow offering the only lighting for blocks.
One thing these neighborhoods does have, however, is crack. Vials and vials of it, handed off at all hours, furtively palmed like love letters. The vials look like the little capsules containing those disappointing trinkets you get out of a gumball machine as a kid.
Austin was apprehensive when we parked the car. The girl was coolly playing classic rock radio and singing along, as though we were headed to the DMV and not a 24-hour crime scene. I was nervous too, but I felt I had to play it cool, that I had to try and match the devil-may-care flippancy of the crack-loving woman in the driver’s seat. To that end, I volunteered to accompany her to make the purchase. I was wearing something ridiculous, some thrift store ironism that made sense blocks ago, in a world permitted to have creature comforts and street lamps. I felt conscious of straightening my shoulders back, a psychosomatic gesture of macho preparedness for whatever might confront us in this seemingly hostile netherzone.
The crack dealers were very nice! The vibe was as though we were buying a sandwich at a Potbelly, instead of committing a felony in a neighborhood notorious for its murder rates. I don’t know why I expected anything different from the salespeople, except perhaps for the thing of “all of the ingrained lessons of pop culture, received wisdom, and formal education since childhood.”
The girl also managed, in some transaction I missed, to procure a crack pipe (a “rose”) along with an upsetting-looking hunk of aluminum to be used as a filter (a “Chore Boy,” literally a hunk of steel wool. (Really, it wasn’t much of a filter: it mainly functioned as a buffer to stop a flaming rock of cocaine from clinking down the windpipe.) Her ease in this criminal world was both exhilarating and unsettling. She was sweet and easy-going, yet it would not have been difficult to imagine her shooting Austin in the head on the drive home and cranking up “When the Levee Breaks” while he bled out.
The girl assembled in the crack paraphernalia with the serene confidence of a Japanese fisherman. She taught us how to smoke it: hold the pipe up at a 40 degree angle, ignite the rocks until the pipe gets hot, spin the pipe around for some reason, and hold in the smoke for as long as your lungs can tolerate.
Crack tastes like perfume made of petroleum. As soon as you exhale, a feeling of brightness comes over you. Not mental clarity, exactly. But the bright, mute calm of the lights over an empty stadium. It’s oddly sedative for a drug notorious for turning people into moth-eaten maniacs. It makes you stare at the ground inertly, but with wide eyes instead of the half-mast lids of opiates or Xanax. And before you really have much time to examine the effect, it’s in the past tense, and the most enduring feeling is that of impatiently waiting for the hot chemical tube to loop back to you. It is a considerably weaker sensation than powder cocaine. Good powder coke, in my experience, is like crack on crack.
Regardless, a few weeks later, Austin and I, drunk off our gourds, resolved to go back to the Dead Zone for some crack of our own. “This is our little thing,” we promised each other and ourselves. Secrecy and shame are natural complements to the crack experience. This is quite unlike its powder counterpart, about which cute humble-bragging is perfectly socially permissible regardless of the medically unsound volume of drugs one puts in one’s nose.
A handful of times, I revisited crack, and yet to my knowledge never transformed into a fetid zombie. Stil, I learned a bit about the anxious habits of crack users, the Sisyphean daily struggle to get a good hit of something that wasn’t deodorant or stepped-on meth.
But I never succumbed to it. Many people in Baltimore, however, have fallen prey to this nervous, vigilant virus. The insecurity and precarity forced upon people’s daily existence by a rapacious system of segregation makes it profoundly easier to fall into a life of addiction, for all sorts of intuitive and well-documented reasons. My class stature, though hardly impressive on paper, at the very least allows me to return to a safe home at night and insulates me from the grueling daily horror of life in the Bantustans of Baltimore.
And while we know the CIA—as is sometimes suggested—didn’t “intentionally” distribute the highly addictive and destructive substance among an urban Black community, we can safely infer that the secretive, intimate, hyper-individualized unrest that comes with the territory of crack addiction is vastly more amenable to the segregating power structure than that specter of organized unrest that lies in wait in Baltimore’s many shadows, alongside shattered roses and retired Chore Boys.