You wouldn't pick Eric* out as the guy who controls the bar room cocaine business in one of London's most fashionable districts. Yes, he's got a gold tooth, he likes Gucci sportswear and he's got a nasty bite when it comes down to it, but his vibe is definitely more pub cat than pub Pitbull.
Having a drink with him earlier this year in one of his favourite pubs – a place with a bad reputation that appeared to have upped its game with the addition of some antiques – he looked relaxed and smiley, glancing at his phone and nodding a discreet hello to locals as they came in.
Eric, 39, is the nominated coke dealer for around 20 pubs and bars in the north London neighbourhood where he grew up with his dad Tony*, a Rasta who ran a sound system, his mother and his younger brother, Ian*.
He's been doing the pub and bar trade for more than a decade, and he's been a drug dealer for the last 25 years. Part of the fabric of the area in which he makes his living, for him and his sales crew – a team of five young women – selling drugs is more about pleasure than business.
Eric's career – during which he's moved from selling weed as a school kid in the 1990s, to ecstasy, crack cocaine and coke; from dealing with Yardies to Gen Xers with million pound homes – is also the story, viewed through the eyes of a drug dealer, of gentrification and the changing face of Britain's drug trade.
It's a brisk trade these days. Eric sells around 4.5 ounces (127 grams) of cocaine every week or two, which brings in thousands of pounds a week for the team. Coronavirus lockdown didn't slow business down; the team just shifted to deliveries. Nevertheless, it's a gentle hustle. Eric's got no cash-making targets. He's content with making enough to keep himself in the money, with cash needed to reload when he's sold out.
Eric's understanding with venues appears to be more symbiotic and friendly than the usual trope, whereby a criminal gang or local thug takes over a venue's drug trade with the use of threats and violence. So if not with threats, how did he get to running the coke trade in so many venues?
"I don't just walk into a bar and tell them, 'I'm selling the drugs from now,'" he explained. "There's no arrangement, it just happens. I have a few drinks, get to know the bar staff, maybe one or two do a bit of gear. I give them some coke – after that, I'm in."
Eric tells me he respects the staff and has made many good friends this way. How does he get round the managers and owners? "Staff end up telling the manager I'm a nice guy. I become friends with them, too. A lot of the managers do drugs. They know what I’m doing."
Even though many of the drinking holes he's been operating in have changed management or ownership, Eric has remained the unofficial Head of Coke for the same venues for many years. "When a new manager or owner comes in, I just refresh the friendship. I've seen a lot of people come and go. There's always one bar worker who stays, and they introduce me."
Eric and his team of sellers are given the silent nod to sell cocaine to customers. In return, he uses his considerable local clout to clear out any troublemakers.
"I make it known to them that I'm looking after the place. We need each other, and it always ends up working out. I always listen to them and am protective of them. Sometimes certain things happen that they can't deal with, and I deal with it. If people take the mickey in there, I always sort it out. I've got family, brothers and cousins – people who love me. I can make a phone call and people will come."
Kelly, a former manager of several bars in the borough, first came across Eric not long after starting up a venue in the neighbourhood in 2012.
"When I opened the bar, I was told [Eric] sort of ran the area and that I'd see him sooner rather than later," she said. "I remember when he did come in, he was a lot more relaxed and jokey then what I was expecting. He never told me what he did, other people told me.
"Once, I had some guys causing a ruckus in the bar. Eric was sitting at the end of the bar eating. A couple of minutes later, some big dudes came in and took the troublemakers out. I couldn't figure out what happened, until I watched the CCTV later. He had made a call, got the boys to take care of it. He was good like that. He's very watchful of the venues that respect him. Very generous. But also, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and I'd be utterly terrified to cross him."
Eric grew up in a tough area, in a council house on the edge of a large housing estate in what used to be one of London's poorest boroughs before it was regenerated. It was not unusual to take up drug selling as a career in his neighbourhood; Eric, his dad, his brother Ian and two of his three half-brothers ended up selling drugs.
He had a fairly wild upbringing. With the sound system, his dad was out a lot at parties and weddings, and his mum used to go out partying a lot too. "It was chaotic a lot of the time. My mum was seeing other geezers, and there were quite a few fights between them," he said. "We used to go to a lot of weddings with the sound system – there were lots of kids running around nicking all the alcoholic drinks. The adults used to let us do what we wanted. We used to smoke spliff roaches we picked up off the floor when we were aged around six or seven."
His dad hung around with gangsters and sold weed, and Eric was proud of him. "He used to be, and still, is my hero. He used to pick me up from school with all his jewellery on. All the other kids were like, 'Wow!' I always thought, 'I want to be like that!' He’s got cancer now, but he's still selling weed."
But his dad didn't want Eric to be like him, he wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor. "He wanted me to learn, he tried to teach me to read, but I was terrible at reading, I just couldn't do it. I just didn’t get learning. But the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and I just couldn’t keep myself out of trouble at school."
He was regularly in trouble with teachers, police and his parents for going on primary school corner shop raids to steal cans of Shandy Bass and big plastic containers of lemon bonbons and Rhubarb & Custards. His secondary school was mainly made up of cockney white kids and he got in a lot of fights with pupils who supported the National Front (NF). Eric said they eventually started liking him, telling him, "I don't like Black people, but I like you." He still sees them now, and says some of them ended up being gangsters with the infamous north London Adams crime family.
He loved football and did trials for Queen's Park Rangers FC aged 14. But he was still getting into trouble. Before the morning school bell rang, he used to meet up with a mate and have a can of Guinness and a spliff. He started taking and selling ecstasy, as well as weed, and was expelled by his head teacher after being arrested for GBH in an after school punch-up.
The next school he went to was almost all Black kids, and as the only Black cockney he was an outsider there too. But scrapping with racists had turned Eric into a handy fighter, and the more people he beat up, the more his reputation grew. "I would fight anyone. I wasn’t big, but I was really athletic and I had the balls to back it up. I loved to fight."
Eric's neighbourhood received regular visits from the local racist drug squad. "When I was 15 they used to come into our estate and terrorise us, roughing us up, stand us up against the wall. I used to get beaten up in police cells."
By this time, as well as dealing weed and Es, Eric was stealing boxes of disk drives from his school's IT department and selling them for £100 to computer shops. On work experience at a sports shop at 15 he was filling up dustbin bags with tracksuits and trainers and leaving them out the back for his friends to pick up. On his last day he went for the "motherlode", but got caught and fined £100. "Never give a Black kid a job in a sports shop," he laughs.
As he started drifting away from education, passing no exams, teenage Eric began to spend more time stealing, dealing and partying at raves such as Equinox and club nights at The Astoria. He was making money nicking clothes from Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, sometimes staying the night in the stores for a laugh. He was also snatching handbags from people in the street, an act he regrets as "horrible, I feel bad about that". At the same time that his dad was chastising him for flunking school and making him do retakes at college, Eric was buying weed and pills from people on the estate, including his dad and his dad's friends, and making good money selling them to college kids.
By 1997, when Eric was still in his teens, crack cocaine had become an established drug in the UK, not only on the street heroin-using scene, but among young Black clubbers. So Eric started selling it to them.
"All the white people were doing crack on the street at junkie level, but all the Black people were smoking crack at the raves, as a fashion kind of thing," said Eric. "In 1997 you were nobody if you weren't smoking crack at a rave! But it took away a lot of people, a lot got addicted. A lot died. They are either dead or on the streets, messed up."
Because crack is a high that users want to keep repeating, Eric was answering the phone round the clock. He smoked crack himself, but didn't get addicted. At the time, he lived at his mother's house, but also rented a flat next to the local police station, hoping to hide in plain sight. He got raided twice but they never found anything. His special hiding place was a hole behind a kitchen tile he could slip to the side and pop out.
As the crack trade became highly profitable, it began to get dark.
Eric was making around £2,000 clear profit selling about three ounces (85 grams) of crack a week, and hanging around with "serious people, older people who used to run the clubs". "I had people waiting for me in the street in big cars to buy it, all the gangsters, they all loved crack. But sometimes they lost the plot. They would come round my mum's, where I lived, to buy crack at 5AM."
A new breed of robbers started targeted crack dealers. One of Eric’s friends stole his stash from his mum's house. As well as robbing each other's stashes, they stabbed and shot their rivals. "It was hell, it was a horrible time," says Eric, who was buying his crack from Yardies.
The scariest crew was the Love Of Money gang. "They were big people, robbing everyone they knew for drugs. They had guns and chains and they were like a military operation, chasing us around our estate. They used whistles, like soldiers. I remember they had a big red [Toyota] Space Cruiser and used to drive up and just kidnap people."
It was around this time, at the turn of the millennium, that Eric became part of one of England's original "going country" crews – teams of inner city teenagers travelling to coastal and rural cities to sell crack and heroin to locals. He was selling in Brighton, Cardiff and Portsmouth when he was 18. "I was doing it before anyone was doing it. In those days, police didn't know about it. In fact, it was so easy, and so much money. We never had any competition, we couldn't believe what we stumbled on. The local drugs were terrible. In Brighton in the late-90s, everyone was taking [heroin and crack]."
After a pub fight in north London, in which Eric was smashed around the head with a hammer as he hit his opponent in the face with an ashtray, he decided it was time to stop selling crack. Instead, he dived headfirst into Britain's huge rave scene. It was pure hedonism, and he loved it. He bought cocaine and ecstasy from a less violent group of suppliers and sold them to loved-up customers. Instead of gangsters with guns it was clubs, girls and pills.
Selling drugs became a side issue. As 1999 turned into 2000, he was in Ibiza for a three week bender. "I was a raver. I'd go clubbing all over the country, all over Europe. I was sleeping with the best girls, I was rarely at home. I was making good money selling coke, pills and ketamine, but I never kept tabs, I was not a businessman. I basically lost my mind, I was too busy partying."
Oddly, it was during his time selling on the clubbing scene that he came closest to being killed. In 2002, as he was coming out of the Glass Works bar in Islington, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting, hit twice, in the leg and torso. He got help from staff at the local Sainsbury's, who bandaged him up before he took himself to hospital.
When he got tired of dancing and pills, Eric moved into the bar room powder cocaine scene of the mid-2000s. "It was a bit calmer, and I didn’t have to party and show off so much," he says. It was around this time that London was being transformed amid a blizzard of British indie, cocaine, money, and the gentrification of whole swathes of the capital.
Eric saw his clientele change, as rising house prices uprooted the poor and replaced them with a swarm of middle class graduate professionals with money to burn. Gentrification did not just result in a rash of independent coffee shops and gastro pubs, it transformed the population. "In the mid-2000s I used to sell to the chavs and Jeremy Kyle type people in the pubs. Then the pubs started to look different and my customers became successful people, posh people," remembers Eric.
Fortunately, amid the human upheaval and redevelopment, Eric's mother has managed to retain the family home. He drops in most days to make sure she's OK and has everything she needs.
In some ways, gentrification has been a positive thing for Eric's business, he says, helping to shape the way he works: "Before about 2008 I could not have had a team of five sexy girls selling cocaine to people in pubs and bars – they would have got robbed. Gentrification has moved out all the undesirables, the troublemakers and the bullies to Newham, and made it easier to sell drugs. It’s calmed things down. Now, it's safer for the girls and there's less police walking the streets."
He says, now he's older, he gets stopped by the police less than he used to.
The downside is that a lot of the new residents are annoying and potentially disloyal. "They give you a different sort of stress because they just think they are better than everybody," says Eric. "They can be really up themselves. They expect you to give them stuff for free because they're spoilt. If they get caught by police they're more likely to grass us up than the chavs. But at the same time, they got money, so it's a double-edged sword."
Gentrification has had less of a calming effect on the new generation of street criminals. Like many parts of London, the borough where Eric lives and works has seen a rise in tit-for-tat youth killings in the last few years. This generation's attitude to selling drugs is as blatant as their attitude to killing rival postcode gang members is nihilistic.
"They just stay out on the streets, selling in front of cameras – they don't give a shit," says Eric. "The police know who they are." But why are they killing each other? "The violence is all postcode now. I blame it on social media. People are too close to each other, there's no privacy, everyone's in each other's business. This causes too much of a traffic jam, too much conflict, hatred and jealousy over nothing. Something gets taken out of context all the time, so out of nothing, something can happen. The government calls it drug turf wars, but from what I can see there's more beefs over women than drugs."
During our meeting in the pub, Eric was joined by a couple of younger drug sellers. His reputation, contacts, friends and family span the area, and he has a good relationship among some – but not all – of the young up-and-coming dealers, including those going country to sell crack and heroin. "The young gangs here have respect for me, and that’s really important, because if they didn’t, they could try and take advantage. These youngsters will stab you in a second."
Recently, one younger man tried to stab him in a local pub: "It was a petty argument. He took out a knife, but I knocked him out before he could use it."
When trouble does come to one of Eric's venues, he says it’s easy to deal with: "To be honest, I don't mind other people selling drugs in a pub where I'm selling, although the managers don't like it. But if a group of people are being rowdy, I make a phone call and get them sorted out."
Has anyone tried to offer protection to managers of the pubs and bars Eric sells cocaine in? "People won't come to managers to offer protection, they will always come to me and challenge me, maybe because I'm known in the area. They are bullies, but they always lose."
A few months ago, a troublemaker barred from a pub frequented by Eric was outside trying to start fights. "He ushered me outside, and as soon as I went out the pub I was joined by security guards from another bar. He ran off, came back and showed me he had a gun. He was calling me 'uncle', saying, 'Come where there's no cameras, I'm going to shoot you.' Ever since then he’s been chased down."
The former bar owner, Kelly, told me Eric is protected by the fact he's part of the landscape.
"He has a real respect for the old guard in the area. He plays ball with all the Turkish and old Irish boys. He's part of the fabric of the area. Once or twice I heard people tried to come for his turf, but they never came back. Everything was always taken care of really quietly, and I never saw any violence. He plays it down a bit, but I think he's incredibly whip-smart, and he knows a lot about running a crew, even if it's an illegal one. In a different world that better served the lower classes he'd be CEO of a Fortune 500."
When Eric was younger, selling drugs was a way of life. It was what most of the people he was close to did, and for someone who was not academic, it offered an alternative education and a way to earn money. "It was only when I grew up that I began to trust my own mind, to pick out what made sense to me," he says. "I'm able to see through people – I think I have good psychology skills."
Maybe the strangest thing about Eric’s drug selling career is that he’s never been to prison, which for someone who's spent 25 years selling weed, crack, MDMA and coke is rare. He says the police in his area "know what I do" because they’ve raided his home a few times. The last time was 2015. They haven’t hassled him for years, "because I’m not involved in violence anymore, so I’m not a threat to society".
"They’ve never caught me with the stash. I’m too cautious for them. It’s all about attitude," he says. "To have it how I got it, it takes a lot of strategic power to know what moves to make, for the best outcome, without violence and without getting done by the police. It’s about keeping people’s respect for you and respecting others. That’s not something you can learn, it’s in you. It’s about not being greedy, you have to take a loss. You have to look at this game in the long run – this is why I don’t like to take short cuts. I always like to go the long way round, to make it safe for me and those I know."
What about the safety of the people he sells drugs to? Does he feel guilty he’s contributing to addiction and violence? "I don’t feel guilty because I don’t hurt people who use drugs. I don’t give to people who have problems, I don’t want to destroy people’s lives. I give to people who want to feel good and want to party. With people who have issues or serious addictions, I’d rather not deal with them, to be honest. I’ll end up probably blocking them."
Eric has survived two bullet wounds and a couple of stabbings, and has mourned close friends. His best friend died aged 22 after he was beaten to death by a drug gang in Ipswich in 2002. His cousin died in January of a blood clot on the brain, a week after being attacked outside his mother’s house. These are two examples among many.
Very few drug dealers are asked about how their job – the constant worry of being arrested by police, or attacked by a rival – impacts their mental health. "I've had great times. But when I go home and shut the door, it all comes back to me," says Eric. "I get so stressed out about certain moves that I did that were stupid and uncharacteristic. That’s the paranoia side, thinking about that one person who looked at me funny. I think really deeply about what people say and their body language."
I’m surprised when I find out that Eric goes to therapy. The reason he started getting help is his split from a long-term girlfriend four years ago. "I thought I was a man until she broke my heart. I was with her 11 years. When we split up, that’s when I lost it."
Reflecting on his career, would he recommend it? "It's a spontaneous job. Sometimes I’m rich, sometimes I’m poor. Sometimes it’s like one big party. But would I recommend it to anyone? No." He thinks the happiest person in his family is his younger brother Ian, who works at Asda, having switched from the most successful dealer in the family to a legal life after having children.
Eric isn’t the only person to regret their choice of career. Nor is he the only person to find it hard to change. But there has been something driving him. Looking back over the years, from selling weed and pills at school in the mid-90s to his cocaine residencies in 2020, what does Eric think this has been?
"Deep down, I think I just want to make people happy. I don’t care about myself, to be honest. I think this is why I’ve got away with it for so long, because all I want to do is make people happy. Even my enemies end up being my best friends. I love the feeling of confrontation – sometimes it's a release – but really, I respect everybody, and I just want to be loved like everybody else."
*Names have been changed to protect identities