When Troy Smokes started shooting hoops for Baltimore's Coppin State University in 1988, friends from his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, would cram into beat-up cars and drive to Maryland to watch. During his sophomore year, the caravan returned—this time in souped-up foreign cars. The crew ran around his campus with wads of money, chasing girls and a good time.
"We're hustling," Smokes recalls being told. "Cocaine... You'll never guess who's running the projects."
When Smokes came home to the Elm Haven housing projects, better known as "The Tribe," he saw a man called "Smash," his comic book–reading buddy from sixth grade, getting his hair braided on Dixwell Avenue, bodyguards all around.
Smash was the new boss on the block.
It'd been eight years since Smash was sucked into the foster care system and the friends separated, but the 20-year-old drug lord recognized his middle-school pal. Their friendship picked up not far from where it left off, but instead of comic books, the two began flipping through drug money. Like magic, Smash could turn $200 into $600. He'd buy motorcycles on a whim, and the two friends would go riding. For all Smokes could tell, there was nothing to it.
No wars, no worries. Just fun, easy money.
During the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, some young men of color seeking a way out of urban poverty got deep in the drug game. But while the occasional player saw their fortune skyrocket, many were shot down by competitors, arrested and incarcerated, or simply fell back into blighted neighborhoods.
For Smokes, the good times continued until one summer night in 1989, when he noticed Smash was weirdly jumpy. As they walked the block, two of Smash's enforcers came up to him. Smokes remembers them saying, "This [particular] guy is around the corner. Do you want us to go kill him?'"
"'Yea,'" replied Smash. "'If he's over there, go kill him.'"
Then Smash held out a gun to Smokes and said, "'Whether you're with me or not, they're going to come for you.'"
"In some ways, New Haven's story is like the story of many cities in the 70s and 80s," says Michael Sierra-Arevalo, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Yale University in New Haven whose work focuses on gangs and urban violence. "You throw pervasive unemployment and economic deprivation on top of the persistent racial and geographic disparities... and you have what amounts to a tinder box of social ills. Crack was the match."
The resulting explosion of the crack-cocaine market hit many New Haven residents with addictions they couldn't afford, while landing others positions of extravagant power. Ambitious young men like Smash jockeyed for control of lucrative sales turf that, once obtained, was defended by force of arms.
Another trafficker from the era, Teddy Thompson, recalls how when New York street dealers began trying to move in on New Haven's market, the local crews bared their teeth. "They were getting shot and killed, put in body bags and being sent back to New York," he tells me.
On the summer night that Smokes was offered the gun, a Jamaican crew was trying to take control of the Tribe, he says. Smash fought back and, after a week of bloody struggle, the Jamaicans relented. Smash kept his hold on the Tribe, only to be hit a year later with two homicide charges. "One he did," Smokes says, "and one he didn't."
But even after seeing his friend and mentor go down, he was unfazed. "Money is a drug itself," he insists. And he was hooked.
The 20-year-old dropped out of college and began trafficking cocaine in bulk out of New York and into New Haven and Baltimore. Profits came fast, and over the years, so did a small fleet of roadrunners, he says: the Infiniti Q45, the Nissan 300ZX, a Sterling, a couple of Mercedes, and few Japanese motorcycles. Smokes also bought two CD shops, a clothing store, a barber shop, and a rim shop, each of which brought in legal profits, he claims.
But the real money was under the table.
Smokes recalls how a nine- or 12-year-old kid working as a lookout for a street dealer could bring home $500 a week. A dealer's runner could make double that. And on a single good day, dealers themselves could rake in north of $25,000 before lunch. Smokes was even higher on the food chain, dealing exclusively in weight (that is, bulk trafficking).
According to Assistant Police Chief Achilles "Archie" Generoso of the New Haven Police Department, the majority of these profits weren't coming from the wallets of inner-city addicts but funneled in from Connecticut's suburbs, some of the wealthiest in the country. White buyers came into New Haven on the I-91 and I-95 highways to pick up bundles of the powdered party drug to resell in suburban bars over the weekend. Their money filtered up through the hierarchy of street dealers, lieutenants, and captains, pooling in the pockets of linchpins who held open the coke faucets flooding the city's projects.
As a trafficker in both New Haven and Baltimore, Smokes was loaded. But for all his money and sports cars, there was no chance for escape. After a decade of trafficking, he had become an essential node in the distribution network run by a Baltimore street "family" whose name he couldn't (and still won't) divulge. Knowing too much to simply tip his hat and ride into the sunset, Smokes insists he had only two ways out: either in the back of a police cruiser, or a hearse.
In 1998, Smokes got the cruiser. Charged with conspiracy to distribute, his attorney made a deal with the prosecutor that got him five years, of which he served two and a half, he explains. While inside, he read Visions for Black Men by Na'im Akbar, along with Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall, and spoke with Black Muslims who urged him not to return to his former life. When he was released, Smokes was taunted for "falling off"—quitting the drug game—but swallowed his pride, earned a degree from Quinnipiac University, and rose to be a director of logistics at ICON International, Inc., a finance company in Stamford, Connecticut.
Today, New Haven's drug game is both less profitable and at least somewhat less violent, but the city's streets are no fairytale. Guns are routinely drawn over real or imagined affronts, and a single instance of violence can still erupt into a retaliatory chain of killings. While the FBI and NHPD busted up the city's most aggressive crews, the vacuum was filled with younger, more fragmented ones. Some of these claim allegiance to Bloods, Crips, Pirus, or Brims, though sometimes they have little if any connection to those gangs, according to Sierra-Arevalo.
The Elm Haven housing project in which Smokes grew up has since been torn down, and in its place stands a neighborhood of mixed-income townhouses where the distant wail of police sirens is easily drowned out by the din of wind chimes. Much of the Tribe's residents has dispersed across New Haven. Many of those who, like Smokes, chose the rougher path either lost their lives or, like Smash are locked up in prison and therefore invisible.
"We lost out on a generation of brilliant men," Smokes says. But he's trying to save a few from the next.
A biker, Smokes founded M-pire MC, a charitable motorcycle club, which recently gave 15 local high school girls in New Haven tickets to see Rihanna in concert. For the boys, the group raffled off a March Madness themed paraphernalia including a pair of Nike Jordans. "When you spend years doing negative things," Smokes says, "you've got to balance that out."
By way of his own children, Smokes hopes to further even the balance.
"You watch The Godfather enough times, [you understand] what Vito wanted more than anything was for his kids not to have to live the life that he led," he says. His youngest son is now in private school, his oldest is about to finish college. He tells them not to feel as if they're missing out on the action of the streets. "A lot of it is bullshit," Smokes now says of that life.
"When you don't have to see the inside of a jail cell or the other side of a gun," Smokes says, that "is where life really begins."
Daniel Shkolnik is an associate editor at the Daily Nutmeg in New Haven, Connecticut.