The Quarter Hustle - Riding Along with a New Orleans Dope Man
Trading baggies for po' boys in the Big Easy.
C.J tares his pocket scales: 0.000. He then tests the accuracy by weighing a coin. Small, tight bags of powder are scattered between fat cuts of white and brown spread out over the chipped laminate.
A Gideon’s Bible watches over the scene but is never moved. For days, the bedside table is host to both the Word of God and the preparations of a drug dealer. It’s not that he isn’t religious; far from it. His Baptist upbringing carved a fear of God in his heart and mind forever. How he reconciles this with his current occupation is a mystery. “Don’t do lines on the Bible,” C.J tells an overzealous customer using the only flat surface available. “That’s just plain disrespectful.”
C.J has set up base in a hotel three blocks from N. Rampart St, fringing Treme and the French Quarter. It’s the kind of place that does by the hour (if agreed to by the lady behind the iron bars on front desk). The whole place smells strongly of bleach.
Inside the grim hotel room, a battered air conditioner whirrs loudly. C.J’s voice booms over the noise as he takes calls from two phones often ringing at the same time. He talks fast and loud, dealing X, meth, Oxys, Xanax. But his real gig is as a dope-man, playing a role in the city’s twin-engine drug economy of heroin and cocaine. “Hallo… whatcho need? Talk numbers, talk numbers… aiight, I gotcho.”
It’s 4pm and the streets are open for business—or just waking up. Strippers and hookers all over the city rise to their illness and their drug dealer is the first person on their mind. If they can’t score, they’ll be sick and unable to work that night. Girls from all over the U.S come to work in the New Orleans adult industry. Some come hooked, others get hooked. C.J says the dancers prefer heroin, “It makes them feel like sex on a goddamn pole! They be gettin’ up there dancin’ all hot and heavy, sweat dripping off their ass… they be dancin’ better for the sake of their drug!”
Many of C.J’s competitors juggle low paying jobs as well as selling drugs, but C.J chooses not to. Instead he spends every waking hour, in some shape or form, drug dealing. Despite his full time commitment, he’s still a minor player. By morning, he’ll be a few hundred up—if he’s lucky.
Every night in the game is like an average person’s big night out, so he takes some losses. Losses as in literally loosing things; a cell phone, a wallet, an 8-ball, a hundred dollar bill… Then there’s the expense of sitting around whichever one of the Quarter’s fifteen strip clubs he has pass that night; the drinks, the tips, the payoffs to management. It all adds up.
The strippers are his target customers, so he justifies the expense, “you gotta spend money to make money”. He also justifies using cocaine on the job, “I did the math. In one day, I’d spend more on food than coke at cost price. I usually eat like five times a day, so I be on this white fuel ya dig?”
Sometimes C.J uses drugs to buy food. In New Orleans, a baggie can be traded for the most surprising things. A round of shrimp Po’ boys with fries, delivered to the front door for ten milligrams of heroin. Tomorrow’s trade might be for a bar tab, a hotel room, a cab ride home.
The black market currency works based on one thing—nearly everyone being up for it. New Orleans has a service-based economy. The hospitality industry provides up to 77,300 jobs in what is a 24-hour city. It’s not hard to tempt the tens of thousands serving intoxicated tourists in NOLA’s bars, hotels and restaurants into a little hedonism for themselves.
Most French Quarter bars, especially the small dives a few blocks off Bourbon Street, have resident faces. A bar will be home to a number of men who can be found there most nights of the week. They won’t buy many drinks but they will spend most of their time disappearing between the street and the restroom, taking calls, texting and running up to driver’s side windows. These bars are the ‘corners’ of New Orleans.
In some cases, the bar owners are respected business people. Why do they let drug-dealing go on in their full knowledge? Is it fear? Convention? Protection? Is it good for business?
A straight-laced geologist, newly retired from the Gulf, purchased a French Quarter bar with a reputation and didn’t move on the drug dealers. One of his barmen offers an explanation, “The boss says as long as they don’t do it inside, he doesn’t care, but really there’s nothing he can do. These guys have been here for a long time.”
But a veteran of the French Quarter hustle provides a more ambiguous answer, “you never know what needs the owners have, you just never, never know…”
The traditional underworld power structures that took hold of most American cities did not pass by New Orleans. Sicilian and African Americans were once outcast from the city together. As to who was less welcome up for debate. New Orleans crime families such as the Mantrangas and the Provenzanos, names like Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos Marcello, have been immortalised in American mobster history. But as ethnic stereotypes have become less applicable in all facets of life, the shady side of New Orleans is now as diverse as the city itself. But even today, Italian Americans with mafia undertones hold French Quarter kingpin status, owning multiple strip clubs, bars, restaurants and drug import contracts.
One of C.J’s acquaintances, an African American known as Fat Bill, born and raised in the notorious Iberville projects next to the French Quarter, lives out the typical underworld relationship between blacks and Italians in New Orleans. An establishment Sicilian heritage boss employs Fat Bill. By day, he works in a donut shop owned by the boss. At night, he sells drugs bought from the boss at a French Quarter bar owned by the boss, mostly to strippers who’ve come from a nearby strip club—also owned by the boss.
C.J returns to the room and snap locks the door. He fumbles for the scales mistakenly left behind in his jeans scrunched up in the corner of the floor. He sets the scales up on the bedside table and places a golf ball sized plastic wrapped package on top. He sits spread legged on the bed-edge, a hand clenching each knee as he waits for the reading… A few seconds pass, then: “that son of a bitch!” As C.J suspected, his coke man sold him an underweight deal.
He calls the seller immediately, who at that point, is sitting in a strip club, “Frank! Yeah… It’s under, yeah… with beaucoup wrapper on it too. I’m coming back right now.”
Because C.J’s at the bottom of the drug-dealing game, he has to score every day—just like an addict… And the closer a dealer is to the street, the more risk they have.
On the return walk to Bourbon Street, someone who looks like C.J—a tall, young, broad-shouldered black male wearing a baggy white tee, loose jeans, engaging in cell phone activity and walking with an air of industry—could be stopped several times. It might be a bold tourist wanting to get high; it could be the ever-threatening police. Such a stop would send him straight to Orleans Parish Prison. C.J has been there on five separate occasions, all for drugs.
In an average month, New Orleans Police Department will search 1495 vehicles and make 100 narcotics cases. The high chance of being caught doesn’t deter C.J. He’s driven by a refusal to surrender to his real life options. An unskilled former felon with a long list of priors, in a city with high unemployment, in a country trying to claw its way out of recession—C.J cannot bear his outlook. Instead, pride sends him back to the street time and time again.
I spent one week following C.J to get an insight to the French Quarter outside of the Disney-fication, the beads and T-shirts, the Margaretvilles and the fat mid-western men on conference. I wanted to learn the quarter hustle. And one week was enough. Not long after that week I called his cell phones (all three of them). Two were disabled and a kid answered the third saying he bought it for $40 at some housing project in Metairie.
C.J’s world was so erratic; I expected he would vanish and that would be normal. I didn’t think I’d hear from him again. Then, a month later, he called me via a contraband phone, locked up in prison. He had memorised my phone number, along with everyone else’s who might be of some financial or logistical help in a “I’m in jail situation”, something he’d learnt from his previous five or so incarcerations.
He was arrested outside Harrah’s Casino, a busy meeting spot on Canal Street, with a garbage bag full of clothes and pockets full of heroin. The garbage bag is what C.J had been living out of for the last few weeks—from cheap hotel to crack house. He was climbing into the back seat of a red pick-up with two white guys in the front when the police swooped.
C.J will wait his turn among the long list of felony cases backlogging the city’s criminal court. Meanwhile, French Quarter life ticks over, swirling, seething inside its drug fueled matrix of flesh, money, power, winners and losers, lives ruined—some in slow motion, others explosively, and others repeatedly.
Follow Ali on Twitter: @voyeursista2013
More from the Big Easy: