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The One-Man Drug Company

After prep school, he built a thriving business. Now he’s got to find a way to get out of it.

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(1.) The Connection
One of four phones Lenny uses for business; this one is for staying in touch with runners making deliveries. The phone numbers are prepaid, attached to no name.

(2.) The Money
About $25,000, a fraction of his savings. He nets an average of $5,000 a week and stores much of his money in a safe bolted to the floor of his apartment.

(3.) The Tools
A portable digital scale used for weighing small quantities of cocaine. For larger amounts—between 100 and 500 grams— he uses a triple-beam balance.

(4.) The Product
One ounce of cocaine, purchased for $800 in Washington Heights, bagged and ready to be sold for $2,500.

Every day he tells himself the same thing. You are doing nothing wrong. It plays through his mind on repeat, keeping his nerves in check. You have no reason to worry. Tonight, a Friday, he is walking down a cobblestone street in Soho, hands wedged in his leather jacket, his posture slump-shouldered, as if he’s curling in on himself. In his right-hand pocket, there is a plastic bag containing numerous smaller plastic bags—“tickets,” he calls them—filled with either a gram or gram and three quarters of cocaine. The smaller ones he calls “chiquitas.” They cost $60. The big ones, known simply as “big ones,” go for $100. He is heading to see a customer, a twiggy, doe-eyed woman who asked to meet outside an art gallery. He thumbs through the Baggies, able to gauge the weight with his fingertips, and secures her order in his fist, all the while humming along to the voice in his head.

You are doing nothing wrong—

This is deluded, he knows, but in his business, delusion is everything: both what you’re selling and how you sell it. His name is Lenny Starke, or at least that’s what we’ll call him here, and seven days a week he moves through the city like this: making pickups and deliveries, a sequence of handshakes and handoffs that earns him, tax-free, about $5,000 a week. This places him somewhere in the middle of the $92 billion worldwide cocaine industry, above petty street dealers, below the organized syndicates that are his main suppliers. Given Lenny’s upbringing—the socially ambitious parents, the airy Manhattan apartment, the uptown private school—dealing seems an odd career choice. But to him, it’s almost logical. His financial portfolio is impressive: $30,000 in a safe bolted to the floor of his apartment, another $25,000 in storage at a “wholesome” friend’s house, and a steady stream being invested and washed clean in the stock market. And when Lenny wants to spend a weekend on Shelter Island or comes down with a cold or just feels like staying inside and playing Grand Theft Auto—a video game in which the hero is a drug dealer—he has a rotating cast of employees who do the work for him. All this, and he is not yet 25. “I’m going to be financially set,” says Lenny. “I can skip a step. I’m able to pay for my apartment without having to work a crap job or having to ask Mommy and Daddy to send me rent checks every month—that, to me, is just as bad.”

It’s an absurdly warm night for March, still early, edging on 6:30, that hour when the tension of the workweek gets eclipsed by a restive desire to get a little lost. Lenny’s cell rings repeatedly. Per dealer protocol, the number is prepaid, attached to no name, untraceable. The phone is an old-school, beat-to-hell Nokia that he refuses to upgrade, Lenny being somewhat superstitious. “Probably it’s the warm weather, but I’m thinking tonight’s gonna be busy,” he says after taking a call, this one from a 21-year-old kid so “papered up”—Lenny’s term for those with enviable wealth—that his parents bought him an entire brownstone. “The kid is a spoiled brat, basically, who wants to pretend he’s all thugged out,” Lenny continues, seemingly unaware that the same could be said about him. “Anyway, those calls just now? That’s three more orders, and we only walked, what? Four blocks. It’s cool, but I was hoping to kick it, have a beer. I’ve been working since, like, noon, right? Went up to midtown for the day shift. That’s finance types mainly, guys in suits, some people in fashion. I meet them at their offices. Or on the street, real quick, boom-boom, you know? Or in banks, right in the lobby by the ATMs. Banks are my favorite. Nobody is thinking people are buying coke at a bank.”

Dealing has always appealed to Lenny’s two most dominant personality traits: an obsession with money and chronic impatience, characteristics that don’t exactly set him apart from his peers, kids who came of age during the hip-hop and Internet booms, two movements united by the philosophy that money is something to be made quickly, dubiously, and only in large amounts. “I was always the kid that wanted more,” is how Lenny puts it. “I never grew up with nothing, but I never had enough. If you gave me $20, I wanted $40. I like eating out, I like nice things. I can’t really function if I can’t get what I want. Ever since I was little, I would just go out and get, you know?”


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