“It was almost like a hobby at first,” says Lenny. “I remember when I got my first ounce, breaking it up, how it was like a little celebration.” Moving from buyer to seller proved surprisingly easy: Just tell the guy selling you that dime bag that you’re looking to buy in larger quantities; he’d rather sell an ounce all at once than move it one gram at a time. From the beginning, Lenny displayed a knack for business. He went down to Chinatown and purchased hundreds of tiny clear-plastic cubes: blue for boys, pink for girls, his first foray into elementary branding principles. He had a stationery company print up 1,000 business cards—the word juice surrounded by palm trees, his pager number in the bottom right corner. But his greatest innovation was his distribution method: “I made somebody else sell it for me. I got the stereotypes, one of the only black kids, so nobody knew it was me.”
Then, just as the business was running smoothly, something unexpected happened: High school came to an end. As Lenny watched his friends get accepted to places like Wesleyan and Yale and Skidmore, his mailbox filled with rejection letters. He ended up at a college never once mentioned by his school’s guidance counselor, which only reinforced the notion that his talents lay elsewhere. So he expanded his services to include Ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, Special K. In a shift so subtle he didn’t even notice it at the time, Lenny went from being a fake thug to a kid who resembled the real thing. “I’m upper middle class,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with a gun in my house, but I fell in love with that gangster shit.” He looked sharp in a fur-trimmed hoodie. His velour track pants were Sean John. He walked with a no-bullshit swagger. When a heavily tattooed kid conned him out of 100 pills of Ecstasy, Lenny sought retribution: He set up a fake deal and hired an associate to press a pistol into the guy’s ribs as they drove around Queens. “Come on, man! Please! I don’t wanna die in these streets!” he screamed as Lenny, sitting in the backseat, looked on impassively.
It was only a matter of time before one of his friends—an increasingly shady lot of outer-borough roughnecks, none of them connected to his private-school past—introduced Lenny to the cocaine trade. “One day, he pulls me aside,” Lenny recalls, “and he’s like, ‘You’ve got to check this out.’ It was a fucking manila envelope full of cocaine. Pure, powdery. No rocks, nothing. He was like, ‘I got this girl in South America, she sends it to me.’ You wouldn’t believe how many of these fucking letters come through. You can put an ounce of cocaine in there”—28 grams, about $2,500 on the street—“and by the time it gets here, it’s like a thin piece of paper.” Lenny had tried coke once before but didn’t understand the fuss people made over a substance that, to his mind, made you nervous for fifteen minutes, a fiend for two hours, then depressed for an entire day. “But I’m like, Fuck it. I did a line, and it was amazing. I traded 60 pills of Ecstasy for 20 grams. I split it up into little Baggies, then I ended up sniffing all my profits away. But I sold a little bit of it and kept in touch with the guy, and from there . . . ” Lenny lingers on the memory for a moment. “Well, I was serious about it.”
“I meet them at their offices. Or on the street, real quick, boom-boom. Or in banks, right in the lobby by the ATMs. Banks are my favorite. Nobody is thinkng people are buying coke at a bank.”
He was 21, barely going to class, hooked up with an anonymous South American distributor, and selling coke to friends, friends of friends, and people he didn’t recognize who swore they were friends. Somewhat unwittingly, he was building a network that tapped into an underserved demographic: white kids in their twenties who were curious about coke but didn’t have a reliable source. These were customers born in the mid-eighties—too young to have vivid recollections of the crack epidemic. By the time they were entering the prime years of postadolescent experimentation, cocaine had been socially declassified as a scourge, doing a line no more frowned upon than puffing on a joint. “Now everyone’s into coke, talking about it openly, laughing about it,” says Lenny, echoing a 2005 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center, which noted that the perceived risk associated with powder cocaine has steadily declined, especially among the young, since the early nineties. “Do you listen to hip-hop?” Lenny asks. “Suddenly, every rapper’s talking about coke.” He mentions Cam’ron, the platinum-selling Harlem artist:What you want, coke or piff? / I got it all smoke or sniff . . . Bird’s-eye view / The birds I knew / Flip birds / Bird gang / It was birds I flew . . .