Lenny prefers his “mobbed up” connection, because with him, Lenny can run a tab, paying only 50 percent up front. Also, the product is delivered to Lenny’s apartment, allowing him to avoid walking the streets in possession of enough cocaine to put him in jail for 25 years. But sometimes things happen—turf wars, executions—that temporarily pinch the supply and increase the price, at which point Lenny takes a nerve-racking trip uptown, where the cocaine trade is split between the blacks of East Harlem and the Latinos of Washington Heights. According to a report by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Washington Heights is “the primary distribution center for retail and wholesale cocaine and heroin throughout the Northeast,” a fact that comes as no surprise to Lenny, who knows numerous blocks where half the crumbling buildings are fronts for bulk narcotics distribution. Each street has a boss, who employs women and children to do the work, so Lenny ends up buying two ounces of coke from “like a 20-year-old hoochie gangster bitch” who hides the product in her cleavage. “You give her a hug, cop a little feel, deal done,” Lenny explains. A white guy with a private-school diploma can easily become a piñata in this world, but Lenny knows how to behave. “You just have to show up with attitude,” he says. “Basically, you give them a look that says, If you don’t fuck with me this time, I’ll be back. Also, the first few times, I brought my gun. You know, just in case.”
At Tompkins Square Park, Lenny hops out of the cab. It’s well past midnight now, and the street is teeming with scraggly indie rockers, suburban pseudo-punks, and other kids giving new personalities a test run. Lenny hooks up two girls with rigorously straightened hair, then darts into a nearby bar, where he ducks into the bathroom with a graduate student, emerging $200 richer. On occasion, Lenny sells other drugs—pot and Ecstasy, mainly—but he has built his company around cocaine because it’s the most lucrative and, these days, the most in-demand. He could make substantially more selling larger quantities: moving into wholesale, supplying guys like him. But that would mean storing keys in his apartment, and Lenny rarely buys more than half a kilo at a time. He carries much less than that, so that if he’s arrested, his jail time would be minimal, likely just a few days. “It’s like this,” he says. “Whoever I deal with deals with a gang, someone who’s taking the risk of talking to the cartel. I pay a little bit more to stay disconnected from that.”
But staying disconnected from the syndicate level means being more connected to the spontaneous customer, an increasingly capricious contingent the later it gets. As Lenny walks out of the bar, his cell phone rings, beckoning him to a Nolita apartment, where a self-tanned, stiletto-heeled woman insists he kiss her new lapdog before she pays him for her three grams.
“Oh, come on!” she begs.
“I see the dog,” says Lenny. “Very cute. But I’m good.”
“Just a little peck! Don’t be a prude!”
“Sometimes I feel like a vulture, like if it wasn’t me selling it, half my customers wouldn’t be comfortable doing it. At the same time, I don’t create the demand, right? The product sells itself.”
Lenny rolls his eyes, obliging as she rummages through a drawer, searching for her money. The cash is buried under a stack of empty boxes of Lexapro, an antidepressant. Lenny walks out, shaking his head. “It gets mad lonely and depressing,” he says, ducking into a bar and ordering a beer. As he scans the crowd—kids his age, all huddled in groups, faces flushed, enjoying themselves—his melancholy turns bitter. “And here I am, a Friday night, running around like this. Do you see me with friends? No. Do you think I can have a serious girlfriend? Fuck no. How can I have a girl? They say I don’t commit, I don’t give back. Well, no shit. I’m too busy pretending to be nice to bitches like that, coke fiends I don’t even know.”
Lenny sighs, rubs his temples, orders another beer. Sometimes he can’t help but be disgusted by his customers, people living the heedless life he gave up when he “changed from being a consumer in that environment to being a provider for that lifestyle.” But Lenny is a consummate salesman, and to his customers he plays the role of cordial and crooked shrink, supplying all the hollow justifications that once kept his own fears at bay. When clients invite him to hang out, Lenny understands their motives: They need to convince themselves that he is merely a friend who happens to have drugs on him, not a dealer supporting an unhealthy habit. So Lenny chills, sips a beer. Sometimes customers insist he do a line with them, at which point Lenny, who no longer uses, “accidentally” blows out through the straw so the coke flies everywhere, and then laughs it off. Every morning, he wakes up to a dozen missed calls on the Nokia, all delivery requests made between four and six in the morning, all from a few jonesing clients. When he calls back, the customer always plays innocent: must’ve been a fluke of the phone, a mistake of some sort. And at least once a night, a client will hesitate at the last minute, coming down with a case of buyer’s remorse, at which point Lenny is forced to really turn it on. “I’ll sit back and reassure you,” he says. “Like, ‘Listen, I’m not going to criticize you for what you do. If you think you’ve done a lot, it’s nothing compared to what a lot of people do or what I’ve personally done in a week’s time. If you’re really stressed out from your girlfriend and you want to go out all night and have a good time—please, I understand where you’re coming from.’ ”