“It had been a good three months, a long while; we felt that we had earned it,” says Amy (not her real name), a 25-year-old music-industry executive and occasional heroin user. Along with the friends she refers to as her “dope posse,” she recently beeped her dealer and found, to her dismay, that the number was out of service. Her friends were reduced to smoking hash. They were not pleased.
A few days later, they reconvened in Amy’s Alphabet City apartment with more numbers to try, but none of those panned out, either. “Heroin is not the kind of drug you can stockpile,” explains Amy, “and if you’re not a frequent flier …” She trails off. “Fucking Giuliani! You just can’t cop on the streets anymore. It’s just not there.”
Technically speaking, she’s right. Up and down the increasingly gentrified streets of the East Village, the street-corner drug dealers, empty-shelved (but very much in business) bodegas, and strung-out junkies that once qualified as local landmarks are almost nowhere to be found.
“In 1978, the neighborhood was a total drug zone,” says Democratic District Leader Armando Pérez, a lifelong Lower East Sider. “There were lines around the block waiting to get into shooting galleries – even Wall Street guys. Billions of dollars flowed in and out, and the cops did nothing.” By contrast, this year, according to the 9th Precinct, cops shut down 44 local stores and arrested 3,374 people on narcotics charges. And another 1,000 cops and $80 million are on the way.
But for all the police activity, the dope trade hasn’t actually gone away; it’s just not visible on the street. Instead of working the old direct-marketing tactics, dealers have switched almost entirely over to beepers, and started changing their numbers frequently to evade the cops. In some ways, the new system, safer for both buyers and sellers, has worked. But in one regard, it’s a disaster: The neighborhood’s light users, from first-time dilettantes to regular weekend “chippies,” seem pitifully unable to figure it out.
Judy McGuire, a self-described “heroin ethnographer” who’s currently involved in a major research project on junkie subculture, says it’s all just a matter of distribution. “Sure, the cops closed down Laundromat, they busted Bad Boy,” she says, ticking off two of the more established East Village dope spots. “But there’s absolutely no heroin shortage.” And a federally funded study indicates that the quality of the neighborhood’s heroin is unusually high. So while the dealers sit around waiting for the phone to ring, the local users and out-of-town narco-tourists are left dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix. Kate Halpern, who owns Kate’s Joint, a vegetarian restaurant on Avenue B, says that just a year and a half ago, junkies used her bathroom every day: “I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that they were using my bleach to sterilize their works.” Nowadays, she says, clueless buyers have gotten so desperate that they’ve started latching on to anyone who looks even slightly shady. “Just the other day, these five Japanese rave kids came in with this strung-out, toothless hippie. I finally had to kick them out.”
When Dimitri Vlahakis decided to build an upscale lounge bar where only recently there stood a drug-dealing deli, he learned that the building had a fortified room complete with a solid-steel door, as well as a number of devoted former customers. “People would approach me every day and ask if I was planning on opening ‘another bodega,’ and I didn’t get the impression that they were looking for a bag of potato chips,” he says.
Hard-core junkies are still getting by, of course; the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center reports no drop in the demand for clean syringes. “People who use heroin every day,” says McGuire, “can usually score.” But their frustrated neighbors have been forced to look elsewhere. Amy finally gave up on the neighborhood and hired a courier, at considerable expense, to travel to Harlem and back. “It turned out that my coke dealer could also get me dope,” she says. “I had no idea!”