I was in a cab yesterday, and my driver pointed out a drug arrest happening across the street in the Jersey City Heights.  He was more interested in the bust than I was.  “There, see?” he asked.  “Three guys in handcuffs.  Seven cops and three unmarked cars pinning in the white car.  That was an undercover horse bust.  Big one.  You won’t see those guys on the street again.”


“Horse?” I asked.

“Heroin.  Not that I know anything about it.  I’m just guessing.”

Then we stopped at a red light and a New Jersey Department of Corrections white van pulled up beside us and the woman behind the wheel honked at us.

My driver rolled down his window and gave her a thumbs up.  She shouted over the traffic if he “was being good?” and he yelled back, laughing, “what else!”  The light changed and she was gone.

My driver told me he knows all the cops and corrections workers because, he admitted, he used to deal heroin in The Heights and he got to know them all through his prison work programs.  He spent a lot of time in state and county jail.  He used to live a few blocks away from me.

He told me he gave up that life to save his son.  He moved out of Jersey City and into a smaller town.  He’s lucky he has a hack license.  It cost him $3,000.00USD to buy the right to drive for anyone in the city.  He saved up the license fee working prison and halfway house jobs.  Since he never had a drug charge — he did time for fighting and petty theft — the state didn’t take his driver license.  He drives 12 hours a day, from 5am to 5pm and then, when he gets home, he’s so tired he goes straight to bed.

We turned a corner.

I asked him why he was attracted to the drug life.  He told me the money was good.  The women were better.  He got tired of doing time.  He burned out on always looking over his shoulder.

“One bag, one shot, of heroin today, and you’re doing a three year drop!” he yelled at me over his shoulder. “The city don’t take it anymore.  They don’t want dealers on the streets.  They cracked down and put all the big time dealers in jail for a long time.  See that corner right there?  That was a big buy corner.  Did you know that?”

I shook my head.  “I didn’t notice.  Probably because I wasn’t looking for it.”  I answered.

“Yeah, prolly.”  He said. 

We turned another corner and I pointed up the street to a brand new, luxury, apartment building that has been entirely stripped and rebuilt over the last two years.  A fire nearly burned it to the ground six years ago.

“You see that building?” I asked. “Rumor on the street is it was set afire by neighborhood vigilantes trying to get rid of the drug dealing.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Jimmy used to live there.  He was only a one man Op, though.  He was a big dealer, but I didn’t think he made much noise.”

“So is the Heights better or worse now than when you lived here?”

“Oh, it’s better,” he said. “All the big dealers are locked up and they ain’t gettin’ out.  Now you have the punks.  Small time heroin punks.  Here.  There.  Every city has ’em.  But the machine, the drug machine, the city shut it down.  It’s gone.  Three years a bag is bad for business if you’re any kind of baller.  You always have at least 10 bags on you, so that’s a 30 year grind straight up.  A life ender.”

I paid my fare and left the cab.  “Thanks for the education,” I shouted, from the curb.  “You taught me how to read the street.”

He laughed and yelled back, “What else?”  He shot me a thumbs up and drove away.

16 Comments

  1. It was an amazing conversation, Katha, and it wasn’t a part of the world I know or really want to know but now I’m grateful for knowing. The driver said he wanted to ultimately become a counselor to try to help other people from making the mistakes that wasted so much of his life. He’d be good at that job, too. He had a dynamic personality!

  2. Fine point taken, Katha. Sometimes you see things without realizing meaning — and I guess that’s what’s been going on here with me. You see strange activity and then you rationalize it away as something innocuous or non-dangerous. Or, perhaps your convince yourself you never really saw anything.

  3. Hi David,
    If I was in your place I would have been surely hesitated to start communicating on such a difficult topic.
    I am glad you talked, that’s how we got to read the experience!
    It’s you who taught us – there is nothing called coincidence!

  4. What an amazing moment – I love encounters like this where I learn something – especially when I didn’t know I needed to learn it.
    Thank you for sharing and passing the education on.

  5. Great article, David! Thank you for sharing this with us!
    He sounds like a wonderful person and it’s a great feeling to meet somebody like that every once in a while.

  6. I really didn’t want to have the conversation either, Katha — especially after he lied about not knowing anything about heroin — but he had a good personality and when I asked him why he got into the drug life he was honest with me and I appreciated that openness. Then I just sat back and let him riff on the lessons of his life. It was an engaging conversation.

  7. When he couldn’t take his eyes off the bust, Nicola, I knew something strange was going on because you sort of see that type of police action every day around here and you just let it to as part of the landscape — but he was really trying to figure out all the details and his engrossment with them became my engrossment with him. I did learn a lot about doing time in the drug trade, though, and I certainly wouldn’t want any part of it, either!

  8. You’re right that he was a special person, Dananjay, as we’ve argued here before —
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2007/09/17/oj-simpson-and-the-genius-criminal-mind/
    — the criminal mind is a sort of broken, genius, intellect and tapping that brain power and setting it to do good is important for us to discover.
    I think the best job for him would be as a parole officer. He knows all the b.s. and he knows the system and its people and he could “work it” on the right side of the law and really do good in helping to crush the rotting side.

  9. I certainly agree, Dananjay, and he knows a lot of the law enforcement people in Jersey City already because he used to clean their buildings and serve them food as part of his work programs.
    One thing he told me that I didn’t include in the article is that if you ever have to do time — county, state or federal prison — get into a job program if you can. Not all offenders are eligible, but having a job keeps you clean, it gives you something to do and it keeps you out of trouble instead of standing around bored all day.

  10. That’s right, David. It’s important to stay productive. Also, I understand that prison is also a good place to learn new trades and skills that’ll hel them start their new lives once they are out.

  11. Prison is a strange place, Dananjay. If I were running the joint, I’d require prisoners to either be working or they’d be locked down. There would be no yard time. No free time to mingle and cause trouble. They’re there to be reformed, not to hang around all day doing nothing productive.