I have a friend. For the purposes of this story, let’s call him Monte. When I was a kid there were lots of guys in the neighborhood named Monte. Now I don’t know anyone with that name.
From the time he was 13, just after his bar mitzvah when he first had a few bucks in his pocket, until he was well into his 40s, Monte liked to cop dope at Washington Square Park.
He started out, like a lot of the other crazy kids I knew, buying all kinds of drugs there—black beauties, Quaaludes, mushrooms, blotter, whatever. But mostly pot. As he got older, he straightened out and learned to steer clear of the nasty stuff. But this guy just loved buying pot in the Park. Even after he had left New York and moved down south, where it’s warm and the housing is cheap, Monte could be counted on to head over to Washington Square Park during the two or three times each year that he’d travel back to the city to see his mother.
For middle-aged Monte, who now lives in Florida, visiting mom was an occasion to score. Haggling with the Washington Square Park pot dealers summoned nostalgic feelings. Even when he stopped smoking dope entirely, Monte would wander to the Park to do business. I guess it made him feel like he was 16. While the city, especially the Lower East Side, had changed in ways unimaginable to him, at least some traditions of his youth still held true.
Occasionally, especially when I was younger, I would accompany Monte on his expeditions and unobtrusively read The Daily News on a park bench while he did his thing. Over the years, the negotiations seemed to get longer and longer. At some point, I began bringing both The New York Post and The Daily News to read while transactions were conducted. Once I read an entire Hemingway short story as Monte insisted again and again that the dealer put some more dope in the bag.
“Do you think I just got off the train from Westchester?” he’d ask his counterpart indignantly. “Is there anything in there? I can’t see anything in there,” he’d announce after looking long and hard at the marijuana filled plastic bag.” I told you I wanted a quarter and you're showing me a dime. There must be some mistake,” he’d say. “You know I’m from the neighborhood. Show some respect, please. I’m from the neighborhood.” Or after sniffing the bag for about 30 seconds, he’d declare “I can tell from the smell this isn’t your good stuff. Better put in some more.” And after the agitated dealer had grudgingly complied he would say, “You call that putting in some more? Man, don’t play with me. I can talk to the guy on the next bench and do better than this.”
On and on it would go like this. Before he left for Florida, Monte had such a reputation that drug dealers would actually scatter when they saw him. I have to believe that after 10 minutes of back and forth that many of those guys wished they were selling socks, scarves or old copies of Playboy on the street. Because hawking any of those things would have been far easier and probably provided a bigger profit margin than selling to Monte. In fact, an argument can be made that in his own way Monte was more effective in clearing the park of undesirables than the desultory efforts of the police.
The years passed and over time Monte became more of a Florida guy than a New York guy. The dealers changed every couple of years. They all stayed young. Monte got old. His hair turned white, and his belly hung over his belt. 25 years in Florida change you. The man lost some of his New York edge. It would break his heart if he heard me saying this, but it’s the truth.
Washington Square Park has been cleaned up for years now. The place is positively wholesome. Sure, you still got the chess players, acrobats and musicians. There will always be the Arch and those beautiful old townhouses along the north side of the Park. Washington Square ain’t Wichita, but it’s a lot less edgy than it used to be. These days Monte must satisfy himself with going to Chinatown and eating at the Peking Duck House or getting one of those monstrous pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s if he wants to feed his New York soul and summon the childhood ghosts.
But there was one final occasion not too long ago, when Monte was approaching the age of 50, that I accompanied him to the Park and he engaged in his old game. As I read the New York Times, Monte performed what he called the Jersey gambit.
After 10 minutes of increasingly heated haggling, Monte looked scornfully at the bag of marijuana that a jumpy teenage drug dealer had handed him. I can still remember their conversation like it was yesterday.
Monte: “Man, that’s a Jersey bag. Do I look like I’m from Jersey? Come on, man, put some more in there.”
Dealer: “Motherf--ker, I’m from Jersey. I’m from Jersey! What the f— are you talking about?
Monte: (long pause) You’re from Jersey? Then you know exactly what I mean. That’s a Jersey bag.”
Jacob Margolies is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York.