Dealers I Have Known

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12/15/2019

Neighborhood: East Village, Lower East Side

I began using cannabis regularly in 1968, when I was about 14 years old, and since then have had innumerable encounters with dealers. The ones I will write about here are the dealers with whom I had long-term relationships. With cannabis becoming legal in so many places, there’s not much future left in the business for individuals who operated on the wrong side of the law. My contacts were generally mid-level dealers who sold ounces, nothing smaller, and usually not much more than that. Pot dealers tend to be talkative; they also tend to be weirdos. They usually like a little company. Or maybe that is their way of marketing, like a politician. Generally, I would spend about half an hour for a purchase, unless I announced on arrival that I was in a hurry. I’ll tell you about three of them in chronological order.

Russ

Russ is probably in his grave by now, or at least so old that it doesn’t matter if I give actual details of his life as I knew it. He lived in a fifth floor studio walk-up on Hester Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; his block was mostly an Italian one. I met him because I had been hanging out with some friends from high school in a loft on Laight Street that they were sharing in the early 70s, and I mentioned that I wanted to buy some pot. A guy who had grown up in the neighborhood, he didn’t attend our hippie boarding school but was going out with one of the girls who had, gave me Russ’ phone number. I called him the next day.

Russ asked me a few questions, like who gave me his phone number, but I passed the test and he told me to come by. He lived in an old white-brick tenement with four apartments on a floor. He opened the door immediately when I knocked. He was short, maybe 5 feet 5 inches, Neapolitan, with a receding hairline, the strands brushed back, and looked in pretty good shape. He had a twinkle of curiosity and flicker of suspicion in his eye, and a firm handshake. He asked a couple of questions about the loft where I’d met the guy who sent me to him. He knew the place because he had been supplying all the people living there with pot. Russ referred to them as rich kids and said I must be one too, but he was joking around and generally a cheery fellow.

Russ had the neighborhood accent—you can hear it in almost any New York mafia movie—but it had been softened somewhat by elocution lessons. He was an aspiring actor and, I would learn, had grown up with De Niro. Actually, he supplied pot to a good part of the New York movie industry. His acting ambitions were frustrated by the fact that he was too short and going bald. There is room for only one Danny DeVito, I guess. Sometimes he would bitch to me about his fate, but he never lost his sense of humor, even when he invested in very expensive hair plugs that didn’t work at all. I saw him through that whole ordeal, from conception of the idea to the failed surgery. It took maybe six months before he ended up with hardly-at-all visible scars. He did get some bit parts in the movies every once in a while though. He played elevator attendants, doormen, waiters.

About a year after I met him, Russ started going out with Bianca, a Jewish woman from Brooklyn who taught middle school in the Bronx. She was a Venetian-blond with long softly curling hair and a lightly freckled pale complexion. They were madly in love and wanted the world to know. When I called Russ, he would say, “Hey Rich, do me a favor, will ya? If Bianca’s here when you come over, ask me first thing if I’ve been taking any special vitamins, OK?” He did look good. They were both talkers, and were so in sync that they would finish each other’s sentences. It was impossible not to be completely charmed by their repartee, and the ways they praised and complimented each other. And, of course, she was as big a pot head as Russ was.

They got married, and it’s hard to imagine they ever would have separated. Eventually they had a baby and that studio tenement got a little tight. Someone in the movie business—they never told me who—started loaning them an apartment on the Upper East Side for long periods of time. It was a very classy place, in a doorman building, quite large and beautifully decorated. It was a pain for me to get up there, but I went anyway for the pleasure of spending a bit of time with them.

On a couple of occasions Russ and I played chess. I wasn’t very good, but his THC consumption generally meant that I could give him a run for his money. He loved playing, win or lose, and the board was always set up. Russ liked to tell me tales from the old days in Little Italy. He talked about how the kids from different neigborhoods would fight—Blacks against Jews against Italians; but also the kids from Naples against the kids from Palermo. He would have thought political correctness was bullshit. He never talked much about his connections, although one time he did tell me that most of the reefer on the Lower East Side was brought in by the Mafia working together with the Hells Angels, who famously had their headquarters on East 3rd Street. Russ got his kilos at cost.

And then one day, after nearly five years, Russ and Bianca just disappeared and I never saw them again. I hope they ended up in Hollywood with many children and grandchildren.

Denis

Denis would be waiting in the apartment. The first door on the left would be ajar, open just enough to verify it was me.

His phone rang all the time and people often passed though while I was there, unless it was before lunch, which I usually tried to make sure it was. I liked to catch Denis when he was on his second cup of coffee and before the parade of pot smoking customers arrived. 

Denis moved a lot of product. There was never any natural light in his place because he was on the first floor (it was one of those brownstone quarter-floors), and the windows were thoroughly barricaded. On entering the apartment, you stepped into a tiny hall—the small kitchen was on the right and the single room was straight ahead. There was a leather swinging-sex chair hanging from the ceiling, between the two darkened windows, over the fold-out couch where Denis slept. A couple of beat-up arm chairs filled the room. It was a kind of hippy museum, with various kinds of paraphernalia lying about and some posters on the walls. This was in 1980, or thereabouts, but it could have been 1968 in there.

It took me a couple of visits to notice that Denis had his entire East Village apartment booby-trapped. There were trip wires all over the place. At any moment, he could have set off one of the medieval crossbows that looked so decorative and sent a razor sharp arrow into my chest. I never felt comfortable sitting in his armchairs after I realized that. There were guns, martial arts weapons, and baseball bats tucked into nooks and crannies. I suppose it might have been possible to get away with ripping Denis off, but it sure wouldn’t have been easy. He put himself at risk though. Thousands of people passed through Denis’ lair. He kept his weed in 50-gallon plastic garbage cans. There were, give or take, usually four of them full with a couple of different kinds of reefer at any given time. Large amounts of cash, too.

The only difficult time I had with Denis was my fault. I was buying an ounce of Colombian gold for $250. Denis stopped the transaction to answer the phone, and I cleverly placed the five $50 bills around his kitchen, in plain sight, just on a whim, and then went to sit in one of the arm chairs. Denis appeared from the kitchen with bag of pot and looked at me expectantly. I said cool, and got up to take it and he said, “Where’s the money?” He wasn’t going to give me the reefer. He wanted to teach me that you don’t fool around with money in a drug deal; it’s not a game. He made me sweat for a good 10 minutes while he did transactions with a couple of other people, before he eventually gave me the bag and told me not to do it again.

More than once when I came to his apartment there was an unmarked white panel van parked in front, exactly the kind the cops used for surveillance. I asked him if it didn’t make him a little paranoid. He asked me if I didn’t think it was strange that there were cops around the corner in Tompkins Square Park giving people tickets because they didn’t pick up their dogs’ shit while he was hauling 15-kilo sacks of reefer down the street on his back. It was only then that I could appreciate how he had stayed in business so long, protected by the cops from the gangs and anyone else who might get ideas.

One day I called Denis up and asked if I could come over. He said sure, but that he couldn’t sell me any grass because he had retired. That was a surprise! He did retire, too, and moved out of New York. Before he left, I asked if he knew anyone who could help me out, and he said he sure did: his ex-wife, Joy, was in the same business. In fact, she was his main competition.

Joy

Joy lived on 9th Street, directly across the street from where Denis had lived. Same type of building, but she was on the third floor, so at least her place got some natural light. She was short and thin, around Denis’ age, probably 40, and had her brown hair permed in tight curls. Joy was the only female in my repertoire of pot dealers, and I knew under her feminine appearance lay some serious muscle, both physical and psychological. In any case she was always all business—get you in, make the sale, and get you out. I got a glimpse of the dark underside of Joy’s life just once, when I went by with my brother, not telling her before that he would be with me. My brother was 6 feet tall, broad shouldered, with long blond hair and a big beard. It was a chilly, drizzling day, around noon. I rang and she buzzed us in, and we headed up the slate stairs to the third floor. As usual, just as we got to the landing Joy opened her door. My brother was wearing a big, brown wool Mexican poncho and a cowboy hat, and when Joy saw him her face showed a primitive, electric fear. She was scared shitless and coiled like a snake and about to strike. I immediately understood my mistake in not announcing my brother’s presence, and realized from her point of view he could have anything under that poncho—like a sawed-off shotgun. I said in the lowest, calmest voice I could manage, “Joy, it’s cool, he’s my brother. He’s visiting.” She relaxed, but the tension was palpable, and I realized that she too, like Denis, probably had a gun for protection.

I’m not sure what eventually happened to Joy. If I had to guess, I’d say she followed Denis into retirement somewhere. I like to think of them living in a Mexican fishing village on their savings, across the street from each other.

***

Richard Dailey lives in Paris, France, where he is a writer, artist, and filmmaker. He outgrew his pot smoking ways many years ago.

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§ One Response to “Dealers I Have Known”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    really terrific story. i especially liked the first guy; of course he had a connection to DeNiro. everyone (slight exaggeration) i ever met who grew up in little Italy had a connection to DeNiro. i love that about NY. the other two lived in that part of the east village where if i took a walk in that neighborhood with a friend, guaranteed they’d have a story about someone they knew who lived in an apartment “right over there” with 5 pit bulls, or 3 wives, or insane arsenals…
    the good old days. i miss it.

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