The Laundromat

by

03/18/2023

Neighborhood: East Village

It was quite an operation. Lookouts on walkie-talkies patrolled the roofline, and a scout on a bike pedaled up and down the block, combing 7th Street between Avenues B and C.

A guy in a ski mask stood guard at an open window on one of the apartment building’s upper floors, ready to service the growing line on the sidewalk below.

We never knew from which floor or which window he’d appear, they were always mixing it up to avoid getting busted. It may not even have been the same person, but each night someone was there, looking out the window in the building in New York’s East Village, eyes peering out from holes in the dark-knit mask.

He’d lower a basket, the plastic kind used for hot dogs and cheap roadside fare, and a customer on the street would yell up an order. C or H, coke or heroin. It was a $10 bag, and after the client dropped in payment, the masked man would hoist up the basket, fill the order, and send it back down. Next.

This was in the 1990s a few years after the city rolled tanks down the streets of the East Village to clear the shanties from Tompkins Square Park. Gentrification was progressively marching south, the writing on the wall no longer drawing the line at 14th Street.

My husband and I had a foothold in both worlds though, slumming it in a rent-controlled hovel while rolling in salaries and having money to burn. We laughed at the “Die Yuppie Scum” graffiti on the trendy Two Boots pizza on Avenue A, and then lamented the vacancies usurping our beloved dumpy shops, pulled from the neighborhood like rotting teeth, soon to be replaced by the gleaming and artificial.

We didn’t know why the building was called the Laundromat. My husband and I would wonder, did they launder money? Was it to hype their clean product? Are they mocking the cycle of addiction? But every night, 7th Street was open for business. Customers who’d been around for years mingled with the fresher-faced newcomers who were thrilled at the easy availability of hard drugs.

At that point we weren’t trying to quit. My husband would say, “For $10 you’ll feel like you won the Nobel Prize.” It was still novel and exciting, but we relied on the Laundromat more than we acknowledged. Convenient, safe, one-stop shopping.

The first raid caused hardly a ripple. My husband was on the line when police closed off the block. They had everyone lie on the ground and then went person to person with a laptop, searching for faces they recognized. Concerned by the delay in his return, I asked a neighborhood kid if he had seen my husband. “He’s bueno,” he said and then perplexed, added, “Wait, that’s your HUSBAND husband? I thought he was your BOYFRIEND husband.” I hadn’t realized there was a distinction.

But the police prevailed and soon after shut the Laundromat down. We’d later learn that the mastermind of the Laundromat was Hector Santiago, and we were slightly disappointed to discover it was so-named simply because his mother owned an actual laundromat.

At the time, the late ‘90s, the Laundromat brought in $10,000 a night, earnings Hector would stealthily collect and bring back to his apartment across the street. A secret of his success was to continue paying any of his crew that got arrested, as long as they didn’t talk. And he was generous with his neighbors, helping with rent and utilities, and in some ways keeping the block safe. A veritable Robin of the Hood.

Like a scouring free radical, the closing of the Laundromat left demand on the hunt for supply. The vacuum led to sorties ever deeper into Alphabet City, where danger thickened exponentially from Avenues C to D. The dealers there sold “bag in a bag,” 10-packs of individual heroin bundles, stamped with names both humorous and ominous. “Body Bag” and the infamous ”Dirty Urine,” which ironically left me laid up with a kidney infection for a week. I remember the fatigue, the full-on night sweats, and also rising, Lazarus-like, to greet the outside world, eyes squinting in the bright sun. A bodega speaker blasted KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” and I paired my gait to the “do a little dance, make a little love,” grateful for my health and a clean slate. The tune played on, “I’ll meet you, same place, same time” and soon enough I was back in sync with the rhythms of a burgeoning habit.

I remember going loaded to a midnight Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the Village, just to see what this recovery thing was all about. I heard, “I want my crack I want my crack I want my crack. I WANT my crack. Crack. I want my crack.” On and on, a display of white-knuckled urgency of which I wanted no part.

Life in the East Village proved too much for me. When I returned a few years later with a toddler and a baby in tow, I was astonished to see my new life mirrored in Tompkins Square. Strollers, families, and upscale shops everywhere, along with a few of the familiar haunts from my dazed days.

According to the New York Post, Hector did his time — 10 years — and is now a trainer in a posh West Village gym. He thrives on helping and empowering people, which he perversely was also doing in his earlier life. He doesn’t want to focus on the past.

I spun out of control and into recovery where I have also done 10 years, and now work helping people in recovery. There were many years of wreckage in between, but I remember those early days fondly. Life is pretty simple when “Be all that you can be” just takes a stroll to 7th Street and a $10 bill.

***

Claire Viguerie is a sometimes writer who left New York and traded the fast lane for the carpool lane, but to whom the East Village will always feel like home.

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§ 3 Responses to “The Laundromat”

  • TSB says:

    Something thrilling about that landscape. It almost felt heroic to move through it, even if you weren’t buying drugs but just accompanying someone else on the errand. A false heroism, I guess. And obviously a disaster for all who got hooked. But such a sense of purpose and seedy glamour. Such drama. But the person this makes me nostalgic for is dead, and for just these reasons, drug related I mean. Hearing the “where are they now” was interesting. Hector unmasked.

  • who would think we’d be nostalgic for those years? but frankly i don’t know anyone who was around the East Village in the ’70s – early ’90s who isn’t.

    as Claire, above, implies, i didn’t feel unsafe. despite the potential for random danger. counterpoint to the danger was a neighborly network of protection. people who would walk you home; people who would warn you against bad drug deals and suggest that in fact, it might be time for you to be walked home.

    this is a beautifully written piece, Claire. thank you for the memories. good & bad.

  • Claire says:

    Thank you, Susan! I’m excited to read some of your stories on here.

§ Leave a Reply

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