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Over the course of three months The Dependent earned the trust of a small group of drug dealers operating in the Downtown Eastside. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the alleys and on the corners, we conducted interviews with those involved and observed the Hastings drug trade from the unique perspective of the street.
Third in a four part series on drug dealing in the Downtown Eastside.
Why the fuck do you want to write about this piece of shit, anyway? Threads demands. This place is fucking gay.
He begins pacing, muttering something about his worker taking off.
These people are like fucking ghosts, he says. They’re right there, then you turn around and they’re gone, bro.
Gonna start stabbing people, he declares, fire in his eyes. And not that pussy three inch blade either — the fucking seven inch’er. Get right in there.
Do you carry a knife? I ask him, not sure if he’s serious.
No, but I’ll grab one from one of the workers and get busy, bro.
A week earlier a young woman by the name of Ashley Machiskinic fell to her death from a fifth-storey window. Community leaders are adamant that she was killed over drug debts. Standing on the corner I hear a lot about money owed. The talk isn’t of dope-sick addicts running tabs $10 too high — addicts don’t get tabs — it’s about those with sufficient credit to get themselves into real trouble: the workers, holders, and dealers.
Threads is near the bottom of the chain. He fronts borrowed drugs to addicts who then sell it and pay him back, smoking or pocketing a small profit for their trouble.
It’s a world of deep credit but shallow trust; and while the workers insulate the dealers from the law, the problem with giving $100 worth of crack to a crack head and telling him to go sell it should be obvious to anyone…
I ask a young woman — the only female dealer I’ve met — how she handles the problem.
It’s all about who you pick, she says, referring to worker selection. If you pick a crack head, they’re always going to lose a lot of it. Oh, you lost it? Yeah, right. How do you lose a gram of crack? You lost it in your pipe, that’s where. It’s better to get alcoholics, because there’s no temptation and you just pay them in booze.
Borrowing drugs $1,300 at a time, the junior dealers are gambling with every half-ball they distribute; every worker that “takes off” pushes them $100 further from settling their own debts. There are no courts to mediate, no cops to call, and the obligations are heavy.
At the Latino corner I approach an icy dealer and his crew, who have been slow to warm to me:
If they’re addicts, and you’ve got them handling all this money and drugs, do you think they’re ever tempted to take off with it?
Temptation every day, a shorter dealer tells me. Temptation every day…
So how do you deal with that?
We just let it go, says another.
We see them two weeks later but we don’t do anything, explains the Icy Dealer. What are we going to do, beat someone up for it? You can’t blame them for taking it — it’s a part of doing business. Sometimes we lose $1,500 and we don’t do anything.
The others nod their heads in agreement.
Some people will beat them up though, admits the short one, and he raises an eyebrow in the direction I came.
Like that girl who got thrown out the window, adds the other.
But the violence is not good, the Icy Dealer says. If we beat someone up and everyone’s saying ‘oh, she owed those Spanish guys money,’ then the cops are going to come for us. Like, they know who we are, they know who all of us are. If they chose to come get us, they could. They can make us a priority.
It’s tempting to believe him. And having spent so much time in their company — believing myself safe in their presence — I find it hard to believe that any of the people I’ve spoken with could be responsible for the awful kinds of violence that make headlines in this city. Still, if I accept everything they tell me as truth then there’s no violence in the drug trade, and there’s no heroin being sold in the Downtown Eastside, either.
I’ve stood at the Icy Dealer’s side and watched him send heroin addicts to his worker, yet he denies it to my face.
And though no one is keen to talk about it, I’m beginning to understand that physical violence, or at least its threat, is a lynchpin of the system.
When I confront him on this, the Icy Dealer simply responds: The cops don’t like it.
Two weeks later: I come around the corner and spot two Middle-Eastern dealers who find a novelty in my presence: Playboy and Shox. They’re speaking Farsi to a short man in a green baseball cap, and as I approach I realize that the tone is menacing. Playboy hisses something at the man and then breaks into English:
I don’t even want to look at you. Go stand in the alley for five minutes while I think of what to do with you.
The man wanders into the alley and settles against a wall.
If he wasn’t one of my countrymen, Playboy tells me, I would beat him up. If he was Black or Spanish, I would beat him up, he snarls. I try to help him out and this is what he does to me…
What did he do?
He came up short, Shox says, meaning that they didn’t receive the expected amount for the half-ball.
And what does he say?
Always excuses: Oh, I got robbed, or the cops picked me up.
Count it again, Playboy says between pulls from his cigarette.
Shox thumbs through a small stack of bills and coins. Thirty-five, he says — well short of the expected seventy.
Playboy paces, slowly dragging on his smoke, before finally calling the man over. He shuffles forward, eyes to the ground and hat in his hand as Playboy and Shox move close, speaking just inches from his face. A knot pulls tight in my stomach as Playboy draws a hand behind his back and clenches it into a fist. Another dealer, watching from a few feet away, slips on a pair of black gloves.
Images of addicts with lips like purple balloons and black eyes bulging shut. The blood spatters at the alley entrance that day we were taking pictures…
I consider what would happen if I asked them to stop, but just as the moment seems about to snap Playboy steps away and orders the man against the wall. He paces, says something I don’t understand and then flicks his cigarette in the man’s face.
Get the fuck out of here, he snarls, and the man scurries off.
Composing himself, Playboy turns to me:
I wasn’t going to hurt him, he says, I’ve just got to scare him. What can I do? Stand out here and look like a clown? You can’t let these people climb on top of you.
A week before, I overheard Shox talking about the problems they were having with a well-known worker:
…so Playboy and I took her into the alley and we were working her over and she was all screaming and crying…
Really? the other dealer asked. She’s one of my best workers. I use her every morning…
She kept coming up short. She owed the whole crew money. She owed me $40, Playboy $65. And so yesterday I’m walking down the alley and she jumps out from behind one of the dumpsters screaming that she’s gonna slit my throat!
So I grab her and throw her against the wall, and I’ve got her like this and I’m just about to beat the shit out of her when some big construction worker tells me to stop or he’s gonna call the cops. Man, I wish he wasn’t there. I want to beat up a girl, man.
It’s the first time that I hear any of the dealers admit to beating up a worker, but the venerable Threads is not to be outdone by Shox’s account:
Check these out, bro, he says, handing me a pair of black gloves with metal plates riveted to the knuckles. Motorcycle gloves, he explains with a nod.
What are they for?
Protect your hands, plus they fucking hurt like hell. You shoulda seen this guy knock this fucking dude out, standing right here. Come up beside him and just ‘pow’ and the guy goes fucking down, bro. Those gloves.
I pass them back.
Do you always hold them?
Keep them in the shop, he says, motioning to a storefront nearby.
And the owner lets you?
Yeah, bro, I buy tons of shit in there so he helps me out. I just tell him, ‘hold these for me,’ and I grab them whenever I need them. Hey, check these out, he says, passing them to a tall dealer in a dark hoodie.
Do you want to get breakfast? Playboy asks me.
The two of them seem to take a liking to me. We talk about girls. We talk about religion. We talk about the magazine, and finally we talk about the violence.
The media makes it seem like a big problem, they tell me, but it’s not.
I realize this may be a dumb thing for me to say, but the other day I heard you talking about beating someone up in the alley. Do you ever beat people up?
What about the guy today? Would you have beat him up if I wasn’t there?
The conversation cools and Playboy turns his attention to his iPhone, starting a game of online poker.
We sit in silence.
People are interested in it, I tell them. I’m not judging, but it’s my job to ask. According to everyone I speak to, no one sells heroin and no one beats up workers. I’m just looking for the truth. Have you ever beaten up a worker?
Nah, bro, Playboy says, never looking up from his phone.
What’s the point? Shox asks.
Look, I’m not stupid, I tell them.
Playboy looks up from his phone.
Pretend you were on this side and I was on your side and I asked you that question, what would you say?
I think about it.
Depends how much I trusted you and depends on how I wanted the story told.