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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 the on the corners, we conducted interviews with those involved and observed the Hastings drug trade from the unique perspective of the street.
Second in a four part series on drug dealing in the Downtown Eastside.
I return almost daily — learning the intricacies of the cop/dealer/ID dance, witnessing the alley’s welfare day transformation from ant colony to hornet’s nest, and identifying the loose schedules followed by the crews who station themselves “out back”.
My guys are the morning crew, and with them my presence is tolerated but not quite trusted. Dealers, unintroduced, stop mid-sentence to demand: who the fuck is this guy? They remain silent, eyes fixed on me, until Royal confirms that I’m “cool.”
By walking around with you, I’m vouching for you, he explains. They’d never let you stand here.
I ask him why he bothers talking to me at all, and I get a cold shrug in reply.
You’re not gonna decide that I know too much and kick the shit out of me one day, are you?
It’s the first time I’ve made him laugh.
Nah man, I’m not telling you anything the cops don’t already know.
The truth is, Royal hardly tells me anything. Instead, he tolerates my presence, often as if I’m not even there. Peering over his shoulder I build the foundations of my understanding, and armed with a few new words and some borrowed credibility I set out to learn more.
A short girl with no eyebrows marches over to the dealer beside me. They walk down the alley, talking quietly. I recognize the girl as a worker: a carrier of a small amount of drugs but a large amount of risk.
She has been fronted a half-ball, a hunk of crack worth about $100, which she breaks up with a razor blade and sells in the alley alcoves. She has come to give the dealer his proceeds of the sale, usually about $75, and is then free to sell or smoke the rest.
I step over to Grin, who stands away from the group, leaning against a building.
The workers are all addicts, right?
Can you use any worker you want?
Some of them are exclusive, like they got one main boss and they’ll only work for him. But others will work for anybody, you know?
As if to illustrate the point, a few minutes later he’s arguing with another dealer over the rights to a sheepish looking man in a filthy white tracksuit. Overruled, Grin settles against a telephone pole, and I’m reminded of a conversation over lunch with Royal and another senior dealer:
What would happen if I tried to start selling out back?
And you didn’t know us? It wouldn’t happen.
We wouldn’t even have to touch you, we’d just tell all the workers to give us your stuff.
And what if I did know you?
Well, you pick up off somebody and they let you in, and then you just gotta keep selling their stuff.
See, you think all those guys are bosses, but they’re not — they’re workers, Royal reveals.
Grin, along with most of the other young men out here, is only a couple of notches from the bottom. A boss fronts him a zip (the street term for an ounce of cocaine), which cooks down to about 30 half-balls. Grin pays $1,300 for the zip, due once it’s been sold. His aim is to move one a day, which clears him almost a thousand dollars, but there are plenty of obstacles — not least of all, finding workers.
How come you’re always out in the morning? I ask him. Are there shifts?
There’s no shifts; we all get to choose, you know? But if you come too late, then the workers are all tied up.
The addicts who take care of the actual sale of drugs are a hotly-contested commodity, the senior dealers laying claim to the most experienced and trustworthy. Those with a long history on the streets know the most addicts and can therefore push the most product. They’re also less likely to take off with the drugs.
As workers return, seeking their next package, the dealers whisper instructions for reloading in their ear. But if the workers are hotly-contested, the most cherished are those known as the Holders. The ghostly layer between dealers and workers is the most vulnerable part of the system, and exactly what they do is one of the few subjects still taboo in my presence.
At the alley entrance a cop car sits, engine running, two wheels on the sidewalk. I cross the street to make a lap around the block and notice a young man with a coffee and an iPhone in hand. He rests his cup on a parking divider, pulls a wad of bills from his pocket and counts it, then does the same with a pile of coins.
Is it busier on sunny days? I ask.
He looks up, startled. A little busier on sunny days, yeah.
But busiest near the end of the month, right? I say, referring to the government checks that set the alleys ablaze.
He seems puzzled.
Last week of the month, yeah.
When I explain that I’m writing an article and ask him if he’s willing to talk he hesitates, chews at his lip, then steps over.
Is it good money?
It used to be way better. You could make over $1,000 a day. Not anymore: 300, maybe 400 a day. If you work it out it’s like $25 an hour. Too much competition. So many dealers down here now.
What about the police? Have they made it tougher?
No, he says emphatically, they let us do it. If they wanted to stop me they could, just like that, and he snaps his fingers. I had some problems with the police a couple of years ago and in like two weeks they gathered up all the evidence they needed. They got everything on me. They can do it anytime they want, but they don’t.
Are you ever holding anything that could get you in trouble?
I hold no money. I never hold drugs. Well, I hold a little bit of money, but not much. You find a guy who will hold for you and you find a worker. The worker goes out, sells, comes back, hands the holder the money, and reloads.
How much does the holder have?
More than the workers?
And he’s an addict?
I pause, putting it all together.
You must trust him to leave him with so much.
We get burned. The guys get pinched by the cops or they take off. But you just gotta treat ‘em right. Some people treat them like shit and get burned. You pay him well, buy him cigarettes and food and give him something to smoke. He’s got everything he needs and he’s not stupid, he sticks around. Why would he throw it all away?
The dealer tells me he’s got to get back to work and I continue on my loop around the block. My sunny day opener breaks the icy stare of a Latino dealer I’ve tried to talk to twice before.
When I explain that my story is from the perspective of the dealers, the rest of his crew gathers around. I’m keen to hear whether the Latinos out front operate in the same way as the crews out back, but before we have a chance to talk a toothless man cries out, two coming down! a chorus that is repeated all the way down the block.
The dealers tell me that they’ll be right back as two cops come over the hill with a wave of street folk cresting in front them. Arms puffed out to accommodate their guns and radios, the sidewalk is empty in their wake, but within a few minutes everyone is back, dealers included.
Gaunt, weathered faces shuffle towards us and request powder (cocaine), base (crack), or down (heroin). The dealers motion them to a tall man with a creased face and sunken cheeks standing in the middle of a lurching crowd of tokers.
Grin was right: with the Latinos there’s more on display than out back — their worker is stationed within plain sight.
I ask the icy dealer to clarify my understanding of the system.
There are three levels: the worker, who is an addict and who actually sells the product… He nods. The holder, who is also an addict, but trusted, and holds all the product and money and resupplies the workers… And the boss, who doesn’t touch anything, but just supervises.
Yep, he says, and I’m about to ask him about the temptation of the workers and holders, but we’re interrupted once again by a cry of ‘three coming down!’ On the horizon a trio of broad figures lumbers towards us.
They know what you’re doing, right? I ask.
So, why do you bother moving?
Out of respect, he says. We get out of their way to show that we know who they are. Some guys just stand there, but we move.
Suddenly he stops.
Alright, man, he says, bumping my fist. And he’s gone.
Around the corner I spot Royal and a senior dealer standing with a fresh-faced guy I’ve never seen before. He’s being educated on the system.
It’s like any other business, the senior man explains, you gotta know where your inventory is at all times. He looks over at me: right, man?
I nod, not sure that it’s the right thing to do. As I do so, though, I realize that my understanding of this system is nearly complete.
Two tiers of addicts, whom the courts view as sick and exploited rather than criminal, insulate the dealers from the law and allow them to stand openly on the street corners. But while the workers and holders provide resilience to the system, they seem a likely weakness as well — I wonder how much product is lost in their pipes and arms.
Could this be the source of the fabled violence of the Downtown Eastside drug trade? I make it my aim to find out.