by Amy Aixi Zhang
Two friends and I arrived at the Washington Square Park arch as rain fell hard on New York early Monday morning. The park quietly becomes a covert drug marketplace at night, and we were looking to interview a vendor. Below is the account of my brief encounter with a dealer under the arch, where I never thought I’d meet my match in a game of guile.
“Smoke smoke, smoke smoke.”
For a weed peddler of over 30 years, it’s hard to imagine the number of times “Grant” has said those words. Every night week after week he walks the grounds of Washington Square, puffing out “smoke” in a whisper and synchronizing the words with his steps.
Last Monday, even after a 15 minute-long downpour of rain soaked and washed out the park, we spotted Grant walking along the western border, muttering under his breath. His hand and jacket covered his face as we approached; he knew as well as anyone: at 3:00 a.m. Washington Square Park was a different world.
As I walked up to him, his voice softened and tipped to a question: “Smoke, smoke?”
He wouldn’t talk to me unless I paid $40 for “an eighth,” or an eighth of an ounce of weed (about five sessions for a solitary smoker). But I wanted the interview; I had to hear his story. I put on an innocent smile and pleaded and coaxed until he finally moved us to a bench in the shadows.
As he shook my hand, I couldn’t help but notice how smooth his palms were. He leaned in close and passed over an envelope, urgently asking me to stick it in my pocket. I felt triumphant as I tucked it away, handed over the money and began my inquiry.
The payoff, he told me, wasn’t great. An average of 70 bucks a night, ceiling of $120. But it was enough to feed his family of four, and a little cousin too. “You’ve got bills to pay,” he said.
It’s a business like any business: most buy from Harlem and then sell it Downtown. Like used cars, he said. It was hard work, but finding employment was even harder. A lot has changed in the last few decades.
Back before the mid-90s, sellers like Grant could smoke marijuana like cigarettes in public and sell drugs openly on any street corner. Until Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown in 1996, most marijuana and cocaine hawkers were soliciting almost every passerby. But then the mayor called for a surge in arrests and a harsher punishment for possession. The drug fight became a key goal of his second term. Greater numbers of undercover cops posed as buyers and sellers to trap the hordes of peddlers in the city. In the end, his administration arrested tens of thousands of people in just one year.
Under the arch in Washington Square Park, the city razed down the walls and erected closed-circuit cameras to heighten visibility. Fear of plain-clothes cops shrank demand until only the most persistent buyers and dealers remained.
Grant counted himself a “regular” in the park, but he was a vestige and a lone wolf in the WSP drug dealing business. He had no partners. But he said all the dealers in the park were like family, like a pack. Anyway, the work was hard for everyone and costs could be severe.
“Yea, I’ve been arrested. It’s a horrible experience. Sixty to 90 days,” said Grant. “But I’m out here, so you know, it’s a living. I’m not scared.”
The jail time hasn’t discouraged him from bartering weed with the occasional student and, more frequently, tourist. Most spend their money without any haggling. But the drunk tourists are the ones to be wary of, he said, sometimes more than the cops.
“You’ve just got to watch out for people who are intoxicated is all,” Grant said, cracking the word on his lips. “Those are the problems.”
He chuckles a bit, remembering a particular story of a deal with a couple one night. All was going smoothly, until the exchange. As Grant handed over the package to the girl, he accidentally missed her hand and dropped it on the floor. Chaos erupted.
“I’m trying to run because I’m thinking they’re trying to arrest me,” he said. “And they’re like, ‘Where’s it at, where’s it at, where’s it at?!’”
They tussle and shove him, both parties accusing the other of duping and double-crossing until finally, he pointed to the package on the ground.
“Crazy story. And they were completely sane,” he said.
As we got up to shake hands, this time he took mine in both of his and I again noticed his remarkably smooth palms. A life of peddling drugs in the dead of night is a rough one, but his hands reflected the job he had chosen.
“Don’t rat me out!” he said, and ambled off down the path.
My friends and I walked in the opposite direction, and I reached into my pocket for the envelope of weed; the triumph of procuring that interview was still written on my face. I unfolded the paper. Inside, a few yellow elm leaves and pods picked off the grounds of Washington Square Park lay crumpled at the bottom, still wet from the rain.