Once, three years ago, I had lunch in Harlem with a crack dealer. The date was set up by an anthropologist who was studying the inner-city drug trade. She promised me that after the three of us had eaten, the dealer would show me around his turf in central Harlem. At the time, I remember thinking that her promise sounded odd. I couldn’t imagine that a crack dealer – particularly someone who was as much of a big-timer as this man apparently was – could find room in his schedule for a leisurely stroll around the crack dens of upper Manhattan. Thinking back on all the cop shows and police movies about cocaine kingpins that I had seen, I imagined that he would have to run off for a big meeting with some Colombian importers, or perhaps not want to leave the security of his black, bullet-proof Mercedes or be looking for a way to launder another stack of $100 bills. But it wasn’t anything like that. My big-time dealer was a small dapper man, with close-cropped hair and a carefully trimmed moustache. He wore a pair of neatly pressed slacks and a polo shirt and he had a single, slender gold band on his hand. We talked for about an hour about the changing drug markets, about the difficulties of finding good employees and about marketing strategies (he didn’t have any of his street people sell to young girls, for example, because it ‘looked bad’). And afterwards, as we were walking through the streets of Harlem, it was almost as if I was being shown the site of a new housing development by an aspiring real estate developer.
There is an important lesson here about the illicit economy of the American inner city. The drug trade is commonly demonised in American life because it is assumed to be subversive in some way, to represent a kind of capitalism and a set of values that threaten and challenge the legal economy. But it struck me on that sunny spring day how, in fact, the reverse is true. The drug trade is not a challenge to the system so much as a painful, almost pathetic impersonation of it. My crack dealer wasn’t a crack dealer because he wanted to be a crack dealer. He was a crack dealer because he couldn’t be a real businessman, and he dealt with that frustration by playing and dressing and talking the part of the kind of entrepreneur whom he no doubt saw every day on his television or on his trips downtown.
In Search of Respect, Philippe Bourgois’s masterful study of the drug trade in upper Manhattan, takes this insight one step further. An anthropologist at San Francisco State University, Bourgois spent four years living and hanging out with a group of small-time crack dealers in East Harlem, taping hundreds of hours of conversation. The book is a chronicle of their childhood memories, their schooldays, their attempts to work in the legal economy, their families and love affairs. It is occasionally shocking. There are graphic accounts of gang rapes, for example, and seemingly endless accounts of husbands beating up wives and pregnant women taking crack. But in the informative detail of Bourgois’s description, and the between-the-lines of the people he quotes, there is nonetheless something strangely comforting. Even as they do vast quantities of heroin and cocaine – often sniffing and snorting even as they talk to Bourgois – and unspeakable things to each other, his subjects come across as normal. They don’t want to be doing drugs. They don’t make much money selling them. They want real jobs and, just as my crack dealer did, they mimic straight society even when they cannot participate in it.
One senses that this is not the message that Bourgois intends to send. He would rather, I am sure, see In Search of Respect as a kind of manifesto for social change. But it is one of the perverse effects of this fascinating book that it calms even as it outrages. The most marginalised of Americans don’t want to overthrow the rest: they’re just like the rest. In one evocative moment, Bourgois talks about how on a hot summer’s day he happened by the ‘Social Club’ – the name of a local crack house in East Harlem – and saw, next to the pool tables, three shiny new prams, belonging to the girlfriends of the dealers. ‘Fifteen-year-old moms in minimal tank-tops peck the necks of the pool players, in between crack sales, while their babies sleep peacefully,’ he writes in his journal. Shocking? Well, yes and no. ‘When I asked Maria,’ Bourgois continues, ‘why there were so many teenage mothers and newborn babies in the club, she answered, “’cause it’s air-conditioned.” I can’t really argue with that. We’re having a terrible heatwave, and I am sure none of the girls have air-conditioning at home – if they even have a private room to share with their babies.’
The central characters in In Search of Respect are Primo and Caesar, two Puerto Ricans in their early twenties who work selling crack for one of the major local dealers, a man named Ray. Ray does not figure much in the book. Nor, for that matter, does the actual business of drug-selling. Bourgois is really only interested in using the crack trade as a window on the street culture of East Harlem and the inner world of his two young Puerto Rican subjects – the intelligent, brooding Primo and his enforcer, the stunted, thuggish Caesar. It is not a glamorous world, by any stretch of the imagination. Primo and Caesar seem to have few moments of real excitement in their lives, unless they’re looking out for undercover police. If they ever leave the neighbourhood, or go to the movies, or even read a book, we don’t hear about it. What they mostly do is hang out in the crack house and in their apartments, drinking, using what seem to be enormous amounts of drugs, and, with the prodding of Bourgois, talking – and talking – about themselves and their lives deep into the night.
It is a tribute to the skill of Bourgois’s writing and analysis that the book his study most brings to mind, in the end, is not another anthropological work but Clockers, Richard Price’s best-selling novel about the Jersey City crack trade. In many ways, indeed, In Search of Respect out-does Clockers. Bourgois did not merely report on East Harlem, after all; he lived there with his wife and child for four years, researching the book. That proximity allowed him to pick out the extraneous details and ironies of ghetto life that Price missed. My favourite is one of the book’s handful of pictures, a shot of an elaborate piece of graffiti on a wall that reads ‘Just Say No.’ Bourgois’s deadpan caption: ‘Graffiti art of a local crack dealer who marked his sales site with the anti-drug slogan of the Eighties.’ If you put that in a novel, no one would believe it.
Bourgois’s wealth of detail adds greatly to his picture of the internal logic of ghetto life. Behaviour that seems random and pointless from the outside, Bourgois shows, in fact reflects the understandable attempt of people like Primo and Caesar to make sense of their world. Take, for example, the question of single motherhood, perhaps the most politically potent issue concerning the contemporary underclass. Why do so many teenage women have babies on their own that they cannot adequately support? Why have the men in places like East Harlem been allowed to escape responsibility for their own children? One of the primary goals of the so-called reinvention of welfare now underway in Washington is to try and stop the apparent self-destruction of the inner-city family. But Bourgois discovers something a little different. Women have children on their own in East Harlem because the men – Primo and Caesar and others like them – are abusive, violent, disruptive and immature. In what is perhaps the book’s most chilling passage, Primo and Caesar dispassionately discuss the fate of Jackie, a 12-year-old neighbourhood girl, who went out with her ‘boyfriend’ and came back 72 hours later after being raped by him and two of his friends.
CAESAR: What can you do if she got fucked out there, and she liked’ed it?
PRIMO: Yeah, she probably have a baby, because she got a big itch.
PHILIPPE: That’s some sick shit you’re saying Primo!
PRIMO [drinking from his 16-ounce can of malt liquor, and then sniffing from a packet of cocaine]:
You don’t understand Felipe? Jackie went, because she wanted to go, and it happened because she wanted it. She asked for it …
CAESAR [sniffing cocaine]: I don’t think it’s such a big thing. It’s just a mistake. I mean, if she’s going to have a boyfriend, maybe she should just stay with this guy and do all right.
In the context of Primo and Caesar’s own lives, of course, where violence towards wives and girlfriends seems almost routine, what happened to Jackie is less outrageous than it seems to the rest of us. But the unavoidable conclusion is the same in any case. Why would any woman, in her right mind, want to raise children with these men? ‘Based on my relationship to the fathers who worked for Ray, public policy efforts to coax poor men back into nuclear households are misguided,’ Bourgois writes. ‘The problem is just the reverse: Too many abusive fathers are present in nuclear households terrorising children and mothers. If anything, women take too long to become single mothers once they have babies. They often tolerate inordinate amounts of abuse.’ What’s interesting, though, is that Primo and Caesar realise that they are lousy father figures. They fail to support and raise their children not out of some outspoken rejection of the idea of family, but because of their very adherence to it: they don’t consider themselves worthy of fatherhood. When Primo had a job, for example, he was what he called a ‘goody-goody’, living with his then wife Sandra and their one-year-old, playing the good father. But when he lost his job he felt he had no choice but to move out. He was no longer a provider. ‘I mean look, I have a kid right now [but] I have nothing! Nothing to offer him for the future.’
Bourgois makes a very similar argument about the attitudes of the East Harlem drug dealers towards work. In popular mythology, selling crack constitutes a deliberate lifestyle choice, a profession that offers easy money and thrills with which the legitimate workplace cannot compete. But the reverse is true: Primo and Caesar long to be legitimate. In one poignant moment, the two dealers trip on mescaline and, in front of Bourgois, giddily enact their dreams of working in a deli. A deli!
CAESAR: Sandwich man! Here! Yo! Take yours! Ring! Click! Next! … [turning back again with a happy smile] All right! We’re gonna open a deli! [reaching out to hug Primo].
Both men try again and again to get real jobs, working in offices downtown as mail clerks or janitors. Primo tries to start his own business as a repairman. Even Ray, the local kingpin, makes repeated attempts to break into the real economy, trying first to open a laundromat and then a social club. Each attempt, however, ends in failure. Primo and Caesar can’t seem to decipher the culture code of the legitimate world. They dress in the wrong way. They misinterpret the attitudes and requests of their bosses. Primo thinks he’s being entrepreneurial when he doesn’t give a set of prices for his repair work. His customers think he’s trying to cheat them. His girlfriend, Candy, wears a skintight yellow jumpsuit to a job-training class, then is devastated when she is told she looks ‘tacky’. Ray wants so desperately to be a real businessman that he even forbids anyone to sell drugs in his social club. But he can’t negotiate the maze of bureaucratic rules and regulations governing new businesses, and eventually the club is shut down by the City because – of all things – it’s not accessible to wheelchairs.
As Primo and Caesar know, drug dealers rank at the bottom of the inner-city social order – and no one ever lets them forget it. While walking down the street one day with Caesar, Bourgois asks a Mexican immigrant, just off the boat, how it is that he is making $500 a week fixing deep-fat frying machines while Caesar – a native born English-speaker – can’t even find a $200 a week position.
‘Okay, Okay, I’ll explain it to you in one word,’ the man replies. ‘Because the Puerto Ricans are stupid! Stupid! Do you understand? They’re stupid because look at that guy [pointing to Caesar]. He knows English. And look at his body. He’s got a body that at least should get him a job as good as mine. And he doesn’t have it because he’s a brute. That’s all.’
Bourgois flinches, thinking that Caesar will become enraged and pick a fight. But the Mexican wasn’t telling him anything he hadn’t already suspected about himself. ‘That’s right my man!’ Caesar responds, only half jokingly. ‘We is real vermin lunatics that sell drug. We don’t want to be part of society … We rather live off the system; gain weight; lay women.’
It is important, of course, not to generalise the examples of Bourgois’s subjects too broadly. Even by the standards of this wildly dysfunctional part of New York City, Primo and Caesar are not representative. Most people in East Harlem don’t spend most of their twenties selling and doing drugs, or talking to anthropologists about their lousy self-esteem. But Bourgois’s portraits are so carefully executed, so unflinching, that it’s impossible to walk away from this book without a profoundly different perspective on the inner city. The overall picture is relentlessly depressing, but it has a heroic quality, too, inasmuch as Bourgois’s subjects go on trying to fashion a normal life for themselves, despite the deprivation and the drugs and the violence, as civilians in a war zone would.
One evening Bourgois is out on the stoop, as usual, listening to Candy tell a long, involved story about how she was once detained in the county jail and her case got lost between the cracks. ‘I mean people was coming in and out,’ Candy says, ‘and I was like, “What about me? Am I going to stay here for ever?” ’ In the background mere are gunshots. But the conversation continues – a minor triumph for normality over the pathology of everyday life in East Harlem.
BOURGOIS: Was that firecrackers?
CANDY: Sounds like an Uzi to me.
CAESAR: Nahh, that’s a nine-millimetre.
CANDY: So, I thought they had lost my records, or something …