Can I see it?
He handed me the one-hitter. I tilted it toward me and looked inside. The crack looked like tiny, tiny flakes of soap. There wasn’t much of it. This is actually just the leftover residue. The rock is gone. He took a hit, and held it in. A goofy smile came on his face as he pulled in additional gulps of air, pulling the smoke deeper into his lungs. He then blew the smoke in my direction. I jumped back. I had a healthy fear of the smoke. I once heard that a man’s first hit of crack is like sex, god, and rock-and-roll. I really wasn’t looking for any of that. Not in the bowels of the Norstrand Avenue subway stop at 1 AM. I really just wanted to see it. It looked like tiny, tiny flakes of soap.
Sorry about that, Willy said. I wasn’t thinking. Then his eyes got really big. Holy shit it’s James Brown! Willy pointed behind me. I turned around and looked behind me. Nobody was there. Had you fooled, he said. Not really, I thought. See some people get all crazy on this stuff. He was very animated, he seemed very happy. I keep it under control.
I’d met Willy on the subway earlier that day. I actually heard him before I saw him. He just walked into the middle of a crowded subway car and started talking in a loud voice. This happens all the time in the city. I’d say two out of every three subway cars have a loud talker. It normally means one of two things – crazy person or homeless person. The homeless person talks loud about how he needs money. The crazy person talks loud about how he can fly aeroplanes with his mind. Ae-ro-planes.
I assumed Willy was a crazy one. Because he wasn’t talking about money. He was just talking. He started talking about his 400 lb wife. And how he rode the subway all day to escape her. And how she was trying to lose weight, by ordering four cheeseburgers and a diet coke. Pretty soon it became apparent that Willy wasn’t crazy. He was telling jokes. I don’t think many people realized this. Because when most people see a loud talker they just zone out, try not to make eye contact, and do their best to ignore the situation. But the people who were listening to Willy began laughing. His routine lasted about five minutes. He then walked the length of the subway collecting money. I didn’t have anything to give him. But you were awesome, I said.
On my way home that night, I happened to run into Willy again, as he was wrapping up his day’s work. He pointed at me during his routine. What’s up man, he mouthed. We got off at the same stop. We began talking. Next thing I knew, we were still talking. But he was smoking crack.
You know, I used to perform at the Apollo. I won amateur night four different times. I wondered if that was true. But honestly, I was more interested in the crack.
Where do you get that stuff?
There’s a guy standing outside of every subway stop. I’d seen them– I normally ask them for a photograph.
How much do you spend on crack?
I know, but guess.
I can’t say, some days I don’t smoke at all.
What do you do when you aren’t smoking?
Sleep. I’ll hustle for two or three days. Then I’ll sleep for two or three.
But when you are hustling, how much do you spend on average, per day.
Anywhere from $25 to $100. Holy shit. That’s like a monthly cellphone bill. Every single day.
How much do you make on the trains.
On a good day I can make $400. Something told me that he was underestimating the amount he spent on crack, and overestimating the amount he made. But still. The bottom line is he was making a lot of money on those trains. Five minute routine. Four bucks per routine. (Sometimes much more). Thats nearly 50 bucks an hour. And he was spending it all on crack. I know he was spending it all on crack because he had to keep doing it, keep working the trains. He was telling jokes to make money to smoke crack to tell jokes. Then he would sleep. For two days. Then it was back on the trains. It was kind of like being on a subway, and never reaching your destination.
Have you tried to quit?
Oh I’ve quit. I quit for two years. I had a real job. I worked for Con-Edison, installing cable.
Why did you start again?
Because I like getting high. Crack is my misery. See everybody else allows their misery to make them miserable. Not me. I don’t allow my misery to make me miserable.
The roar of the subway could be heard deep in the tunnel. Another train was approaching. I’m going to make one more run. You coming?
That’s all right, I said. I’ve got to get to sleep.