The House That Crack Built: The Inmates of Clark County Jail

There's a lot of talk about Crack these days but not much about the house that Crack lives in. So we the inmates of the Clark County Jail will take you on a tour of the Crack House himself.

So come on up here on the porch of this old house, it sure ain't no home. More like Grand Central Station with all the people coming and going. People laughing, people crying, people just hanging out--no matter the temperature. Guy standing on the porch in zero weather hugging his elbows--people wonder what's the matter with him?

Crack cocaine. He sold the coat off his back to the Dopeman for crumbs. Mere crumbs.

He could use that coat indoors: crack houses usually about as cold as they are bare. Electricity and gas . . . luxuries. No electricity equals no stove, no cooking, no TV, no popcorn. No hot tea. No ice tea. (No ice.) No phone ringing. Lots of fast food wrappers laying around or maybe crammed into a box or trash can, not that anyone ever empties it.

The couch sits squat to the floor instead of on its legs, sure sign where the decorator found it, in the dump. Also a table for important items: a glass stem, hollow like a straw, or maybe a metal one--these are your "pipes"--and a full Bic lighter, some empty Bics, a box of Chore Boy steel wool (for filters).

A candle for when the sun's gone and the Bics are empty. Matches for the candle so the Bics aren't wasted. Broken hangers or car antenna for cleaning out the pipes. No clocks, don't need them. Crack time is when's my next hit.

Come on in a little further. There's probably a hall, empty condom package on the floor, and here's a kitchen. The table is bare except for razor crumbs from cutting or shaving the rock, too small to see though though sure enough they'll be somebody down under that table on all fours looking. Maybe two or three of them.

An empty plate, an empty baggy box. An empty refrigerator if there is one. Empty cupboards, empty shelves, it's an empty place. On those occasions where it is somebody's home, it's almost empty and on its way to being trashed, gutted, shot up, busted out, and the occupant maybe beaten, maybe prostituted, maybe evicted--at least one of those, only a matter of time. That's because a crack house is nothing more'n a temporary site with one sole purpose: money.

Money for the dealer, from $100/hour for a little guy, to maybe $400 to $500 when everything is set up just right and all players are behaving. Maybe $1,000 on a good day, maybe $2,500 if you know how to satisfy the choicest clientele. I'm talking hourly now, and conservative. And money for the occupant, too. Don't forget him. Money or something much much better than money. Which is crack, poor fool.


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THE PLAYERS

The more crack sales, the hotter the spot and the hotter the spot, the more faces you see, 10 or 15 people milling around at any one time. The hotter the spot, the more risk; the more risk, the more precautions necessary, which leads to the first player:

The Doorman--the one responsible for the door. Who is it? Say it's you. You don't leave your post without consent. After a couple of days you get pretty funky. You're a geeker (hooked smoker) and your wage is crack. And you get plenty extra on the sly, too, as middle man, breaking crumbs off other people's dope. Till you get caught.

So comes a knock and you open your door and your customer comes in. You ask them what they want. They tell you 20. Or 25 or 30 or 40...dollar amounts, a quarter rock ($25) being about this [ ] size and a little thicker, though not always. You take this money and count it and turn around and walk off in back to:

The Dopeboy--the main man, dopeman, the dealer, who does not want to be seen (hence the Doorman). Dopeboys travel in packs, three, four, five or six of them, for fear of being robbed. Each has his own stock--they're just together for security--and they take turns at the crack house, the balance hanging out in a "Safehouse" somewhere, a temporary and quiet abode, in this town usually on the north side in the university area or northwest along the park.

Called dopeboys because that's what they are, on average from 16 to 22 years old. I've seen them as young as 14, and rushers can be in grade school, 11 and 12 year olds. I know this 8 year old running for his folks, which is smart. You think they send an 8 year old to jail?

Back to the man. You, Doorman, hand him, the Dopeboy, the customer's money, and he hands you the dope and back you go to the customer at the door. He examines the product and nine times out of ten he ain't satisfied.

You repeat the routine, and more often than not the Dopeboy will give back the same piece of dope or one smaller, which you return to the customer and he complains. But as negotiations do not appear to be going his way, he takes it.

A frequent variation: Doorman breaks off a little bit on his way back to the customer, like maybe a $5 hit. Customer may or may not notice this little premium. Now if that customer is me--I know what's happening--Doorman hands me that tampered rock I say, No, man, give me back my money if he can't do better than that.

So he steps out of sight, puts back the piece he took off, and brings it back to me. I usually laugh and take it, but there have been times I said no again. Then he has to take it back to the Dopeman broken up. That's where some serious ass-kicking comes in. Hey, I'm smoking, you really think I give a shit after the sonofabitch tries to rip me off?

The Hit Man--a necessary feature. He guards the Dopeboy's back, his 44 magnum never far from reach. You meet that muzzle at the door, you've got no illusions the dopeboys are playing around. Believe me, they're not playing. Shoot first, ask questions later, after they pack up and find another spot. Where it starts up again, and goes on all night, all next day, twenty-four/seven.

The Rushers--the ones who run up to any and every car or even to ordinary people passing by: Hey, you looking? Come on, I'll get you hooked. Usually there's four or five of them, yelling and haggling and just rushing the shit out of the poor customer--he gives his money away just to get them out of his face! They'll rush anyone. I've seen these assholes run up to the wrong car and get cuffs slapped on them--comical as hell. These suckers get a $20 piece for every $100 they take to the Dopeman.

Then we have our Fake Rushers--these MF's are nuts. Somebody cruising, Fake Rusher stops him: Uh, man, I'm rushing for this old dude but he won't serve you but I can get you hooked.

So the Dumb-ass gives the Fake Rusher his money, so he goes in and buys a piece and goes out a different door while Dumb-ass just sits, and then you see him circle the block about a hundred times and all you can do is shake your head and laugh. Funny part is, the s.o.b. fakers never get caught. I call them Free Smokers.

Fleecers--"fleece" is fake crack, wax or soap or anything that can be made to look like crack and also burn like crack--which sizzles and crackles. You get the name there, but you sure don't get high off of fleece.

Fleecers are usually rushers who have built up some trust with their Dopeman, who then will give them say $100 worth of crack and tell him to get back to him, say $70. This is smart because it cuts down on the traffic at the door. It also causes debts, whippings, and sometimes loss of life. Simple fact is, the rusher smokes, so he messes up the dopemen's money by smoking up their dope, the whole $100 dollars worth, so he winds up selling wax or some other counterfeit that looks real but isn't.

It's not too hard to tell--wax tastes like wax and crack like crack. But there are a lot of dummies out there, giving real money for fake crack. A good disguise is novocaine in the fleece; that numbs your lips like the real thing, so you don't know sometimes till you light up and suck good, and wait, and wait some more, and guess what?--you been ganked.

The PFs and PF Whores--PFs stands for personal favors. These crack ladies, forgive me saying so, will do anything they're told for a hit, and what limit is there to a 19 year old dopeboy showing off how sick he can think? If you got a dirty mind, then stretch it as far as you can. They say women are more susceptible in this regard, will let themselves sink lower, but don't fool yourself: a man want crack bad enough, he'll be giving PFs in a wink. Self-respect is one of the first things traded for crack, somewhere in there just before your mother.

When I got out of the joint in '87, my mother put me on her bank account to help me get it together. I got it together alright, I smoked through her whole life savings in about three months. Man in this jail here sold his 11 year old daughter for a hit. You understand now? You get into this thing, nothing else matters eccept the next hit. And you could have a bathtub full of cocaine, too, and you'd be thinking, damn, what if I run out?

Tell you what else, if you're going to try the stuff, the fun is up front. There comes your rush, and that's a little like making love to God with every cell in your body, but then you spend the rest of your life on drugs chasing down that first high. It never gets that good again. Three months in jail gets you back a little bit closer God with Thee, because there ain't much yank in this jail--lucky to get chewing gum--so your tolerance drops back toward normal. But there's always that first time memory taunt-ing you.


MANUFACTURE

We're in some disagreement here on how they get cocaine from the cocoa leaf, but at some point the really big guys--your millionaire French connection types--they start cutting their pure white powder with additives like baby laxative or lidocaine (numbs the lips); baking soda's a common ingredient. This is called "stepping on it." Everybody below this international set, they're also stepping on it so pretty soon it's about quarter strength. They call the pure stuff "400% pure"--you toke in some of that by mistake, you dead. Len Bias dead.

Meanwhile every middleman has doubled his original amount and trebled his money. Tell me another commodity that can do that. It's magical. And then we got our chief executives and CIA's thinking they can manipulate this scene. They're in over their heads up against that crowd, just rich tourists fat for the trussin', while we get slammed and rot in jail. Ain't it the way

So your punk rusher out there gets lucky and lands a quantity of this powder, about 200% pure, and he steps on it. He might freebase with it but that's less popular now because it costs more and it's so strong it's kind of a luxury. It's a whole different market compared with the $5 and $10 sells of crack--we're talking Woolworths now, not Tiffanys. We're talking playground lunch money.

So nouveau dopeboy dissolves his precious snow in ether (because coke does not dissolve in water though most your additives do), and he adds his baking soda (make it set up, solid) and mixes up his little paste in his mayonnaise jar or whatever's handy and then cooks it in a double boiler or right over the flame except that's not always cool because of the ether (ask Richard Pryor), so the method of choice is to nuke it in your microwave for x many minutes until it starts "rocking up."

Bing, you got crack now. You scrape out your little quarter moon shape (the tipped mayo jar), cut it up into chunks, maybe a couple of $50s on down to little dime sizes (not too many: the more $50s you move, the less traffic), and if you're a dopeboy you don't even think to smoke it. They may be young but they're not stupid.

But the ones that are, they set the little rock on top of their little glass dick--another name for pipe or stem, because it gives so much pleasure, and runs the show too--and scorch it with their Bics, it being the fumes from the sizzling crack set on the tip of your upright stem that you inhale. Good idea to put some Brillo or Chore Boy at the bottom of your stemto keep you from sucking a hot piece of dope into your lung.


REAL ESTATE

I tell you something about how you acquire a crack house because that's one of the saddest things, seeing someone take over and just ruinate your house, often as not children involved. So these boys from Detroit or Dayton or New York or where have you, they come into town in their jalopy (inconspicuous) and find a good rusher (with only high paying customers, $50 and up), and it doesn't take him long to find somebody where lots of people are ready to spend their whole welfare and paychecks to statisfy their needs; and they tell him, Hey, you find us a spot and we'll throw you out something. So he's feeling out the real estate before they can even drive off.

So how much can you pay, someone wants to know. "Oh," says the geeker, "tell you what. Let us stay here and see how the flow is. If the spot's hot, we'll negotiate."

And guess whose terms it's on. (The homeowner smokes.) Not long, not long, the Dopeman takes over that house. Starts slow, pay $50/day rent or sometimes $25 cash and a quarter rock. Then they find someone in the group to mess around with the woman whose house it is, and sooner or later her credit runs out and they stop paying and start misusing the place.

They bring in other guys, call you names slap you around, beat you up, have parties, break out the windows, shoot bullets through the walls, no notion of picking up all their garbage, no concern that your kids are now stepping around girls turning tricks for $5 hits--sometimes they make them have sex with every guy in the house for nothing. I saw one dopeboy so lowdown he made a crack whore satisfy his German shepherd. You're on the bottom floor of hell here. Most of these women have babies. Crack is stronger. Lots of times I brought food and gave it to a woman's kids because I felt so bad at seeing their neglect.


HELL

I had a home, a fiancee, and kids, one of them mine, but because of one prior way back when I was 19, I'm being put away. I see my mistake and wish not to make it again, but I am away, 9 to 15, which means 4 or 5 at best and no fiancee waiting for me, not likely--would you wait 5 years, for a crackhead?--just me by myself starting over. It's my fault, but that doesn't make the comeback any easier.

Worse thing is, after all these programs and all my regret, you put that shit in front of me...Crack is hell. Once you've been there and been slammed, and maybe finally get clear, you ain't really clear because there's this other second hell of staying off the shit. Your every thought: How'm I going to stay off, or failing that, how'm I going to get more.

Talking about this has got me down, so I want to tell you a little truth, bring you down a little. You know how they say the ozone holes can't repair--or is it the greenhouse effect, I mix the two up--but I understand it's already a disaster, they just can't tell if the icebergs are going to melt in 50 years or 500, but the tragedy has struck, just a matter of time till we're all eight feet under water.

That's your greenhouse effect. Your crack house effect is the same thing. You see what I'm saying: the war on drugs is over. We lost. You see if I'm not right, 'cept it won't take 500 years to tell about the crack war. It's close to home, right there in your schools. All those new prisons, they're for your kids.

So you're in here with me, you understand? We're both victims. And that's our real story, of you and me and the crackhouse. What's mine is yours, brother. And you can have it.

The inmates' share of the proceeds from publication of this story will be used to fund a documentary video intended to draw community funds for a federal matching grant to build a halfway house in Springfield. The inmates call it the "House that Crack Built."


AFTERWORD BY KENT H. DIXON

"The House that Crack Built" began with a grant from the Lilly Foundation. I was given one course release from my normal teaching load to do some kind of community service, that I, and subsequently my students, could perform. I'd always admired writers who had taught in prisons, and I was told our local jail was safer than prison (it is), so I worked up a creative writing course in the county jail. The course is now run entirely by Wittenberg University students, in partial fulfillment of their community service requirement.

My particular writers were in the jail's "Freedom: Drug and Alcohol Abuse Program." Weekly with each group (men and women separate), I spent a couple hours in the jail's multi-purpose chapel, coaxing them to write in every strategy and genre I could think of--fiction, poetry, drama, family histories, personal narratives, letters of release to Mr. Crack or King Heron.

We talked a lot, the sessions usually resembling a kind of group therapy. But I couldn't keep it all straight--Chore Boys and Dope Boys, geekers and fleecers, gank and yank--so one day I asked them to take me on a tour, on paper, of a crack house, and gradually the material for the article accumulated--written testimony, personal anecdote, question and answer, some of it taped, some even videotaped.

I patched and weaved the whole thing together, drawing from memory and tapes as well as the stack of blue books, unified it in one voice, theirs, and gave that voice a bit more of a singular personality than was possible from the polyphony of different informants and writing styles. When I read it now, I mostly hear one particular inmate, call him Jimmie. He's speaking for, or over, or alongside the maybe 30 other inmates who contributed to the article over the better part of a year.

These days, this approach is no longer acceptable journalism and a bit experimental yet for ethnography. My drug felon with a heart is not only a composite, but a composite in a first-person point of view; so where I made transitions between the inmates' testimonies, or bent a phrase toward a witticism I remembered from group, or just generally burned and dodged and grabbed to constitute my "voice" and its narrative, I'm engaged in a double fudge, two fictions making, I maintain, one general truth.

The new journalism criticism doesn't concern me--every portrait's a composite, of the writer and his subject just for starters. To the anthropologists, I would like to suggest, with Marjory Wolf (A Thrice Told Tale), that compressing "poly-vocality" into one voice is no more or less true than some other mode; it's just another perspective, like field notes on the one hand or fiction on another, sociology on a third--a Vishnu-like truth with eight or ten hands. The inmates were true, collectively, to what they know, but were they always accurate? I'm still skeptical about $2,000 per hour being a "conservative" estimate, and I've never interviewed a dopeboy (that I knew of); but people on the law enforcement side are inclined to believe those figures.

But even if this information isn't accurate, it's at least what those who live this life believe, and that's not just a handful of believers. This document as it now stands was edited, amended, and modified perhaps a dozen times over more than a year, by different generations of "natives" (an inmate's average incarceration is 90 days) who didn't even know the primary authors. It's a generalized portrait that more than a hundred crack addicts, independently, finally felt was accurate.

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