Sunday, April 5, 1987
The tiny woman with purple nails sucks on the makeshift pipe. The smoldering rock glows and dims, and now she is holding her breath, gasping back the smoke as long as her lungs permit. She calls herself Awful Thang, because that’s what she is when she’s high.
Another woman and a man with gold teeth sprawl on the grimy furniture in the living room, awaiting their turn. Hill Street Blues is almost over. Five little girls are asleep in a bedroom down the hall.
Awful Thang sinks back against the couch and exhales long and slow.
“Scotteee babeeeeee!” she howls.
They call crack Scotty. Scotty beams them up, they say, just like on Star Trek.
Judy, the taller woman, is staring off in space, her face a cloud. “I’m just thinking, just thinking,” she announces in a feeble whisper. This is her apartment. She is the mother of the children down the hall. She is 27, looks 35.
The Thang holds a cigarette lighter to the pipe. “Here we go! He’s at the door! Gotta let him in! Scotteeeeeeeee.”
Outside the door of Judy Williams’ apartment in this public housing project tenanted mostly by blacks, trees cast scary shadows across the courtyard. The lawn that some government architect had once imagined would be a commons, filled with the hardscrabble but hopeful life of a low-income community, is nearly dead. Soda bottles and beer cans litter the ground. Once in a while, the voice of a mother scolding her children rises over the noise of television sets from nearby apartments where
families prefer to stay locked inside.
Down the dirt stretch toward Northeast Second Avenue, yellow-eyed hustlers keep a nervous but constant watch for headlights signaling the arrival of customers at this apartment complex turned crack supermarket, on the corner of Northeast Second Avenue and 71st Street. It is a five-minute drive from Miami’s Design District, less than a mile from Miami Shores, a short bike ride from fashionable Bay Point.
The dirt stretch belongs to the pushers. Some of them, the cool ones, brazenly let the plastic bags of crack dangle from their lips, the equivalent in this time and place of sticking a spare cigarette behind an ear. Periodically, they climb in the smashed-out window of a vacant apartment to get high. Their bosses congregate in the east parking lot, closer to 71st Street, gathered around a fire burning in a trash can. These are younger, clearer-eyed men. They are wearing better clothes and beepers on their hips. When a customer pulls in, they look up, catlike, from their dice and bull sessions, ready at the sign of any wrong move, any violation of the drug game — pulling a gun or trying to snatch rocks without paying — to pummel the offender, or shoot him.
In the shadows, desperate women wander around the dark yards and breezeways where clotheslines are strung, hoping to mooch a hit, or find someone with whom to exchange food or sex for crack.
Some of the women walk out onto Second Avenue and try to flag down cars headed south toward the Gables and the Grove, north toward Miami Shores. When they are finished, they take their $20 and trade it for the little rocks of cocaine base that have taken over this place called The Graveyard.
By now, everyone knows a crack horror story. The woman who went berserk, grabbed a gun and a knife and forced a friend and the friend’s 2-year-old daughter to jump out of a fifth- floor window to escape. The newspaperman who got up from his computer terminal and drove down the road to rob a bank — to buy more crack. The lawyer’s husband who bankrupted his family in a two-month crack spree. When seen as isolated anecdotes, the crack story appears as freeze-frames of frenzy. Put as many together as you want, but you still won’t understand that there are places in this city where something extraordinary, something almost demonic is happening around this new form of an old drug. Here, in The Graveyard, the horror of crack is no freeze frame. It is a slow-motion slide into desperation, a prolonged, muffled scream. Crack is squeezing the life out of an entire community,
crowding out normal motivations, killing hopefulness, completely rewriting despair. The fear of the innocent people, the treachery of the guilty ones, the hopelessness of the victims — all have conspired to snuff out much of what once had been pleasant and good.
Crack isn’t like the drug scourges of the past, like heroin in the 1950s, LSD in the 1960s, cocaine tooting in the 1970s. It’s as seductive and addictive as any of them, and at least as
physically destructive, but it’s more plentiful, and its high can come as cheaply as a pint of bourbon. Only you don’t sleep this high off when you are finished; you are ravenous for more, right away, and the hunger feeds on itself. It is a macabre courtship, till death do us part.
Addicts literally race from the crack house to the street, to rob and beat and burgle merely to finance their next pipeful.
Care about the people of The Graveyard out of compassion, or, if you prefer, out of fear.
This is no way to live, says Schofield Flemming.
“Death live in the rock … . Death live there.” Disappointed and disgusted, he leans on the Mustang near the front door of his apartment. It’s his girlfriend’s car, but it doesn’t run, so the crack addicts — “basers” — have taken it over, as they have taken over so many other places. Now people call the Mustang a “base car,” because people climb in and get high there.
Schofield has been out of jail for 10 days; out in the real world for 10 days, he beams, without smoking crack. He is proud of it. He used to be addicted. But the time he spent in jail on a strong-arm robbery charge weaned his mind from the drug, helped him forget the way it changed him. Behind bars, he ate well, exercised and regained 30 pounds and now he is clean, his corduroys and hooded sweat shirt fresh, his beard neatly trimmed, his teeth glistening.
The 27-year-old former soldier left prison anticipating a new drug-free life at home with his girlfriend, the baby girl they conceived, and the boy and girl she had already. He does construction work when he can get it and tries to stay out of trouble.
It is hard, though, because crack’s people are all around him. Schofield could escape from them if his home were a safe haven. But while he was in jail, he says, his girlfriend took in a new roommate named crack, and crack’s people came along, too.
Schofield wants to get away. The place and the people remind him of the nights he stood on the avenue selling his body for whatever price he could, and of the mornings he woke up and wept for his manhood. They remind him of the meals he didn’t put in the children’s stomachs and the clothes he didn’t put on their backs. They remind him of the heads he smashed with pipes during crack-inspired robberies, of the homes he broke into.
Schofield stares at the dirt and shakes his head slowly. “I used to go in people’s houses at night while they asleep. I done had smoked four, five rocks. I’m already paranoid. I walked in this house, and all I could see was gunfire. Bam! Bam! Bam! They woke up and shot at me. I don’t see how they could have missed.
“I tried hundreds and hundreds of times to stop smoking. I’d stop for two days then — BAM — right back at it. It’s hard to stop when you around it, so close to it. Can you believe that something that small can affect somebody weighing 200 pounds?” But no more, never again, he says. “I’m off it. I don’t even get that taste. It’s the taste. It got a taste you can’t describe.”
Another man, a dealer, has been listening. He shrugs his shoulders. “It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s too beautiful for some people,” the dealer says. A Latin man walks up, desperation written all over his face. He’s got long-sleeved T-shirts for sale. He had just tried to trade them for a rock, but the dealers aren’t stupid. “Five dollars,” he pleads, holding the shirts out for the group near the Mustang to see. “I’ll give you three,” a woman says, goading. Everyone laughs.
The man’s desperation reminds Schofield of the time when he was still living with his wife and daughter and he sold his refrigerator and stove for five rocks. “That’s $50. I did it while my wife was at work. Can you imagine coming home and no stove, no refrigerator? It’s sad, real sad.” His wife believed him when he said they had been burglarized. But his marriage didn’t survive crack much longer.
“Never trust a person that smoke rock. Never trust ‘em,” Schofield says.
A seedy-looking man walks through the dark breezeway to Schofield’s apartment, his hands shoved into his pockets and his head hanging low. He’s been there before, like the others who know that inside they can get high and maybe find a woman to lie down with. Schofield’s homecoming has been reduced to guard duty. “What you want?” he barks. There is sympathy in his voice, but also a sternness that demands an answer. The man looks down and mumbles something. Schofield is yelling now. “Ain’t nobody here! Never EVER come ‘round here again!”
“I throw people out all the time. Like last night, I threw 20 people out. It was nothing like this when I was here.”
There is determination in his voice but also weariness. He knows what he’s up against. He’s surrounded by it.
Abrown-skinned doll skids across the pavement. A pack of small kids are kicking the stuffing out of its stomach and slamming it with sticks. Down the road, where the pavement turns to dirt, a man is lounging inside an abandoned burgundy Ford Pinto, getting high amidst the filth in the back seat. His name is Mico. He says he is 31. His glazed green eyes, framed by long lashes, look sad, but he is friendly and talkative as he defends crack. He’s been using it since 1978, he says, and hasn’t gone crazy yet. “I’m a very educated man. It’s just that I got put in the mix with something that, well, it’s illegal. See the way I’m sitting here talking to you all? I done smoked today two or three times. I’m not out of my mind or nothing. It’s a beautiful feeling. It makes you relaxed, keep you active, everything. Wide awake. Sometimes it takes the place of your woman. Guys forget about they women.”
Mico and his partner, a wild-haired man who calls himself Sweet ‘n’ Low, occupy the bottom-most echelon among drug dealers at The Graveyard. They are not interested in fancy clothes or cars or gold teeth. Mico and Sweet and their hangers-on wear the same clothes day after day, smell foul, don’t live anywhere in particular and spend just about all their time hustling rocks — buying them, selling them, smoking them, begging for them.
A group of about seven of the beeper-wearing young dealers
from the east parking lot appear around the corner of a building. They are taking long, meaningful strides into Mico and Sweet’s territory. They do not look happy. Shirtless and barefoot, a man in his late 20s who calls himself Bo-Sheep sees them and takes off running, literally churning up a trail of dust. The toughs chase him almost to Second Avenue. They surround him, throwing punches at his face and screaming threats. As Bo-Sheep twists and turns under the flailing fists, Mico watches calmly from afar, sitting on an FP&L power box.
Bo-Sheep is Mico’s brother.
Mico explains that Bo-Sheep owes the teen-age dealers $10. He shows no concern until the toughs knock Bo-Sheep to the ground and start kicking him. Mico starts toward the fight at a trot, yelling as he goes. But the toughs have finished with Bo- Sheep already. They didn’t want to hurt him too badly, just give him a warning. They strut back to their station. Bo-Sheep, a large lump over one eye, ambles back to the dirt stretch as if nothing had happened.
To the young guys, the serious dealers who look the part, hustlers like Mico and Sweet and Bo-Sheep are two-bit vendors. The dealers advance Mico and Sweet small quantities of crack and then collect the profits — or provide refresher courses in motivation for those who come up short. Mico and Sweet make money — or more often just get free dope — by cutting the rocks in halves or quarters and selling each piece for the same $10 or $20 price as regular-sized ones. There are so many customers at The Graveyard that somewhere along the line the dealers decided to carve up the territory. There are four crack “stations” located, roughly, at the project’s four corners: north, south, east and west. At each, dealers pull 12-hour shifts and can beep their suppliers if they run out of rocks. The story is told of one dealer, recently arrested, who had his bail bondsman make crack deliveries to his teen-age salesmen while the dealer was in jail.
A bearded white man with tattooed arms is sitting on a milk crate in the base house yard, smoking crack. The yard smells of feces and urine, but the man doesn’t seem to notice. He’s focusing all his energy on the rock that’s smoldering on a pipe made from a Schaefer beer can.
“You’re not the police, are you?” he asks blandly. No, a reporter and a photographer. He accepts the response and begins to talk. His name is Michael. He just got off work at his construction job. Tonight he goes to a weekend job as a bouncer. He is tall and his upper body is muscular. But his stomach is beginning to look caved in and his legs are thinning — too much crack and not enough food, he says. Michael is 29, and he’s been using crack for four months, since he moved to Miami from Detroit. He rode a raggedy girl’s bicycle down from his motel room on 135th Street and Biscayne Boulevard and bought three rocks — $30.
“I gotta get off this s—-. This s—- makes you schizo … .
“You guys ain’t got $10, do you?” he asks. He is unruffled by the negative response. While Michael talks, he reaches down and runs his fingers through the grass at his feet. Someone dropped a rock, he says. “I know this guy dropped it. I was here. But it’s hard to find.” He is on his hands and knees now, scouring the dirt for the lost rock.
He came to Florida with a traveling carnival, leaving his two daughters, Nicole and Sarah, back in Detroit. He carries their snapshots in his now-empty wallet. He’s spent all the money he had. “This is weird, man, talking about this s—-,” he says.
A shirtless young man with his baseball cap twisted sideways and his jeans falling off his behind swaggers over. His name is R.M. — Robbin’ Marvin — and he offers Michael a small rock. R.M. and Michael have done business before. Michael hits the can again. The photographer asks if he can take a picture, and Michael agrees. He sucks in the vapors so hard that his blond hair shakes and the veins in his forehead swell bigger and bigger.
“Can you lend me five bucks?” he asks again. “I wish I had another hit. You can’t get enough.” Michael keeps searching for the lost rock.
Sweet has been lurking in a yard nearby, and when he hears the camera clicking, he runs over and breaks into a hollering frenzy. He looks confused. “Get your ass from around here!” he yells at Michael. “Letting them take your picture digging through the ground like some f—-in’ duck. You stupid, man!”
Base heads may wear the same filthy clothes for days and not bathe much and steal from each other, but they manage to cling to an odd sort of pride. Some of them. Others, like Michael, are beyond even that tattered remnant of dignity.
A half-hour after he began, Michael is still squatting in the filth, picking up and scrutinizing every pebble he finds.
The pastel-colored plaque on a once white wall of Judy Williams’ apartment reads: “Lord, help me get my act together.” Across the room she has set up a display of the crack users’ tools for her guests. Two kinds of base pipes — one a beer can, the other a miniature plastic liquor bottle — plus aluminum foil and a razor blade sit on a piece of cardboard in the middle of a brown table cloth on her dining table in a corner of the living room. Judy has assembled the items to help her explain how the drug is used. You punch a circle of pinholes in the side of a can, put some cigarette ashes on top of the holes to keep particles of the crumbling rock from falling through, then inhale the drug through the can’s mouthpiece. It’s a similar technique with the bottles, except that most times you punch a thumb-sized hole in the side and place a piece of screen or foil over it.
Judy is nervous, not sure that it’s wise to talk. “Maybe ya’ll could help me, sit down and give me suggestions or something,” she says.
She rests an elbow on the table. Her arm has a circular tattoo-like scar where an ex-boyfriend bit her. Her neck has a half-inch-wide scar stretching halfway around it from the time the boyfriend stabbed her under her ear then tried to slit her throat. Judy’s big, droopy eyes, set above sharp, high cheekbones, seem to echo her plea for advice. Or are they just reflecting the hit of crack she had minutes earlier?
Four of her girls — Sherhonda, 11, Shaneira, 4, Shakeria, 3, and Shandina, 1 — are in the bedroom they share. Only the baby, Shaquendar, 9 months, remains in the front room. Judy says the infant is her “trick baby.” The child was conceived when Judy turned a trick to get a few dollars for food. Shaquendar, some might say, also is a base baby since Judy used crack during her pregnancy. Base babies are part of the crack user’s lexicon: “Big eyes, slow to move,” explained one woman. Judy says Shaquendar is normal.
Each of Judy’s girls has a different father, but none of them provide for the children. Judy supports the kids with considerable help from the government.
Judy worries that there could be repercussions from revealing the details of her troubled life. What she fears most is losing her kids. Judy never knew her mother and doesn’t know if she has any brothers and sisters; her father and the grandparents who raised her are dead, so her girls are all she has in the world.
“I feel like I’m a halfway good mother. I’ll be a good mother when I get off crack, and I don’t use the money for crack. But, right now, I’m a halfway good mother. I tries to do good.”
Judy started snorting cocaine when she was 15 and has been using the drug in the form of crack for two years. But she doesn’t do it all the time, especially not during the day, she says.
“I can’t get high in the daytime for the simple reason that I have kids, and if I’m sitting in there getting high and one of my kids gets hurt, first thing they gonna say at the hospital, ‘Well, where was you?’ Some people don’t care about they kids. But I care. Nobody take care of my kids like I do.”
Her eyes roam over her possessions: the mismatched sofas, one of them covered with a brown bedspread, another with a stained orange one; the black velvet painting of a tiger; the gold velvet painting of the Golden Gate Bridge; the dusty china cabinet near the front door.
A lot of people think base women are stupid, but she’s not, she says. She goes to her bedroom and rummages around to find something, then brings it back for her guests to see. She extends it shyly, with an uncertain smile.
Judditte Williams, Class of ‘78.
It is a framed diploma from Miami Jackson Senior High School.
A shiny navy blue Mercedes Benz with mag wheels pulls into The Graveyard’s east-side parking lot. A heavy bass beat blasts out of its open windows. The Benz rolls into a parking space amidst broken-down and abandoned cars, in front of a vacant apartment. Before the driver has a chance to get out of the car, a couple of the young thugs trot up to him and talk to him through the window.
He gets out of the car and struts to a nearby apartment, a cool little kick in every other step. The young guys trail him, and he stops now and then to chat with them. There is an obvious sameness to the looks of the young dealers, and this man is the prototype — smoother and more polished. His hair is closely cropped, and he wears a red leather cap and matching shoes. He’s not tall, but he’s well built. His skin is shiny brown and smooth. He wears a gold chain, as the others do, but his chain is inches thick and supports a medallion the size of a small fist. The people of The Graveyard call him The Master.
He is known to police as Leon Frederick, 28. Police, having made a couple of lucky arrests in or around The Graveyard late last year, believe he is one of the project’s main dealers. He used to drive a convertible brown Cadillac El Dorado that he paid for with $12,653 in cash plus a $5,500 trade-in on a 1980 Cadillac. It was outfitted with a cellular phone and a sound system valued at roughly $5,000. Police confiscated it when they busted Leon down the street from The Graveyard last December. He was carrying a bag with 429 cocaine rocks. His trial is pending.
For a short time after last year’s arrests, The Graveyard was hot. The dealers lay low, and the traffic slowed a bit. In time, though, the impact of the arrests faded; it was business as usual.
The customers arrive on foot, by car, in cabs. They are white people. They are yuppies. They are working-class black people. They are Latins. They are gray-haired men and teen- agers. Some of them prefer to wait outside The Graveyard, on the other side of the tracks, just beyond what’s left of a chain-link fence. The customers stop there and honk their horns, then Mico or Sweet or another hustler will scramble under the fence and across the tracks to serve them. Other customers do a drive-in business, buying the crack and smoking it right there in the base house. Some just smoke out in the open.
Once upon a time, hope was the glue that kept The Graveyard’s law-abiding residents together. Hope for a better life, a job, a chance. Though poverty was the condition in which many of them lived, they worked hard to keep it from becoming a condition of the spirit as well. They tended their yards; they
went to tenants’ meetings; they supervised activities for their kids. People in their 20s and 30s remember growing up there and sleeping outside on the grass without fear. “It was so beautiful,” said a 28-year-old woman who still lives in The Graveyard and is now a crack addict.
Sure, there always were problems. Its official name is Site 5, Project FL 527-B, but residents began calling it The Graveyard years ago. Poverty bred crime, and crime bred more of itself. But when a tidal wave of cocaine rocks descended on the place two years ago, crime seemed to put The Graveyard in a stranglehold. The pulse of the community grew faint. Residents began moving out of The Graveyard and prospective tenants refused to move in. So basers claimed the vacant apartments for themselves. A table, some light, and plenty of floor space for sleeping is all they require.
Judy’s sliding glass door is slightly open one day. The heavy plastic-backed curtains are closed, but Shakeira and Shandina are sitting on the floor by the door, playing and peeking outside. Shandina’s nose is running all over her pacifier. The apartment is dark even though it is midafternoon. The kids’ toys are scattered around the green indoor-outdoor floor covering. An aluminum garbage can in the kitchen is overflowing with trash. Judy rarely lets the children go outside. She doesn’t want them getting mixed up with other kids, and she doesn’t want to have to go outside to watch over them. Now she is sleeping on a couch. Daytime is rough for Judy. At night, she gets high.
When Sherhonda gets home from Little River Elementary School this day, her mother is still asleep. She lets herself in with her house key and watches TV. She plays with her sisters until Judy wakes up. It’s dinner time.
Judy is standing over the stove cooking pork chops. Sherhonda watches her closely. Something is churning behind those serene brown eyes, but the girl is slow to talk about it. “I think it’s wrong, that she shouldn’t do it,” the girl says in a whisper. She means crack. Sherhonda knows her mother smokes crack. Once, Judy took out a pipe and showed the tall, shy, heavy-set girl a rock. She told her how the pipe was used, then told her that crack was bad, that she shouldn’t smoke it like her mother does.
When Judy’s basing buddies come calling, Sherhonda sometimes turns them away at the door before Judy notices. “Sometimes I say she’s not here. Sometimes I say she’s busy. I think they shouldn’t give it to her.”
The younger kids scream and race through the room banging empty butter cookie tins filled with pennies. The racket brings Judy out of the kitchen yelling at them to shut up. When the girls quiet down she says, “Now you see why sometimes I have to smoke crack to keep me from knocking the mess out of them.”
Sherhonda helps her mother put the mashed potatoes, pork chops and corn on the dinner table for the younger kids. The little girls pick at their food, dropping a good portion of it on the floor.
“The rat gonna come,” Judy says, chiding them to eat. Her voice says she’s teasing, but there is a rat who visits from time to time. When the kids have eaten, Sherhonda takes them off to bed. Five minutes later, Robbin’ Marvin, who has been living with Judy since his mother moved out of the project, returns
from making a sale. Awful Thang, wearing a mini-skirt and ankle boots, emerges from somewhere in the back of the apartment. Judy settles onto the couch and takes a couple of hits from the pipe that’s going around. She slumps back and stares at the end of Hill Street Blues.
“I would actually be damn near a millionaire if I didn’t smoke,” R.M. says, exhaling hard. The smoke hovers overhead. R.M. is an indefatigable braggart, especially when he’s high. He describes himself as the king of the crack hustle and says he is in great demand by his customers. Many of them are white, he says, especially women who come looking for him for special sexual favors he refers to as “triple McNugget.”
R.M. has two kids who stay with their mother. He says he
keeps his roles as dope dealer and father separate. When he is around his children, he says, he is always clean. It’s under control. He doesn’t see any reason why he should change his ways.
R.M. is very high, and very talkative. He thinks he has this crack thing all figured out: “A nigga gonna be what he wanna be as long as he be what he is. As long as you know you’re f—-in’ up and facing it, you could see it. When you get tired of being that and doing that, you’ll stop. But one thing I do know: When the kids need something, motherf—- this,” he says, holding up the pipe.
Some basers call their pipes their “private dancer.” R.M. passes the pipe to The Thang, who couldn’t care less about R.M.’s philosophy or Hill Street Blues. She’s more interested in Star Trek.
“Scotteeeeeeeee.” He beams her up one more time.
If only they had Spock to show them another way. He might tell them that at any moment they could have a heart attack, even die, from crack. He might tell them that slowly, but most surely, the sensory pleasure that is a crack rush is exhausting their brain’s supply of chemicals called neurotransmitters. He might tell them that the craving they have after the euphoria goes away is really their brain pleading for nourishment, for replenishment. He might tell them that crack denies them the food and rest they need, that it over-stimulates the brain to the point of exhaustion, to the point where the brain may no longer be able to work the lungs, or may overwork the heart. He might tell them that they are becoming walking zombies, prone to depression one minute, prone to violence the next. They can simply go berserk, then drop dead.
Schofield Flemming is in the breezeway again, hands in his pockets, disinterestedly watching the crack salesmen work at the east-side station. Just three days ago, Schofield was turning crack sellers away from his girlfriend’s apartment, determined to keep the drug out of his life.
Now he shifts his weight from one foot to the other and smiles sheepishly. “I smoked a rock,” he confesses. “I’m very disappointed in myself.”
Then he looks up and the sheepish grin turns into a broad smile.
“But it was GOOD!
“It was so many other people, and I’m just sitting there like this.” He frowns like a basset hound. “I was bored. Nothing else to do. Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Believe me. It was GOODD, with two D’s in it.”
Schofield says that his second time around with crack will be easier than the first. “Now that I experienced it one time, this time I can control it.” He won’t become a rock monster. He won’t use his grapefruit-sized biceps to rob people, and he won’t let men pick him up off of street corners.
Two days later: Schofield is hanging out near the red base car again. His mood is darker. “I gotta get outta here. You don’t hear nothing ‘round here, but people talking about rocks. Don’t hear about no jobs, no movies, no nightclubs.”
His problem is his own weakness, he says, and the way his girlfriend’s habit feeds it. He’s miserable with her. “I wake up in the morning, see her sitting up with some other nigga getting high, first thing I wanna do is kill both of ‘em. She gonna wind up getting me locked up again. Uh-huh! I’m getting away!”
Schofield says he’s decided to go back to his wife, the one who visited him while he was in jail, who showed up at his court hearings, who kept on caring about him even when he didn’t care about himself. They’ve talked, he says, and she’s agreed to take him back. She’s a good woman, and he doesn’t know why he let crack make him leave her in the first place. She’ll be picking him up at 8 o’clock tonight, he says. “I already got my clothes in my duffle bag. The only thing I’m gonna really miss is the kids. If the police come and knock that door down, they gonna take the kids, too.”
Schofield softens for a second, thinking of the children. Then he turns angry. “When I leave here,” he says, his voice sharp and staccato, “I Won’t! Look! Back!”
Schofield’s wife never came.
A week later, he was back in jail, charged with armed robbery.
The front door to an apartment across the breezeway from the base house opens. A plump, caramel-colored hand reaches out and gropes for the mailbox a few inches away. The body attached to the arm is nowhere in sight. The hand finally touches the mail and sweeps it inside. The door is slammed shut.
Helen Sanders is scared stiff. She won’t even step out of her front door. The 53-year-old woman lives with her daughter and stays home most of the time taking care of the grandchildren. Like most residents, she rarely opens the curtains to let sunshine in. Too much danger lurks outside. Even talking about the crack heads and the dangers they pose makes her nervous.
“This place is terrible. You don’t know. I’m just scared they might do something. I don’t want them people to hurt me. I believe in God taking care of me, but you really got to be careful.” She cups a hand over her mouth. Her eyes water. If you ignore the crack dealers and crack heads, she says, maybe they’ll leave you alone. “That’s the whole idea — try not to pay attention to it.”
Sometimes it seems that everyone tries to ignore what’s going on in The Graveyard. The police come and go, housing officials — in the past, at least — have let the place deteriorate and the residents who have to live there must learn to fend for themselves in a housing project booby-trapped with danger.
When Lt. John Brooks and his street narcotics unit sweep into The Graveyard and set up for Operation Sting, residents who most times are too afraid to lounge outdoors grab a beer and a ringside seat. The excitement brings the place to life. Crack customers drive up, buy the drug from undercover police officers, and then get arrested. The undercover cops look like the real thing. They are young, black and surrounded by other young men wearing gold chains and beepers. They are surrounded, to the outrage of onlooking residents, by young men who, on every other night, are crack dealers.
Brooks says he’s putting a dent in their business by arresting their customers. The customers are much less likely to return to The Graveyard if they don’t know whether it’ll be a cop selling them crack or a bona fide dealer, he says.
But clearly, a dent is about the only damage the occasional busts have done to The Graveyard drug business. As soon as the cops leave, the young dealers, the real ones, resume sales.
The Graveyard has approximately 225 official residents. But that number leaps close to 300 when you include people who have moved in with friends and relatives and are not named on leases, officials say. The place is bulging at the seams, yet roughly a third of its apartments are vacant.
That’s officially vacant. In most cases, what really happens is as soon as a tenant leaves — flees — the apartment is taken over by Mico, Sweet and others like them. The vacant units then become base houses. Officials from the Dade County department of Housing and Urban Development (“Little HUD”) say they know how bad things are. They admit that years of mismanagement and downright neglect have contributed to the community’s downfall. But they insist that things will be different. Soon.
Little HUD director Alvin Moore and Eugene Smith, manager of the agency area that encompasses The Graveyard, have come up with a plan to reclaim the public housing project. They call it a “total approach,” but its total effect on Graveyard residents to date has been slight and superficial.
Since January, “no trespassing” and “no loitering” signs have been posted at the project’s entrances and its parking lots. Maintenance crews have begun clearing accumulated trash and hauling it away on a more regular schedule. A few of the vacant apartments are being renovated and prepared for rental. Others are being boarded up.
But when HUD boards up vacant apartments, base heads simply
break down the boards and move right back in. And the rest of the “total approach” is thus far only good intention: to require new tenants to attend “housekeeping training,” to pave the dirt road and parking lot on the project’s north end, to repair and expand a playground on its east side.
A HUD policy to evict any tenant who is arrested for drug activity, including the tenant’s family, has been in effect for months. But there is no evidence that the policy is being enforced in The Graveyard.
The Graveyard has no live-in manager or maintenance staff. Wendell Brewer, the site manager, says that he visits The Graveyard as seldom as once a week. There is a tenants’ council at The Graveyard, but its meetings are poorly attended. Last year, when the president of the tenants’ council attempted to organize a neighborhood crime watch to crack down on drug sales, gunmen shot up her apartment. She and her children dove onto the floor of the apartment and escaped injury. They have since moved away.
The deep male voice sounds menacing, the face that goes with the voice seems downright dangerous. “Are you the reporter that wants to know about crack?” The tall man’s eyes are lifeless. He has sharp, chiseled cheekbones, a pointed nose and a long neck. He carries his 145-pound body on easy, elegant strides. Although his short hair is uncombed and his fingernails are caked with dirt, his clothing and his sneakers do not bear the trademark dirt and wear of most Graveyard basers. There is a fierce dignity about this man and a startling humility that allows him to sit down and pour out his troubles.
Steven Jabar Lawson is 28. Eleven years ago he and another youth were convicted of beating and strangling to death a man who had picked up the pair off a street corner for sexual favors. Steven spent six years in prison and then, a year after his release, started selling and using crack.
He is not proud of that crime nor of the ones he continues to commit. But his past and the present are all he has. He cannot imagine a future. Once a busboy at a Hyatt hotel and a child-care worker, now he is a homeless predator.
“Right now, I stay no particular place, from the use of crack. It has got me on the street. I’m not doing nothing but smoking cocaine. I got two speakers now. As soon as one of these brothers buy them, I get me a dime. Oh why I got to be obsessed!”
There are two Steven Lawsons, he says. One loves his family — two young sons and the fiancee who can’t cope with his drug habit. The other — the robber, the male prostitute — is sitting in The Graveyard, high from the rocks he just smoked, and thinking of where the next rock will come from. Steven struggles with his two sides and tries to find some logic to his life.
“I think this is what I want to do — what I want to do in the sense that this is what I’m doing. Deep inside, this ain’t what I wanna do. But outside, I got these urgings, these cravings which give me some form of excitement. So it got to be what I want to do in the sense that this is what I’m doing.”
Steven’s hard exterior softens as a woman friend hands him a baby to hold. He holds the girl gently and feeds her milk from a bottle. As daylight steals away from The Graveyard, Steven rocks the baby on his lap. “There’s a need for me to change
because I have kids, and I’m not there, you know, little boys that need a father. I can imagine myself not on crack, very much so. A healthy tall black man. Clothes. Jewelry — pinky ring, nice rope around his neck. Don’t have to be no Mercedes, just a nice up-to-date car. Nice job. Going home to raid them pots, kick off my shoes, watch the color TV. Have my boys running around.” The sky has turned magenta. Steven stares into it. Slowly, the smile fades.
Steven started his day at The Graveyard. He got high all through the previous night, went to Larchmont Gardens for more rocks in the morning, then to Northwest 71st Street and Seventh Avenue, and now back to The Graveyard. Somewhere along the line he broke into a home and stole a set of stereo speakers that he has been trying to sell all day. This monotonous pattern is his life. He has come a long way from the days when he was selling cocaine and had money to support his habit. Now, he is a zombie, a rock monster.
“I based up $120 today. I’m right back where I started yesterday. But I’m not gonna let me being broke now keep my head down. I’m gonna look up, go ahead and do what I gotta do to survive this thing. Do that sound logical? Yes, that sound logical. I ain’t gonna look to the ground. I’m gonna look up. One day I will go up from where I’m at.”
The baby is squirming in his arms now. He buckles her tiny pink shoe, then rocks her on his shoulder. “You all right. You in good hands,” he coos.
The next week, Steven sat in a park along the bay. He had come to find the reporter and photographer he had talked to in The Graveyard, to somehow get help from them. He said the dealers in The Graveyard wouldn’t sell to him and that someone there fired three shots at him. He feared for his life, he said. “I didn’t know nowhere else to go. Sound logical?” He had a small green Bible in his shirt pocket, but no hope, he said. “I’m lost. If something should happen to me … ” He did not finish the sentence. The next day, through the reporter’s intervention, he checked into a drug rehabilitation center. A few days of counseling revealed that he had lied about the shooting. “That’s one lie I don’t feel bad about because through ya’ll I was able to get help.” There was a new glimmer in his eyes that wasn’t there before.
Steven stayed in the program for 45 days but was kicked out for being disruptive and uncooperative. The program directors told him he had “a jailhouse mentality.” Still, Steven vowed to stay clean. As of this writing he has found a job, and is sharing an apartment with another recovering addict.
Ya’ll don’t wanna go in there,” says a man standing near the sliding glass doors of the base house at unit 7218. Inside, Sweet, a man called Do-Do and two others have a fifth man in a headlock on the floor. The man had been smoking with them for hours — flashing just enough money to make them believe he could pay for all the crack he smoked. But he couldn’t pay. Sweet and Do-Do and the others kicked him and hollered at him. Sweet snatched a chain from his neck. The basers gathered outside the glass doors and watched the man get a whipping.
Afterward, Sweet is somber and quiet. He leans against the wall inside the base house. “I didn’t want to have to do that,” he says. The man’s gold chain now is wrapped around his wrist. Sweet says he hasn’t slept in 48 hours, so he goes into a bedroom in the base house and lies down on a striped, urine- stained mattress that’s on the floor. A green Singer sewing machine sits on the floor in the corner. Somebody traded it for crack. There are cigarette butts and match books and pieces of glass and beer cans everywhere.
He can barely keep his eyes open. A lit cigarette dangles
from his lips, hovering perilously close to his wild black hair, which he hasn’t cut in eight years. He hasn’t had a bath for two days. He wears the same black bell-bottomed slacks he’s worn for three weeks and a silver aviation-style jacket. His black high- tops are frayed around the edges.
Do-Do barges in, begging for a rock. He is a musty man with a huge gap between his front teeth. “I told you to go beam up with what you had!” Sweet yells. “Get on outta here!” Do-Do goes.
“I get tired of people begging. ‘Got a beer — gimmie a sip of beer. Got a cookie — gimmie half a cookie.’ “
“That’s life,” someone says.
“No,” says Sweet. “That’s crack.”
Hassle after hassle after hassle. If it’s not the cops, who cruise through daily, it’s the crack heads, the moochers. Sweet says he could be somewhere else doing something better if he wanted to. He studied computers and data processing at Miami- Dade Community College for two years, he says, and he’s skilled in drywall construction and plastering. Why isn’t he doing those things? ‘Cause he’s here. Is he happy? “No.” Does he get any satisfaction from the trade? “No.” Then why do it? “I don’t know.”
“You happy when you make the money. When you not making the money and the money’s gone, it’s treacherous. You wonder will somebody come up and buy mine.”
Sweet swears he doesn’t use crack. He reacts to the question as if it were an insult. His eyes are yellow and droopy
because he doesn’t get enough rest and he drinks too much, he says. His weight is low because he doesn’t eat the way he should.
“What I need to smoke it for? It don’t do f—-in’ s—- but run you nuts. You don’t believe it? You smoke it and see how ailin’ you be after you don’t have no more.”
A couple of nights later, though, Sweet is sitting on a milk crate in another base house. In front of him is an upside- down fish tank with a sheet of broken glass on top. Two women are sitting with him. One is extremely curvaceous and wears a sleeveless skin-tight T-shirt dress. The other woman describes herself as a “very reputable person.”
Sweet has rocks in his hand and a pipe sitting in front of him. “No, Unh-unh,” he says, waving off the intruders. A black bra is hanging off a shelf in an open closet. “Ya’ll ruinin’ it. Please leave,” he says. Sweet just sits there holding the rocks. The woman in the dress wants the rocks badly. “Come on, man,” she says.
“I’m bein’ polite. Please leave,” Sweet says. “Ya’ll disrespectful,” the woman says. This is their house, she says. The visitors argue that they have just as much right to this abandoned apartment.
It is an absurd confrontation in a surreal place. Sweet, his forearms resting on his thighs, hangs his head and just sits there until he is left alone.
Sweet and his crowd moved here as soon as the previous tenant, a bus driver with four kids, moved out. That was on a Sunday. “It’s a bad environment to raise kids,” the bus driver had said. Her move was perfectly timed for the basers, because a crew of county maintenance workers had boarded up and bolted the old base house the previous Wednesday. At the time, Sweet had predicted it wouldn’t hurt his business. He’d said he would “translate — move over to the next phase.” And he’d been right. “We got a new house,” Mico had said Wednesday morning, pointing to the upstairs apartment.
A woman and her 12-year-old daughter who lived next door now have new neighbors: rock monsters, a whole pack of them.
Neither the woman nor her daughter would talk about it. The girl swept the staircase one day. Crack heads brushed past her, traipsing up and down the stairs without so much as an “excuse me.” Behind their backs, the girl raised the broom as if she were about to beat them. Within days, the woman and her daughter had moved away. Sweet and the other basers took over her apartment, too.
It is dark inside the bus driver’s old home, except for the moonlight peeking in through a window. The living room and kitchen are empty. A light coming from a back room illuminates the hallway. Down the hall, Sweet’s stained old mattress is sitting on the floor. The door is off its hinges.
A light is on in the next room. A woman named Sue is huddled over a circle of blue and orange flames that leap from the puddle of alcohol and cocaine residue. She and her smoking companion of the moment — a 19-year-old who is pregnant — have poured the residue onto a broken mirror.
The high is better from smoking residue, Sue says. “I love rez. I love to smoke rez. I used to give nobody none of my rez. I like it. It burns faster.” The women got the residue by running alcohol through two pipes left by other basers who now have gone back outside to hustle for more.
The pregnant woman does not like to talk. When she’s not inside The Graveyard getting high, she’s out on Second Avenue turning tricks. For a time, Sue is silent, too. She smacks her lips and clasps her hands while the alcohol burns away. She adjusts the safety pin that keeps her bulging chest from popping out of her dirty, low-cut turquoise dress. She tugs at the lint- covered blue ski cap she wears over a matted auburn wig. Her face is hard, emotionless. Sue is like an object here, fitting in perfectly with the cigarette butts, ashes, empty plastic bags, matches and lighters, beer cans, discarded clothing, dried food and pipes that litter the room.
The flames have died away, and the residue is now a patch of brown crust. Hunched on the edge of an old chair, her legs straddling open, Sue scrapes up the residue. Her dirty, rough hand jerks quickly. The pregnant woman’s lips are gaping open. She is watching Sue make a small pile of residue, burn it with a cigarette lighter, then delicately pick up the sticky substance with the razor’s edge, and pack it into her pipe. The two women take turns with the pipe. They hold their breath after each hit. The pregnant woman jumps up and stifles a cough that could push the vapors out of her mouth and waste them. Her pants are unzipped to accommodate her bulging stomach.
Sue won’t say exactly how long she’s been using crack, but she’s been hanging around in The Graveyard for several months. Once, her life was good. But now she’s a baser and has no idea when or if she’ll ever change.
“Yesterday, meaning it might be tomorrow, and yesterday is gone, might not never come again. Today, tomorrow — might be in the next 10 minutes.
“I wanna quit, but they say you got to really want to quit. I hope nothing treacherous happen to me. I wanna wake up one morning and say ‘What the f—- I’m doing here with a bunch of nasty muthaf—-ers who don’t take no bath for weeks?’ I used to look at people like them and say, ‘Ooooh, not me!’ My hair like this with this s—- on my head. My hands all rough and s—-. I say, ‘Damn, this not me.’ “
It is failure, she says, that sent her into crack’s arms. For eight years, she had a decent job, made $250 a week. “I wore nice s—-. Dress up, plenty money, nice car …” Then she lost the job. Then she started smoking crack. “Now I got to worry about buying cigarettes, no less dinner. Those is the good old days, I guess.”
Sue makes no pretense about being happy with the way she lives. Happiness is one of those real-world concepts that seems to be foreign to her.
“I’m trying to see how far this’ll take me,” she says. “I never thought it would take me this low. I never EVER thought I would get this far. I pray to God, ‘Please, release me from this demon. Take it away!’ “
Schofield was released from jail. Prosecutors dropped the armed robbery charge for lack of evidence. For Schofield, it was a sign from God that it was time — truly time — to straighten up. The armed robbery charge scared him, made him wonder if he’d be sent to prison for life. But he also knew that prosecutors didn’t have much evidence against him, so while he was in jail he researched the law and he filed his own motion to have the charge dismissed. Outside the courthouse, a free man in a brisk February breeze, Schofield pledged to do right. He had talked to his 26-year-old wife and she had promised to give him yet another chance. He said he would go home to her and their 2- year-old daughter, get a job, and be the man both of them knew he could be.
“This is the real last time,” his wife had said the day before Schofield was released. She explained to a reporter why she’s willing to give him one more chance: “I met him when he was a different person, when he had potential.” Before crack, Schofield had been interested in electronics and could have gotten a job in that field, too, his wife said, because he has such a mathematical mind. “That man is a walking calculator. He’s very smart. I admire him. I know he can make it.”
The couple had agreed that he would go to her house if he was released. He promised he would not go back to The Graveyard. “If I stay in The Graveyard,” he said after the hearing, “I’ll probably wind up dead. I had a dream that I was dead, about four nights ago. How did I die? Over rocks.”
The day he was released, Schofield was supposed to meet his wife after she got off work. He had promised her never to set foot in The Graveyard again.
But he went anyway — just to pick up his clothes, he said.
That was three weeks ago. He’s still there. Caption: photo: woman Pat in crack den (t), abandoned apartment (t), Mico climbs in window (t), homeless prostitue sleeps (t), man smokes cocaine rocks (t), woman asleep in Pinto (t), man weeps after arrest (t), Judy Williams (t), Schofield Flemming (t), Frederick Thompson subdued by police (t), crack (t), men arrested in sting (t)