beating the law in the lower east side, 1980: “all you have to do with cops is be comprehensible”

Stewart Meyer’s novel The Lotus Crew tells the story of the junkie Alvira and his gangster-connected partner Tommy in the merciless world of New York City’s Lower East Side, circa 1980 or so. The pair known for selling the best heroin in New York, but after being betrayed by a fellow crew member, they take revenge to restore their vision of order on the streets. From the dust jacket of the original Grove Press edition (which I own, and you, whoever you are, probably don’t!):

 

Alphabet City. Bounded by Avenue A to the West and Avenue D to the East, New York‘s Lower East Side is an urban jungle of abandoned buildings teeming with shadows and junkie life. What turns a war zone of gutten tenements into a buzzing market place complete with scoring pads and shooting galleries, bag men and steerers controlling the unceasing flow of traffic is a precious beige powder packaged in machine-tucked glassine bags. They come stamped with a logo and are shrink-sealed in plastic. The name of the game is heroin, and in Lotus Land heroin is serious business.

 

A homage to William S. Burroughs — can one write a novel about heroin without it reading as a homage to El Hombre Invisible? — Burroughs himself said that "The Lotus Crew is a superbly crafted novel that says the most basic things about power, corruption, loyalty, and the total need of heroin addiction. Stewart Meyer is a writer to watch; The Lotus Crew is better than a move."

 

The opening chapter:

 


 

l—Walk The Plankl

They can smell yen on a Caucasian. Both vendadors and police have a sixth sense for it and know you’re out of synch, tense, anxious about essentials. You are down on Earth with one thought: to keep it brief. You don’t care how overt your obsessiveness becomes to Earthlings. Puny exploited sacks of shit and pus. How could they understand anything?

Delancey Street crackled shameless like a neon leper colony. It was a dismal October afternoon in the year 1982. A cold mist abstracted the street.

Alvira’s eyes periscoped over the rim of his gray sun-glasses, and he took in the social order of the park like a demented anthropologist. No need to approach anyone. The monkey would take care of it.

"Senor, the Toilet is open. Open an’ smokin’, poppa. Yus’ sit on thee bench an’ hab j’muny ready." Moving with metronomically correct loose-skeleton boogie-bebob gestures, the touter attempted to usher Alvira over to the bench where Toilet was operating, extending a wiry Latin arm with tracks along the main vein.

Alvira saw the three-man crew; one guy fanning bags, one taking cake, another looking mean. An evolving population of mostly blanco junkies waited impatiently to get near the bagman for their play and haul ass away from the muggers and cops who make their daily bread tormenting lotus users. Of course, being heat on junk turf is no breeze. Nobody backs down. A slumbum will not drop his dick in public. If he does he can’t pick it up.

"Lookin’ for Black Sunday, B. You see’m around?"

"Sunday close. Cops take their bags. On’y got Toilet, poppa. On’a muny On’a muny." The touter drew the fingers of his left hand together, kissed the tips, blew the kiss to God for creating such baaad shit. "No’sing touch Toilet out here, m’man. It’s a monster. Be suckin’ j’toes on uno bag."

"Thanks, man, I’ll pass and take a walk. If I don’t see Black Sunday I’ll be back."

The thin lines of his conquistador moustache parted like a Venus’s-flytrap as he smiled. "Buy dummies f’sho’ go down that way." He pointed towards Rivington Street, across the park.

So that’s where they were! Handy Carbona had told Alvira that the Sunday crew had no set spot but moved around the area from Houston Street to Forsyth, from ChrystieStreetPark to Allen Street. Their boss was a blue-eyed Puerto Rican named Kono, who was the only one you could safely hand money to.

"Ba hondo!"

"Fao! Fao!"

"Agua! Ba hondo!"

They both turned as the cry spread through the park. Best not to make any sudden moves. Alvira walked slowly away from the touter and sat on a far bench. The Tactical prowler stood ten feet from the bench where Toilet had been operating. Customers and vendadors acting nonchalant, preoccupied, fooling no one. The moments crept by. They should all whip out Bibles and go into theopathic convulsions, Alvira thought. All you have to do with cops is be comprehensible.

"Red light! Keep walkin’!"

Alvira lit a cigarette and watched with mounting impatience, eyes watery, skin crawling. The sweat under his arms felt like harsh acid, lungs tight as if from a severe flu. If he didn’t score soon he’d be farting butterscotch.

Two uniforms emerged from the prowler and began to hassle the Toilet crew. It’s protocol to stash all bags when the lookouts cry out, so everyone was clean. But the cops were going to do their paper shit, their "warrant check," just to tie up the festivities. They did not appear to notice Alvira. He got up and walked slowly away from the bad news.

Might as well check Rivington Street. Sure enough, as he neared the bodega another touter smelled his yen.

"Black Sunday! Inside, secon’ floor," the man said. Alvira passed and went into the bodega, bought a container of coffee. He’d heard Sunday worked outside, not in buildings. He’d also heard people passed Black Sunday dummies. Only buy from Kono. Alvira watched for a few minutes. Business was thriving. Must be the real thing.

The touter gave him a strange look but stepped aside. A thick honcho inside was not as polite.

"Got tracks, m’ man?"

"No tracks," Alvira said. "I sniff."

The man smirked. "No good, B. J’bad company." The honcho lifted his arm to signal for assistance, and Alvira saw another man move to surround him. "Spleet now, dig?"

"Wait, m’man, listen. Handy Carbona told me to look for Kono and score Sunday if I want to get straight. I used to score from Dr. Nova in this building, but I been away. You know Carbona?"

The honcho grinned. "Dude was on m ‘program. Gulp mo’ Jesus jizz than any ten men." He called off his backup. "Why’nt j’say Handy sent j’? Go up. Hab j’muny ready."

Alvira walked farther into the shadowy abandoned building. Another crew worker sat on the stairs with a shotgun resting across his fat lap. He was talking to a wiry blood. "Blancos ain’t no good on musical instruments, man. They should stick to calculators and typewriters." He looked up at Alvira. "Secon’ floor on the left."

On the way up, it hit Alvira that something wasn’t right.

Just as vendadors and la hara smell yen, the junkie smells a ripoff or bust. Not the scents he was getting. Something, some small detail, was off. Alvira’s left hand moved into ms jacket pocket, where he slid the safety off his Raven. 25 automatic. There was a round in the chamber. Whatever was off he’d cool. 

On the second floor he scored without a hitch, giving two fifties to the cake taker and standing patiently, palm up, eyes down, as the bundle was metered out. Each bag was machine-tucked glassine stamped with the Black Sunday logo and shrink-sealed in plastic. According to Handy it was the only down bag on the street at the moment. Handy didn’t schmooz anymore, but being the oldest wisest hip­pest junkie at the methadone program subjected him to end­less sound whether he wanted it or not. The street yentas kept him up on what bag was smokin’ at any given moment.

It was only as Alvira was on his way down the stairs with hi bags that he realized what was wrong.

"Hold it, B," a crew worker said. "Cain’t go out that way.

Too hot. Too much in an’ out." He jerked his head in the direction of the roof. "Go up to the top an’ cross over to the nex’ building. Let you out on Chrystie."

That was it. Dozens of people going in and nobody com­ing out.

Alvira nodded at the lookout as he made the roof. "How do I split?"

The Latin pointed to a plank of semirotten wood, maybe sixteen inches wide, stretching twelve feet between the building they were on and the next. "Walk the plank."

"What?"

Two blancos appeared, walked around the baffled Alvira, and casually walked the plank. The wood bent and squeaked. The lookout shrugged.

Alvira looked down. A six-story drop onto concrete and broken glass. His legs vibrated with yen tension, palms sweaty, head swimming.

"C’mon. Take the stairs down to the open window an’ pass into the nex’ building. Let you out on Chrystie. On’y way, m’man, so make eet."

"Hmmmmmm, lemme just sit here’n hoof a bag so’m not jumpin’ out of m’skin for this."

The lookout was amused. "Hey, if the man was on his way up here j’d be over that plank in a flash. Bu awri’, B. Be quick."

Alvira slit a bag and sniffed powder off the tip of his blade. It was beige, even consistency, flat taste. Very strong. He lit a cigarette and looked up at an angry gray and crimson sky. Without further elaboration he took a deep breath and walked the plank. It trembled under his sneakers, but before he could register terror it was all over. He took the stairs down to the open window, made the next building, walked out on Chrystie Street.

Whew! What a body won’t do for a religious experience.

"Gimmicks! Need a gimmick, poppa?"

He turned to face a light-skinned young Latin girl with jet-black lotus eyes, the skin pulled tightly over her face so you could see the bones.

"No gimmicks. Shit, you ever walk that plank?"

"Every day."

"They ever lose anyone on that number?"

"Not today. They gotta do it that way. Bery hot. Cops look for Sunday. Wan’ a place to get off?"

Alvira didn’t shoot and was staying just a block away with some friends. But he was in the mood to linger awhile in Lotus Land. After the eternal ‘burbs of L.A. it was refreshing.

The girl led him to a cellar social club on Eldridge Street.

He gave her five bucks and half. a bag, then gutted and snorted two more off the tip of his blade. He looked around. Needles, blood, spoons, bottle caps, alcohol burners. A radio might have helped, but nothing frivolous would. be appropriate. Just sounds of pain and pleasure punctuating the eternal jabber of a slumbum happy hour. Alvira was the only sniffer, the only square in the shooting gallery.

Momentarily he felt intense relief. Lungs loosened., nose and eyes stopped running, bones relaxed under the skin. He tapped a Three Castles cigarette out of a fresh pack and put the tip loosely between his lips, Alvira smoked moderately, and only pale fine Virginia.      

"Hey, m’man, hit ch’jugular fi’ bucks."

Alvira looked up at a tall thin black man with piss-yellow eyes and the broken face of an old prizefighter.

"Three if you got cho’ own weeper."

"No thanks, m’fine."

"The man’s fine by design," the black man said, "but watch yo’ behin’,"

Alvira smiled and looked away. Time to split. He usually liked to sit very still after fixing, but this was not the place. In retrospect walking the plank seemed trivial. His mind drifted back to L.A. He’d gone to clean up and stayed away from the goodness even though there was no shortage of brown Mex. But a few days before leaving for New York, he met a Chicano girl who liked to screw and suck up El Pico laced with opium and honey. After three weeks with Mr. Clean, relapse was like a ticket home. Alvira felt like your proverbial incongruity when not opiated. The physical and mental anguishes of withdrawal were perfectly bearable. Being an Earthling was not. So time and again he went back to meet the monkey. Alvira and the Chinaman ate off the same plate.

*

Alvira left the club and walked over to Prince Street. He was staying for the time being in the loft of his friend Specs.

Specs was an old friend, from boyhood chalk on the factory wall, from afternoon sniffs in the school yard. "A pinch of powder to the wind for the souls who slip over into Endless Nod." Specs was a photographer and spent hours each day absorbed in quiet conception. QT, the dark-eyed girl who lived with him, silently hand-tinted Specs’ photos. They were building a collection of character studies called Inebriates and were both so self-absorbed Alvira fit right in. There was something impalpable about his hosts that comforted him. When he got upstairs he found the inseparable pair sitting at a wide table sorting slides. Alvira dropped three bags before Specs.

"For you."

Specs looked up. "Hey, you don’t have to do that. It doesn’t cost us anything to have you stay here until you get settled."

"Don’t be too generous, Alvira. You’re going to need those bags," QT said.

"I’m fine. Got enough to hold me. T should hit town tomorrow evening, and then I’m set up. So please enjoy’m."

Specs didn’t need to have his arm twisted too far back.

He was not a junkie. . . heavens, no! His flair for decorous verbiage led him to the phrase "lotus enthusiast." It was something he did only occasionally, and never two days in a row. Specs carefully slit the bags open and tapped powder onto a hand mirror. Attention quietly focused as they sat around the tray for the healing ceremony, staring at thick snowy lines of goodness. Sniff! A ‘shish pipe was lit to facilitate inebriation. The silence took on a harmonic divinity.

"So this is Black Sunday," Specs said, eyes reduced to sparkling slits. "It’s better than Dr. Nova. Old Handy Carbona knows exactly of what he speaks."

"Yeah, it’s gooood," Alvira said. "But wait until you get a take on T’s pebbles. This material has to be stepped on a few times for safety. Easy to o.d. with, man. He gets’m straight from the Ayatollah—"

"Pebbles?"

"Yeah, and not reconstituted. The real thing. Light yellowish-beige, granulates coarse but breaks up quick in water. No quinine, nothing bitter. Bums to a clear amber drip."

"So what’s he want from you, Alvira?"

"Well, you remember a few years back when T was putting out bags and I was working for him—"

"Yeah, before he dumped a few kilos of number four on that undercover jerk and went away."

"Right. One of life’s embarrassing moments, for sure. He was released from prison a few months ago and went up-state to chill out. Muggles handles the reefer trade for him. He’s covered. He just sits on his old wooden verandah and dreams up new mischief. Got a scheme for me to hear."

”Tommy always did incorporate you into his schemes."

"Only the wilder ones. Last time he was gonna form the Rainbow Society, sort of a crew based loosely on the Chinese Triads. Quite a historian, Tommy is. Obsessive about secret societies. Reads everything he can get his hands on, raps to people who know the score."

"So he’s going to give it another shot?"

"Near as I can tell he got his uncle to spring for the seed cake, and his importer gave’m a nice low price for kilos."

"All he needs is a crew."

"Yeah,a Rainbow crew. All different nationalities."

"That’s where you come in."

"I guess."

"Gonna do it, Alvira?"

Alvira shrugged. "I’m broke. The trip to L.A. tapped me out, and I’ve still got m’monkey. Got to do it. I just want to get by without the scuffle."

"And Tommy? What about him? He don’t need money."

"Oh, Tommy—man, you know. He just wants to be the Emperor."

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