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. 

read the rest of chapter one