This article first appeared on May 1, 1991 in Z Magazine.
“Hey, Heavy D, what you got for me today? Got some heavy boulders? Shake ’em and they sound like dice?” That was the chant Jimmy Oliver heard when he walked down South Washington Street in Lansing, Michigan. Heavy D was his nickname, after the fat rapper whose girth Jimmy shares. And the heavy boulders? Those were the rocks of crack riding in Jimmy’s jeans. A few years ago, Jimmy was a rich young drug dealer who could blow $12,000 over a weekend — partying with prostitutes and buying big dinners for a dozen of the false friends his money bought. Now he’s just broke. A few months ago, Jimmy started smoking his product, which is the quickest way to lose money in the drug business.
“I don’t do it as a habit,” he says, sounding cautious as he describes his three-times-a-week crack habit. “But lately it’s becoming more and more frequent, and I’m trying to stop that, because for the longest time I could walk around and hold an ounce worth in my pocket and never touch it. … Then I started, what the hell, I’ve done so good for so long, let me just take a little hit here and there. All that little treat turned into a little problem.” Jimmy Oliver, 23, fits no one’s picture of a crack smoker and a cocaine dealer. He’s so fat he fills an easy chair from arm to arm, and he strolls around in old black jeans, flannel shirts, dirty sneakers, and who-cares-about-fashion black plastic glasses.
Jimmy lives with his mother in a ranch house on the south side of town. The deals he makes net him $300 or $400 a week, and most of that goes up in a cloud of clear cocaine smoke. To get to drug deals, he drives his mom’s car. She works days as a clerk.
Lately, he’s been talking about lying low, getting out of dealing for a while. About a year ago, while he and some friends were driving near Detroit, they were stopped by police and searched.
Jimmy was arrested when the cops found two joints and was sentenced to nine months probation for possession of marijuana. He’s been dealing pot for a decade, but this was his first drug rap. Now he reports to a probation officer once a month and goes to a drug class where he lies and tells the counselor he’s only smoked four joints in his whole life.
“This is going to be my last deal for a while,” he says as he stands in the cluttered kitchen of his mother’s house. This is no crack house — on the wall of the kitchen his mother has posted her “Rules for All-Night TV Watching and Game Playing”: These include cleaning the dishes.
His mother’s house is in a blue-collar neighborhood that is sliding, if not into slumhood, then into disrepute. Most of the houses look poorly made, as though they were thrown together during a development boom, and are not well kept. Though not more than 30 years old, the neighborhood has aged quickly. Now crackheads for a nearby housing project make raids on the convenience stores, and people have been robbed in their homes.
Jimmy’s mother, a heavyset, light-skinned woman, knows her son smokes crack, but she tolerates it, and she allows him to live at home. After all, her boyfriend smokes crack.
To protect his mother, Jimmy keeps big deals away from the house. It’s a chilly Thursday night, and Jimmy’s waiting on a customer named Joey, who wants to buy a quarter-ounce of powder cocaine for a friend. Joey shows up at Jimmy’s house at around 9 o’clock, after Jimmy has finished fixing bagels and sandwiches for himself and for me. The buyer is a blond man in his early 20s, dressed in jeans and a Detroit Tigers jacket; he’s brought with him his “beams” — a pharmacist’s scale — wrapped in plastic, and as soon as he enters, he hands them to Jimmy. When Joey speaks, it’s in an intense mix of mumbled words and obscenities:
“This is gonna be fuckin’ good stuff, right?” he asks. “It’s gonna be the right weight?”
“Uh-huh,” Jimmy says impassively.
Joey rambles on unintelligibly for a few more moments, talking and fidgeting in the middle of the den. Jimmy listens indulgently, then asks, “You got the money?”
Joey digs into his pockets for a $200 roll of bills, finds it, and hands it to Jimmy.
“All right,” Jimmy says. “I’m gonna make the buy. You guys meet me in the parking lot of Joe’s Diner in half an hour and I’ll have the bag for you.”
Joe’s Diner is on West Saginaw Street, one of Lansing’s busiest. When we arrive, the restaurant is closed and Joey and his friend are waiting in their car. Jimmy parks next to Joey, and Joey gets out of his car and climbs into the back seat of Jimmy’s. Jimmy hands the bag of coke over the back seat, then he gives Joey the scales. Joey doesn’t bother to weigh the coke. This place is too public.
By way of inspection, Joey opens the bag and smells the coke. Satisfied, he puts it in his pocket. Jimmy hands him his quarter-gram finders fee, and Joey pockets that and leaves. Jimmy drives cautiously home, wary of the cops that appear from time to time in his rearview mirror.
Jimmy likes to consider himself a cut above his customers, but he is not much different from a hundred other high-school burnouts aimlessly drifting through life. More intelligent, certainly, but just as much of a drifter. His only real sense of direction, the influence that guided him to where he is today, came when he was eight years old.
Some kids see football on TV and want to be quarterbacks. Some see Van Halen and dram of rock and roll. When he was eight, Jimmy saw a TV show about people dealing pot, and he decided that might be a good way to supplement his allowance. “I’ve always had an eye for money,” he says.
So Jimmy went to a field near his house and plucked a sheaf of what he was thought was marijuana. He took the plant home, “cured” it, and rolled it. The kids at elementary school loved it when he sold it to them, even though they were buying ragweed.
It wasn’t until he was in sixth grade, Jimmy says, that “This girl showed me where the real weed was. The first joint didn’t affect me at all. The third one, I was seeing angels.”
As soon as the buzz spread out through his head, Jimmy wandered off to the Hall of Fame, an all-night pool hall and video arcade, and played video games until the sun rose the next morning, the morning of his first full day as a druggie.
Jimmy didn’t start dealing seriously until he was a sophomore in high school. He and his friend Alvin were recruited by a dealer named Mike. He gave Alvin and Jimmy a $10 bag of pot and asked them to sell it at school. Alvin and Jimmy rolled and sold about 15 joints for Mike; he rewarded them with one joint for every five they sold.
“It was [a rip-off]. By the time we figured it out two weeks later, we started dealing for ourselves. Saved up our own profits, got our own bag, started rollin’. Worked up to the point where we were dealing three ounces a day.”
On football Fridays, when “the parking lot was like Woodstock,” he would sell twice as much. “While the parents were watching the people play, the kids were out in the parking lot gettin’ lit. Taking acid, drinking fifths. We knew we were a dying race. Burnouts. Our sole purpose in life was to get messed up.”
As a heavy marijuana salesman, Jimmy was a member of the dealers’ union, a cartel of the school’s regular rollers. When a union member ran out of pot, other members would give him enough to keep him in business. That way, a dealer could keep from looking like an unreliable source.
When he talks, Jimmy sometimes sounds like a nostalgic 40-year-old: “I’ve thrown some massive parties,” he says. “I mean, you wake up in the morning, people are laid out all over the place, there’s wet spots on the carpet, drinks spilled all over, or people throwing up.”
Jimmy claims to have finished high school, but his friends aren’t sure. He may not have left school with a diploma, but he left as an experienced dealer, and he soon graduated to selling marijuana by the pound. It wasn’t unusual for him to drive around with 16 pounds of pot in the trunk of his car; he was selling 30 or 40 pounds a week, and earning $300 on every pound he sold.
Ultimately, Jimmy is a sensualist, not a materialist. He prefers sex, drugs and thrills to Porsches or big stereos. Even when he was clearing thousands of dollars a week, he drove rust-bucket cars.
To make his income look legitimate, Jimmy worked as a janitor in a nursing home and, for a time, operated a bandsaw in a steel mill. Work plus dealing didn’t leave time for sleep, so sometimes he ate acid for two weeks at a time to keep himself awake. At the nursing home, he might come in stoned, work two or three hours, then crawl into a broom closet to sleep away the rest of his shift.
Somewhere around 1986, thanks to the diligence of the Lansing area’s Tri-County Metro Narcotics Squad, marijuana became scarce in town. “They dried up all the weed,” Jimmy says, “and people had money to spend on drugs. What’s this? Crack is everywhere…. You take away one drug, they’ll start doing another.” Like a good businessman, Jimmy started selling the new product.
Like most American kids, Jimmy wanted to go all the way to the top of his field. “When I was a teenager, I wanted to become the biggest gangster around. Get an army, become a millionaire. Get enough money to feed the hungry, set up something for the homeless. Look at the Kennedys. They started out bootlegging.”
When he was 19, Jimmy met a man who might have made his dreams come true. “He was crazy,” Jimmy recalls. “His name was Johnny. He played guitar, he was Mexican, he had all the big-time connections.” Johnny also dealt cocaine by the pound, kept 50-pound bales of marijuana in warehouses, and turned deals that netted him $30,000. Johnny was Jimmy’s main supplier, and Jimmy was Johnny’s loyal lieutenant.”
A coke binge killed Johnny when he was 27. He was in a motel room with a friend named Mike when he OD’d. Mike panicked, laid Johnny in a tub of ice-cold water, then split with all the cash and drugs in the room. Mike ran to a friend’s house to call an ambulance, but by the time the paramedics arrived, Johnny’s head had sunk underwater, and he had drowned.
Jimmy’s shot at the big time died in that motel room, too. He could have been a big-league dealer. Instead, when Johnny was buried, all Jimmy got were his weighing scales and his gun.
When Jimmy gets home from his deal with Joey, he heads down the stairs to the basement, which he uses as a crack-smoking den. He cooks up some cocaine until it’s rocked into crack, and now he’s ready to smoke.
Jimmy sucks hard on the crack pipe, drawing cocaine smoke into his lungs. Like a pot smoker, he purses his lips to hold the cloud in. When he gasps the smoke free, a clear puff escapes. Suddenly, Jimmy looks as free and relieved as a diver who has cut the surface of the water and is breathing sweet, fresh air. He hits pipe after pipe — over a dozen times in all. This is what he calls “chasin’ Jason,” smoking until he finds that orgasmic hit that will slam in the head, make him melt into his chair.
As he chases Jason, lighting, inhaling, holding the smoke, drops of sweat form on his forehead and temples. Sitting in his chair, he looks intense and determined, even businesslike, as he pursues that big rush. Finally, on about the tenth hit — BANG!
“That’s the one everybody wants,” he says. “They call ’em ringers, ’cause it makes your ears ring.”
A few hits later, he lays down the pipe and puts the rock in a clear plastic bag. Walter is coming over soon. Walter is Jimmy’s best friend, the keeper of his conscience, and a guy who won’t smoke crack.
“I’m ashamed to be wired around him,” Jimmy says.
Even when his head is buzzing with crack, Jimmy is still cool and articulate. “Your judgment’s crystal clear,” he said. “That’s another thing that’s scary about it. You lose all morals. You lose all ethics. All you want to do is keep the buzz going.”
“Here, take this,” says Jimmy, handing Walter the bag as soon as he arrives. “And don’t give it back to me, no matter what I say. Take it upstairs and hide it where I can’t find it.”
Walter takes Jimmy’s bag to the kitchen, where he hides it behind some boxes in the pantry. Ten minutes later, Jimmy decides he wants his rock back.
“I gotta end on a blast,” he tells Walter. “Otherwise, I’ll want it all night.”
Walter crosses his arms, looks down, shakes his head.
“I gotta end on a blast,” Jimmy says. “Otherwise, I’ll want it all night.”
“There’s always one more blast, isn’t there?” Walter chides.
For five more minutes, Jimmy follows Walter around the room, badgering and begging, until, at last, Walter relents. He goes to the pantry and fetches Jimmy’s crack.
After Jimmy has lit his pipe and given himself the night’s last big blast, he still has a good-sized piece of crack left. It’s two in the morning now, all the day’s work is over, and the night’s rewards and possibilities are rattling around in Jimmy’s head. Everything is tied to the rock.
“I’ve got this in my pocket,” he says, referring to the remainder of the rock. “I can do one of three things with it: I can smoke it up, and it’ll be gone in 10 minutes; I can go get sex with it; or I can sell it.” He was already wasted, and he had made $50 on the deal, so that left the middle course.
“I know hundreds of girls who will trade some draws for this stuff,” he said. “Good, bad and indifferent.”
Drugs are efficient: “better than takin’ a girl to the movies, this, that, and the other, and weeks and months later you still don’t get into her pants. If you aren’t looking for some long-term relationship, go out and get it for real.”
That night, he and Walter got it for real. If it hadn’t been for the sex, he might have stopped dealing drugs already. But wherever Jimmy takes his pocketful of rocks, he finds women willing to screw for a few hits on the pipe. This 23-year-old man, who weighs nearly 300 pounds, claims to have had sex with more than 200 women. “Hookers” are his favorites.
Jimmy swore that evening he was making his last deal, at least until he got off probation. But it is rarely that easy to leave the game and at last report he was still setting up acquaintances with small amounts of cocaine, and he was still on the pipe. In fact, he had smoked up coke he was holding for dealers and was waiting for his income tax return so he could pay them back (Jimmy worked as a janitor last year.)
Unemployed, in debt, and living with his mother, he’s a long way from the days when he rolled with Johnny, when he sampled hookers on the street like a man tasting snacks on the buffet line. After 10 years of dealing drugs, he owns no car, no gold rope, no big stereo. Of the millions of dollars he says have passed through his hands, he doesn’t think he’s wasted a penny.
“For as much money as I’ve made and spent and burned, I’ll have a lot to show for it,” he says. “I’ve got memories, good times, parties that seemed like they’d never end. I haven’t got shit now.”
What he has left are memories of a wild youth and a belief that, at 23, the best days of his life are behind him. Dealing is a young man’s game, sooner or later he’ll have to get out, get a real job, maybe start a family. And when that happens, he believes all the fun will be over.
“When you’re young in heart and mind, there’s a certain magic that you lose to the cynicism of later life and adulthood. I mean, you’re so busy worrying different responsibilites that you don’t stop and think about all the good points of life.”
Then again, he says, maybe he’ll never grow up. Maybe he’ll go on forever trying to enjoy the good points of life, like smoking a fine joint as the sun goes down.
“I’ll probably be like the rest of the leftover hippies,” Jimmy concludes. “Sittin’ around, gettin’ high, thinking about all the things I could have done with my life, and remembering all the things I did.”