Straw Wars: These High-Profile San Diego Restaurants Are The Latest to Stop Serving Plastic Straws



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The move aims to minimize pollution and threats to marine life

Americans use an estimated 500 million plastic straws a day.

Three high-profile San Diego restaurants have joined a growing global movement to limit the number of plastic straws that end up in the ocean, potentially harming marine life.

In the latest episode of what some have dubbed “Straw Wars,” Herringbone in La Jolla and the city’s two Searsuckers, in Del Mar and the Gaslamp, have taken a “No Straws” pledge in recent weeks, their owner, the Hakkasan Group, said on Monday. The eateries are the first in the vast Abu Dhabi-based hospitality company to adopt a policy to provide straws only upon request.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


Happy Anniversary, Crack!

Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years ago—the exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute high—crack arrived in D.C.

The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.

Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.

Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.

No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crack—the most ephemeral of chemical experiences—still awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parks—but wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.

Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.

Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.

The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging around—not the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusion—and used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.

Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great stories—but debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grants—but trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economy—and an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.

And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few months—trial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comeback—showed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.

Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kids—even the bad kids—supposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.

But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.

Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under control—or at least under the carpet—doesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.

Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettes—past and present, sober and less so—from the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.—Michael Schaffer

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP

Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.


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Comments:

  1. Wilmar

    Pts liked it, laughed)))

  2. Tam

    I'm sorry, but I think you are wrong. I'm sure. I can prove it. Email me at PM, we will talk.

  3. Migrel

    Are you pointing where I can find it?

  4. Jotham

    Congratulations, I think this is the brilliant idea



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