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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'A Chance to Win'

Rodney was not only a weed peddler. He and his friends regularly took the bus to Plainfield, where they shoplifted jeans and shirts from Bamberger’s. He also began shaking down a neighborhood kid who worked at McDonald’s, demanding a cut of the boy’s paycheck and threatening to beat him up if he did not comply.

Rodney began to admire the neighborhood “old heads,” career criminals who worked the corners and sometimes shared their expertise with the younger boys. “Like any kid who grows up without a father figure, I was looking for that manly type,” Rodney told me. One of them let him sell some cocaine on consignment. After a few weeks of modest but steady sales, the old head gave Rodney a career-changing piece of advice: cut out the middle man and go into business for yourself. “Go uptown.” Rodney didn’t know where uptown was, so the old head offered to show him. They drove over the George Washington Bridge into New York, stopping at the intersection of Broadway and West 163rd Street, in Washington Heights. It was the center of a sprawling open-air drug market run by Dominican drug gangs who worked with Colombians to supply the entire Eastern Seaboard with heroin and cocaine—traditional powder, and a new form known as crack.

Rodney and his guide were inundated by calls from dealers and touts: “Yo, Papi, over here!” “Ay, Papi, what you need?” Rodney bought five grams of powder cocaine for $100. Then he went to a pharmacy and picked up dozens of glass vials and a container of Inositol, a type of sugar that was commonly used as a cutting agent. Back in Newark, Rodney sold the entire package in a few hours, without leaving his building, and cleared about $250. That night, he found a ride back to New York, bought ten more grams of coke, and sold half of it before bed. He finished the rest the following morning and returned to Washington Heights again. “From that,” Rodney told me, “I was on my way.”

Even as he was getting pulled into the drug business, baseball remained Rodney’s singular passion. He was turning into a powerful pitcher and had ambitions of making the Shabazz High School varsity baseball team, whose coach had recruited him in Little League. Rodney had all the tools to become a star: fluid motion, long stride, and good command of his pitches, which included a fastball with movement. He also possessed a certain quality that the coach didn’t think could be taught: a poise that allowed him to battle through the most difficult situations. Rodney tried not to let his money-making pursuits affect his prospects on the ball field, but soon that became impossible.

During Rodney’s freshman year, a boy got shot at Shabazz in an argument over a pair of sneakers. Before then, only the roughest street criminals carried guns. But a new era was dawning across Newark and the rest of urban America, fueled by crack. By dealing crack, young men found an easy way to buy things that otherwise would have been impossible to obtain. Their goal was to be “the freshest” on the block, the one with the biggest “dookie rope” gold necklace, the flyest sheepskin coat, the latest British Walker shoes, the sharpest fade haircut. Smoking a concentrated form of cocaine was more addictive than snorting it, and the customers, formerly respectable people whom the young men might have looked up to, people with nine-to-five jobs and tight families, got hooked and became, in street jargon, “fiends” who did whatever they needed to do to buy their next hit. At the same time, the crack trade gave rise to a secondary industry of “stick-up boys” who specialized in robbing dealers at gunpoint. Soon teenagers were arming themselves for protection and gunning after those who ripped them off. Authorities were caught flat-footed; the Newark Police Department’s narcotics unit was tiny then, with maybe a half-dozen detectives working days and another half-dozen at night. Between 1984 and 1989, Newark’s crime rate jumped by 41 percent, exceeding those of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Avenue became an open-air drug market. That development coincided with an economic downturn in which many of the low-rise apartment buildings were lost to the city in tax foreclosures, then appropriated by squatters and dealers. The high-rises continued to operate, but with vacancy rates that forced owners to seek more federal subsidies. With the new money came requirements to keep rents affordable for low-income residents, which in turn triggered a turnover of the tenant rolls: poorer people moved in, and the remaining middle-class residents fled. Many of those who left blamed the rental subsidies for the neighborhood’s rapid decline. “People came in who didn’t value the community as much as we did,” one told me. “And the drugs. Some of the kids we knew as babies blended in with the new tenants and unleashed hell in that neighborhood. It became just like the projects.”

Security in the towers was minimal; they employed guards, but many either were addicted to drugs or let the dealers come and go as they pleased, occasionally even holding their guns for them. Halls and lobbies and stairwells were open to virtually anyone who wanted to cop or sell. At Zion Towers, Clara noticed an influx of children who ran unsupervised through the building, destroying property at random. They poured hot water and garbage into the mail slots, smashed the vending machines. One day, Rodney ran into the building’s manager after crackheads made off with the TV and videocassette player from the recreation room. The manager stood in the lobby, shaking his head, saying, “I wouldn’t let my dog live in here.”

Some apartments in Zion Towers became crack dens, where tenants rented out space in exchange for drugs. Rodney often went there to cut and package his cocaine because he could not do it at home; he was still, after all, only a teenager.

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