ONE hot night last summer, just past midnight, I discovered that in the apartment building across the street from my duplex in Fort Greene there was a little crack house.
I was parking my car after a late movie, the windows down because my air-conditioning was broken, when I heard a man and a woman arguing on the sidewalk. I didn’t know them, but they weren’t new faces to me. In the four years I’d lived in the apartment on South Oxford Street, I’d walked past them many times. They were constantly moping around the block with glassy eyes, scratching themselves, and muttering. Any New Yorker could tell they were crackheads.
I never gave much thought as to why these two crackheads were on my block so often. Some days in Fort Greene you walk past celebrities like Adrian Grenier or Colson Whitehead or Mos Def. Some days you walk past a crackhead.
But the intensity of their arguing piqued my interest, so I sat in the car to see how it played out. After a moment the woman threw a few crumpled-up bills at the man. They bounced off his chest and fell to the pavement. He scooped them up, walked to the window of a nearby apartment and passed the bills into a window.
After a few minutes, the window opened a bit and out flew a little bag filled with something white. When the bag hit the ground, the crackhead grabbed it, and he and his crack buddy dashed off.
I couldn’t believe it. I was living a stone’s throw away from a crack house.
Even though crack has receded tremendously in the city, it still has a presence. But not in Fort Greene, near the sushi restaurant, the high-end wine store and the well-lighted deli with the wheatgrass maker. Not across the street from me.
For the next two days I sat on my stoop pretending not to watch and realized that around 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., the same eight or nine scraggly humans yelled something at the window, were buzzed in, and then left in less than five minutes. Every once in a while, someone would pass money through the window.
I even caught sight of a forearm taking money. It was a black person’s arm, an older person’s arm. And I realized that my neighbor was running a mom-and-pop crack house. But my neighbor was careful to not let me see much. I never saw that forearm again.
At first I was excited. New York is filled with shadowy pockets. Your mild-mannered neighbor could be moonlighting as a piano teacher or a dominatrix, selling Amway or crack. It’s a source of pride to be a New Yorker who’s aware of the secret city.
For a day, I patted myself on the back for discovering the little crack house hiding nearby. The following day I freaked out.
Now that I knew, I realized that I was tacitly aiding and abetting their immoral, illegal and dangerous behavior. What if one of the crackheads attacked my wife as she walked home? What if a kid from the day care center near the crack house found a vial on the sidewalk?
What if someone unaffiliated with the den of chemical madness got shot? What was their presence doing to the property value and, more important, to the zeitgeist of Fort Greene?
My only real option was to call the police. But that option was fraught with psychological problems.
As a black male New Yorker, I’ve long regarded the boys in blue as the opposition. I know if the dice had fallen differently, I could have been Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima or Sean Bell. And I come from the hip-hop generation, in which snitching against a black person is treason.
But would it really be snitching? The term truly refers to criminals ratting on other criminals, not taxpaying citizens reporting what they’ve seen criminals do. And should I protect poisoners of people and the neighborhood just because they’re black?
IN the midst of my prolonged internal conversation, I got into a fight with my live-in landlord and was given a month to move out. For a week, my wife and I combed Fort Greene and began the process of buying a sexy modern apartment just eight blocks away. Now we had just a few more weeks to live near the little crack house.
But as we closed on our new place, my relationship with Fort Greene deepened. I was no longer a renter who might float away to another neighborhood. I would soon be an owner with a stake in the future of the community. Could I allow these people to drag down my beloved neighborhood and say nothing?
When the arguing in my head grew too loud, I stopped packing boxes and called the local police precinct. I thought I’d have a brief discussion with whoever answered, and then a few days later I’d see flashing lights and handcuffs.
But it’s not easy to drop a dime. I spoke to one cop who was marginally interested in my story and told me to call back and speak to someone else. I called again the next day and spoke to the sergeant in charge of controlling drugs in our area.
He kept me on the phone way longer than was comfortable. He asked me what people yelled to gain access to the place, and how I knew the white stuff was contraband. He asked me if I’d testify in court, and if his guys could sit on our roof or in our apartment and surveil them. I wasn’t down with any of that. He said O.K., they’d find a way of investigating them and get back to me.
In my last week in the apartment, I spent a lot of time packing and watching. The sergeant called back to say they’d tried to infiltrate the crack house but failed. He said I should e-mail Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
The day before the movers came, no longer were the eight or nine crackheads yelling into the window to gain access; now they all had keys to the building. I guess they’d felt the heat — and made some changes.
Now I live eight blocks away, but sometimes my wife sends me to South Oxford for sushi from the corner restaurant. One night around 11, I turned my head just in time to see a crackhead dipping into the building. The little crack house that could is still chugging along, right under everyone’s nose.