By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
A few nights ago I was awakened from a half-doze by the ringing of the telephone. I was greeted by the lead singer of a popular local rock band. Let's call her Valerie. "Turn on the TV to Channel 1 quick," she shouted. "You've got to see what's happened." First like an impressionist painting, then in increasingly sharper focus, I soon saw the facade of the Carnegie Deli, garishly lit by revolving cherry-tops. The scene featured medical personnel, cops, and bewildered hangers-on in a matrix of yellow police tape, as a stretcher was shuttled out the door carrying a very bloody corpse festooned with IVs and wearing an identity-concealing oxygen mask. Putting the phone back to my ear, I could detect quiet sobs.
I knew her only as Jen. Six years ago my pot supplies ran dry when the impresario of the fake stage-lighting studio in the meat district succumbed to AIDS. No more, I thought sadly, would I feast my eyes on the spectacle of the Grateful Dead poster swinging away from the wall on silent hinges to reveal a yawning chasm filled with garbage bags full of good marijuana. I cast around among my fellow musicians to find a new dealer, and eventually asked Valerie. I'd known for a couple of years that she had a hot connection up in midtown, and we had whiled away many a pleasant evening in the back rooms of downtown clubs comparing the quality of our weed. We'd also swap stories about acquisition experiences. "You'd really like my dealer," she said. "She's a musician, and an actor, too." "What's she been in?" "She was one of the dancers in the last scene of Dirty Dancing."
After going once with Valerie, I was ready to solo. Here's how it worked: Jen's apartment on the sixth floor over the Carnegie Deli was open for business only between six and eight on weekday evenings, and you had to call ahead. Sometimes Jen would answer the phone, sometimes an employee. We all had monikers that were entered in her book, and if the person on the other end of the line didn't recognize your voice immediately, he'd have to look you up. Then you'd say something like, "Can I come by at seven?" and he'd usually say, "Sure."
It was a heady feeling standing in front of the deli on a warm summer evening, with tourists milling around, their noses pressed to guidebooks or discussing a Broadway play. Your mission made you feel like a secret agent. The way upstairs was directly adjacent to the deli door, and you'd have to push your way past a crowd of prospective diners to reach the buzzer, the fatty smell of hot pastrami filling your nostrils. Originally, it was necessary to be buzzed in, but in the last few months the downstairs door was invariably broken and you could walk right up.
The stairway first went up to the left past a landing that faced a locker room for deli employees that was usually empty. Sometimes one or two would be hanging out on the stairs as you passed. Then, five-and-a-half floors of dingy steps, past darkened doors and long halls with peeling paint and wobbling railings. In all my visits, I never encountered any other residents on my way up, though sometimes I'd hear the hollow tread of a customer behind me a few floors below.
Arriving at the sixth floor panting, you'd push the black bell in the middle of the garish pink door, and an eyeball would appear at the peephole. After calling out your moniker, you'd be ushered into a living room with a black-leather sectional that faced a big TV set. A few other customers would be sitting or standing, and there was always a six-pack of beer to lubricate conversation. On my last visit, the TV was tuned to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and my three couchmates were avidly answering Regis Philbin's questions.
That living room had become a kind of rolling soiree. Polite introductions would be offered all around. I met dancers, actors, musicians, visual artists, and producers of all sortssome famous, some obscure. Jen herself would often emerge from the adjacent room to greet her guests, and direct the door watcher to roll a fat spliff to be passed around. Sometimes phone numbers were exchanged. It became clear over the course of years that Jen had gone about selecting her patrons like some Italian Renaissance prince, for their artistic cachet and ability to carry on an intelligent conversation.
In good time, you'd be summoned into the "studio," a small bedroom that looked out onto a tenement airshaft, its walls lined with sound-dampening cork. A very modest collection of recording equipment stood in one corner, and a few publicity headshots, Jen's among them, were pinned to the cork. On a small leather love seat wedged into one corner was propped a list of marijuana offerings printed on a piece of cardboard with colorful markers. There were usually eight selections, with jocular names like Jingle Bells, Piney, Whopper, and White Wolf, priced in columns representing one-quarter and one-half ounce. These topped out at $160 or even $180 per quarter, making this some of the most expensive pot in the city. But oh, the pot! Looking like it had been ripped from the pages of High Times, the pristine buds were often two inches in length, completely seedless, and heavy with coagulated resin. The odor was enough to knock you out, and Piney really did smell like you'd tumbled into a north-woods forest. The smell was so strong that, after measuring out your quantity on a pharmacist's scale, Jen would double-bag it. You could still smell it as you tripped down the stairs, eager for a chance to sample your purchase.