By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Bobby Paige wants to save people from crack. That's why he drives around Harlem like the Good Humor man, selling his anti-crack message instead of ice cream cones.
"This truck right here will educate you," Bobby says while showing off the vehicle known as Mr. Crack 2. "People read it and say 'I don't want to be no slave.'"
Bobby's truck is more like a van. There's a picture of two boysone black and one whitebound in chains and smoking crack pipes. A fog machine on the roof once pumped clouds of smoke, but now sits broken just like Mr. Crack truck 1, which went kaput after bearing the message for about 10 years. (It died on a road trip from here to 480 miles short of Alaska). On the side of the van, he's painted statements to make his point clear. In bold it reads, "Mr. Crack makes you a slave." One recent morning, Bobby idled the truck in front of 84th and Riverside Drive, where he says he has a penthouse. "I don't know you!" he shouted when I asked to step inside. "That's personal space and I don't get personal with nobody!" Instead, we hopped into Mr. Crack 2.
Bobby dresses in all black except for the two gold and diamond rings on his pinkies and his chunky Cazal glasses. Black leather pants, hat, jacket, shoes, turtleneck, and suspenders. He began riffing his message. "Once you try crack, your mind is alternated," he said. "You ain't the same no more. By the time you know what happened to you, you're a bucket of soup. A big old bucket of soup."
Bobby should know. In the 1970s, he started smoking crack and didn't stop for 20 years. The biggest lesson he learned from sucking on the pipe was: "You get your ass broke." He said he lived on the streets, but got by just fine. "The girls took care of me," he said. When asked how many Bobby Paige progeny are running around town, he looked blankly at the road ahead and guessed, "About five?"
When Mr. Crack truck 1 broke, Bobby thought he would retire his anti-crack evangelism. But last year he was diagnosed with prostate and colon cancer. He said he was in denial for months. "Who wants to believe they got cancer?" he said. "Something that's going to kill your ass." After going in for his first chemo session, he decided he wanted to change more lives. So he bought Mr. Crack 2.
He's also put together a website and sells the Mr. Crack book, which is 81 stapled pages of crack-isms to live by for the low price of $10.
As Bobby was parking in a lot at the intersection of 116th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., a man in a wheelchair rolled up to the window asking for a handout. "Excuse me, sir," he began, politely. "I need some help."
Bobby rolled down the window and asked if the man was just going to buy crack with his money. "Sir, that's really patronizing," he replied.
But Bobby figured he'd hit it right on the head: "Look at him, he just wants crack!"
Bobby revved the engine and turned out of the lot. We headed east on 116th toward Lexington. "Can't give everyone money," he said. "If you did, you'd be a broke son of a bitch."