1980-1989: The Crack-Up

“In the ’80s, it was ‘Morning in America’ and we woke up to find that our night­mares were real: it became the Decade of the Quick and the Dead.”


The Decade of the Quick and the Dead

IN THE SUMMER of 1979, Reverend Ike was king in Harlem — not the slick preacher of the gilded temple in Washington Heights, but the pepper­mint-scented portion of parsley in miniature coin envelopes. Sold in a row of brownstones on 123rd between Sev­enth and Lenox, and 112th and Fifth­ — Dust City — these bags of PCP were stamped in red ink with names like Rev­erend Ike, Busy Bee, Improve, and Red Devil. In the minds of many of the moth­ers and grandmothers shopping for chick­en and pot roast in the Pioneer super­market on Friday, and the preachers and the elders in the Seventh Day Adventist Ephesus Church on Saturday, PCP had not only brought Harlem to its knees, but closer to the end of the world.

A friend and I shared our thoughts one night, smoking up a trey (three-dollar) bag of Red Devil on the front steps of the Ephesus Church, one hellish summer night. We both had the same hallucina­tion, something right out of the Bible, that the moon was turning into the color of blood. We had walked around a lot that night, after we got zooted up; I don’t know whether it was a few steps or a few miles, but he said he was tired, and his feet were soaking wet from stepping into a puddle, so we went back to sit on the steps of the church. We looked at the sky, we looked at each other, and then he started crying.

“This shit is wrong, man,” he said. “We here gettin’ high in front of the house of God. Look at all these people,” he said, pointing to the long line of cars, many with out-of-state plates pulling up to the brownstones as the young scram­blers ran out and exchanged envelopes for bags, chanting in singsong, “Dust, dust, make ya head bust.” ’23rd Street was jammed with customers and mer­chants, like some huge open-air psychic bazaar. “Man, the world got to be coming to a end. Got to be.”

I nodded as he sobbed again; not in agreement or disagreement, it just felt good to shake my head and feel as if the world was a big ferris wheel. Then my buddy started laughing: “Yo, Bee, is it raining? Do you feel wet, ’cause, yo, my feet is like soaked.” We looked down; he had lost his black-suede British Walkers, and a pool of blood trickled from his feet into a tiny crimson lake near the corner of the church steps. We cracked up with laughter, and I don’t remember the rest.

It was the beginning of the ’80s.

HEROIN EPITOMIZED the ’60s; after the deaths of Malcolm, Martin, and John, after the fiasco of The Great Society, the urban riots, and the nightly magnums of blood poured onto our TV dinners — via the CBS News scorecard of the Vietnam War — we were ready to go to sleep. Once we’d dozed off, the ’70s were the dream — ­and PCP was the symbol. It seemed like every week around the turn of the decade, friends told me about somebody smoking some dust, buggin’, and then jumping out of a window or off the roof of a housing project, stabbing someone to death, de­capitating someone, or jumping into the Harlem River with their clothes on trying to swim to Yankee Stadium side, only to find out midway that they can’t swim. It sounds unbelievable, but the ’70s were an unbelievable decade: Nixon, Watergate, Ford, Carter, Superfly, “Kung Fu Fight­ing,” platform shoes, orange-and-green checkered double-knit pants, waterbeds, Pet Rocks, mood rings, singles bars, Sat­urday Night Fever, Saturday Night Live, Star Wars, the Iran hostage crisis — and the election of Ronald Reagan.

IN THE ’80s, it was Morning in America and we woke up to find that our night­mares were real: it became the Decade of the Quick and the Dead. Spike Lee opened Do the Right Thing with a morn­ing call to Wake Up! and crack-cocaine obliterated the night. Crackheads and Wall Street junk bond traders lay on their cardboard boxes and futons, staring at the ceiling and grinding their teeth, trying to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, the lucky ones counted dead presidents. Reagan and his posse, the Reaganites, reinvented the game of Monopoly, and the rich played it with Crazy Money. Ivan Boesky, Mike Milken, Tom Wolfe, Oliver Stone, and Michael Douglas proved it could be won with style. Douglas’s Gor­don Gekko gear (the Alan Flusser and Ermengildo Zegna suits) and slicked-back slimecoif became the fashion rage in the pages of GQ and Vanity Fair. The street version featured the fat, telephone cable–­thick gold chains, MCM and Gucci leath­er jackets, and beepers of the New Jack dopeboys and it was copied by the subur­ban kids of New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles.

It was the decade of If-You-Blinked­-You-Missed-It: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins throwing head fakes, transforming towering men into manne­quins, and house-dunking it for two points; Florence Griffith-Joyner breaking the land speed record in the ’88 Olympics; the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft right before our eyes. And NJC even created its own music, via Harlem-bred Teddy Riley: a fast rap-funk mash called New Jack Swing, that kicked as hard as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie did in the ’20s. Bobby Brown became our Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, and his Prerogative was to teach little white kids in Danbury and Omaha and San Antonio how to do the shaka-zulu, the running man, and the Mike Tyson, as their parents scratched their heads. Rap music became so fast and complicated, it wasn’t rap music anymore; it is now speakology, with master speak-icians like Kool G Rap and D.J. Polo, Eric B. and Rakim, KRS ONE, Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, and the Jungle Brothers.

While he napped, Reagan’s No Doz de­cade created the mutant inner-city envi­ronment known as New Jack City that ran 24-7, a multropolis — a cityscape with distinct characteristics that multiplies and spreads — created by the exorbitant profits from crack, and decaying moral nucleus. This floating city of the damned was built on neglect: it was the under­class’s reaction to the elimination of vital community programs, afterschool recre­ation centers, neighborhood youth job core programs, college scholarships based on need.

Millions of people lost hope, and the roaches decided to capitalize. Cocaine started as the new champagne of the night world; an exquisite, fast high. It was accelerated as free base, speedier, more expensive. When the market ex­panded and the price was knocked down from $20 to $5 a vial, sad people came in droves. Soon, whole city blocks were con­sumed by crack, woolah joints (crack and reefer), crackhouses, crackspots, empty vials with multicolored tops, tiny plastic baggies, acetylene torches crackhead zombies beating up their grandmothers and taking the VCR, the microwave, the heirloom ring that’d been in the family for 50 years, glass stems, scraping the black residue from the glass bowl. 230-pound people who became rail-thin in less than two weeks, 40- and 50-year-old men who became crackheads because they hung out with $3 hookers who got them high to steal their money, fresh­-scrubbed Bronx Science princesses who turned into scuzzy, emaciated, blowjob queens and lost so much weight they had to chug liquid protein drinks like Nutra­ment to keep their customers coming, 15-year-old kids promising older heroin junkies a couple hundred dollars and a few bags of china white to pose as their fathers while they dumped shopping bags of cash at their friendly neighborhood BMW dealer, the mob of homeless young men who congregate on street corners to strategize and dole out assignments of song and spiel before getting on the sub­way to guilt riders out of their money, rows of discolored newborns on respira­tors in city hospitals, crack, the end of a decade, the end of an age, the end of the world, crack.

HERE’S MY MENTAL diary of the decade:

On Monday, my white pillow was soaked with blood that had run from my nose and I swore off drugs forever. On Tuesday, I was kissing both of my new­born sons on their pinkish-red foreheads in the delivery room of South Baltimore General Hospital. Wednesday, I watched my five-year-old on stage singing “Noel, Noel” and “Silent Night” with his kinder­garten class, while my two-year-old was sitting on my lap, begging me to buy him some kind of freaking teenage mutant ninja turtle. On Thursday, I met a kid — a Baltimore Yo Boy, a teenage hitman/dope merchant — who was bragging to me about the four people he’d squeezed off before he was 14. On Friday, he was a 21-year-old junkie, anesthetizing himself against his memories, when he died of complications from AIDS. On Saturday, I watched Connie Chung introduce a “reenactment” of a dope buy, packaging the misery I’ve experienced and selling it back to the masses.

On Sunday, I woke up from Mourning in America and looked back at the wasted decade, searching for an answer. I blame Ed Koch, 970 numbers, civil righteous phonies, the whole Reagan administra­tion Just Say No, the Medellin cartel, the New York Post, and whoever invented the word wilding. I blame fax machines, cellular phones, and laptop computers with multi mega megabyte for this sand-in-the-hourglass effect, pushing time further away from us.

I try to make up for the time I don’t get to spend with my sons, or my suns — ’cause they shine, you understand — by taping them with a JVC video camera, and playing it on a Toshiba VCR away from home, rewinding their smiles and giggles over and over, and then putting their “I love you, Daddy” on pause. But that only lasts five minutes. ■


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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 4, 2020