For the next couple of days, I will be posting, in several parts, an article I wrote this semester on the life and addiction of Richard (last name withheld), one of the very best friends I've made in my 11 years of cooking. It contains some offensive language, which is quaintly unavoidable in normal conversation with the 50-year old.
Enjoy the read.
Richard stands at least six inches above everyone else in the kitchen, black and silver hair controlled, slicked back. Shards of button mushroom are strewn across the area of a heavily scored plastic cutting board. He steadies each cap with a precision only gained from experience, flitting his bolstered chef knife through each mushroom, scraping the neat slices aside into a pile. A single clipboard is propped up against Richard’s toolbox, neatly itemized with the day’s prep.
The kitchen is blazing in August, bustling with activity. Twenty prep cooks assemble platters of tumbling cheese, pineapples bristling with skewers of steamed shrimp, and rows upon rows of thinly sliced flank steak.
Richard is at the helm, conscious of every detail.
Most of his staff is Latino, originally from Mexico or El Salvador, but for Richard, the language barrier is easily breached.
“Hey, Bambino! Necessito dos cahas de fruitas,” he bellows, pointing dangerously with his blade. His Spanish is rough, tinged with a thick New York accent, but the staff gets the idea.
“Yeah, yeah, that sh*t. The pinga or whatever.”
The entire kitchen bursts open with laughter at his blunder. Piña is Spanish for pineapple, and what he had meant to say. Pinga is slang for penis.
Richard shakes his head and smiles, unabashed. “You know what goes on in my f***in’ head. They think they got problems?” He returns to his piles of mushrooms.
Richard’s career in hospitality started after receiving a grant to intern at the prestigious Waldorf-Astoria hotel in downtown Manhattan back in the 1970’s.
The grant did not cover the tuition, and although he was paid for his work as a cook, Richard turned to a more unconventional means to pay for the remainder and live the life he thought was ideal – the life of a hustler. Spanish Harlem was a hub for narcotic sales back in the late sixties and early seventies, and it happened to be where Richard lived during his stint in New York City.
The Strip, from 116th to 126th Street, was lined with Brownstone homes, every stoop occupied by bodyguards, henchmen, and dope-fiends, every trashcan filled with machine guns ready to engage the police or rival thugs. The police, however, would never come.
Richard picked up his dope at the top of a three-story row home. The entire transaction was made through slot in the door.
“You’d have sixty people in front of you, all dope fiends and dealers. Each package had thirty bags of heroin, at two dollars a bag. You could always get a deal if you bought in bulk, $200 for five packages. I’d make a run every now and then back to Connecticut and sell each bag for ten bucks. I made a lot of money.”
But the entire time Richard was dealing, he broke a cardinal rule of drug dealing. He used his own product.
“You could just go into one of the bodegas and ask for your ‘tools’ or ‘gimmicks.’ They had an entire kit assembled for you to shoot your dope. This was before the days when you could get your own hypodermic needle.”
A “gimmick” was distributed in a shoebox and contained assorted pieces for assembly, paper, a glass eyedropper, a pacifier, and syringe. The paper was wrapped around the glass eyedropper, and the syringe attached at one end and the pacifier at the other. The pacifier would create a vacuum, the rubber mouthpiece could be squeezed to draw up the heroin. The syringe, obviously, would administer the drug.
“There was a place on the corner of 126th Street called the Royal Flush Hotel. You’d walk in to that place, and the lobby was filled with every derelict you could imagine,” he says, stopping to drag on his cigarette. “I was there picking up a package and I saw this guy in the lobby sitting in the lobby with no sole in his shoes. He ran out of veins to tap and was shooting the sh*t in the veins of his feet. His whole body was swollen with so much fluid, his hands were like boxing gloves. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’ll never be like that.’”
Years later, Richard would have to sit in a tub of warm water just to bring his veins back to a point where he could shoot the heroin in the veins of his feet without them collapsing.