Cheech and Chong need not apply.
August 2, 2007 7:23 AM   Subscribe

How can I get inside the drug trade? Er, through movies (or books)?

I'd like to check out movies about the retail end of drug dealing. I've seen Traffic (well, the US one). I'm waiting for Clockers. I've even seen Spun.

What I want is something that will portray, fairly realistically, drug dealing in a small city like my own. Here drugs are almost universally sold, at the most obvious level, by teams of small numbers of white women who hook up with large numbers of black guys. (I'm not just cherry-picking: one of them used to be a tenant of ours. She's now in the state pen.) How does this dynamic develop? How does it work? How much of it is love or getting free drugs or getting your apartment paid for?

I'm also just generally interested in resources which would give me a bit more about how the gangs work. Here the appearance is that there are two routes into town, one from Chicago via Rockford, and the other from Milwaukee. Regardless, there are a lot of Illinois license plates in our neighborhood.

At the next level down there are the teen gangs. There were never any real gangs here while I was growing up but it's pretty clear they're all over now. I'd like to have an idea how often, when I see a bunch of teenagers walking down the middle of the street wearing bright white t-shirts, they're following fashion or part of a gang. How much do racial lines matter? Mostly the kids here are white, with some Asians and Hispanics. Mostly these proto-gangs are black, but they have dealings with non-blacks too, and obviously plenty of the customers are white. (The gal up above whose black boyfriend was the dealer had a couple of mulleted white enforcers/mules who drove a Trans-Am and dressed like they were in an alternate universe Mukwonago Vice show.)

A second dynamic is, from scuttlebutt and interpretatin, a problem of big city minority parents sending their teenagers out of town for the summer. To get them away from gangs, or unsavory friends, or off their hands, who knows? They arrive here and suddenly the guy from Chicago is the Big Man. Bigger, tougher, scarier -- or just feels he has to be to live up to the rep, or establish one.

So. What we have right now is basically a drug house across the street. Quiet the first month, two white women, five kinda noisy kids, you'd think nothing was amiss. Then suddenly a passel of teenagers arrive, of various races, and take over the entire street for hours at a time. Trespassing, vandalism, noise until 2 a.m., all bad enough. It attracts regular friends and quasi-step-relatives, from what I can tell, then groups of teenagers walking by on the next street (a bit of a thoroughfare for that due to geography). Then, over a week or two, the crowd gets older and just as we're trying to drive back from dinner (me, my elderly parents, and my two nieces), we have a fistfight in our street, with about 15 guys egging everything on, setting my personal safety alarms ringing. Then the drug dealing starts, a thick-necked guy with a thick-necked pit bull selling pot right on the street corner in the middle of the day. The cops responded (on someone else's call, for once) and we saw plenty of communication and cooperation between our neighbors and the guys who were being picked up. (They took the dog inside, for one thing.)

Honestly, we've had this before, even on one of our own rentals. The neighborhood even had a handful of shootings. But we'd had a summer and a half of comparative quiet, then an absentee landlord lets this crew move in, and suddenly bedlam. (It grieves me to say I now understand viscerally how blockbusting works. Hint: the new family on the block is not the Cosbys.) The good news is that our new police chief got the city council to give him a nuisance eviction ordinance and we are told it is in the works for this address, but the wheels of justice move ever so slowly at times.

So, what I want is to learn more about this world and not feel like I'm doing so much guesswork. Obviously there are detrimental aspects to learning through entertainment but I do actually have access to some serious print stuff on the topic. None of it really addresses the human side. Obviously I learn a lot just looking out my front door, but I can't eavesdrop on conversations and such so I only get one face.

So, what movies can I rent that will get me inside this world? Dramatic movies are preferred. Medium-to-heavy realism, definitely. They can even be documentaries. I won't turn away book suggestions, though, fiction or non-fiction. I'm not averse to hardcore urban stuff, but stuff that doesn't fit that clich├ęd mold would be better.
posted by dhartung to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Rent the HBO series The Wire. They make the drug dealers, at least the upper management, out to be shrewd businessmen and brilliant tacticians, which is what I suspect most of them are in real life.
posted by bondcliff at 7:27 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: I would really recommend The Wire. It's four seasons of HBO about the drug trade in Baltimore both form the dealers' side as well as the cops side. There is a LOT of economics, a lot about how people get into and out of it. A lot about where people live, where their stuff comes from, where it goes, how deals are made at all levels etc. The other reason The Wire os worthwhile is because it's so popular that there is a huge secondary body of work around it both through HBOs official site as well as fan sites that have commentary on how likely some of the scenarios are, what real-life situations they're based on etc. It's a lot of TV, but it's well worth it, every season.
posted by jessamyn at 7:28 AM on August 2, 2007

nth The Wire.
posted by jtfowl0 at 7:31 AM on August 2, 2007

The Wire. Written by a Baltimore Sun reporter (David Simon), an ex narcotics cop turned teacher (Ed Burns) and the cast includes one of the biggest heroin dealers in Baltimore history (Little Melvin Williams). It's about as realistic as it gets.
posted by electroboy at 7:34 AM on August 2, 2007

Half Nelson: drug use and dealing in a small city, although there's nothing about gang activity.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:35 AM on August 2, 2007

Yeah, yeah, The Wire. Besides that, there's a chapter in Freakonomics about mid- and low-level drug dealers that's worth reading.
posted by box at 7:37 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

OK, I was going to recommend Freakonomics and The Wire. Never mind then.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:43 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Following up box's comment, there a whole book called Off The Books by the guy whose work inspired that chapter in Freakonomics. It covers a lot more than the drug scene, and it's all based in inner-city Chicago, but you'll find lots of information about how relationships are formed in the underground economy.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 7:43 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is a book by Sudhir Venkatesh, who wrote the Freakanomics chapter mentioned. It doesn't focus exclusively on drugs, but more aroung black and grey market commerce more generally. It's set on the south side of Chicago.

You also might want to parse Pain Killer: A "Wonder" Drug's Trail of Addiction and Death written about the OxyContin epidemic by NYTimes writer Barry Meier. There is evidence to suggest that the extending of heroin traffic patterns into more rural areas is driven by a demand originally created by OxyContin.
posted by The Straightener at 7:44 AM on August 2, 2007

posted by The Straightener at 7:44 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: Ooh, these are all good suggestions. Keep 'em coming. (I thought The Wire was from the same source as Homicide:Life on the Street? Something else?)
posted by dhartung at 7:54 AM on August 2, 2007

And I haven't read it, but the recently-published No Speed Limit: Meth Across America, by Frank Owen, about meth, is getting good reviews. And speaking of, you might check out the PBS Frontline documentary The Meth Epidemic.
posted by box at 7:56 AM on August 2, 2007

Whiteboyz was a pretty decent movie about small town white kids who are wannabe drug dealers.
posted by electroboy at 7:58 AM on August 2, 2007

In movies, realism will always ALWAYS be sacrificed for storytelling conveniences. I don't know exactly what you're doing, but I'd say the more movies you watch about all this, the less likely you are to deal safely and realistically with situations as they arise.

Why not meet cops in your area, listen to their stories and so forth? There is bound to be one bar or another where the cops hang out. But seriously, saturating your brain with Hollywood's version of things is only going to inflame your imagination and your sense of superiority.

But then, maybe that's all this is about anyway.
posted by hermitosis at 8:06 AM on August 2, 2007

I thought The Wire was from the same source as Homicide:Life on the Street? Something else?

David Simon worked on both properties, but The Wire is much less of a police procedural, more of an attempt to holistically examine the web of drugs, poverty, crime, politics, and education.
posted by mkultra at 8:26 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: I am reading a fantastic book called Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City written by a UPenn professor who has grown up in Philadelphia all his life. It talks about the lives of "street" people versus the lives of "decent" people who live in poor communities. It delves into the drug trade and teenage pregnancy amongst other things; an in depth look at the motivations, problems and solutions used by "street" individuals. It is extremely well written and although it is somewhat Philadelphia-centric, it still provides information that can be applied to almost all cities. I can't stress how amazing this book is.
posted by nursegracer at 8:28 AM on August 2, 2007

As a post-script to my previous post: I picked up this book to understand why my neighborhood is like it is. I don't have quite as many drug problems, but there are still a lot of conflicts that I don't understand. This gives non-street people an eloquent look into the reasons behind violence and drug trade, and also gives some tips on how to avoid becoming a victim and to avoid getting involved if necessary. I already learned that what I always thought would be a good method of talking-down a mugger would probably get me shot. I have since revised my method.
posted by nursegracer at 8:32 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: The Wire, The Wire, The Wire.

I would also strongly suggest reading The Corner by Simon and Ed Burns. One of the most interesting and moving books I've ever read, and it addresses pretty much every issue on your list.
posted by subclub at 8:34 AM on August 2, 2007

teenagers walking down the middle of the street wearing bright white t-shirts

Just a note on this. In areas with a lot of gang activity, teenagers who are not in gangs, particularly young black men (who often get the short end of the "benefit of the doubt" stick), adopt the white-t-shirt uniform to some extent for their own safety, so that no-one (cops, especially) can mistake them as wearing colors. That doesn't mean that kids who are in gangs don't dress like this too, of's just what everyone wears, now.
posted by desuetude at 8:46 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (MA) is excellent.

In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio deals with low-level drug drug dealers in Spanish Harlem. It's an academic book so there is a good amount of sociological theory but the underlying narrative is fascinating in and of itself.
posted by otio at 8:48 AM on August 2, 2007

Also, Latin Kings: a Street Gang Story by HBO is woth a watch.
posted by The Straightener at 8:59 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: hermitosis, I've lived in Manhattan near Harlem and in Jersey City just as gentrification started, AND I'm a Comp. Lit. major, so I think I'm capable of sorting it all out for myself.

nursegracer, wow, that is exactly the kind of thing (or even better) that I was hoping to find from this.
posted by dhartung at 9:03 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: desuetude: That may be the case out East, but in Chicago, the white tee is definitely a gang symbol (of a particularly meta variety). For my part, it is no mark of innocence, because most of the guys I see who do petty street deals will be wearing white. (Do-rags, pants, and shoes are generally black.) Two years ago there was a presence of gangbangers wearing enormously oversized basketball jerseys, but nothing like that this year.
posted by dhartung at 9:07 AM on August 2, 2007

Maybe a stretch, but relevant and an all out fantastic movie that everyone should see: City of God.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 9:22 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx is a good read with plenty of -- how to put this? -- explanation for the observer's "How does this keep happening to this person?"

See also.
posted by kmennie at 9:23 AM on August 2, 2007

The Corner was also an HBO miniseries. Some of the same actors as The Wire, but focuses more on the lives of addicts and the people associated with them.
posted by electroboy at 9:29 AM on August 2, 2007

The long white tee is kind of a chicken-egg thing. Was it stylish first or did it become stylish because dealers were wearing it? It's largely irrelevant because it is the style now, so people who aren't associated with the drug game are wearing it.
posted by electroboy at 9:32 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, on tees, here's a question. When gangbangers go around with their oversized tee tucked into their belt just slightly off to one side, aren't they deliberately trying to look like they're packing? We had an apartment house three blocks over that was taken over by a dealer and whenever there was a problem about six to nine intimidatingly large guys dressed like that would pour out of the three or four surrounding buildings. That's my theory, anyway. I only see it being done by certain guys, who would fit my guess as enforcer.

In other words, if I see this, do I want to potentially take cover? (Right now I mostly act unimpressed.)
posted by dhartung at 10:17 AM on August 2, 2007

nthing The Corner. It was a great book.

When I had to learn fast about drugs and gangs for my job, I found websites to be more informative than books (certainly more up-to-date information on tags and whatnot) and more accurate than movies. If you just plug "Chicago gangs" into Google you'll find all the information you need.
posted by christinetheslp at 10:22 AM on August 2, 2007

A friend bought me a great book called "Cocaine: An Unauthorize Biography" (although I suspect she found the cover pretty) that covered cocaine's roots in the new world to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel to crack, etc. amazing book.
posted by Large Marge at 10:56 AM on August 2, 2007

A lot of guys are doing it so they can show off their belt buckle. Seriously.
posted by electroboy at 11:07 AM on August 2, 2007

Seconding "the Wire". Rent, buy or netflix the DVDs. Also I think they show reruns on BET.
posted by AceRock at 3:46 PM on August 2, 2007

I enjoyed Belly, which is a dramatic movie based on the spiritual movements of two fairly small-time drug dealers.

The actors are famous rap stars, and the whole thing is overlaid with a bizarre kind of glamour filched from Scarface and The Godfather. I'm not qualified to judge whether it was realistic or not, but I do not suppose that it was particularly realistic. On the other hand it did not seem like a free fantasia - there must have been a grain of truth to it, or it wouldn't have appealed to its audience. As Mel Brooks said about comedy, it's just a red rubber ball - you have to bounce it off the hard wall of ultimate reality to have any effect.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:17 PM on August 2, 2007

one more recommend for The Wire, just because it's so great.
posted by citron at 5:24 PM on August 2, 2007

nthing The Wire. Everyone kept saying how good it was but when I finally got around to Netflixing it, I was blown away. I think it's safe to say it's my favorite TV show ever.

As to the situation in your city, it sounds a lot like what's happening here in Green Bay. It used to be the gateway to Hee Haw and now we have crack houses.

Although I still can't find anyone to sell me pot.
posted by Bonzai at 6:50 PM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, The Wire is the best show in the history of television. While you're waiting for that, re-watch New Jack City.
posted by anildash at 2:59 AM on August 3, 2007

Down By the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family is an excellent book on the cross-border Mexico/Texas drug trade, the DEA, and the violence the drug trade and the drug war causes.
posted by Jahaza at 5:01 AM on August 3, 2007

dhartung: In my observation, yes, they wish to look like they are packing. Whether or not they actually are...depends on your city. In Philly, where we have just a huge problem with lots of guns on the street, I assume a lot of people are armed.

I still act unimpressed, though.
posted by desuetude at 6:04 AM on August 3, 2007

Response by poster: desuetude, I'm glad I'm not the only person with that impression. Seems really odd to have an oversized t-shirt and tuck it in in just one place.

Then again, the oddest gang outfit I ever saw was the prison-tough shaven-head black guy with a pink tennis visor turned upside down and pointing directly sideways. That was Chicago over a decade ago, though....
posted by dhartung at 10:40 AM on August 3, 2007

There's also the novel Clockers, by Richard Price, on which the movie was based.

It's about pot, but Howard Marks' autobiography Mr Nice is a great read.
posted by goo at 12:17 PM on August 3, 2007

Response by poster: True, thanks, goo.

Figured I'd give this update for anyone still reading.
* The nominal tenants, to review, are two white women with five kids between them.
* My nephew was in the apartment last year when someone else rented it, and there are two bedrooms.
* Retired neighbor, who lives on his front porch swing, believes there are between ten and twelve adults living in the apartment, never mind the kids.
* The tenants and live-ins all have crappy, crappy cars. All day yesterday there was a white Park Avenue Buick parked out front.
* Retired neighbor reports that at 2 a.m. he heard noise, saw them remove the passenger side door in toto from the hinge pins and take it inside. By dawn, the Buick was gone.
posted by dhartung at 11:15 AM on August 4, 2007

Response by poster: Just to update, things were beginning to get ugly. The police had been unable to make arrests on any of the street fights or drug deals (that I know of); they arrested two guys selling pot on the corner but didn't apparently connect this to the house in question, even though they had spent the morning selling off the front porch. They did arrest the woman's hellion daughter for what I termed a "tween brawl" (nobody knew what "tween" meant, it turns out, so my wit was wasted), and the woman and at least one of her live-ins finally received a city ticket (not criminal, just administrative) for partying until 2 a.m.

But in the process we became in her mind the cause of all the complaints (not true, maybe as many as half but it was not just us), and she insisted to the police that we were racists who hated her and her girlfriends "because we sleep with black men". This even extended to my being questioned over completely unfounded claims that I was yelling racist taunts and peeping on them with binoculars. (This actually followed on a police call against the house that I didn't even make.) Fortunately, the police also interviewed all the other neighbors and pretty much found that we weren't the only ones who didn't like them.

Around August 20, though, we were eating dinner on our side porch (not facing the drug house) when the daughter again got into a fight. (The white daughter, along with the black daughter of one of the boyfriends, had a big profane altercation with two white girls.) A cop came, and pretty much immediately came under verbal assault from about a dozen people who poured out of the drug house, yelling that it was the "racists" who were making up reasons to call the police. There was a lot of yelling; the best part was when a female officer walked up to a guy who had about 18 inches of height on her and intimidated him back out of the street and up to the porch. We stayed out of it as much as possible until one of the cops came around the corner and up to our porch, asking me, "We really want to arrest someone over there. Can you identify the kids who were in the fight?" I said I could: "The white girl in the pink top and the black girl in the brown top." That was enough to get the girls arrested.

What we didn't know was that my 911 call resulted in four arrests. There were two boys at the address (13 and 15) who had robbed the local hardware store.

Amazingly, by about two days later, the crowd had almost completely vanished. We heard her making noise still, and her kids were now able to be outside again; because they're shirttail relatives of one of our tenants they actually came over and were on our property, and messed with some of my tools and other stuff. We were getting ready for another confrontation with the mom when her family (a bunch of guys with mullets, of course) showed up with a trailer and they all moved out by Sep. 4. Last week she pleaded no contest to her noise ticket. Obviously, I don't know the disposition of the juvenile cases. But they're all gone.

I still can't believe how much havoc one tenant can cause to an entire block.
posted by dhartung at 10:24 AM on September 17, 2007

Jesus. Thanks for the update.
posted by COBRA! at 11:42 AM on September 17, 2007

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