It's official, cocaine is back. Both The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly have recently exposed the drug's easy availability and record low prices, and newspapers and blogs from the Big Apple to Seattle and down to Los Angeles have run stories on the resurgence of the devil's dandruff among the hipsterati. According to the Times, New Yorkers openly post ads seeking coke buddies on Craigslist with come-ons like "Late-night ski lift looking for a snow bunny," and an Austin friend told me that coke is now easier to find there than weed, even in that citadel of stonerdom.
From hanging out at a lot of bars and clubs here, it seems like these trends have filtered our way too. Coke people dealers and users are so obvious, and lately there seem to be a lot of them around. You see knots of people watching the door at a bar, waiting for the man to arrive, or you see some guy in the corner furiously jabbing away at his cell phone, trying to summon some wayward peddler. Or you see two or more sets of feet in one stall in club bathrooms.
On the other hand, Captain Steve Smith of the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Division said that cocaine arrests have been flat or decreasing for years. Still, arrests are not the sole barometer of a drug's popularity. Rob Arnold, a spokesman for local rehab center The Right Step, told me that powder cocaine-related admittances were up among adolescents (while remaining flat with adults), and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, cocaine seizures in Texas have increased sharply since 2001. Since then, Houston has emerged as one of the leading distribution centers for cocaine in America. In 2002 and 2003, more blow was seized coming from Houston than anywhere else in the country. (We're number one!)
cocaine and nightclubs
But just how much of that is falling off the backs of those trucks here? I asked Lelia Rodgers, the owner of Rudyard's, a bar with a fairly strict anti-coke stance, if she thought the drug was in style again. To her, it's hard to tell. "When you're down in the trenches, it's hard to look up and all of a sudden say, 'Wow, there's a lot of cocaine around now,'" she says. "Drugs come in and out of fashion just like anything else, and coke has always, always been prevalent."
One owner of a local bar with a high-end clientele was less equivocal. "I don't think there's any question about it," he says. "It's so cheap, apparently. An 8-ball (an eighth of an ounce, or 3.2 grams) is $100 or something like that. When I was growing up in the '80s, it was always $100 or more for a gram. In real dollars, back then it would have been like 20 bucks or something. To think that the powers-that-be have fucked this thing up so badly to drive the price down like that is just bizarre."
Low price is one factor; another is coke's reborn glamour and fashionability. Ten years ago, coke had a stigma as the drug for sleazy lawyers, American psychos and Gordon Gekko types as well as the members and fans of douchebaggy bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison. Heroin became the cool hard drug, riding in on waves of somber grunge and flicks like Pulp Fiction, wherein Eric Stoltz's oily smack dealer spoke for a significant portion of flannel-shirted, stringy-haired Generation X in saying that "Coke is deadÉheroin is back."
Heroin chic only lasted a few years; people dropped dead like they always do, and the kids moved on to other drugs. An odd coalition of rednecks and gay men took to crystal meth for a time, while others fiddled around with pain pills. (They still do, but that's another story.)
Meanwhile, cocaine made a slow and steady comeback, which is where we are now. If we are not exactly snowblind in a blizzard, then certainly we are in something more than a flurry, egged on by rappers like Rick Ross, Clipse and Young Jeezy and Vice magazine, the bible for a certain type of nihilistic hipster.
"Everybody got tired of the whole Kurt Cobain 'I'm depressed so let's just go shoot up in our garage apartment' deal," says Brad Moore, a bartender at Rudyard's and the owner of the new Washington Avenue nightspot Pearl Bar. "Now it's more like 'Let's fuckin' party. Let's get drunk with some hookers and blow and throw the TV out the window.' There's no more of this feeling-sorry-for-yourself bullshit. It went from Nirvana to Nashville Pussy quick."
"There's people who think of themselves as nondrug users that will do cocaine," says the anonymous bar owner. "People who would never smoke pot or do hallucinogens will do a toot every now and again."
Anonymous interviews lots of prospective employees at his bar, and he says those chats are often telling. "When they've worked at a club or applied at different clubs, a lot of times what they will say is, 'I just don't want to be around a bunch of people doing blow.' I think it's almost a given that if you go to a club, there's just gonna be a bunch of blow going around."
Even in his own place, he says. He doesn't seek it out, but he will consider doing some if offered. Now he's had to reassess that stance. "It's so easy, there's so much of it floating around, I'm at the stage where I've just got to say, 'No, man. Fuck no.' There's this guy here that always has it, all the fucking time. Literally a couple of weeks ago he just came up and handed me a little bag. Just handed it to me, like 'Here ya go.' I didn't ask for it, nothing. It wasn't like he was giving it to me for a taste, either. He was giving it to me to give it to me."
"Now you find it in your tip jar," said another local bar industry veteran. "I'm not joking."
One source told me about the bathrooms at one notoriously coke-friendly local bar. "I can't help myself, whenever I go to the bathroom there, I always wipe my hand along the top of the toilet tank. You could usually pick up almost a whole line on the side of your hand. It's not the white glove test, it's the white line test."
Cell phones have made the art of the coke dealer infinitely easier. Back in the old days, tracking down a dealer was a major pain in the ass. You'd have to go to a pay phone, dial a phone number or beeper, wait around for the callback and then arrange a rendezvous. Now you can just whip out your phone and dial your friendly neighborhood snowman. "Rudyard's had a pay phone forever that accepted phone calls, which made it so easy to identify dealers," Rodgers says. "If someone was parking on your phone, you could move in and tell them to beat it. But with cell phones, I think the whole chemistry of the deal has changed."
Rodgers says that there is a little crew of dealers that makes the rounds of the Montrose/Heights bars, much like the Camel girls, the roving Middle Eastern guys who sell crappy pizzas on spec and the Mexican ladies who peddle foil-wrapped bricks of tamales. She says they even have unofficial time slots, where they are known to all but clock in at certain bars. "They will all sit at a table together," she says. "You go in and cast a cynical eye at them, and then like three of them will come running up to talk to me, and I just go, 'Hey, do not chat me up. I'm just giving you the eye because I think it's bizarre.' We joke about them, like the one guy that doesn't have a cell phone and he keeps falling asleep at the bar. It's like, 'What kind of coke dealer are you?'"
Another of these inept dealers was known for his inability to keep his trade on the down-low. "He would get all fucked up and just start transacting business," Rodgers remembers. "I told him, 'You're about as subtle as the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki. Get out of my bar, and do not transact business here, and if you do it again, I'm going to boot you down the sidewalk."
Rodgers also claims that their wares are not exactly primo stuff. "The coke today is freaking awful," she says. "We call it coke light. I don't buy drugs, I don't do drugs in my own bar, but I get around and people offer me things. I have an idea of what's out there. And I had my day in the '80s; I think everybody did in the '80s. So for me, it's like, 'This is what passes for cocaine these days?'"
Au contraire, says Anonymous. "I think it's fantastic today," he says. "That stuff the guy gave me the other day, I put a little on my gums and I was like, 'Wow, there ya go.'"
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"I've been to some parties where I've been offered a bump of something that was really pretty good, but this is not the stuff you find in the everyday, running-around-the-bars stuff," Rodgers says. "And that's the stuff that's making me crazy. I want those people out of my bar; don't transact here."
She says that coke turns her customers into assholes, for one thing. "They get all wired and they start ordering these ridiculous shots, like Red Bull and Basil Hayden's 127-proof bourbon. First off, we don't serve Red Bull and we wouldn't mix it with Basil Hayden's if we did. You're not cute when you're on coke, you're an obnoxious asshole and you should just stay home and play Risk and watch porn or whatever else."
Worse still, some of you people are corrupting her cleaning crew. "The availability of cocaine has almost turned my cleaning crew into dealers," she says. "They'll go in there in the morning and come out with two or three little baggies people have lost them. Or they will put a matchbook down and you open it up and there's coke in there. I was talking to one of my bartenders and she told me that 'Julio' (not his real name) would save up three or four of these little bags and take them to a dealer who gives him ten dollars for $20 baggies.
"And remember," she adds. "Only users lose drugs."