On my way to meet the Last Crack Hipster, I bought a soda at a bodega around the corner from where he lives in Brooklyn. I must have missed him by a minute. The bodega sells crack pipes, too. Most bodegas in the city do. The pipes used to be disguised as glass tubes, corked at both ends, containing tiny roses. No one bought them for the roses. Now they come in the form of pens: The “straw” that’s normally plastic on a Bic pen is glass. Who wants a glass pen? The pen works, yes. It is genius. At some places, if you ask for a “demo,” you get just the part used for a pipe.
At the Last Crack Hipster’s corner bodega, the code word is “Casaban.” You’re handed a brown paper bag containing the glass tube with a tiny bunched-up ball of steel wool at one end, and a little lighter. It costs $2.50. (A can of Coca-Cola is 75 cents.)
For a moment a few years ago, among the downtown “edgy” set, crack was hip. At least as an idea: “Crack is Back” was the logo on downtown curator A-ron’s $60 T-shirts. No one ever really did it. The Sun reported back in 2005 that Kate Moss had done crack; but the Last Crack Hipster says she never really did crack–wasn’t a “crackhead.” For the Lower East Side artists, it was enough that Dash Snow smoked it and took lots pictures of it. Now he’s dead. The Last Crack Hipster says he’s got mad respect for Dash Snow.
The Last Crack Hipster wants me to keep mum about most of the personal stuff. He’s around 30 and a longtime member of a graffiti collective. The Last Crack Hipster looks a bit like a raccoon, but not in a bad way. He’s a shower man, prefers the spray to the soak, has an iPhone and a serious girlfriend. Grew up out West. His parents aren’t millionaires, but if he’s in a tight spot, they’ll help him out. His apartment is littered with art books and kitty litter. A high-school doodler and onetime community college dabbler, he never lost the fascination with pop culture that ate his homework; his eyes are still wide. They’re bulging now, as he tears open a fresh Chore Boy. People will call it Brillo, but it’s Chore Boy, the one with the little boy on it. You have to get the copper-scrubbing pad because the other one is aluminum and it’s terrible for you. It burns your brain. So once you’ve got the copper-scrubbing pad, you pinch off about a gumdrop’s worth. You hold this over a flame, burn it really good, because there’s like a layer of cleaning product—well, whatever it is, it burns green at first. Wait until it turns black. If you don’t, you can taste some sort of chemical, probably cancerous.
Are we having fun yet?
You also need something to push the burnt copper into the glass tube. A chopstick will do. Push the Chore Boy down a little bit, to allow for enough room at the top to put the crumbs of crack on. Crack comes in a baggie the size of your fingernail with the yellow rocks in it. Twenty bucks. It’s ready to smoke. Ready rock. Hard. When you buy it, you say, “I want Hard.” A lot of crackheads on the street melt all their crack down into the Chore Boy and it looks green. If they get frisked by a cop, it’s just paraphernalia.
When being smoked, crack doesn’t have a strong smell; it’s like a sulfuric smell but with a sweetness, and the smell goes away really quick. Your house isn’t going to smell like crack, even if you don’t have one of those discreet cardboard kitty shitboxes lying around.
The media got it a bit wrong, he said. It’s not quite the bogeyman that they make it out to be.
When you’re smoking crack, ideally you want to keep the flame on the crack and away from the Chore Boy: You want the rock to heat up and cook down into it. It starts to melt and then it slides down and that’s when you go boom and level it out so it stays right at the screen. It’s right there bubbling and you’re not sucking like a cigarette or a joint; you’re basically like inhaling as little as you can. You just want to direct the flow into your mouth; you don’t want to suck the liquid down. Once the burning crack passes through the Chore Boy, it smokes as it cools. That’s the smoke that you want. Most people don’t seem to get that. It looks like the crack is gone, but you can kind of see it in there, in the Chore Boy, ideally it sits there and bubbles. The brown juice that drips down and looks like a film of motor oil on the side of the glass is the crack rock’s sweet nectar. People call it the Caviar. Taking someone else’s Caviar hit is uncool.
THE LAST CRACK Hipster insists that, as negatively hyped as it is, crack is not really that big of a deal compared to a lot of things. Granted, it’s highly addictive, and granted, it destroys people’s lives. Lots of times, a person will hit it and not feel anything much and be like, What’s the big deal? You hit again and again and again for a night. But the next day you don’t necessarily want crack again.
The media got it a bit wrong, he said. It’s not quite the bogeyman that they make it out to be. People who snuffled mountains of coke for years, the instant someone mentions crack, they freak out, panic, run the other way.
Crack Hipsters were a reaction to their parents’ nudge-nudge, upper-income-bracket embrace of cocaine. The Last Crack Hipster likes to point to the 1990s. The year that Nevermind dropped, in September 1991. A week or two later, the world went gaga for Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous, with the hit single, “Black or White.” But by January, Nirvana was ruling the charts. David Geffen had signed Sonic Youth. They didn’t have to release anything on any schedule. But Geffen knew if Sonic Youth signed, the best new grunge bands would follow.
Geffen bet right. Kurt Cobain didn’t want to go on Geffen’s label; Sonic Youth leader’s, Thurston Moore, talked him into it, so they could go on tour together. The kids ate it up. Everything had been getting too phony and theatrical. They wanted something real. The grunge scene was real. Heroin somehow went along for the ride, as a “real drug.” But how did crack snake its way into pop culture?
In 1994 Kurt Cobain blew his brains out; meanwhile, a couple of fellows in Quebec start Vice magazine, a significant force in the mash-up of graffiti artists, skaters, DJs, male models, slam poets, drug dealers, party promoters, T-shirt designers. Maybe you just worked the cash register at Supreme, but you could be a “lifestyle artist.” You could be an accountant by trade so long as you wore it right. You want to do the ’80s rocker thing with the long hair and the tats, or how about go the exquisitely sloppy route, all Middle America with the wifebeater and the potbelly? Do it.
There were also the hard-core pioneers: graffiti writers from Sherman Oaks who would slice your face open, or guys who declared, I’ll fuckin’ smooch a dude, whatever, yo. Whatever the pose, do it right and you can collect your prize: You’re an artist now, the superstar of your own show. If you’re lucky, your picture might wind up in the Do’s and Don’ts of Vice, alongside the skinny Puerto Rican kid with no teeth, neon full-shutter sunglasses, an oversize pristine baseball cap with the bill flipped up, taking a leak on a street corner in broad daylight.
But by the early 2000s, the cycle of cynicism that began in the ’90s caught up to the Vice generation. Heiress Paris Hilton got fucked from behind on camera, the ultimate star of her own show. But the purists still had a card to play: crack. A new lease on coolness, bohemian transgression, mystery.
The Summer of 2004, the cover of Vice magazine showed Pete Doherty hitting a crack pipe. A few months later he’s dating Ms. Moss, a cracked romance.
Oh dear God no. No, no—no way. Check this … It’s so … ha!
A powerful thought was rattling around the Last Crack Hipster’s brain. So check it out, the downtown hipsters were doing their thing, crack jumped the pond and burned up London; meanwhile, the hip-hoppers were gassing. In 2005, the rapper Juelz Santana came with the hit single “I Am Crack”:
Touch the coke, touch the pot, add the soda what you got ME!
I am what I am I be what I be and that you will see I AM CRACK
Santana was saying, “You think crack’s cool, here’s the recipe, tough guy, you will see.”
THE LAST CRACK Hipster had finished the Hard and was settling into Mad Scientist mode with the Soft and the spoon and the baking soda. Something about patience being the key, don’t rush it. Things were getting weird.
He suggested I call the coke dealer he says taught the Lower East Side set how to “cook”: that is, how to turn a bag of blow into a crack rock. The Chef’s clean-cut, L.A. born and raised. He spent three years milking the LES.
By early ’07, crack had begun its inevitable decline in the fickle world of fashionable downtown New York. (Some people didn’t get the memo; the original Crack Dork Amy Winehouse fixed that.) But in the days when Ms. Moss and Mr. Snow were doing the twist at his Tribeca studio, it wasn’t uncommon for the Chef to teach 10 or more “rich kids” how to cook, in a week. Lots of these youngsters didn’t have the dedication, patience or mental fortitude to create “the miracle of life;” they preferred to pay for the goods and the show. “I was known as the best chef around, so people would call me just to get me to come over and cook,” he told me. “But yeah, obviously, most of these kids were in it to be cool or whatever, lightweights. Except for those who weren’t, who eventually fell off.” It was usually dudes, but then there would be girls with the dudes and then sometimes the girls would start calling. The Chef feels pretty bad about what he did, says he saw a lot of good kids go bonkers, wind up in jail or the nuthouse. He may or may not still be in the game, but it’s been years since he trained any new chefs. He made a vow.
I pulled a big art book, Nest, from a nearby shelf: a beautifully bound volume documenting Mr. Snow and Dan Colen, the kings of the New New York School artist crew, creating one of their famous hamster nest experiences in an empty apartment. Here a photo of a naked pregnant babe teetering on top of a ladder, shreds of paper floating all around her; there a mangy red-eyed maniac grinning as he tinkles on the rising tide of paper and pillow stuffing. Ten pages of Nest is enough to make a man lunge for the crack pipe, or sledgehammer, whichever’s handy.
The Last Crack Hipster pushed an extra thumbtack into the blanket covering his window. He was getting the wah, wah, wahs. Basically, your adrenal glands are pumping and your fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and you become naturally fearful, maybe toward the police because of the drug’s illegality.
All of this is ending, donzo: Last week A-ron hosted a bring your own homemade ’zine party, open to anyone with a glue stick and a Kinko’s card. We’re on the cusp of something new. The Last Crack Hipster can feel it in his bones. These kids are coming up and technology is going to drive them hard. Insane. Everything that you do is just going to be out there. Look at Twitter: “I’m eating dessert.”
The Last Crack Hipster finishes tacking the blanket in front of his window. Then he sits down, leans forward and lights his lighter. With a candle. No clicking noise, see?
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