In Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York’s Lower East Side, published by Thomas Dunne Books, former NYPD detective Michael “Rambo” Codella and cowriter Bruce Bennet conjure up a visceral, hellish vision of Gotham in the late 80s, when heroin flooded the Lower East Side. In this exclusive excerpt, Codella collars a perp in a brutal assault and inches closer to nailing a drug kingpin.
Early summer, 1987. Sticky black bubbles on a new piece of macadam silently pop and drool oil as my partner Gio and I cruise up the Avenue in R(adio) M(otor) P(atrol) 9864 for the umpteenth time today. We’re Housing Cops in our first year assigned to Operation 8, a plainclothes task force combating the drug trade in PSA#4. Our beat is a stretch of public housing that Justice Department statisticians and local junkies both agree is the retail heroin capital of the world. The Feds used your tax dollars to buy the car, fill the tank, and pay our overtime while we sit in it. 9864 has power everything, FM stereo, “Climate Control,” the works. But we drive with the windows down and the radio off – taking in as much of the sights, sounds, smells and faces as our senses can handle.
Most people glaze over when they look at a block’s worth of inner city hothouse humanity. New York’s civilian population contains 8 million experts at averting their eyes in order to avoid trouble. But with a badge, a gun, and a license to butt in, a New York plainclothes cop never thinks twice about looking the people they pass right in the eye. We’re connoisseurs of the flash of recognition that precedes those civilian darted looks away.
We size up everybody – the steerers calling brands, the dealers making hand-to-hands, and the junkies crawling in feeling bad, hoping to walk out feeling nothing. We audition every face, every swinging arm, every sweating neck, every open eye that we pass. Who is waiting on someone? Who looks like they’re hiding something? Who’s new? Who’s missing? Who can we toss for dope and a collar or hit up for some information?
There’s a sun up there somewhere beyond the rooftops but the sky looks like spoiled milk and the gummy yellow haze won’t betray a bright spot. I’m Brooklyn born and raised, we both are, and like the rest of the natives I’ve learned that Mother Nature in New York can be as weird as any other local old broad talking to her shopping bags in a darkened movie theater or trying to convince her kids or a social worker that the people beaming gamma rays into her head are real. Heat lightening cackles above the Brooklyn skyline and her message is clear: “You may have it paved over, but it’s still a swamp.” Other places in the world, the summer months ebb and flow, the temperature rising up with the sun and going back down again after dusk. Here it’s like somebody turns the broiler on in June and finally remembers to shut it off again in September.
The heat and the wet air smear sounds, smells, shapes and colors. An anonymous clavero goes to town on a salsa track sputtering from a passing car stereo. For a moment the beat accompanies a steerer hawking bags of “Mr. T, Mr. T” for a corner smack dealer. His chant turns to “Five O, Five O. Yo, Rambo on the block,” as he catches sight of our car and my face. The salsa track briefly jams with the crackle on our dash police radio then a snatch of distorted thudding dance music from somewhere else and a shrieking seagull come inland from the harbor to trash pick the dumpsters behind the projects. The mix of sweat and cologne my partner and I generate are no match for the sour garbage stink, garlic, cigarette smoke, sweet-scented disinfectant Hispanic supers use in their building hallways, and rotten egg East River tidal funk wafting in the window with the sounds.
Neighborhood girls calmly strut down the sidewalk so naturally flushed, sweat shined, and breathless from the heat that it looks like they just got done fucking. But I’m not thinking about them. I’m not really thinking about anything. There’s a trance-like slow rhythm to a day tour in weather like this. You save your focus. Likely as not you’re going to need it for something later. The only thing going on in my head besides auto piloting the RMP and wordlessly registering and cataloging the world through the windshield, is a backburner notion I can’t shake about a big time dealer I’ve only recently heard about called Davey. Since learning the name “Davey Blue Eyes” a few weeks ago, I’m like a kid with a new swear word. But much as I love to shock the mopes I try it out on, it’s just too fucking hot to pull up on a dealing crew, peel myself off the seat, and collect more barely hidden surprised expressions by dropping Davey Blue Eyes’ nickname with the sellers and users on the D.
Nearing Fourteenth St. I swing out to the right a little, cut left and do a tight u-turn. It’s too hot for the tires to even bother squealing. That same hydrant trickles water mid-block on Sixth Street, but a different junky drinks from it than the last time we passed. A 3rd and D dealer crew heavy I tossed less than a week ago makes a show of not recognizing us and curses in Spanish at the strung out guy at the hydrant. The skell doesn’t react. He’s chemically unable to.
It’s 92 degrees and 98 percent humidity, according to Pete Franklin on The Fan before I turned it off. This guy must not have heard–he’s shaking and scratching in a thick wool sweater so oily and frayed it could make a sheep move up-wind. Junkies this far gone create their own shitty climate. The hot days are always the worst on them. The smack this guys shoots burns through his body faster in summer than it does in winter. Out in the street he’ll boot up, bark out vomit and feel the high fade fast leaving him jumpy and starved for more. The weather and his habit speed up the score-shoot-repeat cycle of his life like the conveyor belt on “I Love Lucy.”
Up ahead, then alongside, then looking back in the rear view, two muscular Hispanic dudes walk together. One has a Puerto Rican Bart Simpson t-shirt on. Maybe they’re headed for a bodega for a cold soda or a little seven ounce can of Bud. I think I know one of them from the 3rd St. dealing crew. Not a player nor a customer–maybe a neighbor of one of the main dealers who answer to Davey Blue Eyes, by all accounts the heaviest guy on the D.
As I turn onto 5th St. a white guy walks down the street with an aluminum baseball bat, silver with black tape on the handle. My mouth goes dry. Hold the phone. Time to focus.
“Drive back around,” my partner says.
Instead of looping around the block I do another u-ey, relaxing my hands as the steering wheel spins back into position and we head back up Avenue D.
“Ted Williams…” I murmur.
“Yeah,” Gio says. A half a block later we see that the first pitch is already thrown. Just off the avenue on 6th St. the guy with the Puerto Rican Bart shirt convulses on the sidewalk. His head bends sharply away from his neck and his scalp gushes blood into the gutter. The silver bat flashes over the white guy’s head, he exhales hard and brings it down on the other Hispanic guy’s face with everything he’s got. Blood lazily sprays into the muggy air like he’s beheaded the dude with a Samurai sword.