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.
White Guy hits again, fast, then again, faster–like chopping down a tree. Either his fourth or fifth swing catches Hispanic guy #2 sharp across the temple. The guy’s eye pops out as if he had an eject button on the side of his head. The eye’s not just out, it’s torn completely loose. I’ve never seen anything like it. I bounce the RMP up onto the curb as the eye rolls to a stop in the street. All I can think of is the time a kid lost a finger tip in shop class in Canarsie and the teacher kept yelling “save the piece” before getting sick on the floor.
“Police, get down! Get down!” Gio yells. We’re out with guns drawn in a heartbeat maybe ten yards from White Guy with the bat.
“Drop the bat, get on the ground!” Gio’s got no cover.
“Do it!” I add coming around the car alongside him. “On the ground now. Right now!”
White Guy stops hitting but doesn’t start following instructions. Fuck. I hate this part. Once you pull your gun the game is rarely automatically over. It’s not paper, rock, and scissors. Gun beats bat? If you train a barrel on a bad guy and he says “fuck you!” what then? Shoot, threaten, reason, beg, what? We’re moving closer to him carefully but fast. I don’t want to pull the trigger.
“Get down!” Gio says again. Even if he won’t drop the bat, if we get the guy on the ground that’s as good as disarming him. If he had anything hairier than the bat on him, we’d probably have found out by now. The bat drops a few inches as White Guy’s shoulders slump. He’s spent. His mind is having a hard time processing what he just did. Good, at least he’s not crazy. Gio holsters his gun a second before I put mine away, too. We go for a tackle.
Planting my left foot, I spring up and kick out with my right. My leg hooks the guy, pulling him off balance. Gio slams into him as hard as he can. I swing my other leg around and manage to catch the guy in the side of the head with my foot as he tumbles to the sidewalk then fall on top of him, using his rib cage as a nice flexy, landing pad. He isn’t going to want to laugh, cough or sneeze for a few days. Somehow Gio’s still standing up. He drops down and cuffs the guy hard. We both grab him, letting him know that he’s helpless. I toss him fast; keys, wallet, condom–bingo–a few bags of dope. He’s not up to talking right now but we’ll make time to discuss that last item later. We shove him into the back of the RMP. A crowd lazily gathers. Nearly everyone points at the eye.
Gio grabs the radio through the driver side window. “RMP 9864, have EMS respond to Sixth and D, two victims in serious condition.”
Dispatch comes back. “What do have at Sixth and D, K?”
“Two victims assaulted with a baseball bat. One lost an eye. The eye is on scene. Have EMS respond.” Gio looks at the mope in the backseat as he talks. “What are you, fuckin’ Babe Ruth?” he asks as he lets go of the handset.
Gio stays near the car and keeps looking at the guy. He’s beaten and cuffed but that doesn’t mean he won’t try to rabbit on us. My shirt sticks to my back with sweat and the front’s bloody from the takedown, probably from the guy he hit. I move out into the street to keep anyone from parking or stepping on the eye and wait for EMS. Two uniform City Cops from the 9th Precinct pull up to help secure the scene.
“Hey,” one of the uniforms says after looking at the eyeball in the street, “I got my eye on you.”
“Eye caramba,” the other uniform says, looking at the Bart shirt. “Eye yi yi.”
I don’t say anything and just stare at the first uniform cop to shut him the fuck up. Both uniforms get the picture and slither away.
EMS arrives a short time later. One tech is a burly guy who looks after the first bat victim. The other is a tall, skinny, big cheekbone brunette that could’ve been a runway model a few years earlier. She takes in the scene expressionlessly, goes around back, gets an organ box and kneels on the blacktop. She unconsciously bites her tongue while carefully picking the eye up between her rubber gloved fingers and gently setting it in the box. It’s strangely sexy. She has a tattoo on her forearm. It’s still a few years before that becomes common.
“You can save it?” I ask her.
“Nah. Usually they dangle on the cheek by the nerves when they get knocked out,” she says to me as she gets up. The uniforms try to think of something clever. “You’d wrap it in gauze against his head and transport, but like this…? No chance. Do you know how much violent force it takes to actually clear the head like this?”
I shrug and nod, pointing to where her partner works like a dervish on Puerto Rican Bart. Scalp wounds bleed like crazy and the tech looks like he’s been serving sloppy joes with his hands. “He took a few practice swings on him,” I reply. She kneels to help and everyone, including her partner, automatically checks out her ass.
On the way back to our Housing Precinct Command, Gio looks at me crooked for a second.
“What the fuck was that?” He asks.
“What was what?” I know what he’s saying, and we both like to break balls.
“The thing. With the foot?” Some cops love guns and collect them and know all the names of the different ammunition loads and accessories and stuff. That’s not my thing. I collect beat-down moves. One week I’m training in kick-boxing, the next maybe in Hawaiian Kempo. There’s plenty of opportunities to try out the stuff I learn while on the clock. I’ve been boxing since I was a kid and eventually I will discover Gracie jiu-jitsu a Brazilian grappling style that suits me well. But my first years in plainclothes I’m still sort of a pilgrim wanderer when it comes to working with my hands.
“So, you studying ballet this week?” Gio asks. “You looked like West Side Story or some shit.”
“Tap,” I say.
At the Command, I sit across a desk from White Guy and fill out his online booking report. I know all about the revolving door that keeps the same faces passing before my eyes from the D to the command to the Tombs and back out again, but this guy is for sure not walking around unsupervised for at least a half a decade. Both of the guys he hit would be lucky to live past the weekend and “James Otto Healy,” as White Guy’s known to his parole officer, has priors like Calvin Murphy has kids. He’s been pretty chill from the moment we dropped him so I loosen his cuffs and Gio brings him a drink of water. A little blood trickles from one hand where he’s been cut by the cuffs. Where James is going he’s gonna need both his hands in working order. If a perp hasn’t been an asshole, I try to make the remaining time I spend with them as painless as I can. Anyway, I wanted to talk to him about those bags of dope while we had some privacy.
“Jim, you want to call anyone?” I say.
“No,” he kind of moans, “There isn’t anyone.” He’s starting to drown in the reality of the situation. He’s hunched forward and breathing shallowly. The rib shot has done a number on him.
“You sure? Family, friend, you don’t wanna let anyone know you’re going to jail?” I say.
“No,” he sighs. “Fuck it. Those guys, those two guys Hector and Tingo, they were my best friends.” He pauses. “I’ve known them since like forever.”
“Feel like telling me what happened?” I say. He’s talking it out. Fine with me.
“They were messing with my girl.”
“Both? You caught them?”
“Both, yeah. No, she told me. We were in bed this morning and she tells me. She was into it. We’re having problems. A lot of fights and shit…” He looks at the floor and is back in bed with a freshly broken heart for a second.
“I went out and I got high and when I saw them walking down the street, I went after them.”
“Yeah, you sure did. Where’d you get the bat?”
He looks across the table at me. “It’s mine. I went home and got it from my closet, came back and started hitting on them.” He starts to cry. “They were my best friends,” he sobs. “I know them like my whole life.” I wonder if he realized how much of their blood he was wearing. He looks at his wrist. It’s swelling fast. Turns out later he swung the bat so hard the impacts broke a bone in his hand.
“So, a little C or D sometimes?” I ask him gently, matter of fact–like we’re trading eye-glass prescriptions.
“Yeah,” he says. “I like coke but a little dope like helps me chill. I’m not like a dope addict, though. Just snort once in a while.”
“Right. So where did you go? For the dope.” I hold up the bags we found on him. I haven’t decided whether to voucher them or hang onto them and keep them and use them as sugar for our informants. “Third St.?”
“Yeah, Third Street. Mostly that spot.”
“‘Body Bag’, right? Yo, I seen you, bro.” I have. It clicks in for sure now.
“Yo, you seen me?” Even though it’s the least of his problems, it weirds the guy out that a cop knows a spot location, the name of a brand, and remembers him.
“Yeah. Yeah I seen you. That’s Eddie’s spot. You know Eddie, right?”
White Guy nods. “You’re friends with those guys, right? Eddie, Macatumba, they your boys, right?” He nods and smiles again. Then the 25,000 question.
“What about Davey Blue Eyes, bro? You ever see him? Davey Colas?” I try to be nonchalant but, just like everyone else on the D I ask about Davey, his expression transforms between my second and third syllable. He looks at me cold. “What,” I ask, “Eddie talks about him maybe?”
“No? ‘No’, you never seen him or ‘no’ Eddie never mentioned him or what?”
James Otto Healy leans forward and looks at me, clear-eyed and self-possessed and focused for the first and only time while we’re together. “No, I don’t even wanna say that dude’s name,” he says. “You see Beetlejuice? You say the name three times and he fucking pops up and you’re fucked, right? That’s how it is with that guy. You already said it twice. I never seen that guy and I know for sure I never want to. That’s all I heard and all I know and all I’m gonna fucking tell you, yo. Hey papi,” he turns to Gio, nerve ebbing again. “Can I get another glass of water or some juice or something? Fucking so hot…”
Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York’s Lower East Side, by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett and published by Thomas Dunne Books, is on sale now.