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Reading: You Are What You Snort

The affinity that any particular group has for its particular poison is a subtle expression of its self-image and aspirations.



A new drug is on the market: it is cheaper, quicker, stronger, and more addictive than anything seen before. It is flooding the cities during a troubled time and destroying the lives of the swelling poor, the unemployed, the uneducated--the residuum as the economy shifts into a new phase. Its victims turn to crime, often violent, and the women among them sell their bodies and neglect, even abuse their children. Addicts seem to live only for the drug. They gather anywhere they can to consume it, in dank cellars, abandoned slum dwellings, the very gutters of the city. The middle and upper classes are horrified, and afraid.

Is this Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles in the 1990s? It might be, but it's actually London in the 1750s: the drug is not crack cocaine but gin. "The retailers of this poisonous compound," reported a visitor to one of their wicked lairs, "set up painted boards in public, inviting people to be drunk for the small expense of one penny, assuring them that they might be dead drunk for two pence, and have straw for nothing. They accordingly provided cellars and places strewed with straw, to which they conveyed those wretches who were overwhelmed with intoxication. In these dismal caverns they lay until they recovered some use of their faculties, and then they had recourse to the same mischievous potion." So it was in the days before the rise and fall of the perfectly mixed martini.

Every group finds its own elixir: that's the message of Wolfgang Schivelbusch in Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants. A century before gin paralyzed the brains of the English proletariat, a rising class of trading capitalists all across northern Europe adopted coffee as its drug of choice. Water, in those days, being reserved for penitents and prisoners, the new Protestant bourgeois found in coffee the perfect antidote to beer and wine, the immemorial beverages of Christendom. Schivelbusch paints a vivid picture of a world in which beer was second only to bread as a source of nutrition, where even breakfast was a porridge made from the stuff. Days usually ended as they began, especially holidays (about a hundred every year), with bouts of drinking whose only permissible result, according to the etiquette of the time, was unconsciousness for everyone.

Into this medieval debauch strode the capitalist with his cup of coffee. His brew not only stimulated the mind for clear and orderly thought but, he believed, cured the drunkenness of the moment--a quaint idea, and still a popular one. Coffee, in a word, was sober. For those austere Calvinists who searched the bottom line for signs of the grace of God, those thinkers who worked with their heads and not their bodies, it was the ideal drink. Coffee was even held to curb sexual desire, which led the women of London, who were shut out of coffeehouses, to mount at least one major public protest against it, citing "the Grand Inconveniences accruing to [our] SEX from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling LIQUOR."

Well, you can't please everyone. Coffee also had a hard time among aristocrats, who couldn't see the point of a bitter draft that keeps you awake and helps you think. They took as their own the other hot drink brought to the Old World around the same time--chocolate. If coffee epitomized the new businesslike asceticism of northern Europe, says Schivelbusch, chocolate captured the spirit of the ancien regime in the south, where it was most popular: gently arousing and sensual, not harshly stimulating, a drink of leisure, not work; soft, languorous, something that might even be taken in bed, where it often was.

Obviously chocolate is no match for coffee when there's history to be made. Schivelbusch's contrast between the Protestant, abstemious, striving north and the Catholic, carnal south may oversimplify, but it reveals something important: our morning coffee, as pervasive as the unstated notions of efficiency and calculation by which we live and die, is no mere cup of java--brewed right into it are the sobriety of the middle class, the rationality of enterprise, and all the blood spilled in wars waged by capitalists against the medievalism that stood in their way: quickened only by bean juice they vanquished the aristocrats, who despised them, the workers, who envied them, and the peasants, who feared them. Pass the sugar, you will say after reading this book.

Schivelbusch generalizes freely, but he's not out to prove anything. He chooses his stories carefully (not to mention the illustrations, which are superb), and the connections he draws, even over long stretches of time and space, are usually convincing. It's impossible to convey the richness of his material. He covers everything from the fashion for choking down huge doses of oriental spices in the High Middle Ages (forget that baloney they fed you in grade school about covering up the taste of rotten meat) to the intricate rituals of snuff taking in the 18th century (which fingers to use, how to offer it to others, when to hawk and spit) to the evolution of the rustic inn into the alehouse and eventually the emporium of the safe and not-so-safe we know as the bar of the present day. But this book is more than a catalog of obsessions. Schivelbusch's point is that the affinity any group has for its particular potion is no accident--it's a subtle expression of its self-image and aspirations.

Consider the proletarians and their lumpen brothers, some of whom were resting in the gutter when we began. Their beverage has always been alcohol, but the aim has not always been simple escapism. Drinking after work is an immemorial rite of workingmen, crucial to their cohesion as a class. Even socialist intellectuals who used to wring their hands over the stupefaction of bibulous workers-of-the-world understood the essential political role of the tavern: drinking builds solidarity. Anyone who has ever been to a bar after work knows about standing rounds, but this is just a vestige of a complex ritual of communal and competitive boozing, a routine of toasts, clinking glasses, and rounds--all carefully monitored by the group to make sure everyone pays his share--that strengthened and enforced the bonds of mutuality. Fraternity and obligation--these were the only weapons workers had in their struggles against das Kapital. Even today there are plenty of places where a man would as soon spit in another's eye as refuse his invitation to a drink.

Coffee drinking has never had these collective associations. It is an individual affair, and insofar as it's developed rituals, they have to do with the etiquette of self-expression. In the kaffeeklatsch--a domestic, female innovation--good taste in china and the right gestures in serving and consumption matter most; and personal display, to put it delicately, is still the main business conducted in modern versions of the coffeehouse, those preposterous refuges of students, larking or declasse aristos, narcotized intellectuals, and "artists"--a fauna that first evolved about 150 years ago, and which, despite a steady diet of espresso, cigarettes, and cream-filled pastries, shows no sign of being endangered. Everything changes, it has been said, except the avant-garde.

Schivelbusch might easily have made a dull and flabby treatise out of his subject, but perhaps because he lacks academic qualifications he makes it shine instead. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of Terry Williams. The author of Crackhouse: Notes From the End of the Line comes to us heavily freighted--according to the dust jacket he is "one of this country's foremost chroniclers of the poor," the beneficiary of a grant from the lustrous MacArthur Foundation, and a researcher at the prestigious New School in New York City. And his book, despite a subject that could not be more current, riveting, and even lurid, is a dead fish. Williams does have something Schivelbusch does not, however: he is a professor, after all, and a professor, H.L. Mencken said, must have a theory as a dog must have fleas. Williams's theory is this: users of crack are neither suffering addicts with bad childhoods who need programs (the guilty liberal view) nor heedless criminals who need jail time (the punitive conservative view); they are revolutionaries on the front lines of an "emerging culture of resistance."

Could this be a joke? Is there any chance that right now Williams is cackling his head off in some loft in Soho? I pondered the idea, but in the end I had to reject it because there isn't even a whiff of humor in this book; the ruse would just be too stupendous. No, this is the real stuff. Some samples: (1) "The crackheads represent a rebellion, a refusal to accept sobriety and safe sex as standards of behavior." (2) "Addiction does not take over people's lives because they are irresponsible or have some inherent character flaw. Instead, the crack users' behavior reflects class, race, and economic factors." (3) "'Safe sex' is rare in the crackhouse; even the idea is generally perceived in a negative way. This, too, is an example of a culture that rejects educational efforts formulated by the middle class." (4) "It is possible to see the violence, crime, and substance abuse that plague the inner city as manifestations of resistance to a society perceived as white, racist, and economically exclusive. This could be called a culture of refusal."

The point is a simple one: crackheads are innocent victims, even heroes of a sort, and white oppression is the source of all their travail. The last specimen, with its "it is possible to see" and "this could be called," is typical; when he can, Williams likes to lob in his duds from behind a wall of the passive voice. But sometimes even this old dodge is not enough, so he plants the banner of "the people" in what might be his deepest pile: "People in minority communities, watching the continuing flow of drugs, inevitably begin to wonder whether the cocaine now so readily available at cheaper prices is there by design. The crack culture, the crackhouses, would not exist without the low-priced drug."

Is this glint of genocide the result of the professor having inhaled too much of the crackhouse miasma while doing his interviews? Probably not. The idea of a white-run conspiracy seems to be gaining currency as a kind of underground credo quia absurdum. Remember the sermon delivered in Boyz N the Hood through the mouth of Furious, the one solid, moral figure in the movie? Rebuking an old man who accused drug dealers of destroying the neighborhood, he preaches: "How you think the crack rock gets into the country? We don't own any planes, we don't own no ships. We are not the people who are flyin' and floatin' that shit in here. . . . The best way you can destroy a people, you take away their ability to reproduce themselves."

It is nonsense, true, but what democratic, what corn-fed American nonsense! It makes people feel good. It excuses and ennobles. It turns graffiti into art, riot into revolution, and gangbanging into enterprise ("Minority youths in the inner cities [turn] to the illegal drug trade; it could be argued that these jobs offset a great deal of the social cost of unemployment"). All the years we spent convincing the dues-paying Americano that the toughs who carried switchblades and made strange noises at his daughter were not bad boys, just delinquents who needed field trips downtown and more basketball hoops, are now wasted: "Hey, Officer Krupke," the chorus chants today, "whaddya want, our culture is resistin'."

So much for the theory; what about the facts? Williams makes no claim that the people in his book are representative, but he might have chosen better if he really wanted us to get down his moonshine. Here are the principal male crackheads: Headache, a white, middle-aged ex-salesman and former high roller who had a job with a $20,000 expense account before he descended full-time into crack; Tiger, a black man pushing 60 whose $500-a-week paycheck as a city bus driver was critical to the maintenance of the crackhouse until he got the boot for failing a drug test, the day of which was known to him well in advance; and a Dominican, Venus, a former professional baseball player once scouted by the major leagues who prefers partying to training. What are these three resisting? Might they not be just a little--hush--irresponsible? Venus has a daughter who is getting into crack, too. Although he admitted she was his only two years before, when she was 14 ("it would have meant financial trouble and obligations on my part, and I didn't want that"), now he's upset; he knows what crack means for young girls--two-dollar blow jobs in piss-soaked hallways--because they are his own special passion.

Williams does not record so much as a peep of revolution from his informants, in fact. What they do talk about, apart from crack itself, is sex. Their world is a simple one: it has two principles, Eros and Thanatos, two gods, Aphrodite and Dionysus, and in its primeval economy there are only two commodities. Crack seems to have hurled its victims back into a savage parody of the Stone Age in which men hunt for drugs, not food, to barter for sex. Only this time around the sex rarely results in reproduction since almost all of it takes place well above the waist--of the women. "Buffing," as it is called, is the only important activity in the crackhouse other than getting high, and the greatest thrill crackheads have is to combine them, a specialty known as the "double master blaster." The old in-out--"flatback" in their lingo--is pretty much passe. Our guide says this is due to a lack of space in the crackhouse, but the plain truth--that the men who run this primitive economy are not interested in anything other than their own immediate pleasure--is not lost on the women. Compare Williams--"The men say the drug stimulates the female; the women say the drug excites the male. It is clear from the frequency of sexual encounters that there is some truth to both assessments"--with Shayna (barely educated, always high, she easily manages a better prose style than the author): "Most women are nonsexual basers. They just want to get high. They are using sex to get the drug. . . . But as far as the male is concerned, it goes right to his dick."

So, despite the fog exhaled by the professor, we are able to make out some interesting things about crack use. One is the curious mysticism it seems to induce in its devotees. They call their drug "Scotty" after the watchword from Star Trek: "Beam me up, Scotty." But it's more than a nickname, it's a personification. Addicts ask each other, "Have you seen Scotty?" and reply, "I've talked to him but I haven't seen him," meaning that they're not yet completely high. They tell stories about "the first time I met Scotty," or "when I fell in love with Scotty," and enjoy, when possible, cramming into elevators to smoke crack so they can literally rise as they beam up.

Every drug begets its own magical associations, and these become part of its pleasure. Schivelbusch points out how naturally drinking led to the idea of divine infusion--"The man intoxicated by wine no longer possesses his own soul, but is filled by that of the wine, that is, the wine god"--an archaic idea that survives in the Christian Eucharist. Smoking is like drinking in this way: according to Schivelbusch, when tobacco first appeared in Europe people spoke of "drinking smoke" because they had no other term. The crackhead rituals of cooking the cocaine into milky white rocks, breaking the rocks into pebbles, cleaning and adjusting the all-important screens in the pipe, and finally smoking enough crack to "see Scotty" celebrate a kind of narcotic Black Mass in which the wafer is a rock and the chalice is a pipe. Livelihood, sex, religion--they all turn to parody in the degrading half world of crack.

If the merchant doing accounts in his coffeehouse expresses efficiency, if the courtesan sipping chocolate on her divan embodies sensuality, and if laborers toasting one another in their tavern display solidarity, then what about the crackhead lolling on his milk crate? This is not the kind of question Professor Williams asks, but it's clear from what he says about life in the crackhouse that its main ethic is exploitation. Dealers exploit users, of course, men exploit women, and women exploit themselves. But women are also able to exploit men, who carry a double handicap in their tussles over sex and drugs: first, their wrongheaded belief that crack turns women into frenzied maenads, and second, the fact that cocaine, especially in doses high enough to permit the seeker to "see Scotty," often makes them impotent. These conditions give women plenty of ways to outwit their goaty cavemen through subtle manipulations of both the pipe and the quid pro quo. They may bring in a pipe with the screen positioned so that the "due"--crack's potent, oily residue--falls to the bottom. As clear-eyed Shayna explains: "When it's all over she may give him, do him--but she will walk out with the pipe and ninety percent of the drug."

Although the crackhouse inmates sometimes refer to themselves as a "family," anyone who turns his back for a minute invites theft. Stealing drugs, outright or by subterfuge, even has its own pet name, sancocho--originally a term of Caribbean cookery meaning to cut into chunks and stew. How far from the ritual camaraderie of the bar are the deceit, the harlotry, and the paranoia of the crackhouse! How far, too, from the perverse fantasies of a comfortable few who would use the misery of the many as balm for their own resentment.

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (translated by David Jacobson), Pantheon Books, $25.

Crackhouse: Notes From the End of the Line by Terry Williams, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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