"These fellas down here can get you some leaf for ten," she said. Leaf? I looked at her face and then at my companion's. He didn't seem to know what it was either. We were two ignorant white guys sitting in a parked car somewhere off Chicago Avenue in the deep dark black of west-side Chicago.
My friend had heard about a place where you could buy marijuana from curbside vendors. Mind you, we couldn't buy it--we were the wrong color and from the wrong neighborhood--but if we had a friend who was black and just a little bit streetwise, we could score with no prior arrangement, no bullshit: you got the money, they got the smoke.
"I'm going for it," my friend said. "You don't have to come with."
I couldn't let him go alone; he was a friend and he might get hurt and my thinking stopped right about there, as it should have. But later I realized I was also curious: How would it work? Who would we be dealing with? How were they able to operate with half the world almost insanely out to stop them? How could they, the despised villains of countless TV shows and political gurus from Nancy Reagan to Jesse Jackson, control things so thoroughly that they could operate out in the open, making deals with people they'd never met?
Our contact was a black-woman-who-could-be-trusted-and-knew-her-way-around. We followed her car off the Stevenson onto Central and traveled north to Chicago Avenue, through neighborhoods of burnt-out buildings freshly boarded up with a sloppy finality that let you know nothing was going to be built there for a long time to come. If there was hope in those streets, I didn't see it. She wound us through a maze of small one-way streets and finally pulled over just before a brightly lit intersection. We parked directly behind her. She came back to us and my friend handed her a rolled-up bill, I didn't see how much. "Just be a minute," she said.
She headed toward the intersection. She was short and seemed suddenly vulnerable on the streets. It struck me that this was the first time I'd ever asked a woman to go someplace I wouldn't follow her to. It made me feel like a coward, but I didn't get out of the car. I watched her cross the street at the intersection, and then she disappeared.
There were a lot of people passing through that intersection, alone and in groups; they appeared quickly out of the dark, walked briefly in the light, and disappeared again. No one stopped except three young black males wearing high-tops, jeans, and stocking caps. I heard their laughter before I saw them. One of them was talking stuff and the others would occasionally shove him or laugh and slap his hand. The only word I could make out was that drawn-out two-syllable shee-it. I heard it several times, but nothing else.
The conversation stopped. Two of the young men walked to the stoop of the apartment building behind them and sat down as a police car pulled slowly up to the intersection and stopped at the sign. It didn't move immediately; in our car, paranoia set in quickly.
"What do you think?"
"Two white guys sitting in a parked car in this neighborhood?" I said. "Not suspicious at all."
"We could always act like we were gay and wanted a spot to make out."
"Nobody's that far in the closet," I said. Friendship has its limits. "Besides, who would choose this neighborhood?"
"Maybe if we said we were both married and we didn't want our wives--"
"There they go." The squad car turned down a one-way street. The young men relaxed on the stoop and our paranoia began to settle, but I kept a close eye on the rearview mirror to see if the cops would double back. Every set of lights was threatening, but none were the police.
I began to wonder why this intersection was so brightly lit. None of the others nearby were, but this one was so bright that the front of the building where the young men were sitting was as white as a marquee, and search as I might I couldn't find a source of light. Nor could I see any life other than the guys on the stoop and the people who passed by. There were no businesses; the apartments all seemed lived in, but this was a section of the city without flora--no trees and no grass, not even on the berm between the street and sidewalk.
We were mostly quiet in the car. I kept turning to check out cars that came up behind us, but none were cops and none stopped.
"Check this out."
The squad car had doubled back, not behind us, but in front of the building where the young men were hanging out. It stopped and someone inside the car yelled something out to the young men. They all got off the stoop and one went up to the driver's door. We could hear him laugh and then he stepped back, and the squad car slowly, agonizingly turned the corner. The young man called out after the car and pointed toward the driver. He laughed again and when he turned back to his friends they all slapped hands. We watched the taillights pull slowly away, stopping and waiting at every intersection.
"Thought this was supposed to take five minutes," I said. It must have been a full six by then. My friend didn't respond. He was eyeing three men walking by. They all turned and looked into the car, but kept going. It suddenly struck me that people who saw us would be more likely to think we were narcs than drug buyers. For some reason that was a comforting thought.
"There she is." Our friend had stopped to talk to the young men in front of the building. Not for long. She came up to the driver's door and motioned for us to roll the window down. She leaned in and started talking like she was visiting with a neighbor.
"They say they couldn't pick up nothing 'cause the cops have been around." We both sighed almost simultaneously. She motioned with her head and added, "These fellas down here can get you some leaf for ten."
"Leaf, what's that?"
"You don't know leaf?" she asked. "You know leaf, it get you real high. If you want to stay at home and get high it's pretty good. I want to go out, but if you going home it's fine."
"But what is it?" I asked.
"Marijuana, but it tastes like mint. Good stuff, but I want to go out. Like I say, if you staying at home it get you high."
We looked at each other and I finally said, "We came to buy something."
"Just be a minute," she said, and I watched her walk away again, feeling pretty much the same as I had the first time. She approached the young man who seemed to be the leader of the group and they disappeared down the street. They couldn't have gone far because it was less than a minute before she reappeared. This time before the window was halfway down she reached in and my companion took what was in her hand and passed it to me. It was a small piece of aluminum foil with a very small amount of something wrapped inside. She waved, got in her car, and drove off.
My friend started the car and I said, "Turn down the street where those guys are." I wanted to get a closer look. When we passed, the three young men all craned their necks to check us out. They were totally unremarkable in appearance, no black leather jackets or punked-out hair. They reminded me of the young men who come by to play basketball near the place where I work--middle-class black kids hanging out and talking shit. If they suffered any paranoia about their business it didn't show. The cops might pass through, but these kids lived here and made a living late at night.
I didn't open the package until we were almost back on the Stevenson. "What is it?" It was very green and hard to the touch; it seemed to have been soaked in something that had hardened it. It gave off a strong odor that at first reminded me of airplane glue, but that wasn't quite it. There was a chemical, almost metallic smell to it. I asked everyone I knew, but not even the most serious of potheads could tell me what it was soaked in.
But the deal was done and I've seen a part of Chicago I'll probably never see again. Never did find out what we bought, but it only cost ten dollars.