A cold afternoon drizzle falls as a patrol car slinks into view.
"Five-0! Five-0!" a teenager calls out.
Up and down the block, Nextels chirp to life. A street boss pulls a phone from his flight jacket and presses it to his face.
"Yo, the cops are here."
The officer lowers his passenger window and grins at two young men in oversized T-shirts and low-slung jeans.
"Get off the corner or you're going to court," he tells them.
The two strut off, passing near the site where a dealer was gunned down a few years ago. But as the patrol car leaves, headed downtown, the crew immediately retakes its turf: a cluster of corners a few blocks from City Hall.
A minute later, a Toyota sedan slows along the garbage-strewn street. The female driver looks over eagerly as one of the dealers scans the block.
"Time to get paid," he mutters.
This is Paterson, where a multimillion-dollar criminal industry employs hundreds of suppliers, dealers, lookouts and runners, nearly all of them minorities.
At any hour, crews of teenagers and young adults are out peddling heroin, coke, crack or pot - some in the open, yelling "Yo! Yo!" to passing white drivers, others more discreetly, with arranged meetings in alleyways and buildings. Their daily take can range from $100 to more than $2,000.
More than half of it comes from outside the city.
Police and those involved in the illegal drug trade say fewer suburban users are crossing the Hudson River, in large part because of crackdowns in Washington Heights and post-9/11 security changes at bridges and tunnels into Manhattan. Some users even blame higher tolls. At the same time, Paterson has become widely known for the purity of its heroin.
"I'll tell you one thing: There's more white people doing drugs than black people," says one Eastside dealer who has been in and out of detention centers. "They come through here and they got the money."
Until late 2003, out-of-town buyers could hop off Route 80 and cruise through the Alexander Hamilton housing complex. Cement barriers and a guard station have cut down on the traffic there, but business continues.
Some buyers simply park a few blocks away and stroll into the complex. Others head straight for the heart of the city - to Sparrow or Summer, Godwin or Governor, 10th or 12th - the crossroads of urban and suburban desperation.
"You see all kinds of people coming around here for drugs - in taxis, in Hummers, in all kinds of nice cars," says a cabinetmaker who has become resigned to the constant traffic 100 feet from his downtown apartment door.
Rewards and Dangers
For street-level dealers, the corner is their office, their social club, at times their impromptu gym.
"The corner is like a coffee shop," says G, a 20-year-old pot dealer. "Some people come in every day for coffee; others just come in. You know when to be around and you always make money."
Besides the quick cash, returning to the corner each day offers a respite from boredom. But dealers say they're also under constant threat - from cops, crack addicts and hothead competitors. City police made nearly 1,300 arrests on drug distribution charges in the last 18 months.
Confrontations are frequent.
A rivalry between two alleged Paterson dealers will feature prominently in a pair of murder trials this fall. And by year's end, Asmar Bease, a convicted dealer described as a high-ranking Bloods gang member, is expected to stand trial for the execution-style shooting death of a reputed Crips member.
"This is the most stressful job in the world," says a hustler with long, thin braids. "You have to be looking over your shoulder every minute."
In a city with nearly 10 percent unemployment and a high school dropout rate that is five times the state average, many teens start hustling early, following a career path forged by the cash-flashing dealers of their childhood.
Yet it can become a dull enterprise, pushing many to dip into their merchandise and spend hours of the day high, their eyes bloodshot and vacant.
Some say they remain tied to their trade by criminal convictions that keep them from a legitimate - if less lucrative - job. For others, the reliable, tax-free cash simply proves too sweet to pass up.
G began dealing when he was 13, attracted to the glamour of street selling and mindful of the hardships his family faced. His mother balanced nursing and telemarketing with occasional odd jobs. His father was often in prison.
"I saw my mom trying to raise these kids, just her," he said of himself and eight siblings. "They would cut off the lights. She had two jobs and couldn't pay the bills."
'Badge of Honor'
Paterson is a city of many neighborhoods. Some, on the far east and west sides, boast weed-free lawns and well-kept houses, the same as any other middle-class enclave. Artists rent space downtown in former factory buildings while working families throughout the city beautify the modest patches of earth that pass as their front yards.
But on blocks where dealers have staked out their turf, the picture is bleak. Near the city center, north of Broadway and west of Madison, the average family lives on about $20,000 a year. Almost half of those families are headed by single parents.
For G and many around him, the corner presented an acceptable alternative to the blue-collar grind.
"When I was young, I used to think, 'Damn, those guys always got money,'" G says during a break in business. "They'd give money to women who couldn't pay their rent. They'd buy me a pair of sneakers."
After earning his high school equivalency diploma, G studied air conditioning and heating repair at a trade school.
In that respect, he is unusual.
On average, 1,000 freshmen enter Paterson's high school system each year. By senior year, their class will shrink to 400. Of those who stay, only half will pass the state's graduation exam.
"In the urban community, if you do well in school you're considered a nerd," said Paterson Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes. "These young guys don't want to be outcasts. They want to be accepted. Before, being involved in illegal activity was considered a negative. Now it seems like if you haven't been before a judge or sent away you don't have that badge of honor. And that's really scary."
A tall, attractive young man, G figured that learning a trade would keep him straight. Dealing, he told himself, would be just a short-term thing, a way to cover the rent and expenses.
But G stayed in the game long enough to get busted for dealing just a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday. That left him with an adult conviction - a huge liability in the eyes of prospective employers.
"When I apply, I try to tell the truth," he says. "But when they see the drug charges, they don't want to hear it. They just see a guy from Paterson with drug charges."
Now a minor player in the city drug trade, G sometimes brings his infant son around to show off to the other dealers. The cost of child rearing, a task he shares with his girlfriend, has come as a surprise, adding to other expenses that he says keep him on the corner.
"I ain't justifying selling drugs - it's wrong. If I could go back and do it right, I would," G says. "But once you start, you can't stop."
On a sunny afternoon a few days later, he catches a ride to Mahwah to meet a friend. He's still high from smoking pot in Paterson when they walk into a fast-food restaurant where they both used to work. He is black. She is white - as is nearly everyone else in the place.
G spots a former co-worker, now a manager, behind the register. They exchange a few words, then G retreats to a booth. Customers look up as he stretches out, his legs splayed in baggy jeans. His friend stands at his side.
"Yo, why she look at me like that?" G asks, nodding at the manager.
"Because she doesn't like you," the friend says.
His friend rolls her eyes and chews on a nail while G takes a moment to reflect.
"That ain't right," he says.
The friend remains standing, uncomfortable and impatient.
"Yo, let's go," G finally says.
Divvying Up Duties
A few blocks from the Passaic River, on a day when the temperature is tickling 90, a teen in an Atlanta Braves cap steps off the curb, peeling bills from a fat roll of cash. After crossing Sparrow Street, he slips the money to a pony-tailed young man sitting on a stoop. The man checks it and stuffs it into his pocket.
Another man in an oversized white T-shirt and jeans down past his hips saunters over to the pony-tailed collector and extends a crooked arm. He holds a small fold of bills in his palm. As the two clasp hands in a quick shake, the money passes between them.
Across the street, a teenager gestures to motorists who slowly pull up. He directs them to the curb like a parking attendant.
"Five-0!" rings out down the block, scattering the crew.
A black, unmarked Crown Victoria lurches down one street. At the same time, a patrol car from the Passaic County Sheriff's Department rolls down another - the wrong way.
As both police cars idle, five dealers head into a corner liquor store.
Rap pumps from a car stereo halfway up the block. The late-afternoon sun beats down on the vinyl-sided houses lining the narrow streets, which are now virtually empty.
Five minutes pass before the first police car, then the other, drives off.
Ten minutes later, the five crew members reemerge from the store, none of them carrying a thing. They trade high-fives before resuming their places.
Even in the smallest crews, duties are divvied up. In larger operations, one or more spotters keep an eye out for trouble. One takes the customer's cash. One runs the drugs between the stash and the buyer. A higher-ranking dealer usually holds the funds and keeps tabs on supplies.
To gauge purity, coke and heroin crews often use "testers" - addicts who shoot or snort fresh batches that have been cut with aspirin, baking soda or some other agent.
When a dealer gets busted, his crew mates in many cases tap an emergency bail fund - understood more as insurance against snitching than as a gesture of solidarity. If not, there are always others waiting in the wings.
"Take a crew off the street," said Paterson police Lt. Heriberto Rodriguez, "and they're replaced in an hour."
Some residents say they worry for their families' safety. But they're afraid to point fingers: Graffiti on walls and sidewalks remind them of the consequences of "snitching."
"The street," warns one painted message, "is watching."
"The drug dealers do what they gotta do, and you have to just mind your own business," one resident said. "If not, it could cost you your life."
Gangs have a great deal of influence and control over the city drug trade, though no one can say for sure how turf is divided among them and the independent dealers.
Authorities believe there are roughly 3,000 gang members in Paterson, including small subgroups of the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings. Most are financed through drug dealing.
Sex Money Murder is among the larger subsets of the Bloods controlling corners in the city, authorities say. The Bounty Hunter Bloods have a firm hold on the Northside trade, while the Alexander Hamilton project has ties to the Dawg Pound and Fruit Town Brims. Other gangs take their names from the streets where they sell, including East 19th Avenue Boys United, Keen Street Posse and the Sparrow Street Bird Gang.
"Instead of being independent, it's a lot easier to go in with 10, 20 or 30 people to take over a territory," said Detective Lt. Robert Prause, head of the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office Gang Suppression Unit.
"If the Bloods' Sex Money Murder crew wants to take over a corner, then they recruit people to come in and back them up," Prause said. "[They] have members who are foot soldiers and others higher up the chain who control supply."
When an independent dealer wants to enter a corner dominated by gang members, he often has to ask permission or even give the gang a cut of his profits. Depending on the crew, some dealers say, they have to kick back 10 to 50 percent.
"There's no doubt that gangs have a lot of influence, but it's fluid," said Capt. Mario Baldino, head of Paterson's narcotics unit. "There are so many corners."
On some of those corners, such as Godwin and Governor, users drive or walk up and get instant service. Other transactions are more discreet, involving a meeting time and place set via pagers or cellphones.
But modern means of communication bring risks.
"The phone is the most dangerous part of the business," says one dealer, who was arrested based on a wiretap - a law enforcement method known on the street as FedTel. "You have to be careful who you're talking to and know your customers."
Life on the corner rewards risk-takers who understand that perception is often worth as much as product. In that, it's no different from any other business.
At any time, scores of brands float through the city's heroin market, each denoted by a stamp on the waxed paper bag. Some gain a deadly reputation for their purity.
"When a dope fiend finds out that another user OD'd on a particular brand, that brand gets even more popular," says Alvin, a former dealer and user.
"Fire" was among the brands he became known for.
One morning, when flames broke out in the building across the street, Alvin rushed over and started kicking the door. Residents - hearing his yells of "Fire! Fire!" - initially thought it was just an aggressive sales pitch and ignored him.
Alvin took a special liking to a car salesman from South Jersey.
The buyer drove up nearly every morning, most times in a different car. He handed over crisp $100 bills and drove off with 30 or 40 bags of dope. He never got out. Sometimes, he'd snort a bag right there.
"White guys," Alvin says, "were the best custies."
Kids, pregnant mothers, lawyers, small-business owners - many would start coming around for their "wake-up" fix at 5:30 in the morning, yelling up to Alvin's Market Street apartment and rousing him from sleep.
Others phoned his apartment at unpredictable hours. His mother or girlfriend would call down to the street in Spanish: "Te estan buscando." They're looking for you.
Most meetings took place a block away. Sometimes Alvin sent his customers to a nearby children's park, where he could assess and meet their needs more efficiently.
Truly desperate addicts sometimes got discounts, but not on the first of the month, when welfare checks are collected.
Alvin broke into the business as a street runner, earning $100 per "brick" of heroin for delivering drugs to customers. One day a local supplier told him about a franchising opportunity: Nobody was selling dope on a particular spot just five blocks from City Hall. Could he handle the promotion?
Alvin got things running quickly, handing out freebies to city "dope fiends" and drive-by suburbanites. When he met skeptics, he got locals to vouch for his product. That usually did the trick.
Alvin paid his supplier $200 for a "brick" of 50 glassine bags of heroin, then sold each bag for $10, yielding a per-brick take of $300. On average, he kept 20 bricks stashed in the drop ceiling of a vacant upstairs apartment. Out on the street, he carried them around in a fluffy beige teddy bear, the kind children find under the Christmas tree. He sliced open the neck seam and stuffed the bundles inside.
In the best of times, his weekly income ran over $10,000, much of which he used to support his extended family. His profits would have been greater, Alvin says, if not for his own heroin addiction, along with those of his girlfriend and uncle.
"We were sniffing dope like it was going out of style," he says.
Now in rehab as part of a plea deal, Alvin hopes to break a pattern of incarceration set by other men in his family. As a child, he visited his father in East Jersey State Prison, where he did time for vehicular homicide. His uncle is locked up on drug charges. His oldest brother, also a former drug user, recently served time in the Bergen County Jail for shoplifting.
Alvin could end up behind bars for five years if he violates his probation. He did that once before and, until recently, thought about quitting rehab again.
What changed his mind, he says, was the first conversation he'd ever had with his 11-year-old daughter, whose name he tattooed on his arm with homemade ink and staples.
"I'm 37 and I'm tired," he says. "If I go to jail one more time, I'm going to lose everything.
"And I don't got a lot."
Rolling the Dice
Out on the corner near downtown, business is slow - but opportunity awaits.
Four young men throw dice against a brick wall. One clutches a fat roll of bills as he follows the action. The others toss and lunge.
Across the street, a few guys sit on the stoop of a graffiti-scrawled building, wolfing down greasy fish sandwiches and spitting the bones on the sidewalk. Between bites, they wipe their hands on their pants and on a roll of toilet paper.
"Breakfast," one says, his mouth full.
Nearby, three young men take turns doing chin-ups on a fire escape while a cluster of children race along the sidewalk.
A middle-aged white man in a sleeveless shirt and jean shorts approaches the dice players. He begins to speak when one cuts him off.
"Over there, man. Just go with that guy. He'll take you."
The man smiles uneasily and trots off into a red brick building.
Behind him, the players laugh and get back to the game.
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