In late 2014, I was working as a hotel manager at a popular Manhattan property. It was a job highly regarded by many. Even I admit I had it good -- a career with money, vacation and insurance. It felt like more than anyone else in my blue collar, working poor Montana family could hope for.
But I hated it.
I hated what I had given up in order to have that secure salary. I had run from the Big Sky state to "become" something. Anything. So never did I imagine myself working in customer service and hospitality, which I could have been doing back in Montana. For me that was a death sentence. I coveted an education, dreamed of becoming a writer and journalist and teacher. I wanted what I did every day to matter.
So I did what any self-respecting person in my position would do: I quit and became a drug dealer.
Ok, I was dealing weed. On the scale of drugs, it's about as vanilla as Wonder Bread in a trailer park in Montana. But it's still risky, running around New York City with over three grand in dope would certainly land me in jail. The irony was palpable -- selling drugs to become someone who counseled the youth to avoid drugs. I was desperate, approaching my mid 30s, and needed to make some money to feel like I had some semblance of a future.
My "career" began with an "interview" with my new boss, the dispatcher. As soon as he opened his door he laughed, saying, "holy shit, you look like a cop." I was in. I had all the necessary prerequisites: a bike, bag, cell phone, and I was white. In other words I didn't "look" like a drug dealer.
So what does a drug dealer look like? A drug dealer, in the eyes of the American public and our media, is a man of color. Latino if he's selling coke, Black for crack. What was a white boy with a backpack, bike, tattoos and a beard? He's an artist, a hipster refusing to support the MTA's ever increasing hold over the city by riding his bike to work. Mr. Social Protest.
At the beginning of each shift, I was required to arrive at my dispatcher's home no later than 2 p.m. Tardiness was dealt with in fines and pay deductions. We would go through product, which included the standard choice of sativa, indica and hybrids. We also offered chocolate bars, gummy bears, and g-pens, all of which could be clandestinely consumed and "smoked" in public with little to no suspicion. We were in the business of customer service so choice was key. The rest was what you would expect with any delivery service.
My dispatch would receive a text on a burner phone, vet any new clients through referrals, send the address to my personal phone and I'd be on my way. The goal was to satisfy every request within an hour but no more than two. Being a small operation our service area included of most of Manhattan, Williamsburg and Bushwick, and as far as Carroll Garden in Brooklyn. This meant I might deliver to 96th and Riverside on the Upper West Side then be expected to arrive somewhere in Brooklyn within an hour.
Once my six-hour shift ended, I returned to headquarters to hand over cash and receive my $250 pay out. $42 an hour! For what I was required to do and the number of hours, weed delivery was lucrative.
You want to hear about the clientele? They weren't at all interesting or unique. Regardless of the neighborhood or outward appearance of the building, the clients were almost exclusively white, wealthy (or at least of an upper middle class persuasion) and in my opinion, boring. I delivered to lawyers, financial analysts, NYU undergrads and teachers.
Each transaction was cash; we weren't desperate enough to convert to Venmo payments at the time. We'd arrive, snap open the pelican case, and witness the light of wonder enter the clients' eyes as they perused the glorious mountain of THC before them. They'd ask questions akin to a wine pairing, shake, smell, scrutinize the buds, and finally make a choice.
By and large, these were white on white transactions. My boss put it to me bluntly: In the days of stop and frisk in New York City, he only hired white sellers, like me. Which explained by he'd only had three of his people busted in seven years -- and all the charges were dropped each time.
I once suggested Mr. Dispatch hire one of my friends of color. His response: "I have nothing against people of color, but..." He simply understood the nature of our police state. He knew they would be profiled, he knew they would be harassed, searched, busted, and thrown in jail. Even if I got caught, I might be harassed, arrested and fined, but would definitely be let go.
Dispatch told no lies. Over the following six months I hustled in weed delivery, I was never once stopped, questioned, or even looked at suspiciously. I loitered around subway entrances and exits casually drifting through my phone waiting for calls. I lounged on West Village stoops waiting for clients to arrive as their neighbors brushed by asking me if I needed to be let in. Based on my appearance, everyone assumed I was trustworthy.
Once I almost had my bag "searched" at an MTA check point. A simple, "I'm a college student; that's all undeveloped film for class," was all I needed to deflect the police officers. I've brushed shoulders with sergeants and lieutenants, rookies and veterans while carrying thousands of dollars worth of contraband. I've cut them off while cruising through a red light, and then asked for clarification about roadblocks and street closures.
Was it fair? No. But like anyone in that industry I worked with the tools at my disposal. That's the terrible condition of our cultural narrative. White people not only have the upper hand in the legal job market but also in the illegal job market. I can walk out of my apartment knowing that I'm less likely, even if busted, to serve any real time for selling weed. On the other hand, a young man of color will never have the privilege to take the risks I took.
Despite that making around $1,000 a week, I quit delivering for a variety of reasons. But in the end it came down to my own addictions, which is another story. Delivering a drug, any drug, while struggling through my own recovery was something I could not reconcile.
Weed was never my thing, but sitting in my 12-step program carrying incredible amounts of cash and drugs while working through what I lost through years of addiction and drinking was entirely too much to handle. Otherwise, I might still be out there slinging mary jane to all you fantastic yuppies on the Lower East side.
Photos by Mikhael Simmonds
This piece was originally appeared on Harlem Focus.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.