COCAINE has become an integral part of America's inner-city financial picture.
To young men without other prospects, its sale offers the possibility of great wealth. Users gain a feeling of invulnerability. A man high on cocaine is on top of the world while the drug is in his blood, even if he lives in an unfurnished room and sleeps on the floor. He is certainly not poor.
No, he wants -- and deserves -- the finest things in life: the clothes worn by his favorite rap group, the car that will show the world what a great person he is and a beautiful woman who will cling to his arm at fine parties. A person who lives in the cocaine world is rich, or at least feels he is well on the way to becoming rich.
Why, when hanging around on street corners whispering, "Yo, I got the stuff you need," can lead to wealth beyond dreams, should anyone go to school and study? Why, when using the stuff can make the poorest man feel rich, should anyone bother to put effort into anything else? These questions have no good answers. They are as rhetorical as the "Why pay more?" signs in the windows of sleazy jewelry stores.
Jewelry, too, comes into this equation. Leather coats and fancy footwear also play a part. These accessories show the world that our man is not poor, that he is able to carry his weight in the world. Having them may even get him a woman who wants to live within his aura of greatness and power. Of course, she'll want a little of that white powder for herself.
She wants to feel like a queen as much as her man wants to feel like a king. She wants to go out and forget about the children she had too young, the flaking lead on the walls of the slum apartment she rents and all the other problems she faces in her non-cocaine life.
Without cocaine, poor people would waste their money on low mark-up stuff like food, rent payments on ratty apartments and used clothes. Once they have cocaine -- or sell it -- their attitude changes. Why, they can go out and buy anything they want! Or hold people up on the street and then go out and buy anything they want!
Either way, they have broken the barrier that separates poor people from rich people in post-Reagan American society. They have become valuable Consumers. This is what counts these days -- isn't it? -- that people are able to buy high-profit items in high-priced stores? That an individual's self-worth is based on his or her ability to buy?
Maybe, and maybe not. But the message I get when I watch TV is this: If you can buy expensive stuff, you belong. If you can't, you don't. Those who sell cocaine successfully have money to buy the stuff they see on TV. Those who use cocaine, and develop the mind-set that allows them to rob and kill, can also get enough money to buy what they want.
The working poor who struggle day to day, without going into drug-based frenzies, will never belong to the American society that glows, in color, on the boxes they spend so much of their time watching. They will always be outsiders. This is why cocaine has such power over people who see themselves as having no other easy way to become part of mainstream America.
If we didn't have cocaine, we'd have something else that would similarly damage and inflame the lost, inner-city souls who live on the fringes of our society.
Maybe it would be a religion. Or a different drug. Or a political philosophy. But it would be something. Whatever it was, it would give people who feel they are on the outside of society the feeling that they, too, could become part of mainstream America, as defined (and dictated) by what they see on TV.
Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.