Returning to the straight life

October 06, 1994|By Robin Miller

HE'S USED the street name "Ice" for the 10 years he's sold cocaine and heroin along West Baltimore Street. Now, he says, "It's time to retire the name. I'll use my birth name. I have a kid now and I can't spend the rest of my life on street corners."

Ice is on his way to a job interview. With luck, and a little help from a friend, he hopes to become a cook at a nursing home, a job that pays $6.70 per hour plus benefits.

While the lure of a "normal" life is strong, a key reason Ice is going straight at the age of 30 is as simple as the economic theory of demand and supply: a proliferation of street-corner dealers has driven profits down.

"Once you used to be able to make a living on the corners," Ice says, "but it's gotten rough lately. There's weeks I come home with $100, $150, maybe less. You are out there all the time, when it rains you are still out there. If you go in, someone else is out and you lose business. You got to hustle all the time. [With] a straight job, you don't have these problems.

"Today, you can be on a corner, someone walks up to you, they want something, before you can go get it, four other guys are saying. 'Yo! Yo! I got better!' These guys be carrying ready rock [crack cocaine] around in their hands, sweating on it. Every corner, it's like that.

It's full of amateurs, guys who just stand around on the corner with a stash who don't know nothing," he said.

Another factor in Ice's decision is the increasing violence associated with the drug trade. "When I started," he says, "We had organization. I worked over here, and you worked over there, and if someone wanted to fight over all that they did it where no one could see, and if someone died they deserved it. Now everybody shoots everybody else all over the place. Kids get shot all the time. It's sick."

Ice can tick off a list of friends who have been shot or stabbed or bludgeoned over drug disputes. He also can show two scars where he was shot himself. He knew the risks when he entered the drug trade, but money was the major lure.

Ice is not alone. Calvin, 27, is also tired of the rat race the once-lucrative drug trade has become. "It gets old, watching your back all the time for nothing," Calvin says. A true hustler, Calvin says he is making more money parking cars -- a part-time job he began this past summer -- than he did selling drugs.

One night last summer, Calvin said he made $400 parking cars. He has a friend who works for a furniture company. "We rent their [the company's] parking lot during baseball games and park cars there for $5 each and split the money."

Calvin and his buddy are thinking about going into the valet parking business, working with caterers who do large parties for rich suburbanites. Other businesses also beckon; Calvin is considering selling bootleg T-shirts and cassette tapes, but worries that that field may be as overcrowded as the cocaine trade. He is confident that an even more promising opportunity will turn up eventually. "The drug business has got so hard," Calvin says, "that if you can make a living doing that, you can make a living doing almost anything."

Ice says, "You could take the energy it takes to work a corner, you could use it to run a store like the Koreans do. A lot of guys on the corners say they want to do that once they get enough money up, but they never do." One day, Ice hopes to own a legitimate business.

"That is the way to go," he says.

During the past three months. I have met at least 12 men, all in their late 20s or early 30s, who say they are getting out of the drug business. Ice is a rarity, in that he is willing to accept a 9-to-5 job, and even he admits that he intends to hold it only until he and his wife can buy a house. After they get approved for a mortgage, he plans to open his own business.

Calvin, who has simply taken the sales experience he gained in the drug trade and applied it in a different line of work, would probably never survive working for someone else at an hourly wage. The drug business gave him a taste of self-employment at a young age, now he likes the independence of setting his own hours, making his own decisions.

Maybe our elected officials can learn something from guys like Calvin and Ice. Maybe with some help, these men could be successful running a legitimate business.

It's really not that unusual. Think of the folks who are said to have grown rich during Prohibition selling bootleg liquor, then plowed their profits into legitimate businesses. It's easier and, in the long run, more rewarding, than selling drugs.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore taxi driver.

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