Amateur Meth Cooks and the Deep Internet: A Convergence of Social Justice and Emerging Technologies
And I guess you would call it one of those quintessential New York City vacation moments: looking out the window to realize it is the dawn of a new day, the purple undersides of clouds glowing pink with the birth of a new sun, before turning my gaze back into the apartment to the task at hand: using a pair of pliers to peel back the metal casing surrounding an Energizer battery to get at the strip of lithium metal contained inside so that my accomplice and I might throw it into a two liter bottle along with some other chemicals as a catalyst in a reaction to synthesize methamphetamine, aka crystal meth. Life, I thought, in the cultural capital of the world, and here I am living it!
To begin again, from what one might call the beginning: my friends and I arrived at our posh digs on the lower east side of Manhattan at 2 a.m. a few days before the previous scene to find our driver’s brother wide awake in a mostly furniture-less apartment, staring at a computer screen, busy processing orders for amphetamine sulfate, aka Adderall, a substance he had purchased in the form of a bulk powder on an unregistered website somewhere in the Deep Internet and which he had subsequently encapsulated and was now re-selling as generic Adderall on the same site, to what ends we would eventually discover.
Seeing how green we were on the subject matter, the aforementioned Deep Internet being wholly unheard of by any of us before that night, our driver’s brother, who will hereafter be referred to as Papa Smurf for reasons that will later become obvious, a current resident of some Brooklyn projects who is temporarily residing in this high rise belonging to his uncle, away in Europe or Bolivia for the summer, clued us in on the entire scene and his particular predicament:
The Deep Web is indeed part of the internet that cannot be accessed through a normal internet browser. It has been in existence for some time and is actually hundreds of times larger than what we think of as the internet, or “surface web”, containing a large number of unregistered sites which do not show up in the results of search engines such as Google or Bing. One may download something called a Tor browser which, when implemented, blocks a user’s actual IP address by re-directing it through a series of sites so that to external users it appears as if one is logging on from Singapore, Germany, Japan, or some other far off place. According to torproject.org:
“Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location.”
The name of the game is anonymity, a goal further enabled by running one’s computer through a program called Tails on a USB port, so that one may surf the Deep Internet on their own computer a few levels detached from the actual internet, safely, in obscurity, just another freak in the freak kingdom.
Once one finds themselves on the Deep Internet, the world is sort of their oyster, an admittedly weird oyster, filled with dealers of arms, drugs, banned books, and child porn among other things, and although this will be my focus, the technology does present itself as incredibly useful in providing privacy to applications across internet life, from business to personal relationships to military use for classified documents. Of interesting note is that Deep Websites generally use the “.onion” domain (as opposed to .com or .org), and that the most popular graphic display for controlling the Tor program is interestingly called “Vidalia”, which for those not horticulturally inclined is a type of onion. Papa Smurf explained that his presence in this world was initially that of a curious traveler, but that due to some recent occurrences he had been forced to take a more active role, that is, becoming a seller of scheduled substances on popular Subternet site The Silk Road, a sort of bazaar of the bizarre, most notable for its heavy volume in drug-trafficking, but where one can also find a few other sundry accoutrements ranging from AK-47’s, stolen identities, and, apparently, hired killers.
What exactly were the forces leading him to this nefarious existence? The answer, as with most answers, is both incredibly simple and impossibly complex. To put it bluntly, Papa Smurf’s recently paroled brother-in-law, after a six-year stint in prison for felony drug charges, is now probably headed back to the joint for a brand new crime involving guns and money, headed back, it would seem, for a very long time. But the facts in the case are none too clear, and Papa Smurf believes that with a good defense attorney his brother-in-law could, if not beat the charges completely, at least get them dropped down considerably. But a good defense attorney costs money, a commodity which is often in very short supply in the projects of Brooklyn, and this money, Papa Smurf explained, needs to be raised quickly. Very quickly.
This is the simple story: a man is in trouble with the law and needs a lawyer, and his brother-in-law has taken it upon himself to raise the necessary funds by selling drugs anonymously on the internet.
It almost sounds like the plot of a television show.
But Papa Smurf is also a man of ideals. It is not just this crime that he is fighting, but the entire, well-documented “revolving door” prison system, which his brother-in law, having once entered, will probably never again fully escape. Here Papa provided information on how the US government, through the 1996 welfare reform legislation, has taken to kicking the down and out while they are at their most down and out, and run with it, something in which America, being a country of such vast riches, is seemingly in a league of its own, as felons in many states are prohibited from collecting housing, food, or cash benefits, aka welfare, this all part of the mid-1990s drive to be “tough on crime” which many say has in fact backfired, as felons attempting to reconstruct their lives after prison find it hard enough just finding work with a big F on their report card, legal justification not to hire someone, a fact that makes procuring even the most meager of employment something of a feat for ex-convicts trying to make good. Here is also the point where Papa Smurf steps over the fine line between “a man of ideals” and “an idealist” , as New York is actually one of the states that has effectively opted out of this welfare ban. But even with that being the case, Papa assures us that the man’s life has been no bed of roses, and that in this particular case the facts are being misconstrued in a way that will, for all intents and purposes, completely ruin the life of yet another nameless African American male yadda yadda yadda. The fact that this story has been told so many times as to be practically threadbare shouldn’t make it any less despicable, as to Papa Smurf (and me for that matter) the cycle of African Americans living in poverty seems less and less to be the happenings of pure chance or “culture” as neo-racists claim and more like a systemic, verging on pathological attempt by “the man” to keep certain cultural groups perpetually down. Perhaps the power to punish is proof of strength, and so therefore there is a lot of sense in a system that causes punishment to fall on those other than ourselves.
Enough navel gazing: here we find ourselves in this vacant 3,000-dollar-a-month apartment in one of the richest cities in the world, getting a crash course in what one might refer to as the Internet’s black market, along with a personal crusade for political and social justice by one very wired young man (he has, it turns out, been getting high on his own supply of amphetamine sulfates in order to keep up the intense momentum that he exudes like a strong musk and which all agree they notice not long after making his acquaintance) when the plot quite rapidly thickens.
As it turn out, we are not the only ones processing vast amounts of new information this evening. Papa Smurf has himself been rather engrossed in reading into the finer points of cooking meth, substance scourge of the rural United States. It is hard not to notice the twinkle in his eye as he diagrams his plan, which is based on the need for more money, much more money, and the fact that meth, along with heroin and cocaine, demands a higher price on The Silk Road and that of the three drugs, meth is the only one producible in one’s very own (very expensive) kitchen from chemicals readily available at local hardware stores and pharmacies.
The rest of my traveling companions seem slightly taken aback by this most recent development while I, on the other hand, having dabbled in a myriad of chemicals and delved to some extent into their production, am floored, perhaps naively so. As will become apparent in the coming days, Papa Smurf is certainly an amateur meth cook, much emphasis on the modifier amateur, but he is also very driven, and his confidence as well as sense of justice will carry me through to the end. But it is late, and all must be getting to bed, though before we do Papa Smurf has one last request: would any of us be willing to help him in his experiment, specifically, acting as Smurfs, that is, procuring for him some of the base elements for his work? We say we will sleep on it, and lay out our sleeping bags on the wood floor to do just that.
The day starts with coffee and bagels, train rides around the city, a stroll through Chinatown, all the archetypal motions of vacationers in New York, before moving into the necessary procedures for the first stage in producing meth in a home lab, that is, procuring pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in a number of over-the-counter cold medications and the base chemical used in preparation of methamphetamine. Due to this use the drug is heavily regulated, in some states a doctor’s prescription is required for its purchase. In New York City one may walk a few blocks to any pharmacy, pick up a slip of paper from among the boxes of decongestants, carry it back to the pharmacist who will then ask for your ID and enter your information into a tracking system. It is a crime to purchase more than 9 grams of pseudoephedrine or related chemicals in a month, and none of us have any wild desire for the DEA to show up at our front doors, so we each buy a single box to help out a man in need. Papa calls us his Smurfs because this entire procedures is known as “Smurfing,” a term actually derived from the banking industry to refer to the tactic of breaking up a single large transaction into many smaller transactions in order to avoid federal scrutiny, which has subsequently been applied to the practice of big time meth cooks sending out packs of tweaker stooges to procure pseudoephedrine containing products in exchange for some of the yet-to-be-completed batch.
But how is it that Papa Smurf, who as a liberal, educated, east coast living, non-profit employed middle class male, and most importantly, someone who has never actually used methamphetamine, about as far from the profile of prototypical meth cook as one can be, knows so much of the industry slang? The answer, of course, is television, specifically the critically acclaimed series “Breaking Bad”, of which it turns out Papa is a devoted fan. And this is when it begins to dawn on me that we are actually standing at the strange 4-way crossroads of TV fan-dom, the taboo and mystique of the prohibited, novelty, and his utopian idealism.
Somewhere rooted in the psyche of today’s white American male is the do-it-yourself ethic fueled by ad men of the 1950s to sell hardware supplies to a newly wealthy middle class. Perhaps it goes back further, to the idealism and romanticized self-sufficiency of the American frontier, true “man’s men” building log cabins in the woods and double crossing any pesky Indians unable to grasp the concept of manifest destiny. Whatever the case, this notion expresses itself today in a number of fashions, to take for one example the “brew your own beer” trend which has been on the increase for some time. Along these same lines, though less popular and slightly more illegal, are the practices of growing your own marijuana, and creating mold cultures to cultivate psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms from mail-order spores. These practices can be generally differentiated from full-scale grow operations in that in most cases the end product is intended for personal use, not distribution, although depending on the success this may change: just as one who falls in love with the process of brewing their own beer may decide to turn pro and open a microbrewery, a person who successfully harvests a solid strain of marijuana or really killer mushrooms may decide, for any number of reasons, not the least of which would be pure economic incentive, to go full scale and take on drug production for profit. This is after all America, where entrepreneurial spirit is so strong it’s hard not to catch a little capitalistic buzz every time you step out the front door.
This DIY trait is readily apparent in Papa Smurf, who as a man with a very modest grasp of chemistry is still very obviously enthralled in the idea that from a number of (fairly) easily procured chemicals he might create a powerful mind-altering substance and, bonus, earn a healthy profit. But the risks do seem particularly high in this venture, especially when one pays attention to the number of volatile chemicals involved, not to mention the (admittedly horrifying) legal implications of getting caught.
Because if you think about it, there are a lot of ways to make money, the $5,000 he believes a lawyer will cost not being an insurmountable sum for a person willing to say, move to North Dakota, get an entry level, $2,000 a week job in the booming oil business, or even at the Wal Mart or McDonald’s in the new wild west towns of Williston or Dickinson: both mega-chains are currently hiring at starting wages of $16 to $20 an hour due to the shortage of workers, all available men gone out to suck black gold from the soil.
But Papa Smurf is moving (and thinking) much too fast for all of that, and his enthusiasm is contagious, at least from my perspective, although my traveling companions have begun to voice the opinion that maybe he’s going a little over the edge, a notion I quickly brush aside: if allegiances are to be declared, I stand fully behind the Papa, who on our second night in town begins the process of extracting pseudoephedrine from the over-the-counter medications we and a few of his Brooklyn allies have procured.
The next morning I wander into the kitchen looking to brew some coffee (legal speed, the American way) to find that all vessels designed for this purpose–one traditional coffee pot along with two French presses (there are an awful lot of these devices considering the apartment lacks even a couch to sit on or non-collapsible table)–are currently in use, filters positioned above each containing a viscous white liquid. In the bottom of each vessel lies a small amount of milky solute, and it is as I contemplate this substance that Papa Smurf quietly enters the room, startling me slightly.
—This doesn’t look right.
—No, it’s not right. It seems there’s some additive in the pills to make it harder to extract the pseudoephedrine. I’ve read about this.
—It’s no big deal, if it doesn’t go down any farther soon I’ll add some sand.
—Yeah and if that doesn’t work there’s an extraction involving Coleman camp fuel we can try.
—Oh. I was going to make some coffee.
The next 24 hours are chock full of new developments. First off: the addition of sand to the milky pill gunk does not do much in the way of expediting the filtration process and in the end Papa is forced to go ahead with the Coleman camp fuel extraction. A quick glance into the bedroom closet reveals the scale of the ramping up towards the actual “cook”: there are no clothes hanging from the rod, no shoes piled on the floor, only a number of plastic bags containing an array of products I imagine to be somewhat rare in the standard Lower East Side apartment: camp fuel, mineral spirits, hydrochloric acid, and lye, among others.
At this point you may be thinking something like, “I’ve seen this story before, in the colored pictures that flash at me from the glowing machine in my living room. I know how this one ends.” But I have to tell you that in this case there will be no fireball blowing out the ninth story window of a Manhattan sky-rise. Actually I take that back: there will be a fireball, albeit a very small, practically harmless fireball, as far as fireballs go, and by that point we will have moved through a number of other stages in this, our Great Experiment, and anyway before that time we have a lot more ground to cover, for example, what it means to ship and receive scheduled substances anonymously through the United States Postal Service.
Yes, the USPS serves as an accomplice in our schemes, albeit an unwitting one, as with 35,000 layoffs this year alone to an already sorely understaffed, underfunded organization, there really is no better way to move illegal things around the United States. For a postal employee to open a piece of U.S. mail requires a federal warrant, and the pure volume of possibly suspicious packages with no return address ensures that the majority will make it through undetected. The most dangerous position to be in is that of end buyer, who always must be concerned that the package has been sniffed out, or that the fine folk at the Drug Enforcement Administration have set up a sting. International shipments are another issue entirely due to customs regulations and it is for this reason that Papa only ships within the country’s borders. “Every time we sent packages to Europe the customer would say ‘shipment was never received’ and we were denied payment. There was no way to prove it one way or another. Here we have delivery confirmation.”
And then the question arises, how is it that one gets paid? Transactions on the Silk Road occur using the somewhat highly publicized Bitcoin, an electronic crypto-currency not backed by any governmental institution. At the time of this writing one Bitcoin is worth about $11 US dollars, though the price is given to rather abrupt fluctuations. A full explanation of the currency, its (rather brief) history, creation (with enough computing power one may in fact “mine” for Bitcoins, building them from the proverbial aether), authentication issues, and prospective future (the technology is still considered a “high risk” investment) is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice to say that Bitcoin transactions, while totally public and hence traceable, do at present provide a decent level of anonymity, as they are only attached to IP addresses, virtually impossible to connect with a real life name.
Silk Road purchases are typically put in escrow accounts: the funds are verified but remain unpaid until the customer confirms delivery of product. The site collects a small percentage fee and the money is transferred to the seller’s online purse. Sellers on Silk Road are rated by customers in a similar manner to other online DIY retailers like Ebay and Amazon Marketplace, and not just on their service but (obviously) the quality of their product: scrutiny is heavy, and sellers with better ratings may demand payment up front before the product is ever shipped. Papa Smurf shows me an email from a satisfied customer in the Middle West, praising the strength of his product, a strength made acutely obvious by the light-speed, stream of consciousness, nearly incomprehensible quality of the message, which rambles on for some ten pages, the giddy and delusional nature of which are actually rather disturbing.
So, on the Silk Road you can buy practically any drug, but not every drug, Papa Smurf tells me, and once again I catch that glimmer in his eye. At present there is a large amount of discussion on the site revolving around a strain of amphetamine known as Euphoria (4-Methylaminorex), also referred to as Ice and, somewhat annoyingly, U4Euh (i.e., “Euphoria”), a drug which some claim as the ultimate high, a mix between the glowing sense of well-being and physical warmth associated with MDMA (ecstasy) and the heightened mental awareness and feeling of mental connection provided by crystal meth, though longer lasting than either. It is supposedly associated with increased creativity and has been described as a “make-you-smarter” drug.
What’s more the substance is incredibly rare: demand on Silk Road discussion boards would make one think that this might be the stuff that causes your shit not to stink. At least part of the reason for this scarcity is that production requires the immensely unstable, incredibly toxic chemical cyanogen bromide, putting it beyond the production scope of your garden variety meth cook. Or at least, it used to, until a few months ago when a man released after a seven-year prison stint for Euphoria production posted a recipe bypassing the cyanogen bromide entirely, a recipe which Papa happened to have downloaded before it was taken down by the Feds.
And one can clearly see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he elucidates his new plan: why bother producing mere methamphetamine when we can just as easily make Euphoria and sell it at $300 a gram, nearly triple the going rate for plain old meth? I can think of no objections, nor would I voice them if I had any, and so we move ahead with full steam, course altered slightly to the left.
And later that day we are struck with even more good news: negotiations between the defendant’s family and associated projects drug dealers (negotiations of which none of us were aware until they are here presented) have produced a pretty decent price for cocaine: $47 a gram, about half the going rate on the Silk Road. It is thankfully, as Papa Smurf points out, still a buyer’s market. After all, how many urban drug dealers have regular access to a personal PC, and of those, what percentage have the education and wherewithal not only to navigate the surface internet, but also the admittedly tricky and still relatively unknown realms of the Deep Web?
And here Papa is ready to further defend his position: by selling drugs on an anonymous online marketplace he’s reducing the dangerous, often extremely violent aspect of street traffic of narcotics—one of the most obvious negative side effects of prohibition of any sought-after substance. Of course this argument had much more validity when referring to producing and selling your own meth in a self-sustaining environment, whereas when cocaine is brought into the picture, a product likely smuggled through any number of highly armed and notoriously ruthless cartels between here and Colombia or Peru, the argument becomes slightly weaker: Sure, you’re protecting the end stage dealer (although you are also technically removing him from the deal entirely and thus probably making his life harder), but what about the drug-war-related civilian death toll, which has been commonly estimated to have surpassed the 50,000 mark in Mexico alone?
And here we run into a point of contention so often left out of the general drug war “debate” (this word doesn’t even seem fitting, as drug policy debate tends to be contained within a rather narrow, preordained range typical of so-called “debate” surrounding many politico-economic issues in the United States; the ghost of Joseph McCarthy still wanders the Senate halls, laughing his jowly little laugh). Because the lynchpin of this entire story is the stance of the United States’ handling of the “drug issue,” (and I would say the drug problem but right off the bat this frames the question in a negative light): What we are doing in Mexico, in Detroit, in Colombia, in Afghanistan, all of it is so utterly wrong-headed and backwards that to look at it logically causes the mind to whelp in confusion.
But then trying to find common sense in drug policy is near the top of my list of pointless endeavors, and so let’s just move past the senseless scheduling of substances to the punishments doled out to those who use, distribute, and traffic said substances, and here we run into the pretty depressing fact that the harshest sentences are (overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly) allotted to the poorest of the poor, and those whose skin tends to be dark, those with notably less sway in politics to change these laws which punish them for simply responding to market forces, that is, the huge surplus capital burning holes in so many American pockets. So like duh, our current stance of total drug prohibition is one major part in the perpetuation of existing social inequalities in America, overcrowded prisons, not to mention the unfortunate continued popularity of drug-rap.
Supply will follow demand: Mexican drug cartels are not funneling drugs into America just for kicks, there are no seedy types prowling the hallways of junior high schools, sticking kids with syringes to get them hooked, quite simply because there’s no need; along with prohibition comes the allure and mystique of the taboo, the unknown, and any teen with half a brain can see through the propaganda presented to them in “drug education” programs with such an obvious bias that they can’t help but wonder what’s so hot about the other side. To site the nation’s drug information website drugabuse.gov: if one is looking for information on MDMA they will quickly stumble across the helpful heading “How is MDMA Abused?”, the weight behind that phrase implying there is not a single legitimate use for the drug whose use the head of the United Kingdom’s drug advisory board stated is about as risky for your health as horseback riding.
And but like we’re getting beside the point: drug policy overwhelmingly punishes many groups in society, all of which are not the end user middle class white Americans who consume the vast majority of drugs and are the reason so many people go to such lengths to get drugs into the country in the first place. The film Traffic (2000), a “soup-to-nuts exposé of the world’s most lucrative trade” tried to encapsulate the entire issue with lines like this, spouted by rich-kid druggie teen Seth Abrahams, played by now-fallen star Topher Grace:
“Okay, right now, all over this great nation of ours, ‘hundred thousand white people from the suburbs are cruisin’ around downtown asking every black person they see, ‘You got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?’ Think about the effect that that has on the psyche of a black person, on their possibilities. I…God I guarantee you bring a hundred thousand black people into your neighborhood, into fuckin’ Indian Hills, and they’re asking every white person they see “You got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?”, within a day everyone would be selling.”
Which is an argument that may sound appealing at first but is actually quite misleading, something understandable being that the film was written by Caucasians whose enlightened idea of minorities is that they are just like you and me (“white people”) except that they all happen to sell drugs.
But they are not just like you and me, because this is America where our lives are contained in something both very abstract yet also decidedly concrete, something called reality, reality at any one point being the piling up of any number of previous strange realities of the past, called history, and the reality for an African American growing up in the projects today is very different for that of a white middle class youth growing up pretty much anywhere else; and this has to do with options, life prospects and the psychology of race. Because racism isn’t just something that used to happen but then got fixed with Civil Rights in the 1960s. Part of poverty entails a reduction of options. With fewer prospects the benefits of selling drugs become more and more appealing. Of course personal responsibility must be taken into account, hard work can get you a long way, but when you start at the bottom of the barrel there’s a lot more shit to sift through on your rise to the top.
Yes, we have a black president, a man whose nicknames include “the food-stamp president” and “the Muslim president,” with prominent conservative Dale Robertson, founder of teaparty.org, claiming that the Barack’s weekend trip to Chicago would be spent, “bump[ing] and grind[ing] in the hood,” and, “shooting hoops, smoking cigarettes and goofing-off with his homies.” Think of the effect that has on the black psyche. And yes, the restaurants are no longer segregated, just the cities containing the restaurants.
Case in point: A family-owned, neighborhood pizza joint, somewhere in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, at present a “racially diverse” neighborhood (mixed Hispanic, White, African American, and Native American): a young woman of color walks in to and asks for a job application. The 21-year-old employee pulls one from behind the counter and hands it to her. After she walks out the door his boss comes over and says, “You shouldn’t be handing those out to just everyone.” The young man asks why, aren’t we hiring? to which the owner responds, “Yes, but she’s not the right kind of person.” Assuming the man does not consider the female gender as wholly unfit to serve pizza (and perhaps this is making too large an assumption) he is presumably referring to the woman’s race as the factor barring her from the profession which, call me crazy, sounds at least vaguely discriminatory.
And so like black people are just like you and me, except that everyone in power (white Americans) fears them (try dropping an African American man off in a wealthy white suburb and have him walk the streets alone in midday and see how long it is before a squad car arrives, asking him his business) and so they are born with two strikes against them, a fact that everyone acknowledges but also must find so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning.
But wait you say, white people get caught up too! Yes, they do, though as with all things they are overwhelmingly poor whites, as we are and continue to be a society that feeds on the weakest while parading ourselves as champions of their virtues (come, ye poor huddled masses, so that we may devour thee!).
In any case it is now 5 a.m. in Manhattan where Papa and I, fighting the Good Fight, have just hit a major bump in the road: After an hour of fanning noxious vapors out the window and onto the ritzy street below (some fumes blowing back in spite our best efforts and giving us both sore throats in the morning) our first batch of shard has failed. And this failure is quite understandable: first off, neither of us are chemists. Besides recognizing the periodic table of elements as something that exists, neither of us have too much to say about valence electrons, acids and bases, norepinephrine potentiators, or any other of the countless codified terms that litter the number of .PDF files we have detailing the finer points of meth-making. Papa Smurf is notably nonplussed, but he remains in high spirits.
—I had a feeling this would happen
—Yeah? What can we do?
—Tomorrow we’ll go out and get more pills. Maybe I’ll pay some homeless people to buy some.
—And we just try again?
—I’ve got another recipe for Euphoria, it’s simple, a one-pot cook. Can’t fail.
—Alright, I’m going to bed.
The next day on the train to 86th Street a thought crosses my mind. Papa Smurf had woken me up from a quick nap at one in the morning the previous night to ask to borrow my headphones. When, at 3 a.m., I stumbled into the bedroom to check on the progress of the cook, I heard music blaring—Papa didn’t notice my entrance, as he was wearing the headphones, which struck me as a bit odd; as an amateur meth cook, it seemed one would want the full use of all their faculties, including hearing, to catch on quickly in the case of something going awry. The use of music and headphones during a maiden cook seemed somewhat stylized, if not just plain absurd, and so on the walk through Central Park towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art I asked my friend:
—Is there a character on Breaking Bad who wears headphones while cooking meth?
—Uh yeah, Jesse Pinkman.
And it was all becoming a little more clear that our mission was not purely one of loving kindness. Besides raising funds for legal defense, what Papa had in his head was an idea of that oh-so ephemeral “cool,” yet another pitfall of prohibition, the aforementioned mystique of the taboo. While the television show Breaking Bad may be critically acclaimed, Emmy award winning, breathtaking, gritty and “real,” it is still, at the end of the day, entertainment: stylized renditions of “real life” modified for human consumption. This is not deny the dramatic merits of Breaking Bad, a show which critics and fans almost universally laud as probably the best thing since sliced bread. No, again the argument here is with the taboo of the prohibited, and the difference between drama and documentary, a line that gets blurred in the thrill of consumption, leading well-meaning folk like Papa Smurf and countless naive youth into emulating things that are just plain dumb.
In order to remain consistent with the nature of this article I would like to take this moment to jump freely from decade to decade, from one cool to its predecessor: from meth to heroin. If the topic is that of the cool and taboo, by another name “chic,” there was nothing more “in” in the 1990s than heroin: H, horse, dope, smack, skag, etcetera. When one thinks of media portrayal of the drug, perhaps two ideas still permeate what might be called the national consciousness: that of sickly, stick thin, red-eyed, beautiful models, purveying the once popularly derided now mostly forgotten “heroin chic,” and the 1996 film Trainspotting, based on the 1993 Irvine Welsh novel of same name—a film which every once-young, now-aging junkie and ex-junkie seems to have watched at a pivotal time in their youth. The picture the movie paints of heroin use is by all accounts bleak, including the death of newborn babies and cat-shit-filled apartments of dying AIDS patients, but it is, in the same breath, incredibly stylized and undeniably “cool.” And in the same way William Burroughs did for certain subsections of previous generations, Trainspotting primed members of my own for a delicious downfall with a really worthless substance by convincing them it was some key to sub- or counter culture- currency. To take one of the movies more memorable moments, attractive lady-junkie Allison (a sort of oxymoron, at least from my experience of junky types) demands a shot of the good stuff, and upon receiving it moans, quite convincingly, “That beats any meat injection…that beats any fuckin’ cock in the world.”
Having shot way too much dope and watched quite a number of people plunge a full needle full of black tar or China white into their veins, I can safely say that, had I been present for the speaking of this line, I would immediately think that this chick is a.) bat-shit crazy or b.) an undercover narcotics officer. Because at the end of the day dope is just not that fucking good. This is not to speak of shooting meth or cocaine, which do inspire instant spikes so incredible that “if god invented anything better he kept it for himself,” but we are talking about heroin, which does admittedly ignite the body with a warm flame, but is not, especially for an old hand, anything to write home about.
And this is just the problem of prohibition, that it allows absolutely ludicrous portrayals of what the taboo entails to pass muster. Marijuana is now so prevalent that the depictions of its use in old propaganda films have passed as laughable with a majority of the population for decades, but when these films came out they surely inspired fear in a large segment of the population and also certainly caused another, smaller section to seek out the magical stuff.
And this, I now realize, is a very large reason Papa Smurf is putting so much effort into cooking methamphetamine, or now Euphoria, a decidedly dangerous venture that, once one takes into account the purchasing of pills and chemicals, doesn’t pay off at a rate much higher than flipping kilos of cocaine from the projects. Papa wants to be television. A basic rundown of Breaking Bad’s original plot: man is diagnosed with terminal cancer, turns to cooking/selling methamphetamine in order to provide for his family’s future. (How the show has propelled itself into five seasons off this shaky premise is likely some combination of excellent writing and positive Nielsen ratings). In any case, the farther I delve into this grand experiment of the Lower East Side, the more convoluted all aspects become.
And when we return from the museum, more good news: Papa’s family has renegotiated the price of cocaine, so that now we are getting it for something like $43 a gram (still not that great a price if you ask me, but that’s the cost of living in the big city). What’s more, it appears we now have a good connection for heroin, which also goes for a pretty penny on the Silk Road, and even better, if we make the right moves, the same people selling us coke want to buy heroin off us in bulk. The wheeling and dealing going on across the banks of the East River are rapid-fire and astounding, but we are approaching a number of deadlines: not only the impending court date, but on our free accommodations in the city; Papa’s parents are coming to town for a visit in two days, and we still have yet to cook a successful batch!
All parties move into maximum overdrive: Our new recipe for Euphoria involves 2-liter bottles, a batch of chemicals, and the strips of lithium metal found at the center of Energizer brand lithium batteries. This extraction bypasses the deadly cyanogen bromide and is, according to Papa, really rather simple; of course by the time he returns from train rides around the city to collect the necessary chemicals it is already quite late. I head out to drink beer in a park filled with rats, return, go to sleep, and wake up at 5 a.m. to find Papa busy in the bedroom with a pair of pliers trying to scrape the tops off two batteries, a process which appears to be going nowhere. We watch a video online, produced by science geeks anxious to get a crack at the strip of lithium which, according to a 1963 essay by physicist GP Hartigan, “…is the lightest of the solid elements, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should in consequence possess certain modest magical qualities.” Hartigan was referring to the substance’s psycho-pharmacological application in numbing the brains of potential suicides, though our scenario did have some modest magical elements: This alkali metal which corrodes on contact with moisture in the air just might be our golden ticket to the synthesis of certain special crystals for the purpose of insufflation, speedy profit, speedy doom, or some combination thereof.
After watching the video a few times I feel confident in my ability to begin the battery peeling process. The going is initially tough but with a little effort I am finally able to crack the tops off both batteries, though there is still much more peeling of the actual casing left to be done. The sun is by now nearly fully risen, I am exhausted and decide to knock off for a few hours, rather confident that when I awake Papa will have already synthesized the first batch of delicious Euphoria.
And when I finally open my eyes a few hours later I can hear him still tinkering in the kitchen, the clicking of pliers and scissors and plastic bottles. How long have I been asleep? I think it to be about 11 a.m., judging by the heat of the passive solar which warms my left leg through the windowpane overlooking the bustling street below. I rise and wander into the room where Papa is putting the finishing touches on a section of rubber tubing which connects two large plastic bottles
(I had wondered, the previous night, when he persistently offered me glasses of coke, how the bottles would be put to use).
—How did the batteries go?
—I almost had to give up, I didn’t think I’d make it.
—They really don’t want you to get that lithium.
—Tell me about it! One of the batteries caught fire and I had to throw it out the window…
So that was our one fireball, a corrupted battery cell, really a minor trifle, nothing more, as it drifted most casually down to the sidewalk below, causing negligible damage to life and/or limb.
And now here we are, the final stretch, finish line in sight. Our limbs are weak, minds beginning to cramp, but an aura of lucidity pervades in that bright white kitchen, the counter tops littered with bottles of pool cleaner, mineral spirits, plastic scraps and duct tape. All that’s left is to drop a few crumpled balls of aluminum foil into one of the two liter bottles which currently contains a small puddle of hydrochloric acid. The rising vapors will pass through the newly connected tube, condensing into the second bottle which contains our potential batch, at which point…
Nothing. The reaction has gone well, the aluminum and acid mixing, turning grey, and emitting a cloud of noxious vapor that passes into bottle #2 and fails to produce anything at all. We shake the bottle, squeeze it, move it close to our faces and squint into the clear mixture in which no crystals have precipitated. The room’s heart skips a beat, and the floor at any moment may in fact drop away.
—Well that’s that.
—I just thought, I could have sworn.
The abyss which has just opened up beneath us is hardly a concern of ours, we are not without hope. Papa Smurf wanders the apartment in a daze, picking up various objects that have been used in the experiment, as one might lift and wonder at the small shoes of a recently deceased child. There is still the cocaine he says, orders have been coming in, and the generic Adderall, that too, though he seems to be trying to convince himself more than anyone, now that his baby is gone.
And yet it really isn’t so morose as all that. Papa’s determination hasn’t wavered much, he still seems confident in procuring money for a lawyer. And what about the future? If you can get a batch of this meth to work? I ask him. No, he can’t see this being a lifetime pursuit. For that one would have to go back to school, take up chemistry. He thinks he and his girl might head to Hawaii or Puerto Rico, to meditate. That’s it he says, he’s been in India, he’s worked on it, and he thinks that at present meditation is the key to augmenting change. Meditation? Yes, he and his girl need to get out of the city, to get their heads straight. Of course they need to raise this money, but he’s feeling it, the city, bearing down on his being, more or less, this stress, the money, the lawyer. So they need to go to an island, and mediate, chill, facilitate change. Change does sound rather appealing.
By 2 a.m. the following morning I’ve left New York, the city and the state, and am in fact midway through New Jersey, lying in the backseat of a late model sedan piloted by two southern lesbians headed back home. After some initial troubles escaping the depressing streets of Newark we are rolling ever southward, end destination Charlotte, North Carolina, where it should happen that the Democratic National Convention is taking place. It is September in an election year, and no matter how one tries there is really no way to avoid the sentiment of politics, and so I ask quite simply, more or less confident that I know the answer in advance:
—There’s an election coming up, is there any particular candidate you want?
—Anyone but Romney.
—I feel about the same way. So you like Obama then?
—He’s alright, but I really like Ron Paul.
—Yeah, Obama wants to take away my guns.
It turns out her main reason for hating Romney is (surprise) his stance on homosexuality, this being hardly a few days after a video surfaces of the presidential hopeful berating a wheelchair-bound veteran for his (apparently incorrect) sexual preference. But the name Ron Paul has thrown me for a loop. Isn’t he the Libertarian who both sides have written off as a zany and a nut?
We are pulled over once in New Jersey for an illegal U turn, after which the ride is one of smooth sailing. The girls (or are they women? I have a hard time discerning their age) drop me off south of downtown Charlotte. I have five hours to wait until my bus to Atlanta and on a lark decide to ride the train down to see what all the hubbub is about with this convention.
What I encounter upon arrival is at once entirely predictable and undeniably entertaining. It is a mad scene of suits, freaks and spectators, scrambling frantically along the sidewalks of the closed-off streets. There are vendors of novelty Obama garb (my favorite a pair of booty shorts that read “BEHIND OBAMA”), angry abortion protesters demanding control over the female reproductive system, peeling out verses of fire and brimstone, a bearded man dressed as Abe Lincoln holding a sign declaring “Republicans for Obama” who probably has had his picture taken more times than anyone at the convention, and one Vermin Supreme, a man with a boot on his head running for Presidential office whom I had somehow accidentally encountered online months prior and am now absolutely delighted to see in person.
There is one young man in sunglasses holding a sign that reads “Legalize Marijuana” for what seem like personal (versus medical) reasons, but what I fail to encounter even once, however, are any protesters holding banners declaring anything like “End the Drug War!”, a policy which would empty our crowded prisons of non-violent offenders, add $70 billion a year to the national coffers, and rid our hands of the blood of countless civilians from Colombia right on up through Mexico, not to mention here at home, and be one more step in attempting to ameliorate the rather sizable discrepancy in expected quality of life between citizens of the United States based solely on the color of their skin.
And after heading home from Atlanta, after a subway ride to the airport on which all white passengers have carry-on luggage, and all black passengers name tags signifying their status as airport employees, I decide on a whim to look up wacko candidate Ron Paul, to see what his stance is on this whole drug war debacle, and am rather shocked to find his views align exactly with mine: this man, painted be the right and left wing media, Democrats and Republicans, as an absolute nut job, believes the drug war to be a racist abomination, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and an infringement on the right of individual liberty, and while some of his other policies cause me to shudder in my flesh (he is for deregulation in all fields, and is of the strange, almost mystic faith that the market will take care of itself), I can’t help but wonder at how this has gone past my attention, until I remember the key to democratic debate in America, namely that it be contained, inoffensive, and really, not a debate at all.
And here I sit in a shotgun house in Atlanta, meditating on that, as Papa Smurf is meditating on some hot island, and perhaps now his brother is meditating somewhere in a cell.