Buying Drugs from the Laundromat
When her risky 30s proved too much, this writer paved the way to a new existence.
It was quite an operation. Lookouts on walkie-talkies patrolled the roofline, and a scout on a bike pedaled up and down the block, combing 7th Street between Avenues A and B.
A guy in a ski mask stood guard in an open window on one of the apartment building’s upper floors, ready to service the growing line on the sidewalk below.
We never knew from which floor or which window he’d appear, always mixing it up to avoid getting busted. It may not even have been the same person, but each night someone was there, up in the window in the building in New York’s East Village, eyes peering from holes in the dark-knit mask.
He’d lower a basket, the plastic kind used for hot dogs and cheap roadside fare, and a customer on the street would yell up an order. C or H, coke or heroin. It was a $10 bag, and after the client dropped in payment, the masked man would hoist the basket, fill the order, and send it back down. Next.
This was a few years after Giuliani rolled tanks down the streets of the East Village to clear the shanties from Tompkins Square Park. Gentrification was progressively writing on the wall, no longer drawing the line at 14th Street. We had a foothold in both worlds, though, slumming it in a rent-controlled hovel while rolling in salaries with money to burn. We laughed at the “Die Yuppie Scum” graffiti on trendy Two Boots pizza, and then lamented the vacancies usurping our dumpy shops, pulled from the neighborhood like rotting teeth, soon to be replaced by the gleamy and artificial.
We didn’t know why it was called the Laundromat. My husband and I would wonder, did they launder money? Was it to hype their clean product? Are they mocking the cycle of addiction? But every night, 7th street was open for business, and customers who’d been around for years mingled with the fresher-faced newcomers who were thrilled at the soft availability of hard drugs.
At that point we weren’t trying to quit. My husband would say, “For $10 you’ll feel like you won the Nobel Prize.” It was still novel and exciting, but we relied on the Laundromat more than we acknowledged. Convenient, safe, one-stop shopping.
The first raid caused hardly a ripple. My husband was there when police closed off the block. They had everyone lie on the ground, and then went person to person with a laptop, searching for facial recognition. Concerned by the delay, I asked a neighborhood kid if he had seen my husband. “He’s bueno,” he said and then perplexed, added, “Wait, that’s your HUSBAND husband? I thought he was your BOYFRIEND husband.” I hadn’t realized there was a distinction.
But the police prevailed and soon after shut the Laundromat down. We’d later learn that the mastermind of the Laundromat was Hector Santiago, and we were slightly disappointed to discover it was so-named simply because his mother owned a laundromat. At the time, the late ‘90s, the Laundromat brought in $10,000 a night, earnings Hector would stealthily collect and bring back to his apartment across the street. A secret of his success was to continue paying any of his crew that got arrested, as long as they didn’t talk. And he was generous with his neighbors, helping with rent and utilities, and in some ways keeping the block safe. A veritable Robin of the Hood.
Like a scouring free radical, the closing of the Laundromat left demand on the hunt for supply. The vacuum led to sorties ever deeper into Alphabet City, where danger thickened exponentially from Avenues C to D. So had our use. The dealers there sold “bag in a bag,” 10-packs of individual heroin bundles stamped with names both humorous and ominous. “Body Bag” and the infamous ”Dirty Urine,” which ironically left me laid up with a kidney infection for a week. I remember the fatigue, the full-on night sweats, and also rising, Lazarus-like, to greet the outside world, eyes squinting in the bright sun. A bodega speaker blasted KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” and I paired my gait to the “do a little dance, make a little love,” grateful for my health and a clean slate. The tune played on, “I’ll meet you, same place, same time” and soon enough I was back in sync with the rhythms of a burgeoning habit.
I remember going loaded to a midnight Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the village, just to see what this recovery thing was all about. I heard, “I want my crack I want my crack I want my crack. I WANT my crack. Crack. I want my crack.” On and on, a display of white-knuckled urgency of which I wanted no part.
Life in the East Village proved too much for me. When I returned a few years later with a toddler and a baby in tow, I was astonished to see my new life mirrored in Tompkins. Everywhere strollers, families, and upscale shops, and few of the familiar haunts from my dazed days.
According to the New York Post, Hector did his time — 10 years — and is now a trainer in a posh West Village gym. He thrives on helping and empowering people, which he perversely was doing all the while, and doesn’t want to focus on the past. I spun out of control and into recovery where I have also done 10 years, and now work helping addicts. There were many years of wreckage in between, but I remember the early days fondly. Life is pretty simple when “Be all that you can be” just takes a stroll to 7th and a $10 bill.
This essay was read by the author in the CoveyClub Monarch storytelling event in June 2022.