Chances are you know a drug dealer. While only 9.2 percent of Americans over the age of 12 are estimated to use illicit drugs, that number inches up to 9.9 percent in large metropolitan areas and balloons to 21.3 percent amongst young adults — both key demographics for The Airship. :)
And because you know a drug dealer, you know how difficult they can be to speak to. Even simple transactions often involve references, codewords and secret meetings, and any discussion beyond immediate business is usually relegated so far into the realm of small talk, it’s rendered meaningless. (“Did you see that new Miley Cyrus video?”)
(Credit: Video by Randy Foreman)
To jump through these hoops and to break through the performance altogether — to get drug dealers to speak freely and honestly (if anonymously) is what Peter Madsen’s Dealers accomplishes. Through 16 interviews with drug dealers of every stripe — and even a cop! — Madsen brings readers deep into a world most of us only occasionally visit. We learn what it’s like to sell pot, coke, dope and pills, to rob drug dealers and to get cuffed. More importantly, we walk with a feeling as profoundly humanizing as it may be US Weekly: “Drug dealers — They’re Just Like Us!”
I recently sat down with Peter at a bar in Brooklyn to discuss Dealers. I wanted to know: How did he find his subjects and how did he convince them to talk?
Arvind Dilawar: The first question that naturally comes to mind is: How did you do this? Because if there's one thing that drug dealers or criminals in general don't want to talk about on the record, it's what they do. How did you find these people to begin with?
Peter Madsen: Well, asking around. Being someone who smokes pot, I know some guys who sell it.
How did you ask people for leads?
The same way you go around asking for drugs: You work off your friends, and they surely know someone who knows someone.
And they weren't sketched out?
A couple turned me down, and a couple people reneged their interviews, which I honored. It's their private business I'm exploring. I hide their faces in the photos and let them pick a fake name. I also gave them a 100 percent takedown policy. I'd give them a rough transcript, and if there were any identifying details, I'd let them tell me what those were and I'd take them out.
The reason I think these drug dealers wanted to speak is because, it seems to me, a byproduct of doing something very secretive and illegal is that you feel very misunderstood and you resent that you can't speak about something you do.
What was the split between people who were like, “I want to be understood,” and people who were like, “I want nothing to do with this because it might jeopardize my business?” How many people were into the idea? Was it the majority?
It was the majority of people, yeah.
Yeah, yeah. I asked a coke dealer who turned me down, and that was just … a little awkward. And I was nervous asking him because I didn't know him at all.
How did you pitch it? Besides saying, “OK, I'll give you all this oversight,” what was your pitch?
I was just like, 'I'm doing a book where I'm interviewing drug dealers. What if I talk to you about the human experience of being a drug dealer?” And I told them that I wasn't interested in the day-to-day details of their operation but more the human end of it, the experience of it.
There's a distinction in the book that one of the subjects makes: He says, “This book is a dry snitch book,” where you're talking about the business — as opposed to a wet snitch book, which would be outing people. I mean, did big distributors of cocaine get mad at Ghostface when he rapped about stuffing kilos inside a big fish? Maybe. But a good story's a good story, and good stories need to be told, and that's what this is: dealers telling their stories.
How long did most interviews take?
About 45 minutes.
And was it one sitting or follow-ups?
Usually I just wanted to get it all done at once in one sitting. We'd eat a meal together or drink some beers. I wanted to get everything in one sitting because if I was constantly coming back to them after the fact, it would have created unneeded anxiety. And, when I was doing the interviews, I ordered the book pretty much as I did them.
So the interviews are almost chronologically ordered?
I would say for the most part, yeah.
That's interesting, because I thought you had ordered it in a particular way to kind of ease readers into the world.
Well, I did. I ordered all those interviews in a way that pretty much makes sense. I knew I wanted to have the doorman be the guy who opens the door to this world, you know?
He's the one who gives you the number, who hooks you up.
Yeah. And, so by him kind of introducing the reader to the world, I switched some people in the middle around just because I wanted to have Jocelyn, the lawyer — I thought that her story was really unique, and I wanted to have that in the middle.
Probably the least stereotypical drug dealer in the entire book.
Yeah, her story was fantastic. I really appreciate it.
The other interesting addition was the bartender. Looking back, were there more characters like that who you wanted to include? People who aren't drug dealers specifically ...
Yeah. There was one interview I didn’t include, but I interviewed a pharmaceutical rep who goes all over the town, all over Manhattan, pitching drugs to doctors. None of the drugs that she pitched were fun. They weren't drugs that people “abuse.” They weren't drugs that people use to get high, so it wasn’t like … it didn't fit exactly.
If you could go back and redo any of the interviews, what would you change about them?
There was one interview with — I forget his fake name and I don’t want to say his real name, of course, but he was the guy, the Xanax seller on the Lower East Side.
I would have liked to spend more time with him. He was one of the first interviews I did, so I was less practiced speaking with him. We were at a noisy diner, and he had a couple of friends there with him. His friends seemed to have already heard his stories, and I could tell they weren't wholly interested in the way I was, and I let that distract me. I wasn't able to press as hard about some details. When he talks about being basically a heroin addict, and a nonfunctioning one at that, and coming clean to his parents about what he's been doing these past couple of years and how there might be a threat — there might be some people coming to get him and they might threaten his parents. He described how his dad, who has a licensed gun at home, said it was fine, that they would take care of it, but that seemed kind of like a leap. I wanted to be like, “Wait. How can your straight parents not be mortified, terrified, and want to ring your neck for bringing any danger upon the family?”
There are a few stories that are outright violent, like the one interview with the dude who robs drug dealers.
Yeah. When you were hearing that, what played out in your own mind?
I just beared in mind that these people are capable of violence, but that the only reason they would hurt me is if I fucked them over — so I just made sure not to fuck them over. I mean, anything worth doing has a danger or risk involved.
Are you concerned, to any degree, about if this could ever come back to hurt you or the subjects?
I’ll just say I took the proper precautions.
How did you get the interview with the cop? That's notoriously hard to do.
You know, it was so easy. I was at a party, and it was small talk, and they were like, “What do you do?” And I was like, “Oh, I'm a bike messenger. I'm working on this book interviewing drug dealers, and I'm looking for a cop to talk to.”
Was it a calculated conversation?
No! And my jaw dropped when the person I was talking to … what they said was, in short, “I know a cop that might be interested in talking to you.” I said holy shit, followed up, and sure enough, the cop was interested.
Was there a different way you had to pitch to the cop versus how you had to pitch to the drug dealers?
Nope! Because the cop wanted to talk. … I've been struck by the sort of window that drug dealers have into what makes people in New York tick. They're very intimate. They go into the person's house and sell them drugs. They're looking at their bookshelves.
Or if their apartment's a complete mess.
Or if it's a complete mess. Or if it's really tidy because the maid's in the bathroom scrubbing the toilet, and the customer is like, “Oh, don't mind the maid.” Or they see what's on television. Or they see them in their fucking pajamas.
It's a very intimate portrait of a person. A cop also has a very distinct, equally innate window into humanity, and they don't really have an outlet for conveying that unless they want to give an interview or write a book. I just lucked out in encountering a cop who had a similar inclination to speak as the drug dealers. I think it's great that this cop thinks [marijuana] should be legal because it absolutely should.
There was the one story where this cop held on to a kid's one hitter and his stash [to spare him from additional charges after he was arrested].
You're blown away because they share the same birthday, the same birth year. If you come across that in any context, it's mind blowing, but the fact that you're a cop that arrested this kid? And then you realize that and acknowledge how rare that meeting is? As I put in the book, on the same day, 20-X years ago, there were two babies born, and one day in the future Baby A would arrest Baby B. They were so many hundreds and thousands of miles away from each other, and the fact that the arresting cop appreciated that fact was beautiful in a very simple, human way. That's one of my favorite moments in the entire book.
Was that an impetus behind the book? To show that it's not so simple?
Yeah, totally. If you talk to 16 people about what they do, across any industry or trade, you'll come across with a much better understanding. I didn't set out with an agenda. I just let people speak for themselves.
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