First Chapter

I was flanked by cops.  There had to be a dozen of them by now, one of whom was breathing on the back of my neck, cuffing me.  He asked if there was anyone else in there.


    “Your apartment, dipshit.  Is there anyone in there?”

    “Oh, I’m sorry.  No.  There’s nobody else.  I live alone.”

    He was tightening the cuffs and jerking my arms behind my back.  “So,” he said, “there’s nobody waiting for us with a gun?  Are you sure?  I don’t feel like getting shot at today.”  It sounded like a line from Die Hard or Lethal Weapon.

    This cop was the feeblest of the bunch: sunken-eyed and doughy-faced and, judging by his rank insignia, subordinate.  His bravado felt forced, but I couldn’t fault him for that.  He was just being opportunistic, presenting himself a certain way because he could.  I related to him, actually.

    I was the focus of this whole investigation, the perp.  They all should have known that I had no criminal record, no history of violence.  I was a hipster, peddling among my own ilk; we don’t shoot cops.  “No one is gonna get shot at,” I said.

    They dumped me in an unmarked minivan (engine running, no AC) while they checked their weapons and other tactical devices.  I sat there staring at the drab, mustard-beige carpeting and matching upholstery, smelling the stench of stale sweat and cheap cologne, feeling the thick air, the dry heat.  Nirvana played softly on the radio.  What else should I be?  All apologies….

    Through the window to my right, there were five cop cars: three cruisers and two stealth units, all unoccupied with lights flashing.  Police were spread out, paired up, triangulated, static and gibberish crackling from the radios clipped to their gun belts.  They kept elbowing one another and chuckling as if at a barbeque.  I understood their detachment—this was a collar, I was a suspect—and I wasn’t expecting compassion, but the chumminess was off-putting.  I was reminded of waiting outside the principal’s office, peeking through the small rectangular window on the door, the one with the chicken wire set in.  I’d be able to see the teacher and the principal conferring, and they’d be smiling and laughing and carrying on.  If they’re so damn happy, then why don’t they just let me go?

    My thoughts were indiscriminate: I can’t believe this is happening; this is exactly what I deserve; it’s a miracle I got away with it for so long; this isn’t happening.  But one question kept circulating, unanswerable, in my mind.  How much coke are they going to find?

    Having handed control over to my minions, I’d been something of an absentee business owner. I didn’t know how much I was holding, though I was sure it was felony-level.  One thing I did know: whatever there was, it wouldn’t be hard to find.  There’d be plenty in the floorboards, some in the safe, which I kept unlocked out of laziness.  A few random lines left out, perhaps.  I was about to be unmasked.

    I’d been in custody for nearly an hour without evidence.  The cops had thoroughly searched my person.  The sniffer dog had rummaged my Mustang to no avail.  But now, that same dog, Rusty—whose name I would learn via the police report—was headed straight for the hub.  Whatever was left over from the previous night’s sales was one thing.  After five years of dealing, there had to be residue everywhere.  The sticky CD cases, so much spillage, all those sneezes.  That shepherd was going to succeed this time; the cops weren’t going home empty-handed, shaking their flat-topped heads.

    Of course there were onlookers.  The sight of a lit-up patrol car, a couple of homeboys pressed against the graffiti-laden wall—that’s showy.  This was epic.  Notably absent, though, were my amigos, the ones who occupied the corner of Vendome and Marathon.  I thought about all the post-party mornings: me, carting out bags of redeemable empties—my own little outreach, and on this day, a vacant curb.  But the toy dogs were out with hipsters in tow, and the passing motorists were all bottlenecked by the happenings.  I’d never been the object of so much fuss and inconvenience.  I was embarrassed more because I felt like I should be, not because I actually was.  In fact, I wanted to look at people, to look at their faces.  I felt a strong urge to connect with something apart from my own apprehension, so I craned my neck and squinted through the window.  I saw some people.  I wished I could be one of them, any of them.  Anyone but me.

That was March 11th, 2008, the day before my thirty-fifth birthday.  While tossing my place, the cops found a salable amount of cocaine, plus some pills I had lying around.  It was enough to charge me with intent to distribute.  A felony.

Whatever was left over from the previous night’s sales was one thing.  After five years of dealing, there had to be residue everywhere.  The sticky CD cases, so much spillage, all those sneezes.

    I’d been dealing for five years.  On the surface I was just breaking the law, but there was something beneath what was happening, a subtext I neither anticipated nor acknowledged. I was slowly dropping out of society.  People were afraid to say no to me, and if you can imagine what that does to a man’s ego, then you can begin to imagine what it must’ve been like to be around me.  I never waited in line.  I didn’t pay the cover charge.  If a problem arose, I just threw money at it.  Problem solved.  What did I care?  I was high on power and coke. For a dealer, drug taking is incidental and inevitable and contributory to a litany of dubious ideas—beginning with the decision to deal in the first place; but in this respect, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I was fully competent.  I never lost a customer to a competitor.  Having been trained in business management, I understood the mindset of the consumer—fickle, spiteful—so I took nothing for granted.  I was very attentive to my duties as a retailer, sleeping with my phone next to my head like an expectant father on a business trip.  In a way, that’s exactly what it was: one long trip—no, an exile, self-imposed and five years running.

    I’m the guy who never says goodbye.  It’s too awkward for me.  I prefer to sneak away from the party, out the side door, when the time is right.  So that’s what I did.  Los Angeles was the party. The side door came in the form of a probation transfer back east—a tidy little document, hard-won, the epitome of bureaucratic red tape.  Not that I didn’t do my time.  Had I been caught with a gram or two there’d have been some sort of rehab-related plea deal—a program designed to accommodate my “problem.”  But as far as the courts were concerned, I was the problem.  The People vs. James Ferry.  No help.  No counseling.  No sympathy.  Not that I expected (or deserved) any of these.  Help and counsel are for users and addicts.  Sympathy is for victims.  I was a dealer, the bottom rung of a ladder extending all the way to South America.  And now I’m describable only in the simplest terms: a son, a man, a brother, a friend, a felon.  I don’t feel like much of anything in particular.  But then, that’s nothing new.