When legal weed dispensaries opened in the Village, I wondered how this competition would affect the old-school pot dealers. I had been buying weed from various East Village dealers since I moved to New York City in 1975. If a dealer quit the business or moved from the city, he or she referred me to a colleague. It was an unbroken line, a smoky trail of referrals, but one dealer stands out. Steve. I saw him the longest (from the late 1990s to 2019) and he always took good care of me.
Steve lived on the third floor of a walk-up. He’d come to the fire escape and toss over the keys. His tenement had no intercom, so he threw a mini-football with the keys stuffed inside a carved-out slot. I looked up and focused on catching it. I hated when I missed and the ball bounced into busy Second Avenue.
Sometimes the two locks were tricky — outside door, then another door — but I’d eventually gotten it down, looking over my shoulder at the same time. I was in and climbing the rickety staircase with the wobbly bannister. I had been coming to this place to score pot for many years. It was originally a squat, rehabbed by the the tenants.
“I don’t know but we’ll need an elevator building by then.”
I walked up the three flights, knocked on the door, now decorated with an American flag. Even dealers became patriotic after the terrorist attacks. I trooped into the main room to join whoever else was there sitting on mismatched chairs. Invariably a joint was going around. Everyone nodded hello. I’d seen the same faces, over the years, had trouble with names. I was known as “that writer.”
Steve was around in the late afternoons from about 4 to 6, weekdays only. He went to Florida in the winter. He got the after-work crowd, making a pit stop before going back to Astoria or Park Slope, and locals with flexible schedules. I’d met actors, martial artists, secretaries, social workers, teachers, therapists. People who toiled late in the corporate world did not visit.
Despite the decrepit setup, I liked scoring there — the weed was always good quality and I felt safe. It was not lost on me when an upscale dealer and her customers got killed above the Carnegie Hall Deli; she buzzed the wrong guys upstairs. I trusted Steve and his judgment. You could not just refer a new customer; you had to bring them in person.
Steve had a shaved head and was about 30 when we first met. Tall and lanky, Steve was much younger than his predecessor. I did not know Steve well at first but discovered we were both vegetarian and talked about restaurants and music.
“Got any of the pressed?” I asked wishfully.
The pressed was a house specialty, a product grown in Jamaica. The pressed was extraordinary pot, so resinous and pungent that you could get high sniffing the smell of the buds. It had a rich, flavorful taste, a smooth burn, and the best high. The name came from the fact the marijuana was compressed, so it looked like a chunk or a brick. The resin acted like glue. It was not loose pot. Smokers had to pry apart this Super-Grade A weed. I missed it, especially the taste.
“Dream on,” said Steve, “that hasn’t been around since 9/11, too much airport security. But I got some other weed you will like — this hydroponic from Upstate, you had that before. And I got some other good stuff, not sure from where. And I got nice hash, you like hash?”
“Sure, ” said Steve, always accommodating, “but for 200 I can throw in a few mushrooms. Great f—ing ’shrooms.”
“No thanks. I haven’t tripped in years. What about that incredible Amsterdam pot you had last month? Is that still around?”
“Nah,” Steve shook his head. “That was a fluke.”
After coming here all these years, it seemed unnecessary to try the wares. It was all good stuff. If I tried Brand A and got stoned, how could I judge Brand B? Lately there had only been one or two choices anyway.
Steve walked behind a curtained-off space, where he weighed out the drugs, and emerged 10 minutes later. He crouched next to me and slid two plastic baggies into my lap. I slipped them into my jeans pocket, palmed him the wad of crisp folded new bills — six 20s and a 10.
“The Upstate stuff has the reddish color and it’s fluffier,” he explained as he turned his back to the window and counted the money.
“Thanks Steve, I remember it now, it was good.”
One freezing January night, 17 degrees, I visited the squat. Steve wore a sweater, down vest and wool hat. No one else was there. I didn’t stay more than 10 minutes and only had three puffs but it was super s—. I had trouble finding my zipper pocket when I tried putting the weed away. By the time I hit the street it was getting dark.
It was difficult to see the ice patches on the sidewalk. I walked slowly, even though the wind was biting into my face. I worried about falling and breaking a bone or slipping and getting hit by a car. Suddenly, I felt like an old person. Bad enough I’d just gotten that offer to join AARP. I feared going to a hospital unconscious and medics rummaging through my pockets for ID and finding the pot instead. Why couldn’t Steve deliver?
With new leadership in City Hall, people smoked weed all over the city with abandon. The smell was ubiquitous. No one cared, especially if you were white. Getting busted with a small amount resulted in a ticket, not an arrest. I wondered what would happen to dealers like Steve when all this became legal.
I was never sure who actually owned the building I’d dubbed the squat but I guess it was the city. The tenants had leases, so when the city decided to sell the building to a developer to raze and rebuild, they couldn’t evict anyone. The residents were temporarily relocated to other buildings, and eventually they returned to a brand-new building, paying the same rent — an incredible real estate deal.
After seeing Steve in a temporary location in Alphabet City, business resumed at his old location. But now I visited him in a modern building with a doorman and an elevator and rooftop deck. His neighbors were N.Y.U. students and yuppies. I wondered what the doorman made of the fact Steve had so many “guests.”
The new apartment was a dramatic improvement — living room, bedroom, modern cooking area, nice bathroom. I thought this would inspire Steve to fix it up but he just moved in a lot of DJ equipment, some guitars, a record player and a cot-like bed just big enough for one person. One chair. No sofa and no dining table. He usually had a weird record spinning on the turntable.
In the other room, he stored the weed and weighed out the product. When I first started coming to the new digs, we went into that room and he showed me the products. Then the routine changed. He described what he had, which varied each visit: “Sour Diesel, OG Kush, Girl Scout Cookies.” I waited in the main room on the one chair until he returned with the goods.
Now the weed had many names and I could even look the strain up on Leafly.com. I liked playing the connoisseur, asking if it was an indica (relaxing) or a sativa (energizing) or a hybrid.
The whole scene with the doorman and the elevators was so unlike Steve. Yet, I was relieved that as I got older (I was now over 65 and qualified for a senior MetroCard), I no longer had to trek up those creaky steps. Business continued in the gentrified building for years as Steve expanded his wares to include weed oil with complimentary vape pens.
On a hot summer day in 2019, I texted Steve to see if I could come over. Customers did not call anymore. He never picked up and the answering machine was always full. Before I finally broke down and got a smart phone, Steve was the only person I texted on my flip phone.
I was shocked. He was in his early 50s. I thought he led a healthy lifestyle. He didn’t smoke cigarettes. He had a vegetarian diet and exercised.
“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry to hear this,” I said. “I consider you a friend not just someone I see for business.”
Steve had even come to my book party.
All this had happened since I saw last him three months ago in the spring — diagnosis and surgery in New York City and a grim prognosis. He refused chemo.
I told Steve I did not know his beliefs but I would pray for him and put him on the prayer list at my church. He said he was accepting prayers and whatever healing thoughts and vibrations people were sending. He said he did not think he was going to die.
“You got it,” I said, trying not to cry.
But before he hung up, Steve reminded me I could see Paul, who filled in whenever Steve was away. He wanted to make sure I had Paul’s number. Even though Steve was dying, he wanted to make sure I had a connection.
I wished Steve luck and hung up the phone, afraid I would never see him again.
I texted Paul and went over to his East Village tenement to make a purchase. We talked about Steve — how he was a quirky guy who lived totally off the grid, how he was an adventurous traveler going to parts of Asia where most Westerners did not venture.
Steve was an accomplished martial artist who studied with masters in China and New York. Other than brief stints as a disc jockey, Steve never had a conventional job during the two decades I knew him.
Paul seemed more main stream — he had a real part time job. But he lived in a walk-up. And here I thought I was done with the stairs.
About two months after our last phone conversation, Steve’s name popped up on my phone. It was his best friend calling to tell me Steve had passed away that morning in hospice in New York. He would have turned 53 in two days. I felt incredibly sad. That night I lit up a joint in Steve’s memory.
A few months ago, out of curiosity, I bought legal weed from a dispensary in the Village. It was not as good as what I was used to buying from my old-school connections — and I had to pay tax. I won’t go back there.