Portrait of a Dealer
Maestro is a Miami drug dealer who plies his trade at night, but you won't find him standing on a street corner, shifting his weight from foot to foot and making furtive hand signals. Like many in the coke-selling sector of the economy, Maestro has found a more discreet and comfortable arrangement, living for payday Fridays and slipping between neighbors and neighborhoods separated by mere streets but belonging to different worlds. He has the cover of a legitimate day job selling used boats and boat parts, a thriving seaside industry that brings him into contact with all sorts of people.
At 2:00 a.m. on a recent Saturday he sits at a poker table with four men who socially are somewhere between the dealer's friends and business acquaintances. Maestro gambles a gram of coke, a value of $40. He never has to give up cash when he plays cards with this crowd, because he pays his debts with his product. As he concentrates on the game, he lets his constantly ringing cell phone go to voicemail.
The calls were from a now-annoyed customer. Fueling that frustration was Maestro's recorded greeting: "Oh, so you're one of those. Yeah, you know who you are. It's three in the morning and you've called me fourteen fucking times looking for more. Well, I have news for you, buddy I'm not picking up. Deal with it. Beeeep."
Earlier in the evening Maestro was easier to reach. His first call came from a youngish guy he calls "the Mediator." (He gives nicknames to all of his clients.) The Mediator is the only member of his buttoned-down preppy crew bold enough to actually initiate and make a drug deal. He buys an eighth of an ounce (an eightball, as it's commonly referred to) for around $120. "This guy, what he does is, he'll be at a party and his friends will want some booch but they won't know where to get it or they're too scared," Maestro explains. "He'll cap like two eightballs for the friends and then turn right around and tax the shit out of them. Instead of $240, or maybe a little less depending on how generous I'm feeling, he'll charge them $280. I'm telling you the guy never pays for his blow. He always gets a halfie or two for free. Then he'll try to negotiate with me and try to get me to lower the price."
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Haggling is one of the vicissitudes of dealing cocaine, as are concerns over minimizing the possibilities of detection. Maestro prefers to deliver to his customers; he doesn't like the idea of people knowing where he lives, of having a constant flow of wired little monkeys showing up banging on the door of his Kendall home. "In the car," he says, "I can creep by a couple of times and scope out the situation. If I smell something fishy, I book. I don't have that luxury at the crib."
He deploys this type of slow-motion drive-by when another regular client, "Demento," issues a summons to meet behind a Winn-Dixie at Sunset Drive and SW 150th Avenue.
"Demento is nuts," Maestro says bluntly. "He'll cap an eightball for himself, go home, hit half of it, and become so incredibly paranoid that he'll flush the rest down the toilet. As if that weren't a bad enough crime to land you in the freaking nut house, the fool then goes and hides in his closet for the rest of night because he thinks the DEA is about to raid his house, guns blazing. The guy is so far gone that last week he was hitting the blow all night, past sunrise, and he could hear his neighbors talking through the walls. He thought they were talking shit about him, so he grabs a bat, and in his underwear steps outside and tries to look hard, you know trying to intimidate the neighbors, all the while heating himself up. Oh yeah, this guy is whacked, but since half his shit goes into the toilet, he's a regular customer."
Maestro eschews the Tony Montana image of the hardscrabble, violent cocaine kingpin. At age 27, he hews closely to the suburban identity he developed as a teenager in Kendall. He likes to tell people he writes poetry and lives a crime-free existence except for occasional shoplifting expeditions to Barnes & Noble.
He points to his dealings with a fellow named "Rehab" as a totem of his humanity. Rehab has been institutionalized to help cure his cocaine addiction, a treatment that apparently hasn't worked, because the young man is out and looking to make a purchase. Maestro politely refuses the transaction. "I've never seen crack, but I have a couple of people who are always asking for pills. I think those people are a lot like crack addicts," he observes. "The thing with coke is that most people, at least the people I sell to, are aware of the effects and the toll."
Maestro says he has about a dozen regular customers, all of whom work legitimate jobs. In their eagerness to acquire illicit drugs, they think little of the role they play in Miami's vice trade. "Everyone hits the blow. People go out drinking or they're at a party and they'll do it to keep going so they can drink and not get sick. It could be a homeboy or a professional looking for a good time," Maestro says in describing his clients. One of them is "Private Snowball," named for the character in Full Metal Jacket. He's an accountant who buys an eightball every Friday just enough to last him through the weekend. "The Shysters" are a married couple, attorneys in their thirties who routinely buy individually. Maestro shrugs: "These two buy separately, tell me not to tell the other one how much they bought, then go home and hit it together. Eventually one runs out before the other one, and the one who still has some won't share. Typical lawyer behavior."
Then there is "the Old Lady," a 55-year-old retiree who lives with another woman. Maestro likes her because she always buys a half-ounce, which translates into a lot of cash at once, about $400 with the price break he gives her for quantity. When she calls around midnight, the anticipation in Maestro's voice rises as he reassures her he'll be there within minutes. Stopping by his house, he steps into his bedroom and walks past his gigantic home theater, heading for the top drawer of his desk. Hidden under a sheaf of paper and computer disks is about an ounce of cocaine with a street value of $1100. He pulls out a small electronic scale and, using a tiny spoon, begins to chip off the tiny powdered rocks that, with a little applied pressure, crumble into a fine powder. He then weighs it into small plastic bags. (The compression used to pack the original smuggled shipment causes the cocaine to form these rocks that resemble a pale brick. For the coke connoisseur it is preferable to buy a Baggie with more rocks than powder; it's a sign the product hasn't been cut by adding cornstarch or some other inert substance.)
Maestro leaves his house and heads south to the Old Lady's duplex, which is a little beyond Cutler Ridge. She calls him several times, and each time he spins a new and plausible story to explain his tardiness. With four eightballs in his pocket, he's driving carefully not too fast and not too slow. This will be his last run of the night. Someone else calls him for a gram, but the customer is on South Beach and Maestro won't drive that far unless it's for an eightball or more. Besides, after collecting from the Old Lady, he'll have more than enough money to relax and play poker all night.
Pulling up to the Old Lady's home, he flashes his lights at her window. Mere seconds later, as if she'd been eagerly peering out, she steps forth, drops the cash in her dealer's lap, and engages in small talk while Maestro digs for her Baggies. It's over in less than a minute. "The Old Lady invites me in all the time, but I can imagine what that would be like," Maestro says. "She'd start telling me her life story and shit. I don't want to hear that. I'm in and out. It's better that way."
Maestro's supplier is an "old-school cat," a middle-age Latino who lives in the Cutler Ridge area. According to Maestro, he moves a lot of weight, mostly coke, but also some "elbows," or pounds of pot. Although the supplier offers his sales team credit by allowing them to pay for the drugs after they've sold them, Maestro always pays for his up front. He doesn't want to owe money to anyone, thus avoiding potentially disastrous misunderstandings. Over the course of a week, he will typically sell about two ounces of coke, which cost him $1200. That will leave him with a tax-free profit of between $800 and $1000.
No stranger to the legal system, Maestro has been arrested three times for drug possession, two of them with intent to sell marijuana, but has never been convicted. After one of those arrests, in which he was caught with a large amount of weed, he crossed over to cocaine because it's easier to conceal and more lucrative. "The butter will never go out of style here," he quips. "It's everywhere and people want it. They'll either get it from me or someone else, but it's here to stay."
All dopers have stories to tell. Maestro launches into one of his: "One time I was riding out by Miami Lakes with three other friends in the car when all of a sudden I saw flashing lights behind my car. I guess they saw that I had [an arrest] record, so they pulled us all out of the ride and started to search the car. I hid all the Baggies in my left shoe, thinking they wouldn't check there.... They started searching my friends and, one by one, made them take off their shoes. At that point I was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to jail.' Sure enough, the cop tells me to take off my right shoe and checks it, but just then his partner calls him over, and when he came back, he said we could go. He never checked the left one. I was one shoe away from being locked up for a pretty long time, but what are you going to do? That's the nature of the business."
Back at the card game, the players are perspiring, sniffing, and twitching, their eyes dilated. Maestro reaches for his cell phone to call a couple of escorts he knows will accept cocaine rather than cash for their services. It's a tradition at this game that the person who walks away with the most money foots the bill for the ladies of the evening. Maestro is planning ahead. He's certain he'll be tonight's winner.