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Chapter Eight: Pay the Plug
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Canada was my big break. I made great money with Kermit for a long time.
He and I became friendly, too. We couldn’t have been more different – a Black guy from Jersey, a Vietnamese immigrant whose family came from someplace called Hue – but before I knew it, we were hanging out, going to clubs in Vancouver, spending money everywhere.
Kermit was actually a funny dude. His jokes, I have to say I pretty much never got them, but he could dance. He was maybe five feet tall. But he could really get after it on the dance floor. It was hilarious to watch, and while you were watching him, you forgot what he did for a living.
A hundred percent of the time, you do this business with people, a bond develops. The reason is obvious. You just can’t talk about what you do with ordinary people. It’s not just about safety. If you tell people, they start wanting stuff.
The economy in this country sucks so bad, people don’t look at a drug dealer with disdain anymore. They just think of him as someone who’s lucky to have a good job. Which means if you tell anyone what you’re into, they’ll soon enough start asking for free meals, car loans, security deposits.
That’s why you end up hanging around with other people in the business. They’re people who don’t need or want anything from you.
The difference with Kermit was that he was mafia, and the mafia is connected. There’s no worrying about hotel rooms with a cat like this. He had properties all over British Columbia. I’m talking about all these places with names like Burnaby, Surrey, everywhere.
He had houses, restaurants, clubs, everything he wanted. We’d go out together, a bunch of young, great-looking guys, everything expensive. You could tell we had it just by looking at us. The Vietnamese, too, they all dressed in the finest, with 18 karat gold around their necks, jade pendants – it was some kind of warrior culture thing. But it was safe to be around them, because we went to Kermit’s spots.
I’d walk into a club and he’d introduce me to a girl and, well, let’s just say we’d be leaving together shortly after that, you understand? The whole area was like his little kingdom.
The only problem with Kermit was, he had a temper. And it came out from time to time.
We were out at a bar in Vancouver once and he got into it with a guy. They started swinging. Little Kermit knocked the guy out cold. It was impressive, but I was freaked out.
I thought: “I don’t need to be picked up by police because you decided to flex on someone.”
I mentioned something like this to him. He just waved me off.
“Don’t worry, Huey,” is all he said.
Meanwhile the money part of it was so easy, I started to expand everywhere. I started experimenting with shipments.
I was having cars packed with weed, loaded onto boats, and sent home. Or I had movers driving really big loads – we call them “boxes” – over in panel trucks and 18-wheelers. The border was just crazy. Shit, I remember hopping on a prop plane with ten pounds of fucking weed in a hockey bag, jumping off in Chicago, no problem.
Nobody blinks at a hockey bag if Canada is part of the route. Not even if the guy holding it is Black.
Another time, I brought a friend named Malik up there to party with Kermit. Malik and I went back to my college days. We met because we both dated girls who pledged the same sorority at Penn. Malik dated Courtney’s best friend, Nikki, who was pre-med.
Malik himself studied engineering at Wake Forest. He was from a really rough neighborhood in Indianapolis, but it wasn’t hard to see how he got a scholarship.
The guy was always taking things apart and putting them back together. Like you’d be sitting in a diner and he’d have the napkin dispenser in pieces while everyone else at the table talked. The first time he pulled that trick was the first time I saw an Allen wrench.
I thought he was weird and introverted at first, but then I started thinking, “This is a guy with skills I could use.” We ended up going into business, at which point he opened up a little more. We hit it off. And for a while, it was going good.
I brought him up to Canada. We spent three days in clubs with Kermit. Malik was impressed. He said: “This guy owns this city.” I’d brought him up there to help me load a car, but we ended up saran-wrapping twenty-pounds of weed to our bodies and getting right on a commercial plane to go home. No problem.
It was crazy. I was selling all over. In Atlanta, I was working with Courtney’s cousin. In Missouri, I had Buddy. In Michigan, I started working with Jerome again.
In Jersey and New York, I was working with a couple of different high school guys. In DC, I was dealing with some of Jerome’s old connections from the Sequoia Bar. And in Indianapolis I had Malik, who’d gone back to his old neighborhood after graduation and with my connections, started to make real money.
Malik had a square job like me in Indy, only his was more serious and defense-related, something about lasers and the Navy. But it was an entry-level thing and he didn’t see himself making VP anytime soon.
He thought his real opportunity was in his old neighborhood. He started saving his money and investing, big-time, in our operation.
He was running a grow op in some Marion county shithole of a house he’d bought at public auction. To fill his basement, I used to bring him clones – those are baby weed plants – from Canada.
We did well for a while, but also both learned a thing or two about growing indoors, like this: if you’re not smart, in the winter months, you’ll be the only house in the block with no snow on the roof. Even cops can see that.
I have a saying about the Midwest: The good get out. It’s a depressing place to live year-round. You have to be willing to work hard for low wages to scrape by there.
That’s why I like dealing with people from places like that: Indianapolis, Gary, Cleveland, Youngstown. They’re tough and do quality work, for the most part.
For our grow-op, it took a minimum of ten weeks between harvests. When the grow wasn’t on, we focused more on selling Kermit’s weed. Which was fine, until I started to have problems at the border.
I was finding that it was too hard for me to be personally involved with loads going back and forth to British Columbia. Being Black and having to go through the U.S. Customs Service every time was just too conspicuous. You can afford to get profiled on a highway. But not on a border. You have no rights on a border.
I played the “My girlfriend studies at the University of British Columbia” line for a while, but after about four trips I could see the half-life of that story fizzling out in the eyes of the guards.
Malik and I didn’t have many options. So we took a risk.
Back in Cincinnati, at the Marriott where I worked, there was this little Indian guy named Vihaan who worked as a bar backer.
He was the staff clown. Vihaan was always talking like he had friends, even though we knew he was really a loner. I mean a serious loner. This dude was 27 years old and had never got no head from a woman. You live long enough on this earth, a woman will eventually give herself to you out of sympathy.
But Vihaan, man, he could fuck up fucking up, if you know what I mean. About the only thing he did was smoke weed, but that’s not exactly a resume-builder.
He had family problems because he never finished college and was a bar backer with no future and didn’t seem to mind it enough.
His Dad was some kind of big deal in insurance who rose from nothing in the old country and now had a huge six-bedroom house in Mason. It drove him crazy that he had a son pushing thirty with no plan.
So I took a chance with him. He looked up to all the Black guys on staff, thought we were cool. We smoked weed around him, gave him a little. Then, slowly, I started to ask how he’d feel about making some extra cash on the side.
Right away, I could tell, that was the most interesting moment of his life.
He said: “Just tell me what to do!”
My plan was to drive him through Windsor. I knew there was a big Indian population on that side of the border. Plus, I guessed, not even the Americans would stop an Indian guy on suspicion of smuggling from Canada.
When I told him the plan, he was all for it. I explained to him about embracing stereotypes. He’d been born in the States, but I told him he should put on the same Indian accent his immigrant parents had.
He hesitated. At first I thought he was being proud. But it turned out he just couldn’t do the accent. His own family accent!
Most Black people know how to code-switch instinctively. You tailor your presentation according to the crowd. I can put on a southern accent in a heartbeat because I got roots there. Most Black people can. We can southern it up in a second.
But Vihaan, he actually had to work at imitating his father and mother. On our first run driving up to Canada, I caught him looking in the rearview mirror and practicing. He’d read somewhere in a book for actors that to make the T sound the way Bollywood stars say it, you had to put the tip of your tongue farther back along the roof of your mouth.
Like for instance: but was supposed to come out BOT.
Seeing this, I tried to arrange it so he didn’t have to talk. I put him in traditional Indian dress for the first time in his life and bought an expensive purple thing called a jacquiard at a vintage clothing store in Toronto. We hung it in the back seat of his car.
About the weed, I was just brazen. I just tossed twenty, thirty pounds in the trunk and didn’t even think about it.
He went through with no problem. So we did it again, and again. And again.
We’d get to the checkpoint in Windsor, and they’d take one look at him in his get-up, and wave his ass right through. Meanwhile, I’d drive behind him to keep watch. More than once, they tore my car apart.
Vihaan loved it and it was all I could do to get him not to talk about it. Soon enough he seemed to calm down. And he became indispensable to me.
There were times I wondered about him. I knew: if he ever so much as got asked the time of day by border control, he’d probably start bragging about being an international drug smuggler.
But his disguise seemed foolproof and the race thing was so strong, I felt I never had to worry.
Meanwhile, I was doing so well, I started to get sloppy. I started taking loads from Kermit on credit.
I didn’t need to, I just did. Most of the time, that was okay, because I was diversifying my risk all over the country. I never put so much product in one load that I’d have had trouble covering a loss.
Except for one time.
Once, Malik asked me for an unusually big load. Way more than usual. He was getting a big head after some of those trips to Vancouver, but I don’t mind a person thinking big. I think big myself. So I respect the same instinct.
But Malik wanted this huge load on credit. I didn’t feel like fronting him. So I, too, ordered a huge load from Kermit, on credit.
Vihaan went on runs by himself by then. He got to Vancouver, filled his trunk practically to the brim, and drove across Canada to Windsor, where he passed right through Customs as usual.
He was a little late getting to Cincinnati. I asked him what happened, and he said he spilled a coffee all over his traditional costume, forcing him to pull over in Buffalo and buy new pants. Sure enough, he’s wearing traditional Indian dress up top, but a pair of Buffalo Bills Zubaz down below. What an idiot. The story is too dumb not to believe.
Beyond that, I was pleased. I took the whole load and sent it to Indianapolis through the mail. I mean a big fucking load, an expensive one, boxes and boxes.
It never got there.
Not long after, I drove out to Indianapolis to collect. Remember, I’d invested in Malik’s grow op, too, so I thought we had all that product on the ground, already flipping. I thought everything was okay. I thought it was more than okay.
Malik, of course, was no street dealer. He was a college guy. To unload his product, he’d turned to someone from the block where he’d grown up, a local kingpin named Blac. Blac had been doing his distribution for years. I knew him, too, and thought we were all cool.
I went down to Indianapolis and Blac picked me up at the airport, supposedly to drive me to see Malik.
On the way, just casually, I said: “Yo, when are you gonna settle up on that work I gave you?”
Blac turned to me with a funny look in his eyes, and I knew right away there was a problem. He reached over to center console of his car and opened it up. I could see there was a little pistol in there, a Glock. I know those triggers anywhere.
He pulled it out and put it in his lap. Then he looked over at me.
“What work?” he said. “I’m waiting on that new pack. You go ahead and hit me when that touches down, though.”
This is the problem with working out of town. No shooters. Even if my friend Malik wanted to help me lean on Blac for the money, he was a college guy, not a shooter. I could always go home to Cincinnati. He had to stay in “Nap.”
He dropped me off at Malik’s house. When I told my friend what happened, as expected, Malik didn’t back me up. He just shot me a funny look, and asked why the load never arrived.
I frowned. “I don’t know anything about anything yet. But let’s forget that. But we’re still eating off the grow op. What about that?”
He just shrugged. Pretty soon, I realized, Malik and Blac had decided just to steal that money from me. Maybe they thought I’d stiffed them on that load. Malik had learned the lesson. No guns, but keep shooters.
I had to go home to Cincinnati with nothing. Now I was in a fucked position. Somehow, I didn’t have enough cash to pay Kermit back.
And this was bad. Rule number one: Always pay the plug. You pay the connect no matter what. Nothing else matters. If you don’t have a connect, you have nothing.
There’s a corollary to that rule, however. Always pay the plug – unless you can’t. Unless it’s going to break you.
Then you might be forced to take a chance.
I was scared of Kermit, no doubt. Still am. Forget the fingertips. That motherfucker would scatter me all over Georgia Strait if he found me.
But what’s he gonna do – come looking for me in the hood in Cincinnati? A Vietnamese guy? I had one real border between us, and another cultural one.
Kermit didn’t know where I lived at the time. That gave me some comfort for sure. But I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t go near Canada for a long time after that. Hell, I didn’t go anyplace where I might so much as see a Vietnamese person.
I decided to make a clean break. I told Courtney: “We’ve gotta move.”
She thought for exactly one second, then said: “Okay.”
It was the right plan. The only person who didn’t think so was Vihaan.
When I broke the news, he said: “What do you mean, no more runs? How am I gonna live?”
“Live off your fucking paycheck,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” he said, horrified. Just like that, he went back to being a guy in his late twenties, making American wages, mooching off his parents.
He pleaded. I told him there was no unemployment insurance in this game and to fuck off. It bothered me that I had to explain it. Most people in this business don’t have to be told.
I threw away all my phones and started over.
The next chapter is coming soon.