On The Corner

Overwhelmed activists, embattled police, and perplexed politicians brace for a long, hot summer in South Minneapolis

It's high noon on a Sunday and J.R. is razor sharp--working the corner of Franklin Avenue East and 11th Avenue South like a pro.

He waves down a white guy in a white Lincoln Navigator, then passes something through the driver's window for a fee. Sixty seconds later, the 34-year-old sells a dime bag of weed to a kid in a Rasta cap, who looks like he wandered over from the U of M's West Bank. Then he peddles a couple of "rocks"--thimble-size pieces of crack cocaine--to four haggard Latinos sitting at a bus stop.

Now and then he pauses to palm beads of sweat from his forehead or to sort through a crumpled wad of tens and twenties. Then he goes back to work.

Michael Dvorak

J.R. made $500 in a blink the other day; today he'll pocket a more typical $200. "It's you white dudes, all rich and suburban, that are big money," he exclaims. "I love that. Quick, no questions, whores and drugs, in and out. Seven days a week."

J.R. looks south toward the heart of Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, then turns back toward the downtown skyline. You can almost see the light bulb go on over his Jheri curls. The idea: a Sunday tour of J.R.'s neighborhood. Cost of admission: 20 bucks.

The cash is floated, trust is established, and J.R. heads toward a little whorehouse "full of crackheads, three generations of ho's, grandmother to granddaughter." He doesn't know the address, couldn't find the place on a map, but J.R. knows the quickest route. He says that he can find the place without looking. This seems to bother him.

It doesn't bother him to smoke crack in broad daylight, though. So the dealer pauses for a moment in a vacant lot at 24th Street and 13th Avenue South, reaches into a pocket of his gray sweatpants to fumble for a lighter, finds a glass pipe in the right pocket of his matching top, then--seemingly out of thin air--produces a $10 rock. He pops the crack into the burnt end, presses his lips to the other end, and lights up.

J.R. holds the hit in his lungs. "Man, I gotta tell you," he rasps, shaking his head for comic effect. "This crack is ruining my marriage." Then he exhales, a raspy giggle accompanying the smoke.

When he's not getting high, J.R. diligently hits his daily posts: Franklin and Chicago avenues in the morning to catch the prostitutes as they finish their early-morning shift; east to Franklin and 11th at midday, when the street resembles a drive-up retail corridor; and, after the sun goes down, southeast to Bloomington Avenue, between East 24th and 25th streets, where the nightlife revolves around the Commodore Bar and a SuperAmerica convenience store. The pattern is based on supply and demand, but J.R.'s sojourns also keep him a few steps ahead of the police--most of the time, anyway.

Still, the MPD and J.R. cross paths all the time (he claims they even shot his dog during a drug raid). It's a routine both cop and criminal know well: They arrest him, they haul him downtown, he tells a sob story, the charge doesn't stick, and he's back on the street in a couple of hours. J.R. doesn't own a crack house--he's just a middleman, careful never to carry too much product. He knows where those drug houses are, sure. But he's not telling. If he did, he'd be dead.

J.R. says dealing is an easy choice for him. Why work for some cracker for minimum wage when you can make a week's salary in 90 minutes, take the afternoon off, and get high? Why spend a day in a windowless office, making cold calls, waiting for people to curse or hang up or both, when you can be in out in the fresh air, waiting for the customer to come to you? And why not put in a couple of extra hours on Sunday? That will buy a new DVD player or a new ride or, if you're lucky, maybe a little high-grade powder. Yeah, J.R. will take his chances with this small-time thug life.

"I could have more business than ever," he says, lighting up again, then giggling that raspy giggle. "There's more crack, there's other drugs, there's more people smoking than there was a year ago, for sure. Trouble is, I can't sell as much, because I've started smokin' too much of the shit again."

J.R. continues toward the brothel and warns to look out for the police. He's too high to see them coming. Eventually he comes to a stop on 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue, just across from the Commodore Bar, a squat blue building with a sign that reads, "Where friends meet friends." There is a three-story green house on East 25th Street, just west of the bar. That's the whorehouse, J.R. says. "Wait right here. I'll get you in."

 

When a car pulls up to the Commodore, there're always a couple of hookers on call. They will offer "oral for twenty" before you can lock the door and pocket the keys. When you refuse politely, the dealers literally come out of the shadows. If you're not here for the girls, they assume, you have only one other reason to be on this block.

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