JEFF DEENEY: The drug game is considered one of the few viable money makers here where fewer than half of the local kids graduate from high school, many don’t speak English, and the local manufacturing economy that might once have hired unskilled labor died decades ago. Many settle for less risky ventures like selling barbecue and bottled water in the streets in the summer, but it’s hard to raise a family on that kind of chump change. Local kids, often under pressure for financial support from their own moms, seek out The Owner.
Every dope block in the Badlands is run by a dude simply known as The Owner. The Owner has connections in Puerto Rico or to Dominican traffickers in New York for bulk dope. The Owner is never seen out on the block with the unruly neighborhood knuckleheads he rounds up to distribute bags of drugs in rubber-banded stacks called bundles. He doesn’t drive a flashy car that would draw the attention of the Narc Squad. When the Narc Squad comes they’ll scoop up who they can but they’re always looking for The Owner.
That’s the question the Narcotics Officer is going to ask you when he pulls you off the stoop where he’s been watching you do hand-to-hand drug sales all morning, as he’s got you flat on the sidewalk, grinding his boot into the side of your skull: “Who’s The Owner? Tell me who The Owner is, punk. You wanna go to jail? Tell me where The Owner lives and I’ll let you walk.” Nobody tells the Narc Squad where The Owner lives because they know they won’t be locked up long if they stay quiet. The Owner always pays the bail of a boy who doesn’t snitch.
These are the corners Billy the Kid came up on. He was tall and lanky, with skinny spaghetti-noodle arms that weren’t much use for fist fighting so it only followed that he messed with guns. The baby face that conferred his nickname was deceptive. Time on North Philly streetcorners passes in dog years; Billy was only 19, but 19 is when names get made in the Badlands, when hustlers graduate to bigger things after years spent standing in front of bodegas on freezing winter nights selling dime bags or sweating it out on the run from the cops in the thick August heat. At 19 if you’re cunning and ruthless enough, you might get to organize your own crew, working directly with The Owner as a manager, and start laying in major dollar figures. But Billy had an Achilles’ heel; he was too wild and defiant, even for the Badlands, where a certain absence of self-preserving instinct can be an asset. MORE