Discussing entrepreneurship on the NYC subway with a retired drug dealer from Brooklyn.

posted by on 2010.09.20, under Other

I spent 30 hours in NYC last weekend for a wedding and thanks to public transportation I  engaged in a discussion about entrepreneurship with an unlikely conversationalist.  As indicated by the title of this post, this was a retired crack dealer from Brooklyn who rode the subway with me to Queens on my way to a wedding in Long Island.

Our conversation sparked because we had both just missed the subway from Bushwick to Jamaica.  At first, I had certain doubts about his intentions.  Normally  when people start talking to me  on the street in big cities, they end up disappointed that I was not the smart money type they expected.  When he found out I was from Louisville, however, his face lit up.  He claimed that he just got back from there on a bus.   However he was also unable to answer my questions about how long it took him to get there or what part of the city he stayed in…so remained skeptical.  I continued to talk to him, but was looking for a way out of the conversation as soon find an exit.

Early in the conversation, he was very vocal about racial tensions he felt in Brooklyn, stating that the police often approached him and made him lift his shirt to check for guns, which made him feel violated.  He also complained about Mayor Bloomberg only serving the white people in Manhattan.  After 1 month of intense study on theories like resource-based view, game theory, and other economic topics, perhaps this was the conversation I needed.

As we sat on the subway, I succeeded in switching the conversation from politics to business – something that I would be less likely to offend him or any of the other strangers on this train.  I wasn’t thrilled that I was talking on a subway in the first place.  I’ve never figured out the best way to cut a conversation short.  It’s an art that few have mastered, especially during business networking sessions.

The more we talked, the more I believed him.  The reason he had taken the bus to Louisville was because his father was in the hospital.  His mother and several  of cousins live there and all he really wants to do is move  closer to his family.  It was this point in the conversation that he came clean.  The reason he was unable to fly or stay longer in Kentucky was because he was a convicted felon!  He had been a crack dealer in the early 90s, arrested and caught up in an ugly situation.  He admitted that he had shot people, and been shot in his “hay day.”  But he didn’t express any remorse for his actions, besides that he was now  stuck in New York and unable to move to where his family went.

I looked around the train, taking notice of our new audience.  This was no uplifting Forrest Gump life story, but I had to say something despite the awkwardness of his admission.  The first thing I could think about was a chapter in the book Freakonomics about why crack dealers still live with their mothers.  It might have been a risky move, but for once in my life, I just couldn’t come up with a non sequitur.

So I asked him outright, “why do crack dealers live with their mothers.”

He laughed, and responded that it was indeed true.  I told him about the book, and how an Indian doctoral student made friends with a Chicago gang led by an college educated gangster who kept detailed accounting records that were published into academic research.  I asked him what it was lik to deal crack in New York, not thinking until after the conversation such a question might not been a great idea in my very short weekend trip to see my family.

For the most part, he agreed with the a lot of what Levitt talks about.  The corporate-like structure of the crack business is similar in Brooklyn than it was in Chicago when the Indian PhD student Sudhir Venkatesh documented it through his field research.  Since so many people wanted to work in this industry, the actual wages for the street soldiers were very small, sometimes nothing at all.  Only a few people at the top really earned substantial profits, but that tenure could be ended quite abruptly.  Or in his words “you could be sitting on a park bench and have three %$#@#’s walk up and put a bullet in your head.”

My new subway friend said that he had no intention of rising up this corporate ladder because it would be too risky.  He had dealt drugs and kept a low profile, but he offered  some intriguing stories about some of the bosses in the gang at the time.  The amount of profits that they made each day according to his story were tempting, but he had mentally calculated the risks of increasing his supply and opted to keep it a “small business.”  We talked about territories for dealing being similar to McDonald franchises, and why the guy’s at the bottom of the gang were content with making less than minimum wage. I encourage you to read Sudhir’s book for details.

The retired crackdealer on the subway claimed that that there were few alternative options to dealing drug in his youth.  He didn’t have the patience for school but his his mother had told him over and over while growing up that he should study more like the Indian kids.  He admired Indians for their successes and emphasis on education, and regrets not trying harder in school.  He ended our drug conversation, stating that if he had my brains (assuming I was smart only because I am Indian) and his hustle when he was young, he would have been bigger than Jay-Z.  We talked about how kids in his neighborhood should learn how to be entrepreneurs in legitimate businesses, and I told him about NFTE, an organization that teaches inner city youth how to be entrepreneurial.  As he walked me to the train I had to take to Long Island, he made sure I found the correct one.  He  ended by telling me that “New York is a city that destroys people, but if I figure out the right moves, I could do very well out there….Don’t waste any  gifts.”  This is the last thing I expected to hear from a crack dealer that I couldn’t figure out how to stop talking to.  I wished him luck on his desire to move to Louisville, and we went on our separate ways.

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