The tavern was in the Heights section of Jersey City, four-five blocks south of Union City. Though a residential neighborhood, the street led to what was then the industrial section of Hoboken.
So it was sorta unusual, but not unknown, for a tractor (the kind of truck that pulls trailers) to park in front of the bar. And given all the rumbling, that’s what was pulling up right now. The bar regulars looked away from the TV and out the small dirty window. A tall, hefty guy with a big beer belly lowered himself out of the truck. He was wearing a cowboy hat and western boots. Another similarly attired, though quite a bit smaller, gent also was walking into view. A moment or two later they came into the bar.
With a western twang, “Two Coors, Sir!”
“Sorry, pardner, we ain’t got no Coors. Budweiser?”
“Yeah, I guess we’ll have to make do with that. My name’s Clem and this here is my brother-in-law, Mel. We just got done bringing a load a bacon into Hoboken. I keep hearin’ on the radio about this here stuff CO-Cane, that all the movie stars are doin’. Can anybody tell me where I can pick up some? I’m willin’ to pay.”
At this point, Clem took out a big leather wallet that was on a chain attached to his belt. He opened it up and flashed a large number of twenty dollar bills.
The bartender just smiled weakly and walked away.
Mel, who seemed happy to let Clem do all the talking, went over to the juke box and started playing Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Band, and the Allman Brothers.
Clem circulated around the bar telling stories about “back home.” As soon as he had anybody’s ear he’d add, “I keep hearin’ on the radio about this here stuff CO-Cane, that all the movie stars are doin’. Do you know where I can pick up some?”
Everybody just smiled and claimed total ignorance of the subject. Except for Bernie the Beat.
“Yeah, yeah, I got a real solid connection. I can pick you up a gram of pure for $100. Rocket fuel. It’ll send you to the moon and back! But the deal is strictly CIA – Cash In Advance.”
Clem slipped Bernie the money.
Bernie left the bar and strolled around the corner. He went into a decrepit tenement and walked up four flights of stairs. The smell of cooking and laundry and the sound of television sets, husbands and wives fighting, and crying babies filled the air. Bernie knocked on a door.
“Nanook, it’s me, Bernie.”
Once inside, “Here’s eighty dollars, I need a gram.”
Product in hand, Bernie asked for a scrap of aluminum foil and a little sugar. Using a razor blade, he divided the small amount of cocaine into two and pushed one of the little mounds onto the new rectangle of foil. He folded that up and pocketed it. Next, he sprinkled maybe half a teaspoon of sugar into the remaining cocaine. Then Bernie mixed it together with the razor blade and refolded the little foil packet.
Bernie returned to the bar.
Whispering to Clem, “When I go to take a piss, meet me inside.”
After ordering a beer and drinking about half, Bernie headed to the rest room. Clem made a beeline after him.
“Here you go. Generally, you don’t get high the first time, so don’t expect too much.”
Bernie took off.
Once a week or so, Bernie caught sight of the tractor parked outside the bar. Bernie would then turn around and head to another hangout. People kept telling him that, “Your Rebel truckdriver buddy’s been lookin’ fer ya.”
He couldn’t duck them forever. One night Bernie was coming out of the restroom. Through the window he saw the tractor parked at the curb. Before he could run, Clem and Mel walked in the door. Bernie expected the worst.
“Bernie, I’m glad I finally caught up with you. That there CO-Cane was the best thing I ever had! Is there some sorta bargain for buyin’ like a six-pack.”
“Well, there’s what they call an eighth – that’s three and a half grams for $300 dollars. You get half a gram for free.”
Clem smiled and counted out the money.
Bernie again went around the corner. He again went up the four flights of tenement stairs. He again knocked on a door.
“Nanook, it’s me, Bernie.”
Once inside, “I need an eighth, here’s the $225.”
This time he got something like a tablespoon of powder in a tiny zip lock bag. He again asked for a small piece of aluminum foil and some sugar. Bernie poured about half of the cocaine onto the aluminum foil and wrapped it up. He then sprinkled sugar into the zip lock bag to replace the pilfered weight. He squished the bag around a little with his fingers to mix it up.
Bernie returned to the bar and delivered the little package.
Maybe a week or so later, Clem and Mel bounced in again.
“Bernie, with that eightpiece, I turned on some friends an’ everybody wants more. I figger I can make myself a good little business sellin’ back home. But I don’t want to hafta keep runnin’ back up thisaways. I wanna make it like a one shot deal. What’s my price gonna be on a good haul?”
“Geez, I could do you an ounce for seven times the price of an eighth. You’d have a whole eighth for your head.”
“Well, the price sounds alright, but I wanna get a lot more than that for this here haul. I don’ wanna have to take a chance of runnin’ up this here’s a way again to maybe next year. I need to get at least a pound.”
Bernie was still trying to figure out in his head how much seven times three hundred fifty dollars was, when Clem said this.
Bernie suddenly had trouble breathing.
“Why, sure. I’m gonna need a pen and paper to figger out how much you gotta give me.”
“Bernie, that’s another thing we gotta talk about. How long you figger it’s gonna take you to like load up the truck?”
Bernie tried to think fast.
“You’re gonna be back up this way next week? That should be OK.”
“I’ll have the cash with me then. We’re talkin’ about two heavy sacks here. It’s gotta be a trade one for the other right over the table.”
– – –
All week Bernie thought it over. Nobody would give him anything on the arm, not even a gram. Anyhows, these fish had just about played out all the line. It was time to set the hook.
– – –
The air seemed to be getting thicker and thicker all day. As Bernie approached the bar, everything took on a strange sharp focus. The tractor was parked outside. Bernie opened the door and walked into the smoky room. Clem and Mel were there. Clem looked up immediately. Bernie walked over to them.
“You see the old garage across the street. Drive your truck inside. I’ll be right over.”
Bernie walked slowly down the street. In a failed attempt to appear nonchalant he whistled. It wasn’t every day that Bernie — shoulder length hair, moustache, patched blue jeans and Lead Zeppelin t-shirt — carried a brief case.
Bernie walked into the garage and put the briefcase on top of one of the tractor’s big wheels. He popped the brass snaps and opened the briefcase to reveal a plastic bag filled with white powder.
“OK, Clem, too many people know about this deal. Give me the money and let’s go.”
Overhead, a window shattered into thousands of pieces. A khaki-clad figure swung down on a rope and tackled Bernie. Sirens blared. A straight job truck screeched into the garage and actually banged into the tractor, bouncing the brief case up into the air. What seemed like a gun-toting football team swarmed into the garage. Police cars with lights flashing filled the street outside, actually climbing right up onto the sidewalk.
The federal agents snapped cuffs and leg irons onto Bernie, lifted him like a sack of potatoes and threw him onto the back seat of a car. The door slammed shut and the car took off. About fifteen minutes later, they arrived at the federal building in Newark. A tornado of hands dragged Bernie out of the car and half pulled and half shoved him through a door. Clem was standing in the hall, now with a badge and ID hanging on a chain around his neck.
Clem roared, “Get this garbage outta here! Bring ‘im back to Hudson County!”
The hands spun Bernie around 180 degrees. Again, he was half pulled and half shoved forward. The back door of the car opened. Bernie became airborne and again landed on the seat. The wheels screeched and the vehicle sped away.
Maybe fifteen minutes later the car halted. There was a clink-clink-clink of a chain on a large sprocket followed by a heavy metallic rattling noise. It was a familiar sound. The security gate of the delivery entrance of the Hudson County Jail opened. Bernie was back home.
The feds drove into the lot. They waited for the security gate to close. The agents pulled Bernie out and removed the cuffs and shackles.
A couple of correction officers stood by laughing. They took custody of Bernie, securing him with a pair of county jail hand cuffs.
Bernie was thoroughly confused.
“Marty, Jake what’s going on here? I get pinched. I get hauled off to God only knows where. I get the boot and ricochet back to the County. What’s the story?”
The guards were overcome with laughter.
“Selling a pound of talcum powder to a DEA agent is a crime, but it ain’t no federal case. You’re gettin’ charged with theft by deception. You’re in luck Bernie. It’s probably gonna be time served, again — as usual.”