I present this possibly apocryphal narrative (published in ESQUIRE) without moralizing . . .
Speaking of the slow pace of change, I [author John H. Richardson] recently talked to Billie Holiday’s drug dealer. He said I could call him Pat. “Don’t put my last name in there,” he ask me. “I know too many people.”
Since those people had names like Frank Costello, “Johnny” Gotti, and Bugsy Siegal, I’ll oblige.
Pat was skeptical about the chances of drug reform. “I don’t think they’re going to legalize drugs in this country because of the fact that the government is behind it all,” he insists. “You go back in time during the bootleg days, the Kennedys winded up with the eastern seaboard. All the whiskey that came in, they got a percentage. And jail is big money, too — they feed you nothing but beans, rice, and potatoes, and all that money is going in somebody’s pocket.”
Pat said this is a gravelly voice with a New York accent. He’s eighty years old, retired to Florida now. He just had hip surgery, he’s got back problems. But he remembers clear as day how his life of crime began. He was growing up on the east side of Manhattan, up around 110th Street, an altar boy at St. Anne’s. “I came home from school one time, fourteen years old, and found my mother crying in the kitchen. I asked her why. She said, ‘There’s no food in the house.'”
That was the day before Thanksgiving. So Pat put his schoolbooks down and went to meet his friend Chubby. They sat on the milk box in front of the Kennedy store and made plans to rob a deli on the corner of 96th Street.
“There was one of those rotisseries spinning, so Chubby and I got the idea to snatch a turkey. I said, ‘I’ll tap on the glass with this key and tell him I want the oatmeal box on the shelf and when he moves the ladder, I’ll snatch the turkey — and when he chases me, you grab the money.”
Pat still remembers the oatmeal box, which had a black-and-white cartoon of a man in a big hat — and how the deli owner came after him yelling sonavabitch! “I ran from 96th to 110th without stopping — he was gaining on me for a while, plus the turkey was about 22 pounds.”
They cut the turkey in half and both families had a great Thanksgiving, but of course their parents found out and gave them each a beating.
A few years later, Pat started “making deliveries for different people, because they trusted me and I never ratted on nobody.” That’s how he came to meet Billie Holiday.
“I met Billie through Bumpy Johnson,” he says. “I used to go listen to jazz on the west side, at Milton’s [Minton’s] Playhouse. She popped in there one day and I was introduced to her. Somebody said, ‘Pat’s your man, he can take care of you.’ So I sold her like a half-ounce of cocaine. A couple of days later, she called me and I called her back.”
He had a system. He would call her every few days, they’d meet somewhere and have a drink. She’d tell him what she wanted and then they’d meet later to make the deal. Holiday would be dressed in ordinary clothes, slacks and shirts. He liked her. “She was a very warm person. She was kind of heavy, with rosy cheeks. Then after awhile she started losing weight, started looking like a toothpick.”
He knew it was because of the drugs he was selling her, but he never said any words of warning. “No sense lying to you,” he told me. “You don’t say those things when you’re looking to make money. But when you’re sitting behind bars, in your cell-house, you think about those things.”
Pat got arrested for selling a quarter kilo of cocaine in 1950. In 1954, the day after his son was born, he went to prison on a twenty-five-year sentence. He’s also seen drugs destroy members of his own family. “I got a niece that was fooling around with drugs — she would up with a bad needle, she got AIDS, she’s ready to die in any day. I feel bad about that, but what can I do?”
And that’s why — for his dying niece, for Billie Holiday, for the St. Anne’s altar boy who fell for the lure of easy drug money — he thinks the government should finally try something different. “Frankly, I think they should legalize it all,” Pat says. “As far as the heroin, they should allow that to be taken in hospitals, so patients know it’s clean and they’re not going to use any dirty needles and they’re not going to drop dead from an overdose.”
A few years ago, Pat’s wife took all his jazz records in a divorce. But he still listens to Holiday on the radio, and whenever he hears the mournful joy of that unforgettable voice, the memories and the regrets come roaring back. “Not too long ago I was listening to blues, and she came on and sang a song — that song she used to sing about her man. She used to tear me up when she sang that song.”