"The Bluff Will Suck You In."

Oct 27, 2013

This is part of a partnership between WABE and Creative Loafing looking at Atlanta's non-profit sector entitled "The Heavy Lift." Claude's story is part of a feature in that series on the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center's needle exchange program.  

“Ninety-two, thirty-four,” rattles off 59-year old Claude (we're only using his first name due to the nature of his story) as he steps into the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition’s Ford E350 “Super Duty” RV.

A person holds "dirty" syringes outside of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition's mobile needle exchange van. The needle exchange is illegal under Georgia law.
Credit Joeff Davis / Creative Loafing

For tracking purposes, the non-profit collects clients’ zip codes and the last four of their social security numbers. 

Claude knows the drill. 

Unprompted, he drops a pile of used insulin syringes on top of a biohazard collection bin the size of a college dorm refrigerator. “Fifteen of ‘em,” he says.

For bringing those fifteen “works,” he’ll leave with 20 clean ones.  The whole transaction takes 38-seconds.

Claude estimates that cache will last him a week.  But if money’s tight and he’s short on heroin (pronounced “hair-won” around here), he’ll sell up to half of them. 

How much he gets depends on the time of day.

If the sun’s shining, the going rate is about $5 per needle. As the night goes on and people get more desperate, the price shoots up to $15.

Claude’s more of the $5-dealer he says.  “I try to help them to help me.”

Heroin, cocaine and speed balls—a mix of the two—those are Claude’s indulgences.  And the only things easier to get than clean needles are the drugs to put in them, Claude says. “Every corner. Woman, man… it doesn’t matter.”

That includes Claude himself most days.

He doesn’t immediately come right out and say “I’m a heroin dealer,” although he soon transitions into using the first person to answer my questions.

I later witness him sell a bag.

Deals normally happen in the open-air here, in plain sight, right on the corner. Even though Claude knows I’m not a cop, he’s still nervous I’m standing so close.  Reporter or not, a white guy with red hair isn’t the norm here.

Unless it’s someone like me driving in to score some boy—another name for the drug.   

“Every white person coming through here, they’re buying dope,” he says matter-of-factly. 

In that scenario, Claude sees me as an opportunity, not a threat. And like a half-dozen others hanging out on the corner of James P. Brawley and Cameron Alexander, he’ll chase my car in hopes of attaining a new customer—and him a day’s worth of dope.

“I sell you a dime bag for $50,” he says, explaining how the transaction works.  Normally a dime bag is $10. Claude will tell you it’s a quarter-bag.  “You’ll take it because you don’t know.”

Claude keeps $40 worth of heroin, while the white transient rolls off with $10 worth.  And his cell phone number.

“You’re gonna call me, because you know I didn’t cheat you that time,” he explains.

Yes, he’s cheated you in quantity.  But not quality.

Claude explains some dealers sell guys who look like me a rock—an actual rock off the ground—and claim its pure heroin.

Not him. At least most of the time.

“I give them real dope and let them taste it right then and there,” he says. “And they know it’s real heroin.”

Claude usually pays a higher-level street dealer $80 for a gram. 

If his customer’s white, he’ll pocket four times that.

“Everybody’s happy,” he says. “There’s enough money for everybody.”