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Crackonomics in Baltimore

D. Watkins’ smoldering new memoir narrates the economics of selling drugs in post-industrial Baltimore.

By Colette Shade


The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir. (Photo: Hachette Book Group)

In The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, writer and journalist D. Watkins describes how he became the leader of a successful Baltimore drug crew — and ultimately escaped. The writing is at turns tragic, thrilling, and funny, and seethes with righteous anger all the way through. Watkins has a great ear for Baltimore dialects, which fellow Baltimoreans will surely appreciate. But perhaps the best part of the The Cook Up is the way it illustrates the paradoxes of the United States’ economic system.

Americans have long embraced the idea that the the best market for our country is an unbridled free market. Exponents of the free market explain that the government should not make employers pay a living wage or tax businesses for moving their companies overseas. The government should not step in to stop discriminatory hiring practices either. If a company does not hire many black people, it is the company’s business, so long as they don’t explicitly discriminate based on race.

Despite the American love for laissez-faire capitalism, many Americans also believe that drugs should be illegal, and that people who sell them should go to jail. But in poor neighborhoods like the one Watkins comes from in East Baltimore, there are few jobs to be had outside the illegal drug trade.

It is the unrestrained free market that makes these neighborhoods so poor, and causes the illegal drug trade to proliferate. The steel, automobile, and shipbuilding factories that once supplied Baltimore with legal, living-wage jobs have all shut their doors as manufacturing has moved overseas. The few legal jobs that are still available pay so little that the people working them still live in poverty. And black Baltimoreans often face racial discrimination when looking for work.

As maligned as the illegal drug trade is by most Americans, it is not so different from most legal industries. Running a successful drug operation requires market research, personnel management, accounting, and business planning.

“I spent the time planning, scouting locations, and building a crew — shit that corporations do,” Watkins writes. “Shit corporations do” might as well be the book’s subtitle. At times, the book feels like a looking-glass version of a Jack Welch or Sheryl Sandberg memoir, where the goods sold aren’t electronics or Facebook shares, but cocaine, crack, and heroin.

How different, really, is drug dealer philanthropy from the philanthropy of Dupont, or the Walton Family Foundation, or the Shell Foundation, which use money earned by poisoning, impoverishing, and polluting communities to give back to those very communities?

“Dope, like cocaine, or Coke or Pepsi, McDonald’s, Twinkies, Taco Bell, and everything else that will kill you needs to be branded right,” Watkins writes. “It needs a strong, catchy name attached to a gimmick that will get the streets excited. Branding was my favorite part.”

Watkins names his crack Rockafella, after Jay Z’s record label. Tens of thousands of dollars roll in as Rockafella gains market dominance on his block.

But unlike a corporation, a drug crew cannot look to legal channels when problems arise. Instead, problems need to be settled with violence. When a neighboring drug crew sells counterfeit Rockafella, one of Watkins’ employees tracks down the dealer responsible and pistol-whips him. There is no patent office for crack. A pistol-whipping is the black market version of a trademark violations suit.

Like any industry, the drug industry acts as a stimulus to the local economy. Drug bosses employ local people as dealers, lookouts, runners, and shooters. Many of them might not otherwise be able to get jobs because of their race or criminal records. Working for a drug crew not only gives them a job, but pays them enough money to have disposable income, which gets circulated back into the otherwise depressed local economy. This money supports legal local businesses, including car dealers, streetwear retailers, and a woman named Miss Angie who sells home-cooked meals out of her kitchen. Drug money buys essential goods, durable goods, and non-durable goods.

“You’d think hustlers like us hurt the community but at least we shared the money and employed people,” Watkins writes. “We legitimately had a great product and sold it to customers who wanted it.”

The Cook Up’s most provocative moments might be when it frames drug dealers as black-market philanthropists. Watkins describes using his drug money to treat the children in his neighborhood to ice cream, new Jordans, and trips to the local go-kart track. When Miss Angie’s landlord raises her rent, Watkins gives her $15,000 in cash to pay for it.

Watkins understands that drugs — and the violence needed to maintain a successful drug business — are plundering his community. Yet his drug profits allow him to perform acts of philanthropy in that same community. I kept thinking about Peter Singer’s theory of effective altruism, which argues that the most moral thing a person can do is make as much money as possible and then give it away. And how different, really, is drug dealer philanthropy from the philanthropy of Dupont, or the Walton Family Foundation, or the Shell Foundation, which use money earned by poisoning, impoverishing, and polluting communities to give back to those very communities?

The Cook Up doesn’t attempt to excuse the drug trade, nor to glamorize it. Watkins takes pains to illustrate the many hardships of the drug dealer’s life — long hours, dead friends, the ever-present dual threats of cops and rival drug crews. After Watkins quits the drug game, he loses most of his assets in a raid.

The book closes on a note of atonement, with Watkins setting out on his path to become one of Baltimore’s preeminent voices. He goes back to school to become a teacher, and begins to read voraciously. For the past decade, he has been teaching, reading, writing, and accumulating degrees — a B.A. in history and MFA in creative writing from the University of Baltimore, a master’s in education from Johns Hopkins University. Now, he helps kids in his community via service, not drug philanthropy. But as long as the economic forces that shaped his Baltimore remain, he’ll be fighting an uphill battle.