FACES OF THE GONE
I was escorted up a flight of steps, and from the creaking I could guess it was a typical specimen of Newark's mostly wooden, mostly dilapidated housing stock. Once inside, I was led to a room and made to sit on a sofa that felt and smelled like expensive leather.
"Mind if I take off this blindfold?" I asked, but didn't get an answer.
I heard the door open and could sense the lights dimming. I felt someone come up from behind me and untie the knot on my blindfold. Except when the bandanna came off my face, I couldn't see a damn thing: Someone was shining a huge flashlight in my eyes.
"You have got to be kidding me," I said. "You guys saw this in a movie once, right?"
"I thought I told you this wasn't no comedy club," said my friend, who was the one holding the flashlight.
"Look, guys, I just need a little information here. Can we drop the KGB act?"
My friend looked over to someone else, who must have consented, because the flashlight switched off. As soon as my eyes adjusted, I saw I was in a faintly lit room, surrounded by members of the 1987 Cleveland Browns. Or at least with guys wearing their retro uniforms. No. 34, Kevin Mack, was my friend, the one who approached me on the street. The big guy, the one who had picked me up, was wearing No. 63, an offensive lineman's number. Was that Cody Risien? Could be. He was the only offensive lineman from that team I could remember.
And the one who appeared to be the leader was wearing No. 19. Bernie Kosar.
"How you know Tee?" Bernie Kosar asked.
"I wrote a story about him once. We've been buddies ever since."
"Yeah? Tee says you alright."
"I try to be," I said.
I furtively glanced around to get a better sense of my surroundings. It was a good-sized room, expensively furnished with the spoils of the Browns' prosperity. The sofa was a never-ending sectional that felt sturdier than the house it sat in. There was a massive flat-screen TV directly in front of me, a similarly enormous fish tank to my right and floor-to-ceiling boxes against the wall to my left.
"So what you want with the Browns?" Bernie asked, making some kind of quick hand gesture when he said the word "Browns," almost as if he was a Catholic genuflecting after the Lord's prayer.
"Well, I want to know a little about Devin Whitehead."
"Man, we ain't got nothing to do with that," Bernie said. "How come everyone thinks we did it?"
"Well, he used to run with you, didn't he?"
"So..." my voice trailed off.
"Yeah, but he hadn't run with us in a long time," Bernie said. "He went to jail and when he got out he didn't want nothing to do with us no more."
"Yeah, why is that?"
Bernie looked at Kevin Mack and Cody Risien, sharing some silent communication. Then he turned back to me.
"So tell me something, Bird Man: You like to party?"
I laughed despite myself.
"Are you asking me if I want to smoke pot?" I said.
"What if I was?"
"I'd say I hope you have a lighter because I left mine at home."
Bernie produced a lighter and marijuana cigarette that was the length of my hand and the thickness of my thumb. It could have almost doubled as a nightstick.
"My God," I choked. "Are we going to watch 'Pink FloydThe Wall' after this?"
No one laughed. So I lit the end and took a drag, holding the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could bear, then handed off to Kevin Mack. I had smoked maybe half a dozen times in my life, and not at all since college. By the third pass, I already felt like my head was a helium balloon floating on a string, somewhere above my shoulders.
"Damn," I said. "This is smooth."
"We grow it ourselves," Bernie said, proudly.
"In the basement. We got the high intensity sodium chloride grow lights, the heating mats for optimal germination, the liquid seaweed fertilizer. The fertilizer is keyit packs some high-quality nitrates, yo. Nothing but the best. That's pure, hydroponic pot you're smoking, Bird Man."
"You guys must make a fortune off this stuff," I said, taking another hit.
"Naw, man, this is just for us," Bernie said. "We don't sell it."
"Come on, cut the crap," I said, blowing out a large cloud of smoke. "How many hits do I have to take before you believe I'm not a cop?"
"Naw, man. I'm serious. That's why Dee-Dub left us. While he was in jail, we switched operations. We don't sell drugs no more."
"Really? So how can you afford all this?" I said, looking around the room.
"C'mere, I'll show you," Bernie said.
I tried to rise from the couch, but as soon as I got about halfway up, my buzz caught me and took me out at the knees. Suddenly the room got slanty. I could feel myself going over and made an attempt to stay upright, but my legs wouldn't bear any weight. I staggered one step, two steps, then lost it, slamming into the wall of boxes as I went down. Several of them came toppling over on my head, spilling their contents on the floor.
The Browns thought this was hystericalthe white man who couldn't handle his weed. As they were high-fiving and enjoying my distress, I sat there dumbly, staring at what had slipped out of the box. It was DVDs of a new Adam Sandler movie, one that wasn't even out at the box office yet.
"What the..." I started, and then it dawned on me. "Bootlegs? You guys sell bootleg movies?"
"Hell yeah," Bernie said, still laughing a little. "There's more money in bootlegs than there is in drugs. Every brother in this city wants to sell you drugs. So now a dime bag of dope goes for six, seven bucks. A bootleg movie goes for five, and ain't no one blow your head off because you selling bootlegs on their corner. Plus, a whole lot more people in this city watch movies than do dope. Hell, most of them are afraid to go out at night because of the dope, so all they do is watch movies."
"I'll be damned," I said, feeling so high I was unsure if the whole thing was real.
"Yeah, and the Newark cops don't bother us none," Bernie said. "Bootlegging movies is a federal crime. It's FBI business. And the FBI, man, once they figure out you ain't a terrorist, they ain't interested. So we got the best of all worlds: Less competition, more demand, no police."
A sound business model. I was impressed.
"So why wouldn't Dee-Dub want a piece of this?" I asked.
"I don't know. When he got out of the joint, he was all hot about this new source he had for smack. Kept talking about how it was the best in the world."
"How long ago did he get out?"
"Dee-Dub? Like a year ago?" Bernie paused and looked to Kevin Mack, who nodded.
"Yeah, a year ago," Bernie said. "He was all fired up. He said this stuff could make us all rich. And I'm like, 'Yo, dawg, we already getting rich selling bootlegs. And ain't nobody shooting at us.' But he wouldn't hear it."
"So you let him go?"
"Man, this ain't slavery. If he don't want the Browns, the Browns don't want him," Bernie said, and suddenly all three were genuflecting again. "He had been doing his own thing for a while. Make sure you put that in your article because I'm sick of people talking bad about us. The Browns didn't have nothing to do with this."
I knew I should ask more questions, pump them for as much information as I could. But my usual journalistic vigor and innate curiosity was being sapped by one simple thing:
I was as high as the Himalayas.
© Brad Parks