Tony the Tiger

by Maxim Hurwicz

In high school I had a grand plan. I would work and save up enough money to go to India. There I would lose my virginity and generally do everything I had never dared to do within a thousand miles of my parents. One night at dinner, my mother mentioned that my father had signed a contract to teach in India the next year. What a stroke of luck! Sigh. So I decided to go to college in Hawaii and become a marine biologist instead. My parents had to go to India anyway. My brother and sisters congratulated me on finessing them to the other side of the globe.

The college classes in Hawaii were boring. I started to go down to the tourist strip by Waikiki Beach and sit around and draw. I didn't know anyone. One day I was sitting on a bench and two other strangers were chatting behind me. One fellow said "If I had sixty dollars I could buy those reds and turn around and sell them for a hundred dollars." I didn't know what "reds" were, but it sounded like a good business deal. So I turned around and said "I've got sixty dollars." They turned a bit white and then looked me over. The idiot who had needed sixty dollars started to talk with me and we wound up as partners in dealing drugs. We never did buy the reds, but he managed to buy some hash and taught me to smoke it. His name was Cory.

Somehow he introduced me to a dealer named Mussy. I liked him a lot. He seemed very smooth. Lots of people were always in his little cottage. I guess the main reason he had so many repeat customers was because he was a heroin dealer. And an addict. But he seemed like a regular fellow to me. Perhaps it was my chatting about my life savings that made him favor me. Maybe he just liked me, too. Later on I realized I was the only non-addict around him, except his son and baby daughter.

So when he suggested I give him all my money to hold so we could be partners, I handed it over. When he suggested I hock my two complete sets of brand new scuba gear, I did that too. He said he'd redeem it all before the end of the month. I was a bit worried, but I was happy to have so many new friends.

One day Cory, the reds dealer, suggests buying a pound of grass or something and I say Mussy, the heroin dealer, has the money. He got really upset and said I couldn't trust Mussy. He might just steal all my money. That hadn't ever occurred to me. Maybe Mussy was a con man! So I went to Mussy and said I needed the money back to make another deal. He said he couldn't give me the money, and my heart sank. But he wasn't mean or anything. He wasn't laughing in my face and kicking me out. He obviously still liked me. That was a bit of a relief.

He problem, he explained, was that he had buried the money in a coffee can in the bushes so nobody could steal it. And now he couldn't dig it up because the police were observing his house. If he went digging, they'd bust him and take the money away. I suggested he could show me where to dig, but he didn't think I should do that. I should just wait until he thought it was safe.

Over the course of the next 10 months or so we became close friends and partners. He spread the rumor that we were brothers. It didn't seem to puzzle anybody that he was a Mexican-American and I was a Polish-Scandahoovian. I guess Hawaiians are kind of used to mixed marriages. Anyway, it was lucky for me because the police were always after him because they hated heroin dealers. I was just a little fish. They wanted to bust all the dealers, but mostly him. The police ignored me while they gathered evidence on him. As if they didn't want to show their hands by busting me.

Mussy's wife, Pam, explained that not too long before I showed up he had been the biggest dealer on the island. It was never clear to me how they had gone from being rich and perpetually stoned to poor and and scraping around for twenty dollars for a fix. Sometimes I almost didn't believe them when they told these stories, but you have to believe your friends until fate proves otherwise.

I gradually learned the ropes of being a small-time, urban pot dealer. I never did even try heroin. I never really wanted to, and Mussy and Pam were very protective of me. When any heroin came in, they immediately either cut and resold or used it themselves. There was really no danger of narcotics being where I or the children could get curious.

One morning around dawn I was sitting on their front porch drawing, and Mussy comes up the front steps. We go inside and he sits on the couch with one bleeding palm facing up, a long slash oozing dark blood. He explained how, after drinking a bottle of cheap wine and throwing up in the bushes, he had had an argument with some tough guy. Somehow a fight started and Mussy took a knife away from him by grabbing the blade. He didn't want to brag, but he had beaten this guy so thoroughly that we would never have to worry about him plotting revenge on us. I really felt like a part of the family as he talked about "us", which I could feel included me. Mussy said, "I never start a fight, but I always finish it." Pam asked if he had been seeing some prostitute, but he said his hand was really beginning to ache and he had to bandage it right away. I had never known anybody like this guy, except in the movies. He never cracked.

Then the most amazing thing of all happened. I had gotten used to the daily humdrum of drawing pictures, talking with customers as I went around, and always losing money. Up until then I had never turned a profit on any deal I had ever made. I can't really remember why. Maybe I smoked all the profits with friends. Maybe I just couldn't bring myself to bargain with the other dealers who were really my best friends.

Anyway, the most amazing thing that happened was that one day Mussy asks me "What do you think happened to that money you gave me last Fall?" I wanted to say, "You probably shot it up your arm, you big dope." You can probably tell I was no longer the naive Minnesotan who had felt so lost coming off the plane almost a year before. But the truth was I had completely forgotten about the money. Life had just become too beautiful and touching since then.

"Well," he explained, puffing out his chest, leaning slowly back, gazing up and chewing on a straw, "I gave it to a serviceman who went to 'Nam. He bought eight ounces of heroin for me -- for us -- and he just came back and passed it to me." This was great news! As long as Mussy and I had been partners, he had always had big plans for a systematic, non-bustable dope peddling business. But so far we had been competing with all the other dealers for whatever became openly available. Eight ounces of 90% pure heroin would cut down to, it's been a long time so I don't really recall the percentages, but it would turn into a couple pounds of product. And then the packages we sold, the hits, were some minuscule weight. We had enough dope to last for years. It's how the Beverly Hillbillies felt. Or how their banker, Milton Drysdale, felt.

So he takes out this bottle of baby powder. Pam and I and the kids gather round wide-eyed. He's moving like a diamond cutter as he takes off the top and pours it all into a tray. He tastes a little as Pam shifts nervously. Like a family of lions around a kill, she waits for her mate to signal her to have her share. Mussy frowned a little and something is wrong. It turns out the dope who bought and smuggled the dope had been paranoid, and after he put the heroin in the baby powder bottle, he filled it to the top with real baby powder. This was back when baby powder was made with talc, a mineral, not corn starch. It wouldn't've been so bad, but it all got mixed together and now we had lilac scented heroine. At least it smell fresh.

Mussy selflessly injected it in his own arm as a ginea pig as we all held our breath. He didn't drop dead. His eyelids drooped halfways, his eyes glazed over lovingly, he rubbed his nose as if he couldn't quite find it on his face, and looked like he was trying to talk. If you could numb Mussy's mouth, it had to be good dope. So Pam got off immediately. Then we set about making little packets for sale.

Mussy took me along that evening to make the rounds and start our new business -- the real beginning of my narcotics training. We went over to a little cottage and were let in by a friendly-looking fellow. We walked through a dark living room into a small kitchen. Our first experimental customer was a short, stout guy, named Tony. I think he was from Tonga, a south sea island. I remember these Tongans who literally had fun by bouncing each other of the walls in play fighting. They had arms like watermelons and chests like a big computer monitor. All muscle and it didn't seem to me like they thought too much.

Mussy sat down in a chair by the refrigerator and I stood in the doorway. Tony was across the room facing me. We handed Tony a sample packet. I was all on edge. Would he buy it? Could he smell the perfume? Were we on our way to some exciting narcotics empire?

He opens it, tastes it, and for some dumb reason he sniffs it. I really didn't think he would do that. Rats. He says something critical about it and sets it on top of the fridge. Well, the fridge had an oscillating fan on it that I hadn't paid any attention to and it oscillated and suddenly foosh, the powder and paper blew off into the air. We all three look at each other. Tony steps back and rests his huge beefy arm on a towel rest. He says "Sorry, brudda. I'm not payin' for it." I look at Mussy, and I can see he wants to disagree and get the money, but he doesn't say anything.

So here I am. I'm no fighter. Never been in a fight in my life. There's Tony, obviously not suggesting any solutions, and Mussy, well Mussy never starts a fight, but he always finishes it. I take a deep breath. Guess I'll have to start it, and Mussy can do clean up.

I look Tony right in the eye and say, in a really odd little crackly voice, "It's your fault."

The next thing I know I'm waking up in the living room. I'm laying on a thin mattress, lifting my head to look over into the eyes of some fourteen year old groupie who goes right back to sleep. I look up and Mussy and Tony are walking over to me. Nobody looks hurt at all. I thought Tony had punched me but later I found out, from Mussy I guess, that he had kicked me in the throat hard enough for me to sail a good eight or ten feet, into the next room. Good thing I was standing in that doorway or I think I would've become part of the wall. I couldn't talk at all. My vocal cords were pretty well compressed. Tony reaches down and helps me up. "You shouldn't oughta said dat, brudda," he says in a friendly, educational tone of voice.

As I got up and left, all I could think was "Tony the Tiger. Tony the Tiger. Tony the Tiger."

I pretty much lost my remaining interest in dealing within a couple months when Mussy got busted, sentenced to five to ten and he and his whole family split the island between the sentencing and when it was to commence. I don't know what happened to the rest of the heroin. We never made any money, and I'm just as happy we never did. I went back to Minnesota just as Fall was turning to Winter. I joined a yoga temple, stopped doing dope, became a celibate vegetarian, and gave away everything I owned, except my sleeping bag, paper, and drawing pens.

Copyright 2002 by Maxim Hurwicz.

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