Readings — From the March 2014 issue

Hustle and Flow

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By Alice Goffman, from On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, to be published next month by University of Chicago Press. Goffman, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, spent six years living in Philadelphia’s Sixth Street neighborhood, studying the effects of drug policing and the techniques residents use to avoid arrest.

Rakim, a rotund man in his forties, ran a photo stand in downtown Philadelphia, near the customs office. A large sign reading passport pictures, cheapest in the city welcomed patrons inside. On the first afternoon I went to see him, a mother and her teenage son were sitting in the plastic chairs that formed a small waiting area. They came, she told me proudly, because her son was going to London for his junior year abroad. Ahead of her in line was an employee of a large company, about to spend two weeks in Canada for training. A lawyer arrived next, needing a passport renewal for a vacation in Argentina.

When these customers left, another customer came in, wearing a torn jean jacket. Seeing me, he made a move to leave. Rakim said, “It’s cool, she’s cool.” The man smiled and said, “I wasn’t sure.” He handed Rakim a wad of crumpled bills, and Rakim passed him a small plastic bag full of yellow liquid. The man gingerly accepted the bag and walked into the tiny bathroom. He emerged a few minutes later, nodded to Rakim, and walked out.

Rakim began working at this photo stand in the mid-1990s, when he took over the business from his father. As he told it, the stand did fairly well until 9/11. “People did not want to cross a border,” he explained. “They did not want to get on a plane.” During this slow period, Rakim’s cousin would stop by the trailer on his way back from his weekly parole meetings, since the offices of the Probation and Parole Board are located nearby, and they would catch up for an hour or two. Then one week his cousin came in a day early, visibly upset. He asked Rakim whether he had smoked weed or used any other drugs recently. When Rakim replied that he hadn’t, the cousin begged Rakim for the use of his urine for the test the next morning.

“How would I give you my urine?” Rakim asked.

His cousin explained that he would heat it up at home, put it in a baggie taped to his inner thigh, and release it into the sample cup at the parole office. Rakim agreed, so the next morning his cousin took Rakim’s urine to the parole-office meeting and passed the drug test with it. Later, however, when his cousin asked for the favor again, Rakim told him it would cost twenty dollars. This arrangement went on for some months, until the police caught the cousin driving a car and the judge returned him to prison for the parole violation.

While incarcerated, Rakim’s cousin told a friend about the photo booth, and when this friend was released he stopped by on the way to his parole appointment. News spread, and Rakim’s urine business grew.

I met Rakim through Steve in 2007. At the time, Steve had been trying to complete a two-year probation sentence while battling a serious addiction to PCP. One afternoon, he came back to the block, favoring his left leg and wincing as he walked. When I asked what was wrong, he said simply, “The piss was too hot.” Mike explained that Steve had been buying urine from a guy downtown, and it had burned the skin on his inner thigh, where he had taped the bag.

I asked Rakim about this during our interview, and he knowingly nodded his head. “I had trouble with the temperature at first. Guys were burning their legs because the coffee warmer was too hot. I had to keep antibiotic ointment and gauze bandages in here because guys were coming back with their skin peeling off on the plastic bag. So I got one with an adjustable temperature, and I keep it at a hundred degrees. Problem solved.”

A year into this side business, Rakim had three coffee heaters going and was contracting out to two women to provide supplemental urine. He told me he didn’t know of anyone else who sold urine for use at this probation and parole office, noting that you needed a place where people could come inside and safely “put on” the urine. “So if you’ve got a hot-dog stand, a lottery and magazine stand, you can’t do this.” He explained that most guys on probation or parole get urine from relatives or partners, but that this was an unsatisfactory solution: “Your girl can always give you her piss, right, but you’ve got to take it from West Philly, North Philly, all the way downtown. You’ve got to carry it on the bus, keep it warm, keep the bag from breaking. And then, you never know if the urine is clean. Your girl says she’s not using, but you can’t watch her every second. Maybe she doesn’t want to tell you she’s been using, so she gives you the urine and hopes it will come back okay. Then you’ve got problems with your PO and problems in your relationship. You’re back in jail, you’re blaming her, now y’all are on bad terms. . . . If you come to me, you don’t have any of that. Hell, I sometimes have women come to me for their boyfriends! Because they don’t want him to know what they’re doing, you know? So they buy it from me and give it to him like it’s theirs.”

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  • Alan

    That’s a very interesting story, told with humor and wit. Looking forward to the book.

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