The cops are pumped up and screaming and it's a million degrees outside, but when they fly through the door, the crackheads freeze. The last one in is a skinny guy who's not even wearing a bulletproof vest--novelist Richard Price.
"I have my notebook out like a crucifix," says Price, demonstrating his faith in the almighty written word. Price is talking fast and he's teetering on the edge of a chair in a place as far removed from the Jersey City projects he's talking about as any place can get--his room at the elegant Four Seasons Hotel.
Price, a screenwriter with "Sea of Love" and the Oscar-nominated "The Color of Money" to his credit, is talking about his three-year run with the cops, drug dealers and denizens of the urban projects. Last stop was his big new novel, "Clockers."
"These cops are so enraged and they're so fed up and they're looking at this crowd all looking at them, and the cop that leads this raid sees this woman, she's pregnant, big belly, and he wasn't even aware he was doing this. He took a look at this woman's stomach and went 'phoo,' " says Price, 42, exhaling in disgust.
"Like, here comes another one. And the woman caught the look, and it was like this cop punched her in the face. She understood the subtitles under that look: 'I've gotta arrest this one in 10 years too.' It's like, 'You just accused my fetus of being a future criminal.' "
Price, who mined his youth in the Bronx projects to vault to literary fame with "The Wanderers" 18 years ago, is back on the gritty beat. "Clockers," his acclaimed take on the "roiling caldron of survival" that is ghetto life, places him flush in the center of the recent pop-culture romance with the inner cities.
But much of the cinematic work that has already come out has tended toward hyperbole that relegates the opposing side to cartoon-ish figures. And "Clockers"--which is also marching toward the screen with Price as screenwriter--is unusual in that it tells its tale from two fully developed viewpoints--the black street hustlers and the largely white, suburban agents of the middle class: the police.
Each chapter alternates between the perspective of two protagonists--Strike, a crack dealer casting for respect in a world where drugs are power, and Rocco Klein, a detective on a mission to vindicate Strike's brother, a man he believes is wrongly accused of murder. "Clockers"--which takes its name from a street term for drug dealers--holds up the two adversaries' similarities to the light; Price believes in the healing role of fiction.
"What's been happening in this country between the races is just a lot of finger-pointing. One side yells out, 'The Central Park jogger!' The other side yells out, 'Rodney King!' The other side yells out, 'The guy that was pulled from the truck!' It's like everyone's own victims are the true victims, and the other guy's victims are their own damn fault, and it's deteriorated into this big hideous 'Donahue' show of acrimony. . . .
"The whole premise I'm going in there with is, somebody's got to step across the gap and empathize enough with the other side."
"Clockers" might be the biggest, glossiest fiction coming out on the inner city. The Chicago Tribune hailed it as "this year's most pertinent and timely novel," Time called it "remarkable" and "one of the toughest and grittiest novels of the past few years," and the New York Times called it "bold and powerful."
And Universal's whopping $1.9-million purchase of screen rights propelled Price into the rarefied ranks of writers like Joe Eszterhas, who earned a record-setting $3 million for Carolco's "Basic Instinct" script, and Michael Crichton, who made $2 million from Universal for bestseller "Jurassic Park."
Although the novel "Clockers" is more steeped in ambiguity than your average Hollywood product, it's nonetheless tapping a rich vein of commercial potential--street culture--which has become more compelling to mainstream audiences as problems have spiraled in the inner cities. Authors like Price, who have invested years in such writing projects, are typically cynical about their sudden popularity.
"Now because of Rodney King, everybody is going, 'This is going to be the decade of riots,' and all of a sudden everybody's concerned," Price says. "But they're not. Read that as scared. People's hearts are people's hearts. They don't want to know unless they have to know because it's about to impinge on them."
Indeed, Leon Bing, author of "Do or Die," a book about L.A. gangs, says she couldn't even find a forum for her forays into gang territory in the mid-'80s.
"Not until Karen Toshima was killed in Westwood standing outside a theater, waiting to see a movie--she took a bullet to the head and died in 1988--until that happened, no one had any interest at all," says Bing, who recently canceled a paperback book tour to avoid capitalizing on the L.A. riots.
"It took the horror of a civilian, as it were, being killed in a community where, as I said in my book, privilege was the rule and insularity was the norm. The beast was out of the cage, and that's when people got interested and stuff started hitting the covers of magazines."
Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says the media ripples were stirred by urban economic woes forged by the Reagan-Bush administrations' neglect of the inner cities and the country's shift from a manufacturing to a service economy.
"There's always been this interest in black people, and this comes and goes," Anderson says. "It's almost like a cycle, but at the same time we have these urgent problems and profound alienation and people want to understand that, and writers and journalists are tapping into that."
Unlike the last wave of black films--the "blacksploitation" films of the '70s like "Shaft"--the current crop of books and films are typically steeped in social realism, taking an unflinching look at real life.
"You have black filmmakers writing about their own experiences, their stories," Anderson says. "And this is very important to American culture and society because never before did you ever have such authentic representation of life in the ghetto the way you had with John Singleton's 'Boyz N the Hood' and other films by people who came out of the ghetto."
But debate simmers over distortions that might be forged by the public's appetite for the sensational side of ghetto life--crime and violence.
Mitchell Duneier, a sociologist and author of "Slim's Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity in America," says much of this work perilously ignores the responsible working poor, who make up one-third to two-thirds of any inner-city neighborhood.
"They're people who are crucial to any process of social control or healing in the ghettos," Duneier says. "Unfortunately, the public hasn't seen them in its selective vision. The public has paid more attention to the demagogues, the gang members and drug dealers while the working poor retreat into silence."
But journalist Nicholas Lemann says some black writers feel they must muzzle the bad news.
"There's more pressure on black writers than white writers to not write about the worst side of ghetto life," says Lemann, who is white. "There's a very strong feeling of 'Uplift the race,' as they used to say. It's bad for the race to write about dope addicts and unwed mothers, that this will be to the non-benefit of middle class blacks: 'White folks will think we're all like that.' "
That hardly means that whites are considered the most objective bearers of the ghetto message. Indeed, there's debate on both sides of the color line over whether white middle-class artists and journalists can ever do justice to rendering the black experience. "I don't think they can," says Harlem author Kelvin Christopher James. "If you're white and you live in the ghetto, you can depict life here. This is why it's not a matter of white and black to me. But you can't study the people like Margaret Mead in Samoa. That's what I find inappropriate."
But Terry McMillan, author of "Waiting to Exhale," says an artist's talent can overcome such inequities.
"I don't think black people are the only ones who are capable," she says. "When (white people) get it wrong and they start imposing their own stuff, that's what makes black people angry. That's why so many of us tell our own stories. It's like, wait a minute, we've been more than slaves and prostitutes and police captains. There's a three-dimensional quality to our lives as there is in the white community. . . . The way we see the world may be different, but it doesn't mean you can't put yourself in someone else's shoes. That's what art is about."
Price, who might now be in the curious position of writing one of the best books about the black ghetto even though he's a white writer living the lush life in New York, agonized over whether he had a right to do what he was doing or whether he was engaging in some sort of "cultural imperialism." He ultimately came down on the side of the artist's prerogative.
"The difference between black and white can be romanticized for the sake of political correctness. People's hearts are the same, and if you're going to tell me that because I'm a white writer, my heart is so different from that guy's heart by virtue of the fact that he has a black skin, that I, the white writer, dare not write about his unknowable heart, what does that mean? He's not human like me? . . .
"Because if you follow that reasoning, I don't want to see any black guys writing about white people. I don't want to see any women writing about men. I don't want to see any Christians writing about Muslims. And nobody better write about what it was like to live in the 19th or the 21st Century."
Street life isn't quite that distant to Price. He now lives in SoHo with his artist wife, Judy Hudson, and their daughters, Annie, 7, and Gen, 5, but he grew up in the Bronx projects to overprotective, middle-class parents. After getting his M.F.A. from Columbia, he went home again in spirit for "The Wanderers" (later translated to film by Philip Kaufman), for his second novel, "Blood Brothers," and for his fourth, "The Breaks."
After tapping his youthful memories in two novels about the Bronx, Price made a career out of putting himself in other people's shoes. For his third novel, "Ladies Man," Price, who is straight, stalked gay bars in New York to evoke the homosexual underground. That 1978 effort was hailed as "the best gay book of the year" by gay critic Martin Duberman.
Then Price turned to film and other sorts of lives. "Talent travels," he likes to say. He immersed himself in the world of pool hustlers for "The Color of Money," starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, and in the art world for the "Life Lessons" segment of "New York Stories," both directed by Martin Scorcese.
When his research for "Sea of Love" found him running with the cops, he was back in projects territory. There's another respect in which "Clockers" turf seems like home base for Price. He had his own nasty intimacy with drugs, during his got-rich-quick younger days.
"I was just like some schmuck in 1981 who had too much money and did coke and--surprise!--found out that coke was addicting and became a full-time ass for three years who spent more money than he earned on coke and couldn't put two pages together. It was mortifying. It made me feel bankrupt in every way."
He stopped in the mid-'80s and began teaching creative writing at Daytop Village, a rehab center in the Bronx. There he met kids like his crack-dealer character, Strike.
"I felt like this crack that was coming around (was) just like coke was. Like middle-class stepped-on coke almost wiped me out at 30. With two books and reputation and money, I almost slipped into the sewer.
"At the time, too, the tabloids loved the word crack . Like you couldn't read a story about the weather without crack coming into it. I just got seized by it, and it all got bollixed up like an abstract painting in my head, my own experiences, the fact that with these kids, their lives were so much worse than mine from Square One, and they were doing a drug 10 times more pernicious than the one I fell down on. I was reading these tabloids about the streets I grew up on that were now Crack Avenue and Misery Place. And I had this terrible desire to go home."
Cops introduced Price to prison wardens who sent him to dope dealers who passed him on to Legal Aid lawyers, who would eventually become models for characters in "Clockers."
Price sometimes paid cops and kids as "research associates"--"I never met a cop who hated a nickel because it wasn't a dime"--bought books, got jobs and sponsored a barbecue-track meet for kids in the projects. Some of them were the foot soldiers on the wrong side in the lost war on drugs--the clockers.
"They're out there 24 hours a day. The act of selling drugs can be as addicting as the act of doing drugs because you get addicted to the transaction--cash for bottles. And I've had guys say to me stuff like, 'Man, I'm out there selling so much, making so much money. I gotta go to the bathroom, I hold it in until my stomach is really killing me, because I'm worrying about all that money I'm missing when I'm sittin' on the toilet. Like right now, I'm round the clock, round the clock.' "
When Price replays images so vivid you can practically touch the hearts and minds of the forbidden city, you wonder whether it can ever again be quite the invisible territory it was before.
"It's like Joseph Conrad--there's an image in 'Heart of Darkness' where there's a continent of Africa and he's got this little gunboat and you hear like a tiny pop and this little ball disappears into the continent. It's like, how mystifying . . . a place this continent was (to him), and I just felt like being that cannonball, just disappearing into this continent of drugs and urban survival and I just decided to fall in."