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What Does Burke Smoke?

"I thought you would have wanted one of your cigarettes by now," the voice said, like he had all the time in the world. "By the way, purely as a matter of interest,what brand did Wesley smoke?"

"Dukes," I told him. "Same as me."

"Dukes? I am not familiar with—"

"New York has a humongous tax on smokes," I said. "Lots of states do. Contraband creates opportunity. There's major traffic in bringing them up from North Carolina. Tobacco country. 'Dukes,' get it? You buy them from a wholesale jobber down there, truck them up here, sell them for fifty-percent retail, and everybody scores. Doesn't matter what the brand name is—Dukes is what they call smuggled smokes. Me, I smoke whatever's on the truck that month, understand?"

"Certainly. Nothing in your profile indicates a connoisseur's taste, even in something so mundane."

—excerpted from Choice of Evil by Andrew Vachss

© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.


A Cigarette for 75 Cents, 2 for $1: The Brisk, Shady Sale of 'Loosies'

by Joseph Goldstein
Published in New York Times, April 05, 2011

By 8:30 a.m., amid the procession of sleepy-eyed office workers and addicts from the nearby methadone clinic, Lonnie Loosie plants himself in the middle of the sidewalk on Eighth Avenue in Midtown. Addressing no one in particular, he calls out his one-size-fits-all greeting: "Newports, Newports, packs and loosies."

Rarely does a minute go by without a customer stopping just long enough to pass a dollar bill to Lonnie Loosie, known to the police by his given name, Lonnie Warner, 50. They clench the two "loosies" — as single cigarettes are called — that he thrusts back in return.

Soon Mr. Warner's two partners, both younger men, arrive for the day and fan out along the same block. By midmorning, the block to the south is occupied by Carlton, who sells loosies, as does Carlton's younger brother, Norman, 54.

A few blocks north, another man sells cigarettes near a check-cashing storefront. Add to these a few roving vendors who poach territory when they can.

Itinerant cigarette vendors have long been a fixture in some parts of the city, like bodegas that sell individual cigarettes in violation of state law. But with cigarette prices up and the number of smoke-friendly places down, the black market for loosies is now thriving on the streets.

The administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has outlawed smoking in restaurants, bars and playgrounds, and outside hospital entrances. Even city parks, beaches and pedestrian plazas are now off limits to smokers. Then there have been successive rounds of taxes — the most recent one, a $1.60 rise in the state tax in July — that raised the price of a pack of cigarettes to $12.50 at many Midtown newsstands.

"The tax went up, and we started selling 10 times as much," Mr. Warner said. "Bloomberg thinks he's stopping people from smoking. He's just turning them onto loosies."

Mr. Warner and his partners patrol the east side of Eighth Avenue, from 35th to 36th Street. He started out on Seventh Avenue, but eventually moved a block west, in front of Staples at 35th. "You look for the crowd," he said.

Mr. Warner said he believed that the official price was above what many people were willing or able to pay. As evidence, he noted that his customers included office workers from as far south as 32nd Street and as far north as 40th Street — people with good-paying jobs, as far as he can discern.

Mr. Warner said he bought his cigarettes — almost always Newports — for a bit over $50 a carton from smugglers who get them in states like Virginia, where the state tax is well under a dollar a pack. He then resells them for 75 cents each, two for $1 or $8 for a pack ($7 for friends).

Mr. Warner said he and each of his two partners took home $120 to $150 a day, profit made from selling about 2,000 cigarettes, mostly two at a time. Each transaction is a misdemeanor offense.