PHILADELPHIA—Rick Bastone, 31, an officer with Philadelphia's 23rd Precinct, has gained newfound respect for America's hard-working drug dealers ever since going undercover to sell narcotics.
"I had no idea how tough this was," said Bastone, standing on a dilapidated corner in 20-degree weather while awaiting a cocaine drop-off Monday. "I guess I imagined it being like in the movies: drinking champagne, hot-tubbing with honeys, and cruising in customized Escalades while watching the cash roll in. But here I am, freezing my ass off. I've got to say, these drug-dealing scumbags really earn their pay."
Assigned to the PPD's undercover narcotics division on Feb. 22, Bastone said he expected his life as a drug dealer to be glamorous and hedonistic. His preconceptions were shattered after just a few days of grueling, firsthand experience.
"I thought being a cop was hard, but it's not half as hard as being a pusher," Bastone said. "You're hustling on the streets all day, then going to parties at night to build up clientele. And it's not like you can enjoy yourself at these parties. When you're there, you're networking and sizing up competitors and setting up deals. There's hardly a second to breathe, much less get your swerve on."
Unlike law enforcement, Bastone said drug-dealing is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job.
"My best customer knocks on my door at all hours whenever he's in need of a heroin fix," Bastone said. "I'd love to tell him to get lost, but he'd probably just go to someone else's corner and take his contacts with him. Then there's the constant pressure to sell: I've got to keep upping my purchases from my distributor, or else they'll give my corner to someone else. Christ, I need a vacation."
Dealing drugs, Bastone said, also demands a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise.
"First, I had to have the metric system down cold," Bastone said. "Then, I spent almost two weeks learning the weight of a gram of coke by feel. Plus, you have to always stay on top of the current street lingo, which is constantly changing—and not just the drug slang, but slang for everything from currency to getting a drink. Cops don't have to know any of that."
Contributing to Bastone's stress level is his growing distrust of Gary "Muffinhead" Yarbo, a small-time, oft-incarcerated dealer used by the PPD as a means to help undercover officers enter the drug scene.
"I've always got to keep one eye on what I'm doing and one eye on Muffinhead," Bastone said. "I know he won't rat me out on purpose, but he's not the brightest guy. Just one slip-up, and I've either ruined months of backbreaking work on the street or I'm a dead man. Man, all this, and you don't even get health insurance."
Heidi Bastone, the officer's wife, has noticed the change in her husband's view toward those on the other side of the drug war.
"Rick always used to talk about 'the lazy drug dealers,'" Heidi said. "Not anymore. He's always talking about how amazed he is that guys like [local cocaine kingpin] Dean 'Powder' Edwards have been doing this for 20 years. I really don't think Rick can last another six months, so hopefully he'll have a solid case built by then. I sure hope so. I don't think I can stand much more of his bitching about how he spent all day hauling around kilos of uncut Colombian."