By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Dec. 23, 2009
At first, in early spring, the business that took over the vacant garage on the alley behind my house seemed like it’d make a good neighbor. Evidently, it required only a blow torch and an air wrench powered via an illegal hook-up off the utility pole. The place hummed: zzzztch-zzzztch, vvvvt-vvvvt, all day long and sometimes into the night. I could see into the garage from my third-floor window, and learned that it worked on cars. With its door yawning open most of the time, it seemed not to have anything to hide.
But soon a fever prompted a series of events that started to change my attitude about the garage. Two o’clock in the morning rolled around and, sleepless blob of warm pus that I was, the ongoing racket boiled me over. One guy was working–zzzztch, vvvvt–and three or four others were playing music and generally having a cussin’ good time. I marched over, ducked under the arm of a guy who tried to block me, and became the textbook definition of the crazy white guy.
They quickly talked me down. The main guy–a giant of a man–was smiling, all mellow, and holding a fat wad of high-denomination cash in his hand, doubled over a finger. “I’m in charge, and I’m telling you right now, if you got a problem, you come to me, and I’ll take care of it.” He introduced himself as Blood, and his sidekick as Red. I went home, thinking, well, that went well.
The cash struck me, though, since I never saw any paying patrons. I put my long-lens camera on a tripod and watched. They were working on nondescript, second-hand cars, installing hidden compartments with electronically activated hydraulic lifts. I started to snap pictures and write down license-plate numbers of cars that frequented the place. I didn’t know what I would do with the information, but I was the homeowner here, and the criminal-renters would have to go.
I drove home in the wee hours one night to find there was no place to park, so I took an illegal space. Blood and Red’s completed inventory had taken over the neighborhood’s once-plentiful parking. I got up to re-park before dawn, and found the inventory–maybe 30 cars in all–was gone. They were doing a brisk business.
One late night in May, the crew was hanging out in front of the garage, smoking blunts and drinking and having a rowdy good time playing craps. The garage door was open, the cars lined up behind them. I called 9-1-1 and gave the operator the address, explaining that they were smoking blunts and gambling in plain view, but the true crime was inside, where they were refitting cars with hidden compartments for delivery of drugs, cash, and probably guns. A passing cop would end up with a major case instead of minor charges. I hung up and went out to my stoop to watch the show.
About a half-hour after the call, a patrol car pulled up to the intersection of the alley, slowed down, turned around, and drove off. That was it.
The next morning, an unmarked police car arrived, and two uniformed cops with portable radios got out and fist-bumped Blood. The three chatted a bit, then the cops got back in their car and drove off.
I realized I couldn’t call the cops on the garage anymore. Though no longer naive, I was very, very scared.
Soon, I contacted the FBI. I met with two agents. I gave them photographs and described what I’d been observing. They tried to persuade me to become a cooperator, to infiltrate the garage, to exploit the friendly terms I’d established with Blood and Red. I went ballistic and profanely refused. They told me that, absent that, it’d be two or three years before they could dismantle the operation.
Meanwhile, Blood and Red menacingly invited me to their Memorial Day cook-out, saying I would be the “guest of honor.” My spacious back yard–once a happy place, with a colorful picnic table and a fire-pit over which many sumptuous meals had been prepared, and where my cats often lounged–became mysteriously and repeatedly bombarded with cinder blocks. For an entire weekend, Blood and Red tried psychological warfare on me, playing one song–“Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown, why is everybody always picking on me”–over and over and over again. Good grief.
I called a retired cop I know, who referred me to a veteran at the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. The HIDTA guy was enthusiastic, and so was I when he said, “Based on what you’re telling me, we can go in there tomorrow.” Then he asked if I’d shared the information with anyone else. When I told him about the FBI, he said, “You told the frat boys? Well, that’ll probably shut us down.” And it did.
So I called a prosecutor I know, who referred me to a Drug Enforcement Administration guy, who told me they’d maybe get to it on a rainy day someday.
At that point, I wasn’t eating properly, I was hardly sleeping, and I was chain-smoking. I had set up a comfortable chair by the tripod on the third floor, along with an oversized ashtray, a glass, and a bottle of Pikesville rye. I was obsessed with the garage, and it wasn’t healthy.
In July, I told a friend in New York about my nightmare, and he suggested I take over his apartment in August while he and his family vacationed. I did, but on the way out of town, I called the neighborhood association president. “At the next meeting,” I begged, “pass a motion that a letter be sent to zoning enforcement about what’s going on at that garage. I don’t think it’s zoned for what’s going on there.”
When I got back in September, zoning had rousted Blood and Red. The garage was empty again, and the alley had returned to safe, familiar normalcy as a comfortable haven for hand-to-hand drug-dealing and strung-out junkies. I breathed a long sigh of relief.