Breaking Bad's bloody blend of Bunsen burners and broken bodies has already won it critical acclaim and a committed fan base, but what we wanted to know is if the series, finishing its run in a few short weeks, has also managed to remain true to its depiction of the drug trade. To find out, we decided to talk to a former drug kingpin.
Cavario H. describes himself as a third-generation hustler and gangster. Growing up in New York City in the seventies, he had a front-row seat as heroin and crack took over the city's streets. In 1980, he made his own entry into the business, starting a crack distribution network that eventually stretched from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1997, he left the life to become a writer and publisher, founding Don Diva magazine and, later, becoming senior editor of Hip Hop Weekly. His autobiography, Raised by Wolves: Inside the Life and Mind of a Guerilla Hustler, came out in 2009, and his second memoir, Old Gangsters and Young Guns, will be published this fall. In the meantime, he's catching up on Breaking Bad.
ESQUIRE.COM: Was there anything in Breaking Bad that struck you as being especially realistic?
CAVARIO H.: They really got the evolution of character. In Breaking Bad, Walter White's morality is changing, because his eyes are being opened to the way the world actually operates as opposed to the way he'd always been made to believe it operates. It was always clear for him: Bad people do bad things and good people don't do bad things, so anybody who does a bad thing is a bad person. And anything that happens to them — like getting an exorbitant amount of time for their crime, or whatever — they're supposed to get that because they're a bad person.
ESQ: But then he starts changing.
CH: White gets exposed to certain extreme conditions. He knows he is not inherently a bad person, but he realizes that, if the circumstances are bad enough, you will do anything. Because the first law of nature is self-preservation. In the first season, he has this conversation with Hank, his brother-in-law. They're drinking beers and he's like, "Isn't it funny, how arbitrary it is? If we were sitting here drinking this in the 1930s, we'd be breaking the law, but now we're not breaking the law. So is it bad or isn't it?"
ESQ: So morality becomes blurred?
CH: Yeah. On Breaking Bad, you see how these people, the worst of the worst, are coming to be. They're adapting. They make one choice, that puts them in a certain circumstance, that leads them to another set of options, from which they choose, that puts them in another circumstance, and provides them with another set of options, and on and on and on. And each time you move forward, the options become more extreme, but to not choose one of them is to choose death.
ESQ: And so Walter evolves.
CH: You remember when Walter steals that barrel of chemicals in the first season? The brother-in-law watches the video and he's like, "Idiots, it's a barrel. You can roll it." But that's the thing: When it comes to chemistry, Walter gets that completely. But with everything else, he's using his common sense. And in some cases, his common sense runs short. He's thought about breaking in, about the chemicals he needs to burn through the lock and all. But now he's got the barrels and he's in fight or flight. He's not the thinking person anymore. Now the idiot is really running the show. That's real. You change. You can't immerse yourself in an environment, especially an environment like that, and remain the same. You're not going to remain the same guy who was teaching chemistry to high-school kids and having little trysts with your business associate's future wife. All of a sudden, now, you're facing your mortality, and you become desperate and you find that there are aspects of your personality that you never had to entertain before.
ESQ: Did you ever see anyone like Walter White?
CH: We used to call these guys weekend warriors, these guys who say, "Man, all that money you're making! If I could just get in there and do that for a couple of days a week for a couple of months, I'll unload all that weed and I'm gone." They don't realize how, when you do one thing, that leads you to have to do another, and once you do that, you have to follow through with step three. And before you know it, you're at step ten. Because, once step one is made, there's no point in not following through, because you haven't gotten what you needed.
ESQ: In your own business, did you ever have to evolve to fit the situation?
CH: As a kid coming from gangs, I had the benefit of the people who came before me, which meant that I didn't have to go through everything and learn everything firsthand. My mom and my dad and everybody who came before me — cousins, uncles — were all involved in an organized criminal endeavor. My parents were what would be classified as Class One narcotic offenders. That's top-end drug dealers. And they were stone-cold killers. In order to further their business, to keep order within their organization, they killed people, if that's what became necessary. My mother taught me to plan ahead. She was an intellectual, and in our home, thinking was required. You had to look at everything from every possible angle. You had to always think about what could go wrong, and you had to think about who the opposition was, whether it was stickup kids or other dealers, or the police. You had to think about what they would do to undermine your operation. And then you had to create contingencies for those possibilities. If it never happened, fine, but if it did happen, you were ready. I followed this in my own business, especially when I expanded into new areas. Each state that I moved into had its own specific dynamics. I always adapted and adjusted my way of moving to wherever I was. But once I got comfortable in that space, I changed the program. I changed how things were done. My particular gift was organization. So wherever I went, I would set up more efficient operations.
ESQ: What were some of the biggest problems you faced?
CH: Personnel problems were the most difficult for me. It was almost instinctive for me to resort to physical force whenever I encountered personnel who wouldn't... acquiesce, you know? They'd say something like, "Why can't we go straight through the problem? Why do we have to go around it?" And I'd be like, "Look, just do what I'm telling you the way that I'm telling you because you're looking to the next point. I'm looking to the next seven points, and where I want to be those seven steps later. I'm not explaining that to you, one, because that's not for you to be concerned with. And, two, because you wouldn't understand it if I did, because you weren't trained to think in this way."
ESQ: Can you give an example?
CH: One time, I opened up in the Bronx, in 1986, and I had a guy inside this apartment. I had had guys operating inside crack apartments before, but there was a consistent problem that was happening with these guys. You'd leave them in the crack house overnight, and at a certain point, the crack prostitutes come and they'd negotiate themselves into the goddamn crack spot, circumventing the security. In a lot of cases, the girl was working for a guy who was waiting to rob the crack spot. I'd heard about this, and didn't want to wait until I experienced it myself. So this one young man that I put into an apartment, when he showed himself to be susceptible to that kind of scenario, I just said, okay, I know what I'm going to do. I told him, "When you go inside, I'm gonna lock you in." Now, at this time, many people were smoking crack in New York. They'd become strung out and wouldn't pay their bills, and the city would put them out. The only way to keep them out was to put these big padlocks on the doors, so it was common to see these big padlocks. So I went and got a big padlock and locked this guy inside, and made a slide so he could pass things in and out. Now, whenever someone came, they would knock on the door and say whatever they wanted. They would slide their money in and he would slide the crack out. When the women started with the, you know, "You in here by yourself, you in here all night, you want some company?" the guy would be like "You see that lock on the door? I can't get out of here, I can't open that door."
ESQ: Sounds like Jesse.
CH: Yeah! And I had to do things like that. I had to create situations where guys just couldn't do the stupid things that they were inclined to do. And you have to contend with that kind of situation far more than you have to contend with the threat of being arrested. Far more. The people closest to you hold the greatest detriment. That's why the dynamic between Walter and Jesse on Breaking Bad is so good. Because that's just got it right. You're rarely going to find somebody you can work with who is going to have any degree of the intellectual process that you have. You have to think for everybody. You have to learn personalities and you have to constantly orchestrate situations that will not allow those personalities to create problems. Because the moment they have a problem, they look to you. Because you're the thinker. You're the boss. You're the leader. That's what Jesse does, right? Every single time, Jesse creates a situation and Mr. White has to correct it. It's almost like he's required to. It's like "Why aren't you fixing this? It's your job to fix things!" And that's a common thing, man. If everybody did what they were supposed to do, the streets would be so much more profitable than they are today.
ESQ: So the big dividing line is between people who can think and adapt, and those who can't?
CH: Yeah. I've interviewed these guys I know in prison. And, even after sitting in prison for fifteen years, they couldn't tell me how they got there. I'd be, like, "Your mom was a teacher's assistant and your dad was a mechanic. So how did the kid who used to go to Sunday school end up with a kingpin drug charge and 26 bodies, because your drugs killed people. How did that happen?" And they're like, "I don't know. I just don't know." And I'm like, "That's a damn shame, man. It cost you your life and you don't know?" If these people got out tomorrow, it wouldn't be too long before they were doing the same thing they were doing before. And ending up in exactly the same place. They never really thought about what got them there. They sat there and said, "Poor me, this is not my life. My mommy was a nurse and my daddy was a mailman. All I wanted to do was make some money. That guy over there, he killed somebody and he's going to get out of here before I do." My thing was, I could always see seven steps ahead. If I was here, I could completely see myself there, no problem. It was a natural thing for me. Most guys saw themselves in a position, and they couldn't see themselves beyond that position. And that's why they stayed at the party too long.
ESQ: You talk about how Walter White goes to a different level. Did you ever recognize when you were going to a different level?
CH: I only really recognized it when I was moving to a different monetary level. Everything else, I'd been immersed in my entire life. I'd always been around extreme violence in my home. I mean, my sister killed my mother's youngest brother when I was a little, little boy. My uncles killed people who I used to call "uncle." All of a sudden, they weren't around anymore and it was like, "What happened?" And I'd be told, "He fucked up. He gotta go. That's what happens when people fuck up. They gotta go." And I'm like, "Oh, okay..."
ESQ: Who are some movie gangsters you thought were on the mark? Who are the best?
CH: Miller's Crossing, top of the list. It spoke to that reality, man. In the world that I grew up in, everybody had a role and whatever that role was, that's what they did. There was no exception to it. It's like, "If I'm an enforcer, I enforce. Whatever you put in front of me, whoever you put in front of me, I'm going to do what I'm charged with doing." You can't afford to have favorites. In Miller's Crossing, everybody does what they do. There are no deviations. If you're a killer, you kill, and it doesn't matter who it is. We can be fine and good and dandy and all that, but if I get a contract on you, you're dead. And you knew that.
ESQ: But Gabriel Byrne's character goes against the program.
CH: Gabriel Byrne's character, he's complicated, but he's real. He survives because his place, or his part, is fluid. He's a killer if he has to be, but he's a con artist if he has to be. He's a hustler when he needs to be, and he's a politician when he needs to be. He's not locked into a rigid position. If you're locked into a rigid position, death is almost assured. You're going to end the way that people in that position end.
ESQ: So it's back to the ability to adapt.
CH: Walter White is like that, too. You remember when he went to see Tuco? That was some ballsy shit, man. He rolls up in his raggedy car and he's like, "Where's Tuco?" So he works his way up in there. Watching it, I thought that he was about to give this guy some more meth, you know? But he's learning that you don't negotiate from a position of weakness. If there's something that you need from someone, you have to be able to explain to them how, in helping you, they help themselves. Otherwise, people aren't going to help you. I figured he'd go in there and say, "Hey, I can make this stuff. Give me my money and I'll give you some more, and we'll make a lot of money." That's a rational way of thinking. But that won't work with an irrational, drugged-out motherfucker. Rationality does not work with irrational people. You have to be able to adapt to their way of thinking, their way of moving. And when Walter White did what he did, it showed that he is a very adaptable character. Whoever wrote that has a real understanding of human nature, even if he doesn't have a real understanding of how the streets work or how the drug game works. He knows how human nature works.
ESQ: Are there any other gangster movies that really hit you?
CH: There are so many, but the ones that really resonate with me aren't the most exciting or dramatic ones. Most people are drawn to the drama and to the extremes of it or whatever, but for the most part, man, it's not like that. It's pretty normal. It's like going into the office, except that, in this office, you deal with a lot of cash, and you might have to straighten out a problem over here or a problem over there. That's really what it's about. These films, the latter ones that have all the hip-hop hyperbole with the violence and the cars and the jewelry, or the older ones, like The Godfather, where they have this family dynamic, where everyone's basically trying to jockey for a new position, that's the drama aspect of it. In the real world, for the most part, people play their part. And movies that depict that, movies that show, for all intents and purposes, these people are just regular people in irregular circumstances, they resonate with me. But people don't seem to appreciate movies that show stuff like that to a real degree.
ESQ: Sounds like Donnie Brasco.
CH: Like Donnie Brasco, bro. Donnie Brasco is another movie I respect for that. For just keeping it normal, man. A lot of that shit is just normal. There are only certain circumstances…When things get broken within the machine, the things that happen as a result — the fixing — the fixing is the stuff where the news and people in normal society, that's what they get exposed to. There was this extreme situation or that extreme situation, and people think that that is the bulk of the lifestyle. Like all that people in the game do is sit around and think about ways of killing people. But that's not it at all, man. It's a business, like any other business. It's about money. And killing people is not going to help the money. That's one of the first things that my mother taught me. She told me when I was about eleven years old, she said, "You can be on the street and make money and do it as long as you like. But as soon as you start killing people, that's when they're coming. Killing leads to violence. Always." Always try to avoid getting into violence. That show is just like The Wire. The Wire is the most realistic and honest depiction of that life that I've ever seen displayed on television. And I know that one for a fact firsthand because I was in Baltimore from the eighties into the mid-nineties. And the people in that show are the former associates and employees of my uncle, Little Melvin. So I know that that show. I know it's factual. It's amazing that they captured it.
Author: Bruce Watson, Esquire
Date: September 4, 2013
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.