Q&A with Peter Madsen

Interview: Periscope

The drug dealer has often served as a central figure of inspiration for writers, filmmakers, musicians, but it’s been rare to hear the subject  speak on his own behalf.  Peter Madsen, who has given voice  to panhandlers on the street in New York City through his popular blog Word on the Street New York, is about to release his first book Dealers,  a collection of interviews with drug dealers who are still active in the field.  After moving to New York and being laid off from a media job, he started his blog while he worked as a bike messenger to pay the rent.  His unconventional interview style landed him a book deal with powerHouse Books.  Peter recently talked to Periscope about how this book came about.  Peter recently talked to Periscope about how this book came about.  

You moved here for work, but got laid off from your media job a year later. So you started your blog, right?
There were a bunch of people who I wanted to work with, and Gavin McInnes one of them. So I started pitching stories to Street Carnage.  I was trying to figure out what I could possibly offer as a writer, and thinking that I was never good at being a cool hipster writer.  I did one interview with people on the street and Gavin really encouraged me to keep doing these interviews.  That is how I came to Word on the Street New York and that’s when I decided I wanted to interview New York panhandlers.  I loved all the interactions, which now total two hundred fifty interviews. I love how candid a lot of these people were, they don’t have these filters that we do, they are not worried about the internet. Gavin told me, “if you keep adding them, you will eventually have a book.” Here’s someone that I always wanted to work with telling me that I could  make a book, that was really inspiring. So I created my own website.  I updated a new interview every weekday. I stayed at it for a couple of years.
All the while you were working as a bike messenger?
Yes, delivering packages, envelops, and legal documents.  While I had downtime, I’d go interview people, offering 10 bucks for each interview.
How did you come up with 10 bucks? 10 bucks times 250 interviews, that is a lot of money.
I’d pay some recurring subjects $20. I wanted subjects to feel appreciated and I wanted them to be compensated.
Then you moved to another project of talking to dealers.
I was inspired in college by a lot of books that dealt with drugs and drug dealers. Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn is a favorite book of mine and so is Requiem for a Dream. It is just fascinating to me.  I like the things about the Beats and these years in New York  like 1940’s Times Square. I don’t want to say committing crimes make a person more authentic than civilized society, but these things were exciting to a sheltered kid who grew up on a horse farm in Iowa. 
So you grew up in an environment that was farthest from all that.
I mean, there was plenty of violence and drugs in the small town where I went to high school. Meth is a big problem in Iowa.
Was having drug dealers agree to be interviewed for a book complicated?
It was surprisingly easy to convince the subjects to talk to me.  I think because selling drugs is illegal dealers are secretive, but a person still feels a need to be understood and to express himself in the way that an artist feels compelled to create something.   I masked them  in the photographs and changed their names. I’d give them transcripts and they could cut out anything too identifying.  These were pretty agreeable terms.  I was pleased by how many people said “Yes” right away. A couple of people said “No” and I totally understood.
Could you tell me the favorite moments you had while you worked on the book?
I really enjoyed my interactions with Alex.  I had interviewed him a few times for Word on the Street New York. He is a very intelligent man.  And he has been homeless for a few years and hangs out on 14th Street. I was really happy to bring his experiences into Dealers. I'm proud that he’s been on methadone and he is on his way to living a life that is more agreeable and would do him more justice.  On the cover, I asked artist Christy Karacas to put the sign “Momma Said There Would be Days Like This.”  That is the sign Alex often flies, so I was pleased to give him that nod on the cover.
You compared drug dealing to art.  Do you think there is an art of drug dealing?
Well, I compare the dealers' need to express themselves to the same compulsion of an artist: to be understood.
There is something about the worldviews of drug dealers.   I talked to these guys who’d deliver weed on bicycle and when they walk down the street, they are paying attention with heightened sense of awareness about who might be a plain-clothed cop, who might be waiting to rob them, they are looking out for everybody on the block.  They are looking at cars, makes of cars, the way they are parked. Then they visit people in their homes, a very intimate setting, with that same heightened sense of awareness.  There is a great quote by Luc Sante, “The criminal class is a more exact cross-section of humanity than any trade could be," And I think the variety of subjects does that sentiment justice these dealers.
What is the biggest thing you took away from working on this book?
I’d say empathy and a stronger belief that drugs like marijuana need to be made legal and we have needed people to sell drugs illegally to show how profitable it could be, or rather is, and how much money the government can make in taxes.  The New York City Comptroller just estimated the New York marijuana market is worth 1.5 billion dollars. Tax it! Legalize and tax it and let’s fund the public school system that is faltering.  
What's your next project?
I would like to publish Word on the Street New York in a book form.  I am working on a choose-your-own-adventure book where the protagonist navigates the criminal world of Dealers.  I hope to find a publisher who’d give it a chance. 


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