A Cigarette for 75 Cents, 2 for $1: The Brisk, Shady Sale of ‘Loosies’
Shout out to ‘Loosie Man’…but not really
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.
Among all of Midtown’s cigarette vendors, Mr. Warner stands out, partly because he seems to get arrested more frequently than others. That may be because his style of salesmanship is hardly furtive.
“The cops call me a fish — that’s my nickname, cause I’m easy to catch,” Mr. Warner said during a series of recent interviews. “When they need a body to arrest, they come pick me up.”
In the four years since he began selling cigarettes, Mr. Warner recalls being arrested 15 times, generally on the charge of selling untaxed tobacco. He has been arrested so often that he can recognize 10 different plainclothes police officers, he claims. The ever-present risk of arrest makes working with partners valuable — “we have six eyes on this block,” he explained.
Over many court appearances, Mr. Warner has made a favorable impression on the lawyers in Midtown Community Court, who know him as Lonnie Loosie and consider him better company than the typical misdemeanor defendant.
“There are people who are known bad guys, and then there’s him,” said Russell S. Novack, the Legal Aid lawyer who represents many of Midtown’s hustlers, prostitutes, shoplifters and public drunks. “He’s like the goodwill ambassador of Eighth Avenue. And when he comes into court, he says hello to everybody.”
For Mr. Warner, punishment usually means a few days in jail on Rikers Island, or a week of community service, some of it spent sweeping cigarette butts.
Mr. Warner asserts that the block is safer and less unruly because of him.
“We don’t allow people to sell drugs on this block,” he said. “We just don’t allow it.”