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Better service couldn't be had at a swank hotel.

A man pulls up to the curb at Highland and Fairfield avenues, and two crack-cocaine dealers are there to virtually open the car door for him. They greet him with cheery, light conversation.

The man walks toward Price's Oasis, a bar on the corner.

The dealers follow him like heat-seeking missiles.

Even though the man never breaks stride, he can't complete the 20 steps from the car to the tavern. A woman blocks his path. She wants the man to buy some crack for her. They can go over to her place later and have a good time, she says.

With the man standing still, momentarily, the two dealers seize the moment for a sales pitch. They unpeel wads of cellophane, revealing small, brownish cubes that resemble salad croutons.

This is crack.

The man tries to leave, but the woman persists with her offer. Asked how much it will cost, the woman replies $15.

The man steps around her and enters the bar, where the owner, Annie Price, is in the kitchen.

She says the drug trade is interfering with her business. She can't get a gasket for her ice-making machine because each time the repairman pulls up, he is frightened away by the drug dealers.

"Every time he comes by, they run to his van but he doesn't know (their interest isn't robbery)," Ms. Price said. "I'll have him tell me when he's coming so I can watch for him."

Days later, a young man across the street, in the parking lot of Brown's Grocery store, contends that the police explanation behind March raids on three taverns -- to rid the city of out-of-towners who may have issued death threats to officers -- was phony.

"It was a plot made up by the police," he said. "No one would make death threats because all that would do is bring down more heat."

He denies he is a dealer, although he says he is on speaking terms with two others who are.

You don't need a scorecard to distinguish customers from drug dealers: The crack dealers never have seen a face they didn't like. The others aren't as trusting.

"Cocaine and crack are the drugs of choice in Niagara Falls," says Robert D. Spuller, clinical supervisor of the Niagara County Drug Abuse Program. "In Buffalo, it tends to be heroin."

Spuller says crack use has skyrocketed since 1987. Clients who request help at the center have increased.

"It's gone up about 300 percent in the last year and a half," he says.

David Matthews, owner of the Three M's Bar, says the drug crisis has become "real bad" within the last year.

He laments some friends who have yielded to crack.

"Can't they see what it's doing to them?" he asks.

"You lose your job, you lose your apartment. . . .

"I know a friend who did crack and (earlier) cocaine and she said: 'Ain't nothing like that crack. . . . It's a different kind of high.' "

Matthews says he has seen drug epidemics come and go, but, "Cocaine never did what crack did."

TUESDAY: The anguish of recovery.

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