Every day, I would gamble all of my tips-as high as fifteen and twenty dollars-on the numbers, and dream of what I would do when I hit.
I saw people on their long, wild spending sprees, after big hits. I don’t mean just hustlers who always had some money. I mean ordinary working people, the kind that we otherwise almost never saw in a bar like Small’s, who, with a good enough hit, had quit their jobs working somewhere downtown for the white man. Often they had bought a Cadillac, and sometimes for three and four days, they were setting up drinks and buying steaks for all their friends. I would have to pull two tables together into one, and they would be throwing me two-and three-dollar tips each time I came with my tray.
Hundreds of thousands of New York City Negroes, every day but Sunday, would play from a penny on up to large sums on three-digit numbers. A hit meant duplicating the last three figures of the Stock Exchange’s printed daily total of U.S. domestic and foreign sales.
With the odds at six hundred to one, a penny hit won $6, a dollar won $600, and so on. On $15, the hit would mean $9,000. Famous hits like that had bought controlling interests in lots of Harlem’s bars and restaurants, or even bought some of them outright. The chances of hitting were a thousand to one. Many players practiced what was called “combinating.” For example six centswould put one penny on each of the six possible combinations of three digits. The number 840, combinated, would include 840, 804, 048, 084, 408, and 480.
Practically everyone played every day in the poverty-ridden black ghetto of Harlem. Every day, someone you knew was likely to hit and of course it was neighborhood news; if big enough a hit, neighborhood excitement. Hits generally were small; a nickel, dime, or a quarter. Most people tried to play a dollar a day, but split it up among different numbers and combinated.
Harlem’s numbers industry hummed every morning and into the early afternoon, with the runners jotting down people’s bets on slips of paper in apartment house hallways, bars, barbershops, stores, on the sidewalks. The cops looked on; no runner lasted long who didn’t, out of his pocket, put in a free “figger” for his working area’s foot cops, and it was generally known that the numbers bankers paid off at higher levels of the police department.
The daily small army of runners each got ten percent of the money they turned in, along with the bet slips, to their controllers. (And if you hit, you gave the runner a ten percent tip.) A controller might have as many as fifty runners working for him, and the controller got five percent of what he turned over to the banker, who paid off the hit, paid off the police, and got rich off the balance.
Some people played one number all year. Many had lists of the daily hit numbers going back for years; they figured reappearance odds, and used other systems. Others played their hunches: addresses, license numbers of passing cars, any numbers on letters, telegrams, laundry slips, numbers from anywhere. Dream books that cost a dollar would say what number nearly any dream suggested. Evangelists who on Sundays peddled Jesus, and mystics, would pray a lucky number for you, for a fee. Recently, the last three numbers of the post office’s new Zip Code for a postal district of Harlem hit, and one banker almost went broke. Let this very book circulate widely in the black ghettoes of the country, and-although I’m no longer a gambling person-I’d lay a small wager for your favorite charity that millions of dollars would be bet by my poor, foolish black brothers and sisters upon, say, whatever happens to be the number of this page, or whatever is the total of the whole book’s pages.
Every day in Small’s Paradise Bar was fascinating to me. And from a Harlem point of view, I couldn’t have been in a more educational situation. Some of the ablest of New York’s black hustlers took a liking to me, and knowing that I still was green by their terms, soon began in a paternal way to “straighten Red out.”
Their methods would be indirect. A dark, businessman-looking West Indian often would sit at one of my tables. One day when I brought his beer, he said, “Red, hold still a minute.” He went over me with one of those yellow tape measures, and jotted figures in his notebook. When I came to work the next afternoon, one of the bartenders handed me a package. In it was an expensive, dark blue suit, conservatively cut. The gift was thoughtful, and the message clear.
The bartenders let me know that this customer was one of the top executives of the fabulous Forty Thieves gang. That was the gang of organized boosters, who would deliver, to order, in one day, C.O.D., any kind of garment you desired. You would pay about one-third of the store’s price.
I heard how they made mass hauls. A well-dressed member of the gang who wouldn’t arouse suspicion by his manner would go into a selected store about closing time, hide somewhere, and get locked inside when the store closed.The police patrols would have been timed beforehand. After dark, he’d pack suits in bags, then turn off the burglar alarm, and use the telephone to call a waiting truck and crew. When the truck came, timed with the police patrols, it would be loaded and gone within a few minutes. I later got to know several members of the Forty Thieves.
Plainclothes detectives soon were quietly identified to me, by a nod, a wink. Knowing the law people in the area was elementary for the hustlers, and, like them, in time I would learn to sense the presence of any police types. In late 1942, each of the military services had their civilian-dress eyes and ears picking up anything of interest to them, such as hustles being used to avoid the draft, or who hadn’t registered, or hustles that were being worked on servicemen.
Longshoremen, or fences for them, would come into the bars selling guns, cameras, perfumes, watches, and the like, stolen from the shipping docks. These Negroes got what white-longshoreman thievery left over. Merchant marine sailors often brought in foreign items, bargains, and the best marijuana cigarettes to be had were made of the _gunja_ and _kisca_ that merchant sailors smuggled in from Africa and Persia.
In the daytime, whites were given a guarded treatment. Whites who came at night got a better reception; the several Harlem nightclubs they patronized were geared to entertain and jive the night white crowd to get their money.
And with so many law agencies guarding the “morals” of servicemen, any of them that came in, and a lot did, were given what they asked for, and were spoken to if they spoke, and that was all, unless someone knew them as natives of Harlem.
What I was learning was the hustling society’s first rule; that you never trusted anyone outside of your own closemouthed circle, and that you selected withtime and care before you made any intimates even among these.
The bartenders would let me know which among the regular customers were mostly “fronts,” and which really had something going; which were really in the underworld, with downtown police or political connections; which really handled some money, and which were making it from day to day; which were the real gamblers, and which had just hit a little luck; and which ones never to run afoul of in any way.
The latter were extremely well known about Harlem, and they were feared and respected. It was known that if upset, they would break open your head and think nothing of it. These were old-timers, not to be confused with the various hotheaded, wild, young hustlers out trying to make a name for themselves for being crazy with a pistol trigger or a knife. The old heads that I’m talking about were such as “Black Sammy,” “Bub” Hewlett, “King” Padmore and “West Indian Archie.” Most of these tough ones had worked as strongarm men for Dutch Schultz back when he muscled into the Harlem numbers industry after white gangsters had awakened to the fortunes being made in what they had previously considered “nigger pennies”; and the numbers game was referred to by the white racketeers as “nigger pool.”
Those tough Negroes’ heyday had been before the big 1931 Seabury Investigation that started Dutch Schultz on the way out, until his career ended with his 1934 assassination. I heard stories of how they had “persuaded” people with lead pipes, wet cement, baseball bats, brass knuckles, fists, feet, and blackjacks.
Nearly every one of them had done some time, and had come back on the scene, and since had worked as top runners for the biggest bankers who specialized in large bettors.
There seemed to be an understanding that these Negroes and the tough blackcops never clashed; I guess both knew that someone would die. They had some bad black cops in Harlem, too. The Four Horsemen that worked Sugar Hill-I remember the worst one had freckles-there was a tough quartet. The biggest, blackest, worst cop of them all in Harlem was the West Indian, Brisbane. Negroes crossed the street to avoid him when he walked his 125th Street and Seventh Avenue beat. When I was in prison, someone brought me a story that Brisbane had been shot to death by a scared, nervous young kid who hadn’t been up from the South long enough to realize how bad Brisbane was.
The world’s most unlikely pimp was “Cadillac” Drake. He was shiny baldheaded, built like a football; he used to call his huge belly “the chippies’ playground.” Cadillac had a string of about a dozen of the stringiest, scrawniest, black and white street prostitutes in Harlem. Afternoons around the bar, the old-timers who knew Cadillac well enough would tease him about how women who looked like his made enough to feed themselves, let alone him. He’d roar with laughter right along with us; I can hear him now, “Bad-looking women work harder.”
Just about the complete opposite of Cadillac was the young, smooth, independent-acting pimp, “Sammy the Pimp.” He could, as I have mentioned, pick out potential prostitutes by watching their expressions in dance halls. Sammy and I became, in time, each other’s closest friend. Sammy, who was from Kentucky, was a cool, collected expert in his business, and his business was women. Like Cadillac, he too had both black and white women out making his living, but Sammy’s women-who would come into Small’s sometimes, looking for him, to give him money, and have him buy them a drink-were about as beautiful as any prostitutes who operated anywhere, I’d imagine.
One of his white women, known as “Alabama Peach,” a blonde, could put everybody in stitches with her drawl; even the several Negro women numbers controllers around Small’s really liked her. What made a lot of Negroes aroundthe bar laugh the hardest was the way she would take three syllables to say “nigger.” But what she usually was saying was “Ah jes’ lu-uv ni-uh-guhs-.” Give her two drinks and she would tell her life story in a minute; how in whatever little Alabama town it was she came from, the first thing she remembered being conscious of was that she was supposed to “hate niggers.” And then she started hearing older girls in grade school whispering the hush-hush that “niggers” were such sexual giants and athletes, and she started growing up secretly wanting to try one. Finally, right in her own house, with her family away, she threatened a Negro man who worked for her father that if he didn’t take her she would swear he tried rape. He had no choice, except that he quit working for them. And from then until she finished high school, she managed it several times with other Negroes-and she somehow came to New York, and went straight to Harlem. Later on, Sammy told me how he had happened to spot her in the Savoy, not even dancing with anybody, just standing on the sidelines, watching, and he could tell. And once she really went for Negroes, the more the better, Sammy said, and wouldn’t have a white man. I have wondered what ever became of her.
There was a big, fat pimp we called “Dollarbill.” He loved to flash his “Kansas City roll,” probably fifty one-dollar bills folded with a twenty on the inside and a one-hundred dollar bill on the outside. We always wondered what Dollarbill would do if someone ever stole his hundred-dollar “cover.”
A man who, in his prime, could have stolen Dollarbill’s whole roll, blindfolded, was threadbare, comic old “Fewclothes.” Fewclothes had been one of the best pickpockets in Harlem, back when the white people swarmed up every night in the 1920’s, but then during the Depression, he had contracted a bad case of arthritis in his hands. His finger joints were knotted and gnarled so that it made people uncomfortable to look at them. Rain, sleet, or snow, every afternoon, about six, Fewclothes would be at Small’s, telling tall tales about the old days, and it was one of the day’s rituals for one or another regular customer to ask the bartender to give him drinks, and me to feed him.
My heart goes out to all of us who in those afternoons at Small’s enacted our scene with Fewclothes. I wish you could have seen him, pleasantly “high” with drinks, take his seat with dignity-no begging, not on anybody’s Welfare-and open his napkin, and study the day’s menu that I gave nun, and place his order. I’d tell the cooks it was Fewclothes and he’d get the best in the house. I’d go back and serve it as though he were a millionaire.
Many times since, I have thought about it, and what it really meant. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn’t know it. All of us-who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries-were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system. In another sense, the tragedy of the once master pickpocket made him, for those brother old-timer hustlers, a “there but for the grace of God” symbol. To wolves who still were able to catch some rabbits, it had meaning that an old wolf who had lost his fangs was still eating.
Then there was the burglar, “Jumpsteady.” In the ghettoes the white man has built for us, he has forced us not to aspire to greater things, but to view everyday living as survival-and in that kind of a community, survival is what is respected. In any average white neighborhood bar, you couldn’t imagine a known cat-man thief regularly exposing himself, as one of the most popular people in there. But if Jumpsteady missed a few days running in Small’s, we would begin inquiring for him.
Jumpsteady was called that because, it was said, when he worked in white residential areas downtown, he jumped from roof to roof and was so steady that he maneuvered along window ledges, leaning, balancing, edging with his toes. If he fell, he’d have been dead. He got into apartments through windows. It wassaid that he was so cool that he had stolen even with people in the next room. I later found out that Jumpsteady always keyed himself up high on dope when he worked. He taught me some things that I was to employ in later years when hard times would force me to have my own burglary ring.
I should stress that Small’s wasn’t any nest of criminals. I dwell upon the hustlers because it was their world that fascinated me. Actually, for the night-life crowd, Small’s was one of Harlem’s two or three most decorous nightspots. In fact, the New York City police department recommended Small’s to white people who would ask for a “safe” place in Harlem.
The first room I got after I left the railroad (half of Harlem roomed) was in the 800 block of St. Nicholas Avenue. You could walk into one or another room in this house and get a hot fur coat, a good camera, fine perfume, a gun, anything from hot women to hot cars, even hot ice. I was one of the very few males in this rooming house. This was during the war, when you couldn’t turn on the radio and not hear about Guadalcanal or North Africa. In several of the apartments the women tenants were prostitutes. The minority were in some other racket or hustle-boosters, numbers runners, or dope-peddlers-and I’d guess that everyone who lived in the house used dope of some kind. This shouldn’t reflect too badly on that particular building, because almost everyone in Harlem needed some kind of hustle to survive, and needed to stay high in some way to forget what they had to do to survive.
It was in this house that I learned more about women than I ever did in any other single place. It was these working prostitutes who schooled me to things that every wife and every husband should know. Later on, it was chiefly the women who weren’t prostitutes who taught me to be very distrustful of most women; there seemed to be a higher code of ethics and sisterliness among those prostitutes than among numerous ladies of the church who have more men for kicks than the prostitutes have for pay. And I am talking about both black andwhite. Many of the black ones in those wartime days were right in step with the white ones in having husbands fighting overseas while they were laying up with other men, even giving them their husbands’ money. And many women just faked as mothers and wives, while playing the field as hand as prostitutes-with their husbands and children right there in New York.
I got my first schooling about the cesspool morals of the white man from the best possible source, from his own women. And then as I got deeper into my own life of evil, I saw the white man’s morals with my own eyes. I even made my living helping to guide him to the sick things he wanted.
I was young, working in the bar, not bothering with these women. Probably I touched their kid-brother instincts, something like that. Some would drop into my room when they weren’t busy, and we would smoke reefers and talk. It generally would be after their morning rush-but let me tell you about that rush.
Seeing the hallways and stairs busy any hour of the night with white and black men coming and going was no more than one would expect when one lived in a building out of which prostitutes were working. But what astonished me was the full-house crowd that rushed in between, say, six and seven-thirty in the morning, then rushed away, and by about nine, I would be the only man in the house.
It was husbands-who had left home in time to stop by this St. Nicholas Avenue house before they went on to work. Of course not the same ones every day, but always enough of them to make up the rush. And it included white men who had come in cabs all the way up from downtown.
Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagreeable and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. To escape this tension and the chance of being ridiculed by his own wife, each of these men had gotten up early and come to a prostitute.
The prostitutes had to make it their business to be students of men. They said that after most men passed their virile twenties, they went to bed mainly to satisfy their egos, and because a lot of women don’t understand it that way, they damage and wreck a man’s ego. No matter how little virility a man has to offer, prostitutes make him feel for a time that he is the greatest man in the world. That’s why these prostitutes had that morning rush of business. More wives could keep their husbands if they realized their greatest urge is _to be men_.
Those women would tell me anything. Funny little stories about the bedroom differences they saw between white and black men. The perversities! I thought I had heard the whole range of perversities until I later became a steerer taking white men to what they wanted. Everyone in the house laughed about the little Italian fellow whom they called the “Ten Dollar A Minute Man.” He came without fail every noontime, from his little basement restaurant up near the Polo Grounds; the joke was he never lasted more than two minutes. . . but he always left twenty dollars.
Most men, the prostitutes felt, were too easy to push around. Every day these prostitutes heard their customers complaining that they never heard anything but griping from women who were being taken care of and given everything. The prostitutes said that most men needed to know what the pimps knew. A woman should occasionally be babied enough to show her the man had affection, but beyond that she should be treated firmly. These tough women said that it worked with _them_. All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength. * * *
From time to time, Sophia would come over to see me from Boston. Even among Harlem Negroes, her looks gave me status. They were just like the Negroes everywhere else. That was why the white prostitutes made so much money. It didn’t make any difference if you were in Lansing, Boston, or New York-what the white racist said, and still says, was right in those days! All you had to do was put a white girl anywhere close to the average black man, and he would respond. The black woman also made the white man’s eyes light up-but he was slick enough to hide it.
Sophia would come in on a late afternoon train. She would come to Small’s and I’d introduce her around until I got off from work. She was bothered about me living among the prostitutes until I introduced her to some of them, and they talked, and she thought they were great. They would tell her they were keeping me straight for her. We would go to the Braddock Hotel bar, where we would meet some of the musicians who now would greet me like an old friend, “Hey, Red-who have we got here?” They would make a big deal over her; I couldn’t even think about buying a drink. No Negroes in the world were more white-woman-crazy in those days than most of those musicians. People in show business, of course, were less inhibited by social and racial taboos.
The white racist won’t tell you that it also works in reverse. When it got late, Sophia and I would go to some of the after-hours places and speakeasies. When the downtown nightclubs had closed, most of these Harlem places crawled with white people. These whites were just mad for Negro “atmosphere,” especially some of the places which had what you might call Negro soul. Sometimes Negroes would talk about how a lot of whites seemed unable to have enough of being close around us, and among us-in groups. Both white men and women, it seemed, would get almost mesmerized by Negroes. I remember one really peculiar case of this-a white girl who never missed a single night in the Savoy Ballroom. She fascinated my friend Sammy; he had watched her several times. Dancing only with Negroes, she seemed to go nearly into a trance. If a white man asked her to dance, she would refuse. Then when the place was ready to close, early in the morning, she would let a Negro take her as far as the subway entrance. And that was it. She never would tell anyone her name, let alone reveal where she lived.
Now, I’ll tell you another peculiar case that worked out differently, and which taught me something I have since learned in a thousand other ways. This was my best early lesson in how most white men’s hearts and guts will turn over inside of them, whatever they may have you otherwise believe, whenever they see a Negro man on close terms with a white woman.
A few of the white men around Harlem, younger ones whom we called “hippies,” acted more Negro than Negroes. This particular one talked more “hip” talk than we did. He would have fought anyone who suggested he felt any race difference. Musicians around the Braddock could hardly move without falling over him. Every time I saw him, it was “Daddy! Come on, let’s get our heads tight!” Sammy couldn’t stand him; he was underfoot wherever you went. He even wore a wild zoot suit, used a heavy grease in his hair to make it look like a conk, and he wore the knob-toed shoes, the long, swinging chain-everything. And he not only wouldn’t be seen with any woman but a black one, but in fact he lived with two of them in the same little apartment. I never was sure how they worked that one out, but I had my idea.
About three or four o’clock one morning, we ran into this white boy, in Creole Bill’s speakeasy. He was high-in that marijuana glow where the world relaxes. I introduced Sophia; I went away to say hello to someone else. When I returned, Sophia looked peculiar-but she wouldn’t tell me until we left. He had askedher, “Why is a white girl like you throwing yourself away with a spade?”
Creole Bill-naturally you know he was from New Orleans-became another good friend of mine. After Small’s closed, I’d bring fast-spending white people who still wanted some drinking action to Creole Bill’s speakeasy. That was my earliest experience at steering. The speakeasy was only Creole Bill’s apartment. I think a partition had been knocked out to make the living room larger. But the atmosphere, plus the food, made the place one of Harlem’s soul spots.
A record player maintained the right, soft music. There was any kind of drink. And Bill sold plates of his spicy, delicious Creole dishes-gumbo, jambalaya. Bill’s girl friend-a beautiful black girl-served the customers. Bill called her “Brown Sugar,” and finally everyone else did. If a good number of customers were to be served at one time, Creole Bill would bring out some pots, Brown Sugar would bring the plates, and Bill would serve everyone big platefuls; and he’d heap a plate for himself and eat with us. It was a treat to watch him eat; he loved his food so; it was good. Bill could cook rice like the Chinese-I mean rice that stood every grain on its own, but I never knew the Chinese to do what Bill could with seafood and beans.
Bill made money enough in that apartment speakeasy to open up a Creole restaurant famous in Harlem. He was a great baseball fan. All over the walls were framed, autographed photographs of major league stars, and also some political and show business celebrities who would come there to eat, bringing friends. I wonder what’s become of Creole Bill? His place is sold, and I haven’t heard anything of him. I must remember to ask some of the Seventh Avenue old-timers, who would know.
Once, when I called Sophia in Boston, she said she couldn’t get away until the following weekend. She had just married some well-to-do Boston white fellow. He was in the service, he had been home on leave, and he had just goneback. She didn’t mean it to change a thing between us. I told her it made no difference. I had of course introduced Sophia to my friend Sammy, and we had gone out together some nights. And Sammy and I had thoroughly discussed the black man and white woman psychology. I had Sammy to thank that I was entirely prepared for Sophia’s marriage.
Sammy said that white women were very practical; he had heard so many of them express how they felt. They knew that the black man had all the strikes against him, that the white man kept the black man down, under his heel, unable to get anywhere, really. The white woman wanted to be comfortable, she wanted to be looked upon with favor by her own kind, but also she wanted to have her pleasure. So some of them just married a white man for convenience and security, and kept right on going with a Negro. It wasn’t that they were necessarily in love with the Negro, but they were in love with lust-particularly “taboo” lust.
A white man was not too unusual if he had a ten-, twenty-, thirty-, forty-, or fifty-thousand-dollar-ayear job. A Negro man who made even five thousand in the white man’s world was unusual. The white woman with a Negro man would be with him for one of two reasons: either extremely insane love, or to satisfy her lust.
When I had been around Harlem long enough to show signs of permanence, inevitably I got a nickname that would identify me beyond any confusion with two other red-conked and well-known “Reds” who were around. I had met them both; in fact, later on I’d work with them both. One, “St. Louis Red,” was a professional armed robber. When I was sent to prison, he was serving time for trying to stick up a dining car steward on a train between New York and Philadelphia. He was finally freed; now, I hear, he is in prison for a New York City jewel robbery.
The other was “Chicago Red.” We became good buddies in a speakeasy where later on I was a waiter; Chicago Red was the funniest dishwasher on this earth. Now he’s making his living being funny as a nationally known stage and nightclub comedian. I don’t see any reason why old Chicago Red would mind me telling that he is Redd Foxx.
Anyway, before long, my nickname happened. Just when, I don’t know-but people, knowing I was from Michigan, would ask me what city. Since most New Yorkers had never heard of Lansing, I would name Detroit. Gradually, I began to be called “Detroit Red”-and it stuck.
* * *
One afternoon in early 1943, before the regular six o’clock crowd had gathered, a black soldier sat drinking by himself at one of my tables. He must have been there an hour or more. He looked dumb and pitiful and just up from the Deep South. The fourth or fifth drink I served this soldier, wiping the table I bent over close and asked him if he wanted a woman.
I knew better. It wasn’t only Small’s Paradise law, it was the law of every tavern that wanted to stay in business-never get involved with anything that could be interpreted as “impairing the morals” of servicemen, or any kind of hustling off them. This had caused trouble for dozens of places: some had been put off limits by the military; some had lost their state or city licenses.
I played right into the hands of a military spy. He sure would like a woman. He acted so grateful. He even put on an extreme Southern accent. And I gave him the phone number of one of my best friends among the prostitutes where I lived.
But something felt wrong. I gave the fellow a half-hour to get there, and then Itelephoned. I expected the answer I got-that no soldier had been there.
I didn’t even bother to go back out to the bar. I just went straight to Charlie Small’s office.
“I just did something, Charlie,” I said. “I don’t know why I did it-” and I told him.
Charlie looked at me. “I wish you hadn’t done that, Red.” We both knew what he meant.
When the West Indian plainclothes detective, Joe Baker, came in, I was waiting. I didn’t even ask him any questions. When we got to the 135th Street precinct, it was busy with police in uniform, and MP’s with soldiers in tow. I was recognized by some other detectives who, like Joe Baker, sometimes dropped in at Small’s.
Two things were in my favor. I’d never given the police any trouble, and when that black spy soldier had tried to tip me, I had waved it away, telling him I was just doing him a favor. They must have agreed that Joe Baker should just scare me.
I didn’t know enough to be aware that I wasn’t taken to the desk and booked. Joe Baker took me back inside of the precinct building, into a small room. In the next room, we could hear somebody getting whipped. _Whop! Whop!_ He’d cry out, “Please! Please don’t beat my face, that’s how I make my living!” I knew from that it was some pimp. _Whop! Whop!”_ Please! Please!”
(Not much later, I heard that Joe Baker had gotten trapped over in New Jersey, shaking down a Negro pimp and his white prostitute. He was discharged fromthe New York City police force, the State of New Jersey convicted him, and he went off to do some time.)
More bitter than getting fired, I was barred from Small’s. I could understand. Even if I wasn’t actually what was called “hot,” I was now going to be under surveillance-and the Small brothers had to protect their business.
Sammy proved to be my friend in need. He put the word on the wire for me to come over to his place. I had never been there. His place seemed to me a small palace; his women really kept him in style. While we talked about what kind of a hustle I should get into, Sammy gave me some of the best marijuana I’d ever used.
Various numbers controllers, Small’s regulars, had offered me jobs as a runner. But that meant I would earn very little until I could build up a clientele. Pimping, as Sammy did, was out. I felt I had no abilities in that direction, and that I’d certainly starve to death trying to recruit prostitutes.
Peddling reefers, Sammy and I pretty soon agreed, was the best thing. It was a relatively uninvolved lone-wolf type of operation, and one in which I could make money immediately. For anyone with even a little brains, no experience was needed, especially if one had any knack at all with people.
Both Sammy and I knew some merchant seamen and others who could supply me with loose marijuana. And musicians, among whom I had so many good contacts, were the heaviest consistent market for reefers. And then, musicians also used the heavier narcotics, if I later wanted to graduate to them. That would be more risky, but also more money. Handling heroin and cocaine could earn one hundreds of dollars a day, but it required a lot of experience with the narcotics squad for one to be able to last long enough to make anything.
I had been around long enough either to know or to spot instinctively most regular detectives and cops, though not the narcotics people. And among the Small’s veteran hustler regulars, I had a variety of potentially helpful contacts. This was important because just as Sammy could get me supplied with marijuana, a large facet of any hustler’s success was knowing where he could get help when he needed it. The help could involve police and detectives-as well as higher ups. But I hadn’t yet reached that stage. So Sammy staked me, about twenty dollars, I think it was.
Later that same night, I knocked at his door and gave him back his money and asked him if I could lend him some. I had gone straight from Sammy’s to a supplier he had mentioned. I got just a small amount of marijuana, and I got some of the paper to roll up my own sticks. As they were only about the size of stick matches, I was able to make enough of them so that, after selling them to musicians I knew at the Braddock Hotel, I could pay back Sammy and have enough profit to be in business. And those musicians when they saw their buddy, and their fan, in business: “My man!” “Crazy, Red!”
In every band, at least half of the musicians smoked reefers. I’m not going to list names; I’d have to include some of those most prominent then in popular music, even a number of them around today. In one case, every man in one of the bands which is still famous was on marijuana. Or again, any number of musicians could tell you who I mean when I say that one of the most famous singers smoked his reefers through a chicken thighbone. He had smoked so many through the bone that he could just light a match before the empty bone, draw the heat through, and get what he called a “contact” high.
I kept turning over my profit, increasing my supplies, and I sold reefers like a wild man. I scarcely slept; I was wherever musicians congregated. A roll of money was in my pocket. Every day, I cleared at least fifty or sixty dollars. In those days (or for that matter these days), this was a fortune to a seventeen-year-old Negro. I felt, for the first time in my life, that great feeling of _free_! Suddenly, now, I was the peer of the other young hustlers I had admired.
It was at this time that I discovered the movies. Sometimes I made as many as five in one day, both downtown and in Harlem. I loved the tough guys, the action, Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” and I loved all of that dancing and carrying on in such films as “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.” After leaving the movies, I’d make my connections for supplies, then roll my sticks, and, about dark, I’d start my rounds. I’d give a couple of extra sticks when someone bought ten, which was five dollars’ worth. And I didn’t sell and run, because my customers were my friends. Often I’d smoke along with them. None of them stayed any more high than I did.
Free now to do what I pleased, upon an impulse I went to Boston. Of course, I saw Ella. I gave her some money: it was just a token of appreciation, I told her, for helping me when I had come from Lansing. She wasn’t the same old Ella; she still hadn’t forgiven me for Laura. She never mentioned her, nor did I. But, even so, Ella acted better than she had when I had left for New York. We reviewed the family changes. Wilfred had proved so good at his trade they had asked him to stay on at Wilberforce as an instructor. And Ella had gotten a card from Reginald who had managed to get into the merchant marine.
From Shorty’s apartment, I called Sophia. She met me at the apartment just about as Shorty went off to work. I would have liked to take her out to some of the Roxbury clubs, but Shorty had told us that, as in New York, the Boston cops used the war as an excuse to harass interracial couples, stopping them and grilling the Negro about his draft status. Of course Sophia’s now being married made us more cautious, too.
When Sophia caught a cab home, I went to hear Shorty’s band. Yes, he had aband now. He had succeeded in getting a 4-F classification, and I was pleased for him and happy to go. His band was-well, fair. But Shorty was making out well in Boston, playing in small clubs. Back in the apartment, we talked into the next day. “Homeboy, you’re something else!” Shorty kept saying. I told him some of the wild things I’d done in Harlem, and about the friends I had. I told him the story of Sammy the Pimp.
In Sammy’s native Paducah, Kentucky, he had gotten a girl pregnant. Her parents made it so hot that Sammy had come to Harlem, where he got a job as a restaurant waiter. When a woman came in to eat alone, and he found she really was alone, not married, or living with somebody, it generally was not hard for smooth Sammy to get invited to her apartment. He’d insist on going out to a nearby restaurant to bring back some dinner, and while he was out he would have her key duplicated. Then, when he knew she was away, Sammy would go in and clean out all her valuables. Sammy was then able to offer some little stake, to help her back on her feet. This could be the beginning of an emotional and financial dependency, which Sammy knew how to develop until she was his virtual slave.
Around Harlem, the narcotics squad detectives didn’t take long to find out I was selling reefers, and occasionally one of them would follow me. Many a peddler was in jail because he had been caught with the evidence on his person; I figured a way to avoid that. The law specified that if the evidence wasn’t actually in your possession, you couldn’t be arrested. Hollowed-out shoe heels, fake hat-linings, these things were old stuff to the detectives.
I carried about fifty sticks in a small package inside my coat, under my armpit, keeping my arm flat against my side. Moving about, I kept my eyes open. If anybody looked suspicious, I’d quickly cross the street, or go through a door, or turn a comer, loosening my arm enough to let the package drop. At night, when I usually did my selling, any suspicious person wouldn’t be likely to see thetrick. If I decided I had been mistaken, I’d go back and get my sticks.
However, I lost many a stick this way. Sometimes, I knew I had frustrated a detective. And I kept out of the courts.
One morning, though, I came in and found signs that my room had been entered. I knew it had been detectives. I’d heard too many times how if they couldn’t find any evidence, they would plant some, where you would never find it, then they’d come back in and “find” it. I didn’t even have to think twice what to do. I packed my few belongings and never looked back. When I went to sleep again, it was in another room.
It was then that I began carrying a little .25 automatic. I got it, for some reefers, from an addict who I knew had stolen it somewhere. I carried it pressed under my belt right down the center of my back. Someone had told me that the cops never hit there in any routine patting-down. And unless I knew who I was with, I never allowed myself to get caught in any crush of people. The narcotics cops had been known to rush up and get their o hands on you and plant evidence while “searching.” I felt that as long as I kept on the go, and in the open, I had a good chance. I don’t know now what my real thoughts were about carrying the pistol. But I imagine I felt that I wasn’t going to get put away if somebody tried framing me in any situation that I could help.
I sold less than before because having to be so careful consumed so much time. Every now and then, on a hunch, I’d move to another room. I told nobody but Sammy where I slept.
Finally, it was on the wire that the Harlem narcotics squad had me on its special list.
Now, every other day or so, usually in some public place, they would flash thebadge to search me. But I’d tell them at once, loud enough for others standing about to hear me, that I had nothing on me, and I didn’t want to get anything planted on me. Then they wouldn’t, because Harlem already thought little enough of the law, and they did have to be careful that some crowd of Negroes would not intervene roughly. Negroes were starting to get very tense in Harlem. One could almost smell trouble ready to break out-as it did very soon.
But it was really tough on me then. I was having to hide my sticks in various places near where I was selling. I’d put five sticks in an empty cigarette pack, and drop the empty-looking pack by a lamppost, or behind a garbage can, or a box. And I’d first tell customers to pay me, and then where to pick up.
But my regular customers didn’t go for that. You couldn’t expect a well-known musician to go grubbing behind a garbage can. So I began to pick up some of the street trade, the people you could see looked high. I collected a number of empty Red Cross bandage boxes and used them for drops. That worked pretty good.
But the middle-Harlem narcotics force found so many ways to harass me that I had to change my area. I moved down to lower Harlem, around 110th Street. There were many more reefer smokers around there, but these were a cheaper type, this was the worst of the ghetto, the poorest people, the ones who in every ghetto keep themselves narcotized to keep from having to face their miserable existence. I didn’t last long down there, either. I lost too much of my product. After I sold to some of those reefer smokers who had the instincts of animals, they followed me and learned my pattern. They would dart out of a doorway, I’d drop my stuff, and they would be on it like a chicken on corn. When you become an animal, a vulture, in the ghetto, as I had become, you enter a world of animals and vultures. It becomes truly the survival of only the fittest.
Soon I found myself borrowing little stakes, from Sammy, from some of the musicians. Enough to buy supplies, enough to keep high myself, enough sometimes to just eat.
Then Sammy gave me an idea.
“Red, you still got your old railroad identification?” I did have it. They hadn’t taken it back. “Well, why don’t you use it to make a few runs, until the heat cools?”
He was right.
I found that if you walked up and showed a railroad line’s employee identification card, the conductor-even a real cracker, if you approached him right, not begging-would just wave you aboard. And when he came around he would punch you one of those little coach seat slips to ride wherever die train went.
The idea came tome mat, this way, I could travel all over the East Coast selling reefers among my friends who were on tour with their bands.
I had the New Haven identification. I worked a couple of weeks for other railroads, to get their identification, and men I was set.
In New York, I rolled and packed a great quantity of sticks, and sealed them into jars. The identification card worked perfectly. If you persuaded the conductor you were a fellow employee who had to go home on some family business, he just did the favor for you without a second thought. Most whites don’t give a Negro credit for having sense enough to fool them-or nerve enough.
I’d turn up in towns where my friends were playing. “Red!” I was an old friend from home. In the sticks, I was somebody from the Braddock Hotel. _”My man!Daddy-o!”_ And I had Big Apple reefers. Nobody had ever heard of a traveling reefer peddler.
I followed no particular band. Each band’s musicians knew the other bands’ one-nighter touring schedules. When I ran out of supplies, I’d return to New York, and load up, then hit the road again. Auditoriums or gymnasiums all lighted up, the band’s chartered bus outside, the dressed-up, excited, local dancers pouring in. At the door, I’d announce that I was some bandman’s brother; in most cases they thought I was one of the musicians. Throughout the dance, I’d show the country folks some plain and fancy lindy-hopping. Sometimes, I’d stay overnight in a town. Sometimes I’d ride the band’s bus to their next stop. Sometimes, back in New York, I would stay awhile. Things had cooled down. Word was around that I had left town, and the narcotics squad was satisfied with that. In some of the small towns, people thinking I was with the band even mobbed me for autographs. Once, in Buffalo, my suit was nearly torn off.
My brother Reginald was waiting for me one day when I pulled into New York. The day before, his merchant ship had put into port over in New Jersey. Thinking I still worked at Small’s, Reginald had gone there, and the bartenders had directed him to Sammy, who put him up.
It felt good to see my brother. It was hard to believe that he was once the little kid who tagged after me. Reginald now was almost six feet tall, but still a few inches shorter than me. His complexion was darker man mine, but he had greenish eyes, and a white streak in his hair, which was otherwise dark reddish, something like mine.
I took Reginald everywhere, introducing nun. Studying my brother, I liked him. He was a lot more self-possessed than I had been at sixteen.
I didn’t have a room right at the time, but I had some money, so did Reginald, and we checked into the St. Nicholas Hotel on Sugar Hill. It has since been torn down.
Reginald and I talked all night about the Lansing years, about our family. I told him things about our rather and mother that he couldn’t remember. Then Reginald filled me in on our brothers and sisters. Wilfred was still a trade instructor at Wilberforce University. Hilda, still in Lansing, was talking of getting married; so was Philbert.
Reginald and I were the next two in line. And Yvonne, Wesley, and Robert were still in Lansing, in school.
Reginald and I laughed about Philbert, who, the last time I had seen him, had gotten deeply religious; he wore one of those round straw hats.
Reginald’s ship was in for about a week getting some kind of repairs on its engines. I was pleased to see that Reginald, though he said little about it, admired my living by my wits. Reginald dressed a little too loudly, I thought. I got a reefer customer of mine to get him a more conservative overcoat and suit. I told
Reginald what I had learned: that in order to get something you had to look as though you already had something.
Before Reginald left, I urged him to leave the merchant marine and I would help him get started in Harlem. I must have felt that having my kid brother around me would be a good thing. Then there would be two people I could trust-Sammy was the other.
Reginald was cool. At his age, I would have been willing to run behind thetrain, to get to New York and to Harlem. But Reginald, when he left, said, “I’ll think about it.”
Not long after Reginald left, I dragged out the wildest zoot suit in New York. This was 1943. The Boston draft board had written me at Ella’s, and when they had no results there, had notified the New York draft board, and, in care of Sammy, I received Uncle Sam’s Greetings.
In those days only three things in the world scared me: jail, a job, and the Army. I had about ten days before I was to show up at the induction center. I went right to work. The Army Intelligence soldiers, those black spies in civilian clothes, hung around in Harlem with their ears open for the white man downtown. I knew exactly where to start dropping the word. I started noising around that I was frantic to join. . . the Japanese Army.
When I sensed that I had the ears of the spies, I would talk and act high and crazy. A lot of Harlem hustlers actually had reached that state-as I would later. It was inevitable when one had gone long enough on heavier and heavier narcotics, and under the steadily tightening vise of the hustling life. I’d snatch out and read my Greetings aloud, to make certain they heard who I was, and when I’d report downtown. (This was probably the only time my real name was ever heard in Harlem in those days.)
The day I went down there, I costumed like an actor. With my wild zoot suit I wore the yellow knob-toe shoes, and I frizzled my hair up into a reddish bush of conk.
I went in, skipping and tipping, and I thrust my tattered Greetings at that reception desk’s white soldier-“Crazy-o, daddy-o, get me moving. I can’t wait to get in that brown”-very likely that soldier hasn’t recovered from me yet.
They had their wire on me from uptown, all right. But they still put me through the line. In that big starting room were forty or fifty other prospective inductees. The room had fallen vacuum-quiet, with me running my mouth a mile a minute, talking nothing but slang. I was going to fight on all fronts; I was going to be a general, man, before I got done-such talk as that.
Most of them were white, of course. The tender-looking ones appeared ready to run from me. Some others had that vinegary “worst kind of nigger” look. And a few were amused, seeing me as the “Harlem jigaboo” archetype.
Also amused were some of the room’s ten or twelve Negroes. But the stony-faced rest of them looked as if they were ready to sign up to go off killing somebody-they would have liked to start with me.
The line moved along. Pretty soon, stripped to my shorts, I was making my eager-to-join comments in the medical examination rooms-and everybody in the white coats that I saw had 4-F in his eyes.
I stayed in the line longer than I expected, before they siphoned me off. One of the white coats accompanied me around a turning hallway: I knew we were on the way to a head-shrinker-the Army psychiatrist.
The receptionist there was a Negro nurse. I remember she was in her early twenties, and not bad to look at. She was one of those Negro “firsts.”
Negroes know what I’m talking about. Back then, the white man during the war was so pressed for personnel that he began letting some Negroes put down their buckets and mops and dust rags and use a pencil, or sit at some desk, or hold some twenty-five-cent tide. You couldn’t read the Negro press for the big pictures of smug black “firsts.”
Somebody was inside with the psychiatrist. I didn’t even have to put on any act for this black girl; she was already sick of me.
When, finally, a buzz came at her desk, she didn’t send me, _she_ went in. I knew what she was doing, she was going to make clear, in advance, what she thought of me. This is still one of the black man’s big troubles today. So many of those so-called “upper-class” Negroes are so busy trying to impress on the white man that they are “different from those others” that they can’t see they are only helping the white man to keep his low opinion of _all_ Negroes.
And then, with her prestige in the clear, she came out and nodded to me to go in.
I must say this for that psychiatrist. He tried to be objective and professional in his manner. He sat there and doodled with his blue pencil on a tablet, listening to me spiel to him for three or four minutes before he got a word in.
His tack was quiet questions, to get at why I was so anxious. I didn’t rush him; I circled and hedged, watching him closely, to let him think he was pulling what he wanted out of me. I kept jerking around, backward, as though somebody might be listening. I knew I was going to send him back to the books to figure what kind of a case I was.
Suddenly, I sprang up and peeped under both doors, the one I’d entered and another that probably was a closet. And then I bent and whispered fast in his ear. “Daddy-o, now you and me, we’re from up North here, so don’t you tell nobody. . . . I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns, and kill us crackers!”
That psychiatrist’s blue pencil dropped, and his professional manner fell off in all directions. He stared at me as if I were a snake’s egg hatching, fumbling forhis red pencil. I knew I had him. I was going back out past Miss First when he said, “That will be all.”
A 4-F card came to me in the mail, and I never heard from the Army anymore, and never bothered to ask why I was rejected.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://al-rasid.com/shared_uploads/The.Autobiography.of.MalcolmX.pdf
Photo from: ModernBenjamin (2016). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Book Review. Retrieved from https://modernbenjamin.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x-book-review/