I can’t remember all the hustles I had during the next two years in Harlem, after the abrupt end of my riding the trains and peddling reefers to the touring bands.
Negro railroad men waited for their trains in their big locker room on the lower level of Grand Central Station. Big blackjack and poker games went on in there around the clock. Sometimes five hundred dollars would be on the table. One day, in a blackjack game, an old cook who was dealing the cards tried to be slick, and I had to drop my pistol in his face.
The next time I went into one of those games, intuition told me to stick my gun under my belt right down the middle of my back. Sure enough, someone had squealed. Two big, beefy-faced Irish cops came in. They frisked me-and they missed my gun where they hadn’t expected one.
The cops told me never again to be caught in Grand Central Station unless I had a ticket to ride somewhere. And I knew that by the next day, every railroad’s personnel office would have a blackball on me, so I never tried to get another railroad job.
There I was back in Harlem’s streets among all the rest of the hustlers. I couldn’t sell reefers; the dope squad detectives were too familiar with me. I was a true hustler-uneducated, unskilled at anything honorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.
Right now, in every big city ghetto, tens of thousands of yesterday’s and today’s school dropouts are keeping body and soul together by some form of hustling in the same way I did.
And they inevitably move into more and more, worse and worse, illegality and immorality. Full-time hustlers never can relax to appraise what they are doing and where they are bound. As is the case in any jungle, the hustler’s every waking hour is lived with both the practical and the subconscious knowledge that if he ever relaxes, if he ever slows down, the other hungry, restless foxes, ferrets, wolves, and vultures out there with him won’t hesitate to make him their prey.
During the next six to eight months, I pulled my first robberies and stick-ups. Only small ones. Always in other, nearby cities. And I got away. As the pros did, I too would key myself to pull these jobs by my first use of hard dope. I began with Sammy’s recommendation-sniffing cocaine.
Normally now, for street wear, I might call it, I carried a hardly noticeable little flat, blue-steel .25 automatic. But for working, I carried a .32, a .38 or a .45. I saw how when the eyes stared at the big black hole, the faces fell slack and the mouths sagged open. And when I spoke, the people seemed to hear as though they were far away, and they would do whatever I asked.
Between jobs, staying high on narcotics kept me from getting nervous. Still, upon sudden impulses, just to play safe, I would abruptly move from one toanother fifteen-to twenty-dollar-aweek room, always in my favorite 147th-150th Street area, just flanking Sugar Hill.
Once on a job with Sammy, we had a pretty close call. Someone must have seen us. We were making our getaway, running, when we heard the sirens. Instantly, we slowed to walking. As a police car screeched to a stop, we stepped out into the street, meeting it, hailing it to ask for directions. They must have thought we were about to give them some information. They just cursed us and raced on. Again, it didn’t cross the white men’s minds that a trick like that might be pulled on them by Negroes.
The suits that I wore, the finest, I bought hot for about thirty-five to fifty dollars. I made it my rule never to go after more than I needed to live on. Any experienced hustler will tell you that getting greedy is the quickest road to prison. I kept “cased” in my head vulnerable places and situations and I would perform the next job only when my bankroll in my pocket began to get too low.
Some weeks, I bet large amounts on the numbers. I still played with the same runner with whom I’d started in Small’s Paradise. Playing my hunches, many a day I’d have up to forty dollars on two numbers, hoping for that fabulous six hundred-to-one payoff. But I never did hit a big number full force. There’s no telling what I would have done if ever I’d landed $10,000 or $12,000 at one time. Of course, once in a while I’d hit a small combination figure. Sometimes, flush like that, I’d telephone Sophia to come over from Boston for a couple of days.
I went to the movies a lot again. And I never missed my musician friends wherever they were playing, either in Harlem, downtown at the big theaters, or on 52nd Street.
Reginald and I got very close the next time his ship came back into New York. We discussed our family, and what a-shame it was that our book-loving oldest brother Wilfred had never had the chance to go to some of those big universities where he would have gone far. And we exchanged thoughts we had never shared with anyone.
Reginald, in his quiet way, was a mad fan of musicians and music. When his ship sailed one morning without him, a principal reason was that I had thoroughly exposed him to the exciting musical world. We had wild times backstage with the musicians when they were playing the Roxy, or the Paramount. After selling reefers with the bands as they traveled, I was known to almost every popular Negro musician around New York in 1944-1945.
Reginald and I went to the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theater, the Braddock Hotel bar, the nightclubs and speakeasies, wherever Negroes played music. The great Lady Day, Billie Holiday, hugged him and called him “baby brother.” Reginald shared tens of thousands of Negroes’ feelings that the living end of the big bands was Lionel Hampton’s. I was very close to many of the men in Hamp’s band; I introduced Reginald to them, and also to Hamp himself, and Hamp’s wife and business manager, Gladys Hampton. One of this world’s sweetest people is Hamp. Anyone who knows him will tell you that he’d often do the most generous things for people he barely knew. As much money as Hamp has made, and still makes, he would be broke today if his money and his business weren’t handled by Gladys, who is one of the brainiest women I ever met. The Apollo Theater’s owner, Frank Schifrman, could tell you. He generally signed bands to play for a set weekly amount, but I know that once during those days Gladys Hampton instead arranged a deal for Hamp’s band to play for a cut of the gate. Then the usual number of shows was doubled up-if I’m not mistaken, eight shows a day, instead of the usual four-and Hamp’s pulling power cleaned up. Gladys Hampton used to talk to me a lot, and she tried togive me good advice: “Calm down, Red.” Gladys saw how wild I was. She saw me headed toward a bad end.
One of the things I liked about Reginald was that when I left him to go away “working,” Reginald asked me no questions. After he came to Harlem, I went on more jobs than usual. I guess that what influenced me to get my first actual apartment was my not wanting Reginald to be knocking around Harlem without anywhere to call “home.” That first apartment was three rooms, for a hundred dollars a month, I think, in the front basement of a house on 147th Street between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues. Living in the rear basement apartment, right behind Reginald and me, was one of Harlem’s most successful narcotics dealers.
With the apartment as our headquarters, I gradually got Reginald introduced around to Creole Bill’s, and other Harlem after-hours spots. About two o’clock every morning, as the downtown white nightclubs closed, Reginald and I would stand around in front of this or that Harlem after-hours place, and I’d school him to what was happening.
Especially after the nightclubs downtown closed, the taxis and black limousines would be driving uptown, bringing those white people who never could get enough of Negro _soul_. The places popular with these whites ranged all the way from the big locally famous ones such as Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, and Dickie Wells’, to the little here-tonight-gone-tomorrow-night private clubs, so-called, where a dollar was collected at the door for “membership.”
Inside every after-hours spot, the smoke would hurt your eyes. Four white people to every Negro would be in there drinking whisky from coffee cups and eating fried chicken. The generally flush-faced white men and their makeup-masked, glittery-eyed women would be pounding each other’s backs and uproariously laughing and applauding the music. A lot of the whites, drunk,would go staggering up to Negroes, the waiters, the owners, or Negroes at tables, wringing their hands, even trying to hug them,
“You’re just as good as I am-I want you to know that!” The most famous places drew both Negro and white celebrities who enjoyed each other. A jam-packed four-thirty A.M. crowd at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack or Dickie Wells’ might have such jam-session entertainment as Hazel Scott playing the piano for Billie Holiday singing the blues. Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, incidentally, was where once, later on, I worked briefly as a waiter. That’s where Redd Foxx was the dishwasher who kept the kitchen crew in stitches.
After a while, my brother Reginald had to have a hustle, and I gave much thought to what would be, for him, a good, safe hustle. After he’d learned his own way around, it would be up to him to take risks for himself-if he wanted to make more and quicker money.
The hustle I got Reginald into really was very simple. It utilized the psychology of the ghetto jungle. Downtown, he paid the two dollars, or whatever it was, for a regular city peddler’s license. Then I took him to a manufacturers’ outlet where we bought a supply of cheap imperfect “seconds”-shirts, underwear, cheap rings, watches, all kinds of quick-sale items.
Watching me work this hustle back in Harlem, Reginald quickly caught on to how to go into barbershops, beauty parlors, and bars acting very nervous as he let the customers peep into his small valise of “loot.” With so many thieves around anxious to get rid of stolen good-quality merchandise cheaply, many Haderoites, purely because of this conditioning, jumped to pay hot prices for inferior goods whose sale was perfectly legitimate. It never took long to get rid of a valiseful for at least twice what it had cost. And if any cop stopped Reginald, he had in his pocket both the peddler’s license and the manufacturers’ outlet bills of sale. Reginald only had to be certain that none of the customersto whom he sold ever saw that he was legitimate.
I assumed that Reginald, like most of the Negroes I knew, would go for a white woman. I’d point out Negro-happy white women to him, and explain that a Negro with any brains could wrap these women around his ringers. But I have to say this for Reginald: he never liked white women. I remember the one time he met Sophia; he was so cool it upset Sophia, and it tickled me.
Reginald got himself a black woman. I’d guess she was pushing thirty; an “old settler,” as we called them back in those days. She was a waitress in an exclusive restaurant downtown. She lavished on Reginald everything she had, she was so happy to get a young man. I mean she bought him clothes, cooked and washed for him, and everything, as though he were a baby.
That was just another example of why my respect for my younger brother kept increasing. Reginald showed, in often surprising ways, more sense than a lot of working hustlers twice his age. Reginald then was only sixteen, but, a six-footer, he looked and acted much older than his years.
* * *
All through the war, the Harlem racial picture never was too bright. Tension built to a pretty high pitch. Old-timers told me that Harlem had never been the same since the 1935 riot, when millions of dollars worth of damage was done by thousands of Negroes, infuriated chiefly by the white merchants in Harlem refusing to hire a Negro even as their stores raked in Harlem’s money.
During World War II, Mayor LaGuardia officially closed the Savoy Ballroom. Harlem said the real reason was to stop Negroes from dancing with white women. Harlem said that no one dragged the white women in there. Adam Clayton Powell made it a big fight. He had successfully fought ConsolidatedEdison and the New York Telephone Company until they had hired Negroes. Then he had helped to battle the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army about their segregating of uniformed Negroes. But Powell couldn’t win this battle. City Hall kept the Savoy closed for a long time. It was just another one of the “liberal North” actions that didn’t help Harlem to love the white man any.
Finally, rumor flashed that in the Braddock Hotel, white cops had shot a Negro soldier. I was walking down St. Nicholas Avenue; I saw all of these Negroes hollering and running north from 125th Street. Some of them were loaded down with armfuls of stuff. I remember it was the bandleader Fletcher Henderson’s nephew “Shorty” Henderson who told me what had happened. Negroes were smashing store windows, and taking everything they could grab and carry-furniture, food, jewelry, clothes, whisky. Within an hour, every New York City cop seemed to be in Harlem. Mayor LaGuardia and the NAACP’s then Secretary, the famed late Walter White, were in a red firecar, riding around pleading over a loudspeaker to all of those shouting, muling, angry Negroes to please go home and stay inside.
Just recently I ran into Shorty Henderson on Seventh Avenue. We were laughing about a fellow whom the riot had left with the nickname of “Left Feet.” In a scramble in a women’s shoe store, somehow he’d grabbed five shoes, all of them for left feet! And we laughed about the scared little Chinese whose restaurant didn’t have a hand laid on it, because the rioters just about convulsed laughing when they saw the sign the Chinese had hastily stuck on his front door: “Me Colored Too.”
After the riot, things got very tight in Harlem. It was terrible for the night-life people, and for those hustlers whose main income had been the white man’s money. The 1935 riot had left only a relative trickle of the money which had poured into Harlem during the 1920’s. And now this new riot ended even that trickle. Today the white people who visit Harlem, and this mostly on weekend nights, are hardly more than a few dozen who do the twist, the frug, the Watusi, and all the rest of the current dance crazes in Small’s Paradise, owned now by the great basketball champion “Wilt the Stilt” Chamberlain, who draws crowds with his big, clean, All-American-athlete image. Most white people today are physically afraid to come to Harlem-and it’s for good reasons, too. Even for Negroes, Harlem night life is about finished. Most of the Negroes who have money to spend are spending it downtown somewhere in this hypocritical “integration,” in places where previously the police would have been called to haul off any Negro insane enough to try and get in. The already Croesus-rich white man can’t get another skyscraper hotel finished and opened before all these integration-mad Negroes, who themselves don’t own a tool shed, are booking the swanky new hotel for “cotillions” and “conventions.” Those rich whites could afford it when they used to throw away their money in Harlem. But Negroes can’t afford to be taking their money downtown to the white man.
* * *
Sammy and I, on a robbery job, got a bad scare, a very close call.
Things had grown so tight in Harlem that some hustlers had been forced to go to work. Even some prostitutes had gotten jobs as domestics, and cleaning office buildings at night. The pimping was so poor, Sammy had gone on the job with me. We had selected one of those situations considered “impossible.” But wherever people think that, the guards will unconsciously grow gradually more relaxed, until sometimes those can be the easiest jobs of all.
But right in the middle of the act, we had some bad luck. A bullet grazed Sammy. We just barely escaped.
Sammy fortunately wasn’t really hurt. We split up, which was always wise to do.
Just before daybreak, I went to Sammy’s apartment. His newest woman, one of those beautiful but hot-headed Spanish Negroes, was in there crying and carrying on over Sammy. She went for me, screaming and clawing; she knew I’d been in on it with him. I fended her off. Not able to figure out why Sammy didn’t shut her up, I did . . . and from the corner of my eye, I saw Sammy going for his gun.
Sammy’s reaction that way to my hitting his woman-close as he and I were-was the only weak spot I’d ever glimpsed. The woman screamed and dove for him. She knew as I did that when your best friend draws a gun on you, he usually has lost all control of his emotions, and he intends to shoot. She distracted Sammy long enough for me to bolt through the door. Sammy chased me, about a block.
We soon made up-on the surface. But things never are fully right again with anyone you have seen trying to kill you.
Intuition told us that we had better lay low for a good while. The worst thing was that we’d been seen. The police in that nearby town had surely circulated our general descriptions.
I just couldn’t forget that incident over Sammy’s woman. I came to rely more and more upon my brother Reginald as the only one in my world I could completely trust.
Reginald was lazy, I’d discovered that. He had quit his hustle altogether. But I didn’t mind that, really, because one could be as lazy as he wanted, if he would only use his head, as Reginald was doing. He had left my apartment by now.He was living off his “old settler” woman-when he was in town. I had also taught Reginald how he could work a little while for a railroad, then use his identification card to travel for nothing-and Reginald loved to travel. Several times, he had gone visiting all around, among our brothers and sisters. They had now begun to scatter to different cities. In Boston, Reginald was closer to our sister Mary man to Ella, who had been my favorite. Both Reginald and Mary were quiet types, and Ella and I were extroverts. And Shorty in Boston had given my brother a royal time.
Because of my reputation, it was easy for me to get into the numbers racket. That was probably Harlem’s only hustle which hadn’t slumped in business. In return for a favor to some white mobster, my new boss and his wife had just been given a six-months numbers banking privilege for the Bronx railroad area called Motthaven Yards. The white mobsters had the numbers racket split into specific areas. A designated area would be assigned to someone for a specified period of time. My boss’s wife had been Dutch Schultz’s secretary in the 1930’s, during the time when Schultz had strong-armed his way into control of the Harlem numbers business.
My job now was to ride a bus across the George Washington Bridge where a fellow was waiting for me to hand him a bag of numbers betting slips. We never spoke. I’d cross the street and catch the next bus back to Harlem. I never knew who that fellow was. I never knew who picked up the betting money for the slips that I handled. You didn’t ask questions in the rackets.
My boss’s wife and Gladys Hampton were the only two women I ever met in Harlem whose business ability I really respected. My boss’s wife, when she had the time and the inclination to talk, would tell me many interesting things. She would talk to me about the Dutch Schultz days-about deals that she had known, about graft paid to officials-rookie cops and shyster lawyers right on up into the top levels of police and politics. She knew from personal experiencehow crime existed only to the degree that the law cooperated with it. She showed me how, in the country’s entire social, political and economic structure, the criminal, the law, and the politicians were actually inseparable partners.
It was at this time that I changed from my old numbers man, the one I’d used since I first worked in Small’s Paradise. He hated to lose a heavy player, but he readily understood why I would now want to play with a runner of my own outfit. That was how I began placing my bets with West Indian Archie. I’ve mentioned him before-one of Harlem’s really _bad_ Negroes; one of those former Dutch Schultz strong-arm men around Harlem.
West Indian Archie had finished time in Sing Sing not long before I came to Harlem. But my boss’s wife had hired him not just because she knew him from the old days. West Indian Archie had the kind of photographic memory that put him among the elite of numbers runners. He never wrote down your number; even in the case of combination plays, he would just nod. He was able to file all the numbers in his head, and write them down for the banker only when he turned in his money. This made him the ideal runner because cops could never catch him with any betting slips.
I’ve often reflected upon such black veteran numbers men as West Indian Archie. If they had lived in another kind of society, their exceptional mathematical talents might have been better used. But they were black.
Anyway, it was status just to be known as a client of West Indian Archie’s, because he handled only sizable bettors. He also required integrity and sound credit: it wasn’t necessary that you pay as you played; you could pay West Indian Archie by the week. He always carried a couple of thousand dollars on him, his own money. If a client came up to him and said he’d hit for some moderate amount, say a fifty-cent or one-dollar combination, West Indian Archiewould peel off the three or six hundred dollars, and later get his money back from the banker.
Every weekend, I’d pay my bill-anywhere from fifty to even one hundred dollars, if I had really plunged on some hunch. And when, once or twice, I did hit, always just some combination, as I’ve described, West Indian Archie paid me off from his own roll.
The six months finally ended for my boss and his wife. They had done well. Their runners got nice tips, and promptly were snatched up by other bankers. I continued working for my boss and his wife in a gambling house they opened.
* * *
A Harlem madam I’d come to know-through having done a friend of hers a favor-introduced me to a special facet of the Harlem night world, something which the riot had only interrupted. It was the world where, behind locked doors, Negroes catered to monied white people’s weird sexual tastes.
The whites I’d known loved to rub shoulders publicly with black folks in the after-hours clubs and speakeasies. These, on the other hand, were whites who did not want it known that they had been anywhere near Harlem. The riot had made these exclusive white customers nervous. Their slipping into and about Harlem hadn’t been so noticeable when other whites were also around. But now they would be conspicuous; they also feared the recently aroused anger of Harlem Negroes. So the madam was safeguarding her growing operation by offering me a steerer’s job.
During the war, it was extremely difficult to get a telephone. One day the madam told me to stay at my apartment the next morning. She talked to somebody. I don’t know who it was, but before the next noon, I dialed the madam from my own telephone-unlisted.
This madam was a specialist in her field. If her own girls could not-or would not-accommodate a customer, she would send me to another place, usually an apartment somewhere else in Harlem, where the requested “specialty” was done.
My post for picking up the customers was right outside the Astor Hotel, that always-busy northwest comer of 45th Street and Broadway. Watching the moving traffic, I was soon able to spot the taxi, car, or limousine-even before it slowed down-with the anxious white faces peering out for the tall, reddish-brown-complexioned Negro wearing a dark suit, or raincoat, with a white flower in his lapel.
If they were in a private car, unless it was chauffeured I would take the wheel and drive where we were going. But if they were in a taxi, I would always tell the cabbie, “The Apollo Theater in Harlem, please,” since among New York City taxis a certain percentage are driven by cops. We would get another cab-driven by a black man-and I’d give him the right address.
As soon as I got that party settled, I’d telephone the madam. She would generally have me rush by taxi right back downtown to be on the 45th Street and Broadway comer at a specified time. Appointments were strictly punctual; rarely was I on the corner as much as five minutes. And I knew how to keep moving about so as not to attract the attention of any vice squad plainclothesmen or uniformed cops.
With tips, which were often heavy, sometimes I would make over a hundred dollars a night steering up to ten customers in a party-to see anything, to do anything, to have anything done to them, that they wanted. I hardly ever knewthe identities of my customers, but the few I did recognize, or whose names I happened to hear, remind me now of the Profumo case in England. The English are not far ahead of rich and influential Americans when it comes to seeking rarities and oddities.
Rich men, middle-aged and beyond, men well past their prime: these weren’t college boys, these were their Ivy League fathers. Even grandfathers, I guess. Society leaders. Big politicians. Tycoons. Important friends from out of town. City government big shots. All kinds of professional people. Star performing artists. Theatrical and Hollywood celebrities. And, of course, racketeers.
Harlem was their sin-den, their fleshpot. They stole off among taboo black people, and took off whatever antiseptic, important, dignified masks they wore in their white world. These were men who could afford to spend large amounts of money for two, three, or four hours indulging their strange appetites.
But in this black-white nether world, nobody judged the customers. Anything they could name, anything they could imagine, anything they could describe, they could do, or could have done to them, just as long as they paid.
In the Profumo case in England, Christine Keeler’s friend testified that some of her customers wanted to be whipped. One of my main steers to one specialty address away from the madam’s house was the apartment of a big, coal-black girl, strong as an ox, with muscles like a dockworker’s. A funny thing, it generally was the oldest of these white men-in their sixties, I know, some maybe in their seventies-they couldn’t seem to recover quickly enough from their last whipping so they could have me meet them again at 45th and Broadway to take them back to that apartment, to cringe on their knees and beg and cry out for mercy under that black girl’s whip. Some of them would pay me extra to come and watch them being beaten. That girl greased her big Amazon body all over to look shinier and blacker. She used small, plaited whips, she would drawblood, and she was making herself a small fortune off those old white men.
I wouldn’t tell all the things I’ve seen. I used to wonder, later on, when I was in prison, what a psychiatrist would make of it all. And so many of these men held responsible positions; they exercised guidance, influence, and authority over others.
In prison later, I’d think, too, about another thing. Just about all of those whites specifically expressed as their preference black, black, “the blacker the better!” The madam, having long since learned this, had in her house nothing but the blackest accommodating women she could find.
In all of my time in Harlem, I never saw a white prostitute touched by a white man. White girls were in some of the various Harlem specialty places. They would participate in customers’ most frequent exhibition requests-a sleek, black Negro male having a white woman. Was this the white man wanting to witness his deepest sexual fear? A few times, I even had parties that included white women whom the men had brought with them to watch this. I never steered any white women other than in these instances, brought by their own men, or who had been put into contact with me by a white Lesbian whom I knew, who was another variety of specialty madam.
This Lesbian, a beautiful white woman, had a mate Negro stable. Her vocabulary was all profanity. She supplied Negro males, on order, to well-to-do white women.
I’d seen this Lesbian and her blonde girl friend around Harlem, drinking and talking at bars, always with young Negroes. No one who didn’t know would ever guess that the Lesbian was recruiting. But one night I gave her and her girl friend some reefers which they said were the best they’d ever smoked. They lived in a hotel downtown, and after that, now and then, they would call me,and I would bring them some reefers, and we’d talk.
She told me how she had accidentally gotten started in her specialty. As a Harlem habitu‚, she had known Harlem Negroes who liked white women. Her role developed from a pattern of talk she often heard from bored, well-to-do white women where she worked, in an East Side beauty salon. Hearing the women complain about sexually inadequate mates, she would tell what she’d “heard” about Negro men. Observing how excited some of the women seemed to become, she finally arranged some dates with some of the Harlem Negroes she knew at her own apartment.
Eventually, she rented three midtown apartments where a woman customer could meet a Negro by appointment. Her customers recommended her service to their friends. She quit the beauty salon, set up a messenger service as an operating front, and ran all of her business by telephone.
She had also noticed the color preference. I never could substitute in an emergency, she would tell me with a laugh, because I was too light. She told me that nearly every white woman in her clientele would specify “a black one”; sometimes they would say “a _real_ one,” meaning black, no brown Negroes, no red Negroes.
The Lesbian thought up her messenger service idea because some of her trade wanted the Negroes to come to their homes, at times carefully arranged by telephone. These women lived in neighborhoods of swank brownstones and exclusive apartment houses, with doormen dressed like admirals. But white society never thinks about challenging any Negro in a servant role. Doormen would telephone up and hear “Oh, yes, send him right up, James”; service elevators would speed those neatly dressed Negro messenger boys right up-so that they could “deliver” what had been ordered by some of the most privileged white women in Manhattan. The irony is that those white women had no more respect for those Negroes than white men have had for the Negro women they have been “using” since slavery times. And, in turn, Negroes have no respect for the whites they get into bed with. I know the way I felt about Sophia, who still came to New York whenever I called her.
The West Indian boy friend of the Profumo scandal’s Christine Keeler, Lucky Gordon, and his friends must have felt the same way. After England’s leaders had been with those white girls, those girls, for their satisfaction, went to Negroes, to smoke reefers and make fun of some of England’s greatest peers as cuckolds and fools. I don’t doubt that Lucky Gordon knows the identity of “the man in the mask” and much more. If Gordon told everything those white girls told him, he would give England a new scandal.
It’s no different from what happens in some of America’s topmost white circles. Twenty years ago, I saw them nightly, with my own eyes, I heard them with my own ears.
The hypocritical white man will talk about the Negro’s “low morals.” But who has the world’s lowest morals if not whites? And not only that, but the “upper-class” whites! Recently, details were published about a group of suburban New York City white housewives and mothers operating as a professional call-girl ring. In some cases, these wives were out prostituting with the agreement, even the cooperation, of husbands, some of whom even waited at home, attending the children. And the customers-to quote a major New York City morning newspaper: “Some 16 ledgers and books with names of 200 Johns, many important social, financial and political figures, were seized in the raid Friday night.”
I have also read recently about groups of young white couples who gettogether, the husbands throw their house keys into a hat, then, blindfolded, the husbands draw out a key and spend the night with the wife that the house key matches. I have never heard of anything like that being done by Negroes, even Negroes who live in the worst ghettoes and alleys and gutters.
Early one morning in Harlem, a tall, light Negro wearing a hat and with a woman’s stocking drawn down over his face held up a Negro bartender and manager who were counting up the night’s receipts. Like most bars in Harlem, Negroes fronted, and a Jew really owned the place. To get a license, one had to know somebody in the State Liquor Authority, and Jews working with Jews seemed to have the best S.L.A. contacts. The black manager hired some Negro hoodlums to go hunting for the hold-up man. And the man’s description caused them to include me among their suspects. About daybreak that same morning, they kicked in the door of my apartment.
I told them I didn’t know a thing about it, that I hadn’t had a thing to do with whatever they were talking about. I told them I had been out on my hustle, steering, until maybe four in the morning, and then I had come straight to my apartment and gone to bed.
The strong-arm thugs were bluffing. They were trying to flush out the man who had done it. They still had other suspects to check out-that’s all that saved me.
I put on my clothes and took a taxi and I woke up two people, the madam, then Sammy. I had some money, but the madam gave me some more, and I told Sammy I was going to see my brother Philbert in Michigan. I gave Sammy the address, so that he could let me know when things got straightened out.
This was the trip to Michigan in the wintertime when I put congolene on my head, then discovered that the bathroom sink’s pipes were frozen. To keep thelye from burning up my scalp, I had to stick my head into the stool and flush and flush to rinse out the stuff.
A week passed in frigid Michigan before Sammy’s telegram came. Another red Negro had confessed, which enabled me to live in Harlem again.
But I didn’t go back into steering. I can’t remember why I didn’t. I imagine I must have felt like staying away from hustling for a while, going to some of the clubs at night, and narcotizing with my friends. Anyway, I just never went back to the madam’s job.
It was at about this time, too, I remember, that I began to be sick. I had colds all the time. It got to be a steady irritation, always sniffling and wiping my nose, all day, all night. I stayed so high that I was in a dream world. Now, sometimes, I smoked opium with some white friends, actors who lived downtown. And I smoked more reefers than ever before. I didn’t smoke the usual wooden-match-sized sticks of marijuana. I was so far gone by now that I smoked it almost by the ounce.
* * *
After awhile, I worked downtown for a Jew. He liked me because of something I had managed to do for him. He bought rundown restaurants and bars. Hymie was his name. He would remodel these places, then stage a big, gala reopening, with banners and a spotlight outside. The jam-packed, busy place with the big “Under New Management” sign in the window would attract speculators, usually other Jews who were around looking for something to invest money in. Sometimes even in the week of the new opening, Hymie would re-sell, at a good profit.
Hymie really liked me, and I liked him. He loved to talk. I loved to listen. Halfhis talk was about Jews and Negroes. Jews who had anglicized their names were Hymie’s favorite hate. Spitting and curling his mouth in scorn, he would reel off names of people he said had done this. Some of them were famous names whom most people never thought of as Jews.
“Red, I’m a Jew and you’re black,” he would say. “These Gentiles don’t like either one of us. If the Jew wasn’t smarter than the Gentile, he’d get treated worse than your people.”
Hymie paid me good money while I was with him, sometimes two hundred and three hundred dollars a week. I would have done anything for Hymie. I did do all kinds of things. But my main job was transporting bootleg liquor that Hymie supplied, usually to those spruced-up bars which he had sold to someone.
Another fellow and I would drive out to Long Island where a big bootleg whisky outfit operated. We’d take with us cartons of empty bonded whisky bottles that were saved illegally by bars we supplied. We would buy five-gallon containers of bootleg, funnel it into the bottles, then deliver, according to Hymie’s instructions, this or that many crates back to the bars.
Many people claiming they drank only such-and-such a brand couldn’t tell their only brand from pure week-old Long Island bootleg. Most ordinary whisky drinkers are “brand” chumps like this. On the side, with Hymie’s approval, I was myself at that time supplying some lesser quantities of bootleg to reputable Harlem bars, as well as to some of the few speakeasies still in Harlem.
But one weekend on Long Island, something happened involving the State Liquor Authority. One of New York State’s biggest recent scandals has been the exposure of wholesale S.L.A. graft and corruption. In the bootleg racket Iwas involved in, someone high up must have been taken for a real pile. A rumor about some “inside” tipster spread among Hymie and the others. One day Hymie didn’t show up where he had told me to meet him. I never heard from him again . . . but I did hear that he was put in the ocean and I knew he couldn’t swim.
Up in the Bronx, a Negro held up some Italian racketeers in a floating crap game. I heard about it on the wire. Whoever did it, aside from being a fool, was said to be a “tall, light-skinned” Negro, masked with a woman’s stocking. It has always made me wonder if that bar stickup had really been solved, or if the wrong man had confessed under beatings. But, anyway, the past suspicion of me helped to revive suspicion of me again.
Up in Fat Man’s Bar on the hill overlooking the Polo Grounds, I had just gone into a telephone booth. Everyone in the bar-all over Harlem, in fact-was drinking up, excited about the news that Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner, had just signed Jackie Robinson to play in major league baseball, with the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal-which would place the time in the fall of 1945.
Earlier in the afternoon, I had collected from West Indian Archie for a fifty-cent combination bet; he had paid me three hundred dollars right out of his pocket. I was telephoning Jean Parks. Jean was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived in Harlem. She once sang with Sarah Vaughan in the Bluebonnets, a quartet that sang with Earl Hines. For a long time, Jean and I had enjoyed a standing, friendly deal that we’d go out and celebrate when either of us hit the numbers. Since my last hit, Jean had treated me twice, and we laughed on the phone, glad that now I’d treat her to a night out. We arranged to go to a 52nd Street nightclub to hear Billie Holiday, who had been on the road and was just back in New York.
As I hung up, I spotted the two lean, tough-looking _paisanos_ gazing in at me cooped up in the
I didn’t need any intuition. And I had no gun. A cigarette case was the only thing in my pocket. I
started easing my hand down into my pocket, to try bluffing . . . and one of them snatched open
the door. They were dark olive, swarthy-featured Italians. I had my hand down into my pocket.
“Come on outside, we’ll hold court,” one said.
At that moment, a cop walked through the front door. The two thugs slipped out. I never in my life
have been so glad to see a cop.
I was still shaking when I got to the apartment of my friend, Sammy the Pimp, He told me that not
long before, West Indian Archie had been there looking for me.
Sometimes, recalling all of this, I don’t know, to tell the truth, how I am alive to tell it today. They
say God takes care of fools and babies. I’ve so often thought that Allah was watching over me.
Through all of this time of my life, I really _was_ dead-mentally dead. I just didn’t know that I was.
Anyway, to kill time, Sammy and I sniffed some of his cocaine, until the time came to pick up Jean
Parks, to go down and hear Lady Day. Sammy’s having told me about West Indian Archie looking
for me didn’t mean a thing . . . not right then.
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/