CHAPTER EIGHT: TRAPPED
There was the knocking at the door. Sammy, lying on his bed in pajamas and a bathrobe, called
When West Indian Archie answered, Sammy slid the round, two-sided shaving mirror under the
bed, with what little of the cocaine powder-or crystals, actually-was left, and I opened the door.
“Red-I want my money!”
A .32-20 is a funny kind of gun. It’s bigger than a .32. But it’s not as big as a .38. I had faced down
some dangerous Negroes. But no one who wasn’t ready to die messed with West Indian Archie.
I couldn’t believe it. He truly scared me. I was so incredulous at what was happening that it was
hard to form words with my brain and my mouth.
“Man-what’s the beef?”
West Indian Archie said he’d thought I was trying something when I’d told him I’d hit, but he’d paid
me the three hundred dollars until he could double-check his written betting slips; and, as he’d
thought, I hadn’t combinated the number I’d claimed, but another.
“Man, you’re crazy!” I talked fast; I’d seen out of the corner of my eye Sammy’s hand easing
under his pillow where he kept his Army .45. “Archie, smart a man as you’re supposed to be,
you’d pay somebody who hadn’t hit?”
The .32-20 moved, and Sammy froze. West Indian Archie told him, “I ought to shoot you through
the ear.” And he looked back at me. “You don’t have my money?”
I must have shaken my head. “I’ll give you until twelve o’clock tomorrow.” And he put his hand
behind him and pulled open the door. He backed out, and slammed it.
* * *
It was a classic hustler-code impasse. The money wasn’t the problem. I still had about two
hundred dollars of it. Had money been the issue, Sammy could have made up the difference; if it
wasn’t in his pocket, his women could quickly have raised it. West Indian Archie himself, for that
matter, would have loaned me three hundred dollars if I’d ever asked him, as many thousands of
dollars of mine as he’d gotten ten percent of. Once, in fact, when he’d heard I was broke, he had
looked me up and handed me some money and grunted, “Stick this in your pocket.”
The issue was the position which his action had put us both into. For a hustler in our sidewalk
jungle world, “face” and “honor” were important. No hustler could have it known that he’d been
“hyped,” meaning outsmarted or made a fool of. And worse, a hustler could never afford to have it
demonstrated that he could be bluffed, that he could be frightened by a threat, that he lacked
West Indian Archie knew that some young hustlers rose in stature in our world when they
somehow hoodwinked older hustlers, then put it on the wire for everyone to hear. He believed I
was trying that.
In turn, I knew he would be protecting his stature by broadcasting all over the wire his threat to
Because of this code, in my time in Harlem I’d personally known a dozen hustlers who,
threatened, left town, disgraced.
Once the wire had it, any retreat by either of us was unthinkable. The wire would be awaiting the
report of the showdown.
I’d also known of at least another dozen showdowns in which one took the Dead On Arrival ride to
the morgue, and the other went to prison for manslaughter or the electric chair for murder.
Sammy let me hold his .32. My guns were at my apartment. I put the .32 in my pocket, with my
hand on it, and walked out.
I couldn’t stay out of sight. I had to show up at all of my usual haunts. I was glad that Reginald
was out of town. He might have tried protecting me, and I didn’t want him shot in the head by
West Indian Archie.
I stood awhile on the corner, with my mind confused-the muddled thinking that’s characteristic of
the addict. Was West Indian Archie, I began to wonder, bluffing a hype on me? To make fun of
me? Some old hustlers did love to hype younger ones. I knew he wouldn’t do it as some would,
just to pick up three hundred dollars. But everyone was so slick. In this Harlem jungle people
would hype their brothers. Numbers runners often had hyped addicts who had hit, who were so
drugged that, when challenged, they really couldn’t be sure if they had played a certain number.
I began to wonder whether West Indian Archie might not be right. Had I really gotten my
combination confused? I certainly knew the two numbers I’d played; I knew I’d told him to combinate only one of them. Had I gotten mixed up about which number?
Have you ever been so sure you did something that you never would have thought of it again-
unless it was brought up again? Then you start trying tomentally confirm-and you’re only about
It was just about tune for me to go and pick up Jean Parks, to go downtown to see Billie at the
Onyx Club. So much was swirling in my head. I thought about telephoning her and calling it off,
making some excuse. But I knew that running now was the worst thing I could do. So I went on
and picked up Jean at her place. We took a taxi on down to 52nd Street. “_Billie Holiday_” and
those big photo blow-ups of her were under the lights outside. Inside, the tables were jammed
against the wall, tables about big enough to get two drinks and four elbows on; the Onyx was one of those very little places.
Billie, at the microphone, had just finished a number when she saw Jean and me. Her white gown glittered under the spotlight, her face had that coppery, Indianish look, and her hair was in that trademark ponytail. For her next number she did the one she knew I always liked so: “You Don’t Know What Love Is”-“until you face each dawn with sleepless eyes . . . until you’ve lost a love you hate to lose-”
When her set was done, Billie came over to our table. She and Jean, who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, hugged each other. Billie sensed something wrong with me. She knew that I was always high, but she knew me well enough to see that something else was wrong, and asked in her customary profane language what was the matter with me. And in my own foul vocabulary of those days, I pretended to be without a care, so she let it drop.
We had a picture taken by the club photographer that night. The three of us were sitting close together. That was the last time I ever saw Lady Day. She’s dead; dope and heartbreak stopped that heart as big as a barn and that sound and style that no one successfully copies. Lady Day sang with the _soul_ of Negroes from the centuries of sorrow and oppression. What a shame that proud,fine, black woman never lived where the true greatness of the black race was appreciated!
In the Onyx Club men’s room, I sniffed the little packet of cocaine I had gotten from Sammy. Jean and I, riding back up to Harlem in a cab, decided to have another drink. She had no idea what was happening when she suggested one of my main hangouts, the bar of the La Marr-Cheri on the corner of 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I had my gun, and the cocaine courage, and I said okay. And by the time we’d had the drink, I was so high that I asked Jean to take a cab on home, and she did. I never have seen Jean again, either.
Like a fool, I didn’t leave the bar. I stayed there, sitting, like a bigger fool, with my back to the door, thinking about West Indian Archie. Since that day, I have never sat with my back to a door-and I never will again. But it’s a good thing I was then. I’m positive if I’d seen West Indian Archie come in, I’d have shot to kill.
The next thing I knew West Indian Archie was standing before me, cursing me, loud, his gun on me. He was really making his public point, floor-showing for the people. He called me foul names, threatened me.
Everyone, bartenders and customers, sat or stood as though carved, drinks in mid-air. The jukebox, in the rear, was going. I had never seen West Indian Archie high before. Not a whisky high, I could tell it was something else. I knew the hustlers’ characteristic of keying up on dope to do a job.
I was thinking, “I’m going to kill Archie . . . I’m just going to wait until he turns around-to get the drop on him.” I could feel my own .32 resting against my ribs where it was tucked under my belt, beneath my coat.
West Indian Archie, seeming to read my mind, quit cursing. And his words jarred me.
“You’re thinking you’re going to kill me first, Red. But I’m going to give you something to think about. I’m sixty. I’m an old man. I’ve been to Sing Sing. My life is over. You’re a young man. Kill me, you’re lost anyway. All you can do is go to prison.”
I’ve since thought that West Indian Archie may have been trying to scare me into running, to save both his face and his life. It may be that’s why he was high. No one knew that I hadn’t killed anyone, but no one who knew me, including myself, would doubt that I’d kill.
I can’t guess what might have happened. But under the code, if West Indian Archie had gone out
of the door, after having humiliated me as he had, I’d have had to follow him out. We’d have shot
it out in the street.
But some friends of West Indian Archie moved up alongside him, quietly calling his name, “Archie
. . . Archie.”
And he let them put their hands on him-and they drew him aside. I watched them move him past
where I was sitting, glaring at me. They were working him back toward the rear.
Then, taking my time, I got down off the stool. I dropped a bill on the bar for the bartender.
Without looking back, I went out.
I stood outside, in full view of the bar, with my hand in my pocket, for perhaps five minutes. When
West Indian Archie didn’t come out, I left.
* * *
It must have been five in the morning when, downtown, I woke up a white actor I knew who lived
in the Howard Hotel on 45th Street, off Sixth Avenue.
I knew I had to stay high.
The amount of dope I put into myself within the next several hours sounds inconceivable. I got
some opium from that fellow. I took a cab back up to my apartment and I smoked it. My gun was
ready if I heard a mosquito cough.
My telephone rang. It was the white Lesbian who lived downtown. She wanted me to bring her
and her girl friend fifty dollars worth of reefers.
I felt that if I had always done it, I had to do it now. Opium had me drowsy. I had a bottle of
benzedrine tablets in my bathroom; I swallowed some of them to perk up. The two drugs working
in me had my head going in opposite directions at the same time.
I knocked at the apartment right behind mine. The dealer let me have loose marijuana on credit.
He saw I was so high that he even helped me roll it-a hundred sticks. And while we were rolling it,
we both smoked some.
Now opium, benzedrine, reefers.
I stopped by Sammy’s on the way downtown. His flashing-eyed Spanish Negro woman opened
the door. Sammy had gotten weak for that woman. He had never let any other of his women hang
around so much; now she was even answering his doorbell. Sammy was by this time very badly
addicted. He seemed hardly to recognize me. Lying in bed, he reached under and again brought
out that inevitable shaving mirror on which, for some reason, he always kept his cocaine crystals.
He motioned for me to sniff some. I didn’t refuse.
Going downtown to deliver the reefers, I felt sensations I cannot describe, in all those different
grooves at the same time. The only word to describe it was a _timelessness_. A day might have
seemed to me five minutes. Or a half-hour might have seemed a week.
I can’t imagine how I looked when I got to the hotel. When the Lesbian and her girl friend saw me,
they helped me to a bed; I fell across it and passed out.
That night, when they woke me up, it was half a day beyond West Indian Archie’s deadline. Late, I
went back uptown. It was on the wire. I could see people who knew me finding business
elsewhere. I knew nobody wanted to be caught in a crossfire.
But nothing happened. The next day, either. I just stayed high.
Some raw kid hustler in a bar, I had to bust in his mouth. He came back, pulling a blade; I would have shot him, but somebody grabbed him. They put him out, cursing that he was going to kill me.
Intuition told me to get rid of my gun. I gave a hustler the eye across the bar. I’d no more than slipped him the gun from my belt when a cop I’d seen about came in the other door. He had his hand on his gun butt. He knew what was all over the wire; he was certain I’d be armed. He came slowly over toward me, and I knew if I sneezed, he’d blast me down.
He said, “Take your hand out of your pocket, Red-_real_ carefully.”
I did. Once he saw me empty handed, we both could relax a little. He motioned for me to walk
outside, ahead of him, and I did. His partner was waiting on the sidewalk, opposite their patrol
car, double-parked with its radiogoing. With people stopping, looking, they patted me down there
on the sidewalk.
“What are you looking for?” I asked them when they didn’t find anything.
“Red, there’s a report you’re carrying a gun.”
“I had one,” I said. “But I threw it in the river.”
The one who had come into the bar said, “I think I’d leave town if I were you, Red.”
I went back into the bar. Saying that I had thrown my gun away had kept them from taking me to
my apartment. Things I had there could have gotten me more time than ten guns, and could have
gotten them a promotion.
Everything was building up, closing in on me. I was trapped in so many cross turns. West Indian
Archie gunning for me. The Italians who thought I’d stuck up their crap game after me. The
scared kid hustler I’d hit. The cops.
For four years, up to that point, I’d been lucky enough, or slick enough, to escape jail, or even
getting arrested. Or any _serious_ trouble. But I knew that any minute now something had to
* * *
Sammy had done something that I’ve often wished I could have thanked him for.
When I heard the car’s horn, I was walking on St. Nicholas Avenue. But my ears were hearing a
gun. I didn’t dream the horn could possibly be for me.
I jerked around; I came close to shooting.
I’d scared him nearly to death.
I couldn’t have been happier.
Inside the car, he told me Sammy had telephoned about how I was jammed up tight and told him
he’d better come and get me. And Shorty did his band’s date, then borrowed his piano man’s car, and burned up the miles to New York.
I didn’t put up any objections to leaving. Shorty stood watch outside my apartment. I brought out and stuffed into the car’s trunk what little stuff I cared to hang on to. Then we hit the highway. Shorty had been without sleep for about thirty-six hours. He told me afterward that through just about the whole ride back, I talked out of my head.
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/