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Chapter 5 Harlemite

"Get'cha goood haaaaam an' cheeeeese . . . sandwiches! Coffee! Candy! Cake! Ice Cream!" Rockingalong the tracks every other day for four hours between Boston and New York in the coach aisles ofthe New York, New Haven & Hartford's "Yankee Clipper."Old Man Rountree, an elderly Pullman porter and a friend of Elk's, had recommended the railroad jobfor me. He had told her the war was snatching away railroad men so fast that if I could pass fortwenty-one, he could get me on.

  Ella wanted to get me out of Boston and away from Sophia. She would have loved nothing better thanto have seen me like one of those Negroes who were already thronging Roxbury in the Army's khakiand thick shoes-home on leave from boot camp. But my age of sixteen stopped that.

  I went along with the railroad job for my own reasons. For a long time I'd wanted to visit New YorkCity. Since I had been in Roxbury, I had heard a lot about "the Big Apple," as it was called by the well-traveled musicians, merchant mariners, salesmen, chauffeurs for white families, and various kinds of hustlers I ran into. Even as far back as Lansing, I had been hearing about how fabulous New York was,and especially Harlem. In fact, my father had described Harlem with pride, and showed us pictures ofthe huge parades by the Harlem followers of Marcus Garvey. And every time Joe Louis won a fightagainst a white opponent, big front-page pictures in the Negro newspapers such as the _ChicagoDefender_, the _Pittsburgh Courier_, and the _Afro-American_ showed a sea of Harlem Negroescheering and waving and the Brown Bomber waving back at them from the balcony of Harlem'sTheresa Hotel. Everything I'd ever heard about New York City was exciting-things like Broadway'sbright lights and the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater in Harlem, where great bands played andfamous songs and dance steps and Negro stars originated.

  But you couldn't just pick up and go to visit New York from Lansing, or Boston, or anywhere else-notwithout money. So I'd never really given too much thought to getting to New York until the free wayto travel there came in the form of Ella's talk with old man Rountree, who was a member of Ella'schurch.

  What Ella didn't know, of course, was that I would continue to see Sophia. Sophia could get away onlya few nights a week. She said, when I told her about the train job, that she'd get away every night I gotback into Boston, and this would mean every other night, if I got the run I wanted. Sophia didn't wantme to leave at all, but she believed I was draft age already, and thought the train job would keep meout of the Army.

  Shorty thought it would be a great chance for me. He was worried sick himself about the draft call thathe knew was soon to come. Like hundreds of the black ghetto's young men, he was taking some stuffthat, it was said, would make your heart sound defective to the draft board's doctors.

  Shorty felt about the war the same way I and most ghetto Negroes did: "Whitey owns everything. Hewants us to go and bleed for him? Let him fight."Anyway, at the railroad personnel hiring office down on Dover Street, a tired-acting old white clerkgot down to the crucial point, when I came to sign up. "Age, Little?" When I told him "Twenty-one," henever lifted his eyes from his pencil. I knew I had the job.

  I was promised the first available Boston-to-New York fourth-cook job. But for a while, I worked therein the Dover Street Yard, helping to load food requisitions onto the trains. Fourth cook, I knew, wasjust a glorified name for dishwasher, but it wouldn't be my first time, and just as long as I traveledwhere I wanted, it didn't make any difference to me. Temporarily though, they put me on "TheColonial" that ran to Washington, D.C.

  The kitchen crew, headed by a West Indian chef named Duke Vaughn, worked with almostunbelievable efficiency in the cramped quarters. Against the sound of the train clacking along, thewaiters were jabbering the customers' orders, the cooks operated like machines, and five hundredmiles of dirty pots and dishes and silverware rattled back to me. Then, on the overnight layover, Inaturally went sightseeing in downtown Washington. I was astounded to find in the nation's capital, just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, thousands of Negroes living worse than any I'd ever seen in thepoorest sections of Roxbury; in dirt-floor shacks along unspeakably filthy lanes with names like PigAlley and Goat Alley. I had seen a lot, but never such a dense concentration of stumblebums, pushers,hookers, public crap-shooters, even little kids running around at midnight begging for pennies, half-naked and barefooted. Some of the railroad cooks and waiters had told me to be very careful, becausemuggings, knifings and robberies went on every night among these Negroes . . . just a few blocks fromthe White House.

  But I saw other Negroes better off; they lived in blocks of rundown red brick houses. The old"Colonial" railroaders had told me about Washington having a lot of "middle-class" Negroes withHoward University degrees, who were working as laborers, janitors, porters, guards, taxi-drivers, andthe like. For the Negro in Washington, mail-carrying was a prestige job.

  After a few of the Washington runs, I snatched the chance when one day personnel said I couldtemporarily replace a sandwich man on the "Yankee Clipper" to New York. I was into my zoot suitbefore the first passenger got off.

  The cooks took me up to Harlem in a cab. White New York passed by like a movie set, then abruptly,when we left Central Park at the upper end, at 110th Street, the people's complexion began to change.

  Busy Seventh Avenue ran along in front of a place called Small's Paradise. The crew had told mebefore we left Boston that it was their favorite night spot in Harlem, and not to miss it. No Negro placeof business had ever impressed me so much. Around the big, luxurious-looking, circular bar werethirty or forty Negroes, mostly men, drinking and talking.

  I was hit first, I think, by their conservative clothes and manners. Wherever I'd seen as many as tenBoston Negroes-let alone Lansing Negroes-drinking, there had been a big noise.

  But with all of these Harlemites drinking and talking, there was just a low murmur of sound.

  Customers came and went. The bartenders knew what most of them drank and automatically fixed it.

  A bottle was set on the bar before some.

  Every Negro I'd ever known had made a point of flashing whatever money he had. But these HarlemNegroes quietly laid a bill on the bar. They drank. They nonchalantly nodded to the bartender to poura drink for some friend, while the bartenders, smooth as any of the customers, kept making changefrom the money on the bar.

  Their manners seemed natural; they were not putting on any airs. I was awed. Within the first fiveminutes in Small's, I had left Boston and Roxbury forever.

  I didn't yet know that these weren't what you might call everyday or average Harlem Negroes. Lateron, even later that night, I would find out that Harlem contained hundreds of thousands of my peoplewho were just as loud and gaudy as Negroes anywhere else. But these were the cream of the older, more mature operators in Harlem. The day's "numbers" business was done. The night's gambling andother forms of hustling hadn't yet begun. The usual night-life crowd, who worked on regular jobs allday, were at home eating their dinners. The hustlers at this time were in the daily six o'clockcongregation, having their favorite bars all over Harlem largely to themselves.

  From Small's, I taxied over to the Apollo Theater. (I remember so well that Jay McShann's band wasplaying, because his vocalist was later my close friend, Walter Brown, the one who used to sing"Hooty Hooty Blues.") From there, on the other side of 125th Street, at Seventh Avenue, I saw the big,tall, gray Theresa Hotel. It was the finest in New York City where Negroes could then stay, yearsbefore the downtown hotels would accept the black man. (The Theresa is now best known as the placewhere Fidel Castro went during his U.N. visit, and achieved a psychological coup over the U.S: StateDepartment when it confined him to Manhattan, never dreaming that he'd stay uptown in Harlemand make such an impression among the Negroes.)The Braddock Hotel was just up 126th Street, near the Apollo's backstage entrance. I knew its bar wasfamous as a Negro celebrity hang-out. I walked in and saw, along that jam-packed bar, such famousstars as Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington.

  As Dinah Washington was leaving with some friends, I overheard someone say she was on her wayto. the Savoy Ballroom where Lionel Hampton was appearing that night-she was then Hamp'svocalist. The ballroom made the Roseland in Boston look small and shabby by comparison. And thelindy-hopping there matched the size and elegance of the place. Hampton's hard-driving outfit kept ared-hot pace with his greats such as Amett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Alvin Hayse, JoeNewman, and George Jenkins. I went a couple of rounds on the floor with girls from the sidelines.

  Probably a third of the sideline booths were filled with white people, mostly just watching theNegroes dance; but some of them danced together, and, as in Boston, a few white women were withNegroes. The people kept shouting for Hamp's "Flyin' Home," and finally he did it. (I could believe thestory I'd heard in Boston about this number-that once in the Apollo, Hamp's "Flyin' Home" had madesome reefer-smoking Negro in the second balcony believe he could fly, so he tried-and jumped-andbroke his leg, an event later immortalized in song when Earl Hines wrote a hit tune called "SecondBalcony Jump.") I had never seen such fever-heat dancing. After a couple of slow numbers cooled theplace off, they brought on Dinah Washington. When she did her "Salty Papa Blues," those people justabout tore the Savoy roof off. (Poor Dinah's funeral was held not long ago in Chicago. I read that overtwenty thousand people viewed her body, and I should have been there myself. Poor Dinah! Webecame great friends, back in those days.)But this night of my first visit was Kitchen Mechanics' Night at the Savoy, the traditional Thursdaynight off for domestics. I'd say there were twice as many women as men in there, not only kitchenworkers and maids, but also war wives and defense-worker women, lonely and looking. Out in thestreet, when I left the ballroom, I heard a prostitute cursing bitterly that the professionals couldn't doany business because of the amateurs.

   Up and down, along and between Lenox and Seventh and Eighth avenues, Harlem was like sometechnicolor bazaar. Hundreds of Negro soldiers and sailors, gawking and young like me, passed by.

  Harlem by now was officially off limits to white servicemen. There had already been some muggingsand robberies, and several white servicemen had been found murdered. The police were also trying todiscourage white civilians from coming uptown, but those who wanted to still did. Every manwithout a woman on his arm was being "worked" by the prostitutes. "Baby, wanna have some fun?"The pimps would sidle up close, stage-whispering, "All kinds of women, Jack-want a white woman?"And the hustlers were merchandising: "Hundred-dollar ring, man, diamond; ninety-dollar watch, too-look at 'em. Take 'em both for twenty-five."In another two years, I could have given them all lessons. But that night, I was mesmerized. Thisworld was where I belonged. On that night I had started on my way to becoming a Harlemite. I wasgoing to become one of the most depraved parasitical hustlers among New York's eight millionpeople-four million of whom work, and the other four million of whom live off them.

  I couldn't quite believe all that I'd heard and seen that night as I lugged my shoulder-strap sandwichbox and that heavy five-gallon aluminum coffee pot up and down the aisles of the "Yankee Clipper"back to Boston. I wished that Ella and I had been on better terms so that I could try to describe to herhow I felt. But I did talk to Shorty, urging him to at least go to see the Big Apple music world. Sophialistened to me, too. She told me that I'd never be satisfied anywhere but New York. She was so right.

  In one night, New York-Harlem-had just about narcotized me.

  That sandwich man I'd replaced had little chance of getting his job back. I went bellowing up anddown those train aisles. I sold sandwiches, coffee, candy, cake, and ice cream as fast as the railroad'scommissary department could supply them. It didn't take me a week to learn that all you had to dowas give white people a show and they'd buy anything you offered them. It was like popping yourshoeshine rag. The dining car waiters and Pullman porters knew it too, and they faked their UncleTomming to get bigger tips. We were in that world of Negroes who are both servants andpsychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will payliberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.

  Every layover night in Harlem, I ran and explored new places. I first got a room at the Harlem YMCA,because it was less than a block from Small's Paradise. Then, I got a cheaper room at Mrs. Fisher'srooming house which was close to the YMCA. Most of the railroad men stayed at Mrs. Fisher's. Icombed not only the bright-light areas, but Harlem's residential areas from best to worst, from SugarHill up near the Polo Grounds, where many famous celebrities lived, down to the slum blocks of oldrat-trap apartment houses, just crawling with everything you could mention that was illegal andimmoral. Dirt, garbage cans overflowing or kicked over; drunks, dope addicts, beggars. Sleazy bars,store-front churches with gospels being shouted inside, "bargain" stores, hockshops, undertakingparlors. Greasy "home-cooking" restaurants, beauty shops smoky inside from Negro women's hairgetting fried, barbershops advertising conk experts. Cadillacs, secondhand and new, conspicuousamong the cars on the streets.

   All of it was Lansing's West Side or Roxbury's South End magnified a thousand times. Little basementdance halls with "For Rent" signs on them. People offering you little cards advertising "rent-raisingparties." I went to one of these-thirty or forty Negroes sweating, eating, drinking, dancing, andgambling in a jammed, beat-up apartment, the record player going full blast, the fried chicken orchitlins with potato salad and collard greens for a dollar a plate, and cans of beer or shots of liquor forfifty cents. Negro and white canvassers sidled up alongside you, talking fast as they tried to get you tobuy a copy of the _Daily Worker_: "This paper's trying to keep your rent controlled . . . Make thatgreedy landlord kill them rats in your apartment . . . This paper represents the only political party thatever ran a black man for the Vice Presidency of the United States . . . Just want you to read, won't takebut a little of your time . . . Who do you think fought the hardest to help free those Scottsboro boys?"Things I overheard among Negroes when the salesmen were around let me know that the papersomehow was tied in with the Russians, but to my sterile mind in those early days, it didn't meanmuch; the radio broadcasts and the newspapers were then full of our-ally-Russia, a strong, muscularpeople, peasants, with their backs to the wall helping America to fight Hitler and Mussolini.

  But New York was heaven to me. And Harlem was Seventh Heaven! I hung around in Small's and theBraddock bar so much that the bartenders began to pour a shot of bourbon, my favorite brand of it,when they saw me walk in the door. And the steady customers in both places, the hustlers in Small'sand the entertainers in the Braddock, began to call me "Red," a natural enough nickname in view ofmy bright red conk. I now had my conk done in Boston at the shop of Abbott and Fogey; it was thebest conk shop on the East Coast, according to the musical greats who had recommended it to me.

  My friends now included musicians like Duke Ellington's great drummer, Sonny Greer, and that greatpersonality with the violin, Ray Nance. He's the one who used to stag in that wild "scat" style: "Blipblip-de-blop-de-blam-blam-" And people like Cootie Williams, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, who'dkid me about his conk-he had nothing up there but skin. He was hitting the heights then with hissong, "Hey, Pretty Mama, Chunk Me In Your Big Brass Bed." I also knew Sy Oliver; he was married toa red-complexioned girl, and they lived up on Sugar Hill; Sy did a lot of arranging for Tommy Dorseyin those days. His most famous tune, I believe, was "Yes, Indeed!"The regular "Yankee Clipper" sandwich man, when he came back, was put on another train. Hecomplained about seniority, but my sales record made them placate him some other way. The waitersand cooks had begun to call me "Sandwich Red."By that time, they had a laughing bet going that I wasn't going to last, sales or not, because I had sorapidly become such an uncouth, wild young Negro. Profanity had become my language. I'd evencurse customers, especially servicemen; I couldn't stand them. I remember that once, when somepassenger complaints had gotten me a warning, and I wanted to be careful, I was working down theaisle and a big, beefy, red-faced cracker soldier got up in front of me, so drunk he was weaving, andannounced loud enough that everybody in the car heard him, "I'm going to fight you, nigger." Iremember the tension. I laughed and told him, "Sure, I'll fight, but you've got too many clothes on." Hehad on a big Army overcoat. He took that off, and I kept laughing and said he still had on too many. I was able to keep that cracker stripping off clothes until he stood there drunk with nothing on from hispants up, and the whole car was laughing at him, and some other soldiers got him out of the way. Iwent on. I never would forget that-that I couldn't have whipped that white man as badly with a clubas I had with my mind.

  Many of the New Haven Line's cooks and waiters still in railroad service today will remember oldPappy Cousins. He was the "Yankee Clipper" steward, a white man, of course, from Maine. (Negroeshad been in dining car service as much as thirty and forty years, but in those days there were noNegro stewards on the New Haven Line.) Anyway, Pappy Cousins loved whisky, and he likedeverybody, even me. A lot of passenger complaints about me, Pappy had let slide. He'd ask some ofthe old Negroes working with me to try and calm me down.

  "Man, you can't tell him nothing!" they'd exclaim. And they couldn't. At home in Roxbury, they wouldsee me parading with Sophia, dressed in my wild zoot suits. Then I'd come to work, loud and wildand half-high on liquor or reefers, and I'd stay that way, jamming sandwiches at people until we got toNew York. Off the train, I'd go through that Grand Central Station afternoon rush-hour crowd, andmany white people simply stopped in their tracks to watch me pass. The drape and the cut of a zootsuit showed to the best advantage if you were tall-and I was over six feet. My conk was fire-red. I wasreally a clown, but my ignorance made me think I was "sharp." My knob-toed, orange-colored "kickup" shoes were nothing but Florsheims, the ghetto's Cadillac of shoes in those days. (Some shoecompanies made these ridiculous styles for sale only in the black ghettoes where ignorant Negroes likeme would pay the big-name price for something that we associated with being rich.) And then,between Small's Paradise, the Braddock Hotel, and other places-as much as my twenty-or twenty-fivedollar pay would allow, I drank liquor, smoked marijuana, painted the Big Apple red with increasingnumbers of friends, and finally in Mrs. Fisher's rooming house I got a few hours of sleep before the"Yankee Clipper" rolled again.

   It was inevitable that I was going to be fired sooner or later. What finally finished me was an angryletter from a passenger. The conductors added their-bit, telling how many verbal complaints they'dhad, and how many warnings I'd been given.

  But I didn't care, because in those wartime days such jobs as I could aspire to were going begging.

  When the New Haven Line paid me off, I decided it would be nice to make a trip to visit my brothersand sisters in Lansing. I had accumulated some railroad free-travel privileges.

  None of them back in Michigan could believe it was me. Only my oldest brother, Wilfred, wasn'tthere; he was away at Wilberforce University in Ohio studying a trade. But Philbert and Hilda wereworking in Lansing. Reginald, the one who had always looked up to me, had gotten big enough tofake his age, and he was planning soon to enter the merchant marine. Yvonne, Wesley and Robertwere in school.

   My conk and whole costume were so wild that I might have been taken as a man from Mars. I causeda minor automobile collision; one driver stopped to gape at me, and the driver behind bumped intohim. My appearance staggered the older boys I had once envied; I'd stick out my hand, saying "Skinme, daddy-o!" My stories about the Big Apple, my reefers keeping me sky-high-wherever I went, Iwas the life of the party. "My man! . . . Gimme some skin!"The only thing that brought me down to earth was the visit to the state hospital in Kalamazoo. Mymother sort of half-sensed who I was.

  And I looked up Shorty's mother. I knew he'd be touched by my doing that. She was an old lady, andshe was glad to hear from Shorty through me. I told her that Shorty was doing fine and one day wasgoing to be a great leader of his own band. She asked me to tell Shorty that she wished he'd write her,and send her something.

  And I dropped over to Mason to see Mrs. Swerlin, the woman at the detention home who had kept methose couple of years. Her mouth flew open when she came to the door. My sharkskin gray "CabCalloway" zoot suit, the long, narrow, knob-toed shoes, and the four-inch-brimmed pearl-gray hatover my conked fire-red hair; it was just about too much for Mrs. Swerlin. She just managed to pullherself together enough to invite me in. Between the way I looked and my style of talk, I made her sonervous and uncomfortable that we were both glad when I left.

  The night before I left, a dance was given in the Lincoln School gymnasium. (I've since learned that ina strange city, to find the Negroes without asking where, you just check in the phone book for a"Lincoln School." It's always located in the segregated black ghetto-at least it was, in those days.) I'dleft Lansing unable to dance, but now I went around the gymnasium floor flinging little girls over myshoulders and hips, showing my most startling steps. Several times, the little band nearly stopped,and nearly everybody left the floor, watching with their eyes like saucers. That night, I even signedautographs-"Harlem Red"-and I left Lansing shocked and rocked.

  Back in New York, stone broke and without any means of support, I realized that the railroad was allthat I actually knew anything about. So I went over to the Seaboard Line's hiring office. The railroadsneeded men so badly that all I had to do was tell them I had worked on the New Haven, and two dayslater I was on the "Silver Meteor" to St. Petersburg and Miami. Renting pillows and keeping thecoaches clean and the white passengers happy, I made about as much as I had with sandwiches.

  I soon ran afoul of the Florida cracker who was assistant conductor. Back in New York, they told me tofind another job. But that afternoon, when I walked into Small's Paradise, one of the bartenders,knowing how much I loved New York, called me aside and said that if I were wilting to quit therailroad, I might be able to replace a day waiter who was about to go into the Army.

  The owner of the bar was Ed Small. He and his brother Charlie were inseparable, and I guess Harlemdidn't have two more popular and respected people. They knew I was a railroad man, which, for awaiter, was the best kind of recommendation. Charlie Small was the one I actually talked with in their office. I was afraid he'd want to wait to ask some of his old-timer railroad friends for their opinion.

  Charlie wouldn't have gone for anybody he heard was wild. But he decided on the basis of his ownimpression, having seen me in his place so many times, sitting quietly, almost in awe, observing thehustling set. I told him, when he asked, that I'd never been in trouble with the police-and up to then,that was the truth. Charlie told me their rules for employees: no lateness, no laziness, no stealing, nokind of hustling off any customers, especially men in uniform. And I was hired.

  This was in 1942.I had just turned seventeen.

   With Small's practically in the center of everything, waiting tables there was Seventh Heaven seventimes over. Charlie Small had no need to caution me against being late; I was so anxious to be there,I'd arrive an hour early. I relieved the morning waiter. As far as he was concerned, mine was theslowest, most no-tips time of day, and sometimes he'd stick around most of that hour teaching methings, for he didn't want to see me fired.

  Thanks to him, I learned very quickly dozens of little things that could really ingratiate a new waiterwith the cooks and bartenders. Both of these, depending on how they liked the waiter, could make hisjob miserable or pleasant-and I meant to become indispensable. Inside of a week, I had succeeded withboth. And the customers who had seen me among them around the bar, recognizing me now in thewaiter's jacket, were pleased and surprised; and they couldn't have been more friendly. And I couldn'thave been more solicitous.

  "Another drink? . . . Right away, sir . . . Would you like dinner? . . . It's very good . . . Could I get you amenu, sir? . . . Well, maybe a sandwich?"Not only the bartenders and cooks, who knew everything about everything, it seemed to me, but eventhe customers, also began to school me, in little conversations by the bar when I wasn't busy.

  Sometimes a customer would talk to me as he ate. Sometimes I'd have long talks-absorbingeverything-with the real old-timers, who had been around Harlem since Negroes first came there.

  That, in fact, was one of my biggest surprises: that Harlem hadn't always been a community ofNegroes.

  It first had been a Dutch settlement, I learned. Then began the massive waves of poor and half-starvedand ragged immigrants from Europe, arriving with everything they owned in the world in bags andsacks on their backs. The Germans came first; the Dutch edged away from them, and Harlem becameall German.

  Then came the Irish, running from the potato famine. The Germans ran, looking down their noses atthe Irish, who took over Harlem. Next, the Italians; same thing-the Irish ran from them. The Italianshad Harlem when the Jews came down the gangplanks-and then the Italians left.

   Today, all these same immigrants' descendants are running as hard as they can to escape thedescendants of the Negroes who helped to unload the immigrant ships.

  I was staggered when old-timer Harlemites told me that while this immigrant musical chairs gamehad been going on, Negroes had been in New York City since 1683, before any of them came, and hadbeen ghettoed all over the city. They had first been in the Wall Street area; then they were pushed intoGreenwich Village. The next shove was up to the Pennsylvania Station area. And men, the last stopbefore Harlem, the black ghetto was concentrated around 52nd Street, which is how 52nd Street gotthe Swing Street name and reputation that lasted long after the Negroes were gone.

  Then, in 1910, a Negro real estate man somehow got two or three Negro families into one JewishHarlem apartment house. The Jews flew from that house, then from that block, and more Negroescame in to fill their apartments. Then whole blocks of Jews ran, and still more Negroes came uptown,until in a short time, Harlem was like it still is today-virtually all black.

  Then, early in the 1920's music and entertainment sprang up as an industry in Harlem, supported bydowntown whites who poured uptown every night. It all started about the time a tough young NewOrleans cornet man named Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong climbed off a train in New York wearingclodhopper policemen's shoes, and started playing with Fletcher Henderson. In 1925, Small's Paradisehad opened with crowds all across Seventh Avenue; in 1926, the great Cotton Club, where DukeEllington's band would play for five years; also in 1926 the Savoy Ballroom opened, a whole blockfront on Lenox Avenue, with a two-hundred-foot dance floor under spotlights before two bandstandsand a disappearing rear stage.

  Harlem's famous image spread until it swarmed nightly with white people from all over the world.

  The tourist buses came there. The Cotton Club catered to whites only, and hundreds of other clubsranging on down to cellar speakeasies catered to white people's money. Some of the best-known wereConnie's Inn, the Lenox Club, Barron's, The Nest Club, Jimmy's Chicken Shack, and Minton's. TheSavoy, the Golden Gate, and theRenaissance ballrooms battled for the crowds-the Savoy introduced such attractions as ThursdayKitchen Mechanics' Nights, bathing beauty contests, and a new car given away each Saturday night.

  They had bands from all across the country in the ballrooms and the Apollo and Lafayette theaters.

  They had colorful bandleaders like 'Fess Williams in his diamond-studded suit and top hat, and CabCalloway in his white zoot suit to end all zoots, and his wide-brimmed white hat and string tie, settingHarlem afire with "Tiger Rag" and "St. James Infirmary" and "Minnie the Moocher."Blacktown crawled with white people, with pimps, prostitutes, bootleggers, with hustlers of all kinds,with colorful characters, and with police and prohibition agents. Negroes danced like they never haveanywhere before or since. I guess I must have heard twenty-five of the old-timers in Small's swear tome that they had been the first to dance in the Savoy the "Lindy Hop" which was born there in 1927,named for Lindbergh, who had just made his flight to Paris.

   Even the little cellar places with only piano space had fabulous keyboard artists such as James P.

  Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton, and singers such as Ethel Waters. And at four A.M., when all thelegitimate clubs had to close, from all over town the white and Negro musicians would come to someprearranged Harlem after-hours spot and have thirty-and forty-piece jam sessions that would last intothe next day.

  When it all ended with the stock market crash in 1929, Harlem had a world reputation as America'sCasbah. Small's had been a part of all that. There, I heard the old-timers reminisce about all those greattimes.

  Every day I listened raptly to customers who felt like talking, and it all added to my education. Myears soaked it up like sponges when one of them, in a rare burst of confidence, or a little beyond hisusual number of drinks, would tell me inside things about the particular form of hustling that hepursued as a way of life. I was thus schooled well, by experts in such hustles as the numbers, pimping,con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery.


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