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Chapter 6 Detroit Red

Every day, I would gamble all of my tips-as high as fifteen and twenty dollars-on the numbers, anddream 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 alwayshad some money. I mean ordinary working people, the kind that we otherwise almost never saw in abar like Small's, who, with a good enough hit, had quit their jobs working somewhere downtown forthe white man. Often they had bought a Cadillac, and sometimes for three and four days, they weresetting up drinks and buying steaks for all their friends. I would have to pull two tables together intoone, 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 pennyon up to large sums on three-digit numbers. A hit meant duplicating the last three figures of the StockExchange'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 hitwould mean $9,000. Famous hits like that had bought controlling interests in lots of Harlem's bars andrestaurants, 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 cents would put one pennyon each of the six possible combinations of three digits. The number 840, combinated, would include840, 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 toplay 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 runnersjotting down people's bets on slips of paper in apartment house hallways, bars, barbershops, stores, onthe 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 paidoff 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 betslips, to their controllers. (And if you hit, you gave the runner a ten percent tip.) A controller mighthave as many as fifty runners working for him, and the controller got five percent of what he turnedover 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 foryears; 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, numbersfrom 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 afee.

  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 thecountry, and-although I'm no longer a gambling person-I'd lay a small wager for your favorite charitythat 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'thave been in a more educational situation. Some of the ablest of New York's black hustlers took aliking 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 ofmy tables. One day when I brought his beer, he said, "Red, hold still a minute." He went over me withone of those yellow tape measures, and jotted figures in his notebook. When I came to work the nextafternoon, 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 FortyThieves 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 arousesuspicion by his manner would go into a selected store about closing time, hide somewhere, and getlocked inside when the store closed. The police patrols would have been timed beforehand. Afterdark, he'd pack suits in bags, then turn off the burglar alarm, and use the telephone to call a waitingtruck and crew. When the truck came, timed with the police patrols, it would be loaded and gonewithin 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 peoplein the area was elementary for the hustlers, and, like them, in time I would learn to sense the presenceof any police types. In late 1942, each of the military services had their civilian-dress eyes and earspicking up anything of interest to them, such as hustles being used to avoid the draft, or who hadn'tregistered, 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-longshoremanthievery left over. Merchant marine sailors often brought in foreign items, bargains, and the bestmarijuana cigarettes to be had were made of the _gunja_ and _kisca_ that merchant sailors smuggledin from Africa and Persia.

  In the daytime, whites were given a guarded treatment. Whites who came at night got a betterreception; the several Harlem nightclubs they patronized were geared to entertain and jive the nightwhite crowd to get their money.

  And with so many law agencies guarding the "morals" of servicemen, any of them that came in, and alot did, were given what they asked for, and were spoken to if they spoke, and that was all, unlesssomeone knew them as natives of Harlem.

  What I was learning was the hustling society's first rule; that you never trusted anyone outside of yourown closemouthed circle, and that you selected with time and care before you made any intimateseven among these.

  The bartenders would let me know which among the regular customers were mostly "fronts," andwhich really had something going; which were really in the underworld, with downtown police orpolitical 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 ofin any way.

  The latter were extremely well known about Harlem, and they were feared and respected. It wasknown 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 forthemselves for being crazy with a pistol trigger or a knife. The old heads that I'm talking about weresuch 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 Harlemnumbers industry after white gangsters had awakened to the fortunes being made in what they hadpreviously considered "nigger pennies"; and the numbers game was referred to by the whiteracketeers as "nigger pool."Those tough Negroes' heyday had been before the big 1931 Seabury Investigation that started DutchSchultz on the way out, until his career ended with his 1934 assassination. I heard stories of how theyhad "persuaded" people with lead pipes, wet cement, baseball bats, brass knuckles, fists, feet, andblackjacks.

  Nearly every one of them had done some time, and had come back on the scene, and since hadworked as top runners for the biggest bankers who specialized in large bettors.

  There seemed to be an understanding that these Negroes and the tough black cops never clashed; Iguess both knew that someone would die. They had some bad black cops in Harlem, too. The FourHorsemen 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 crossedthe street to avoid him when he walked his 125th Street and Seventh Avenue beat. When I was inprison, someone brought me a story that Brisbane had been shot to death by a scared, nervous youngkid 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 thestringiest, scrawniest, black and white street prostitutes in Harlem. Afternoons around the bar, theold-timers who knew Cadillac well enough would tease him about how women who looked like hismade enough to feed themselves, let alone him. He'd roar with laughter right along with us; I can hearhim 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 theirexpressions in dance halls. Sammy and I became, in time, each other's closest friend. Sammy, who wasfrom Kentucky, was a cool, collected expert in his business, and his business was women. LikeCadillac, he too had both black and white women out making his living, but Sammy's women-whowould come into Small's sometimes, looking for him, to give him money, and have him buy them adrink-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 withher drawl; even the several Negro women numbers controllers around Small's really liked her. Whatmade a lot of Negroes around the bar laugh the hardest was the way she would take three syllables tosay "nigger." But what she usually was saying was "Ah jes' lu-uv ni-uh-guhs-." Give her two drinksand she would tell her life story in a minute; how in whatever little Alabama town it was she camefrom, 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, rightin her own house, with her family away, she threatened a Negro man who worked for her father thatif he didn't take her she would swear he tried rape. He had no choice, except that he quit working forthem. 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 hehad 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 fiftyone-dollar bills folded with a twenty on the inside and a one-hundred dollar bill on the outside. Wealways 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, comicold "Fewclothes." Fewclothes had been one of the best pickpockets in Harlem, back when the whitepeople swarmed up every night in the 1920's, but then during the Depression, he had contracted a badcase of arthritis in his hands. His finger joints were knotted and gnarled so that it made peopleuncomfortable to look at them. Rain, sleet, or snow, every afternoon, about six, Fewclothes would beat Small's, telling tall tales about the old days, and it was one of the day's rituals for one or anotherregular 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. Iwish 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 placehis order. I'd tell the cooks it was Fewclothes and he'd get the best in the house. I'd go back and serveit 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 inthere, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn'tknow 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 oncemaster 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 hadlost his fangs was still eating.

  Then there was the burglar, "Jumpsteady." In the ghettoes the white man has built for us, he has forcedus not to aspire to greater things, but to view everyday living as survival-and in that kind of acommunity, survival is what is respected. In any average white neighborhood bar, you couldn'timagine 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 areasdowntown, 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 apartmentsthrough windows. It was said that he was so cool that he had stolen even with people in the nextroom. I later found out that Jumpsteady always keyed himself up high on dope when he worked. Hetaught me some things that I was to employ in later years when hard times would force me to havemy own burglary ring.

  I should stress that Small's wasn't any nest of criminals. I dwell upon the hustlers because it was theirworld that fascinated me. Actually, for the night-life crowd, Small's was one of Harlem's two or threemost decorous nightspots. In fact, the New York City police department recommended Small's towhite 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, agood camera, fine perfume, a gun, anything from hot women to hot cars, even hot ice. I was one of thevery few males in this rooming house. This was during the war, when you couldn't turn on the radioand not hear about Guadalcanal or North Africa. In several of the apartments the women tenants wereprostitutes. 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'treflect too badly on that particular building, because almost everyone in Harlem needed some kind ofhustle 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 wasthese 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 ofmost women; there seemed to be a higher code of ethics and sisterliness among those prostitutes thanamong numerous ladies of the church who have more men for kicks than the prostitutes have for pay.

  And I am talking about both black and white. Many of the black ones in those wartime days wereright in step with the white ones in having husbands fighting overseas while they were laying up withother men, even giving them their husbands' money. And many women just faked as mothers andwives, while playing the field as hand as prostitutes-with their husbands and children right there inNew 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 moralswith 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, andwe would smoke reefers and talk. It generally would be after their morning rush-but let me tell youabout 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 wereworking. But what astonished me was the full-house crowd that rushed in between, say, six andseven-thirty in the morning, then rushed away, and by about nine, I would be the only man in thehouse.

  It was husbands-who had left home in time to stop by this St. Nicholas Avenue house before theywent on to work. Of course not the same ones every day, but always enough of them to make up therush. 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 theirhusbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagreeable and had made theirmen so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. To escape this tension and thechance of being ridiculed by his own wife, each of these men had gotten up early and come to aprostitute.

  The prostitutes had to make it their business to be students of men. They said that after most menpassed their virile twenties, they went to bed mainly to satisfy their egos, and because a lot of womendon't understand it that way, they damage and wreck a man's ego. No matter how little virility a manhas to offer, prostitutes make him feel for a time that he is the greatest man in the world. That's whythese prostitutes had that morning rush of business. More wives could keep their husbands if theyrealized their greatest urge is _to be men_.

  Those women would tell me anything. Funny little stories about the bedroom differences they sawbetween white and black men. The perversities! I thought I had heard the whole range of perversitiesuntil I later became a steerer taking white men to what they wanted. Everyone in the house laughedabout the little Italian fellow whom they called the "Ten Dollar A Minute Man." He came without failevery noontime, from his little basement restaurant up near the Polo Grounds; the joke was he neverlasted 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 theircustomers complaining that they never heard anything but griping from women who were beingtaken care of and given everything. The prostitutes said that most men needed to know what thepimps knew. A woman should occasionally be babied enough to show her the man had affection, butbeyond that she should be treated firmly. These tough women said that it worked with _them_. Allwomen, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they seestrength.

   From time to time, Sophia would come over to see me from Boston. Even among Harlem Negroes, herlooks gave me status. They were just like the Negroes everywhere else. That was why the whiteprostitutes made so much money. It didn't make any difference if you were in Lansing, Boston, orNew 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 alsomade 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 heraround until I got off from work. She was bothered about me living among the prostitutes until Iintroduced her to some of them, and they talked, and she thought they were great. They would tell herthey were keeping me straight for her. We would go to the Braddock Hotel bar, where we would meetsome 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 theworld were more white-woman-crazy in those days than most of those musicians. People in showbusiness, 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 tosome of the after-hours places and speakeasies. When the downtown nightclubs had closed, most ofthese 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 wouldtalk 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 SavoyBallroom. She fascinated my friend Sammy; he had watched her several times. Dancing only withNegroes, 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 asthe subway entrance. And that was it. She never would tell anyone her name, let alone reveal whereshe lived.

  Now, I'll tell you another peculiar case that worked out differently, and which taught me something Ihave since learned in a thousand other ways. This was my best early lesson in how most white men'shearts 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 Negrothan Negroes. This particular one talked more "hip" talk than we did. He would have fought anyonewho suggested he felt any race difference. Musicians around the Braddock could hardly move withoutfalling over him. Every time I saw him, it was "Daddy! Come on, let's get our heads tight!" Sammycouldn't stand him; he was underfoot wherever you went. He even wore a wild zoot suit, used aheavy 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 infact he lived with two of them in the same little apartment. I never was sure how they worked that oneout, 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 washigh-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 hadasked her, "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. AfterSmall's closed, I'd bring fast-spending white people who still wanted some drinking action to CreoleBill's speakeasy. That was my earliest experience at steering. The speakeasy was only Creole Bill'sapartment. I think a partition had been knocked out to make the living room larger. But theatmosphere, 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 ofhis spicy, delicious Creole dishes-gumbo, jambalaya. Bill's girl friend-a beautiful black girl-served thecustomers. Bill called her "Brown Sugar," and finally everyone else did. If a good number of customerswere to be served at one time, Creole Bill would bring out some pots, Brown Sugar would bring theplates, 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-Imean rice that stood every grain on its own, but I never knew the Chinese to do what Bill could withseafood and beans.

  Bill made money enough in that apartment speakeasy to open up a Creole restaurant famous inHarlem. He was a great baseball fan. All over the walls were framed, autographed photographs ofmajor 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 heardanything 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. Shehad just married some well-to-do Boston white fellow. He was in the service, he had been home onleave, and he had just gone back. She didn't mean it to change a thing between us. I told her it madeno difference. I had of course introduced Sophia to my friend Sammy, and we had gone out togethersome nights. And Sammy and I had thoroughly discus............

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