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Chapter 7 Hustler

I  can't remember all the hustles I had during the next two years in Harlem, after the abrupt end of myriding 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 CentralStation. Big blackjack and poker games went on in there around the clock. Sometimes five hundreddollars would be on the table. One day, in a blackjack game, an old cook who was dealing the cardstried 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 rightdown the middle of my back. Sure enough, someone had squealed. Two big, beefy-faced Irish copscame 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 ridesomewhere. And I knew that by the next day, every railroad's personnel office would have a blackballon 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 dopesquad detectives were too familiar with me. I was a true hustler-uneducated, unskilled at anythinghonorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any preythat 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 arekeeping 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-timehustlers never can relax to appraise what they are doing and where they are bound. As is the case inany jungle, the hustler's every waking hour is lived with both the practical and the subconsciousknowledge 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 thesejobs 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 .25automatic. But for working, I carried a .32, a .38 or a .45. I saw how when the eyes stared at the bigblack hole, the faces fell slack and the mouths sagged open. And when I spoke, the people seemed tohear 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 to another fifteen-to twenty-dollar-a-week 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 makingour getaway, running, when we heard the sirens. Instantly, we slowed to walking. As a police carscreeched to a stop, we stepped out into the street, meeting it, hailing it to ask for directions. Theymust 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 rulenever 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 Iwould 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'dstarted in Small's Paradise. Playing my hunches, many a day I'd have up to forty dollars on twonumbers, hoping for that fabulous six hundred-to-one payoff. But I never did hit a big number fullforce. There's no telling what I would have done if ever I'd landed $10,000 or $12,000 at one time. Ofcourse, once in a while I'd hit a small combination figure. Sometimes, flush like that, I'd telephoneSophia 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 ourfamily, and what a-shame it was that our book-loving oldest brother Wilfred had never had the chanceto go to some of those big universities where he would have gone far. And we exchanged thoughts wehad never shared with anyone.

  Reginald, in his quiet way, was a mad fan of musicians and music. When his ship sailed one morningwithout 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 Negromusician around New York in 1944-1945.

  Reginald and I went to the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theater, the Braddock Hotel bar, thenightclubs 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' feelingsthat the living end of the big bands was Lionel Hampton's. I was very close to many of the men inHamp's band; I introduced Reginald to them, and also to Hamp himself, and Hamp's wife andbusiness manager, Gladys Hampton. One of this world's sweetest people is Hamp. Anyone whoknows him will tell you that he'd often do the most generous things for people he barely knew. Asmuch money as Hamp has made, and still makes, he would be broke today if his money and hisbusiness weren't handled by Gladys, who is one of the brainiest women I ever met. The ApolloTheater's owner, Frank Schifrman, could tell you. He generally signed bands to play for a set weeklyamount, but I know that once during those days Gladys Hampton instead arranged a deal for Hamp'sband to play for a cut of the gate. Then the usual number of shows was doubled up-if I'm notmistaken, eight shows a day, instead of the usual four-and Hamp's pulling power cleaned up. GladysHampton used to talk to me a lot, and she tried to give me good advice: "Calm down, Red." Gladyssaw 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," Reginaldasked me no questions. After he came to Harlem, I went on more jobs than usual. I guess that whatinfluenced 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 dollarsa month, I think, in the front basement of a house on 147th Street between Convent and St. NicholasAvenues. Living in the rear basement apartment, right behind Reginald and me, was one of Harlem'smost 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 whitenightclubs 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 drivinguptown, bringing those white people who never could get enough of Negro _soul_. The placespopular with these whites ranged all the way from the big locally famous ones such as Jimmy'sChicken 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 Negrowould 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'sbacks and uproariously laughing and applauding the music. A lot of the whites, drunk, would gostaggering up to Negroes, the waiters, the owners, or Negroes at tables, wringing their hands, eventrying to hug them,"You're just as good as I am-I want you to know that!" The most famous places drew both Negro andwhite celebrities who enjoyed each other. A jam-packed four-thirty A.M. crowd at Jimmy's ChickenShack or Dickie Wells' might have such jam-session entertainment as Hazel Scott playing the piano forBillie Holiday singing the blues. Jimmy's Chicken Shack, incidentally, was where once, later on, Iworked briefly as a waiter. That's where Redd Foxx was the dishwasher who kept the kitchen crew institches.

  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 takerisks 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 Itook 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 intobarbershops, beauty parlors, and bars acting very nervous as he let the customers peep into his smallvalise of "loot." With so many thieves around anxious to get rid of stolen good-quality merchandisecheaply, 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 twicewhat it had cost. And if any cop stopped Reginald, he had in his pocket both the peddler's license andthe manufacturers' outlet bills of sale. Reginald only had to be certain that none of the customers towhom 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 outNegro-happy white women to him, and explain that a Negro with any brains could wrap thesewomen around his ringers. But I have to say this for Reginald: he never liked white women. Iremember 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 calledthem back in those days. She was a waitress in an exclusive restaurant downtown. She lavished onReginald 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. Reginaldshowed, in often surprising ways, more sense than a lot of working hustlers twice his age. Reginaldthen 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 highpitch. Old-timers told me that Harlem had never been the same since the 1935 riot, when millions ofdollars worth of damage was done by thousands of Negroes, infuriated chiefly by the whitemerchants 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 realreason was to stop Negroes from dancing with white women. Harlem said that no one dragged thewhite women in there. Adam Clayton Powell made it a big fight. He had successfully foughtConsolidated Edison and the New York Telephone Company until they had hired Negroes. Then hehad 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 anotherone 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 walkingdown 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 FletcherHenderson's nephew "Shorty" Henderson who told me what had happened. Negroes were smashingstore 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 theNAACP's then Secretary, the famed late Walter White, were in a red firecar, riding around pleadingover 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 whomthe riot had left with the nickname of "Left Feet." In a scramble in a women's shoe store, somehow he'dgrabbed five shoes, all of them for left feet! And we laughed about the scared little Chinese whoserestaurant didn't have a hand laid on it, because the rioters just about convulsed laughing when theysaw 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 thosehustlers whose main income had been the white man's money. The 1935 riot had left only a relativetrickle of the money which had poured into Harlem during the 1920's. And now this new riot endedeven that trickle.

  Today the white people who visit Harlem, and this mostly on weekend nights, are hardly more than afew dozen who do the twist, the frug, the Watusi, and all the rest of the current dance crazes in Small'sParadise, owned now by the great basketball champion "Wilt the Stilt" Chamberlain, who drawscrowds with his big, clean, All-American-athlete image. Most white people today are physically afraidto come to Harlem-and it's for good reasons, too. Even for Negroes, Harlem night life is aboutfinished. Most of the Negroes who have money to spend are spending it downtown somewhere in thishypocritical "integration," in places where previously the police would have been called to haul offany Negro insane enough to try and get in. The already Croesus-rich white man can't get anotherskyscraper hotel finished and opened before all these integration-mad Negroes, who themselves don'town a tool shed, are booking the swanky new hotel for "cotillions" and "conventions." Those richwhites could afford it when they used to throw away their money in Harlem. But Negroes can't affordto 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 someprostitutes had gotten jobs as domestics, and cleaning office buildings at night. The pimping was sopoor, 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 morerelaxed, 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 barelyescaped.

  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 buthot-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 outwhy 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'dever glimpsed. The woman screamed and dove for him. She knew as I did that when your best frienddraws a gun on you, he usually has lost all control of his emotions, and he intends to shoot. Shedistracted 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 seentrying 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 mybrother 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. Hehad left my apartment by now. He was living off his "old settler" woman-when he was in town. I hadalso taught Reginald how he could work a little while for a railroad, then use his identification card totravel for nothing-and Reginald loved to travel. Several times, he had gone visiting all around, amongour brothers and sisters. They had now begun to scatter to different cities. In Boston, Reginald wascloser to our sister Mary man to Ella, who had been my favorite. Both Reginald and Mary were quiettypes, 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 probablyHarlem'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 Bronxrailroad area called Motthaven Yards. The white mobsters had the numbers racket split into specificareas. A designated area would be assigned to someone for a specified period of time. My boss's wifehad been Dutch Schultz's secretary in the 1930's, during the time when Schultz had strong-armed hisway 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 forme to hand him a bag of numbers betting slips. We never spoke. I'd cross the street and catch the nextbus back to Harlem. I never knew who that fellow was. I never knew who picked up the bettingmoney 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 businessability I really respected. My boss's wife, when she had the time and the inclination to talk, would tellme many interesting things. She would talk to me about the Dutch Schultz days-about deals that shehad known, about graft paid to officials-rookie cops and shyster lawyers right on up into the top levelsof police and politics. She knew from personal experience how crime existed only to the degree that the law cooperated with it. She showed me how, in the country's entire social, political and economicstructure, 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 inSmall's Paradise. He hated to lose a heavy player, but he readily understood why I would now want toplay 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 Schultzstrong-arm men around Harlem.

  West Indian Archie had finished time in Sing Sing no............

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