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Chapter 9 Caught

Ella couldn't believe how atheist, how uncouth I had become. I believed that a man should doanything that he was slick enough, or bad and bold enough, to do and that a woman was nothing butanother commodity. Every word I spoke was hip or profane. I would bet that my working vocabularywasn't two hundred words.

  Even Shorty, whose apartment I now again shared, wasn't prepared for how I lived and thought-like apredatory animal. Sometimes I would catch him watching me.

  At first, I slept a lot-even at night. I had slept mostly in the daytime during the preceding two years.

  When awake, I smoked reefers. Shorty had originally introduced me to marijuana, and myconsumption of it now astounded him.

  I didn't want to talk much, at first. When awake, I'd play records continuously. The reefers gave me afeeling of contentment. I would enjoy hours of floating, day dreaming, imaginary conversations withmy New York musician friends.

  Within two weeks, I'd had more sleep than during any two months when I had been in Harlemhustling day and night. When I finally went out in the Roxbury streets, it took me only a little while tolocate a peddler of "snow"-cocaine. It was when I got back into that familiar snow feeling that I beganto want to talk.

  Cocaine produces, for those who sniff its powdery white crystals, an illusion of supreme well-being,and a soaring over-confidence in both physical and mental ability. You think you could whip theheavyweight champion, and that you are smarter than anybody. There was also that feeling oftimelessness. And there were intervals of ability to recall and review things that had happened yearsback with an astonishing clarity.

  Shorty's band played at spots around Boston three or four nights a week. After he left for work, Sophiawould come over and I'd talk about my plans. She would be gone back to her husband by the timeShorty returned from work, and I'd bend his ear until daybreak.

   Sophia's husband had gotten out of the military, and he was some sort of salesman. He was supposedto have a big deal going which soon would require his traveling a lot to the West Coast. I didn't askquestions, but Sophia often indicated they weren't doing too well. I know _I_ had nothing to do withthat. He never dreamed I existed. A white woman might blow up at her husband and scream and yelland call him every name she can think of, and say the most vicious things in an effort to hurt him, andtalk about his mother and his grandmother, too, but one thing she never will tell him herself is that sheis going with a black man. That's one automatic red murder flag to the white man, and his womanknows it.

  Sophia always had given me money. Even when I had hundreds of dollars in my pocket, when shecame to Harlem I would take everything she had short of her train fare back to Boston. It seems thatsome women love to be exploited. When they are not exploited, they exploit the man. Anyway, it washis money that she gave me, I guess, because she never had worked. But now my demands on herincreased, and she came up with more; again, I don't know where she got it. Always, every now andthen, I had given her a hard time, just to keep her in line. Every once in a while a woman seems toneed, in fact _wants_ this, too. But now, I would feel evil and slap her around worse than ever, someof the nights when Shorty was away. She would cry, curse me, and swear that she would never beback. But I knew she wasn't even thinking about not coming back.

  Sophia's being around was one of Shorty's greatest pleasures about my homecoming. I have said itbefore, I never in my life have seen a black man that desired white women as sincerely as Shorty did.

  Since I had known him, he had had several. He had never been able to keep a white woman anylength of time, though, because he was too good to them, and, as I have said, any woman, white orblack, seems to get bored with that.

  It happened that Shorty was between white women when one night Sophia brought to the house herseventeen-year-old sister. I never saw anything like the way that she and Shorty nearly jumped foreach other. For him, she wasn't only a white girl, but a _young_ white girl. For her, he wasn't only aNegro, but a Negro _musician_. In looks, she was a younger version of Sophia, who still turned heads.

  Sometimes I'd take the two girls to Negro places where Shorty played. Negroes showed thirty-twoteeth apiece as soon as they saw the white girls. They would come over to your booth, or your table;they would stand there and drool. And Shorty was no better. He'd stand up there playing andwatching that young girl waiting for him, and waving at him, and winking. As soon as the set wasover, he'd practically run over people getting down to our table.

  I didn't lindy-hop any more now, I wouldn't even have thought of it now, just as I wouldn't have beencaught in a zoot suit now. All of my suits were conservative. A banker might have worn my shoes.

  I met Laura again. We were really glad to see each other. She was a lot more like me now, a good-timegirl. We talked and laughed. She looked a lot older than she really was. She had no one man, she freelanced around. She had long since moved away from her grandmother. Laura told me she hadfinished school, but then she gave up the college idea. Laura was high whenever I saw her, now, too; we smoked some reefers together.

   After about a month of "laying dead," as inactivity was called, I knew I had to get some kind of hustlegoing.

  A hustler, broke, needs a stake. Some nights when Shorty was playing, I would take whatever Sophiahad been able to get for me, and I'd try to run it up into something, playing stud poker at JohnHughes' gambling house.

  When I had lived in Roxbury before, John Hughes had been a big gambler who wouldn't have spokento me. But during the war the Roxbury "wire" had carried a lot about things I was doing in Harlem,and now the New York name magic was on me. That was the feeling that hustlers everywhere elsehad: if you could hustle and make it in New York, they were well off to know you; it gave themprestige. Anyway, through the same flush war years, John Hughes had hustled profitably enough tobe able to open a pretty good gambling house.

  John, one night, was playing in a game I was in. After the first two cards were dealt around the table, Ihad an ace showing. I looked beneath it at my hole card; another ace-a pair, back-to-back.

  My ace showing made it my turn to bet.

  But I didn't rush. I sat there and studied.

  Finally, I knocked my knuckles on the table, passing, leaving the betting to the next man. My actionimplied that beneath my ace was some "nothing" card that I didn't care to risk my money on.

  The player sitting next to me took the bait. He bet pretty heavily. And the next man raised him.

  Possibly each of them had small pairs. Maybe they just wanted to scare me out before I drew anotherace. Finally, the bet reached John, who had a queen showing; he raised everybody.

  Now, there was no telling what John had. John truly was a clever gambler. He could gamble as well asanybody I had gambled with in New York.

  So the bet came back to me. It was going to cost me a lot of money to call all the raises. Some of themobviously had good cards but I knew I had every one of them beat. But again I studied, and studied; Ipretended perplexity. And finally I put in my money, calling the bets.

  The same betting pattern went on, with each new card, right around to the last card. And when thatlast card went around, I hit another ace in sight. Three aces. And John hit another queen in sight.

  He bet a pile. Now, everyone else studied a long time-and, one by one, all folded their hands. Except me. All I could do was put what I had left on the table.

  If I'd had the money, I could have raised five hundred dollars or more, and he'd have had to call me.

  John couldn't have gone the rest of his life wondering if I had bluffed him out of a pot that big.

  I showed my hole card ace; John had three queens. As I hauled in the pot, something over fivehundred dollars-my first real stake in Boston-John got up from the table. He'd quit. He told his houseman, "Anytime Red comes in here and wants anything, let him have it." He said, "I've never seen ayoung man play his hole card like he played."John said "young man," being himself about fifty, I guess, although you can never be certain about aNegro's age. He thought, as most people would have, that I was about thirty. No one in Roxburyexcept my sisters Ella and Mary suspected my real age.

  The story of that poker game helped my on-scene reputation among the other gamblers and hustlersaround Roxbury. Another thing that happened in John's gambling house contributed: the incident thatmade it known that I carried not a gun, but some guns.

  John had a standing rule that anyone who came into the place to gamble had to check his guns if hehad any. I always checked two guns. Then, one night, when a gambler tried to pull something slick, Idrew a third gun, from its shoulder holster. This added to the rest of my reputation the word that Iwas "trigger-happy" and "crazy."Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind. I viewed narcotics as most peopleregard food. I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties. Deep down, I actually believed that afterliving as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently. I expected then, as I still expecttoday, to die at any time. But then, I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane,ways.

  For instance, a merchant marine sailor who knew me and my reputation came into a bar carrying apackage. He motioned me to follow him downstairs into the men's room. He unwrapped a stolenmachine gun; he wanted to sell it. I said, "How do I know it works?" He loaded it with a cartridge clip,and told me that all I would have to do then was squeeze the trigger release. I took the gun, examinedit, and the first thing he knew I had it jammed right up in his belly. I told him I would blow him wideopen. He went backwards out of the rest room and up the stairs the way Bill "Bojangles" Robinsonused to dance going backwards. He knew I was crazy enough to kill him. I was insane enough not toconsider that he might just wait his chance to kill me. For perhaps a month I kept the machine gun atShorty's before I was broke and sold it.

  When Reginald came to Roxbury visiting, he was shocked at what he'd found out upon returning toHarlem. I spent some time with him. He still was the kid brother whom I still felt more "family"toward than I felt now even for our sister Ella. Ella still liked me. I would go to see her once in a while.

  But Ella had never been able to reconcile herself to the way I had changed. She has since told me that she had a steady foreboding that I was on my way into big trouble. But I always had the feeling thatElla somehow admired my rebellion against the world, because she, who had so much more drive andguts than most men, often felt stymied by having been born female.

  Had I been thinking only in terms of myself, maybe I would have chosen steady gambling as a hustle.

  There were enough chump gamblers that hung around John Hughes' for a good gambler to make aliving off them; chumps that worked, usually. One would just have to never miss the games on theirpaydays. Besides, John Hughes had offered me a job dealing for games; I didn't want that.

  But I had come around to thinking not only of myself. I wanted to get something going that could helpShorty, too. We had been talking; I really felt sorry for Shorty. The same old musician story. The so-called glamor of being a musician, earning just about enough money so that after he paid rent andbought his reefers and food and other routine things, he had nothing left. Plus debts. How couldShorty have anything? I'd spent years in Harlem and on the road around the most popular musicians,the "names," even, who really were making big money for musicians-and they had nothing.

  For that matter, all the thousands of dollars I'd handled, and _I_ had nothing. Just satisfying mycocaine habit alone cost me about twenty dollars a day. I guess another five dollars a day could havebeen added for reefers and plain tobacco cigarettes that I smoked; besides getting high on drugs, Ichain-smoked as many as four packs a day. And, if you ask me today, I'll tell you that tobacco, in all itsforms, is just as much an addiction as any narcotic.

  When I opened the subject of a hustle with Shorty, I started by first bringing him to agree with myconcept-of which he was a living proof-that only squares kept on believing they could ever getanything by slaving.

  And when I mentioned what I had in mind-house burglary Shorty, who always had been so relativelyconservative, really surprised me by how quickly he agreed. He didn't even know anything aboutburglarizing.

  When I began to explain how it was done, Shorty wanted to bring in this friend of his, whom I hadmet, and liked, called Rudy.

  Rudy's mother was Italian, his father was a Negro. He was born right there in Boston, a short, lightfellow, a pretty boy type. Rudy worked regularly for an employment agency that sent him to wait ontables at exclusive parties. He had a side deal going, a hustle that took me right back to the oldsteering days in Harlem. Once a week, Rudy went to the home of this old, rich Boston blueblood,pillar-of-society aristocrat. He paid Rudy to undress them both, then pick up the old man like a baby,lay him on his bed, then stand over him and sprinkle him all over with _talcum powder_, Rudy saidthe old man would actually reach his climax from that.

  I told him and Shorty about some of the things I'd seen. Rudy said that as far as he knew, Boston hadno organized specialty sex houses, just individual rich whites who had their private specialty desires catered to by Negroes who came to their homes camouflaged as chauffeurs, maids, waiters, or someother accepted image. Just as in New York, these were the rich, the highest society-the predominantlyold men, past the age of ability to conduct any kind of ordinary sex, always hunting for new ways tobe "sensitive."Rudy, I remember, spoke of one old white man who paid a black couple to let him watch them haveintercourse on his bed. Another was so "sensitive" that he paid to sit on a chair outside a room where acouple was-he got his satisfaction just from imagining what was going on inside.

  A good burglary team includes, I knew, what is called a "finder." A finder is one who locates lucrativeplaces to rob. Another principal need is someone able to "case" these places' physical layouts-todetermine means of entry, the best getaway routes, and so forth. Rudy qualified on both counts. Beingsent to work in rich homes, he wouldn't be suspected when he sized up their loot and cased the joint,just running around looking busy with a white coat on.

  Rudy's reaction, when he was told what we had in mind, was something, I remember, like "Man,when do we start?"But I wasn't rushing off half-cocked. I had learned from some of the pros, and from my ownexperience, how important it was to be careful and plan. Burglary, properly executed, though it had itsdangers, offered the maximum chances of success with the minimum risk. If you did your job so thatyou never met any of your victims, it first lessened your chances of having to attack or perhaps killsomeone. And if through some slip-up you were caught, later, by the police, there was never apositive eyewitness.

  It is also important to select an area of burglary and stick to that. There are specific specialties amongburglars. Some work apartments only, others houses only, others stores only, or warehouses; stillothers will go after only safes or strongboxes.

  Within the residence burglary category, there are further specialty distinctions. There are the dayburglars, the dinner-and theater-time burglars, the night burglars. I think that any city's police will tellyou that very rarely do they find one type who will work at another time. For instance Jumpsteady, inHarlem, was a nighttime apartment specialist. It would have been hard to persuade Jumpsteady towork in the daytime if a millionaire had gone out for lunch and left his front door wide open.

  I had one very practical reason never to work in the daytime, aside from my inclinations. With myhigh visibility, I'd have been sunk in the daytime. I could just hear people: "A reddish-brown Negroover six feet tall." One glance would be enough.

   Setting up what I wanted to be the perfect operation, I thought about pulling the white girls into it for two reasons. One was that I realized we'd be too limited relying only upon places where Rudy workedas a waiter. He didn't get to work in too many places; it wouldn't be very long before we ran out ofsources. And when other places had to be found and cased in the rich, white residential areas, Negroeshanging around would stick out like sore thumbs, but these white girls could get invited into the rightplaces.

  I disliked the idea of having too many people involved, all at the same time. But with Shorty andSophia's sister so close now, and Sophia and me as though we had been together for fifty years, andRudy as eager and cool as he was, nobody would be apt to spill, everybody would be under the samerisk; we would be like a family unit.

  I never doubted that Sophia would go along. Sophia would do anything I said. And her sister woulddo anything that Sophia said. They both went for it. Sophia's husband was away on one of his trips tothe coast when I told her and her sister.

  Most burglars, I knew, were caught not on the job, but trying to dispose of the loot. Finding the fencewe used was a rare piece of luck. We agreed upon the plan for operations. The fence didn't work withus directly. He had a representative, an ex-con, who dealt with me, and no one else in my gang. Asidefrom his regular business, he owned around Boston several garages and small warehouses. Thearrangement was that before a job, I would alert the representative, and give him a general idea ofwhat we expected to get, and he'd tell me at which garage or warehouse we should make the drop.

  After we had made our drop, the representative would examine the stolen articles. He would removeall identifying marks from everything. Then he would call the fence, who would come and make apersonal appraisal. The next day the representative would meet me at a prearranged place and wouldmake the payment for what we had stolen-in cash.

  One thing I remember. This fence always sent your money in crisp, brand-new bills. He was smart.

  Somehow that had a very definite psychological effect upon all of us, after we had pulled a job,walking arou............

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