Stranger in Harlem
Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From
December 25, 1978
“It is a miracle that the American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught, here in the white man’s heaven!”
—The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Sometimes, when I feel the world is passing me by, I wonder whatever could have possessed me to take this job, covering crime. But when I look at the photograph on this page, the same photograph which laughs up at me from my desk, I know it was because I wanted to meet some new people.
The picture shows me and Nicky Barnes and Nicky’s lawyer, Dave Breitbart, standing outside the federal courthouse in Foley Square on the day before Nicky got convicted for running a criminal enterprise to sell heroin. That’s Nicky in the middle with the knotted belt, Dave with the open trenchcoat, and I’m the one in the yachting slicker. That thing in my hand is an admiral’s cap, which I picked up in some army surplus store when I was cultivating the Samuel Eliot Morison look. During the trial, somebody told me that admiral’s caps were all the rage in Harlem, and I kept hoping that Nicky would comment favorably on mine, but he never did. I do recall, however, that Dave said something like, “Why don’t you take off that stupid hat?” just before Fred McDarrah snapped the picture.
The camera doesn’t lie. That’s a white upper-middle-class Harvard educated journalist you see, tickled pink to be standing beside the world’s most famous drug dealer. The smile on my face says: Look how far I’ve come from my overprivileged beginnings. But look again at the background and it’s clear I hadn’t gone anywhere at all; I was still at the courthouse, homeground. I had been a courthouse reporter for a year, and this picture captures the high point of my encounter with criminality.
I didn’t know then that I would spend a good part of the next 11 months — most of the year 1978 — riding around with homicide detectives, looking at Harlem. This series is about the things I saw there, and it hasn’t been easy to write. I had taken taxis through Harlem on the way to the airport, read about it, seen it on the news, lived a few miles away from it most of my life. I assumed I knew something about it. But when I actually made myself look at Harlem, what I saw was so bizarre that, even with the help of those homicide detectives, I found it bewildering — another country, another planet. It came to me as a great relief when a black homicide detective, who had grown up in Queens, told me that when he first started working in Harlem, it gave him culture shock. He just couldn’t believe the degradation.
The last time I thought about culture shock with any frequency was 10 years ago, the summer of ’68, when I was being trained to teach English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. My instructors used to talk about culture shock as if it were some kind of unpleasant but unavoidable therapy — shakes you up, wakes you up. They warned us that we’d feel uncomfortable and out of place in a country which had never heard of the Protestant ethic, and they were right, at least in my case — I didn’t like the politics, the food, the gauntlet of grotesque, aggressive beggars I had to run every day on my way to school. There were so many things I didn’t like that I came home after a year — but that year, in retrospect, was maybe the most wonderful of my life; it certainly kept me awake. And ever since then, I’ve sought out stories that would put me in the same state of perkiness without the loneliness and the fear — stories that were different from my own experience.
I covered rock and roll for a while, and some of those rock stars were different all right, but most of them weren’t as different as they looked. And then I turned to politics — Nixon’s last campaign, Ervin hearings, Mitchell-Stans trial, Watergate trial, CIA hearings, Jerry Ford’s Washington. But by the end of that sequence there wasn’t much mystery left in the government for me or for anybody else, and no shocks either. So I came home to New York City to reconnoiter and figure out what to do next.
That’s when I started playing squash with an old friend from Harvard who had recently become a criminal lawyer. He told me tales of the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street, where all Manhattan’s violent crimes are tried — real-life stories with dialogue by Dashiell Hammett and plots by James M. Cain. As the weeks went by, and his life became increasingly entangled in that world, he confided that he felt scared, isolated, and unsure of himself. To me it all sounded great — a little nest of culture shock right in my own home town, a foreign land I could commute to on the subway. And I wouldn’t have to be on my own. It would be a perfect arrangement for both of us — he would get company, and I would get an intimate source — someone to show me the ropes. In due time, I presented myself to The Village Voice, outlined my plan to the editor, and got myself hired as courthouse reporter.
The very next week, my friend announced that he was leaving town. He explained that his practice just wasn’t giving him enough satisfaction, although he was winning cases. “Even when a lawyer succeeds,” he said gloomily, “he just gets his client back into the Despair. Like a fireman who saves your house and ruins everything inside it.” He thought it would be a good time for him to take a long trip.
Right. But what about me? What was I going to do down in that courthouse with no one to tell me what was going on? My friend was all compassion, and one afternoon he gave me a crash course on the New York City criminal justice system: judges, D.A.’s office, detectives, Legal Aid, clerks, court officers, pimp lawyers, the works. When he got done, he looked me straight in the eye, lowered his voice dramatically and said: “Now write this down and underline it — NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THESE GUYS!! They’re better trained than we are.”
That’s how I began my daily trips to Centre Street — feeling very much alone and overawed by my new surroundings. Riding the subway to the Canal Street stop, I’d tell myself, this is what you wanted, just try to enjoy the weirdness. But I barely understood what people were talking about. Sitting on a stool in Henry’s Courthouse Lunchroom, where the batty waitresses called me “dear” and Al the speed-demon chef fired off a dazzling smile as he served up grits, I would listen hard to conversations, trying to pick up the dialects of crime.
It was a lot different from any federal courthouse I’d ever spent time in. The two arraignments parts were always packed with whispering relatives, bawling children, and grumbling cops — you could never hear what was going on at the bench. The cops wore blue jeans, fatigue jackets, and hunting shirts with their police shields hanging from their necks on silver chains; some looked like Hell’s Angels, some like Vietnam vets, some like hoods. Harried Legal Aid lawyers disappeared into the pens to interview prisoners; while the dauntless clerks kept barking out names and numbers.
In the big, front lobby it always felt like night, despite the harsh amber glare of the mercury lights, and night creatures hung about, conferring in conspiratorial tones. Court officers were constantly confiscating knives, shivs, machetes. Once I saw two court officers trundle a flailing wino into the freight elevator and calm him down by smashing his head against the steel wall. Pasty-looking whores stumbled around on four-inch heels, while their lawyers leaned against the columns and leered at each other’s jokes, and pimps in neon-colored clothes sprawled on the round, deserted information desk. At the far end of the lobby stood John, the blind newsie, glowering behind his counter, the ultimate judge. He heard much and told nothing.
Like a new minister in town, I had great hopes of meeting everybody, especially the poor and downtrodden. In my first article, I wrote: “For persons who are not of the Street but wish to know what the Street is up to, the Criminal Courts Building is the only place to go.” By “the Street,” I basically meant hustlers and perpetrators of violent crime. I did have a vague desire to meet these people, but as it turned out, I interviewed only one prisoner at any length during my entire first year in the courthouse. The truth was, I was afraid of defendants and didn’t know what to say to them.
Starting out, I clung to the few practicing Marxists still left in Legal Aid, loud, tough refugees from the ’60s, dogged in their belief that every prisoner was a political prisoner. But I am gregarious by nature and people down there were friendly. After a while, it was Legal Aid in one ear, probation officer in the other, lunch with a judge in Forlini’s; I’d shoot the breeze in the pressroom with Mike Pearl (dean of the courthouse reporters), and finish up over drinks at Doyle’s with some court officers. Manfully, I tackled the obvious topics — arraignments, plea bargaining, picking judges — but it was much more fun to try and catch the little life cycles of the courthouse. Gossip flew fast and thick: this judge crazy, that one drunk, D.A.’s squad has a good investigation going. I got lost on sidetracks for weeks and months, holding up the great tradition that courthouse news is entertainment.
And yet, something kept telling me that I was only skimming the surface, I was missing the point, maybe I needed some philosophical underpinnings. In the second week of July, I enrolled in a seminar on “radical criminology” at NYU. The lectures, delivered by a British sociologist in fluent sociological gobbledygook, were opaque. As I perused the assigned reading, however, a quote from Friedrich Engels caught my eye. “If the influences demoralizing to the working man act more powerfully than usual,” he wrote, “he becomes an offender as certainly as water abandons the fluid for the vaporous state at 80 degrees Reaumur.” That night, July 13, 1977, the lights went out, and thousands of people turned into steam.
The next day I saw the courthouse as I’d never seen it before.
There was no ventilation, the sun glared through the grimy courtroom windows, and by noon the whole place felt like the inside of an exhaust pipe. Court officers ran around with walkie-talkies, reporting conditions to the administrative judge, who sat in his steamy aerie, chomping on his cigar and receiving the reports with pride and frustration. His courthouse was rarin’ to go; every Legal Aid and A.D.A. and judge stood at his station, ready to work all day and night if necessary to give the alleged looters justice. But the law decreed that no judge could set bail without the defendant’s criminal record, and the FAX machine, which held all such records, could not disgorge them without electricity. So the finest hour of the courthouse had to be postposed indefinitely while the looters sat in the system like so many kidney stones.
Eventually, around 7:30 that evening, the lights came back on and the arraignments began. The first defendant, a black woman, was remanded to jail. Her woman friend in the audience cast a long malevolent look around the courtroom — at D.A. Morgenthau, at Judge Torres, at all of us. “All you whiteys,” she screamed. “I ain’t seen no whitey prisoners come through here.” And she was still screaming when the court officers dragged her out.
She had a point. No one could deny that the prisoners came from Harlem. I had watched them being unloaded from city buses, shackled like chain gangs. Scores of them were crammed into the basement pens, where the temperature hovered around 120 degrees. A cop who went down there came back horrified. “It’s the Black Hole of Calcutta,” he said. Later, I went for a brief tour of the Tombs, five minutes or less, but I didn’t get over it for days. The cellblock reeked of shit and disinfectant, the air was hard to breathe, and the floor was littered with balogna sandwiches which no one could eat. I stood across from 20 black men, mostly young, who reached out their arms to me, not angry, not hostile, just trying to get my attention so I would make phone calls for them. A big guy in red track shorts asked me to go uptown and find his two-year-old son. The whole experience was so overwhelming that I didn’t realize how upset I was. When I got home and called my editor to tell her what I had seen all day, I started crying and couldn’t stop.
The next day I tried to write a piece saying that the blackout was just as much the work of Nemesis as any other black riot, a perfect expression of black demoralization. It all seemed fairly simple to me: Harlem was infinitely worse off in 1977 than it had been in the decade of the long hot summers; there was less running water, less heat in the winter, fewer jobs, and much more crime. Five hours out of a decade wasn’t much, but it was all the opportunity that knocked. White power went off, black power surged on. It seemed to me that locking up those looters made about as much sense as locking up the Johnstown flood. They were a natural force, like the electricity which had failed, and there was something stupid about trying to judge a natural force.
When I arrived at The Voice and showed a rough draft of these sentiments to my editor, she seemed to think I was losing my grip. And one of my best friends in the office, who comes from a working-class background, denounced the looters with a furious animosity that shocked me. “But look how they’ve been treated,” I kept arguing, “But look at how they acted,” he argued back, and we kept going around in circles like that until I began to feel like a bleeding heart. What did I know anyway from having spent five minutes in a cellblock? This wasn’t South Africa, after all. These people hadn’t been attacked, they were the ones who had run amok. And I had to admit that they had been treated with greater leniency in Manhattan than they would have been anywhere else in the world. I went back home, struggled with the article for another two weeks, and finally emerged with a report that focused on the mechanics of putting out a riot. Then I went for a vacation in the mountains.
By the time I got back in September, the courthouse had its face back on again, just as if nothing had happened. The marble floor of the lobby had been waxed and buffed to a high shine by the new Wildcat crew. (The old Wildcat crew had been let go after stealing most of the building’s electric typewriters.) I went around checking in with my friends — everyone from judges to court officers to law secretaries — and they seemed to assume that I was now a part of the courthouse, like them. This was flattering but also unsettling, because I knew I was only a tourist. I was free to pick my shots and get out whenever I’d had enough, while most of the people I’d been writing about had a serious commitment to the place and its ongoing drama. Centre Street had every ethnic group and race and class, except for the upper class, and they were all constantly forced to deal with each other. This meant that there was no way for anyone, white or black, who worked in the criminal-justice system to avoid facing the major problem of the city, which was that a large group of Southern black tenant farmers had settled here under extremely adverse conditions and had not made it and were not going to make it. They had no share in the material success of the money-obsessed city, and they had turned into one of the angriest and most hopeless proletariats that any city had ever seen. No matter who you were, if you worked in the courthouse you had to confront the anger of the blacks who made up 65 per cent of the defendants there — you had to confront it constantly, day after day, which was not pleasant. There were people in the courthouse who simply couldn’t stand blacks — from judges who thought niggers were hardly worth wasting a trial on, to court officers who yearned to shoot some “yams.” There were also judges, court officers, lawyers, A.D.A.s who had enormous sensitivity to black culture and there were those who thought they did, but didn’t.
What made me feel ashamed as I returned to the courthouse, supposedly as part of the family, was that I had never even tried to know the blacks on the arraignments benches, the blacks in the holding pens, the blacks at the defense tables; the black pimps and prostitutes in the lobby; the black mothers and sisters and girlfriends and the close-cropped Muslim men and veiled Muslim women who sat sullenly through the trials. To have avoided getting to know these people struck me as a definite symptom of racism. And I didn’t much want to think about that. Nor did I wish to make the effort.
So I made a deal with my editor. I would cover one last crime story, the trial of Nicky Barnes at the federal courthouse, and then I would be free to do something else entirely. I couldn’t imagine how to go about approaching Nicky Barnes for an interview, so I decided I would just go down and listen to the testimony — a grim few weeks, and then it would be over.
But when I got down to Foley Square, it wasn’t exactly as I’d expected. Sitting in that third-floor courtroom was something like sitting in a Harlem nightclub that didn’t have its liquor license yet. Compared to Centre Street, the federal courthouse was the Ritz — the well of the courtroom was carpeted and furnished with comfortable armchairs. The 15 defendants were by and large an attractive bunch. They were all young, slim, and clean cut (except for Fat Stevie Monsanto, who was fat and dirty), and, in their spotless tube socks and bright new Pro-Keds, they looked like an unbeaten college basketball team. Guy Fisher, who was supposed to be Nicky’s most treasured lieutenant and a very tough customer, wore cashmere sweaters and shiny loafers and looked like the 1959 valedictorian at Howard University.
If the evidence proved anything, it was that they were into some very expensive kinds of hedonism. What you heard on the DEA tapes were people with exotic nicknames like Jazz, Wop, and Radio rapping on coke till five in the morning at clubs like Bubba Jean’s and Hubba Hubba (although mainly you heard the jukebox blaring in the background). They drove around all night in Mercedes-Benzes, with the radio pumping out disco. (And the evidence was nothing. Later I heard the full stories. They had yachts. They had fleets of Mercedes. They did mountains of coke, and even some angel dust. They went out with movie stars. They had regular Friday night orgies. And, of course, they did stay up all night, partying and doing business — some of them couldn’t remember what a morning looked like.)
They all acted incredibly cool, considering the predicament they were in. There was one tall, skinny defendant named Bat (because his ears stuck out) Saunders. He was alleged to be one of Guy Fisher’s street captains. One day, Bat drove his brand-new Lincoln Continental into the courthouse parking lot just as the jury bus pulled up. The whole defense table had a good laugh over that — “Just your luck, man” — but it didn’t seem to faze Bat. While the jury was out deliberating, he drew up a hilarious parody of the prosecution’s conspiracy chart, assigning nicknames to everyone on the government team. He stood in front of the jury box and gave a ringing summation against the U.S. Attorney, whom he dubbed “Micky Mouse” and denounced as “the ringleader.” Even the U.S. Attorney had to laugh. Bat was so lucky, he got acquitted.
Nobody in the federal courthouse could remember a narcotics conspiracy where at least one of the members hadn’t turned state’s evidence, but in this group there wasn’t one rat. Most of the defendants did, in fact, belong to Nicky Barnes’s drug crew, which had the reputation of being the best, though not the biggest, that Harlem had ever seen. Others, however, had been dragged into the “conspiracy” apparently at random. Stevie Baker and Fat Stevie Monsanto ran a drug operation separate from Nicky’s and almost as large. Petey Rollock was a small independent dealer whom the others had never heard of, but who did manage to become a member of the conspiracy in the course of the trial. J.J. Johnson was a numbers operator who sold coke to Nicky’s people as a kind of sideline, because he liked being part of their scene. But all of these people had respect for Nicky, and when their hour of testing arrived, they achieved total solidarity under a total leader.
Nicky sat in an armchair slightly apart from the rest, always wearing the same cornflower blue suit with leather elbow patches. Even in repose — and he dozed through much of the trial — he had the ferocious energy of a working monarch. Loyal subjects came to pay their respects, and he always received them graciously; even two old junkies with boxing-glove hands and a transvestite he had known in prison. Everyone who saw him was struck by his effortless authority. Murray Kempton called attention to “that great brow, swollen to bursting with the power to command,” while I myself felt that his force resided in his bullish neck, hulking back, and bulging arms. Whatever it was, and wherever it came from, everyone seemed to feel it and defer to it.
Even the Establishment had been forced to recognize his power and deal with it, a lavish compliment of sorts. The New York Times had deferred to Nicky by making him the first black drug dealer to adorn the cover of their Sunday magazine. The president of the United States had deferred to Nicky by ordering the attorney general to give him “special attention,” and the U.S. Attorney deferred by taking personal charge of the case. And Nicky’s lawyer, Dave Breitbart, deferred by wanting so badly to be Nicky’s friend.
Dave Breitbart was a brown belt in karate and a black belt in ju-jitsu and had a close physical resemblance to portraits of Napoleon in his middle years. Nicky wasn’t just Dave’s biggest client, I think Dave genuinely adored him as a friend. They saw each other socially, went to Regine’s together, and Dave even attended the famous birthday party Nicky threw for himself at the Time-Life Building — a party where the DEA made movies of the arriving guests. Dave was flattered to be one of the few white people Nicky liked and trusted; it made him feel hip, cool, and macho, and he called attention to the fact by nicknaming himself “Mighty Whitey.” Dave’s defense of Nicky was more than a job, it was a crusade, and he never tired of vilifying the prosecution’s case. “Does it make you want to throw up,” he would demand, pointing to some example of injustice. “Can you hold your lunch down?”
When the trial had gone on for about three weeks, I wrote a column mocking the prosecution’s case, drawing my conclusions partly from ignorance and partly from Breitbart. I had missed the U.S. Attorney’s most presentable witness, a woman who sold Nicky’s organization vast amounts of mannite for cutting heroin. I didn’t find out until much later that Breitbart’s cross-examination had so little damaged this witness that when he sat down, one of his partners was heard to mutter, “From here on in, we’re all just jerking ourselves off.”
Of course, Dave was thrilled with the piece. “You called it right down the middle,” he said. As a reward, he introduced me to Nicky.
“God bless you,” were Nicky’s first words to me, with a warm handshake — but that must have been how he greeted white people he didn’t like, because Dave said something like, “No, no, no, this is the guy who wrote that great article in The Voice.” After that, things were cordial between Nicky and me, nods and handshakes every day.
The main thing that hampered our communication was the strain of pretending that he wasn’t in the drug business. But he had a nice, sly sense of humor, which put me at my ease. “I’m a flower child,” he said one day with a grin. “Only thing is, they associate me with the wrong flower — the poppy.” He always maintained that the way to solve the drug problem was to legalize heroin. We had many pleasant chats, sticking to subjects like his youth on 116th Street, his days in a gang called the Turks, his thoughts on black history. I gave him a copy of a book I wrote and assured him he didn’t have to read it, a piece of false humility I favor for such presentations. Nicky took it wrong. “Oh, we read in Harlem,” he said, “even if you don’t think we do.” But he accepted the book.
A few days later, he called me to one side and led me down the hall to a bench where we could talk undisturbed. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “There’s one main thing that interests me.” He rubbed his fingers together as if they held a crisp bill between them. He was thinking of doing a book, and he wanted to know what the profits would be like.
“I’ll be frank with you,” I said. “I don’t think it would make you the kind of money that you’re used to.”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t like Nicky, didn’t feel charmed by the attention he paid to me, wasn’t sorry when I heard he’d gotten life. (I still have certain reservations about the prosecution’s case and so apparently does the Second Circuit, which has been deliberating the appeal for nearly six months, an extraordinary length of time.)
Nicky’s conviction ended a fantasy that had been drifting around the back of my mind during the trial. It would sometimes occur to me that our little talks were just an ice-breaking prelude to the longer conversations we would have after he got acquitted; Dave would drive me uptown in his Mercedes; Nicky and Mighty Whitey would show me all the hidden magic of Harlem — Bubba Jean’s, The Hubba Hubba, Small’s Paradise, the old ballrooms, voodoo, jazz, the fabulous underworld which lay beneath the ruins. When that fantasy was blown away, all that was left was a kind of confusion. Nicky remained my touchstone to Harlem, the only Harlem personage I really knew, but I couldn’t make up my mind who Nicky was, how much I ought to like him and how severely I ought to judge him. How much of Nicky’s crime was Nicky’s fault, and how much of it was — well, somebody else’s.
I had sat with Murray Kempton through much of the trial, a real joy, and when it was over he wrote a line that haunted me for months: “Nicky Barnes is a great man, and to say that is not to dispute Acton’s conclusion that all great men are bad men.” I puzzled over that thought for a long time and finally concluded that if Nicky were great, it was in the same sense that Gatsby was — tragic in a slightly ridiculous way. Nicky was far more ruthless than Gatsby and much less of a romantic, but both men had tried to crash the club of capitalism, and both were doomed to fail. Heroin was to Nicky what bootleg was to Gatsby. He gave enormous parties, wore splendid clothes, and was rumored to have killed a man — many men, in fact. And if I had a problem understanding Nicky Barnes, not to mention judging him, because of race, it can’t have been so much worse than the difficulty Nick Carraway had in judging his neighbor Jay Gatsby because of class — and it stemmed from the same distortion in vision. My father taught me pretty much the same thing Carraway’s father taught him: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”
How much could Nicky be blamed for what he was and how much did you have to blame the phenomenon of racism? The only people really qualified to answer that were the ones who lived where Nicky came from and conducted his business. I suppose that’s why I spent the next 11 months at Sixth Homicide, the homicide zone for Harlem.
One afternoon when I was talking to a group of black detectives who had lived all their lives in Harlem, one of them, a man of enormous restraint, settled my doubts about Nicky Barnes: “If I’d ever have had the opportunity,” he said, “I’d have killed Nicky Barnes for what he did to my people.” ■
This is the first story in a series on Harlem:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 16, 2019