I used to feel that I belonged on the Harlem streets. To me home was the streets. I suppose there were many people who felt that… You might see somebody get cut or killed. I could go out in the street for an afternoon, and I would see so much that when I came in the house I’d be talking and talking for what seemed like hours. Dad would say, “Boy, why don’t you stop that lyin’. You know you didn’t see all that. You know you didn’t see nobody do that.” But I knew I had.
— Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land
It wasn’t so much that Ted Gross actually publicized himself as a “street nigger” as that he never objected to being lionized as one. When people asked him where he was from, he would proudly tell them Harlem, not so much with a smile as with the smugness that comes with viewing oneself as special — a chosen survivor of deprivation. As it was, most people just assumed when Ted said he was from Harlem, that he had grown up in the streets. He thoroughly enjoyed the mystique it swathed him in in white society’s eyes, and the acceptance — the sense of commonness and belonging — it gave him with blacks. The only problem was that after a while Ted, too, came to accept the masquerade or perhaps he never saw that it was one — right up to the time he suffered the type of violent death accepted as part of the street life.
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Ted Gross’s death was more than just a sudden, inexplicable tragedy. Nor was it the death of just another black street hustler. It wasn’t that simple because Ted Gross was no ordinary street hustler. His background contained more book than street learning; he was more house than street nigger.
Gross’s upbringing was decidedly middle class. He spent part of his youth in the East Harlem middle-income Riverton housing development, where the community’s elite lived. His mother, Gerty West Brown, was a socially conscious, upwardly mobile black woman who later became one of the founders of HARYOU, a social-services organization. His father was a schoolteacher. From the time he was seven, Ted lived outside the city. He attended private secondary school in rural Virginia, did his collegiate studies at Shaw University, and, later taught primary school. In the early ’70s Gross began his rapid ascendancy in the John Lindsay administration, rising to become commissioner of the vast and troubled Youth Services Agency. In 1973 he was indicted for taking bribes and misspending close to $400,000 in taxpayer’s money. Gross pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail. He was released on parole late in 1974 and began a steady decline that culminated in his death on June 9, 1976.
It happened on a deserted thoroughfare in Brooklyn early one Sunday morning when Gross, sitting in his late-model Citroen, was gunned down from behind by a man he had met and befriended in prison. Aided by two strokes of good fortune, police investigators were quick to make an arrest: A woman companion of Gross’s who was also shot survived the fusillade and identified 21-year-old Kenneth Gilmore, an ex-drug addict and ex-convict who had already done time for manslaughter, as the assailant. Three days later, Gilmore surrendered to authorities in Charleston, South Carolina.
The arrest, however, answered few — if any — of the myriad questions raised by the murder and by the extreme reluctance of the police to discuss the case. What was Ted Gross involved in that finally took his like?
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When the story broke in the local dailies there were intimations that Gross had been involved in criminal activity. The Daily News story mentioned drugs and numbers. One theory postulated that Gross’s death had been ordered by someone high in the narcotics world. Although they had the suspect identified as the triggerman, the police had little else. They didn’t know what had precipitated the shooting and so went off chasing any leads that emerged, many of them blind, most just fruitless.
I had more than a passing interest in Ted Gross. I had never met him but had, even in Newark, where I worked at the time, heard about his exploits in the New York City government. I remember once attending a meeting with Amiri Baraka and hearing several blacks discuss how Gross was messing up, buying boats, parading around in fur coats, flaunting white women, and pretty much playing the role blacks had just fought and died in the streets across the country to shake off. Another time, I recall watching a group of black and Puerto Rican kids from the South Bronx on the Dick Cavett show accuse Gross of taking better care of his dog than he was of them.
But it wasn’t these isolated incidents alone that interested me. Neither was it the fact that his name had been tied to drugs and numbers, though that was surely fascinating. What was more puzzling was the fall. Few blacks I know saw it as anything more than further evidence of the white conspiracy against competent blacks who, the rhetoric went, “get too high in the system.” There was more there than that, I suspected. The evidence that sent him plummeting out of office was unequivocal.
But drugs? Numbers? How? Why? I realized that the search would perhaps help me resolve other questions left over from my own childhood — a youth that held painful memories of friends who had died of overdoses or in the crossfire of street violence, or who had just never escaped the magnetic pull of the street life. Deciphering the guarded code might explain what had killed, physically and spiritually, some of my friends — and Gross.
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Ted’s friends and relatives are reluctant to talk about him. There is a disturbing realization by those who considered themselves his intimates that no one really knew him. Everyone I talk to possesses a fragment of recollection that, in light of all that has passed, is clearly not the total picture. Moreover, there is the unsettling thought that there is even more corruption than they will ever know.
His mother, I sense, feels an enormous, brooding compassion for her dead son. Distraught by the murder and the suggestion of drugs, she went around defending his honor by telling friends that it was a government plot to destroy him. When I arrive at her apartment on the upper tip of Harlem one night to keep our appointment, a young girl answers the door and tells me Gerty is not home. I linger in the lobby a while, then call upstairs. Gerty answers the phone. She tells me that she changed her mind about the interview and won’t be giving any for a while.
Initially, all my attempts at interviewing street people who knew Ted are defensively rejected. Street people will talk about anything but dope. It is everywhere, but the answers to probing questions flow with a lot more difficulty. Writers and narcotics cops ask questions. In the eyes of street people, both spell unwanted attention and trouble. The streets are silent. Most of the people I know from Harlem, or those who hang out but don’t live there, grow quiet and hesitant when I mention the name Ted Gross, except to make it clear that they don’t know anything, don’t know anyone who knows anything, and wish I wouldn’t pursue the story. Even Harlem cops won’t talk about the case. Several people ask me not to take notes during interviews, and just about everyone I talk to asks that his or her name not be mentioned.
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In a Bronx bowling alley that Ted frequented, a man tells me that Gross could not have been involved in dope. “To sell dope,” he says, “you have to hate people. I don’t think Ted could have hated the same young cats he tried to help when he was in office.”
It’s a fair theory, but it’s flawed. There is already evidence that Ted had been involved in dope. And besides, selling dope in no more difficult than sending nameless people off to fight secret wars. You don’t have to face the helpless victims. It’s easy.
I decide to pursue the drug angle if only to establish to what extent Ted had been involved. I go to the office of city narcotics prosecutor Sterling Johnson, half expecting to be searched there, given recent disclosures that Harlem’s major drug dealers have put out a $100,000 contract on Johnson’s head. The story broke in the New York Post, despite Johnson’s request that the reporter not write it, and was more recently alluded to in a New York magazine piece.
I ask if the allegations that Gross was involved in dope are true. Johnson says they are. How involved, I ask. Johnson hesitates, then says he can’t answer that since it might compromise ongoing investigations. He quickly asks me if I know who James Mosley is.
I do. Mosley was indicted along with Gross in the YSA scandal. At the time, police called him the bagman in the kickback deals. Mosley is also the owner of the Bronx bowling alley where Gross bowled on Wednesday nights and where Kenneth Gilmore worked as night manager. Mosley and Gross were close friends at one time and were still on good terms when Gross was murdered. According to newspaper stories, Mosley had turned state’s evidence against Gross in the YSA scandal, a charge he later denied. But I don’t think Johnson is about to tell me something I probably already know.
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“Mosley is a close associate of Pete McDougal,” he says. When I show no sign of recognizing the name, Johnson continues, “McDougal was recently acquitted on a major drug charge.”
The McDougal case was no ordinary drug bust. Ten men were named in the massive indictment in a case involving well over 50 kilos of heroin. Of the 10 men including McDougal who were indicted and later acquitted, one was subsequently murdered, another was shot when word circulated that he was a police informer, and a third has turned up missing.
McDougal, Johnson says, is also an established numbers runner in Harlem. “Ted Gross associated with these guys,” says Johnson. “If you saw a guy with faggots all the time, what would you say? Ted was a flashy guy. He liked to hang out with the big guys. He had a jones for the street and fine women. When you hear a name like Ted Gross associated with Mosley and McDougal, you pick that up right away because of who he is. His name came up frequently enough for us to know it wasn’t casual or chance meetings. He was always seen at the bars, clubs, night spots with these guys.”
Johnson tells me that the drug business in Harlem is [so] vicious now that the so-called black mafia has forced out the Italian families who once held tight control over drugs and numbers. Recently things have been complicated by the emergence of a new generation of young blacks who have begun to encroach ruthlessly on the older generation. The old rules no longer apply, and people are dying with alarming regularity.
I ask Johnson if he’s surprised that Ted Gross was killed.
“No,” he says. “I’m not shocked.”
Ted has been dead a week. As I walk back from another tense and unproductive interview, I stop at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street before going down into the subway. The corner is quiet. The languor at dusk will soon build to a disquieting frenzy as night, high humidity, and a mass of humanity descend on Harlem’s streets. I watch the faces of the people passing the intersection. People in Harlem always seem to be living life at its most violent extremes. In the group experience of blacks in this country, everything is being tried, everything is being felt, but this is especially true in Harlem. This was the Harlem Ted Gross wanted so much to feel he was a part of, the Harlem he was born in but never really made it in. I search the faces of passersby, looking for what Ted Gross sought here.
I grew up in Newark, not Harlem, but the streets are the same wherever you find a concentration of blacks living in urban pockets of tenements and projects, and so are other constants: drugs, women, numbers, violent death.
Heroin was the big thing when I was young. We had a lot of names for it, but horse was the most popular. Most of the guys I grew up with couldn’t wait to rush out and start using it. If you weren’t doing dope — mostly just snorting it — then you weren’t hip, and to be accused of being unhip was to be a social pariah.
Just about everyone wanted to be part of the street. It was the first social environment many of us came in contact with, which held out a chance for acceptance and possible success. And though it was insulated, it was, nevertheless, exciting and alluring. Sure, there were dangers, but that was part of the glamour.
There is no ritual to street life but there are rules. They are unwritten and unspoken, but all who drift into or grow up on the streets quickly learn them. Primary among these if you are doing or dealing dope is the understanding that death is always waiting. Life spans in the drug trade are frighteningly short, determined by a law of diminishing odds: The more successful one is — or the longer one stays in — the greater the likelihood of never getting out unharmed. Few die natural deaths. It is not uncommon now for newcomers to the business to make big money and quit early, attracting little attention from the narc or competitors. There are, however, those who, for whatever reason, choose to ignore the rules and their instincts and stay longer than they should, or start when they shouldn’t — according to several of his friends, Ted was one of them.
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It is well over a month after Ted Gross’s death before bits of information about the last three years of his life begin to emerge — from the time he began serving a 16-month sentence in prison until his murder. I get conflicting pictures of Ted in prison. Some sources describe him as constantly brooding and often by himself, suggesting that he was not making a successful adaptation to prison. Others, however, describe his prison stay as merely uneventful. Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer (special assistants to the mayor at the time Gross was YSA commissioner), who saw Gross frequently in prison, recall he was coping reasonably well. “He had the intellectual tools that made it possible for him to deal with physical confinement,” Gottehrer tells me.
The truth is that he did, in fact, experience alternating periods of high spiritedness and severe depression. He blamed himself for his family’s deteriorating condition, particularly his daughter’s emotional problems. At other times he was lively and active in prison programs. At Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, he belonged to what the inmates called the “think Tank,” an inmates’ group that arranged for visiting speakers and helped inmates adjust to incarceration. Gross also turned to handcrafts, creating works of glass that he would send to his close friends.
One ex-convict who was in prison at the same time tells me that Gross commanded a great deal of respect from the other inmates. “The cat didn’t come across as an inmate the way he handled himself. In fact, a lot of the younger dudes used to call him Mr. Gross.”
The first year Ted spent outside of prison was difficult and cataclysmic. His family was fragmented. His daughter required psychiatric counseling. His wife was emotionally tense from the pressure of keeping the household intact while Ted had been away. Ted’s first job after he left Greenhaven was selling advertising space for the thousands of cement trash containers that had sprung up on street corners around the city. He was on a work-release program at the time at a facility based in Harlem. Several of his Lindsay administration friends say he often called, seeking contacts and potential clients. The job didn’t pan out however — the company eventually ran into financial trouble, and its New York operation folded.
Ted must have thought he had achieved redemption when, after he left the work-release phase of his parole, he secured a job with the Department of Corrections, assigned to the state Chaplains program. Reverend Earl Moore, who hired Gross, tells me that Ted was in his element again, working as a liaison between prison inmates and their families. He provided counseling for inmates and was wheeling and dealing, just like in the Lindsay days — until a Daily News reporter who learned of his new employment wrote about the irony of an ex-convict working for the corrections department. The story generated enough pressure from high up in the corrections hierarchy to get Gross fired.
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“He was so broken up,” Reverend Moore recalls, “that he sat in my office and cried. He even offered to work for nothing, but he still had a family to take care of.”
After that Ted drifted. And at some point his anxiety intensified. He tried to start a gypsy-cab company, a venture that never got off the ground because the cars he bought wouldn’t run and he didn’t have enough money to repair them. He acquired a franchise in an adhesive glue business in New Jersey, but it was obvious to those around him that he found it unsatisfying employment. “This is a cat who used to make $35,000 a year, lived like he was making $85,000, lived in a brownstone, had all the finest women, a boat, fur coats. He was a star. He couldn’t work like that,” says one of Gross’s acquaintances.
Mostly, he spent his time trying to make fast-buck deals here and there. His operative theory was that if he could start several small businesses, he could make a tidy profit. And, in dope, he could make an even bigger one.
Gross’s re-emergence into the street culture had not been met with overwhelming acceptance. He still had numerous friends and acquaintances, but inside the narcotics underworld to which he aspired he was anathema. His credentials were, in the street sense, flawed, his tenure in the Lindsay administration having marked him as a different animal altogether. His crime — “the white man’s crime,” says one acquaintance — was not the stuff of which street legends are made.
Also not in Gross’s favor was the embarrassing fact that he had no money. He came out of prison owing thousands in back taxes on his house in addition to owing on a tidy mortgage. There were also thousands of dollars in long-overdue parking fines and hefty credit-card bills.
To get money Ted began borrowing from friends and selling nonexistent shares of the glue business, in an attempt to scrape together enough to buy his way into narcotics. Money or no, another man tells me, Ted had no chance of cracking the big-time drug market. He was intemperate, impetuous, kaleidoscopically wild. His instincts for the business were wrong. One man who says his association with Gross was frequent, though not intimate, tells me of one occasion on which several young Harlem dealers were discussing the cutting and distributing of a good portion of heroin. At one point, the man says, Gross interjected a suggestion about some facet of the distribution that betrayed his ignorance. Suddenly, everything went silent — it was clear to those who were there that Ted was a rank amateur. He was embarrassed.
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Unable to dent the inner circle, Ted fell back on dealing with the marginal characters, satellites orbiting on the periphery of the drug traffic. Even there, it was possible to turn a fast dollar. It takes only a small initial investment. One can, for example, parlay a purchase of $3000 worth of dope into a profit of close to $15,000. Reinvesting $10,000 of that can reap you a windfall of $50,000. One man tells me that Ted Gross was just beginning to master this pyramiding formula when he was killed.
Ted Gross had, indeed, been a manchild who mistakenly thought he had found his idyllic promised land in the ghetto subculture of hustlers and pushers, fast money and fast women. But the fact is that Ted had come to the street life late, ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of living on the treadmill of a fantasy. By the time he had graduated from Shaw, Ted had spent 15 of his 22 years away from the street. In a way, Ted Gross was actually just living his Harlem childhood for the first time.
Gross was of that Harlem generation which painfully gave birth to Malcolm X and a whole movement of black pride and social and political activism. Many who had grown up in the streets went through a metamorphosis, trading partying for politicking, numbers for nationalism. Ted missed that, too. Instead, he came back to a Harlem again benumbed by neglect and overrun with dope.
No one who knew him could fail, in some way, to be affected by Gross’s vitality. He was highly articulate and impassioned, drawing people into the center of himself. The immediacy, the impatience, the tumult of his emotions — all were staggering. He was driven, it seems, by a need for constant attention and a gluttonous hunger for approval. He was in fanatical pursuit of affection. And the street, to a certain extent, provided that. But Ted Gross was also a naive man, flirting with self-destruction. And the street provided that, too.