Black Metropolis: Upholding Sugar Hill’s Radical Tradition

The BUP Nationalists

Before moving to New York in late 1982 I re­ceived two prescient pieces of advice on hooking up a crib, a squat, a hovel if you lucky, here in the Scrap­ple. The first was that venerable Manhattan riff “It helps to know somebody.” The second pearl was more arcane and requires an anec­dote: an environmental-artist friend up from Atlanta says he landed on Central Park West proper (just so you know we ain’t talking about those buppy projects across 96th Street) by vibing on CPW as the only neighborhood that could house him and his wife in the manner they were accustomed to. In effect my man had mojoed his way onto CPW, and I took his lore to heart when I could finally afford to discriminate between boroughs and pull-out beds, between rent-stabilized buildings and sleeping bags on floors where friends had set out the welcome mat. But while my friend sought door­men and oft-swept streets, I put my mojo to work on squatting me down in Wash­ington Heights.

My reasoning was simple: That was where I’d found my kind of party people. We’re talking about that 25-to-35-year-­old posse of race-conscious black profes­sionals and community organizers whose politics are Pan-Afrikanist (if not just pro-black) and whose idea of culture with a capital K is Fela, Funkadelic, and later for all the black conservative bullshit. They all went to Howard, Columbia, or City College together and came up ho­meys in Harlem, the Bronx, or do-or-die Bed-Stuy. These folk work in black youth programs or the music or information economies. They sculpt their dreads according to that peculiar interface of fashion, religion, and dogma, the new black aesthetic. They learned to Latin before they learned to reggae and are au courant enough to know the difference between the Wop, the Snake, and the Pee-wee Herman.

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Washington Heights is also a Domini­can colony, with the bulk of small-busi­ness ownership split between that coun­try’s immigrants and Asians. The sound of merengue from bodegas and record shops on Broadway between 135th and 165th reduces even L.L. Cool J to a whimper along certain stretches of the Heights. My Washington Heights, though, is the 500th-block of Edgecombe Avenue, formerly known as Sugar Hill. It’s populated by a melange of race-con­scious bohemians and buppies, black working-class and middle-income fam­ilies, brownstone owners, by Americans, Jamaicans, and Dominicans. The tourist books recommend the Morris-Jumel mansion and the Sylvan Terrace compound. I recommend Town Foods, Wilson’s salmon cakes and grits, and the Amazonian overgrowth and outback rock formations that we on Edgecombe have in place of your nosy neighbors across the street.

The mojo that got me my apartment was my embrace of the milieu. The who­-ya-know was Flip. Flip and I go back to the yard at Howard, where he first dug me blowing John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on a ghetto blaster and I dug him carting a trumpet case to the School of Communications. Flip favored black berets like Diz was still bebop’s most styl­ish response to the Left Bank. Our post­graduation dream was to waltz up to Miles’s former 77th Street asylum with the Moorish architecture and become court biographers to the Prince of Darkness. Flip graduated the year after I got there and I wouldn’t see him again for seven years, but the bond had been made. Our shared passion for black music had made us cutbuddies for life.

Flip has integrated more of black cul­ture’s oppositional modes into his being than most folk can even intellectualize. We’re talking a regular churchgoer who embraces Rasta consciousness, a serious trumpet student who revels in what Har­ry Allen would call hip-hop dopidity, a Greek letter man (Alpha) with Pan-Afri­kanist politics, a career buppy with no desire to own a Mercedes-Benz, a former atomic dog who counts black lesbians among his best friends, a Black Rock Coalition cofounder and Washington Heights Area Policy Board member, a devoted family man who’d still like to be a full-time musician. Where does one Flip begin and another end? Don’t even try it: The man is a continuous loop. The only way to describe the flip side of Flip is as a Mobius strip. The Flip who empathizes with why Rastas no check fe politicians is at one with the brother who’ll tell you he feels it’s his responsibility to vote in ev­ery election because “cats like Medgar Evers got blown away so we could pull those levers, man. I’d vote on a new ordi­nance for dog catcher if they mailed me a notice. Guess it’s my southern upbringing.”

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Flip is the nouveau black culture’s ver­sion of a model citizen, a radical-bup par­agon if you will. Flip is a sales rep for a major black monthly and lives with his Jamaican wife, Patricia, a registered nurse, and her five-year-old son, Alex, from a previous marriage at 555 Edge­combe Avenue, that stately white brick plum of Sugar Hill architecture. Among former tenants the building can boast Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and any num­ber of Cotton Club chorines. Among its present distinguished residents are Andy Kirk Sr., the swing bandleader whose orchestra launched the careers of Mary Lou Williams and Fats Navarro, and Flip’s next-door neighbor, Clarence Holte, a black pioneer on Madison Avenue who in 1952 began a 20-year career as a market­ing executive with Batten, Barton, Dur­stine & Osborn. Holte is also owner of one of the largest private collections of books about blacks in the world — a portion of which is now the Clarence L. Holte Collection of Africana housed at Kashim Ibrahim Library, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria — and an au­thor of scholarly articles on such unlikely topics as “The Black Presence in Pre­-Revolutionary Russia.”

As 555 has long been home to such race-conscious and culturally hip black professional family men, Flip is obviously about upholding the tradition. His per­sonal history begins in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born an only child into a two-parent situation. The nuclear unit moved to Harlem when baby was one and the South Bronx when he was four before settling into the Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhoods fast on its way to becoming black and Latino. They lived there until Flip’s parents divorced in 1969. He reminisces about his old neighborhood as a place where mom and dad were on a first-name basis with the winos who “looked out for you until your parents came home from work.” Flip was raised in what black folk call a Southern household, meaning “our house was more disciplined than others in the neighbor­hood and rudeness to older people was not tolerated.”

Flip’s mother worked as a receptionist for Zebra, one of the first black ad agen­cies; his father was a security guard in a juvenile home before becoming a U.S. marshal. Shortly before the divorce he moved the family back to Virginia, where he was one of the first black marshals in the state’s history. After the split Flip’s mother moved to Virginia Beach, where busing provided him his first exposure to American racism’s classic vernacular­ — “Virginia Beach was lily-white except for this one little black neighborhood where my grandparents lived. Blacks bought their own property, built their own houses, and weren’t thinking about integrating with white folks.

“There was a chain separating the black neighborhood from the white and the iro­ny was the houses on the black side were better. We were shipped off to these pre­viously all-white schools and the white cats would jack us up the wall talking about what they were going to do to coons, niggers, and jungle bunnies and the only time I’d ever seen that was in In the Heat of the Night. All I could think of was how I wished some of my boys from the Black Spades were with me.”

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Midterm Flip’s mother trekked cross­-country to the San Diego area, where he became the only black student in a La Mesa junior high school. There he experi­enced more alienation than racism, ex­cept for epithets hurled his way by surf­ers and a dark-skinned Mexican student who “taught me something about the dif­ferences between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans when he got mad once and called me a nigger.”

Flip doesn’t recall his parents talking much about race issues except when they had trouble finding housing. Flip’s moth­er moved back to Virginia Beach after a year in San Diego and married an Annap­olis realtor. This unit became, in the lit­any of Flip’s first-black-to episodes, the first black family in a formerly all-white ward, but they experienced no hostility. Things were different at Annapolis High, where forced integration and the black consciousness movement had even politi­cized Flip’s varsity basketball team, the first all-black team at the 75 per cent white school, and probably the last to paint “red, black, and green liberation flags on our white Converse sneakers.”

Flip chose Howard after visiting the campus and being overwhelmed by its progressive black cultural environment and “all these beautiful black women who were friendly and didn’t seem to have attitudes.” While he regrets not pressing himself more academically he feels he got a decent education there and, more im­portant, “stopped thinking of blackness only in terms of being a black American. I came to understand that being of Afri­can descent meant that you were part of a worldwide black community.”

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After graduation Flip found that his media arts degree didn’t mean diddly-­squat to local broadcasters. Frustrated, he took his first job in sales at Balti­more’s black newspaper, the Afro-Ameri­can. When an uncle told him IBM in New York was hiring, he landed a job on Wall Street selling office equipment. Flip de­scribes his introduction into white corpo­rate America as an awakening in terms of both assimilation and alienation. “You had to act ‘white,’ dress conservatively, and shave. I didn’t even know how to dress for the corporate setting. My uncle had to say look, this is what it is: no more pink and green shirts and wearing your handkerchief all fly out the pocket. You’re not dressing for the disco, you’re dressing for this job.” Flip lasted two years with the multinational, “and when I quit my father thought I had lost my mind giving up all that security.” Flip went to work for the aforementioned uncle, who had his own sales firm and repped a black monthly newspaper insert. For Flip the decision was partly ideological, as he felt black families should work in business together as whites always had — though another virtue of sales and advertising was that “it wasn’t monotonous, and it meant I got paid to do something I could always do well, which is talk.”

In 1984, Flip’s uncle turned the busi­ness over to him to pursue a new venture in the northwest. Shortly thereafter the company’s major client tried to replace Flip with one of its own executives, and he resigned. Soon he went to work for the monthly that employs him now. He sees his work as having political content at least to the extent that he’s “always having to justify the existence of a unique black marketplace and legitimize the buy­ing power of the black consumer.” Flip says some marketers play a numbers game to prove blacks couldn’t possibly afford their products or try to pretend their products aren’t big sellers among blacks even when research proves other­wise. This he attributes to the racist atti­tude that since blacks already buy the product why go out of your way to appeal to them? “We’re the invisible people to corporate America and they only think of us when it’s useful to them.” Flip doesn’t get into politics too deeply on the job, but every now and then does manage to get a broadside in edgewise. “I was having a tough time with this guy at one of the multinationals who kept saying he didn’t think blacks were familiar with his company. Finally I said, sure blacks know about your company and how you offed that cat down in Chile. Man, you should have seen his face turn red.”

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At 555, Flip is active in his tenants group, which prodded him to join the Washington Heights Area Policy Board “because people felt we needed English-­speaking representation on the board. It’s primarily Dominican and that communi­ty has its agenda and problems, particularly around the issue of undocumented residents.” Flip thinks of Washington Heights and Harlem as the last frontier for white developers and a kind of last stand for black/Latino New Yorkers who want to build a beneficent community and future. The owner of 555 is a black who’d like to keep the building predomi­nantly black. Flip hopes this inspires the other tenants of 555 to have greater con­cern for the upkeep and upgrading of the building.

Flip and Pat met three years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She spent her first 14 years in Kingston, oldest fe­male in a family of six children. Her father was a tailor in Jamaica who did farm work in Florida for several seasons before migrating to New York for piecework at a Dupont textile factory. When that plant moved, be became a cab driver. Her mother was a housewife in Jamaica, became a nurses’s aide in the States and now works as a medical secretary. Pat spent her adolescence in the Bronx, where her parents now own a home near the Westchester border, attended City College, and works at the Bronx’s Ein­stein Hospital, in the Cardiac care unit. Patricia beams levelheadedness, speaks in a lilting Jamaican lisp, and carries herself with a radiantly self-possessed el­egance that would come off haughty in a lesser Nightingale. Although she dreams of returning to the stage-acting and Afri­can dancing she had to abandon after high school, careerwise her goal is to su­pervise a public health clinic. Like Flip, she’s less interested in the corporate lad­der (hospital-administration version) than in using her job to create financial independence for her family. Her field is no less racist than any other and she laments for qualified friends who’ve pur­sued positions and suffered rejection time and again.

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Flip and Pat’s home is decorated with her antique furniture and modern Turk­ish rugs, his jazz, reggae, and Brazilian record collection, coon art ads, and (by way of the Studio Museum and the Schomburg) Romare Bearden posters and Jacob Lawrence paintings. Unlike Flip, Pat is not partial to Washington Heights or 555 as the ideal place to raise a family and looks forward to seeing changes in the neighborhood. She prefers Riverside below 125th, Convent Avenue or Hamilton Terrace. The population over in the crack district, the 150s be­tween Amsterdam and Broadway, she sees as “dangerous and devastated people with no culture and no respect for any­body else’s.” Sometimes she wishes they could be “dissected” from the area and “placed in an intensive rehabilitation center.” Her son now attends a private preschool in the Bronx. She’s investigat­ing the multiracial Barbara Taylor School on 160th Street for first grade because it stresses putting children in touch with their culture. At one point her son came home from school believing that Flip and Pat were white, that because he was darker than them he was black and there­fore bad. They realized they’d better start reinforcing his blackness. “Now if you ask him what be is, he’ll tell you he’s an African or an African-American. At his preschool he’s not taught about black he­roes, he gets his ideas about himself from cartoons and the toys he plays with and other kids at school. The school he goes to will be important in shaping his ideas about himself because he’s going to spend more of his life there than with us.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Not long ago Flip introduced me to a neighbor of his named Playthel Benjamin who had read my writ­ing on black music and was inter­ested in my reading his. I had seen him around the neighborhood, a bearish, bullheaded brother in a Stetson hat toss­ing a foam football in front of 555 with his son or taking son and daughter to the playground. In our brief first meeting Playthel delivered an abridged version of an essay about Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, the nature of genius, and the fraudulence of abstract expressionism as an extension of “the great tradition of Western painting.” As it turns out, this is the kind of thing Playthel has spent his adult life doing for pleasure. Filling the gaps in between is one of the more varied and remarkable lives you’ll ever encoun­ter. In the course of 46 years Playthel’s been a merchant marine, a top-security combat defense officer guarding the Stra­tegic Air Command’s Arctic Circle nucle­ar bomber base, developer of the Minor­ity History Motivation Program for Opportunity Industrial Centers, a profes­sor of history at U. Mass., bandleader and percussionist for Jean Carn, publicist for Michael Spinks, and almost-promoter for the Leonard-Hagler bout derailed by Sugar’s detached retina in 1982. Present­ly Playthel is a working member of the Master Painters and Plasterers, a partner in a Brooklyn real estate management and development company, and director of education for Harlem Fightback, the action-oriented coalition of black and Latin blue collar workers known for shut­ting down construction sites where con­tractors refuse to meet affirmative action requirements. Playthel is a longtime stu­dent if not scholar of both African and Marxist-Leninist history who admits to having once been a Stalinist and a Maoist and who now describes himself as a “worker-intellectual, cosmopolite, and democratic socialist.”

Playthel’s generation of bebop-loving black activist-intellectuals (typified by people such as Paul Carter Harrison, A. B. Spellman, Larry Neal, Michael Thelwell) are the ones who brought their civil rights and black power backgrounds to the Ivy League 15 or 20 years ago. Boasting a dual interest in activism and theory, they brought scholarship to the black consciousness movement and grap­pled mightily with the conundrum of making an American socialist revolution from a black nationalist base. In contrast with Flip’s (and my) generation, they had a clear sense of continuity with the black leftists of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They didn’t limit questions of culture, identity, and politics to a close circle of friends, always considering their relationship to the black working class and later the so­-called underclass. In reflecting upon that generation’s accomplishments I always realize how much homework my contem­poraries must do to progress beyond be­ing bups with a hip sense of community and self. As admirable as it might be for the times, it’s not much of a moral or radical platform to stand on — or to fight and organize from. Playthel is a man of ideas, a family man, and a man of the people.

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This is after all someone who left the university to take up a trade because he felt himself “in danger of becoming one of these comfortably bourgeois black in­tellectuals.” So instead he’s become a comfortably bourgeois worker-cosmopo­lite. The walls of his airy five-room apartment have gold trim, but he did the painstaking work of putting it there. There is an extremely modest library dominated by black historical tomes. Af­rican masks adorn the living room and a Benin bronze sits on a Greek pedestal by the front window. On a glass coffee table there is a jade plant and a sepia portrait of Stetsoned and stogie-smoking Playthel set in an ancient braided bamboo frame. As I enter the radio is tuned to a classical station, another of Playthel’s lifelong pas­sions — “there is no Slav who loves Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto more than I or no German who derives more pleasure in Beethoven’s Appassionata.”

Out of his broad social experience, Playthel offers reminiscences about ev­erything from hanging out with Harold Cruse while he was writing The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual to the business savvy of prostitutes in Saskatchewan. An eclectic freethinker who doesn’t play fa­vorites, Playthel is as likely to proclaim his ace boon Stanley Crouch “a gifted writer and critic but a novice when it comes to political discussion” as take on leftist slavery-historian Eugene Geno­vese’s praise for the ethics of the antebellum Southern gentleman. Not long ago, Playthel had a train-station debate with Harvard’s touted black neo-con, Glenn Loury. There he harangued the rotund “pootbutt professor for his uninformed and sophomoric notions about affirma­tive action for women and blacks in the building trades. I cited three affirmative-­action cases now in court and the man hadn’t heard of any of them. Finally he said, ‘Enough, enough, how can you ex­pect me to have this information at this time of night.’ I said, ‘Sir, it’s late for me as well, and I’ve probably had a much harder day than you. Do you think I’ve been standing here preparing for this en­counter’? He turned then and literally ran, trotting, away from me.”

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Interestingly enough, Playthel’s spa­cious apartment in 555 — where he lives with his wife, June, and his twin children, Makeda and Samori — once housed Paul Robeson, a fact Playthel didn’t discover until after he’d moved in. That sort of coincidence, extraordinary to you or me, is routine for Playthel, as you realize once he begins reciting the tall tale of his life. Playthel is a natural storyteller whose primary yarns digress into secondary tales where autobiography, family histo­ry, and major historical figures and events converge. A typical Playthel anec­dote, like the story of why he dropped out of Florida A&M in 1959, begins with him getting arrested in one of the first South­ern sit-ins, dovetails into disillusionment with black academia in the face of white power, details how he joined the air force a patriotic American, became “a SAC-­trained killer,” and left a pacifist, nucle­ar-age nihilist, and black nationalist.

Following these yarns Playthel an­nounced plans to use his Arctic background to apply for a North Pole expedi­tion led by a former Playthel student who now teaches at Harvard. Case you’re shal­low in basic black history, Matthew Hen­son was the African-American member of Admiral Peary’s expedition who many believe was robbed of recognition as the true discoverer of the North Pole. Point­ing to a magazine article debunking Pea­ry, Playthel says the expedition will use dog sleds and honor Henson by planting an African-American flag on the Pole, “reclaiming the legacy stolen by this motherfucker here Peary.”

Playthel looks upon himself as “the consequence of the two major cultural traditions among black Americans, those E. Franklin Frazier [author of Black Bourgeoisie, among other milestones in black sociology] defined as the ‘colored genteel’ tradition and the ‘black peasant’ tradition.” Playthel was born in Philadel­phia, but grew up in St. Augustine, Flori­da. His father was a descendant of slaves who worked as a welder by day and a barber by night while attending Temple University, and “had two children and his own house before he was 25.” His mother was the descendant of free blacks and mulattoes. One of his maternal grandmother’s brothers owned a fleet of limousines in Harlem in the ’30s chauf­feuring rich whites, another was a pimp who “threw a cracker off a bridge in Florida, had to get out of town, came up here, dressed himself like an Indian ma­haraja with a turban and a beard, started hanging out in places like the Stork Club, and ended up pulling this millionaire white woman. He spent all her money and used to drive Duesenbergs.” Playthel is a self-educated man, a process begun with fervor while he was in the air force. There a race-conscious black officer gave him a copy of J. A. Rogers’s One Hun­dred Facts about the Negro — with Com­plete Proof. Rogers’s frequent citing of the Schomburg led Playthel to that insti­tution. In this period he also came under mentorship of Revolutionary Action Movement founder Max Stanford, Queen Mother Moore, and an entire coterie of older black Marxists who’d left the CPUSA because it abandoned its Black Belt Nation program, during ’50s re­forms. To them he owes his theoretical undergirding.

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“Here’s a pedagogy I believe a black person who is interested in becoming a critical thinker should study. They should study the regular humanities cur­riculum simultaneously with an Afrocen­tric perspective on our position in history and the world, read that simultaneously with John Hope Franklin, Benjamin Quarles, Ivan Van Sertima, Lerone Ben­nett, Walter Rodney, Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity about blacks in Gre­co-Roman civilization, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois is an absolute must. They should read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and the major thinkers of those revolu­tions that grew out of those traditions in the Third World — Nkrumah, Fanon, Ca­bral. But then we also need to read George Padmore’s Pan-Afrikanism or Communism, and various of his other 12 works, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and the works of C. L. James, the most orginal radical thinker of the 20th century in my opinion. And they should read the work of black American radical thinkers, like Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and James Boggs’s The Ameri­can Revolution, Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Racism & the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution & Evolution in the Twentieth Century, written with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is one of the most original American economic thinkers out here and that rarity among leftist thinkers, an actual worker. He was an assembly-floor worker in the automobile industry who went through the party experience. He’s writ­ing about capitalism from the perspective of a worker in one of the major modern capitalist industries. He was the first that I know among American radical thinkers to talk about the role of technology in changing the relationship between class­es, the first to talk about the conse­quences of the cybernation of the American economy, the first to talk about structural unemployment, about a class rendered obsolete by technology. He was the first to see that contrary to the classic Marxist model that saw conflict emerging between the working class and the ruling class that the major conflict was going to emerge between the employed and the unemployed.”

From his own position as a worker­-intellectual in New York’s building trades, Playthel has seen first-hand the necessity for affirmative action programs — and, he emphasizes, activist-advocacy groups like Harlem Fightback — to insure that work­ing-class blacks, Latins, and women are given equal employment opportunities. “You have these black neo-cons running around now talking this bullshit about how teenage pregnancy is the cause of our economic condition. Our economic position in this country is the result of our being denied full participation in the economic system. For you to be black and employed you have to be either an intel­lectual, a professional, or in the public sector. The black working class is up against a world of exclusion in the build­ing trades. The American worker is a highly skilled individual and that ac­counts for why so many buildings can go up in New York with so few disasters. But this doesn’t require genius. Any ordinary person, any of these young brothers out here could learn these trades. I’ve talked to Irish and Greek immigrants who came here and didn’t know any trades and got in the union. I’ve had foremen who were so illiterate they could barely fill out their paysheets who are making $40,000 a year, own stocks and bonds, and are putting children through college. Even with affir­mative action you need a Harlem Fight­back to get blacks on construction sites and people want to talk about how our young people don’t want to work.”

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Playthel told me all his adult life he’d been consumed by three questions: Where did we come from, how did we get in the mess we’re in now, and how do we get out of it? The latter is the question he expects to be grappling with, along with the rest of us, for the rest of his life. And if you got to grapple with that mutha, 555 ain’t a bad ebony tower to be holding court from. The building lost its doorman and awning a few years ago and, no, Washington Heights isn’t what it used to be — but with people like Flip, Patricia, and Playthel up here now, no one can say the modern black condition suffers in silence up on Sugar Hill. ■

Research assistance by: Crystal Weston  

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"


Burying Malcolm X

Burying Malcolm X

March 4, 1965

By Marlene Nadle

It was a strange funeral on Saturday. At Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ, the altar was decorated with policemen. In a bronze coffin El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, wrapped in the white linen of Moslem ritual, rested beneath two giant murals of Jesus Christ.

The funeral of the man known as Malcolm X was a blend of Islamic faith and Christian custom. The priest wore the brown robes and white turban of the Middle East; the widow the black veiling and clothes of western tradition. Flowers are not part of a Moslem’s funeral. Yet Betty Shabazz sent flowers to her husband. Embossed on the five-by-two-foot bank of red carnations was the Star and Crescent of Islam.

Death for a Moslem is supposed to be a private matter. There is not supposed to be any public exhibition of the body, which must not be kept from the grave beyond two sunsets. Yet they kept Malcolm’s body for a full week, and 30,000 people visited Unity Funeral Home and another 3000 came to the church trying to hold onto the part of them that had died.

For Malcolm had been the spokesman for that part of all blacks that is in constant rage at their life in the land of the rich and the home of the righteous.

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Hiding Tears

Eulogies for Malcolm were heard on every corner of Harlem. But the ones delivered at the funeral were out of order. Nothing is supposed to be done during an Islamic service to create emotion or a sense of bereavement. Nothing had to be done. Even before the service began, a strapping young man sat with his hand over his eyes feigning sleep to hide his tears. An old woman wearing a white crocheted scarf over a jockey cap sat with her mittens clutched in hands wrinkled and worn with scrubbing other people’s floors. Asked what she thought of Malcolm, she said, “I love him.”

At the front of the church Ossie Davis, in a voice that kept cracking, began the first part of the service. “Malcolm was our manhood,” he said. And the people in the pews shouted, “That’s right!”

“They will tell us to write him out of history. They will ask what Harlem finds to honor. And we will smile.

“They will tell us he was a fanatic. And we will ask, ‘Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm?’

“They will tell us that he was full of hate. And we will say, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’.”

The people in the pews shouted, “That’s right!”

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Other Speakers

Ahmed Ossman, head of the Islamic Center in Switzerland, said that he was shocked by the remarks of Carl Rowan, the Negro director of he United States Information Agency. Rowan had said that the African press was mistaken in interpret­ing the death of Malcolm X as the death of a hero. He charged Malcolm wilh preaching separa­tion and black supremacy. Ossman fervantly declared that Malcolm had abjured all racism after making his pilgrimage to Mecca. The mention of Rowan’s name set off a low rumble. Some ­people hissed.

Finally the speeches were over. The second half of the service was conducted by an Islamic priest. There were four takbeers, or prayers. When the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the Most Great”) was uttered the Moslems — perhaps 50 — placed their hands open at the side of their faces.

Close friends and Malcolm’s half-sister filed past the coffin. They struggled to maintain the dignity and restraint required by the occasion.

When Betty Shabazz, pregnant with her fifth child, stood before her husband, she bit her lip in a fight to control herself. Then she broke. Weeping, she pressed her lips against the glass shield that divided her from his body.

The crowd broke with her, and a moan went up. There was a shriek from a woman in the first row.

The coffin was carried down the left aisle. People reached out.

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‘Making It Worse”

One woman following behind the coffin began to scream “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” A younger woman put her hand on the other woman’s mouth and walked her out, saying “Stop, Mamma! Stop! You’re only making it worse.”

The coffin went on to a silver-blue hearse. Policemen stared down from the rooftops. The 50-car funeral procession left for Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.

But the people wouldn’t go home. They tried to get back into the church to get a prayer book. To get a flower. To get something they could hold on to. Eventually the crowd thinned A small cluster of women remained on the sidewalk in front of the church. There was one, a big woman in a black kerchief, who cried as she talked. When she saw a reporter trying to take down the conversation, she turned to her companions and said, “Stop talking. Don’t say anything. They always take words and twist them. That’s what they did with Malcolm.”

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‘Opened My Eyes’

Then, turning on the reporter she said, “That man didn’t teach violence like the papers all say. He taught me about myself. He taught me I was more than a Little Black Sambo or Kinky Hair or nigger.

“They called us junkies and drunks. And I was ashamed. He opened my eyes. He made me see who was bringing all the dope to Harlem. Who was opening all the liquor stores. Black men don’t have that kind of money.”

As the woman named Doris talked, she continued to cry. And as she cried the crowd gathered. Turning to the reporter she asked, “If I slapped your face, what would your normal reaction be?”

“To hit back,” said the reporter.

“Well, that’s what Malcolm told us to do. To defend ourselves. Yet all the papers keep talking about is his violence. It make me sick.”

“Sure,” said a young college student, “they just love him now — the liberal columnists — now that he’s dead. It’s like Kennedy and business. They heaped all kinds of praise on him after he was no longer a threat to their establishment.”

Then a woman wearing a leopard print turban and stole and dancing silver earrings introduced herself as Audley Moore. “I’m 66 years old,” she said. “I was one of Marcus Garvey’s people. I’ve been work­ing in Harlem now for over 40 years. I sat at the feet of Mary Bethune and other leaders trying to learn how to help our people. I fought to get Negro history taught in schools in 1934. I wasn’t a follower of Malcolm X, I was his mother.

“He used to call me his Queen Mother. And I would say to him, ‘Now, Malcolm, honey, why do you have to rob Africa? We are African-Americans, not Afros. How come France produces Frenchmen? And Italy produces Italians? But Africa can only hatch Negroes and Afros?’

“Why, being an Afro is almost as bad as being a Negro. It almost puts us in the same class as that man Rowan. Now, he is a Negro! A real U.S. made and manufactured Negro!

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“The Only Law”

Miss Moore and the people in the crowd began to talk about building a monument to Malcolm X. A Harlem young man walking by in Nigerian dress stopped, raised his stick, and shouted, “Don’t spend money on statues, spend it on guns!”

“What’s wrong with these?” said another young man, raising his fists.

“The only law that exists out there is the law of the gun,” answered the man dressed in Nigerian clothes.

“I don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” said Miss Moore. “But it’s stupid to use guns when they have the Army, the Navy, and the Marines.”

The talk about Malcolm caused Miss Monroe’s sister to suggest that gas be put in the car and everyone go to see Malcolm’s grave. Many people wanted to go. But the seven who finally wound up in the car were a physician from the West Indies, a collector of materials for the African-American Historical Association, a teenager in a plain beret, Miss Moore in her imposing leopard-skin turban, her sister, Doris, and the reporter whose presence had originally brought the crowd together.

A half-hour later the group stood beside the grave of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. They made impromptu pledges to unity and the struggle for freedom. They each took a leaf from the grave. And made promises to meet again.

From The Archives From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript

It is now over a year since I began my re­searches into the nature, history, future pros­pects, and larger meaning of Harlem (with special emphasis on homicide and narcotics); the time has come to stop and admit defeat. In 10 years of journalistic enterprise, I have never bitten off so much more than I could chew. My ambitions for this project have shrunk drastically with each passing month — and now, faced with the task of completion, I find it hard to eke out even a few simple conclusions. As I wrote several weeks ago, I feel battered by culture shock — ­an experience that has mainly served to teach me how little I know, and how much I have falsely assumed.

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Take, for example, the rather important matter of drugs. It is impossible to look at Harlem and overlook all the junkies. They brought to mind a college lecture about the introduction of cheap gin into 18th-century England — the gist of which was that it had decimated the urban working class. The gist was all I remembered but I thought, my God, gin was Ovaltine compared to heroin!

It seemed to me that a proletariat of drug addicts was something new under the sun, and I wondered how it could have come about. The more people I asked, the more I was struck by the fact that nobody knew. Even speculation as to when the phenomenon began was vague and disparate — around the Depression, after the War, in the late ’50s. It was as if the heroin epidemic were such an overwhelming aspect of the present that it had drowned out people’s memory of a time when it didn’t exist. But that happier era, I knew, could not have been so long ago; be­cause Malcolm X, in his autobiography, de­votes several chapters to the Harlem of 1943, and dwells on reefer as the great plague among those who had to “keep themselves narcotized to keep from having to face their miserable existence.” Reefer — what every prep-school boy now smokes.

One afternoon in October, Rudy Langlais, an editor at The Voice, invited me to lunch with Claude Brown. Of course, I was thrilled to meet the author of Manchild in the Prom­ised Land, that classic portrait of growing up in Harlem. He was impressive in appearance — strong as a bull-god; large eyes, large head, neat mustache, and neatly tended vandyke with a little silver in it.

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The lunch had not gone on for long before I realized that Claude Brown was working on the subject of drugs in Harlem — and had cracked it. It had taken three years of intense scholarly research and field work. And even he had despaired of ever finding out precisely how the epidemic started, until he met a 58-year-old prison inmate who laid out the whole story for him in 20 minutes.

Brown didn’t tell me the inmate’s story, but he did give me a broad outline of his own findings. Until the end of the Second World War, he said, heroin was a relatively exotic drug uptown, available only to the most suc­cessful jazz musicians; cocaine was far more common among the hoi polloi. The decisive year was 1947. That was when the East Side Italian mobsters began to tell the blacks: “You want to get high? This is coke with something added, makes the high last long­er.” The something added was horse. It came in Number 10 capsules then, 90 per cent pure; no nodding out, just a clean high. Each cap contained half a gram of heroin — half a coke spoon — and cost 50 cents.

By 1950, when Claude was 15, heroin had become the preeminent street drug. All the older kids, 17 and 18, were suddenly snorting horse, and soon it became the fashion to nod, scratch, and cultivate other symptoms of heroin use. They didn’t yet know that you could get addicted. It wasn’t until 1952 or 1953 that Brown started hearing about ad­dicts, about whole youth gangs dissolving be­cause all the members had developed habits. That is, if they lived. In those days, the shock was so bad when you went off the pure stuff going cold turkey didn’t mean getting sick, it meant you died.

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It was the black street distributors who first hit upon the revolutionary idea of in­creasing profits by diluting the heroin with lactose or quinine. Then the Italian wholesal­ers found out what their flunkies were doing and started cutting it themselves. The quality has dropped steadily over the years, and most of the junk now being sold in the streets con­tains between 3 and 6 per cent heroin.

In the course of my own reporting, I filled in more of the story. In the 1950s, there were one or two black dealers like Baps Ross, who bought in volume from the mobbies on a strictly cash-and-carry basis; Baps built up a nest-egg of $800,000 before he got put away. The success of these pioneers paved the way for the generation of the ’60s, youngsters like William “Goldfinger” Terrell (recently mur­dered) and his partner, Nicky Barnes; this generation established credit with the mob­bies, bought on consignment, and amassed million-dollar fortunes. By far the most colossal figure of that era was Frank Matthews, the first black dealer to do serious business with Cuban and Colombian sources and to develop a nationwide distribution network. Matthews’s exploits have been chronicled in fascinating detail by Donald Goddard in his book, Easy Money; the colossus is now in re­tirement — a free man, thanks to plastic sur­gery.

The greatest breakthrough, however, was achieved in the early 1970s by the legendary Frank Lucas and his Country Boys, who es­tablished a Southeast Asian connection and a system of importing raw dope in the body bags of Vietnam casualties. They say that Lucas stashed away $93 million and bought up 40 square miles of North Carolina before he got sent up; poor Frank is now singing shrilly in an effort to get his 70-year term re­duced.

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Around the same time Lucas hooked up with the Golden Triangle, the NYPD busted virtually all the mobbies on Pleasant Avenue, thus wiping out the black wholesalers’ com­petition. Soon thereafter, the highest coun­cils of the mob made it a capital offense for any of their number to traffic in narcotics; drugs brought in far less revenue than gam­bling, and the profits simply weren’t worth the grief. There are still Italian wholesalers to be found in this city, but they are young renegades flying in the faces of their elders.

It is only fair to point out that the black dealers could never have made it so big with­out the help of our own government, both lo­cal and federal. Compared to the govern­ment’s battle against narcotics, its conduct of the war in Vietnam was a work of genius. I don’t know what was done about the heroin epidemic in the ’50s, but it can’t have been much. By the early ’60s New York was firmly established as the world’s largest dope distribution center and already contained half the addicts in the country. Later on, the War on Poverty helped capitalize the Harlem drug business; dealers like Bumpy Johnson, Georgia Gene, and Frank Lucas rode around with their Cadillac trunks crammed full of stolen HARYOU money. It was also about this time that many members of the NYPD’s crack narcotics squad, the Special Investigations Unit, began getting into the drug business themselves, stealing from the dealers and selling through crews of their own. You can read all about that too, because one of the SIU cops has written his memoirs, modestly titled Prince of the City; he will soon be portrayed by John Travolta in a major motion picture.

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In the course of my research, I interviewed a black homicide detective who was not in­volved with the SIU and is now recognized as an authority on New York City’s black un­derworld. By 1967, this detective had begun to realize the extent to which black dealers were running the heroin business. When one of the big drug tycoons got killed, the detec­tive spent two days sitting in a car opposite Benta’s Funeral Home, where all the great Harlem wakes are held. The girlfriends of the deceased got together to send a wreath in the shape of a Lincoln Continental, and all his colleagues turned out for the services. The detective wrote down their license plates. By the time the dealer was in the ground, the detective had compiled enough leads to keep him busy for months. Well be­fore the year was out, he was able to prove that blacks were overtaking the mob and be­coming drug magnates in their own right. He took his finding to Franks Hogan’s D.A.’s office and laid out the whole situation. Hogan’s people were polite but uninterested. Blacks, they explained, were simply incapa­ble of doing what the detective said; they didn’t have the organizational skills, the dis­cipline, the financial know-how to run a large drug operation. The detective thanked them for their wisdom and left.

A few years later, in 1972, the Drug En­forcement Administration made an incred­ible discovery. “Several years ago, when the term ‘Organized Crime’ was used, the aver­age citizen and even some law-enforcement officers across the country felt that this term applied exclusively to one ethnic group,” began a secret report by the agency’s Unified Intelligence Division. “Recently, however, we have come to realize that blacks in this country play a major part in the distribution of heroin.” And the report goes on to give a lengthy description of what the black detec­tive had discovered years before.

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But before I condemn the federal govern­ment for taking 20 years to see that blacks could run the heroin business, let me stop and remind myself that it took one year of re­porting and a riot for me to see that blacks were the major story of the courthouse. Or, rather, to see blacks. It is a cliché that has been endlessly repeated, but it’s worth bring­ing up one more time because it still holds true in 1979: Blacks are invisible to most white people in this country. They took on a little substance for a while in the ’60s, when they kicked up a storm; it was hard not to see the Panthers, the Muslims, the rioters in Watts, Harlem, and Detroit. But now they have grown quiet again, and it takes an effort to see them, to look at them and wonder what they are thinking, what they are going to do about their lot in American life. Of course, the thing that makes blacks invisible and that makes whites so indifferent, so thick, is racism.

As I come to the end of this series, I haven’t much insight to offer, unfortunately. I went to Harlem, and I looked, and I made some friends, who confirmed for me that what I saw was just as bad as it appeared, if not worse. Beyond what I have written, I can only add that Harlem has left me incredibly depressed. I literally cannot imagine what it must be like to live there. Harlem is a place almost totally without hope; it therefore inspires intense hedonistic greed, desperate violence, and high flights of spirituality.

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As for myself, I’d say I’m a little ahead of the game. I’ve been able to spend some time learning about the issue of race and my own racism, which, in the past, had always kept me cowed and confused. I have also been able to meet some new people in this city, just as I had wished — not the New Elite, I’ll grant you but all the newer for that. Of course, some of the people I’ve met were blacks, both good and bad. In fact, that’s the only thing I can really say I’ve accomplished. I didn’t see any corpses, I didn’t unravel the web of Harlem’s drug-related homicides, I didn’t find out a fraction of what I wanted to know about Harlem’s history — but I did confront my fear of black Americans and their rage. That, at least, is a beginning. ■

This is the fifth and final story in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People


Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

One Sunday night last fall, trying to un­wind from the sights and sounds of a day in Harlem, I switched on my Trinitron and aimlessly turned the dial. What should come beaming into my bedroom but a service of worship that was obviously emanating from a storefront church in Harlem! I was hypnotized instantly by the preacher, a tall, slim black man in a sleek blue shirt and vest and an ice-blue tie. He was standing high in a bright orange pulpit, improvising his sermon in heavily cadenced free verse, at first chant­ing it, then singing it, and finally screeching it in a spiritual frenzy. His neatly dressed congregation, swaying on the edges of their folding chairs, sang out affirmation at the end of every line. Here is a sample of what the preacher was saying:

If we are going
To preserve our race
We cannot let our boys and our girls
Walk around the streets
And take chose streets away from us!
Somewhere, somehow
Somebody’s going to have to take these boys and girls
And kill them!

The preacher lavished several beats on the word “kill,” making it beautiful to the ear, and the congregation responded with a shout of approbation. Yet these did not look like bloodthirsty people; they had the solemn, rapturous faces of that large class of ghetto residents who pour into the churches every Sunday. Living in Harlem has forced these people to realize that nothing is meaner than a mean 15-year-old, and many have come to regard the death penalty for adolescent kill­ers as their only means of self-defense. There is a growing segment of the population that would go along behind this TV preacher, who, neglecting to mention the Seventh Commandment, cited all kinds of scripture to the effect that, although Christ didn’t ac­tively favor the taking of life, when it came to a choice between the destruction of society and capital punishment, He would have been for capital punishment.

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In the Sixth Homicide Zone, I often heard the detectives talking about a kid named Hemorrhoids, and for several weeks that was the only name I knew him by. Hemorrhoids was being cultivated as a witness in a couple of cases. Because the detectives seemed to see him as a puckish figure and told funny stories about him, it took me a while to realize that he was a serious criminal, one of the legion of feral, amoral adolescents whose atrocities are reported almost daily in the newspapers. He­morrhoids wasn’t the baddest little dude in Harlem — not by a long shot — but he was, unmistakably, one of the breed. The detec­tive who knew him best was Jeddy Gates’s partner, Joe Leake, and Leake said he was capable of anything you could imagine. Al­ready, at the age of 15, he had pulled countless stick-ups, sold vast quantities of dope, and acquired a reputation for selling beat packs — all cut and no heroin. He had also shot a number of people and missed killing them more by accident than by design.

One day in March, I went into the office, and there was Hemorrhoids, sitting regally in one of the back rooms, making a deposition to Leake and Gates. Had I not known who he was, I would have taken him for a boy of 12. He was scarcely over five feet tall, with nar­row shoulders, long arms, and slender hips. He had a receding chin, a finely shaped nose, small, shrewd eyes, and long eyelashes. His lips were full and his mouth came out like a scoop. His was a mobile face, a comedian’s face; he reminded Gates of J.J. Walker, the actor on TV who says “Dyn-omite!” When he smiled, his top lip rose from his rabbit’s teeth and it was like seeing a velvet curtain go up on a brightly lit stage. It wasn’t until he signed the deposition that I first heard his real name, Willy Horton.

As I later found out, Willy had a habit of holding on to all the money he made from selling dope, telling his bosses, “The police got my shit.” It was one of these bosses who gave him his nickname because he was such a pain in the ass.

Willy didn’t take this lying down. “At one time,” he said, “I had people calling me Wil­ly. I would stick a pistol in their head and cock it and say, ‘Next time you call me He­morrhoids, I’m gonna let it go.’ But then all the old niggers started calling me Hemorrhoids, so I said, ‘I don’t care. You all go on and call me that, I just don’t answer.’ ”

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I always called him Willy. Because I never saw him outside the presence of Leake and Gates, he never seemed threatening to me, and I was able to appreciate his better quali­ties, which were charm, humor, and a keen but underdeveloped intelligence. Unfortu­nately, life in Harlem had made him crazy, and the values he had picked up in the street were not exactly sterling. Willy’s true school and playground was the block of 147th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The newspapers ran so many stories about the shootings on that block that I tended to dis­count its notoriety as a product of media hype — but when I talked to some of the resi­dents, they seemed convinced, from their own experience, that it was the worst block in Harlem. Certainly Willy thought so. What made it so bad, he said in one of his more in­trospective moments, was the kids. They had all grown up right in the neighborhood; now they were killing it and each other.

The main thing these kids seemed to want, and which constantly slipped through their fingers, was respect. For them, the idea of re­spect was synonymous with big money, dirty money. Their models were the wealthiest men of the community. “Nicky Barnes had biiiig respect because he would spend money,” said Willy. “I seen him walking around plenty of times with a suitcase full of cash. A black briefcase.”

These kids are Nicky’s spiritual sons, and their code is quite possibly harsher than his had ever been. In Nicky’s day, the youth gangs had a certain sense of fraternity, and at least paid lip service to the notion of one for all and all for one. When Nicky was Willy’s age, in the late 1940s, he belonged to a gang named the Turks, whose special colors were green and white, and whose rivals were the Bishops and the Comets. Today the gangs have largely been supplanted by crews, com­mercial entities for selling dope and doing stick-ups. The crew with which Willy was associated had neither name nor colors. They all wore pretty much the same thing Willy wore: jeans with rolled-up cuffs, zippered jackets or hooded sweatshirts, and the staple footwear of ghetto kids, sneakers — especially Pumas, Pro-Keds, and Adidas. It is as if the dress code acknowledges the truth of the si­tuation — every man for himself.

The thing that makes Willy’s life particu­larly difficult, I think, is that he is not quite as alone as many of his fellow hoodlums. He has a mother who loves him and a family that is in his corner, and this has made it hard for him to acquire the utter and unswerving de­pravity necessary for survival in his profes­sion. Willy has attended church on many oc­casions and heard the scriptures; he even claims to believe in God. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he once told me. “One minute I’m ready to do something baaad. Then, just about when I’m ready to do it, something comes into my mind — ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that.’ Gotta be the Lord. The devil can make you do something wrong, but if you got the Lord, the Lord’ll help you out.”

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Caught between these opposing counsels, Willy hesitated and was lost, or maybe saved — he decided to do the Lord’s work and testify against a murderer, the leader of his crew. With that, he was instantly ostracized by his old cohorts and banished from his old neighborhood; his life was threatened. He and his family have now been relocated to another part of the city, but anything short of relocation to another continent is not going to ensure Willy’s preservation. He seems to be­lieve he’s enjoying the protection of the Lord. “Lord helped me plenty times,” he told me. “I got hit by a car, got shot in the head, fell off Mopeds about three or four times, bust my lip up, fell on my head, and everything. Lord helped me a lot.” Still, some of the people who know Willy be­lieve — and it is a terrible thing to say — that he wants to die.

Willy was born in 1962, the fifth of six children, and grew up on the top floor of a tenement on 148th Street. It wasn’t such a bad block in those days, but the landlord didn’t keep up the building. There was no heat in winter, except what came from the open gas stove. Later, the water was shut off; Willy had to go fetch it by the bucketful from the hydrant on the corner.

The burden of raising the family devolved upon Willy’s mother; his father, a short man with the nickname of “Mousy,” skipped out when Willy was one. Mrs. Horton, a good­-tempered woman who laughs easily, is now 38 but looks older; she had her first baby when she was about Willy’s age. She is squat, with a broad face, wrinkled brow, and short, hennaed hair. Because she suffers from high blood pressure, a common ailment among ur­ban blacks, she was unable to find steady em­ployment, and had to make do with welfare.

She was not entirely alone. Her own moth­er always stood by her in times of trouble, and her brothers — particularly James, a karate pro — helped to discipline the kids. James in­structed Willy in the martial arts and was his “main item” until two years ago, when he was mysteriously killed on a trip to Mexico City.

Willy is almost as much of a mystery to his mother as he is to everyone else. “He was al­ways a very fair child,” she told me; it wasn’t until he was 12 or 13 that she noticed he was more of a challenge than the rest of her chil­dren. “One thing about Willy,” she said, “he always had big ideas.” He never lacked for clean clothes or hot meals, but he didn’t have big money, like his friends who were dealing, and that was what he wanted.

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From the age of 11 onward, Willy hung out assiduously on the corner with a gang of teenagers who sold dope and did stick-ups. He soon found the drug operation to be a closed shop; the older kids used him as a gof­er but only rarely gave him any drugs to sell; without a connection, he was nowhere. But armed robbery was another matter entirely; all he needed was a gun and a lot of nerve. Soon he joined the other stick-up kids, prey­ing on the wide variety of people who walk around Harlem carrying cash: junkies, scramblers, dealers, gamblers, numbers cou­riers, people whose numbers had hit. The most he ever made on one job was $800, and usually the take was much less; on a good day, however, he could do several stick-ups. His only problem was explaining his new­found wealth to his mother. At first, he told her that he’d won the money playing celo, a dice game; but that story pretty soon wore thin. So Willy would either leave the money with a friend or stash it in his private hole, a course followed by many stick-up kids. There is more treasure buried in Harlem’s vacant lots than Captain Kidd ever dreamed of.

What did Willy spend his earnings on? The usual things — movies, women, guns, gambling, Pro-Ked sneakers, suits from A.J. Lester’s on 125th Street, rides around Cen­tral Park in Godfather limousines, coke, and angel dust. Note well: not a penny for smack. Willy was never going to be what Nicky Barnes had been at 14, a junkie. I once asked Nicky what got him started on heroin, and he said it was that his heroes — Parker and Miles — snorted horse. But by the time Willy hit the street, those heroes were long gone from the scene, and so were the places where they had played.

Every place Willy looked, he learned the lesson that smack is poison. “I used to see the posters on the wall in school — DANGER, HE­ROIN, DO NOT USE,” he said. “Me and my friends used to say, ‘We ain’t ever gonna mess with that stuff.’ ”

Willy’s idea of users came from the vast population of junkies that Nicky Barnes helped to create. “I hate dope fiends,” said Willy. “They arm swole up, they stink, they just ruin theyselves — I ain’t never sniffed dope or shot it, and I never will.”

But Willy does smoke large amounts of an­gel dust, which is by far the most popular drug of his generation. Angel dust has shaped, or misshaped, the personality of the up-and-coming criminal class; it makes them think they’re supermen, immune to bullets, blades, and steaming locomotives. For some­one like Willy, who weighs barely 100 pounds, dust is virtually a business expense; it gives him the insane energy he needs to hold up people twice his size. Its effect on people who are full-sized and jail-hardened is to make them mean beyond belief. One of Willy’s older friends, a stick-up artist who was feared all over Harlem, used to get dust­ed up and force girls to blow him as their terrified boyfriends looked on.

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The active ingredient in angel dust is a chemical called PCP, an animal tranquilizer, which is sprayed onto marijuana: I once met a cousin of Willy’s who told me, “It sort of pushes your eyes back in your head, and if you smoke it for a while, you lose a lot of weight.” It also makes you feel numb. Willy was shot in the head while he was on dust, and he didn’t feel a thing. The dust numbs out everything — not just pain, but also emo­tions, particularly fear and remorse. It’s the perfect drug for a generation of kids who as­sume that they’re going to get killed, but want five wild years before they die.

In 1976, as Willy entered his 14th year, he was doing pretty much what he pleased: rob­bing, selling, screwing, smoking dust, and hanging around in poolrooms. He went to school when it suited him. Every so often he would be hauled into Family Court, but his mother always accompanied him, and he was usually permitted to go home in her custody. Only once, after having robbed an old wom­an, was he sent to the Spofford Juvenile De­tention Facility in the Bronx. For many kids, Spofford would be a terrifying place, but it serves Willy’s neighborhood as a kind of boarding school; he saw a lot of friends there.

“Must have been a real shock, going there,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Willy, “had to go to bed ear­ly.”

Willy’s major professional problem was his inability to break into the drug business. The gang he hung out with was a tight-knit group of 15 brothers and cousins called the Gillis clan. The Gillises refused to give Willy a meaningful place in their operation, and after a while he decided that they were just ex­ploiting him, getting his labor for nothing. “You take Larry Gillis,” said Willy. “He ain’t the oldest brother, but he’s the biggest brother, and he tries to get a lot of respect from everybody. He’d tell me, ‘Go over to my house, take this, sell this for me, I’ll hook you up.’ He got all the money and he ain’t gonna give you a damn thing.”

It was just at this juncture in Willy’s career that James Charleston reappeared in his neighborhood. James Charleston been convict­ed, at the age of 14, of having killed a girl from 148th Street with whom Willy had grown up. Now, after 18 months in jail, James was back on 147th Street. Even in that very tough block, among kids who had grown up with killing, Charleston was con­sidered too crazy to mess with. He didn’t kill for what the other kids considered good reasons, like revenge; he killed for the pure pleasure of it, whenever the urge hit him.

However, Charleston had his good side, too. He was fair with Willy, and gave him half the take whenever they did a job togeth­er. He was also clever, resourceful, and defi­nitely badder than Larry Gillis. “See,” said Willy, “the Gillises couldn’t pull any of their tricks with Charleston.”

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Charleston formed a little stick-up gang with Willy and two other kids. Willy served as a kind of squire, following Charleston around, carrying his gun for him, shooting whomever he said to shoot. Charleston also became the main enforcer — the muscle — for a rising drug dealer named Moose, who was sufficiently powerful that the Gillis clan was forced to share 147th Street with him. The arrangement between the two groups seemed to work well until the police cracked down on the drug strip further south on Eighth Avenue, with the result that a flood of customers was flushed into their shared territory.

Alas, the influx of business only stimulated the dealers’ greed, and within weeks the deli­cate truce between Moose and the Gillises disintegrated in a hail of lead. A running bat­tle ensued.

In one month alone, March of 1977, there were 17 shootings. According to Willy, this was when the block really started to go mad. A number of innocent bystanders were hit by stray bullets; nobody could venture out with­out the risk of being shot. The besieged resi­dents raised a ruckus, and the police bore down on the offenders, busting several of Willy’s acquaintances. The dealers packed it in and moved to 143rd Street. Charleston’s gang, according to Willy, was so feared by then that they were able to go into the protec­tion racket. “People was givin’ us money just to don’t do nothin’.”

By the summer of ’77 there was peace again on 147th Street, but nobody who lived there really trusted it. Although the dealers were gone, Charleston’s gang remained and continued their depredations upon anyone stupid enough to walk through the neighbor­hood with a full wallet. It had been a trau­matic spring, people’s nerves were badly shot, and everyone had become extremely cautious. There was no hanging out on stoops that summer, no dancing in the street to disco from the radios; even the after-hours joint was shut tight by nine every night, with the customers locked in until the break of day. At every burst of firecrackers on the Fourth of July, people dove for the sidewalk.

Then came the blackout, a raucous night of gunshots and drunkenness, illuminated by darting flashlight beams. It was also Willy’s 15th birthday, July 13. Some kids from the neighborhood looted a liquor store, and Charleston saw one of them, David Nurse, running down an alleyway with a case of whiskey. David didn’t stop when James told him to, so James allegedly shot him in the back and killed him.

“David Nurse,” Willy mused later, “he was a good person. I’ve known him all my life, man. I know his whole family and every­thing. I was by myself that night, for a little while. If I would have been there, man, I would have stopped that… David used to let me ride his bike a lot, right on 148th Street.”

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But Willy was right there beside Charles­ton a couple of weeks later when James went up on a roof to test his new rifle on a human target, a scrambler named Heavy, who was lying in bed across the street — and Willy didn’t lift a finger to stop that from happen­ing. On the contrary, he acted as lookout. Maybe Heavy hadn’t ever let him ride his bike.

Toward the end of the summer James got arrested for sticking up a numbers guy and was sent to Riker’s. Willy began to learn how effectively he could work on his own. One af­ternoon in late August he did a solo job on 148th Street — another numbers guy.

“I knew him and I knew he was a punk,” Willy explained. “That’s why I stuck him up. I knew him cause we two lived in the same block, ever since I was livin’ there.” So Willy robbed his neighbor of 14 years in a hallway, and the neighbor put out the word, and Joe Leake heard about it. Willy’s neigh­borhood happened to be Leake’s special area within the Sixth Zone; he and several other detectives were working on Charleston’s two homicides, and they needed to crack some­body from Charleston’s gang.

“I’ll take care of it myself,” the numbers guy insisted, but Leake convinced him to let the system do it for him and got him to press charges. That same night, Leake picked up Willy, drove him to the station house, informed him of the case against him, and made a candid plea for information. Willy was totally stand-up. Leake brandished the threat of jail. “I’ll take my chances,” said Willy with a shrug. Leake made him get up, searched him, found several decks of heroin, and charged him with drug possession on top of robbery.

But Joe Leake didn’t let this unfortunate incident sour his relationship with Willy. He didn’t do the cop act any longer than neces­sary, and tried to keep everything friendly. Leake is an extremely handsome man, tall and graceful, with an easy smile to take the edge off his splendid looks. He turned the charm on Willy’s whole family. He dropped into their apartment, chatted with Willy’s mother about her grandchildren and his own kids, took Willy for rides in his sports car, bought him breakfasts, treated him like a lit­tle boy-king. Leake told him if he ever put his street smarts into legitimate business, he could really go somewhere — which Joe really believed. But Willy still didn’t feel up to helping the police.

So, in early October, the robbery trial went ahead in Family Court.

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One of the great problems that always arises when one culture meets another is that of credibility, and it is a problem that haunts every courtroom in Manhattan. To what ex­tent can a judge or jury give credence to a res­ident of Harlem who speaks in street talk and has stepped out of an environment that they know to he steeped in crime? The Harlemite sits on the stand, a deep mystery. Has he any respect for the majesty of the law, for a white system of criminal justice? How can his lis­teners ever hope to guess what his motives may be and whether or not he is telling the truth?

Here is a complainant, 27 years old, testi­fying under oath that the defendant, one Wil­ly Horton, 15 years old, held him up at gun­point and robbed him of $105.

The judge, anxious not to condemn the youth out of hand, asks the complainant how he makes his living.

“I hustle — write numbers, play cards, shoot a little craps.” And how much income has he reported recently to the IRS? None. And why did he not report the crime im­mediately? “Because I was gonna take care of it myself.” All of which is, of course, true.

“I do not find this man credible,” the judge declares after due deliberation. “He admits that he paid no income tax in 1975 and 1976, and that he was going to instigate vigilante action against the defendant.” Case dismissed.

What has this judge been smoking? What does he think goes on up in Harlem? Hasn’t he noticed that every time Willy is led back to the holding pen, he leans toward the com­plainant and mutters, “Hey, man, Craig is looking for you”? Even without knowing that Craig is in Charleston’s gang, doesn’t he know a death threat when he hears one? Vigi­lante action! What does the judge think is go­ing to happen now that the defendant has found out his word is no good in court be­cause he doesn’t pay taxes? Has the judge ever stopped to consider how many people in Harlem don’t pay taxes?

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It was a good thing for Leake that he’d been cultivating Willy all along. James had been in jail for a couple of months now, his power over Willy was dwindling; his place in Willy’s affections was being taken over by Leake. “It was like he got a new girlfriend,” Leake put it later. He kept begging Willy to do the right thing, and he made Willy feel like the key. In November, he decided to demonstrate his faith in Willy by arranging for the drug charge to be dropped — a win­ning tactic. Willy came forward with the de­sired goods, first a crucial piece of evidence that made the Nurse case possible to try, and again with the solution to the murder of Heavy.

Many months later, I asked Willy exactly what had made him decide to help the police. “I guess the Lord took care of that,” he answered with a meaningful look. Leake thought it was more a case of Willy’s enjoying all the attention he was getting.

Just a few days into the new year, 1978, Willy got shot in the head and nearly went out of the picture. This was Leake’s second witness to get shot within a year; the other one had been DOA. At first, Leake feared the shooting might have had something to do with Willy’s decision to cooperate, but such was not the case. Willy’s two best friends, both kin of Charleston’s, had been killed the week before, and Willy needed money for a new black suit to wear at the funeral. Selling dope in a hallway on 143rd Street, Willy had tried to push around the resident scramblers and thus aroused the ire of the block’s most prominent dealer, who shot him. The bullet struck him just under the left sideburn, trav­eled down under the chin, and lodged harm­lessly in the neck — a miracle. When Leake visited the intensive care unit, Willy bright­ened and said, “Hey, my main man!”

Willy recovered within a few weeks, and the next months were a period of wandering for him. Leake was promoted to sergeant, with a desk job in a West Side precinct, and so passed temporarily out of his life. Willy’s mother moved the family to an apartment in the Bronx, in the precinct the cops call “Jun­gle Habitat”; though the new neighborhood was full of drugs and violence, it was, never­theless, a slight improvement over the old one. Unfortunately, Willy headed right back to 147th Street and continued his career as a stick-up artist. That summer he turned 16, was arrested for several shootings, was charged as an adult, and even spent a few days in Riker’s — no more Family Court. In September, Leake was transferred back to Sixth Homicide with an assignment to watch over Willy and help him prepare for his star­ring role in the imminent trial of Charleston.

Heavy’s murder was the first case to be tried. One warm fall morning, Leake drove Willy down to Centre Street, jiving all the way, and deposited him in the courtroom. Things started off well enough; Willy took the oath with his hand held high and his chest puffed out, standing so straight he was almost swaybacked. James Charleston leaned back in his chair at the defense table, and smiled. He was stocky and powerfully built, wearing a beige short-sleeved safari suit and red Pumas. He had a round head, with taut, gleaming skin, and a scar running across the brow. Several of his girlfriends were in the audience.

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The assistant district attorney asked Willy the first question, one they had rehearsed many times: “On the 31st of July 1977, were you on the roof of 290 West 147th Street?”


The a.d.a. reeled as if from a blow; recov­ering quickly, he put the question in another form, with the same negative result. A recess was called and the a.d.a. took Willy down­stairs to his office. “What are you doing?” he kept asking him over and over. Meanwhile, Leake, thinking Willy could use some moral support, called his mother; she came down in a taxi and talked some sense into him; he finally agreed to go back and tell the truth. But as soon as Willy got back on the stand and saw Charleston, he changed his mind again. This time they summoned his legal aid lawyer, who warned him he could be held on perjury charges if he changed his story. The trial proceeded once again.

The judge was determined to keep going until both the a.d.a. and defense attorney had finished with the witness, but around 7:30, while being cross-examined, Willy be­gan falling asleep on the stand. The defense lawyer asked him why he had his eyes closed. “Because I’m tired of looking at you,” said Willy. That’s when the a.d.a. persuaded the judge it was time to stop for the day.

Anxious to keep Willy happy, the a.d.a. allowed him to go home with his mother, rather than making him stay the night in a hotel, under guard. They stopped for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and called the house. Willy’s older brother reported that he had run into Charleston’s older brother, who had said, “I wouldn’t testify against your brother, man.” Now, Willy was a connoisseur of death threats — he had made enough of them himself — and this statement by Charleston’s brother struck him as extremely sinister. So his mother called Joe Leake, who arranged for a police car to pick them up and take them to the Bronx. Later, he offered to have them put in a hotel, but by that time Willy was crying and thoroughly spooked; his mother thought he’d be better off at home. Still later that night, Willy stepped out the back window and let himself down the fire escape.

Where did Willy go? He stayed in Harlem for a week and a half — part of the time with his father, part at a motel. Then he and a friend drove to Detroit in a Mercedes; having retrieved his stash of money from its secret hiding place, Willy was able to travel with a cardboard carton half filled with 10s and 20s.

The search for him was intensive. Gates and Leake and three men from the 32nd Pre­cinct stayed out until dawn, night after night, checking every place Willy used to hang out, looking up his friends, offering a reward of $100 for information. Every cop in Harlem had a flyer with Willy’s picture on it. After two weeks of searching, the cops heard that he was vacationing in the Motor City.

The a.d.a. on the case was named Allen Reiter; it was his third homicide. He was a thin fellow, with a neat rabbinical beard, and he reminded me of myself in that he was rather high strung. He must have been under severe pressure from his superiors, which can only have increased after an incredibly preju­dicial article appeared in the New York Post — MISSING WITNESS PERILS CASE AGAINST KILLER TEENAGER. The article gave a long description of Charleston’s psy­chopathic career and made a mistrial virtually inevitable.

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The sergeant who caught the case in De­troit has a vivid memory of his first phone call from Reiter. “It sounded like the man was crying. He said, ‘Everything is at stake.’ I told him I didn’t realize it was that impor­tant. He started calling once a day, and I tried to be diplomatic, but finally I had to say, ‘Look, we’re working on it, we’ll get back to you when we get something.’ ”

Toward the end of October, the Detroit police picked Willy up; he was living in a trailer on a block notorious for drugs. When Gates and Leake were dispatched to retrieve him, I got wind of their mission and flew out with them.

When we arrived at the ominous brick building that housed the Wayne County Juvenile Facility, Gates stayed in the car and I went in with Leake to take the fugitive into custody. As usual, everything about Leake was elegant — the real Cartier tank watch, the blue blazer, gold belt buckle, and beige slacks that fell in long crisp lines and broke on his loafers, just so. He sauntered over to a ticket window in the reception hall, and spoke to the clerk, who sent for Willy and laid out his possessions — five cinnamon can­dies, some change, and a black plastic hair pick. The handle of the pick was embossed with a peace sign and tapered off into a black power fist.

After a few minutes an attendant pushed open a door, and in swaggered Willy, with his shoulders back, his feet splayed, and his hands thrust nonchalantly into the pockets of his orange imitation-leather jacket. “Hey, man,” he said to Leake with a sly con­spiratorial grin that seemed to add, “I knew you’d find me.” And Leake grinned back.

Knowing the drill, Willy went directly to the window and signed for his property; he whipped the pick into his hair at a rakish an­gle. Leake held him gently by the collar and led him outside. “Don’t you trust me?” Wil­ly asked disingenuously as they crossed the concrete driveway.

“I’d trust you if you were under this ce­ment,” said Leake.

Willy got into the front seat between the Detroit police sergeant and Leake. Gates, sit­ting in the back, greeted him with a big smile, leaned forward, pulled the pick out of his hair, and handed it to him. “Put that in your pocket, man,” he said.

Leake started asking questions in a low voice, talking street talk. “I came out here to get rich,” said Willy, in a tone of braggadocio, and went on to claim he’d set him­self up as a pimp, with seven girls in his sta­ble. Gates asked him if he’d had a Mercedes. “That’s right,” said Willy, “Mercedes. Drove it out here.” He unzipped his jacket and showed Leake the designer shirt he’d bought for $56 — a handsome garment, made of black silk, imprinted with a design of yel­low parrots, green palm trees, and red tropi­cal flowers. Leake later asked him if he were going to make a clean breast of things so he could walk with his head high, and wouldn’t have to hit the shadows. To which Willy an­swered, “Yup.”

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As we drove along the freeway to the airport, it occurred to me that here was Leake, 38 years old, just the same age as Willy’s mother, a perfect father for him; and here was Jeddy, 64, an ideal grandfather. I thought how different things might have been if that had actually been the case, and wondered what Willy would be doing now, instead of flying back to a city where he was now both publicized and marked.

Willy came back from Detroit much im­pressed with his own importance. His name had been all over the papers; large amounts of time and money had been lavished on his apprehension; for the moment he had tran­scended his role as a creepy kid with little re­spect in the street. He was about to commit the single most virtuous act of his life, put away a pathological killer; forgotten was his own complicity in the killing; forgotten were the many shootings he had done himself. Willy’s life was largely one of fantasy, and for the moment he convinced himself that his re­turn was a voluntary act; he expected grati­tude, appreciation, and a room at the Plaza.

“Unfortunately,” Leake explained, “Willy has shown that he doesn’t deserve to be put in a hotel.” What with all the publicity, the embarrassment to the D.A.’s office, there was no chance of Willy’s going anywhere that offered the slightest opportunity for escape. As a material witness, he was placed in the Queens House of Detention.

Willy’s legal-aid attorney expressed honest outrage. He was a serious young man with curly hair and horn rims who was of the opin­ion that, having committed no crime in this instance except running away from a death threat, and having always appeared willingly in the past, Willy ought not to be kept in jail like a criminal.

This reasonable — if unrealistic — argument fell on deaf ears. The judge, Martin Evans, was unmoved. He is the same judge who pre­sided two years ago over the first of the Mosque trials, at which time I wrote that opinion as to his abilities was widely divided. This was wrong. It’s his philosophy that is controversial, not his legal competence. Evans is known as “Maximum Marty,” for his practice of giving stiff sentences; he is generally considered the hardest liner in a courthouse that remains essentially soft-­hearted. Many defense lawyers condemn him for being mean, cold, and pro-prosecution­ which may be true, but I’m not sure it makes him a poor judge.

If the murder and pillage that goes on in Harlem ever comes to midtown Manhattan, I can assure you there will be torchlight pa­rades down Fifth Avenue, with the marchers clamoring for public executions in Sheep’s Meadow. While I myself abhor capital pun­ishment, 11 months in Harlem has made me realize the need for certain punishment, some means to keep inveterate killers off the street. If judges shirk the duty of sentencing killers to long terms in our ghastly prisons, there is going to be a growing movement to­ward vigilantism uptown, which can only lead to further violence and chaos. There is no simple solution to these problems, and a society that doesn’t want to spend money on criminal justice is probably placing too heavy a burden on its judges. I will just say that when I looked at James Charleston, I was re­lieved to see cool, careful, controversial, no­-nonsense Marty Evans sitting on the bench.

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The new trial began on a Wednesday, early in November. Willy was an A+ witness that afternoon, helpful and alert. He told the sto­ry of the murder with clarity and precision of detail:

It all took place on 147th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, two weeks after the blackout, in a heat wave. The victim, a guy named Heavy who lived at 291, worked as a scrambler for a dealer named Moose­ — the same Moose who employed Charleston and his friends as gorillas. Heavy also had a job as a super in a building up the street, but had to sell dope to make money to support his habit, which he had picked up in Viet­nam.

That day, Heavy was standing on the stoop of 291 when a customer came up and told him, “You sold me something bad.” James, standing in the hallway, overheard the com­plaint, and immediately assembled a posse of 10 or 15 friends to enforce quality control. They took Heavy across the street to the hall­way of 290 and stomped him for nearly a quarter of an hour. Willy tried to kick him, but couldn’t get in close enough.

That night, James told Willy to go get the rifle. It was a rusty, lever-action 30/30 that they’d found in the alley around the comer, sticking out of the dirt. They had cleaned it and left it with a guy named Tiny, who lived in one of the block’s abandoned tenements.

(The only three facts I could ever get out of Willy about Tiny were these: “Tiny just went out of his head one day. His family all left him. Used to walk down the island and up the island.” Willy seemed to feel this was all there was to say on the subject).

Willy got the rifle for James, and they went up to the roof of 290 with Craig. Craig and Willy stood lookout on either side of the roof, and James stood in the middle. “He was looking for something to shoot,” Willy testified. “Then he said, ‘Heavy, I’m gwan get Heavy.’ ” Heavy was lying in bed across the way on the fourth floor of 291, reading the News, with the window open. James aimed, and the shot sounded a lot louder than any shot Willy had ever heard.

They saw Heavy writhing in agony on the floor and heard him screaming he’d been shot; James told Willy to pick up the shell from the roof and gave him the rifle to take back to Tiny’s. A few minutes later, Willy joined the other two on the stoop of 292, and they watched the ambulance come take Heavy away.

By the time Reiter finished his direct ex­amination of Willy, the courtroom was grow­ing dark and the day was over.

Next morning came the cross-examina­tion, and everybody warned Willy again, as they’d warned him before, that James’s law­yer was going to try to get his goat, and Willy knew it, but it didn’t do any good. The law­yer, Phil Edelbaum, is by nature a schmooz­er, but in his professional capacity he became extremely nasty, insinuating, and sarcastic. The lawyer dragged out a great many of the bad things Willy had done, and Willy resent­ed having to admit he’d done them. Things like: selling dope; shooting a guy named Marcus “for personal reasons”; shooting another guy named Mo, in the chest, “not too long ago”; robbing an old lady with his friend Butchie (“I told Butchie not to do it”); shooting his friend Styx in the foot (“I was shooting at the ground, it just hit his foot”). By turns, Willy was sassy, sulky, argumenta­tive; not once did he fail to rise to Edel­baum’s grossly baited hook. At the lunch break, the stenographer shook her head and wondered out loud if the boy might not be a “bad seed.”

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After lunch, coming up the hallway on his way back to face further cross-examination, Willy looked pretty grim; Reiter had scolded him severely. When he came to where I was, he suddenly stuck out his elbow, and I thought for a moment he was going to put it in my stomach — but then his hand came out like a flipper. “Squeeeze!” he said, with a big grin. So I squoze and wished him a gung-ho good luck.

Two days later, the jury convicted James Charleston of manslaughter. I have no idea what their reasons were for believing Willy, but if I were to guess, I’d say that Willy came across to them as precisely the kind of kid who would have been up on that roof with James Charleston when he shot Heavy.

A few days after Willy was released from the Queens House and returned to his block in the Bronx, somebody stabbed him in the back, and he nearly went out of the picture again. He was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and now he’s apparently as good as new… but somehow I get the feeling that in terms of his life as a whole, he’s not in very good shape. His family is hoping that things may still turn around for him — after he testifies in the other case against Charleston, and goes on to his own trials, maybe the judge will put him on probation, or give him time in an honor prison “like they gave Ehr­lichman and all the rest of them”; maybe he’ll hit the books, go to high school, become a cop; maybe he’ll live to a ripe old age…

Most people who spend any time with Wil­ly lose patience with him; I think the basic reason for this is his relentless determination to get himself killed. As for myself, I have the luxury of knowing him from a distance, and my heart goes out to him. Talk about lost boys… here is a Wee Geordie in Harlem, tormented by his small stature, lifting his weights to try to get muscles, humiliated by his nickname, unsettled by all the upheavals of adolescence, grieved by the death of his two friends, caught tightly in the toils of the law, despised by his old companions, fully aware that people may be plotting his death…

Or is he fully aware of anything? I often wonder just how thoroughly he cons himself along with everyone else. I remember some­thing he told me on the plane coming back from Detroit, and I wonder if he really believes it.

“There are so many things, man, that I don’t understand in this world,” he said gravely. “There have been times when I wanted to jump out the window. But things are gonna start comin’ better, I know it. Right now, I’m followin’ the path of the Lord.”

And I remember another conversation, a few weeks later, when Willy called me from the Queens House of Detention. We were talking about Heavy, and I said, wow, here is a guy who survived all those firefights in Vietnam, and got strung out over there, and then he comes home and gets shot — isn’t that sad?

“Might be in heaven now,” said Willy, “having a good time.” I thought I could hear him smiling.

“I sure hope so,” I said. ■

This is the fourth story in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 


Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

On my first day at the Sixth Homicide Zone in Harlem, I went out in a radio car with two black detectives. A cold white sun was gleaming in the February sky, and jagged mounds of pockmarked snow were piled at the curbs. I kept losing my sense of direction, and only occasionally did I know precisely what street we were on. Lenox Ave­nue looked very much like Adam Clayton Po­well Boulevard, which was actually Seventh Avenue — or maybe Eighth; I couldn’t keep them straight. As the car bounced down the potholed street, the snow chains set up such a deafening whackety-whack that we had to converse in shouts. From the back seat I shouted questions about Harlem drug traffic, and the detectives threw back answers about things that had happened on 16th Street or 47th Street, and for a while I thought there must be some huge drug operation down­town that I had never heard of — until I realized they were just dropping the hundred.

I looked out the grimy windows. It was more like the South Bronx than I had expect­ed — somehow I hadn’t realized that Harlem was burning too. Handsome neo-Renaissance apartment buildings from the turn of the cen­tury stood, hollow with decay. Large stores and whole rows of tenements had black gap­ing windows and doors bricked up with cin­der blocks or covered with galvanized sheet­ing. Looking inside, you could sometimes see calendars still fixed to the peeling walls, or pinups, or a leaking pipe. One graffito was everywhere, always in the same hand: BE­COME A CATHOLIC. The whole place looked just like everybody said — a bombed-out town.

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Most of the small shops were shabby but relatively intact. A disproportionate number seemed to have orange facades, and the incidence of astrological references was striking: Zodiac Bar, Gemini Fresh Scooped Ice Cream, Libra Cleaners, etc. There were hundreds of storefront churches, and quite a few barbers, fish stores, pet shops, and florists. A number of the flower shops had spanking-clean facades that stood out from their surroundings and I asked why they were so prosperous.

“Funerals,” shouted the older detective, Jeddy Gates, who was driving. “Hardly anybody’s so poor he don’t get a wreath when he dies.”

The police radio was crackling beneath the dashboard, and whenever a bulletin of particular interest came across, Gates turned up the volume. “Robbery in progress at bakery, 125th and Eighth. Respond without siren. A man is holding a knife around the baker’s neck.” That was work for the uniformed cops.

We rode down 116th Street, which was largely bombed out but still teeming with life. It was a street where you could make big weight connections, they said. They showed me the block where Nicky Barnes grew up, between Manhattan and Eighth, and some hotels where dealers operated, and the Jack Daniels Bar, a one-story hole that had witnessed three or four drug-related murders. A few doors down, on the corner of Lenox, stood the light blue mosque with its galvanized dome. The ground floor contained Muslim-run shops.

“Those are the only stores in Harlem with no shutters,” Gates said as we stopped for the light. “The hoodlums don’t fuck with those people.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because they’ll come out and protect their property,” he said. We turned onto Lenox and I asked them where the main drug locations were. They started shouting coordinates at me — 127th and Eighth, 128th and Lenox, 131st and Ma­dison… and when I’d filled an entire page of my notebook, I said that was enough: I got the idea.

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“Wherever there are a lot of abandoned buildings,” said Gates, “the junkies and dope dealers feel they can congregate without anybody complaining. That’s why you get these drug pockets. As for 116th Street, that’s big because of the easy access. The Lenox Avenue subway, the Eighth Avenue subway. People can come from all over. And 127th Street is big because it has five or six fleabag hotels, it’s always been an area frequented by prostitutes. So, naturally, the customers and the whores themselves are people who buy drugs.”

“But where exactly is Nicky Barnes’s turf?” I shouted.

“That’s not how it works,” Gates an­swered. “It’s like a farmers’ market. Every­body’s free to put their wares out.”

We drove slowly down the marijuana street — 123rd, I think it was. The younger detective, Joe Leake, rolled down his win­dow. “They’ll usually come right up to the car,” he said. Figures in blue-hooded sweatshirts popped out from behind doors and un­der stoops. They glared, and waited, and glared some more, but nobody approached. It was mainly a West Indian block, said Leake. There had been a decapitation, with a machete.

At 124th and Eighth, a group of middle-­aged men with pails and brushes were scrubbing a long line of brightly colored Cadillacs.

“That’s the dealers’ car wash,” Leake said.

Then we drove farther uptown, past Colonial Park, where children were playing under the brow of a spectacular cliff. The detectives showed me on Eighth Avenue where Nicky Barnes and his people used to hang out — the Taureans II, with a stucco front and Tudor beams — and the Third Planet, painted orange. A tall man in a denim cap stood alertly in the doorway of the Third Planet. “That’s the doorman,” said Gates. “He got shot twice last year in the same knee.”

We drove down a certain block of 143rd Street, which had recently become a major drug retail outlet. There were about 50 scramblers standing around, on stoops and on the sidewalk, hawking packets of dope like newsies. As soon as we came along, there were shouts of “Yo!” which Leake explained was the standard warning when cops arrived. A few of the scramblers ran into the buildings, but most of them stood their ground, looking impatient and angry. Gates pulled over and shouted a question at one of them he knew; the others all started walking away in disgust. They were mostly young men, un­der 30, with mean battered faces. They were dressed in ski parkas and air force jackets and wore plastic golf hats backward or side­ways — also porkpie hats, fishing hats, safari hats, and comb picks in their hair. Harlem is the last bastion of male headgear.

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Of course, wherever you see scramblers you see junkies. But then you see junkies al­most everywhere in Harlem, standing around in groups, passing the time of day — on street corners, in doorways, in vacant lots, on the curb hovering over trash-can fires. They were very keen to the scent of cops, and when we drove by they darted up the street like schools of frightened fish. There was nothing to distinguish them from any other group of bums and winos except for the dam­aged, wolfish look in their eyes — and one other feature, which I wouldn’t have noticed if Gates hadn’t pointed it out. He nodded toward one of the junkies and drew his finger down his own cheek. “See,” he said, “he’s the same color as I am, except there’s no shine to his skin.”


There were two things that everybody told you about Jeddy Gates. One was that he was 64 years old, the oldest man in the NYPD. This was offered mainly for its shock effect, because Gates looked much younger. The other was that Gates had been a colonel in the paratroopers.

Gates was that increasingly rare phenome­non in American life, a legend who has not become a celebrity. “Do you know how long I’ve been hearing about him?” one of the younger black detectives said. “Jeddy has been around a long time and he knows a lot of people. A lot of people. He’s a genuine Harlem dude, the real thing.”

In Sixth Homicide, Gates was on special assignment. He didn’t catch any cases himself but was supposed to help the other detec­tives with homicides in the 32nd Precinct. That area — roughly from 130th to 155th streets — was where he had grown up and still lived; the assumption was that he had special access to information via the famous Harlem grapevine. He was the detective with whom I felt safest in the street, and the one with whom I spent by far the most time.

Gates was a charming man, extremely can­did, and completely at home in three worlds about which I knew next to nothing: the army, the police, and Harlem. One reason we got along well is that he can’t stand people who think they know everything, and I had little choice in Harlem but to admit my ignorance quite often.

Gates was a very alert type. On his hip, he wore a big, military-looking nine millimeter semi-automatic; just in case anyone took that away from him, he also kept a standard .38 police revolver tucked away in an ankle hol­ster. One day we were standing on Lenox Avenue across from his apartment house, a red-brick high rise, and I asked which floor he lived on. He nodded curtly toward a win­dow filled with golden trophies. It turned out they had all been awarded for marksmanship. In his 17 years as a cop, he had been shot at on one occasion, but he had never fired at anyone — an achievement he attribut­ed to his habit of careful planning.

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Harlem was his element; it was an educa­tion to watch him move through it, talking about its musical history, its bars, its drug dealers, and his main fascination, the num­bers business. He knew, without thinking about it, when the betting closed and when each digit hit the street. Under his tutelage, my ear became attuned to the ubiquitous numbers talk, and I began to hear everyone saying, “The first one’s out, the first one’s three,” and I understand what people meant when they told Gates they were going to bet his license plate — a cop’s plate is one of sev­eral thousand things that are supposed to bring good luck. I began to learn which stores and holes-in-the-wall were numbers spots, and I heard about some of the personalities in the business, like the 67-year-old comptroller who was shot mysteriously one night while standing next to the Watermelon Man’s stand on Eighth Avenue, a few blocks from where Jeddy lives. This comptroller, according to Jeddy, had two million dollars stashed away and was “well thought of in the community.” I even knew the tailor shop the comptroller had established for his girlfriend and used as his office.

Jeddy’s first assignment on the force had been as an undercover agent in the commis­sioner’s confidential squad. They had wanted to buy him a numbers spot, he said, but the plan fell through because the department couldn’t get up the money. He would have had both the prestige of a numbers guy and the legitimacy of a cop; I think that arrange­ment would have made him supremely hap­py.

Jeddy would answer any question I asked about the Harlem of the present and some­times even drew me diagrams, but when it came to history, I sometimes had to pry it out of him. He was the father of teenage chil­dren, stayed very au courant, and took great pride in his youthfulness; I don’t think he liked being reminded how much history he had seen. He had lived through a lot of changing attitudes and mores.

One day he let drop the fact that when he was a kid, Louis the Gimp had delivered the ice on his block. Louis the Gimp, as I had learned only the week before, was at one time an important Italian connection in Harlem. I asked Jeddy to tell me about him.

Louis was about five-foot-seven, said Jed­dy. “As far as appearance, he was on the George Raft type… See, in the old days, the mobbies used to have their guys right in Harlem, running the numbers business. Then, later, they had to cede the black guys some of their spots. In my neighborhood, black people would do the writing, and Louis would collect the money. He was like a general supervisor.”

“Didn’t the blacks resent guys like Lou­is?” I asked.

“Naw,” Jeddy said in an impatient tone, “those guys were all right.”

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One day in July, I arrived in the office just as Gates was going out. A young man had been shot to death the night before in the park at 139th and Lenox. The victim’s sister, Vanessa, had just called in to say that she’d spotted the murderer, whose name was Billy. The detective who had talked to Vanessa got the message garbled, so that Gates couldn’t be quite sure where the perpetrator was sup­posed to be, but he decided to go out any­way. He grabbed a walkie-talkie out of the wall rack and we went downstairs to Gates’s own car, a red ’76 Cadillac El Dorado with a white vinyl roof. He started the car with one hand and fixed the squelch dial with the other.

As we stopped for a light on Lenox, he called in to the precinct, and Frank, the radio man, reported that Vanessa had phoned in again. “Perp is in the park at 139th and Le­nox. Dressed in blue sweater with blue hood and blue jeans.

“Where’d she call from?” Gates asked.

“Gus’s Tavern, 138th and Lenox.”

Gates stepped on the gas, ran a red light, reached down and withdrew a .38 revolver from the ankle holster covered by his blue fretted sock. He slipped the revolver into his right jacket pocket. “I’ll have to ease up on this guy and take him by surprise,” he muttered to himself. “I can’t run after him. I’ll lose him.”

On 140th, we made a U-turn around the divider strip and parked at the curb on the west side of Lenox. On our right was a modern pocket park, with a little playground built on a rise and a section of benches for the older folks, shaded by trees. Gates got out of the car without locking his door; he told me to stay and listen for messages on the walkie-­talkie. After taking a tour of the park, he headed downtown and disappeared. Three other detectives pulled up, fanned out across the park, came back, and drove off.

I sat there, sweating, and remembered what one of the detectives had told me early on. “Now, Timmy,” he had said. “If you go riding around with any of the guys, don’t be letting them run out a back door and leave you stranded. Because people up here go out with guns the way you go out with house keys. And if you do get stranded, just put up your hands and surrender to the enemy!” This was followed by hideous laughter.

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I thought of that poor kid McEvoy who had got shot in the head over on Broadway by some 12-year-old black kid who didn’t like his smile. I locked the door and pushed the button to send the windows up.

The walkie-talkie in my lap kept chattering away, but none of the messages had to do with our case. I watched the kids playing on the jungle jims, and the older kids strolling by, embracing huge Sonys and Panasonics. Finally Jeddy came sauntering up the street, climbed into the driver’s seat, and said there was no sign of either the perp or Vanessa. He eased the car out into the southward flow of traffic, rolling slowly, and we started back to the precinct — and then I saw the perp. He was a big, evil-looking dude, swaggering to­ward us on 139th, in blue hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

“That’s him, Jeddy!” I pointed with my finger. I felt very proud.

“Don’t point,” Jeddy snapped, making a sharp turn west on 139th.

A squad car was there already, stopped in the middle of the street, parallel to the perp. The cop in the driver’s seat waved him over. (Suicidal move, Gates said later. They were sitting ducks in that car.) The perp respond­ed with an exaggerated gesture — “Who, me?” — and tossed his car keys to a friend. He was standing on the perimeter of a milling curbside throng whose diffused intelligence took about 30 seconds to crystallize into the singlemindedness of a mob. By that time, Gates had his .38 out and was striding toward the perp. He pushed him up against the squad car, spread his arms out over the roof, patted him down, signaled the two cops to get out and help — all in one unbroken swoop — and then drew himself up and looked around to make sure the phalanx be­hind him wasn’t about to attack. They were still at the brandishing-fists stage.

Gates then demanded the car keys. The man began to walk away, so Gates went after him, making three or four downswings with his arm, as if trying to steal a basketball, and finally pried the keys out of the man’s fist. (“Had to get those keys,” he said later. “Suppose the murder weapon was in the glove compartment.”)

The two cops drove off with the perp handcuffed in the back seat. By then the crowd was jeering at Gates, with the loudest heckling coming from a tall young man in bright yellow pants and shirt and a Panama hat. When Gates got into the El Dorado, he was snorting with anger at something the kid in yellow had called him. “I don’t want to see you around!” he shouted to the kid as we drove off. The kid shouted something I couldn’t hear. Gates stepped on the brake and turned to the window. “You’re wrong,” he shouted. “Keep it up and you’re gonna be dead wrong.”

When Gates cooled off a little, I asked, “Is that our man?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I called him Bil­ly and he said that wasn’t his name. We’ll just have to check him out.”

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By the time we arrived at the 32nd Precinct, on 135th Street, the perp was threatening to sue the two cops for false arrest. “My name is Willie Vanderbilt!” he kept screaming. He was a handsome, well-built man; his face and neck were taut with fury. Gates calmly introduced himself, took him inside, and looked at his driver’s license. “W’e’ve probably got the wrong guy,” he announced finally, and ordered the cuffs removed.

“I understand, Gates,” said Willie, shak­ing his head. “You’re looking for a young guy. I’m 30.” Gates radioed the Sixth to say he was bringing in Willie for an identity check.

“Don’t worry. You won’t have any prob­lem checking me out,” said Willie, as he got into the El Dorado. “Everybody for a radius of 10 blocks knows me.” He stretched out his legs in the back seat, and his view of the ar­rest began to mellow. “You never know how popular you are until something like this happens,” he said. “It really makes me feel good, man, to see that kind of support.”

“Well, this’ll only take a few minutes,” said Gates. “I’ll get you right back there, and I won’t even charge you for the ride!”

“Right on, Jeddy,” said Willy. “Any time you’re involved, man, it’s done right. When­ever these bluecoats come around, there might always be a shootout. But people come to you, man, they rat to you, I know. They’d rather come to you than some whitey. I hope you don’t ever retire, just in case anything happens to me.”

Willie brought up the murder of his own accord. “I’m glad he got killed. I’m glad he did,” said Willie. “I heard he pulled his shit first and it didn’t shoot. Simple as that. This is the street talking, Jeddy, I’m just telling you what I hear, not what I know. It’s be­cause of the girl that the boy is dead, because of that Vanessa. Because of her a life had to be lost.”

Jeddy listened in a friendly way but didn’t press for details. We arrived at the precinct, and as we got out of the elevator on the third floor, a uniformed cop said, “Hi, Willie, how you doin’ man!”

“See,” said Willie. “He called me Willie. He’s my main man, known him since I was so high.”

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Gates didn’t even wait for the official check to go through but started back with Willie al­most immediately. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A few weeks later, the real killer turned himself in.


“Every city,” said Jeddy, “has its run­down part, where people don’t have money, but they’ve got to pay rent, buy food, eat — so they resort to crime.”

But this was not true of his own family, which had come from Alabama, via Cleve­land, and settled in Harlem about 1923, when Jeddy was 10. His father first worked as an elevator operator, then got a job as a su­per in a house on Lenox Avenue — a five-sto­ry boarding house that is still standing; now painted pink with a red stoop, it faces Jed­dy’s modern high-rise apartment. The family lived rent free, in the basement. Jeddy and his two younger brothers helped with the su­pering chores, besides shining shoes, selling papers, saving rags, running errands, and do­ing odd jobs. Their mother cleaned houses in the Bronx. The whole family was given a job by a white congregation in the West 80s; ev­ery Thursday night in return for washing up after the church supper, they were allowed to eat leftovers. The family refused to go on welfare. Aside from stealing an occasional ap­ple from a fruit stand, Jeddy never commit­ted a crime. He attributed this to tight super­vision and training.

His strongest ambition as a young man was to play trumpet, like his hero, Louis Arm­strong. It was in hopes of achieving artistic inspiration that he started smoking reefer, which in those days cost 25 cents a stick, more than he could afford. To make some money, he and a friend tried to steal a case of soda from a truck, and got caught. As pun­ishment, his father barred him from doing all the things he did to make money. He ended up joining the national guard.

Jeddy spent 10 years there and 20 in the army. He told me he’d fought at Okinawa, lobbing grenades into Japanese caves 200 yards up the beach from where Ernie Pyle got killed; postwar, at Fort Bragg, he commanded a segregated paratrooper battalion known as the Black Panthers; he was wound­ed with shrapnel in Korea. In the late ’50s, he worked at the Pentagon, in personnel, set­ting standards for promotions and severances. Apparently he had retired reluctantly, due to some kind of general troop reduction. Just before he left, the CIA offered him a job spying in Cuba. His cover story was going to be that he was embittered by an unjust dis­honorable discharge. He was all set to do it until they told him the salary was $24,000 a year. He knew that Gary Powers and the guys who flew the U-2s were making $25,000 a month.

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That’s when he became a cop. “What else was there for me to do?” he said. In 1961, there weren’t a lot of jobs for 47-year-old black men with management skills. Thanks to his army experience, he was able to skip the police academy and start off with the rank of detective; he was sworn in secretly as an undercover agent, assigned to investigate gamblers. The gamblers assumed he’d been away too long to know his way around. “But the numbers locations are passed down from father to son,” he said, “and I knew all of them, just like the day I left.”

With his army pension and his detective’s salary he was able to live quite comfortably and could easily have moved out of Harlem, but he chose to stay. “One thing I got to do before I die,” he told me, “I got to see Gai Paree.” His father, who had fought in France during World War I, had been deeply im­pressed by the hospitality of Paris. But Jeddy didn’t seem in any hurry to get there. When his vacations came, he spent them in Harlem.

After a while, the question of what kept Jeddy in Harlem answered itself. There were things there that I literally could not see, that he could see — and that he loved. They were things he knew from his past, history that his eyes could not forget.

One time he pointed out his “favorite neighborhood bistro,” the Renney Lounge. It was a modern-looking bar with a red-brick facade. FDR and Rocky had both made cam­paign stops there, and it sat right beneath the Renaissance Ballroom, which, unlike the de­funct Savoy and bombed-out Minton’s, is a healthy and still-functioning shrine of an incandescent musical era. The Renney had many pleasant associations for Jeddy. He’d lived just around the corner as a teenager and used to go to the Renaissance to listen to the bands because it made him feel hip and cool, as though he belonged to something special. The ballroom also served as a basketball court in those days, and one of Jeddy’s broth­ers, William “Pop” Gates, had played there for Harlem’s premier team, the Renaissance Big Five.

A lot of bars uptown are filled with drug dealers now or are owned by them, but the Renney has managed to keep out what Jeddy calls “the sneaker people.” It’s located right across from Striver’s Row, the best block in Harlem and one of the handsomest in the city. The neighborhood is still relatively safe, Jeddy told me, because a lot of cops hang out there.

Jeddy had a way of making certain corners of Harlem sound snug, but he wasn’t a fool, blinded by his own nostalgia. Harlem was a place filled with a craziness that could strike virtually anywhere, and the craziness was drugs. Drugs were eating away at the core of the community. What made the craziness so violent was the all-pervasive presence of coke, heroin, angel dust, and guns. God knows, we have our share of coked-up mega­lomaniacs downtown, but not too many of them walk around with .357 Magnums. An­gel dust produces the same total false confi­dence as cocaine, with an added touch of lu­natic viciousness. And junkies, although they can’t take too much resistance — which is why they like to pick on old ladies — can some­times find a lot of strength in their craven­ness.

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Drug-provoked craziness was the common thread that ran through many of the stories I heard in the office. People did incredibly bra­zen things. They shot someone and came back on the same block two days later, ex­pecting everyone to have forgotten the inci­dent. They went on insane rampages. Drugs seemed to cut off their ability to calculate consequences. But the craziest thing they did, it seemed to me, was jumping out of windows, as if every street were equipped with nets. I myself suffer from a serious fear of heights, and I kept wondering what it was that these people could have feared worse than a three-story fall. Was a three-story fall less drastic than it sounded? Was I that neu­rotic?

“A couple of years ago,” one detective, Jim Coffey, told me, “we had one in a rail­road flat, the front apartment on the fifth floor. A brother and sister, ripping off three junkies. There was a dresser with a broken mirror, two mattresses, and the place smelled of urine. Glassine envelopes all over the floor. It was a typical skell’s apartment.

“What happened was, they made the junk­ies stand up, and the sister went to search them while the brother held the gun on them. The gun discharged accidentally and one of the guys got scared and went out the window. They started looking for him and there he was, hanging onto the window sill. They tried to pull him back in, but he slipped away and fell five stories.

“We found the guy a couple of hours later. He was walking around, fit as a fiddle. All he had was a sprained wrist. He’d fallen into eight feet of garbage. It was like a gigantic cushion. So you might say that the slumlord and the Sanitation Department and all did him a big favor.

“It was the sister who died. She’d been leaning over one of the junkies, and the bul­let went into the back of her neck and right up into the head.”

Two other detectives, Capetta and Leinen, once knocked on the door of an apartment where there were a couple of suspects who happened to be in the coke business. “Po­lice!” said Capetta, and the first thing the two men did was to jump out the window into a courtyard. It was three stories down. Even if they hadn’t broken their legs, they would have been hard put to make good their escape because the courtyard was locked from the outside.

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One day I heard a detective in the Sixth re­galing his friends with this story, which he’d heard from someone in Narcotics: “This guy was in his apartment with his girlfriend, smoking angel dust. He got good and dusted up and he started biting her — I mean really taking big chomps out of her flesh. She tried to get away from him, but he was too fast and kept catching her. So, finally, she freaks out totally and jumps out the window. Three sto­ries down, boom. She’s lying there with God knows how many bones broken, and then he flies out the window after her. And on two broken legs, he crawls over to where she is and starts biting her again.”

Finally, it occurred to me that the best au­thority I could consult on jumping was Jeddy Gates. Around his neck he wore a gold Mas­ter Parachutist’s Medal with a diamond set in the middle. The medal signified that he had made over 500 jumps. He’d never been in­jured, he said when I broached the subject. Nor had he ever needed to use the reserve chute. It was all just a matter of training.

You had to get used to it: three seconds, then a shock of nine Gs. “When you land, if the wind has swung you sideways, it knocks the shit out of you, literally.” He showed me how you had to distribute the impact along calf, thigh, side, and shoulder. “Landing with no wind, it’s like jumping from 14 feet,” he said.

I asked him if he would ever jump three stories.

“If they had a gun?” he asked.


“I’d jump two stories,” he said pensively. “If it was three, I’d have to face the guy.” ■

This is the third story in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

Stranger in Harlem, Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 


Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

When the light changed at 96th Street and Park Avenue, I looked around to make sure all four doors were locked, and then I stepped on the gas. My car shot across the Great Divide, up the narrow lane between the medieval wall and the bombed-out tene­ments, into Harlem. I was going to 119th Street between Lexington and Park, to the 25th Precinct, home of the Sixth Homicide Zone.

Sixth Homicide eventually became so much a part of my life, so much a home away from home, that it’s hard for me to remem­ber just what my expectations were at the be­ginning. Having watched the trial of Nicky Barnes, I wanted to see his former theatre of operations with my own eyes, as close up as possible, and I didn’t want to get hurt while I was doing it. At first I thought that the nar­cotics police, both federal and local, would be the ideal people to take me around, but it didn’t take me long to find out that their work is secretive by nature, and the last thing they wanted was a reporter meeting their in­formants. There are some very decent people in the narcotics enforcement business, but their work tends to make them paranoid, and about the time one of my sources gave me a code name to use whenever I called him up, I concluded that I was going to have to get help from some other quarter.

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Around the courthouse, people talked about detectives from Sixth Homicide in tones of awe usually reserved for Scotland Yard. The impression I got was that they were in Harlem because they were the tough­est guys the department could find, and it ap­peared that if anyone could take care of themselves, and me as well, it would be the people in Sixth Homicide. Whether they would be interested in doing that was another question. The answer is that they were. Sixth Homicide became my base camp, and I want to describe what the base camp was like be­fore getting into my few treks up the mountain.


The 25th was a fairly new building, but like most precinct houses, it smelled of ammonia and had the battered look of a subway car. A cop at the front desk, who was reading the Sporting News, told me that Sixth Homi­cide was on the third floor. It was a big room with cinder-block walls and grimy tiles in the ceiling, and a detective in shirtsleeves asked if he could help me. I told him I was looking for Herman Kluge, the commanding officer, and he pointed me to a little office on the far side of the room.

Lieutenant Kluge turned out to be a vigor­ous, compact man, with clear blue, ­red-rimmed eyes, a sharp chiseled nose, and sandy hair that was gradually giving way to a handsome freckled pate. It was Ash Wednes­day and he had a gray smudge on his fore­head. His office had maps and charts on the walls, a couple of steel cabinets, and an old desiccated palm tree cowering in the corner.

Kluge and I hit it off right away. He wasn’t in the least anxious to impress me, because he seemed totally confident that if I got to know his operation and his men, I couldn’t fail to be impressed. I told him that I wanted to do a follow up on the Nicky Barnes trial, and expressed interest in the chart on his wall of “Drug Related Murders,” which listed six major drug dealers and the murders associat­ed with them. He tried to warn me off that tack, telling me if I started trying to trace down every drug-related murder it would take me years. Of course, I didn’t believe him. He said that his office was completely open to me (with the one proviso that I couldn’t write anything that would blow a pending case) and he was a man of his word.

Encouraged by Kluge’s hospitality, I be­gan dropping into the office several times a week, and he invariably gave me a warm wel­come. “Hey, Timothy,” he would say, “just give me a minute and we’ll sit down and bullshit.” How I loved listening to him talk! He had a sharp, tough voice with a wonderful hybrid Bronx accent — a product of the inter­section of University and Tremont avenues, a German Catholic grown up on a Jewish block. He would sit at his desk, nursing a cup of tea, and talk about politics, press, po­lice, and the New York City of his youth­ — “the greatest place in the world,” a green and ordered land that had vanished forever. He told of skiing on barrel staves in Van Cort­landt Park, of snooty Bronx Irish Catholic girls known as BICs, and of 20 hotdogs for a dollar. He had grown up in a parish where the cops tapped you behind the knee with their nightsticks if they caught you standing idle on the corner. Before the war the city had been clean and safe, he said, but since the ’60s, you couldn’t take your wife to Times Square without the pimps insulting her. He lived in Yonkers now, but the pre­-war Bronx remained such a real place to him that he sometimes had the air of a wistful exile.

Kluge became my sponsor with the men. “We like you,” he told me early on. “Which I can’t say for many people in your busi­ness.” And gradually I began to relax, and forget about the drug dealers, and look around at the amazing place I’d fallen into.

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“There’s not a single detective in that office I don’t like,” Kluge once told me. “Can you believe that?” I could. They were a likeable crew. I could never quite get over just how cheerful and open they were. The place always felt like the newsroom of a good raunchy tabloid, and not just because of the typewriters and steel desks. It was also the constant wisecracking and the nature of the work. What were these guys, after all, but a bunch of investigative reporters with guns?

The room was too small for the 50 men who worked there, even broken up into shifts; it had been designed as a clerical office and was hopelessly inadequate to their needs. Certain detectives gravitated toward certain desks or telephones, but nobody owned any­thing. They were constantly getting in each other’s way, and the only thing for it was to make a lot of jokes, and take things as they came.

After a couple of weeks, I began to know their names and recognize them: Walter Johnson with his sly cat face; Jimmy Wilson, the magnificent dresser; Tom McCabe, the muscle-bound leprechaun; Tommy Mansefield, the silver fox, with a bit of his ear heroi­cally missing; fast-talking Fred Capetta; Billy Lundon, of the piercing eye and thick brogue; and big Al Grant, whom I once saw flinch at the door of a victim’s apartment when he rang the bell and heard children’s voices inside. The detective with moist pink lips who looked like a grown-up Katzenjam­mer kid was Gunther Muller; they said he was good, especially at doing the mean cop act, and one day I saw him on the phone, talking around his cigar: “She stuck him with a fork, right? We have statements to that effect and there’s no point in your laying back.”

I knew that Steve Leinen, who also fa­vored cigars, was working to get his Ph.D. in sociology, because Dick Marcus was always kidding him: “Hey, Durkheim, you got a phone call.” The other men kidded Marcus about his alleged hypochondria — he never had been the same since the day he’d had to fingerprint a syphilitic. And I kept hearing how good this Lionel Tuckett was; the whole office was impressed with the great job he’d done putting together a woman’s dismem­bered body. He’d found some kids in Marcus Garvey Park playing with one of her hands, and when it came over the news that a head had been found floating down the Hudson, everyone assumed it must be Tuckett’s head; and it was.

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There were also fixtures in that office who weren’t detectives, like Wilbur, the car­-washing wino, who could frequently be found leaning on the steel entrance gate, with a cigarette drooping from his toothless mouth. He bragged that he was 62 years old and had been on welfare for 45 of them. Once, while he was supposed to be waxing Kluge’s car, he took a nap in the back seat, and by the time Kluge found him, the sun had baked the wax permanently onto the trunk and Wilbur’s bouquet permanently into the interior. On Saturdays, he would ap­pear in the office dressed to the nines, in big hat and dicky bow tie. He had a rival named Sweetwater, a retired bank robber, who had been wired during the Knapp investigation with orders to record himself selling swag to cops. He never came up with any evidence, which was why he was still tolerated around the precinct.

When it was possible, I would go up to Sixth Homicide at the times of peak activity. If you hit the office at certain hours, 10 in the morning when the detectives were going out in their cars, or four in the afternoon when the shifts changed, it sounded a lot like a pa­per on deadline — phones ringing, shouts, laughter. In the middle of the day, it was sometimes dead, and then I would pull up a chair and study one of the black case ledgers.

Reading up on the cases was all very well, but of course I wanted to get out and “catch a homicide,” as they say. This was my great failure. During all the time I spent in Sixth Homicide — and my visits went on intermit­tently, for nearly a year — I never once saw a corpse. Well, I did see one, but she had been frozen stiff for over a week, so that didn’t really count. I spent long days waiting, and several times I camped out until two or three in the morning. Almost without fail, the call would come five or 10 minutes after I’d left, and they would tell me the next morning that I’d missed another one. It got to be a minor joke around the office and I think some of the men began to believe that Harlem was im­mune from homicides as long as I was sitting there.

One of my detective friends tried to console me by saying there wasn’t ever that much to see, just a guy lying on the floor with a little blood on him. But I had seen some of the photographs in the folders, and knew better.

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During my first days up there, a small­-time drug distributor got shotgunned to death in the bedroom of his railroad flat by robbers who made off with the small stash of heroin he kept in his closet. The man had half his jaw blown away, the detectives said; he left bloody handprints on either side of the narrow corridor as he tried to stagger to the front door. Around the spot where he col­lapsed, the floor boards were squishy under­foot, like a marsh. I never really knew how I would have reacted to something like that, and I never saw how the men reacted to these scenes. Aside from that, I couldn’t have been happier up at Sixth Homicide, hanging around with all those gentlemanly, intelli­gent, unbelievably friendly men, and I often said to myself, “The department must be do­ing something right, for all this cream to have risen to the top.”


The men called Kluge the Monsignor­ — not only because in his black cardigan, with his reading glasses tilted forward on his nose, he looked the part — but also because he had a great gift for helping people to confess.

I once asked Kluge about his monsignor role. “We play with people’s heads,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. It’s cruel, it’s inhu­man, it’s strange, but these are killers we’re dealing with. You’ve got to show them that you’re not afraid, that’s the first thing. Then you can talk to them nicely. I play the father figure, the confessor, the boss. I give them something to hold onto, some excuse, some justification for what they’ve done. Hey, you’ve got to give a man some dignity, I don’t care what he’s done. Then he can final­ly give it up, he can let it ease out, he can un­burden his soul.… Look, we do what the public wants us to do. People wanted us to stop beating people up and we stopped. If to­morrow the public decided that we ought to start beating people up again, then we’d do that, too.”

In the meantime, they became experts in the art of jollification. Nobody makes small talk as easily as a good homicide detective. Sitting outside the grand jury room with a witness, they can blather on for hours about anything — hockey, the world market, mov­ies, sex — whatever will keep the witness’s mind off the irrevocable step about to be tak­en. And when it comes to getting a state­ment, the assistant district attorneys just haven’t caught up to them in technique. The detectives will get some killer all softened up and ready to talk, and then a serious-faced A.D.A. shows up trailing a stenographer. While the A.D.A. solemnly informs the wit­ness of his rights, the stenographer, like an executioner sharpening his blade, removes a black machine from its case. “They go about it all wrong,” said the detectives. “They don’t know how to talk street talk.” Some­times the suspect is so freaked out that he will cling to his old friend, the detective, begging for advice. “Should I talk to him? How much should I say?” And sometimes the suspect clams up forever.

The detectives con people, string them along, pretend to be their friends, but they don’t frame people — at least not that I ever saw. After I’d spent a while around the office, I honestly began to wonder why not. There were people in Harlem who were inveterate killers, who presented an enormous danger to the community, and the thought of jig­gling a little evidence against these menaces began to strike me as reasonable. But the detectives didn’t see it that way.

“If you put a guy in just because he’s got a bad reputation,” one said, “how you gonna live with that after it’s over? That kind of thing catches up with you, people talk and it gets around. People aren’t going to tell you anything if they think you’re a snake or a dirty dog.

“No,” he said, “I don’t want someone doing time on a lie. If you get them good, they don’t hold that much of a grudge. I see them on the street after they come out. They wave at me, I wave at them.”


There is one important factor that defined the nature of the work in Sixth Homicide — the zone is entirely in a ghetto, and the ghetto is overwhelmingly black. Most of the vic­tims, witnesses, informants, and perpetrators are poor blacks, and this fact produces a dif­ferent pattern of crime than you find in downtown Manhattan zones, all of which contain some substantial proportion of the white middle class.

A lot of people in Harlem carry guns, and the poverty tends to produce a general air of desperation that makes tempers short. A dispute over a leg of chicken can easily result in a murder — and such a killing, committed to­tally without forethought, tends to be easily solved. Such cases are known in the business, slightly contemptuously, as ”grounders” and they make up a sizeable percentage of the caseload in the Sixth. There are very few of the “mystery” murders which occur amongst a leisure class with plenty of time for careful planning. There is, however, a large criminal class in Harlem which is responsible for all of the drug-related murders — which make up 30 per cent of the homicides in the zone. The perpetrators of these crimes are experienced professionals, and their standard practice is to kill anyone who threatens to testify against them. Thus, many of the murders in Harlem are either very easy to solve or close to impos­sible. You can canvass a block until you have holes in your shoes, but it does no good if all the witnesses are afraid of getting shot. Harlem is a very frustrating, ugly, tragic, and dangerous place to work.

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Now, at the time I arrived in the Sixth, about a third of the detectives were black, and to all appearances they got along excep­tionally well with the white detectives. There was a lot of kidding, and nobody seemed self-­conscious about the issue of race. In fact, the place demonstrates that blacks and whites can make some headway toward overcoming the omnipresent racism in America, by being forced to work together at close quarters un­der intense pressures. This is not to say that there was a total absence of racial tension in the office — I’m not writing a fairy tale. From what I could gather, this tension had come to a head several years ago when there was some kind of confrontation over the fact that throughout the department the Sixth was re­ferred to as a shithouse zone. This offended the black detectives, especially the ones who lived in Harlem. “That’s our home you’re calling a shithouse,” they said, and most of the white detectives at the Sixth learned to catch themselves before uttering the offen­sive phrase.

The tension continued, in an understated way. A lot of the white detectives kept saying that the cases in downtown Manhattan were “harder” than in Harlem. Some of the black detectives thought they really meant that white middle-class cases were more impor­tant. More than once, I heard black detec­tives say, “Nobody cares about Harlem, it’s just a bunch of niggers.” But I heard some of the white detectives say that too. I also heard white detectives say they didn’t care what color a corpse was, it was a dead human being. And they meant it. In the final analysis, it came down to how hard a man worked, and how many cases he solved.

Two of the hardest working detectives were Marty Davin and Jimmy Coffey, who worked as partners. Everyone said that Da­vin did a great “mean cop,” but around me he was never anything but the soul of jollity. He had a pear-shaped face, hair the color of pewter, and a paunch. His eyes — light gray-­blue, almost mother-of-pearl — were always smiling. I like Davin enormously, but I found myself making a conscious effort to stay on his good side because I never, never wanted to see those eyes stop smiling. Coffey had a ruddy, blacksmith’s face, with coal-­black eyebrows and a lantern jaw. He always looked as though his shirttail were sticking out, even when it wasn’t, and the other men teased him about this.

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Both men had worked for years in Harlem, in a variety of assignments, before coming to the Sixth. They continued to be amazed by what they saw, and they liked to tell stories. Like many of the detectives, they had a talent for listening and took a connoisseur’s interest in the freshly minted expressions of the street. “Like one great thing they say up here,” said Coffey. “ ‘If you come messin’ with me, man, you’re gonna have the groundhog for a mailman.’ The groundhog for a mailman. I really love that. It’s almost like poetry.”

Davin had a perfect record as a homicide detective. Fifteen of his cases had gone to trial, 15 resulted in convictions. He and Coffey worked together on the 15th, which was neither very easy nor impossible, but a case which required skillful detective work, physical courage, and a certain rapport with the streets of Harlem. This is what hap­pened:

There were four of them standing on 135th and Lenox Avenue — Spider, Dino, Tank, and Bruce — four teenagers hoping to steal some guns from a big warehouse in Middle­town, an hour’s drive upstate. Spider had some friends who lived in Middletown, so he was well acquainted with the layout and had hit the place several times before. Now all they needed was a good car — but it was near­ly midnight, on Holy Saturday of 1977, and they still hadn’t found one. They were on the point of giving up when a Lincoln Continen­tal rounded the corner.

The Lincoln belonged to the Godfather Livery Service, a Harlem firm which hires out chauffeured vehicles at the rate of $20 an hour and is favored by young drug sellers. The driver, Howard Allen, 54 years old, had been with the company for many years and this was his last night on the job. On Mon­day, he and his wife were moving to Colo­rado. Just before midnight, he called her and said, “Baby, I made my night.” On his way back to the garage, he stopped to pick up one last fare.

“It was like Fate turning the corner,” Coffey later observed.

Spider slid into the front seat and gave Allen a $20 bill. Tank got into the seat be­hind the driver, with Bruce sitting next to him and Dino on the right. They had him drive them around Central Park and then take them to 132nd and Park Avenue, where Spider got out and bought some angel dust: When they started up again, with their hour almost run, Spider pulled out a .357 Mag­num and shot Allen twice in the side, shatter­ing the window. Then Tank shot him once in the back of the head with a .32 short. Spider got out, went around to the driver’s side, and pushed the body over in the seat. He drove the car to a spot underneath the 138th Street Bridge where they stripped the body of ev­erything valuable and dumped it into the Harlem River — and off they went.

On their way upstate they made a wrong turn, and by the time they arrived in Middle­town, Easter Sunday was dawning and it was too late to do the job. Disgusted, they drove back to the city, parked the Lincoln in the Bronx, and pledged to throw the keys away and abandon the car forever.

But Spider had a better idea. He tossed the keys into a vacant lot where he knew he could find them again. That night, he retrieved the Lincoln and drove with two other friends back up to Middletown, for no purpose more sinister than to visit his friends there.

Driving back, with no money, they came to a toll booth. The two passengers got out, to wait by the side of the road and see how Spider fared. Not too well. A state trooper, who started by asking for Spider’s license, ended up by charging all three of them with car theft. Panic ensued and Spider eventually gave up the addresses of Dino and Bruce, and helpfully added that Dino would know where Tank lived.

Back at the Sixth, Davin and Coffey got the information over the phone, just before their night tour was up. They drove immedi­ately to the hotel where Dino lived. The ra­dio was blaring inside his room but no one answered their knock.

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At 8 the next morning, they returned with another detective, Richard Cahill. Coffey went around to the backyard in case Dino tried to go out the window. Davin and Cahill went in the front. There was still no answer at Dino’s room, and the radio was still blar­ing. Cahill started back down the stairs, with Davin following. Halfway down, it dawned on Davin that the radio sounded louder than it had the night before. He stopped and yelled, “Dino!” The door opened immedi­ately, catching him unprepared.

“Dino, my man! You know me,” Davin said, as he casually climbed to the top of the stairs. They read Dino his rights down on the sidewalk.

Dino was sitting in the back seat of the car with Cahill, and Coffey and Davin were up front. Coffey was driving. Davin noticed that Dino was wearing a watch that didn’t look right on him, the kind of watch an older man would wear. “I’m warning you now,” said Davin, looking at Dino in the rearview mir­ror, “don’t bullshit me about this case, be­cause I know everything that happened.” Without turning his head, Davin reached back over the seat and opened his hand. “Give me the driver’s watch,” he said. Dino did.

That convinced Dino that they knew ev­erything, and he began telling them about the murder, adding a few self-serving embel­lishments. They still needed to find out where Tank lived. “Now, Dino,” said Da­vin. “Just so I know you’re in good faith, I want you to verify Tank’s address for me.” Dino told them the address, a project house at 132nd and Madison, and Davin pretended to check it on a slip of paper. “That’s it, all right,” he said. “That’s very good.” They drove to the project house. “That’s the apart­ment on the second floor, right?” said Davin.

“No, man,” Dino said, “that’s it on the first floor in the back.”

“Oh, excuse me, you’re right, you’re right. I had it mixed up.”

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Leaving Dino with Cahill at the office, Da­vin and Coffey went to Tank’s apartment, found him in bed, brought him to the station, and then drove upstate to get Spider.

Meanwhile, the housing police had picked up the fourth suspect, Bruce, and had him waiting for Coffey and Davin when they got back that afternoon with Spider. Coffey, who usually played the nice cop, went down to talk to Bruce in the holding cell on the sec­ond floor, and by the time Davin looked in on them, Bruce had made a full statement.

“How good did you really have me?” Bruce said to Davin.

“I’ll just give you one little hint,” said Da­vin, and he threw the watch on the table.

“That dumb motherfucker,” said Bruce. “I told him to get rid of that watch.” Davin stepped out into the hall and wrote those words down in his notebook. By 9 p.m., everybody but Tank had confessed.

There were two other homicides that eve­ning and the office was a madhouse. The men had to keep shifting prisoners around from room to room and Tank was eventually handcuffed to the wall of the detectives’ bunkroom while Davin and Coffey went on a food run. When they got back with a ham­burger for Tank, they found the bunkroom empty. Somehow, he had slipped out of the handcuffs. Rushing to the window, they saw the remnants of a sheet ladder, broken off near the top. Tank was nowhere to be seen. “The guys were really pissed off, because it was their personal sheets,” Coffey said later. The drop looked to be about 40 feet, with the concrete floor of a little alleyway at the bot­tom. “I get a nosebleed just looking down there,” said Coffey.

Around 9:30, Tank’s stepbrother showed up, asking to see Tank.

Davin instantly turned into a mad bull. “Give me my shotgun, Coffey,” he screamed. “I’m gonna go find that bastard.”

“Hey, wait, man,” said the stepbrother, “what’s going on here?” Davin realized the stepbrother didn’t know that Tank had escaped.

“Listen,” said Davin, “that goddam Tank went out the window and I’m going to issue an all-points bulletin to have him shot on sight.” The brother didn’t know that all­ points bulletins only happen in Cagney movies. All three started downstairs, with Davin cursing and threatening, Coffey trying to calm him, and the stepbrother begging, “Wait, man, give me a chance to find him.”

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Davin went up to a cop at the front desk and said, “I want you to put out a 13-state all-points bulletin.”

“Yeah?” said the cop, looking at Davin as if he’d flipped. “What’s it for?”

Davin winked. “I want Tank shot on sight! I want everybody in this goddamn station out looking for him! Shoot to kill on this hump, you got that!” He went on and on, working himself into a lather, until you could almost hear the motorcycles roaring out of the basement with their sirens screaming, and Davin had to turn away because he was laughing so hard.

Meanwhile, Coffey was giving earnest counsel to the brother: “Listen, I guess you know about Davin, he’s a real sadist. When he goes crazy like this, I have a very hard time getting him under control. I’ll do everything I can to hold him back, but I just hope you can find Tank in time…”

Tank was led in by his stepbrother about half an hour later, walking stiff-legged and gingerly. Both his ankles were sprained. He sat on a chair in the office and they kept swelling up bigger and bigger all night.

Early the next morning, Wednesday, Da­vin and Coffey went to the bank of the Har­lem River with a forensic team. While foren­sic took photographs and made a plaster cast of a sneaker mark, a scuba diver from the harbor division searched the muddy waters for the body. It was on the bottom, entangled in a rusty shopping cart. They hauled it onto the fantail of the motor launch, feet first like a tuna. “And he rose on the third day,” said Coffey, who was intrigued by the Easter theme.

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Davin took the four suspects down to the courthouse for booking and confiscated their sneakers so Forensic could see if one of them matched the plaster cast. Later that week, all but Tank were indicted for murder. Having made no confession, Tank could only be in­dicted for escaping. The detectives knew he would soon be released unless they could find some evidence to corroborate his accom­plices’ statements against him. They asked the other three for names of everyone Tank was friendly with in jail. One of them, after being reminded he was facing a maximum of 25 years, remembered hearing a conversation between Tank and a prisoner who was then on trial at Centre Street. Davin went to see the prisoner in the courthouse, and promised to let the D.A. know if he helped. “Sure I know Tank,” the prisoner said. “We didn’t talk that much, but we discussed our cases, and he said he shot a cabby in the back of the head.”

By the time the A.D.A. got this corroborating evidence on tape, and the grand jury handed down an indictment for murder, Tank had been out of jail a week. A Supreme Court judge gave Davin a court order for Tank’s arrest, and told him to bring Tank to court the next morning.

Late that afternoon, Davin rang the doorbell of Tank’s apartment. There were several young children playing in the hall and Davin didn’t want to risk a direct confrontation which might lead to a brawl; then he remembered the confiscated Puma sneakers.

When Tank’s stepmother opened the door, she recognized Davin as the cop who’d taken Tank away before, and she started cussing him out.

“Listen,” said Davin. “I don’t want to argue with you. I just want to give Tank his sneakers. The rule says I have to give them to him personally.”

Tank came to the door. “Hey, man, where’s my sneakers?” he said.

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“You don’t think I’m wearin’ them, do you?” said Davin. “They’re down in the car.” Tank and his stepbrother came down with him; it was all very friendly. “Hey,” said Davin, “I don’t know what you did to that judge from the hearing, he wants to see you.” It was all so friendly that they rode back to the station house with Davin to phone the judge. Davin went into one of the side rooms and pretended to make the call.

“He wants me to bring you down in the morning,” said Davin when he got off. “Looks like you’ll have to spend the night here.”

“Oh, shee-it,” said the stepbrother. “You lied.”

The next morning, when the case was called in court, Tank’s stepmother stood up and pointed at Davin. “That liar said he’d gonna give him back his Pumas and he never did,” she screamed. Davin just stood there and looked up at the ceiling.

Several months later, Tank was convicted of felony murder and got 25 years to life.

That was how it went when everything worked right.


One afternoon toward the end of August, Kluge came into the office in a handsome brown suit with his .38 sticking out of the right vent. He was almost dancing with ex­citement. It was his last day in Sixth Homicide. His successor, James Doyle, a lieutenant who had distinguished himself in setting up the city’s exemplary sex crime unit, stood behind Kluge’s desk, looking stoically cheer­ful. Kluge was cleaning out his locker. He took out his riot helmet, fireman’s raincoat, dress uniform with gold trimmings, plastic box full of tape recorder attachments, magni­fying glass and several boxes of bullets. I helped him carry them down to the basement garage, and we put them in the trunk of his car. We went back upstairs to say goodbye to Lieutenant Doyle.

“The wandering Jew you can have,” said Kluge. “It needs a lot of water. But don’t fall in love with the palm tree.”

The departure of Kluge precipitated the end of an era in Sixth Homicide. Within a month after his departure, a wave of transfers began which left the office almost unrecog­nizable. Five of the best men, including Lei­nen and Tuckett, were transferred to Fifth Homicide, in East Harlem, where the mur­der rate was rising, largely due to disputes among Dominican drug dealers. Lundon moved to Third Homicide Zone, where mur­ders were also increasing. Others began clamoring for transfers, and the possibility of moving out became the main topic of gossip and rumor.

The last five years had been a very trying period for Sixth Homicide. In 1966, the homicide rate had begun to climb steadily in Harlem, and in 1973 it hit a peak of 293. That was why the Brass threw Kluge into the breach. He was one of the most talented lieu­tenants in the department, the commanding officer of the prestigious Fourth Homicide ­Zone (Upper East and West Sides). They told him to stabilize the situation in the Sixth, and they gave him a lot of support. He was allowed to hand-pick his detectives, and he chose men who were both talented and willing to work in Harlem. They gave him a free hand with overtime. And the number of homicides gradually began to decline.

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This success had a self-defeating dynamic. The more the murder-rate went down in Har­lem, the less the Brass cared about the situa­tion. Then in 1975 came the fiscal crunch, and the whole department felt the pinch of insolvency. Nobody ever made an official policy announcement, but homicide detec­tives believe that someone high up in the de­partment quietly decided that homicide wasn’t the priority crime anymore. At least, that was what many homicide detectives surmised from the fact that overtime became in­creasingly hard to come by. It’s axiomatic that homicides get solved in the first 48 hours, while clues are still fresh and wit­nesses haven’t yet considered the pitfalls of talking to the police. To deny a detective overtime, and send him home at the end of his tour, in the midst of a breaking case, is to hobble his effectiveness. But this was increas­ingly the trend.

Things were tough all over, but they were always slightly tougher in the Sixth. The ser­geants there had to bicker endlessly with the Brass and the D.A.’s office over even the most petty expenses. The men literally had to beg for $5 or $10 to give an informant. They knew that the money wasn’t so scarce in oth­er zones, where the victims were middle class and the murders got more press coverage, and they began to feel that Harlem had been written off as a place where death was the in­evitable way of life. This was the deeper meaning of the phrase “shithouse zone.” All of the detectives in the Sixth, white and black, learned what it was like to be treated like niggers.

Nevertheless, the number of homicides de­clined year by year — 249, 242, 203, 193. “We’ll be lucky to hit 150 this year,” one of the detectives said last fall. They had put a lot of inveterate killers in jail, that was one reason for the drop. But there was another reason, over which they had no control: peo­ple were moving out of Harlem. “We’re run­ning out of victims,” the detectives said. ■

This is the second in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 


The Day They Got Mr. Untouchable, Nicky Barnes

The jury began its deliberations last Wednesday. By coincidence, that was the day Nicky Barnes’s troubles began. He came back from lunch and said he was feeling sad. One of his favorite women had taken it into her head to lay down guidelines. “I had to tell her that the relationship couldn’t continue if she were going to erect barriers,” he said. It was her scent, above all, that he would miss; he might have to go to the Far East to find a scent like that. He was going to wear black the next day. “Maybe she’ll wear black, too.” said Nicky Barnes. “And bring her whip!” A charge of electricity shot through him. He shook his hand from the wrist and grinned.

Nicky Barnes was standing at the rail with his feet planted firmly apart. The clothes he was wearing marked a metamorphosis from the muted blues in which he had wrapped himself for the trial. Against the rust-colored shirt, which fit his weightlifter’s physique like armor, he had placed a copperish tie and a wool jacket of a delicate gray-and-purple hound’s-tooth weave. His olive-drab trousers were cut as round as columns, and were held up by a lizard belt. His tan ankle boots were made to be coveted. He wore glasses that were tinted lilac with purplish frames; set into the arms were little metal discs embossed with the Playboy rabbit. He never did change into mourning.

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On Wednesday, the jury made the 14 lawyers happy. From the notes that the forelady sent out, it was clear that the jurors had put aside the first two counts — the con­spiracy count, which embraced all the 14 black defendants, and the criminal-enterprise count, which alleged that Nicky Barnes was the chief executive of the General Motors of heroin. They had plunged into the 10 substantive counts, which alleged specific acts of drug selling and possession of guns.

Due to an unprecedented decision by the judge Henry “Speed” Werker, the names and addresses of the jurors were kept secret. The lawyers and the prosecutors knew their occupations and the counties in which they live; apart from that, they were only numbers. The government had insisted that the jury be sequestered, which the defense considered a stroke of luck since it meant that fewer executive types from Westchester could afford to serve and more than the usual number of urban blacks were seated — five in all. As the trial progressed, the lawyers guessed that three or four of the whites were rooting for the prosecution — but the only one they knew to be an enemy was blond, Teutonic Number 7, a loan officer from Westchester. The lawyers called him “the Nazi.” One afternoon, from within the bus that was taking the jury back to sequestration, Juror Number 7 had stared straight at one of the lawyers, Paul Goldberger, and given him the finger. The judge saw no reason to query Number 7 about this gesture.

Now, each time the jurors came out to hear the court reporter read the testimony they had requested, the lawyers studied the faces, read the body language, and got happier.

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When Number 7 came out to hear the testimony, his face was flushed with anger. His ally, Number 8, the free-lance artist from Radcliffe, was pale and drawn. By contrast, the blacks looked serene and confident. The blacks were thought to be solidly behind their fellow blacks. Nicky Barnes’s lawyer, David Breitbart, became convinced that Number 3, the white lady with gray hair and glasses, was smiling at him. “Are you kidding?” said Breitbart’s partner, Paul Goldberger, “She was smiling at you when she came in, she was smiling at you when she went out, and she was winking in between.”

As the lawyers walked out of the courthouse on Wednes­day night, they were talking about the fact that the U. S. attorney for the Southern District of New York had never lost a narcotics conspiracy case. “What about Tuttino?” said one of the lawyers. “They lost Tuttino.”

“Yeah,” said another lawyer, “but they lost it the wrong way.” When the foreman announced the acquittals in Tuttino the defendants broke up laughing. They knew what the verdict was going to be because they had paid for it.

On, Thursday morning, when the fog came in, Nicky Barnes arrived in court an hour late and the U.S. attorneys threatened to remand him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center. This made Nicky Barnes furious. He stood behind the rail shaking his head, and there were tears of rage in his voice: “I got more motherfucking reason than anybody to be here,” he said. “What’s everyone trying to do? — try­ing to make a buck, right? I got $300,000 of them here. Three hundred thousand motherfucking bucks. And they don’t think I’m going to show up!”

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The other defendants sat around the defense tables playing tonk or dominoes, or reading car magazines. All day long the jury kept sending in notes, from which a definite pattern began to emerge: All of the notes requested direct testimony from government witnesses; none demanded cross-examination, in which defense law­yers had destroyed some of those witnesses. The lawyers decided that brainy Number 1, the Smith graduate who works at the Council on Foreign Relations, was running the jury, and wasn’t running it in a friendly way. Late in the afternoon, a note arrived that spelled death. The jury wanted to hear again the judge’s charge on the second count. Which meant that they must have already returned to the first count and found that a conspiracy existed. Now they were getting ready to conclude that Nicky Barnes was guilty of having headed a criminal enterprise.

When the clerk announced another note at 6 o’clock most of the lawyers looked as if they were going to cry. This had to be the verdict. The courtroom began to fill up with smiling U.S. attorneys in pin-striped suits. “They smell the blood,” said a morose lawyer.

But the note didn’t announce a verdict. It was a request to see the videotape of Stevie Baker removing large amounts of mannite for cutting heroin from the trunk of his car and taking it into his apartment. The smiles fell off the U.S. attorneys and the defense lawyers picked them up. Three television sets were set up and everybody craned his neck to watch the Stevie Baker tape, which was clear as crystal. Every so often the forelady from the Council on Foreign Relations would hold up a finger and the techni­cian would stop the tape, which caused the television image to fuzz up, obscuring the features of the putative Stevie Baker. When the viewing was over and the jurors had filed out, all the defense lawyers were ecstatic. “It wasn’t Stevie Baker!” they kept saying, even though they knew it was. Even Stevie Baker knew it was Stevie Baker, and had confessed after being shown the tape. But compared to certain death, anything looks wonderful.

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The next and final morning, Friday, found Nicky Barnes sitting in the empty jury box, looking bleary. His olive-drab trousers were badly wrinkled.

“You get any sleep, Nicky?”

“No man, they followed me all night. I couldn’t get any sleep.”


“Agents. It looked like a motorcade.”

Louis Diaz and Bobby Nieves, the same two agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration who had been watching Nicky Barnes ever since November 1976, and who had testified against him in court, had followed him to make sure he didn’t go to the Far East. “I didn’t want to take them home with me,” said Nicky Barnes, “so I went to a certain hotel. I don’t ever rent a room there. I always give the clerk $20 and I don’t sign the register.” The garage was closed, so he parked his $22,000 Mercedes right in front of the hotel, assuming that Diaz and Nieves would watch over it for him. Unfortunately, when the two agents went into the hotel they found that Nicky Barnes wasn’t registered, and that the clerk hadn’t ever heard of him. “They went crazy,” Nicky Barnes said. “Meantime, the NYPD come along and tows my Mercedes. That’s $75 to get it out, and I only got about $150. And when I get to the pound, they say it’s $300 with all the parking tickets I haven’t paid.” So Nicky Barnes was driven to court that morning by agents Diaz and Nieves of the DEA.

Early Friday morning, the jury sent in another note which made the defense take heart. They wanted to hear a tape from February 26, 1977, which the DEA had recorded from a bug in the office of the Harlem Rivers Motor Garage, 145th Street and Lenox, which the government said was the corporate headquarter of the Nicky Barnes drug ring. The government claimed that a fellow named Bucky Beaver could be heard saying, “…got to pick up a kilo out of Nicky’s car now.” The defense had put on an expert in sound analysis who swore that the word was not “kilo,” but “payroll.” Summing up the case, Assistant U. S. Attorney Tom Sear insisted that the word was “kilo.” He didn’t even bother to make the argument that the word “payroll” would be just as damaging if applied to someone who was supposed to be the boss of a large drug business.

The tape was played and the word was clearly, unmis­takably “payroll.” After hearing “payroll,” the defendants took off their earphones and leaned back. The jurors kept their earphones on and asked to hear the tape again. When the word “payroll” came up, several of them exchanged glances.

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The joy of the lawyers was unbounded. They were positive that the battle had turned, and compared themselves to the Russians at Stalingrad. The U.S. attorneys wore expressions of worry. Upstairs in the cafeteria, Tom Sear came down the aisle with a forced smile on his face and Jerry Feldman, another of Breitbart’s partners, asked him why he was smiling. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Just before 3 o’clock, the clerk came in and announced that the jury had reached a verdict. Some of the defendants started to fidget, and the tonk game stopped until Waymin “Wop” Hines, the smallest of the defendants, but also one of the toughest, said, “Motherfucker, deal another hand.” A few minutes later, the forelady rose and in her soft voice said the word “guilty” over and over again. A couple of women in the audience started sobbing, but none of the defendants turned a hair. Nicky Barnes sat straight in his chair and looked blandly at the jury. When the judge had thanked all the jurors, and dismissed them, the youngest of the defense attorneys, Edward Hayes, went over to Nicky Barnes and shook his hand. “I always thought you were 100 per cent man,” he said.

Nicky Barnes put his hand on Edward Hayes’ shoulder and said, “You know, kid, I never thought they were going to get me.”


Nicky Barnes: Geronimo Takes on the Man No One Can Convict

Nicky Barnes: Geronimo Takes On the Man No One Can Convict
October 24, 1977

The federal courthouse in Foley Square has a far more cathedral air than its poor neighbor two blocks to the north, the criminal courthouse at 100 Centre Street. The federal courthouse has cushions on the benches, ecclesiastical ceiling lamps, and clerks who make everybody stand up when the judge comes in. Federal cases, which often concern intricate infractions of capi­talist ground rules, produce long, lucrative trials. It’s the great Wall Street firms that make Foley Square their home away from home. But right now, something a little different is going down under the eagle seal. Fifteen of the city’s most sought after criminal lawyers are currently appearing in room 318, defending Nicky Barnes and his 14 codefendants.

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The 14 codefendants and their 14 lawyers are crammed along the L-shape of two long defense tables — the lawyers in ties, the defendants casual. The U.S. attorneys, in their dark suits, sit enclosed by the L, grouped around their gigantic tape record­er and its two black speakers. At the right hand end of the defense table, nearest the jury box, sits the star, Nicky Barnes, the most famous alleged drug dealer in the world. He is a muscular man, 44 years old, no taller than five foot eight inches, and precise in all his movements. Mythology holds him to be the most powerful man in Harlem. Perhaps for this reason, Jimmy Breslin recently put him in a suit of royal purple. That was the wee touch of the artist. The color Nicky Barnes actually favors for courtroom wear is a washed-out blue, in either corduroy or denim.

The cops have had Nicky Barnes under surveillance for years. Since 1973, he’s been tried for attempted bribery, gun posses­sion, and murder; but the police work was sloppy, the cases were shaky, and his lawyer, David Breitbart, was a scrapper. The street regards Barnes as the man no one can convict, “Mr. Untouchable.” Now the federal prosecutor has charged him with having run a massive conspiracy to distribute heroin from January 1974 through March 1977. Breitbart claims that his client is nothing but an extremely successful real-estate operator who’s being persecuted for flaunting his money, his fancy cars, and his aversion to whitey. Barnes hasn’t done any serious time since he went to Greenhaven 12 years ago on a narcotics rap. During his incarceration he subscribed to 37 law journals. A real-estate man can’t have too much legal training.

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The man who handed out turkeys last Christmas at 126th and St. Nicholas has attracted a following. The “defense” side of the courtroom, on the left, is usually crowded with his fans, and occasionally he leaves off his absorption in the law to do a turn for them. The other day, when the courtroom became overly chilly, he picked up a 14-foot window pole, pretending it was very heavy, and made a bravura show of closing the windows. His admirers burst into applause.

The U.S. attorney for the southern dis­trict of New York, Robert Fiske, Jr., is personally handling the prosecution — these big conspiracy cases can be tricky. On the opening day, he unveiled a chart that purported to represent the positions of all 15 defendants in the heroin empire. Here, at the bottom, were the street sellers; here, higher up, was the man who washed the money, changing small bills into large ones; and here, at the very top, almost totally insulated from contact with overt criminality, was the man they all called “sir” — Nicky Barnes. In ensuing days, Fiske has played tape after tape. The tapes contain the garbled voices of people on the chart, who complicate things by constantly referring to each other by aliases and nicknames: “Fat Stevie,” “Bo,” “Jazz,” “Radio,” “JJ,” “Wop,” “Bucky Beaver,” etc. The judge, Henry Werker, added to the confusion by informing the jury that in his youth he’d been known not only as Hank but also as ”Speed.” “I had a very heavy foot as a young man,” he confessed.

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Last week, U.S. attorney Fiske put on his first major witness, Robert Geronimo, a thrice-convicted flimflam artist whose spe­ciality was conning people into buying hot cars and TV sets. In the fall of 1976, when Geronimo agreed to cooperate with the government, the Drug Enforcement Ad­ministration wired him for sound and en­couraged him to get close to 21-year-old Wally Fisher, whom they believed to be a highly active street distributor for Barnes. According to Breitbart’s opening state­ment, however, Wally Fisher was employed as a simple car-washer until Geronimo came along and duped him into entering a scheme to sell “street garbage to the government for top dollar.” The defense is trying to show that Wally Fisher and Geronimo did buy large amounts of low quality dope with money supplied by a DEA agent posing as Geronimo’s cousin from California. According to the defense, the DEA had paid Geronimo $25,000 to get Barnes, so he simply made up a story that the heroin came from Nicky’s people.

When the cross examination started and Breitbart got first crack at Geronimo, the other lawyers were patently envious. Geronimo looks a lot like Tony Orlando but hasn’t had the same kind of luck with his recordings. Of the 60 tapes he made during the seven-month investigation, only one is alleged to contain direct discourse with Nicky Barnes. (Geronimo had at least one other wired meeting with Barnes; the tape came out blank. Breitbart showed that this couldn’t have happened unless someone deliberately unscrewed the microphone wire from the little Nagra strapped to Geronimo’s waist.) Breitbart challenged Geronimo to produce a single tape he’d made of Barnes’s voice; the next morning the government produced a tape Geronimo had made at Bubba Jean’s Emporium, using a microphone concealed in a cane and a transmitter in a plaster ankle cast. It was a tape they hadn’t introduced during the direct examination of Geronimo. When played, it turned out to contain mostly inaudible voices submerged beneath the din of Bubba Jean’s jukebox. “That’s Barnes,” said Geronimo. “I have no more questions,” said Breitbart.

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Breitbart also forced the unhappy and increasingly amnesiac Geronimo to admit that during a weekend when, according to his own testimony, he had been in Baltimore buying “angel dust” for the government, he had, in fact, been living it up with Wally Fisher and their respective bimbos at the Sheraton Pocano.

In his opening statement, Breitbart promised he would prove that “as Geronimo lay fornicating… with another woman, his wife was dying of asthma induced from drugs that he supplied; and that he brought the other woman to the wake and laughed about it.” As it turned out, he didn’t try to elicit any such testimony. But then, it was difficult to get anything out of the witness who took a full minute to answer when Breitbart asked him how old he’d been in 1973.

The government’s next big witness is named Promise Bruce. Fiske forthrightly informed the jury in his opening statement that Promise Bruce is a convicted drug dealer and murderer who has, in the past, supplied false information to the DEA. Next to him, Geronimo should look like a sweetheart.

From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

“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.

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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.

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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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.)

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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:

Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 


Harlem When It Sizzled

Harlem When It Sizzled
December 1982

By David Levering Lewis
Knopf, $17.95; Vintage, $7.95 paper

THIS WAS HARLEM, 1900–1950
By Jervis Anderson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.95

Reading David Lewis’s and Jervis Anderson’s histories of Harlem sent echoes of Countee Cullen through my head. Those with Black Lit 101 in their upbringing will probably recall Cullen’s “Heritage.” For those more culturally deprived, that’s the one where Cullen waxes pathetic over whether Christian conversion has cost him an African soul. Put Harlem on my mind in place of the Motherland and similar con­cerns go off in my head. Only unlike Cullen I’m not worried for my soul. No, what I’m missing on account of dope, desegregation, and the new diasporan gospel, namely as­similation, is the Harlem they used to call Black Mecca. That Harlem ain’t what it used to be is obviously no news: it’s been the nation’s handiest model of urban ethnic ruin for damn near three decades. Understanding that black folk once considered the place about as close as they were going to come to the promised land in this motherfucker here takes some leap of faith — especially if your fix on its present state is somewhere between gentrification and cultural decay.

Lewis and Anderson allowed me to con­nect with the mythic Harlem my mother grew up hearing about. In her day, says Mom, the living knew they wanted to go to Harlem just as surely as the dead knew they wanted to go to heaven. Still, after reading When Harlem Was in Vogue and This Was Harlem, 1900–1950, I’m less nostalgic for Harlem as the promised land than as a striv­ing black community that once upon a time bristled with the daily discourse of poets, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, and day workers. If the geography of segregation was meant to keep blacks and whites out of each other’s sight, it also made the black communities my parents’ generation grew up in places where Afro-American ambitions weren’t stifled by poverty before they even met up with overt racism. Principally be­cause the most brilliant talents of the race didn’t have any place else to go. Locked in the community, they kept a stiff upper lip and passed dignity around.

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Jervis Anderson’s look at Harlem from 1900 to 1950 arrived on the heels of David Lewis’s tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, so I wonder how often these two tripped over each other doing research in the Schomburg collection or the National Archives. They certainly managed to run up on the same reference material. (In fact a few bon mots I’d thought were Lewis’s turned up in Anderson too, spliced in from some other wise guy.) Lewis’s book is a dashing, pithy read, Anderson’s a long-winded tome. After gliding through Lewis’s catty, chatty skeins of sarcasm and scholarship, Anderson’s more prolix sophistries only benumb. This pollyannaish bit on Joe Louis being a prime example: “During what remained of his life, however — as in much of what had gone be­fore — Louis showed by his conduct that his spirit was not confined to ‘the colored sec­tion’ but inhabited broader areas of Ameri­can experience which were shared by all men and women of civility and good will.” Brother, that’s a mouthful and not too easy to swallow either.

The one major plus of Anderson’s book is that wading through his section on Harlem’s origins will put you on a more proletarian footing than Lewis’s exposé. Lewis does such a diverting job of damning the effete snobs you hardly notice how peripheral the masses are. And what with the Talented Tenth and all running around forging the conscience of the race in the smithy of their souls, you kinda forget everybody in Harlem wasn’t a poet or a race leader back then. While I wouldn’t say Lewis lacks a common touch, he can’t be said to do much with it.

What he does do brilliantly is bring to life the legends who made the Harlem Renais­sance happen. In the ’20s, Harlem emerged as the political and cultural locus of Afro-American urban life, the stronghold of the­ race’s best and brightest. Within an intricate mural of this burgeoning black universe, Lewis sketches revealing narratives about the interactions and motivations of the com­munity’s most prominent artistic and politi­cal figures. The glittering roster of racial icons aren’t names easily encountered with­out awe — particularly if you’re a contem­porary black artist, academic, or activist: Du Bois. Garvey. Hurston. Robeson. Star play­ers in a cast of thousands.

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Lewis is provocative because he doesn’t hesitate to reduce these bronze figures to human scale — or even knock them down to size. In this sense, he has ushered in a genre new to the relatively genteel tradition of Afro-American belles lettres. Namely, liter­ary gossip. In some quarters of black in­telligentsia, Lewis’s divulgences of political backbiting, color-caste snobbery, and pederasty have brought him under fire for indiscretion if not blasphemy. Among the juicier of his intimations is that Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Har­lem dandies Richard Nugent and Harold Jackmon liked each other more than they liked girls. Among the more dumbfounding is the revelation that protean egghead W.E.B. Du Bois married his befuddled, virginal daughter Yolande off to a known homo­sexual (Cullen) — and then apologized for her failings on the honeymoon.

While there may be some truth to the charge that Lewis only threw this stuff in to spice up the narrative, scholarship seems like his primary motivation. For all its tawdry tidbits, his cunningly phrased book contains the only portrait of the Renaissance that doesn’t shy away from addressing the petty but crippling conflicts among Har­lem’s politicos and social hierarchies in the ’20s. Besides which, there’s simply too much evidence of scrupulous research. He appar­ently read not only all the poetry and fiction of the ’20s but also every scrap of magazine and newsprint and personal correspondence he could dig up. Not to mention six years interviewing witnesses. What he’s managed to do is separate the myth of Harlem from its history without making the truth read any less glamorously than the legends.

Consider Harlem’s ’20s as a kind of funked-up Weimar Republic for bloods, and you’ll have a grasp on why that era has gone down in Afro-American lore and literature as a time of grand cultural renaissance. Which is to say, one where radical trends in Afro-American art and politics converged with the black bourgeoisie in a bacchanal of strident nationalism, new money, and bohe­mian revelry. While whites who’ve written on Harlem’s ’20s have nostalgically recalled its carnal nightspots and darky entertain­ments, Lewis describes how Harlem’s black population saw their community as an oasis of racial salvation: “Quarreling bitterly among themselves about the right road to deliverance, Garveyites, neo-Bookerites, so­cialists, utopian cultists, and all manner of integrationists shared in equal measure what might be called Harlem nationalism — the emotional certainty that the very dynamism of the ‘World’s Greatest Negro Metropolis’ was somehow a guarantee of ultimate racial victory. To a remarkable degree that collective optimism touched ev­eryone — the humble cleaning woman, the illiterate janitor, even the criminal ele­ment.”

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Some of the more uppity brothers and sisters of the day went around proclaiming themselves the New Negroes. They weren’t about to take shit off the white boy, and they tended to act and dress the part. Black postwar militancy and spanking new brownstones gave this vanguard its initial social daring; the “Red Summer” of 1919 tempered it with political pragmatism. Home from the French front, all the brave brothers, like those in Harlem’s valorous 15th National Guard, were talking about turning in some of those dead Germans and decorations for jobs and justice or picking up the gun. The response of more than a few racist white citizens to this rebellious if ro­mantic threat was a bucket of blood — the Red Summer — a nationwide orgy of mob violence against blacks that rampaged through two dozen cities and left thousands lynched or burned out of their homes. As planned, this pogrom cured other survivors suffering from pre-Newtonian (Huey, that is) delusions of revolutionary suicide. What it didn’t quell was Afro-American demands for the kind of social and economic gains anticipated as payment-in-kind for wartime patriotism.

In the aftermath of the Red Summer, moderate black leadership faced the problem of devising political strategies that were both vociferous and nonaggressive. An elitist cadre of liberal-arts damaged Afro-Ameri­can intellectuals assumed the task of trans­forming this pragmatic paradox into praxis. Foremost among them was William Ed­wards Burghardt Du Bois — W.E.B. to you — living embodiment of the nascent NAACP; editor and chief propagandist of the organization’s influential organ, Crisis (under Du Bois’s editorship it regularly sold 100,000 copies monthly — astounding in an age of predominant black illiteracy, astound­ing, in fact, today); and author of The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays that kindled intellectual ambition in a generation of young black artists and academics.

Du Bois’s persuasive pamphleteering had almost singlehandedly rallied black men into the First World War — just as the feisty black brain trust’s lobbying to integrate the American armed forces had eventually won blacks the right to serve. (Imagine that­ — back then brothers had to beg their way onto the front line. So thank god for integration, right?) Yet, for all his appeal to the masses to sacrifice life and limb for the advance­ment of the race, Du Bois was no populist. As formulator of the notorious Talented Tenth doctrine, W.E.B. believed equality should first be granted to worthy Ivy League educated blacks like himself. This dincty delusion put him at loggerheads with the ideologies of the three other leading black political strategists of his time: first with Booker T. Washington’s plan to create a separate-but-equal class of Afro-American yeomen (a dream that inspired legions of southern black academics years after his death in 1905, and equally enthralled the patrician hearts of white philanthropists); then with Marcus Garvey’s African repatriation movement and A. Philip Randolph’s Black Bolshevikism (an ideology which got Randolph branded “one of the most danger­ous men in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, so you figure he must have been doing something righteous).

Debate between these factions, and espe­cially between Garvey and Du Bois, often got more mutually destructive than constructively critical. The barbed exchanges Lewis digs up between these two are hilarious, if embarrassing in the extreme. Du Bois once wrote an article branding Garvey either “Lunatic or Traitor.” Garvey’s reply to that was that he didn’t have to ask whether the “cross-breed, Dutch-French­-Negro Editor” was a traitor. For punish­ment Garvey recommended horsewhipping. Common in the Du Bois camp was the revulsion expressed by Robert Bagnall, who described Garvey as a “Jamaican Negro of unmixed stock, squat, stocky, fat and sleek.” ’Course if that sounds like high yellow hi­jinks at their worst, Garvey’s arguments for a pure black race purged of its blue-vein aristocracy aren’t much closer to unity in the community.

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Controversy rages to this day about how much of a hand the Talented Tenth’s leader­ship had in the downfall of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which at its peak claimed a membership worldwide of two million. The evidence Lewis presents about Du Bois and other black moderates asking to enlist in the government’s cam­paign against Garvey is sickening stuff. But as Lewis also notes, J. Edgar Hoover had already assigned a specially recruited Uncle Tom to Garvey, and both the British govern­ment and the United Fruit Company had asked for U.S. intervention to curb Garvey’s rabble-rousing in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Whatever the backstage machinations, Garvey’s trumped-up tax fraud conviction and deportation in 1925 left Du Bois’s Tal­ented Tenth a clear shot at mandating the destiny of black America. Or at least the destiny of those Afro-Americans with col­lege degrees or white philanthropists. This perspective gave them a comprehension of racism that was narrow, selfish, and skewed. “The error of black leaders like Du Bois,” Lewis writes, “transcended skin color; they were rebels in America only to the degree and duration of their exclusion from it.” To the Tenth’s Oxford-educated aesthete Alain Locke, for example, the key to racial harmony was interracial elitism: “The only safe­guard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully enlightened minorities of both race groups.”

Yet for all their selfishness when it came to race and caste, the Tenth’s leadership made remarkable gains for blacks in higher education. At a time when many black col­leges were generously endowed based on their adherence to Booker T. Washington’s vocational training program, Du Bois and crew gained economic parity for black liberal arts schools. Behind this lobbying lay the belief that only through educational ac­culturation would the barriers to racial ad­vancement be swept away. To this end, the NAACP and the Urban League enlisted culture as the first line of defense after chari­table WASP guilt and circumspect Jewish benevolence. (Lewis throws his two cents into the ever-prickly matter of black-Jewish relations by producing evidence that the early 20th century Jewish leaders viewed blacks as a lower-on-the-totem-pole buffer between themselves and American anti-­Semitism. Not exactly a novel notion in the black community.) Regardless of motiva­tion, such patronage gave the NAACP and the Urban League the wherewithal (and the time) to devote themselves to their dream: they would bring about integration by prov­ing how sophisticated they were.

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— 3 —

The artsy wing of the Harlem Renais­sance was Charles Johnson’s brainchild. Johnson, editor and chief sociologist of the Urban League’s publication, Opportunity, understood that in the lynch-mad ’20s art was the only haven of opportunity for blacks. Johnson, says Lewis, “gauged more accurately than any other Afro-American intellectual the scope and depth of the na­tional drive to ‘put the nigger in his place’ after the war, to keep him out of the officers corps, out of labor unions and skilled jobs, out of the North and quaking for his very existence in the South — and out of politics everywhere. Johnson found that one area alone — probably because of its im­plausibility — had not been proscribed. No exclusionary rules had been laid down re­garding a place in the arts… it was left to the Afro-American elite to win what as­similation it could through copyrights, con­certs, and exhibitions.”

Opportunity’s May 1925 literary awards dinner put art on the barricades in the race war. White notables there to shore up the ranks included judges Fannie Hurst, Eugene O’Neill, Alexander Woollcott, Van Wyck Brooks, and Clement Wood. Among the win­ners, prophetically, were Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, E. Franklin Frazier, and Eric Walrond. Publicity from these awards brought publishing offers from major houses, and as Johnson hoped, attention from well-heeled whites. Support for the New Negro literature became highly fash­ionable, its authors’ presence at downtown soirees de rigueur. The Lost Generation hoped New Negro blood would bring joy to a Caucasian race in its death throes.

Given proper encouragement, some black authors were more than happy to liven up the wake. A lot of black fiction from the ’20s is unreadable today because it was geared to the tastes of such white primitivists as Carl Van Vechten or — like the writing of Du Bois’s Sorbonne-grad girl friday — it suffered from class preciousness. Lewis critically ex­amines the stellar exceptions to these ten­dencies: Nella Larsen’s near-forgotten nov­els of psychic unmasking, Quicksand and Passing; Rudolph Fisher’s Harlem satires; George Schuyler’s comic sci-fi treatment of American color-mania, Black No More; Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death; Langston Hughes’s The Ways of the White Folks, and Jean Toomer’s Cane. Published in 1923, Cane instantly won praise as the most sophisticated work of fiction ever written by an Afro-American and also as a major piece of experimental modern writing. Paul Ro­senfeld ranked Toomer with Joyce and Proust, while critics as diverse as Allen Tate, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Frank, and Kenneth Burke went equally gaga. A collage of poems, episodic sketches, short stories, and drama, Cane is an evocative rendering of a black pastoral South doomed to extinc­tion and a black Urban North characterized by schizzy surreality. It is also one of the few books by an Afro-American male that seri­ously addresses the psyches of black female characters.

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The book’s rescue from obscurity by the ’60s Black Arts Movement is an irony Toomer probably wouldn’t have ap­preciated: the author of Cane, you dig, never wanted to be known as a black author. A surviving letter to his publishers upbraids them for calling him a “promising Negro writer,” and goes on to say, “If my relation­ship with you is to be what I’d like it to be, I must insist that you never use such a word, such a thought again.” Well, la-de-dah. The critical success of Cane drew Toomer into the Lost Generation’s inner circle, company more to his liking. Alfred Stieglitz and Geor­gia O’Keeffe became his friends (O’Keeffe’s biographer hints of a short affair) as did Marianne Moore, Edmund Wilson, and salon maven Mabel Dodge (with whom Lewis suggests a strange sexual liaison). But if all this charismatic genius makes Toomer sound fast on his way to one helluva literary career, think again. Or better yet, think Gurdjieff. After a mesmerizing encounter with the Russian mystic, Toomer became a zealot and never published again.

Like Toomer, Claude McKay is generally recognized as one of the Renaissance’s star products. And also like Toomer, McKay spent hardly any time in the thick of it. Sailing to Russia in 1923, the roustabout Jamaican emigre spent six months there as the black toast of the Bolsheviks, then a decade traveling Europe and North Africa. His contacts with the Harlem movement were maintained through correspondence and the publication of his poetry and fiction. McKay’s politics were as contradictory as Toomer’s racial identifications. The most politically educated Renaissance writer chose to live more like a free spirit than an engagé rebel and was a Socialist who espoused Garveyite nationalism — even though he found Garvey’s central vision of African redemption “puerile.” Which in itself may not be surprising, since as a Ja­maican in exile McKay longed for the days of British paternalism. Equally confusing is the fact that while McKay was, for a time, co-editor of Max Eastman’s The Liberator, he despised propaganda. His literary output was consistent with his political vacillations. The anti-propagandist wrote some of the most biting protest verse in the language —­ Churchill ripped off McKay’s Red Summer–­inspired “If We Must Die” for a wartime speech — while the man who left Harlem to escape its “sex and poverty” and “hot, syn­copated fascination” and “color conscious­ness” shamelessly sensationalized all that tawdry stuff in his novels, which are perhaps the worst examples of the Harlem primitivist school.

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As Lewis tells it, the young black writers who did hang out in Harlem during the ’20s probably had more fun than either grumpy McKay or zonked-out Toomer. Being younger, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and their peers took to Harlem’s fast lane as often as they took to their type­writers. They mockingly referred to themselves, in Hurston’s coinage, as the Nig­gerati, and upon occasion left their elders aghast. Fire, a one-shot collaboration, brought hateful reviews from Talented Tenth guardians disgusted by its celebra­tions of black street life and folklore. Fire represented the younger writers’ declaration of independence from the effete tradition of black literature favored by the Tenth. For Hughes and Hurston especially, life in the Black Bottom outranked life on Sugar Hill as source material. Though not just because life in the lowlands was more interesting — as literature it moved more product among a white audience looking for Negro exotica.

Well provided for by white patrons, they could afford to disrespect their elders and revel in rebellion and raunch. Charlotte Ma­son — Hughes, Hurston, and McKay called her “Godmother” — was a wacky Park Ave­nue widow of means who had thrown her lot in with the “Negro cause” to help save the world’s primitives from contamination by Western civilization. Ironically, her chief bursar and head talent scout, Alain Locke — ­she called him her “precious Brown boy” — ­couldn’t get civilized by the West fast enough. Oxford’s first black Rhodes Scholar spent his summers soaking in the museums and spas of Europe. Occasionally Mason worried that Locke’s overweaned intellect would cause him to lose his racial in­heritance on the “slippery pond of civiliza­tion.” But Locke and Mason learned to ex­ploit each other with tolerance: she because he secured her the patronship of Hughes, Hurston, McKay, and sculptor Richmond Barthé; he because her dollars allowed him to influence these bohemian welfare cases.

In return, artists were required to write fawning poems and pay house calls. Hurston fell into the role with gusto, says Lewis, “delighting the old lady with ethnic capers and ‘coon’ stories that would have been the envy of Joel Chandler Harris.” Even wild­man McKay wrote picaresque narratives ex­tolling the primitive. Prized pet Langston Hughes got ousted from Godmother’s little acre when his muse drew him closer to the proletariat. An anti-capitalist Christmas poem he published in New Masses in 1931 so upset Mason that he couldn’t get a chas­tened shuffle in edgewise. Soon, though, Hughes would have company; he wasn’t go­ing to be the only Renaissance man to find himself out on his ass in Depression America.

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With the country declared an economic disaster area, racy Negro literature got un­fashionable, and the sources of its patronage dried up. But it was a while before the Renaissance artistes found their mis­fortunes coinciding with those of less elo­quent brethren and sistren on the breadlines. Hughes, for example, following his banishment from Mason’s fold, toured Haiti and Cuba on a Harmon Foundation grant. A year later he joined a boatload of young black Com symps and sailed to Rus­sia, where all aboard had been invited to star in a Soviet anti-slavery musical(!). (This project got stymied when the Soviets dis­covered that not all Afro-Americans could carry a tune as well as their beloved Paul Robeson.)

Inevitably the economics and politics of the ’30s drastically reordered the Talented Tenth’s program. Du Bois embraced a con­fusing new policy of socialism abroad and separatism at home that got him booted out of the NAACP. The organization’s presiding leadership lost two potentially prestigious civil rights cases — the Scottsboro Boys’ and Angelo Herndon’s — to the Communists because of caste snobbery. As the economic and political state of black America grew dimmer, aristocratic integration schemes seemed like the product of minds more out to lunch than merely highfalutin.

Even as late as 1933, NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson could write, “A little bit more here and a little bit more there and the dam will break and the waters will no longer be segregated.” If Johnson believed racism only a nudge away from oblivion — ­well, he obviously didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Because, as Lewis observes, Harlem’s impoverished majority was hardly living a stone’s throw from Utopia: “For Afro-American urban dwellers the more things changed, the more they worsened. Despite its vaunted Renaissance and distinguished residents, Harlem was no exception. In this ‘city within a city’ almost 50 per cent of the families were out of work, yet a mere 9 per cent of them received government relief jobs. The community’s single medical facility, Harlem General Hos­pital, with 273 beds and 50 bassinets, served 200,000 Afro-Americans. The syphilis rate was nine times higher than white Manhat­tan’s; the tuberculosis rate was five times higher; two black mothers and infants died for every white mother and infant.”

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 — 4 —

For Jervis Anderson, Harlem begins not with Du Bois but with how your average brother and sister got up there in the first place. Harlem’s transformation from a haven for wealthy white New Yorkers into a black community is, in Anderson’s nar­rative, a story of tragicomic intrigue. New York City’s black population had been on the move uptown since the early 1800s, pushed out by every hostile immigrant group or business interest in need of space. The 1890s found most bloods settled in the Tenderloin, from the Twenties to the low Sixties on the West side, which quartered moneyed blacks, southern immigrants, and a redlight district known as Black Bohemia. Two catastrophes in the first years of the century gave blacks the boot from there: the destruction of the Tenderloin for Penn Sta­tion, with its resultant commercial-property landgrab, and a mad dog police-led riot in Hell’s Kitchen. After those two throwdowns, blacks packed up and made out for the West Nineties quick.

What opened the gorgeous brownstones and wide boulevards of Harlem to this ex­odus was a combination of white greed and a hustling young black realtor named Phillip Payton. As legend has it, Payton ran up on two white landlords of adjacent buildings, in heated discussion. To settle the score, one gave Payton his property to fill with blacks. “I was successful in managing this house,” Payton recalled later, “and after a time I was able to induce other landlords to… give me their houses to manage.” Payton’s parlay of his initial gambit into the creation of the hugely successful (even by today’s stan­dards) Afro-American Realty Company flooded Harlem with blacks. Remembered now as the father of Harlem, Payton also helped give rise to a host of other black property management firms. Their success had as much to do with business savvy as with white landlords’ customary readiness to jack up rents for black clients.

Not all of Harlem’s older residents were happy with the new neighbors. Anderson quotes one of them: “Can nothing be done to put a restriction on the invasion of the Negro into Harlem? At one time it was a pleasure to ride on the… elevated. Now you in­variably have a colored person sitting beside you.… Why cannot we have Jim Crow cars for these people?” One white Harlemite sug­gested that his fellow landed gentry erect 25-foot fences to protect them from the very sight of the invading black hordes. But as frequently happens here in the land of the uprooted and the home of the highest bid­der, mean green won out over neighborhood purity in the end.

The community that transplanted itself to Harlem contained every human type im­aginable. From the Tenderloin came your smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers, your pickpockets, peddlers, panhandlers, thugs, pimps, and pushers; all your big moneymakers. With them they brought the nightclub owners and innovative musicians who were to make Harlem so chic and alluring in the ’20s. What the nouveau bougies who represented Harlem’s educated and/or mercantile classes brought with them besides new money was moral propriety and, when it came to the masses, an attitude. As in that expressed by black businessman John B. Nail, explaining why his class hired European servants: “If there is one thing the negro of the servant class doesn’t know it is that the color of his skin doesn’t make him the equal of his master. You know what a fresh colored servant is in a white family? Just imagine the hell that would be raised by a fresh colored servant in a colored family.”

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Anderson’s digs unearthed tons of quirky quotes like these. But they also led him to irritating excesses. He heaps in whole para­graphs of reference material where a few quotes or a summary would do, and he fa­vors the obit page when it comes to trans­mitting biographical information. And why are there so many lists in his book? I mean we’re talking a building occupants list, a list of churches, a list of preachers, a list of boxers, a list of bars, a list of popular period­icals, a list of Harlem notables, a list of dead Harlem notables, a list of occupations, a grocery list, even a list of bootleg liquor ingredients, fer chrissakes.

As Anderson moves toward the ’50s, his material gets skimpier, his aims more dif­fuse, his organization more scattershot. Fascinated by Harlem’s cavalcade of celebri­ties, he ignores the everyday people of the community. Since more than a few folk who lived there in the ’30s and ’40s are still alive, I have to wonder why some of their stories aren’t included. And Anderson’s cutoff date of 1950 seems like a panglossian move to avoid tainting his glitzy portrayal of Harlem with what heroin turned it into — which is some horrorshow. By ignoring Harlem’s pre­sent, Anderson has written not popular his­tory but popular showbiz romance. And to a certain extent the same could be said of Lewis, even given his iconoclasm and sophis­tication.

The two books share a failing: both Lewis and Anderson refuse to analyze where the historical myth of Harlem fits within the context of Afro-American reality in the 1980s. For contemporary Afro-American professionals and intellectuals, the Harlem of legend is at best a Utopian cultural myth: about the segregated but self-contained black community of the past, isolated from white America but strong enough to sustain itself thanks to the talent caged within its boundaries. Unlike Du Bois and Johnson, however, today’s black braintrusts don’t have to work or live in the “black com­munity”; thanks to affirmative action they can braindrain themselves out to the highest corporate bidder and cop a squat in the suburbs. Which is cool up to a point. Except that what remains unresolved for this gener­ation’s upwardly mobile blacks is just how much assimilation they dare risk at the expense of alienation from the Harlems of today, especially given that the terms of this assimilation are enforced only by fragile tol­erance and easily eradicated legislation. Because in the face of Harlem’s decay, the question is this: Just where do you go when you can’t go home again and baby it’s cold outside? ■