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Then there was the burglar, "Jumpsteady." In the ghettoes the white man has built for us, he has forced us not to aspire to greater things, but to view everyday living as survival -- and in that kind of a community, survival is what is respected. In any average white neighborhood bar, you couldn't imagine a known cat-man thief regularly exposing himself, as one of the most popular people in there. But if Jumpsteady missed a few days running in Small's, we would begin inquiring for him.
Jumpsteady was called that because, it was said, when he worked in white residential areas downtown, he jumped from
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roof to roof and was so steady that he maneuvered along window ledges, leaning, balancing, edging with his toes. If he fell, he'd have been dead. He got into apartments through windows. It was said that he was so cool that he had stolen even with people in the next room. I later found out that Jumpsteady always keyed himself up high on dope when he worked. He taught me some things that I was to employ in later years when hard times would force me to have my own burglary ring.
I should stress that Small's wasn't any nest of criminals. I dwell upon the hustlers because it was their world that fascinated me. Actually, for the night-life crowd, Small's was one of Harlem's two or three most decorous night spots. In fact, the New York City police department recommended Small's to white people who would ask for a "safe" place in Harlem.
The first room I got after I left the railroad (half of Harlem roomed) was in the 800 block of St. Nicholas Avenue. You could walk into one or another room in this house and get a hot fur coat, a good camera, fine perfume, a gun, anything from hot women to hot cars, even hot ice. I was one of the very few males in this rooming house. This was during the war, when you couldn't turn on the radio and not hear about Guadalcanal or North Africa. In several of the apartments the women tenants were prostitutes. The minority were in some other racket or hustle -- boosters, numbers runners, or dope-peddlers -- and I'd guess that everyone who lived in the house used dope of some kind. This shouldn't reflect too badly on that particular building, because almost everyone in Harlem needed some kind of hustle to survive, and needed to stay high in some way to forget what they had to do to survive.
It was in this house that I learned more about women than I ever did in any other single place. It was these working prostitutes who schooled me to things that every wife and every husband should know. Later on, it was chiefly the women who weren't prostitutes who taught me to be very distrustful of most women; there seemed to be a higher code of ethics and sisterliness among those prostitutes than among numerous ladies of the church who have more men for kicks than the prostitutes have for pay. And I am talking about both black and white. Many
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of the black ones in those wartime days were right in step with the white ones in having husbands fighting overseas while they were laying up with other men, even giving them their husbands' money. And many women just faked as mothers and wives, while playing the field as hard as prostitutes -- with their husbands and children right there in New York.
I got my first schooling about the cesspool morals of the white man from the best possible source, from his own women. And then as I got deeper into my own life of evil, I saw the white man's morals with my own eyes. I even made my living helping to guide him to the sick things he wanted.
I was young, working in the bar, not bothering with these women. Probably I touched their kid-brother instincts, something like that. Some would drop into my room when they weren't busy, and we would smoke reefers and talk. It generally would be after their morning rush -- but let me tell you about that rush.
Seeing the hallways and stairs busy any hour of the night with white and black men coming and going was no more than one would expect when one lived in a building out of which prostitutes were working. But what astonished me was the fullhouse crowd that rushed in between, say, six and seven-thirty in the morning, then rushed away, and by about nine, I would be the only man in the house.
It was husbands -- who had left home in time to stop by this St. Nicholas Avenue house before they went on to work. Of course not the same ones every day, but always enough of them to make up the rush. And it included white men who had come in cabs all the way up from downtown.
Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagreeable and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. To escape this tension and the chance of being ridiculed by his own wife, each of these men had gotten up early and come to a prostitute.
The prostitutes had to make it their business to be students of men. They said that after most men passed their virile twenties,
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they went to bed mainly to satisfy their egos, and because a lot of women don't understand it that way, they damage and wreck a man's ego. No matter how little virility a man has to offer, prostitutes make him feel for a time that he is the greatest man in the world. That's why these prostitutes had that morning rush of business. More wives could keep their husbands if they realized their greatest urge is to be men.
Those women would tell me anything. Funny little stories about the bedroom differences they saw between white and black men. The perversities! I thought I had heard the whole range of perversities until I later became a steerer taking white men to what they wanted. Everyone in the house laughed about the little Italian fellow whom they called the "Ten Dollar A Minute Man." He came without fail every noontime, from his little basement restaurant up near the Polo Grounds; the joke was he never lasted more than two minutes . . . but he always left twenty dollars.
Most men, the prostitutes felt, were too easy to push around. Every day these prostitutes heard their customers complaining that they never heard anything but griping from women who were being taken care of and given everything. The prostitutes said that most men needed to know what the pimps knew. A woman should occasionally be babied enough to show her the man had affection, but beyond that she should be treated firmly. These tough women said that it worked with them. All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength.
From time to time, Sophia would come over to see me from Boston. Even among Harlem Negroes, her looks gave me status. They were just like the Negroes everywhere else. That was why the white prostitutes made so much money. It didn't make any difference if you were in Lansing, Boston, or New York -- what the white racist said, and still says, was right in those days! All you had to do was put a white girl anywhere close to the average black man, and he would respond. The black woman also made the white man's eyes light up -- but he was slick enough to hide it.
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Sophia would come in on a late afternoon train. She would come to Small's and I'd introduce her around until I got off from work. She was bothered about me living among the prostitutes until I introduced her to some of them, and they talked, and she thought they were great. They would tell her they were keeping me straight for her. We would go to the Braddock Hotel bar, where we would meet some of the musicians who now would greet me like an old friend, "Hey, Red -- who have we got here?" They would make a big deal over her; I couldn't even think about buying a drink. No Negroes in the world were more white-woman-crazy in those days than most of those musicians. People in show business, of course, were less inhibited by social and racial taboos.
The white racist won't tell you that it also works in reverse. When it got late, Sophia and I would go to some of the after-hours places and speakeasies. When the downtown nightclubs had closed, most of these Harlem places crawled with white people. These whites were just mad for Negro "atmosphere," especially some of the places which had what you might call Negro soul. Sometimes Negroes would talk about how a lot of whites seemed unable to have enough of being close around us, and among us -- in groups. Both white men and women, it seemed, would get almost mesmerized by Negroes.
I remember one really peculiar case of this -- a white girl who never missed a single night in the Savoy Ballroom. She fascinated my friend Sammy; he had watched her several times. Dancing only with Negroes, she seemed to go nearly into a trance. If a white man asked her to dance, she would refuse. Then when the place was ready to close, early in the morning, she would let a Negro take her as far as the subway entrance. And that was it. She never would tell anyone her name, let alone reveal where she lived.
Now, I'll tell you another peculiar case that worked out differently, and which taught me something I have since learned in a thousand other ways. This was my best early lesson in how most white men's hearts and guts will turn over inside of them, whatever they may have you otherwise believe, whenever they see a Negro man on close terms with a white woman.
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A few of the white men around Harlem, younger ones whom we called "hippies," acted more Negro than Negroes. This particular one talked more "hip" talk than we did. He would have fought anyone who suggested he felt any race difference. Musicians around the Braddock could hardly move without falling over him. Every time I saw him, it was "Daddy! Come on, let's get our heads tight!" Sammy couldn't stand him; he was under-foot wherever you went. He even wore a wild zoot suit, used a heavy grease in his hair to make it look like a conk, and he wore the knob-toed shoes, the long, swinging chain -- everything. And he not only wouldn't be seen with any woman but a black one, but in fact he lived with two of them in the same little apartment. I never was sure how they worked that one out, but I had my idea.
About three or four o'clock one morning, we ran into this white boy, in Creole Bill's speakeasy. He was high -- in that marijuana glow where the world relaxes. I introduced Sophia; I went away to say hello to someone else. When I returned, Sophia looked peculiar -- but she wouldn't tell me until we left. He had asked her, "Why is a white girl like you throwing yourself away with a spade?"
Creole Bill -- naturally you know he was from New Orleans -- became another good friend of mine. After Small's closed, I'd bring fast-spending white people who still wanted some drinking action to Creole Bill's speakeasy. That was my earliest experience at steering. The speakeasy was only Creole Bill's apartment. I think a partition had been knocked out to make the living room larger. But the atmosphere, plus the food, made the place one of Harlem's soul spots.
A record player maintained the right, soft music. There was any kind of drink. And Bill sold plates of his spicy, delicious Creole dishes -- gumbo, jambalaya. Bill's girl friend -- a beautiful black girl -- served the customers. Bill called her "Brown Sugar," and finally everyone else did. If a good number of customers were to be served at one time, Creole Bill would bring out some pots, Brown Sugar would bring the plates, and Bill would serve everyone big platefuls; and he'd heap a plate for himself and eat with us. It was a treat to watch him eat; he loved his food so; it
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was good. Bill could cook rice like the Chinese -- I mean rice that stood every grain on its own, but I never knew the Chinese to do what Bill could with seafood and beans.
Bill made money enough in that apartment speakeasy to open up a Creole restaurant famous in Harlem. He was a great baseball fan. All over the walls were framed, autographed photographs of major league stars, and also some political and show business celebrities who would come there to eat, bringing friends. I wonder what's become of Creole Bill? His place is sold, and I haven't heard anything of him. I must remember to ask some of the Seventh Avenue old-timers, who would know.
Once, when I called Sophia in Boston, she said she couldn't get away until the following weekend. She had just married some well-to-do Boston white fellow. He was in the service, he had been home on leave, and he had just gone back. She didn't mean it to change a thing between us. I told her it made no difference. I had of course introduced Sophia to my friend Sammy, and we had gone out together some nights. And Sammy and I had thoroughly discussed the black man and white woman psychology. I had Sammy to thank that I was entirely prepared for Sophia's marriage.
Sammy said that white women were very practical; he had heard so many of them express how they felt. They knew that the black man had all the strikes against him, that the white man kept the black man down, under his heel, unable to get anywhere, really. The white woman wanted to be comfortable, she wanted to be looked upon with favor by her own kind, but also she wanted to have her pleasure. So some of them just married a white man for convenience and security, and kept right on going with a Negro. It wasn't that they were necessarily in love with the Negro, but they were in love with lust -- particularly "taboo" lust.
A white man was not too unusual if he had a ten-, twenty-, thirty-, forty-, or fifty-thousand-dollar-a-year job. A Negro man who made even five thousand in the white man's world was unusual. The white woman with a Negro man would be with him for one of two reasons: either extremely insane love, or to satisfy her lust.
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When I had been around Harlem long enough to show signs of permanence, inevitably I got a nickname that would identify me beyond any confusion with two other red-conked and well-known "Reds" who were around. I had met them both; in fact, later on I'd work with them both. One, "St. Louis Red," was a professional armed robber. When I was sent to prison, he was serving time for trying to stick up a dining car steward on a train between New York and Philadelphia. He was finally freed; now, I hear, he is in prison for a New York City jewel robbery.
The other was "Chicago Red." We became good buddies in a speakeasy where later on I was a waiter; Chicago Red was the funniest dishwasher on this earth. Now he's making his living being funny as a nationally known stage and nightclub comedian. I don't see any reason why old Chicago Red would mind me telling that he is Redd Foxx.
Anyway, before long, my nickname happened. Just when, I don't know -- but people, knowing I was from Michigan, would ask me what city. Since most New Yorkers had never heard of Lansing, I would name Detroit. Gradually, I began to be called "Detroit Red" -- and it stuck.
One afternoon in early 1943, before the regular six o'clock crowd had gathered, a black soldier sat drinking by himself at one of my tables. He must have been there an hour or more. He looked dumb and pitiful and just up from the Deep South. The fourth or fifth drink I served this soldier, wiping the table I bent over close and asked him if he wanted a woman.
I knew better. It wasn't only Small's Paradise law, it was the law of every tavern that wanted to stay in business -- never get involved with anything that could be interpreted as "impairing the morals" of servicemen, or any kind of hustling off them. This had caused trouble for dozens of places: some had been put off limits by the military; some had lost their state or city licenses.