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I played right into the hands of a military spy. He sure would like a woman. He acted so grateful. He even put on an extreme Southern accent. And I gave him the phone number of one of my best friends among the prostitutes where I lived.


-- 108 --

But something felt wrong. I gave the fellow a half-hour to get there, and then I telephoned. I expected the answer I got -- that no soldier had been there.

I didn't even bother to go back out to the bar. I just went straight to Charlie Small's office.

"I just did something, Charlie," I said. "I don't know why I did it --" and I told him.

Charlie looked at me. "I wish you hadn't done that, Red." We both knew what he meant.

When the West Indian plainclothes detective, Joe Baker, came in, I was waiting. I didn't even ask him any questions. When we got to the 135th Street precinct, it was busy with police in uniform, and MP's with soldiers in tow. I was recognized by some other detectives who, like Joe Baker, sometimes dropped in at Small's.

Two things were in my favor. I'd never given the police any trouble, and when that black spy soldier had tried to tip me, I had waved it away, telling him I was just doing him a favor. They must have agreed that Joe Baker should just scare me.

I didn't know enough to be aware that I wasn't taken to the desk and booked. Joe Baker took me back inside of the precinct building, into a small room. In the next room, we could hear somebody getting whipped. Whop! Whop! He'd cry out, "Please! Please don't beat my face, that's how I make my living!" I knew from that it was some pimp. Whop! Whop! "Please! Please!"

(Not much later, I heard that Joe Baker had gotten trapped over in New Jersey, shaking down a Negro pimp and his white prostitute. He was discharged from the New York City police force, the State of New Jersey convicted him, and he went off to do some time.)

More bitter than getting fired, I was barred from Small's. I could understand. Even if I wasn't actually what was called "hot," I was now going to be under surveillance -- and the Small brothers had to protect their business.

Sammy proved to be my friend in need. He put the word on the wire for me to come over to his place. I had never been there. His place seemed to me a small palace; his women really kept him in style. While we talked about what kind of a hustle


-- 109 --
I should get into, Sammy gave me some of the best marijuana I'd ever used.

Various numbers controllers, Small's regulars, had offered me jobs as a runner. But that meant I would earn very little until I could build up a clientele. Pimping, as Sammy did, was out. I felt I had no abilities in that direction, and that I'd certainly starve to death trying to recruit prostitutes.

Peddling reefers, Sammy and I pretty soon agreed, was the best thing. It was a relatively uninvolved lone-wolf type of operation, and one in which I could make money immediately. For anyone with even a little brains, no experience was needed, especially if one had any knack at all with people.

Both Sammy and I knew some merchant seamen and others who could supply me with loose marijuana. And musicians, among whom I had so many good contacts, were the heaviest consistent market for reefers. And then, musicians also used the heavier narcotics, if I later wanted to graduate to them. That would be more risky, but also more money. Handling heroin and cocaine could earn one hundreds of dollars a day, but it required a lot of experience with the narcotics squad for one to be able to last long enough to make anything.

I had been around long enough either to know or to spot instinctively most regular detectives and cops, though not the narcotics people. And among the Small's veteran hustler regulars, I had a variety of potentially helpful contacts. This was important because just as Sammy could get me supplied with marijuana, a large facet of any hustler's success was knowing where he could get help when he needed it. The help could involve police and detectives -- as well as higher ups. But I hadn't yet reached that stage. So Sammy staked me, about twenty dollars, I think it was.

Later that same night, I knocked at his door and gave him back his money and asked him if I could lend him some. I had gone straight from Sammy's to a supplier he had mentioned. I got just a small amount of marijuana, and I got some of the paper to roll up my own sticks. As they were only about the size of stick matches, I was able to make enough of them so that, after selling them to musicians I knew at the Braddock Hotel, I


-- 110 --
could pay back Sammy and have enough profit to be in business. And those musicians when they saw their buddy, and their fan, in business: "My man!" "Crazy, Red!"

In every band, at least half of the musicians smoked reefers. I'm not going to list names; I'd have to include some of those most prominent then in popular music, even a number of them around today. In one case, every man in one of the bands which is still famous was on marijuana. Or again, any number of musicians could tell you who I mean when I say that one of the most famous singers smoked his reefers through a chicken thighbone. He had smoked so many through the bone that he could just light a match before the empty bone, draw the heat through, and get what he called a "contact" high.

I kept turning over my profit, increasing my supplies, and I sold reefers like a wild man. I scarcely slept; I was wherever musicians congregated. A roll of money was in my pocket. Every day, I cleared at least fifty or sixty dollars. In those days (or for that matter these days), this was a fortune to a seventeen-year-old Negro. I felt, for the first time in my life, that great feeling of free! Suddenly, now, I was the peer of the other young hustlers I had admired.

It was at this time that I discovered the movies. Sometimes I made as many as five in one day, both downtown and in Harlem. I loved the tough guys, the action, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and I loved all of that dancing and carrying on in such films as Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. After leaving the movies, I'd make my connections for supplies, then roll my sticks, and, about dark, I'd start my rounds. I'd give a couple of extra sticks when someone bought ten, which was five dollars' worth. And I didn't sell and run, because my customers were my friends. Often I'd smoke along with them. None of them stayed any more high than I did.

Free now to do what I pleased, upon an impulse I went to Boston. Of course, I saw Ella. I gave her some money: it was just a token of appreciation, I told her, for helping me when I had come from Lansing. She wasn't the same old Ella; she still hadn't forgiven me for Laura. She never mentioned her, nor did I. But, even so, Ella acted better than she had when I had left for New


-- 111 --
York. We reviewed the family changes. Wilfred had proved so good at his trade they had asked him to stay on at Wilberforce as an instructor. And Ella had gotten a card from Reginald who had managed to get into the merchant marine.

From Shorty's apartment, I called Sophia. She met me at the apartment just about as Shorty went off to work. I would have liked to take her out to some of the Roxbury clubs, but Shorty had told us that, as in New York, the Boston cops used the war as an excuse to harass interracial couples, stopping them and grilling the Negro about his draft status. Of course Sophia's now being married made us more cautious, too.

When Sophia caught a cab home, I went to hear Shorty's band. Yes, he had a band now. He had succeeded in getting a 4-F classification, and I was pleased for him and happy to go. His band was -- well, fair. But Shorty was making out well in Boston, playing in small clubs. Back in the apartment, we talked into the next day. "Homeboy, you're something else!" Shorty kept saying. I told him some of the wild things I'd done in Harlem, and about the friends I had. I told him the story of Sammy the Pimp.

In Sammy's native Paducah, Kentucky, he had gotten a girl pregnant. Her parents made it so hot that Sammy had come to Harlem, where he got a job as a restaurant waiter. When a woman came in to eat alone, and he found she really was alone, not married, or living with somebody, it generally was not hard for smooth Sammy to get invited to her apartment. He'd insist on going out to a nearby restaurant to bring back some dinner, and while he was out he would have her key duplicated. Then, when he knew she was away, Sammy would go in and clean out all her valuables. Sammy was then able to offer some little stake, to help her back on her feet. This could be the beginning of an emotional and financial dependency, which Sammy knew how to develop until she was his virtual slave.

Around Harlem, the narcotics squad detectives didn't take long to find out I was selling reefers, and occasionally one of them would follow me. Many a peddler was in jail because he had been caught with the evidence on his person; I figured a way to avoid that. The law specified that if the evidence wasn't actually in


-- 112 --
your possession, you couldn't be arrested. Hollowed-out shoe heels, fake hat-linings, these things were old stuff to the detectives.

I carried about fifty sticks in a small package inside my coat, under my armpit, keeping my arm flat against my side. Moving about, I kept my eyes open. If anybody looked suspicious, I'd quickly cross the street, or go through a door, or turn a corner, loosening my arm enough to let the package drop. At night, when I usually did my selling, any suspicious person wouldn't be likely to see the trick. If I decided I had been mistaken, I'd go back and get my sticks.

However, I lost many a stick this way. Sometimes, I knew I had frustrated a detective. And I kept out of the courts.

One morning, though, I came in and found signs that my room had been entered. I knew it had been detectives. I'd heard too many times how if they couldn't find any evidence, they would plant some, where you would never find it, then they'd come back in and "find" it. I didn't even have to think twice what to do. I packed my few belongings and never looked back. When I went to sleep again, it was in another room.

It was then that I began carrying a little .25 automatic. I got it, for some reefers, from an addict who I knew had stolen it somewhere. I carried it pressed under my belt right down the center of my back. Someone had told me that the cops never hit there in any routine patting-down. And unless I knew who I was with, I never allowed myself to get caught in any crush of people. The narcotics cops had been known to rush up and get their hands on you and plant evidence while "searching." I felt that as long as I kept on the go, and in the open, I had a good chance. I don't know now what my real thoughts were about carrying the pistol. But I imagine I felt that I wasn't going to get put away if somebody tried framing me in any situation that I could help.

I sold less than before because having to be so careful consumed so much time. Every now and then, on a hunch, I'd move to another room. I told nobody but Sammy where I slept.

Finally, it was on the wire that the Harlem narcotics squad had me on its special list.

Now, every other day or so, usually in some public place, they


-- 113 --
would flash the badge to search me. But I'd tell them at once, loud enough for others standing about to hear me, that I had nothing on me, and I didn't want to get anything planted on me. Then they wouldn't, because Harlem already thought little enough of the law, and they did have to be careful that some crowd of Negroes would not intervene roughly. Negroes were starting to get very tense in Harlem. One could almost smell trouble ready to break out -- as it did very soon.

But it was really tough on me then. I was having to hide my sticks in various places near where I was selling. I'd put five sticks in an empty cigarette pack, and drop the empty-looking pack by a lamppost, or behind a garbage can, or a box. And I'd first tell customers to pay me, and then where to pick up.

But my regular customers didn't go for that. You couldn't expect a well-known musician to go grubbing behind a garbage can. So I began to pick up some of the street trade, the people you could see looked high. I collected a number of empty Red Cross bandage boxes and used them for drops. That worked pretty good.

But the middle-Harlem narcotics force found so many ways to harass me that I had to change my area. I moved down to lower Harlem, around 110th Street. There were many more reefer smokers around there, but these were a cheaper type, this was the worst of the ghetto, the poorest people, the ones who in every ghetto keep themselves narcotized to keep from having to face their miserable existence. I didn't last long down there, either. I lost too much of my product. After I sold to some of those reefer smokers who had the instincts of animals, they followed me and learned my pattern. They would dart out of a doorway, I'd drop my stuff, and they would be on it like a chicken on corn. When you become an animal, a vulture, in the ghetto, as I had become, you enter a world of animals and vultures. It becomes truly the survival of only the fittest.

Soon I found myself borrowing little stakes, from Sammy, from some of the musicians. Enough to buy supplies, enough to keep high myself, enough sometimes to just eat.

Then Sammy gave me an idea.

"Red, you still got your old railroad identification?" I did have


-- 114 --
it. They hadn't taken it back. "Well, why don't you use it to make a few runs, until the heat cools?"

He was right.

I found that if you walked up and showed a railroad line's employee identification card, the conductor -- even a real cracker, if you approached him right, not begging -- would just wave you aboard. And when he came around he would punch you one of those little coach seat slips to ride wherever the train went.

The idea came to me that, this way, I could travel all over the East Coast selling reefers among my friends who were on tour with their bands.

I had the New Haven identification. I worked a couple of weeks for other railroads, to get their identification, and then I was set.

In New York, I rolled and packed a great quantity of sticks, and sealed them into jars. The identification card worked perfectly. If you persuaded the conductor you were a fellow employee who had to go home on some family business, he just did the favor for you without a second thought. Most whites don't give a Negro credit for having sense enough to fool them -- or nerve enough.

I'd turn up in towns where my friends were playing. "Red!" I was an old friend from home. In the sticks, I was somebody from the Braddock Hotel. "My man! Daddy-o!" And I had Big Apple reefers. Nobody had ever heard of a traveling reefer peddler.

I followed no particular band. Each band's musicians knew the other bands' one-nighter touring schedules. When I ran out of supplies, I'd return to New York, and load up, then hit the road again. Auditoriums or gymnasiums all lighted up, the band's chartered bus outside, the dressed-up, excited, local dancers pouring in. At the door, I'd announce that I was some bandman's brother; in most cases they thought I was one of the musicians. Throughout the dance, I'd show the country folks some plain and fancy lindy-hopping. Sometimes, I'd stay overnight in a town. Sometimes I'd ride the band's bus to their next stop. Sometimes, back in New York, I would stay awhile. Things had cooled down. Word was around that I had left town, and the narcotics squad was satisfied with that. In some of the small
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