Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 3/3

Frank Lucas in his chinchilla skin coat, photo from Narcos Wiki.

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.

One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:

At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …

The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.

Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …

The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.

The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.

“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”

Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…

Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.

I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.

Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:

“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …

“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …

“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”

Lucas’ January 1975 federal mug shot.

As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:

[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.

I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.

And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.

I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.

With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:

Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.

My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.

Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)

With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.

For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.

I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.

Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:

I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….

And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.

Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…

I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …

According to Wikipedia:

While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …

During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”[2]

The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[3][4][5] or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it.[6][7] This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.

Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.

After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.

Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:

As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.

“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …

I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.

Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.

At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:

In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …

Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.

And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.

Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?

And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?



Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 2

Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)

To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:

I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.

*Not a good idea.

I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.

I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.

I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.

On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.

For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …

I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.

Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:

People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …

Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.

Back to Lucas:

I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.

Here are the 20 items from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist:

Glib and superficial charm
Grandiose self-estimation
Pathological lying
Cunning and manipulativeness

Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity

Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Parasitic lifestyle
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Criminal versatility

Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:

I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.

Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)

I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:

Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.

According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.

In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”

Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.

“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson (10/31/1905 – 7/7/1968)

A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):

I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …

I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …

From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.

Stephanie St. Clair

There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)

I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.

After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.

Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.

Let’s return to Lucas’s account:

If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…

I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…

years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …

Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.

The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.

(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)

Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?

I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!

AF: Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of one of America’s Most Notorious Drug Lords, by Frank Lucas

Welcome to the final volume in our exploration of the anthropology of crime, Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster. Unlike the other book in this series, this one is actually (co)authored by the criminal himself. This provides a unique perspective, but also introduces the question of whether the author is entirely honest–but since I have no way to independently verify his story, I’ll just be reporting matters as he tells them.

It’s been a month since I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s an interesting read, for sure, but I am ambivalent about giving criminals more attention–on the other hand, the book has already been made into a movie, so what’s one more reader?

Lucas’s story begins in 1936, when, at the age of six, he witnesses his cousin’s head blown off by the KKK. He soon began stealing food to help feed his impoverished family, and left home at the age of 14. I forget why, exactly, he decided to set off on his own, but he quickly ran into trouble, was arrested and put into a chain gang. With a little help he managed to escape and made his way to New York City, where a helpful bus driver got him to his final destination:

“Right here! Go. Get off! This is Harlem.”

I stood on 114th Street and 8th Avenue and looked to my right and to my left. There was nothing but black people as far as I cold see. And there were all kinds of black folks: men and women of all ages and sizes, some who looked dirt poor (but not as poor as me) and some who looked straight-up rich.

I threw out my hands and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hello, Harlem USA!”

Harlem, 1765

Harlem has an interesting history of its own. The British burned down the small, Dutch town during the Revolutionary War. New York City expanded into Harlem, and after the Civil War, the area became heavily Jewish and Italian. By the 30s, the Jews had been replaced by Puerto Ricans (the Italians lingered a little longer.)

In 1904, black real estate entrepreneur Phillip Payton, Jr., of the Afro-American Realty Company, began encouraging blacks to move from other New York neighborhoods to Harlem (which had particularly low rents then because of a housing crash.) According to Wikipedia:

The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. … In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census showed 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents as black… As blacks moved in, white residents left. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.

Between 1907 and 1915 some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to black Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. …

Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” … The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. … W. E. B. Du Bois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.

Mount Morris brownstones, Harlem

You know, some books are written in a way that lends themselves quoting, and some are not. This book had a great deal of interesting material about crime and particularly Lucas’s development as a criminal, but most of it went into too much depth to easily quote. (I do longer quotes for books out of copyright.) This passage works, though:

I never even thought about getting a regular job. That just wasn’t me. From the moment I saw my cousin’s head blown away in front of me by the Klan, I had no faith in doing things the “right” way. … I watched my parents break their backs for next to nothing because they tried to play by the unfair rule of the sharecropping system. Just seemed like trying to do things the so-called right way got you nowhere…

There were two Harlems back then. There were the high-society folks, the people who lived in the fancy brownstones overlooking Central Park or up on Mount Morris. … I didn’t notice these people. I knew they were there, but it was like they were in black and white. …Those people up on Mount Morris had solid educations, which gave them a hell of a lot more options than I had. …

The underworld was in full, living color. The prostitute and their pimps, the number runners and their clients, the drug dealers and, most especially, the gamblers, who always had lots of money. They spoke a language I could read, write, and understand fluently.

Just to recap, our author showed up in Harlem at the age of 14 or so with the clothes on his back and not enough money to ride the bus. He found a warm place to sleep with the other homeless and began stealing food. This progressed to stealing money, and as the author puts it:

A few months after I started stealing anything not nailed down in Harlem, I was introduced to the heroin trade.

On the history of Heroin ™:

Hoffmann, working at Bayer pharmaceutical company in Elberfeld, Germany, was instructed by his supervisor Heinrich Dreser to acetylate morphine with the objective of producing codeine, a constituent of the opium poppy… Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heros, ήρως”). …

In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trademark name Heroin. It was developed chiefly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Morphine at the time was a popular recreational drug, and Bayer wished to find a similar but non-addictive substitute to market. However, contrary to Bayer’s advertising as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” heroin would soon have one of the highest rates of addiction among its users.

Like Frisbees and Kleenex, Heroin was once a brand name that has become synonymous with the product.

Lucas isn’t out to take heroin. He wants to sell it–probably a less risky and more profitable venture than robbing people at gunpoint. But by now he’s attracted some unwanted attention.

In the underworld environment, cops are the natural enemy of a drug dealer. It was my job to just stay out of their way, but that rule only applies to cops trying to do their job. Crooked cops have no rules and no ethics. And some of them get a badge just so they can have a license to beat people up and rob them.

If I ever turned a corner and saw Diggs and his partner, Pappo, my stomach sank and my temper jumped a few degrees. …

“You got a reason to have your hands on me?” I’d say.

“We can make one up if you don’t shut the fuck up,” they’d say.

An incident at 133rd Street and Seventh Avenue during the Harlem Riot of 1964.

Diggs and Pappo beat him up a lot, until one day Lucas went a little crazy and threatened to kill them, after which they left him alone.

If I recall correctly, Lucas was only about 17 at this time, so this was around 1947, maybe into the early 50s.

Obviously Lucas has interacted with a lot of police officers, since he’s been arrested a few times and spent many years in prison. He doesn’t have much negative to say about honest cops, but crooked cops–who not only beat him, like Diggs and Pappo, but also extorted money from him–earn his ire.

Of course, Lucas was actually a criminal, but why did he attract so much attention from police officers who were content to beat him up a bit and then let him back out on the streets? If the crooked cops knew he was dealing, why didn’t he attract the attention of honest police officers before becoming a multi-millionaire drug lord? Were the crooked cops just more attuned to criminal activity (being, essentially, criminals themselves)? Was there just not enough solid evidence to convict Lucas in a court of law, but more than plenty to randomly harass him? Does arresting people require a lot of paperwork?

Lucas was eventually arrested and sent to prison (in 1975, though his 70 year sentence was eventually reduced to 5 plus parole.) Throughout the period Lucas was operating–primarily the 1960s and early 70s–heroin, crack, and crime hit NYC like a sledgehammer. How much was Lucas’s fault is debatable (though it was surely a lot.) But the attitude of “let’s just beat up the criminals a bit and then put them back on the streets” couldn’t have helped.

It’s getting late, so let’s continue this next Friday.