American Gangster: And Other Tales of New Yorkby Mark Jacobson, Richard Price
In the 1970s, Frank Lucas was the king of the Harlem drug trade, bringing in over a million dollars a day. So many heroin addicts were buying from him on 116th Street that he claimed the Transit Authority changed the bus routes to avoid them. He lived a glamorous life, hobnobbing with athletes, musicians, and politicians, but Lucas was a ruthless gangster. He
In the 1970s, Frank Lucas was the king of the Harlem drug trade, bringing in over a million dollars a day. So many heroin addicts were buying from him on 116th Street that he claimed the Transit Authority changed the bus routes to avoid them. He lived a glamorous life, hobnobbing with athletes, musicians, and politicians, but Lucas was a ruthless gangster. He was notorious for using the coffins of dead GIs to smuggle heroin into the United States and, before being sentenced to seventy years in prison, he played a major role in the near death of New York City. In American Gangster, Mark Jacobson's captivating account of the life of Frank Lucas (the basis for the forthcoming major motion picture) joins other tales of New York City from the past thirty years. The collection features a number of Jacobson's most famous essays, as well as previous unpublished work and recent articles on 9/11 conspiracy theorists, America's #1 escort, and Harlem's own Charles Rangel, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. American Gangster is a vibrant, many-layered portrait of the most fascinating city in the world, by one of the most acclaimed journalists of our time.
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AMERICAN GANGSTERand Other Tales of New York
By MARK JACOBSON
Black CatCopyright © 2007 Mark Jacobson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe American Gangster, a.k.a. The Haint of Harlem, the Frank Lucas Story
Face-to-face with the charming killer. If Frank wasn't born black and poor, he could have been a really rich, corrupt politician. Instead, he became a really rich drug dealer. But he did call his mom every day. An epic tale of the vagaries of race, class, and money in the U.S. of A, this is the basis for the Ridley Scott film, American Gangster, with Denzel Washington in the Frank role. As Frank says, "I always knew my life was a movie," even if he saw himself as more of the Morgan Freeman type. "Denzel, however, will do." From New York magazine, 2000.
During the 1970s, when for a graffiti-splashed, early disco instant of urban time he was, according to then-U.S. District Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, "the biggest drug dealer" in Harlem, Frank Lucas would sit at the corner of 116th Street and Eighth Avenue in a beat-up Chevy he called Nellybelle. Then residing in a swank apartment in Riverdale down the hall from Yvonne De Carlo and running his heroin business out of a suite at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, Lucas owned several cars. He had a Rolls, a Mercedes, a Stingray, and a 427 four-on-the-floor muscle job he'd once topped out at 160 miles per hour near Exit 16E of the Jersey Turnpike, scaring himself so silly that he gave the car to his brother's wife just to get it out of his sight.
But for "spying," Nellybelle worked best.
"Who'd ever think I'd be in a shit three-hundred-dollar car like that?" asks Lucas, who claims that, on a good day, he would clear up to a million dollars selling dope on 116th Street. "I'd sit there, cap pulled down, with a fake beard, dark glasses, maybe some army fatigues and broken-down boots, longhair wig ... I used to be right up beside the people dealing my stuff, watching the whole show, and no one knew who I was...."
It was a matter of control, and trust. As the leader of the "Country Boys" dope ring, Frank, older brother to Ezell, Vernon Lee, John Paul, Larry, and Lee Lucas, was known for restricting his operation to blood relatives and others from the rural North Carolina backwoods area where he grew up. This was because, Lucas says in his downhome creak of a voice, "A country boy, he ain't hip ... he's not used to big cars, fancy ladies, and diamond rings, so he'll be loyal to you. A country boy, you can give him a million dollars, five million, and tell him to hide it in his old shack. His wife and kids might be hungry, starving, and he'll never touch your money until he checks with you. City boy ain't like that. A city boy will take your last dime and look you straight in the face and swear he ain't got it.... A city boy'll steal from you in a New York minute and you've got to be able to deal with it in a New York second.... You don't want a city boy, the sonofabitch is just no good."
But trust has its limits, even among country boys, Frank says. "A hundred sixteenth between Seventh and Eighth Avenue was mine. It belonged to me.... I bought it. I ran it. I owned it. And when something is yours, you've got to be Johnny on the Spot, ready to take it to the top. So I'd sit in front of the Roman Garden Restaurant, or around the corner by the Royal Flush Bar, just watching."
There wouldn't be much to see until four in the afternoon, which was when Frank's brand of heroin, Blue Magic, hit the street. During the early seventies there were many "brands" of dope in Harlem. Tru Blu, Mean Machine, Could Be Fatal, Dick Down, Boody, Cooley High, Capone, Ding Dong, Fuck Me, Fuck You, Nice, Nice to Be Nice, Oh-Can't Get Enough of that Funky Stuff, Tragic Magic, Gerber, The Judge, 32, 32-20, O.D., Correct, Official Correct, Past Due, Payback, Revenge, Green Tape, Red Tape, Rush, Swear To God, PraisePraisePraise, KillKillKill, Killer 1, Killer 2, KKK, Good Pussy, Taster's Choice, Harlem Hijack, Joint, Insured for Life, and Insured for Death are only a few of the brand names rubberstamped onto the cellophane bags.
But none sold like Blue Magic.
"That's because with Blue Magic you could get ten percent purity," Frank Lucas asserts. "With any other if you got five percent you were doing good. Mostly it was three. We put it out there at four in the afternoon, when the cops changed shifts. That gave you a couple of hours to work, before those lazy bastards got down there. My buyers, though, you could set your watch by them. Those junkies crawling out. By four o'clock we had enough niggers in the street to make a Tarzan movie. They had to reroute the bus coming down Eighth Avenue to 116th, it couldn't get through. Call the Transit Department to see if it's not so. On a usual day we'd put out maybe twenty-five thousand quarters (quarter "spoons," fifty dollars' worth, enough to get high for the rest of the day). By nine o'clock I ain't got a fucking gram. Everything is gone. Sold ... and I got myself a million dollars."
"I'd just sit there in Nellybelle and watch the money roll in," says Frank Lucas of those not-so-distant but near-forgotten days, when Abe Beame would lay his pint-sized head upon the pillow at Gracie Mansion and the cop cars were still green and black. "And no one even knew it was me. I was a shadow. A ghost ... what we call downhome a haint ... That was me, the Haint of Harlem."
Twenty-five years after the end of his uptown rule, Frank Lucas, now sixty-nine, has returned to Harlem for a whirlwind retrospective of his life and times. Sitting in a blue Toyota at the corner of 116th Street and what is now called Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard ("What was wrong with just plain Eighth Avenue?" Lucas grouses), Frank, once by his own description "six-feet two-inches tall, a handsome fashion plate, rough and ready, slick and something to see" but now teetering around "like a fucking one-legged tripod" due to a cartilage-less, arthritic knee, is no more noticeable than he was all those years ago, when he peered through Nellybelle's window.
Indeed, just from looking, few passersby might guess that Frank, according to his own exceedingly ad hoc records, once had "at least fifty-six million dollars," most of it kept in Cayman Island banks. Added to this is "maybe a thousand keys of dope" with an easily realized retail profit of no less than three hundred thousand dollars per kilo. His real estate holdings included "two twenty-plus-story buildings in Detroit, garden apartments in Los Angeles and Miami, another apartment house in Chicago, and a mess of Puerto Rico." This is not to mention "Frank Lucas's Paradise Valley," eight hundred acres back in North Carolina on which ranged three hundred head of Black Angus cows, "the blue ribbon kind," including several "big balled" breeding bulls worth twenty-five thousand dollars each.
Nor would most imagine that the old man in the fake Timberland jacket once held at least twenty forged passports and was a prime mover in what Federal Judge Sterling Johnson, who in the 1970s served as New York's special narcotics prosecutor, calls "one of the most outrageous international dope smugglers ever ... an innovative guy who broke new ground by getting his own connection outside the U.S. and then selling the stuff himself in the street ... a real womb to tomb operation."
Johnson's funerary image fits well, especially in light of Lucas's most audacious, culturally pungent claim to fame, the so-called cadaver connection. Woodstockers may remember being urged by Country Joe and the Fish to sing along on the "Fixin' to Die Rag," about being the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box. But even the most apocalyptic-minded sixties freak couldn't have guessed that the box also contained half a dozen keys of 98 percent pure heroin. Of all the dreadful iconography of Vietnam-the napalmed girl running down the road, Lieutenant Calley at My Lai, the helicopter on the embassy roof, and more-the memory of dope in the body bag, death begetting death, most hideously conveys Nam's still-spreading pestilence. The metaphor is almost too rich. In fact, to someone who got his 1-A in the mail the same day the NVA raised the Red Star over Hue, the story has always seemed a tad apocryphal.
But it is not. "We did it all right ... ha, ha, ha ..." Frank chortles in his mocking, dying crapshooter's scrape of a voice, recalling how he and fellow Country Boy Ike Atkinson arranged for the shipment. "Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier's coffin? Ha, ha, ha."
"I had so much fucking money, you have no idea," Lucas says now, his heavy-lidded light brown eyes turned to the sky in mock expectation that his vanished wealth will rain back down from the heavens. "The forfeits took it all," Frank says mournfully, referring to the forfeiture laws designed by the government under sundry RICO and "continuing criminal enterprise" acts to seize allegedly ill-gotten gains amassed by gangsters like Frank Lucas.
Some think Lucas still has a couple of million stashed somewhere, perhaps buried in the red dirt down in North Carolina. Hearing this only makes the old dealer grimace. "If they find it, I sure hope they send me some, a mil or two. Shit, I'd take a hundred dollars, 'cause right now I'm on my ass," Frank says, driving downtown on Lenox Avenue behind the wheel of my decidedly un-Superfly powder blue Toyota station wagon, the one with Milky Way wrappers and basketball trading cards on the floor. We were going to go in Frank's car, a decade-old Sedan de Ville, but it was unavailable, the transmission having blown out a few days earlier. "Motherfucker won't pull, gonna cost twelve hundred bucks, that a bitch or what?" Lucas had moaned into his cell phone, calling from the rainy roadside where a tow truck was in the process of jacking up his bestilled Caddy.
An informative if wary guide, Lucas, who said he hadn't been to Harlem in "five, six years," found the place totally changed. Aside from the hulking, cavernous 1365th Infantry Armory, where Lucas and his Country Boys used to unload furs and foodstuffs from the trucks they'd hijack out on Route 9, nothing looked the same. Still, almost nearly every block, every comer, summoned a memory. Over on Eighth Avenue and 127th Street, up above the rim and tire place, used to be Spanish Raymond Marquez's number bank, the biggest in town. On one Lenox Avenue corner is where "Preacher got killed," on the next is where Black Joe bought it. Some deserved killing, some maybe not, but they were all dead just the same.
In front of a ramshackle blue frame house on West 123rd Street, right next to where the two-eight precinct used to be, Lucas stops and gets nostalgic. "I had my best cutters in there," he says, describing how his "table workers," ten to twelve women wearing surgical masks, would "whack up" the dope, cutting it with "60 percent mannite." The ruby-haired Red Top was in charge. "I'd bring in three, four keys, open it up on the table, let Red go do her thing. She'd mix up that dope like a rabbit in a hat, never drop a speck, get it out on the street in time.... Red ... I wonder if she's still living...."
At 135th Street and Seventh Avenue, Lucas stops again. Small's Paradise used to be there. Back in the Day, there were plenty of places, Mr. B's, Willie Abraham's Gold Lounge, the Shalimar if you were hungry, the Lenox Lounge, a nice place to take your girl. But Small's, then run by Frank's friend, Pete McDougal, was the coolest. "Everyone came by Small's ... the jazz guys, politicians. Ray Robinson. Wilt Chamberlain when he bought a piece of the place and called it Big Wilt's Small's Paradise ... At Small's, Dank often met up with his great friend, the heavyweight champ Joe Louis, who would later appear nearly every day at Lucas's various trials, expressing outrage that the State was harassing "this beautiful man." When Louis died, Lucas, who says he once paid off a fifty-thousand-dollar tax lien for the champ, was heard weeping into a telephone, "My Daddy ... he's dead." It was also at Small's, on a cold winter's night in the late 1950s, that Frank Lucas, haint of Harlem, would encounter Howard Hughes. "He was right there, at the bar, with Ava Gardner ... Howard Hughes, richest mother fucker in the world, the original ghost-that impressed me."
In the end, the little tour comes back to 116th Street. When he "owned" this street, Frank says, "you'd see a hundred junkies, lined up, sitting there, sucking their own dicks.... That's what you called it, sucking their own dicks ... their heads on their laps, down in the crotch, like they was dead. People saw that, then everyone knew that shit was good."
Now, like everywhere else, 116th Street is another place. Only a few days before, the New York Times had a piece saying that Frank's old turf was a key cog in the current real estate boom characterized as "a new Harlem renaissance." An Australian graphic designer just purchased a steal of a brownstone for $237,000, the Times reported, cheering that whole area "once destroyed by drugs, crime, and debilitation ... [an area which is] on the way up." This news does not please Lucas. He and his Country Brother Shorty used to own property in the area, so that's just more millions out the window.
"Uh oh, here come the gangstas," Lucas shouts in mock fright, as he regards a trio of youths, blue kerchiefs knotted around their heads, standing by a car, blaring rap music. Partial to James Brown, and "soulmen I knew like Chuck Jackson and Dennis Edwards," Frank says he is no fan of "any Wu-Tang this and Tu Pac that." One of his sons tried rapping, made a couple of records, but it was "that same ba-ba-ba ... it don't do nothing for me." Once the possessor of a closetful of tailor-made Hong Kong suits, seventy-five pairs of shoes, and underwear from Sulka, Frank doesn't care much for the current O. G. styles, either. "Baggy pants prison bullshit," is his blanket comment on the Tommy Hilfiger thuglife knockoffs currently in homeboy favor.
"Well, I guess every idiot gets to be young once," Lucas snaps as he starts the car, driving half a block before slamming on the brakes.
"Here's something you ought to see," the old gangster says, pointing toward the curbside between the Canaan Baptist Church and the House of Fish. "There's where I killed that boy ... Tango," Frank shouts, his large, squarish jaw lanterning forward, eyes slitting. "I told you about that, didn't I? ..."
Of course he had, only days before, in distressing specific, hair-raising detail.
For Frank, the incident, which occurred "at four o'clock in the afternoon" sometime in "the summer of 1965 or '66," was strategy. Strictly business. Because, as Lucas recalls, "When you're in the kind of work I was in, you've got to be for real. When you say something, you've got to make sure people listen. You've got to show what exactly you're willing to do to get what you want.
"Everyone, Goldfinger Terrell, Hollywood Harold, Robert Paul, J.C., Willie Abraham, they was talking about this big guy, this Tango. About six-foot-five, 270 pounds, quick as a cat on his feet.... He killed two or three guys with his hands. Nasty, dangerous mother. Had this big bald head, like Mr. Clean. Wore those Mafia undershirts. Everyone was scared of him. So I figured, Tango, you're my man.
"I went up to him, just talking, I asked him if he wanted to do some business. He said yes. I gave him five thousand dollars, some shit money like that.... Because I know he was gonna fuck up. I knew he wouldn't do what he said he would and he was never, ever, going to give me my money back. That's the kind of guy he was. Two weeks later I'm on the block, and I go talk to him. 'Look man,' I say, 'you didn't do that thing, so where's my money?'
"Then, like I knew he would, he started getting hot, going into one of his real gorilla acts. He was one of them silverback gorillas, strong, like in the jungle, or on TV. A silverback gorilla, that's what he was.
"He started cursing, saying he was going to make me his bitch, stick his whatever in my ass, and he'd do the same to my mama, too. Well, as of now, he's dead. My mama is a quiet church lady and I can't have that sort of talk about her. No question, a dead man. But I let him talk. A dead man should be able to say anything he wants to. It is his right. Last will and whatever. Now there's a crowd, the whole fucking block is out there. They want to see what's gonna happen, if I'm going to pussy out, you know. He was still yelling. So I said to him, 'When you get through, let me know.'
"Then the motherfucker knows I'm going to kill him. So he broke for me. But he was too late. I shot him. Four times, bam, bam, bam, bam.
"Yeah, it was right there," says Frank Lucas thirty-five years after the shooting, pointing out the car window to the curbside to where a man in coveralls is sweeping up in front of the Canaan Baptist Church, Wyatt Tee Walker, senior pastor.
"Right there ... the boy didn't have no head in the back. The whole shit blowed out.... That was my real initiation fee into taking over completely down here. Because I killed the baddest motherfucker. Not just in Harlem, but in the world."
Excerpted from AMERICAN GANGSTER by MARK JACOBSON Copyright © 2007 by Mark Jacobson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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