But for "spying," Nellybelle was best.
Who'd think I'd be in a shit $300 car like that?" asks Lucas, who claims he'd clear up to $1 million a day selling dope on 116th Street.
It was a matter of control, and trust. As the leader of the heroin-dealing ring called the Country Boys, Lucas, older brother to Ezell, Vernon Lee, John Paul, Larry, and Leevan Lucas, was known for restricting his operation to blood relatives and others from his rural North Carolina area hometown. This was because, Lucas says, in his down-home creak of a voice, "a country boy, he ain't hip . . . he's not used to big cars, fancy ladies, and diamond rings. He'll be loyal to you. A country boy, you can give him any amount of money. His wife and kids might be hungry, and he'll never touch your stuff until he checks with you. City boys ain't like that. A city boy will take your last dime, look you in the face, and swear he ain't got it . . . You don't want a city boy -- the sonofabitch is just no good."
Back in 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 were only a few of the brand names rubber-stamped onto cellophane bags. But none sold like Frank Lucas's Blue Magic.
"That's because with Blue Magic, you could get 10 percent purity," Lucas asserts. "Any other, if you got 5 percent, you were doing good. We put it out there at four in the afternoon, when the cops changed shifts. That gave you a couple of hours before those lazy bastards got down there. My buyers, though, you could set your watch by them. By four o'clock, we had enough niggers in the street to make a Tarzan movie. They had to reroute the bus on Eighth Avenue. Call the Transit Department if it's not so. By nine o'clock, I ain't got a fucking gram. Everything is gone. Sold . . . and I got myself a million dollars.
"I'd sit there in Nellybelle and watch the money roll in," says Frank Lucas of those near-forgotten days when Abe Beame lay his pint-size head upon the pillow at Gracie Mansion. "And no one even knew it was me. I was a shadow. A ghost . . . what we call down home a haint . . . That was me, the Haint of Harlem."
Twenty-five years after the end of his uptown rule, Frank Lucas, now 69, 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 Frederick Douglass Boulevard ("What was wrong with just plain Eighth Avenue?" Lucas grouses), Frank, once by his own description "tall, pretty, slick, and something to see" but now stiff and teetering around "like a fucking one-legged tripod," is no more noticeable than when he peered from Nellybelle's window.
Indeed, few passersby might guess that Lucas, at least according to his own exceedingly ad hoc records, once had "something like $52 million," most of it in Cayman Islands banks. Added to this is "maybe 1,000 keys of dope on hand" with a potential profit of no less than $300,000 per kilo. Also in his portfolio were office buildings in Detroit, apartments in Los Angeles and Miami, "and a mess of Puerto Rico." There was also "Frank Lucas's Paradise Valley," a several-thousand-acre spread back in North Carolina on which ranged 300 head of Black Angus cows, including a "big-balled" breeding bull worth $125,000.
Nor would most imagine that the old man in the fake Timberland jacket was a prime mover in what federal judge Sterling Johnson, who in the seventies served as New York City special narcotics prosecutor, calls "one of the most outrageous international dope-smuggling gangs ever . . . an innovator who got his own connection outside the U.S. and then sold the stuff himself in the street."
It was "a real womb-to-tomb operation," Johnson says, and the funerary image fits, especially in light of Lucas's most culturally pungent claim to fame, the so-called Cadaver Connection. Woodstockers may remember being urged by Country Joe & the Fish to sing along on the "Fixin' to Die Rag" -- "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box." But even the most apocalyptic-minded sixties freak wouldn't guess the box also contained a dozen keys of 98 percent-pure heroin. Of all the dreadful iconography of Vietnam -- the napalmed girl running down the road, Calley at My Lai, etc., etc. -- dope in the body bag, death begetting death, most hideously conveys 'Nam's 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 City, the story has always seemed a tad apocryphal.
But it is not. "We did it, all right . . . ha, ha, ha . . . " Lucas chortles in his dying-crapshooter's scrape of a voice. "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, riding around Harlem, his heavy-lidded light-brown eyes turned to the sky in mock expectation that his vanished wealth, long since seized by the Feds, will rain back down from the heavens.
Aside from the hulking 369th Infantry Armory, where Lucas and his boys unloaded trucks they'd hijack out on Route 1-9, little about Harlem has remained the same. Still, nearly every block summons a memory. Over at Eighth Avenue and 113th Street, that used to belong to Spanish Raymond Marquez, the big numbers guy. 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 blue frame house on West 123rd Street, Lucas stops and gets nostalgic. "I had my best table workers in there," he says, describing how his "table workers," ten to twelve women naked except for surgical masks, would "whack up" the dope, cutting it with "60 percent mannite and 40 percent quinine." The petite, ruby-haired Red Top was in charge. "I'd bring in three, four keys, let Red go do her thing. She'd mix up that dope like a rabbit in a hat, never drop a speck . . . Red . . . I sure do miss her . . ."
At 135th and Seventh, 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. But Small's was the coolest. "Everyone came by Small's . . . jazz guys, politicians. Ray Robinson. Wilt Chamberlain, when they called the place Big Wilt's Small's Paradise . . ." At Small's, Lucas often met his great friend the heavyweight champ Joe Louis, who later appeared nearly every day at Lucas's various trials, expressing outrage at how the state was harassing "this beautiful man." When the Brown Bomber died, Lucas, who once paid off a $50,000 tax lien for the champ, was heard weeping into a telephone, "my daddy . . . he's dead." It was also at Small's, on a winter's night in the late fifties, that Frank Lucas encountered Howard Hughes.
"He was right there, with Ava Gardner . . . Howard Hughes, the original ghost -- that impressed me."
In the end, the tour comes back to 116th Street. It's now part of Harlem's nascent real-estate boom, but when Frank "owned" this street, "you'd see junkies, nodding, sucking their own dicks . . . heads down in the crotch. People saw that, they knew that shit was good."
A moment later, Lucas looks up. "Uh-oh, here come the gangstas," he shouts in mock fright, as a trio of youths, blue kerchiefs knotted around their heads, go by blaring rap music. Lucas is no fan of "any Wu-Tang this and Tupac that." Likewise, Lucas, who thought nothing of spending $50,000 on a chinchilla coat and $10,000 on a matching hat, doesn't go for the current O.G. styles. "Baggy-pants bullshit" is his blanket comment on the thug-life knockoffs currently in homeboy favor.
"I guess every idiot gets to be young once," Lucas snaps, driving half a block before slamming on the brakes.
"Then he broke for me, but he was too late. I shot him, four times, bam, bam, bam, bam."
"Here's something you ought to see," the gangster says, pointing toward the curb between the Canaan Baptist Church and the New Africa House of Fish. "There's where I did that boy . . . Tango," he sneers, his large, squarish jaw lanterning forward. "I told you about that, didn't I?"
Of course he had, only days before, in minute, hair-raising detail.
For Lucas, the incident, which occurred 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. You've got to show what you're willing to do."
"Everyone, Goldfinger Terrell, Willie Abraham, Hollywood Harold, was talking about this big guy, this Tango. About six five, 270 pounds, quick on his feet . . . He killed two or three guys with his hands. 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, asked him if he wanted to do something, some business. I gave him $5,000 worth of merchandise. Because I know he was gonna fuck up. That's the kind of guy he was. Two weeks later, I go talk to him. 'Look, man,' I say. 'Hey, man, when you gonna pay me?'
"Then, like I knew he would, he started getting hot, going into one of his gorilla acts. He was one of them silverback gorillas, you know, you seen them in the jungle. A silverback gorilla, that's what he was.
"He started cursing, saying he was going to make me his bitch and he'd do the same to my mama too. Well, as of now, he's dead. No question, a dead man. But I let him talk. A dead man got a right to say what he wants. Now the whole block is there, to see if I'm going to pussy out. He was still yelling. So I said to him, 'When you get through, let me know.' "
"Then the motherfucker broke for me. But he was too late. I shot him. Four times, right through here: bam, bam, bam, bam.
"Yeah, it was right there," says Frank Lucas, 35 years after the shooting, pointing out the car window. "The boy didn't have no head. The whole shit blowed out back there . . . 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."
Then Frank laughs.
Frank's laugh: It's a trickster's sound, a jeer that cuts deep. First he rolls up his shoulders and cranes back his large, angular face, which, despite all the wear and tear, remains strikingly handsome, even empathetic in a way you'd like to trust but know better. Then the smooth, tawny skin over his cheekbones creases, his ashy lips spread, and his tongue snakes out of his gate-wide mouth. Frank has a very long, very red tongue. Only then the soundtrack kicks in, staccato stabs of mirth followed by a bevy of low rumbled cackles.
Ha ha ha, siss siss siss. For how many luckless fools like Tango was this the last sound they heard on this earth?
Hearing tapes of our conversations, my wife leaned back in her chair. "Oh," she said, "you're doing a story on Satan . . . " She said it was like hearing the real interview with a vampire.
"After I killed that boy," Frank Lucas goes on, gesturing toward the corner on the other side of 116th Street, "from that day on, I could take any amount of money, set it on the corner, and put my name on it. FRANK LUCAS. I guarantee you, nobody would touch it."
Then Frank laughs again, putting a little extra menace into it. This is just so you don't get too comfortable with the assumption that your traveling partner is nothing but a limping old guy with a gnarled hand fond of telling colorful stories and wearing $5 acetate shirts covered with faux nascar logos.
Just so you never forget exactly who you are dealing with.
When asked about the relative morality of killing people, selling millions of dollars of dope, and playing a significant role in the destruction of the social fabric of his times, Frank Lucas bristles. What choice did he have? he demands. "Kind of sonofabitch I saw myself being, money I wanted to make, I'd have to be on Wall Street. On Wall Street, from the giddy-up. But I couldn't have even gotten a job being a fucking janitor on Wall Street."
Be that as it may, there's little doubt that when, on a sweltering summer's afternoon in 1946, Frank Lucas arrived in Harlem, which he'd been told was "the promised land," his prospects in the legitimate world were limited. Not yet 16 years old, he was already on the run. Already a gangster.
It couldn't have been any other way, Lucas insists, after the Ku Klux Klan came to the shack where he grew up and killed his cousin. "I couldn't have been more than 6. We were living back in the woods near a little place they call La Grange, North Carolina. These five white guys come up to the house one morning, big rednecks . . . they're yelling, 'Obadiah . . . Obadiah Jones . . . come out. Come out, you nigger . . .' They said he was looking at a white girl walking down the street. 'Reckless eyeballing,' they call it down there.
"Obadiah was like 12 or 13, and he come out the door, all sleepy and stuff. 'You been looking at somebody's daughter. We're going to fix you,' they said. They took ropes on each hand, pulled them tight in opposite directions. Then they shoved a shotgun in Obadiah's mouth and pulled the trigger."
It was then, Lucas says, that he began his life of crime. "I was the oldest. Someone had to put food on the table. I started stealing chickens. Knocking pigs on their head . . . It wasn't too long that I was going over to La Grange, mugging drunks when they come out of the whorehouse. They'd spent their $5 or $6 buying ass, head jobs, then I'd be waiting with a rock in my hand, a tobacco rack, anything."
By the time he was 12, "but big for my age," Lucas says, he was in Knoxville, Tennessee, locked up on a chain gang. In Lexington, Kentucky, not yet 14, he lived with a lady bootlegger. In Wilson, North Carolina, working as a truck driver at a pipe company, he started in sleeping with the owner's daughter. This led to problems, especially after "Big Bill, a fat, 250-pound beer-belly bastard" caught them in the act. In the ensuing fight, Frank hit Bill on the head with a piece of pipe, laying him out.
"They didn't owe me but $100, but I took $400 and set the whole damned place on fire." Told by his mother to run and keep running, he bummed his way northward.
"I got to 34th Street. Penn Station. Then took the bus to 14th Street. I went over to a policeman and said, 'Hey, this ain't 14th Street. I want to go where all the black people are at.' He said, 'You want to go to Harlem . . . 114th Street!'
"I got to 114th Street. I had never seen so many black people in one place in all my life. It was a world of black people. "And I just shouted out: 'Hello, Harlem . . . hello, Harlem, USA!' "
People told him to be smart, get a job as an elevator operator. But once Frank saw guys writing policy numbers, carrying big wads, his course was set. Within a few months, he was a one-man, hell-bent crime wave. He stuck up the Hollywood Bar on Lenox and 116th, got himself $600. He went to the Busch Jewelers on 125th Street, stole a tray of diamonds, broke the guard's jaw with brass knuckles on the way out. Later, he ripped off a high-roller crap game at the Big Track Club on 110th. "They was all gangsters in there, Cool Breeze, a lot of them. I walked in, took their money. Now they was all looking for me."