"'Who got a thousand dollars to shoot pool?' Icepick Red shouted. I told him I'm playing, but I only got a hundred dollars . . . and he's saying, 'What kind of punk only got a hundred dollars?' I wanted to take out my gun and kill him right there, take his damn money.
"Except right then, everything seemed to stop. The jukebox stopped, the pool balls stopped. Every fucking thing stopped. It got so quiet you could've heard a rat piss on a piece of cotton in China.
"I turned around and I saw this guy -- he was like five feet ten, five feet eleven, dark complexion, neat, looked like he just stepped off the back cover of Vogue magazine. He had on a gray suit and a maroon tie, with a gray overcoat and flower in the lapel. I never seen nothing that looked like him. He was another species altogether.
"I said, 'I can shoot pool with anybody, mister. I can beat anybody.'
"Icepick Red, suddenly he's nervous. Scared. 'Bumpy!' he shouts out, 'I don't got no bet with you!'
"Bumpy ignores that. 'Rack 'em up, Lump!'
"We rolled for the break, and I got it. And I wasted him. Icepick Red never got a goddamn shot. Bumpy sat there, watching. Didn't say a word. Then he says to me, 'Come on, let's go.' I'm thinking, who the fuck is this Bumpy? But something told me I better keep my damn mouth shut. I got in the car. A long Caddy. First we stopped at a clothing store -- he picked out a bunch of stuff for me. Suits, ties, slacks. Nice stuff. Then we drove to where he was living, on Mount Morris Park. He took me into his front room, said I should clean myself up, sleep there that night.
"I wound up sleeping there six months . . . Then things were different. The gangsters stopped fucking with me. The cops stopped fucking with me. I walk into the Busch Jewelers, see the man I robbed, and all he says is: 'Can I help you, sir?' Because now I'm with Bumpy Johnson -- a Bumpy Johnson man. I'm 17 years old and I'm Mr. Lucas.
"Bumpy was a gentleman among gentlemen, a king among kings, a killer among killers, a whole book and Bible by himself," says Lucas about his years with the so-called Robin Hood of Harlem, who had opposed Dutch Schultz in the thirties and would be played by Moses Gunn in the original Shaft and twice by Laurence Fishburne (in The Cotton Club and Hoodlum).
"He saw something in me, I guess. He showed me the ropes -- how to collect, to figure the vig. Back then, if you wanted to do business in Harlem, you paid Bumpy or you died. Extortion, I guess you could call it. Everyone had to pay -- except the mom-and-pop stores."
With Bumpy, Frank caught a glimpse of the big time. He'd drive downtown, to the 57th Street Diner, waiting by the car while his boss ate breakfast with Frank Costello. Frank accompanied Bumpy to Cuba to see Lucky Luciano. "I stayed outside," Frank remembers, "just another guy with a bulge in my pocket."
"There was a lot about Bumpy I didn't understand, a lot I still don't understand . . . when he was older, he'd lean over his chessboard in his apartment at the Lenox Terrace, with these Shakespeare books around, listening to soft piano music, Beethoven -- or that Henry Mancini record he played over and over, 'Baby Elephant Walk' . . . He'd start talking about philosophy, read me from Tom Paine, 'The Rights of Man' . . . 'What do you think of that, Frank?' he'd ask . . . I'd shrug. What could I say? Best book I remember reading was Harold Robbins's The Carpetbaggers."
In the end, as Frank tells it, Bumpy died in his arms: "We were at Wells Restaurant on Lenox Avenue. Billy Daniels, the singer, might have been there. Maybe Cockeye Johnny, J.J., Chickenfoot. There was always a crowd around, wanting to talk to him. Bumpy just started shaking and fell over."
Three months after Martin Luther King's assassination, the headline in the Amsterdam News said BUMPY'S DEATH MARKS END OF AN ERA. Bumpy had been the link back to the wild days of people like Madame St. Clair, the French-speaking Queen of Policy, and rackets wizard Casper Holstein, who reportedly aided the careers of Harlem Renaissance writers. Also passing from the scene were characters like Helen Lawrenson, a Vanity Fair editor whose tart account of her concurrent affairs with Condé Nast, Bernard Baruch, and Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson can be found in the long-out-of-print Stranger at the Party.
Lucas says, "There wasn't gonna be no next Bumpy. Bumpy believed in that share-the-wealth. I was a different sonofabitch. I wanted all the money for myself . . . Harlem was boring to me then. Numbers, protection, those little pieces of paper flying out of your pocket. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the world."
A few days after our Harlem trip, drinking Kirins in a fake Benihana, Frank told me how he came upon what he refers to as his "bold new plan" to smuggle heroin from Southeast Asia to Harlem. It is a thought process Lucas says he often uses when on the verge of a "pattern change."
First he locks himself in a room, preferably in a hotel in Puerto Rico, shuts off the phone, pulls down the blinds, has his meals delivered, and does not speak to a soul for a couple of weeks. In this meditative isolation, Lucas engages in what he calls "backtracking . . . I think about everything I done in the past five years, look in each nook and cranny, down to what I put on my toast in the morning."
Having vetted the past, Lucas begins to "forward-look . . . peering around every bend in the road ahead." It is only then, he says, "when you can see back to Alaska and ahead as far as South America . . . and know nothing, not even the smallest hair on a cockroach's dick, can stand in your way" -- that you are ready to make your next big move.
If he really wanted to become "white-boy rich, Donald Trump rich," Lucas thought, he'd have to "cut out the guineas." He'd learned as much working for Bumpy, picking up "packages" from Fat Tony Salerno's Pleasant Avenue guys, men with names like Joey Farts and Kid Blast: "I needed my own supply. That's when I decided to go to Southeast Asia. Because the war was on, and people were talking about GIs getting strung out over there. I knew if the shit is good enough to string out GIs, then I can make myself a killing."
Lucas, traveling alone, had never been to Southeast Asia, but he felt confident. "Because I knew it was a street thing over there. You see, I never went to school even for a day, but I got a Ph.D. in street. When it comes to a street atmosphere, I know I'm going to make out."
Checked into the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, Lucas soon hailed a motorcycle taxi to take him to Jack's American Star Bar, an R&R hangout for black soldiers. Offering ham hocks and collard greens on the first floor and a wide array of hookers and dope connections on the second, the Soul Bar, as Frank calls it, was run by the former U.S. Army sergeant Leslie "Ike" Atkinson, a country boy from Goldsboro, North Carolina, who happened to be married to one of Frank's cousins, which made him as good as family.
"Ike knew everyone over there, every black guy in the Army, from the cooks on up," Frank says. It was this "army inside the Army" that would serve as the Country Boys' international distribution system, moving heroin shipments almost exclusively on military planes routed to Eastern Seaboard bases. Mostly these were draftees and enlisted men, but "there were also generals and colonels, guys with eagles and chickens on the collars, white guys and South Vietnamese too," Lucas swears. "These were the greediest motherfuckers I ever dealt with. They'd send people out to get their ass shot up but do anything if you gave them enough money," says Frank who, as part of his scam if need be, would dress up as a lieutenant colonel himself. "You should have seen me -- I could really salute."
Lucas soon located his main overseas connection, an English-speaking, Rolls-Royce-driving Chinese gentleman who went by the sobriquet 007. "I called him 007 because he was a fucking Chinese James Bond." Double-oh Seven took Lucas upcountry, to the Golden Triangle, the heavily jungled, poppy-growing area where Thailand, Burma, and Laos come together.
"It wasn't too bad, getting up there," says Lucas. "We was in trucks, in boats. I might have been on every damn river in the Golden Triangle. When we got up there, you couldn't believe it. They've got fields the size of Tucson, Arizona, with nothing but poppy seeds in them. There's caves in the mountains so big you could set this building in them, which is where they do the processing . . . I'd sit there, watch these Chinese paramilitary guys come out of the mist on the green hills. When they saw me, they stopped dead. They'd never seen a black man before."
Likely dealing with remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomintang army, Lucas purchased 132 kilos that first trip. At $4,200 per unit, compared with the $50,000 that Mafia dealers charged Stateside competitors, it would turn out to be an unbelievable bonanza. But the journey was not without problems
"Right off, guys were stepping on little green snakes, dying on the spot. Then guess what happened? Banditos! Those motherfuckers came right out of the trees. Trying to steal our shit. The guys I was with -- 007's guys -- all of them was Bruce Lees. Those sonofabitches were good. They fought like hell.
"I was stuck under a log firing my piece. Guys were dropping. You see a lot of dead shit in there, man, like a month and a half of nightmares. I think I ate a damn dog. I was in bad shape, crazy with fever. Then people were talking about tigers. I figured, that does it. I'm gonna be ripped up by a tiger in this damn jungle. What a fucking epitaph . . . But we got back alive. Lost half my dope, but I was still alive."
It is a fabulous cartoon, an image to take its place in the easy-riding annals of the American dope pusher -- the Superfly in his Botany 500 sportswear down in the malarial muck, clutching his 100 keys, Sierra Madre-style, bullets whizzing overhead. "It was the most physiological thing I done and hope not to again," says Lucas.
Throughout it all, Lucas swears, he remained a "100 percent true-blue, red-white-and-blue patriotic American." Details concerning the dope-in-the-body-bags caper have been wildly misrepresented, he says, stories that he and Ike Atkinson actually stitched the dope inside the body cavities of the dead soldiers being nothing but "sick cop propaganda."
"No way I'm touching a dead anything. Bet your life on that."
"Kissinger. Wonder what he'd do if he knew he'd helped smuggle dope into the country?"
What really happened, he says, was that he and Ike flew a country-boy North Carolina carpenter over to Bangkok. "We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins . . . except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos . . . It had to be snug. You couldn't have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys' coffins. He didn't put them in no skinny guy's . . ."
Of the dozens of smuggling operations he ran from Asia, Frank still rates "the Henry Kissinger deal" as an all-time favorite. To hear Frank tell it, he and Ike were desperate to get 125 keys out of town, but there weren't any "friendly" planes scheduled leaving. "All we had was Kissinger. He was on a mercy mission on account of big cyclones in Bangladesh. We knew a cook on the plane and gave $100,000 to some general to look the other way. I mean, who the fuck is gonna search fucking Henry Kissinger's plane?
". . . Henry Kissinger! Wonder what he'd say if knew he helped smuggle all that dope into the country? . . . Hoo hahz poot zum dope in my aero-plan? Ha ha ha . . ."
During the dope-plague days of the late sixties and early seventies, when the Feds (over)estimated that half the country's heroin addicts were in New York and 75 percent of those in Harlem, the Amsterdam News reported what 116th Street was like during the reign of Frank Lucas. "We're being destroyed by dope and crime every day," said Lou Broders, who ran an apparel shop at 253 West 116th Street. "It's my own people doing it, too. That's the pity of it. This neighborhood is dying out."
In the face of such talk, Frank, who recalls the 1967 riots as "no big thing," exhibits typically willful obliviousness. "It's not my fault if your television got stolen," he says. "Besides, Harlem was great then. It wasn't until they they put me and Nicky Barnes in jail that the city went into default. There was tons of money up in Harlem in 1971, 1972 -- if you knew how to get it. Shit, those were the heydays."
To hear Frank tell it, life as a multimillionaire dope dealer was a whirl of flying to Paris for dinner at Maxim's, gambling in Vegas with Joe Louis and Sammy Davis Jr., spending $140,000 on a couple of Van Cleef bracelets, and squiring around his beautiful mistress -- Billie Mays, step-daughter of Willie, who, according to Lucas, he'd snaked away from Walt "Clyde" Frazier. The grotty 116th Street operation was left in the hands of trusted lieutenants. If problems arose, Lucas says, "we'd have 500 guns in the street in 30 minutes, ready to hit the mattress."
Frank's money-laundering routine consisted of throwing duffel bags filled with cash into the back seat of his car and driving to a Chemical Bank on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Most of the money was sent to Cayman Island banks; if Frank needed a little extra, he'd read the newspaper in the lobby while bank managers filled a duffel with crisp $100 bills. For their part in the scheme, Chemical Bank would eventually plead guilty to 200 misdemeanor violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.
As Bumpy had once run the Palmetto Chemical Company, a roach-exterminating concern, Frank opened a string of gas stations and dry cleaners: "I had a dry-cleaning place on Broadway, next to Zabar's. Once I had to go behind the counter myself. And you know I ain't no nine-to-five guy. These old ladies kept coming in, shoving these shirts in my face, screaming, 'Look at this spot' . . . I couldn't take it. I just ran out of the place, didn't lock up or even take the money out of the cash register."
Show business was more to Frank's taste, especially after he and fellow Harlem gangster Zack Robinson began hanging out at Lloyd Price's Turntable, a nightclub at 52nd Street and Broadway. "There'd be Muhammad Ali, members of the Temptations, James Brown, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross," says Frank, who calls the Turntable "a good scene -- the integration crowd was there, every night."
In 1970, Price, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who'd had huge hits with tunes like "Personality" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," decided to make a gangster movie, The Ripoff, set on the streets of New York.
"The idea was to get real, practicing gangsters to play themselves," Price remembers. "We needed the villain romantic lead, the guy with the sable coat and the hat, so I thought, why not get Frank?"
"It was like Shaft before Shaft," says Lucas. "All the cars in the picture was mine. We did a scene with me chasing Lloyd, shooting out the window of a Mercedes on the West Side Highway. I put 70, 80 grand into the movie. It was real fun."
Never finished, the footage missing, The Ripoff qualifies as the Great Lost Film of the blaxploitation genre. "A lot of strange things happened making The Ripoff," says Lloyd Price. "Once, we went over to the editing room. Frank didn't like the director. 'You want to cut, I'll show you how to cut,' he said, pulling out his knife. 'Frank, man,' I told him, 'this isn't the way they do it in the movie business.' "
A drug kingpin attracts attention from the police, and according to Lucas, most of his trouble came from the NYPD's infamously corrupt Special Investigations Unit. Known for its near-unlimited authority, the SIU wrote its own mighty chapter in the crazy-street-money days of the early-seventies heroin epidemic; by 1977, 52 out of 70 officers who'd worked in the unit were either in jail or under indictment.
The worst of the SIU crew, Lucas says, was Bob Leuci, the main player in Robert Daley's best-selling Prince of the City. Says Frank: "We called him Babyface, and he had the balls of a gorilla. He'd wait outside your house and fuck with you." Once, according to Lucas, Leuci caught him with several keys of heroin and cocaine in his trunk. "This is gonna cost you," the detective supposedly said after taking Lucas down to the station house. The two men then reportedly engaged in a heated negotiation, Lucas offering 30 grand, Leuci countering with "30 grand and two keys." Seeing no alternative, Lucas said, "Sold!"
"That's why I had to move downtown," wails Frank. "To duck Babyface."
Lucas likewise expresses no love for his more famous Harlem dope-dealer rival Nicky Barnes, who rankled the older pusher by appearing on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in his trademark gogglelike Gucci glasses, bragging that he was "Mr. Untouchable." The brazen assertion soon got then-president Jimmy Carter on the telephone demanding that something be done about the Harlem dope trade. "Talk about bringing the heat," the Country Boy moans.
According to Lucas, it was Barnes's "delusions of grandeur" that led to a bizarre chance meeting between the two drug lords in the lingerie department of Henri Bendel on 57th Street. "Nicky wanted to make this black-Mafia thing called the Council. An uptown Cosa Nostra. The Five Families of Dope. I didn't want no part of it. Because before long, everyone's gonna think they're Carlo Gambino. That's trouble.
"Anyway, I'm with my wife at Henri Bendel's, and who comes up? Nicky fucking Barnes! 'Frank,' he's going, 'we got to talk . . . we got to get together on this Council thing.' I told him forget it, my wife is trying on underwear -- can't we do this some other time? He says, 'Hey, Frank, I'm short this week, can you front me a couple of keys?' That's Nicky."
Lucas says he thought about quitting "all the time." His wife, Julie, whom he met on a "backtracking" trip in Puerto Rico, begged him to get out, especially after Brooklyn dope king Frank Matthews jumped bail in 1973, never to be heard from again. "Some say he's dead, but I know he's living in Africa, like a king, with all the fucking money in the world," Lucas sighs. "Probably I should have stayed in Colombia. Always liked Colombia. But I had my heart set on getting a jet plane . . . there was always something."