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Lords of Dopetown

Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes once ruled the drug trade in Harlem. They came out of retirement to talk business.

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Nicky Barnes, left, and Frank Lucas  

During the Harlem heroin plague of the seventies, few dealers were bigger than Frank Lucas and Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. Both made millions selling dope, lived the wide-brimmed-hat high life, enabled the addiction of whole neighborhoods, and, eventually, got caught. Both were locked up and later cooperated with authorities—some might call it snitching. Now, with Lucas confined to a wheelchair and Barnes in some Witness Protection Program locale, each is the subject of a current film. Barnes reports on his life and times in the flava-full documentary Mr. Untouchable. Lucas hit the ultimate Hollywood jackpot, getting Denzel Washington, no less, to play him in American Gangster (reviewed this week in “The Culture Pages”).

And so, three decades after their heyday, these former street titans are still generating commerce. This makes sense, as both insist they were businessmen, first and foremost. The trick for an ambitious black man in the seventies dope game was to minimize the sway of the Italian distributors who had controlled the Harlem scene for decades. Using sheer volume as an edge, Barnes cut increasingly favorable deals with his Mafia partners. He had the biggest clientele—hundreds of thousands of repeat (and repeat) buyers. It was a captive market, and he was their low-cost retailer. Lucas, more of a boutique operator, managed to bypass the Italians altogether by establishing the grisly but exceedingly lucrative “cadaver connection”—a direct line from Asia’s “Golden Triangle” poppy growers straight to 116th Street, smuggling heroin inside the coffins of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.

When the possibility emerged that these two old-school street rivals might be willing to engage in what could only be called a historic conversation—they haven’t spoken in 30 years—it was easy to envision yelling, phone slamming, and maybe even a death threat or two. Lucas, as I knew well (from writing in this magazine the original piece upon which American Gangster is based), could go off at any moment. And Barnes, who likes to quote Moby-Dick and King Lear, mocks Lucas’s “country boy” lack of education and perceived lack of finesse in Mr. Untouchable. When it came down to it, however, the two old drug-kingpins-in-winter revealed a familiarity that bordered on a kind of love. Or at least respect for a fellow tycoon.

NICKY BARNES: Hey, hey, what’s up, playa?

FRANK LUCAS: Hey, Nick.

NB: I heard you’re in a wheelchair. What’s going on?

FL: Broke a leg, Nick. Two places.

NB: Damn.

FL: So what’s with you, man?

NB: Chilling, dude.

MARK JACOBSON: You two guys talking is something of an occasion. Ever think you’d be in the history books?

NB: I don’t know about history—

FL: Hey, Nick! I told everybody and their momma you’ll be hooking up with me in Harlem in the next two years.

NB: You won’t see me in Harlem … I gave up 109 federal felony offenses ’cause I had powder in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Too many people would be gunning for me in New York.

FL: Come on, Nick, you don’t give a damn about them little kamikazes out in the street. I been knowing you for fortysomething years.

MJ: Do you remember when you guys first met?

FL: When was it, Nick? The night you come outta jail. Was that 1970, ’69, ’68?

NB: Yeah, ’70. We met through Jimmy Terrell. Remember Jimmy Terrell? Remember Goldfinger?

FL: ’Course I remember the Goldfinger.

NB: We were in Smalls, drinking. You remember this dude Prat that had that habitual stool right next to—

FL: Yeah, Prat! He didn’t live long after that, did he?

NB: Somebody knocked him over. He owed somebody some money or something.

FL: Right. He was going at somebody’s woman…

MJ: You guys have been described as being competitors. Is that true?

FL: Well, Nick wasn’t gonna catch me—I was paying $4,000 a key. Nick, you was probably paying $65,000 or $70,000, weren’t you?

NB: During that time I was paying $35,000.

FL: And I was paying $4,000. So there was no fight then.¹

MJ: Which one of you guys had the best dope?

FL: Mark, here you go! Stirring shit up. Man, I had the best dope in the world. I had 98 to 100 percent pure.

NB: Frank had a nice package, no doubt. I had to get a pen and a pad and mediate my stuff. But when you took the mix out, my thing was close to his. Close enough for somebody not to wait on one when they could get the other. Frank, you were mostly on 116th Street, right?

FL: Yeah.

NB: Well, I had powder in all five boroughs. Not just uptown.

FL: You were big, Nick, all over.


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