A thoroughgoing secularist, rare among old-school black politicians in not bearing the honorific “Reverend” (his Catholicism once had Harlem Baptist ministers debating whether he should even be allowed to speak from the pulpit), Rangel has greeted the Democratic victory as tantamount to being born again. “For me, it’s a reprieve. My grandfather told me about seeing people getting lynched, how it haunted him, thinking what he could have done about it. I didn’t want to have my grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do when the Constitution got ripped up?’ and have to answer, ‘I quit.’ ”
So there he is, getting called Mr. Chairman, living what he calls “my honeymoon,” which figures to go on through the first week of the 110th Congress. That’s when, Rangel says, “the clock will start ticking again … We got two years to turn things around.” It is, as Rangel says, “a short fuse.”
Once it seemed as if Charlie Rangel had all the time in the world. “Growing up in Harlem, I didn’t think much about the future. My father left when I was 6. I was just drifting around.” Indeed, it isn’t hard to find Harlem codgers willing to boast, “Charlie Rangel? Shit. I used to take his lunch money.” The Army changed that. “When I came out of the service in 1952,” Rangel says, “I had so much self-esteem.”
Back home, however, was not all that different. “I had a hundred jobs. I worked in a drugstore. The Adler Shoe Store. Sold vacuum cleaners.” He also worked down in the garment center, where he had the epiphany that set him on his life path. “I was unloading a truck, and these boxes fell out, spread all over the street. This cop came over and said, ‘You better clean that up, boy.’ I started picking up the boxes, and I’m thinking, I’m pretty sick of this crap. I thought I’d reenlist, go back into the Army. Then I thought to myself, ‘No. I’m Sergeant Charles Fucking Rangel. Who are these people to treat me like this?’”
Rangel went back to high school, at age 23. He took a job-aptitude test that indicated he’d make a swell mortician, a classic race-based track for black men. Rangel’s response was “screw that.” He used the GI Bill to pay for school, getting his degree at NYU in three years, then enrolled at St. John’s law school. Becoming a lawyer seemed logical.
“The most important person in my life was my grandfather,” Rangel relates. “He was an elevator operator at the court buildings downtown. He wore a neat uniform and was always talking to men in slick suits. I got the idea that being a lawyer or a judge was the most magnificent thing a human could do. It was funny, though, when I told my grandfather I was going to be a lawyer; I thought he’d never stop laughing.”
He put himself through school as a desk clerk on the night shift at the Hotel Theresa, sometime home to Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, and Moms Mabley. Moms defended Rangel when he was caught reading his law books on the job. “Let the boy study,” the old chitlin-circuit comic snorted. Rangel was at the Theresa when Fidel Castro came to the U.N. after the Cuban revolution. “They said he got thrown out for plucking chickens in his room, but I never heard about that,” says Rangel, a longtime opponent of the U.S. embargo of the island. Once, meeting with Castro, Rangel said the U.S. might see things differently if he held “free and fair elections.” Castro said he did have “free and fair elections.”
“But you get all the votes,” Rangel said. Castro replied, “Don’t you?”
Rangel started his career as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District. Later came a term in the State Assembly, which set him up to run against Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in what remains the most pivotal election ever held in Harlem.
“I knew Charlie could beat Adam; all he had to do was listen to me,” says former Manhattan borough president and Ur–Harlem businessman Percy Sutton, who along with Basil Paterson and David Dinkins and Rangel (who calls Sutton “my mentor”) formed the so-called Gang of Four, young-Turk Harlem politicians chafing under Powell’s increasingly erratic suzerainty.
“In the beginning I called him Pretty Boy Rangel, to denigrate him, because he was one of those handsome types, hair pushed down and that mustache. But he had a way about him, with that great humor, an ability to influence people,” recalls Sutton, who, like Rangel, lives at the Lenox Terrace apartments, Harlem’s revered power address. (As a young pol, Rangel was summoned to the Terrace apartment of the aging Bumpy Johnson. Harlem’s most famous gangster wanted to look at the new guy in town. “He said I looked okay and I left, fast,” Rangel says.)