During the early seventies, when for a sable-coat-wearing, Superfly-strutting instant of urban time he was perhaps the biggest heroin dealer in Harlem, Frank Lucas would sit at the corner of 116th Street and Eighth Avenue in a beat-up Chevrolet he called Nellybelle. Then living in a suite at the Regency Hotel with 100 custom-made, multi-hued suits in the closet, Lucas owned several cars. He had a Rolls, a Mercedes, a Corvette Sting Ray, and a 427 muscle job he'd once topped out at 160 mph 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 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.
"One-sixteenth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue was mine. I bought it. I ran it. I owned it," Lucas says. "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 Nellybelle by the Roman Garden Bar, cap pulled down, with a fake beard, dark glasses, long wig . . . I'd be up beside people dealing my stuff, and no one knew who I was . . ."
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 . . ."