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The Return of Superfly


The way he was going, Frank figures, it took Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, the most famous of all Harlem gangsters, to save his life. "I was hustling up at Lump's Pool Room, on 134th Street. Eight-ball and that. So in comes Icepick Red. Red, he was a tall motherfucker, clean, with a hat. A fierce killer, from the heart. Freelanced Mafia hits. Anyway, he took out a roll of money that must have been that high. My eyes got big. I knew right then, that wasn't none of his money. That was my money . . .

"'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.

"'Can you beat him?' he said to me in a deep, smooth voice.

"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.

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