"You know, when we were first investigating him, the FBI, DEA, they didn't think he could pull off that Southeast Asia stuff. They wouldn't let themselves believe an uneducated black man could come up with such a sophisticated smuggling operation. In his sick way, he really did something."
The memory clearly tickled Johnson, who quickly added, "Look, don't get me wrong: Frank was as bad as they come. You should never forget who these people really are. But what are you going to do? The guy was a pisser. A pisser and a killer. Easy to like. A lot of those guys were like that. It is an old problem."
A couple of days later, eating at a T.G.I. Friday's, Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. "Look at this shit," he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn't have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. "What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that's the way it is now. You can't find the heart of anything to stick the knife into."
Then Frank turned to me and asked, "You gonna make me out to be the devil, or what? Am I going to Heaven or hell?"
As far as Frank was concerned, his place in the hereafter was assured after he joined the Catholic Church while imprisoned at Elmira. "The priest there was getting crooks early parole, so I signed up," he says. As backup, Frank was also a Baptist. "I have praised the Lord," he says. "Praised Him in the street and praised Him in the joint. I know I'm forgiven, that I'm going to the good place, not the bad."
But what did I think? How did I see it going for the Country Boy beyond this world? It was a vexing question, as Sterling Johnson said. Who knew about these things? Frank was a con man, one of the best. He'd been telling white people, cops and everyone else, pretty much what they wanted to hear for decades, so why should I be different? It was true: I liked him. I liked the fuck out of him. Especially when he called his 90-year-old church-lady Hulk Hogan-fan mother, which he did about five times a day. But that wasn't the point.
Braggart, trickster, and fibber along with everything else, Lucas was nonetheless a living, breathing historical figure, a highly specialized font of secret knowledge, more exotic, and certainly less picked over, than any Don Corleone. He was a whole season of the black Sopranos -- old-school division. The idea that a backwoods boy could maneuver himself into position to tell at least a plausible lie about stashing 125 kilos of zum dope on Henry Kissinger's plane -- much less actually do it -- mitigated a multitude of sins.
In the end, even Lucas's resounding lack of repentance didn't seem to matter. About the only flicker of remorse I'd seen from him occurred following a couple of beers we had with one of his brothers, Vernon Lee, who is known as Shorty.
A bespectacled man now in his early fifties, Shorty followed Frank to Harlem in 1965. "We came up from Carolina in a beat-up car, the brothers and sisters, Mom and Dad, with everything we owned, like the Beverly Hillbillies." From the start, Shorty knew what he wanted. "Diamond rings, cars, women. But mostly it was the glory. Isn't that what most men really dream of? The glory."
Then Shorty reached across the table and touched Frank's hand. "We did make a little bit of noise, didn't we?" Shorty said. To which Frank replied, "A little bit."
Later, sitting in the car, Frank watched his brother make his way across the frozen puddles in the late-afternoon light and sighed. "You know, if I'd been a preacher, they would have been preachers. If I'd been a cop, they'd have been cops. But I was a dope dealer, so they became dope dealers . . . I don't know . . . if I'd done right."
After a while, Frank and I stopped in for another beer. The surroundings were not plush. Frank said, "Shit . . . from King of the Hill to dumps like this."
The Knicks game was over, so we sat around for a few hours watching The Black Rose, an old sword-fight movie with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. Welles is a favorite of Lucas's, "at least before he got too fat." Then, when it was time for me to go, Lucas insisted I call him when I got back to New York. It was late, rainy, and a long drive. Frank said he was worried about me. So, back in the city, driving down the FDR, by the 116th Street exit, I called Lucas up, as arranged.
"You're back, that's good," the Country Boy croaked into the phone. "Watch out. I don't care what Giuliani says, New York is not so safe. You never know what you might find out there." Then Frank laughed that same chilling haint of a laugh, spilling out the car windows and onto the city streets beyond.