Authors: Mark Jacobson
Praise for Mark Jacobson:
“Mark Jacobson is a living American Master. Read him and smile on your way to enlightenment.”
âMichael Daly, columnist,
New York Daily News
“Jacobson's eye, ear, craft, and style make him the best chronicler of urban lowlife since A. J. Liebling.”
âJack Newfield, author of
City for Sale
The Full Rudy: The Man, the Myth, the Mania
“A blurb for Jacobson? That's not hard. He has the talent, the style, and the ability to get to the real dirt, particularly the hidden kind.”
“Whatever odd angle he takes, Jacobson seems to be able to find the facts and the emotional quality of these stories. When you're done, you've been somewhere. Seen something. Know something. Something new.”
âNicholas Pileggi, author of
“Mark Jacobson's journalism stops time in the hippest zones of the popular culture. There is simply no better combination of writing style and reporting substance. This is the book that every journalist who has ever read a Mark Jacobson piece has been waiting for.”
“The mind of Mark Jacobson is a national treasure.”
âRichard Ben Cramer, author of
How Israel Lost, Joe DiMaggio
What It Takes
Also by Mark Jacobson
Everyone and No One
Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk
to the Land of Bush: Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism
12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time:
A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe
The KGB Bar Nonfiction Reader (edited)
American Monsters (edited, with Jack Newfield)
and Other Tales of New York
Foreword by Richard Price
Copyright Â© 2007 by Mark Jacobson
Foreword copyright Â© 2007 by Richard Price
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
Printed in the United States of America
eBook ISBN-13: 978-1-5558-4655-8
a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
I've always felt that the only subjects worth writing about were those that intimidated me, and the only writers worth emulating were those who left me feeling the same way. I've felt intimidated by Mark Jacobson since 1977 when I first read “Ghost Shadows on Chinatown Streets,” his portrait of gang leader Nicky Lui, in the
. I remember being overwhelmed by both Jacobson's reporting skill and his intrepidness, empathizing with his attraction to the subject; could see myself attempting something like that if I had both the writing chops and the nerve. It was one of the most humbling and enticing reading experiences of my life, and in many ways set me on the path to at least three novels.
Jacobson belongs to that great bloodline of New York street writers from Stephen Crane to Hutchins Hapgood to Joseph Mitchell, John McNulty, and A. J. Liebling, through Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, and now to himself and very few others (his friend and peer Michael Daly comes to mind). Jacobson is drawn to these streets and to those who rose from them: the outlaws, the visionaries, the hustlers, and the oddballs. His voice is often sardonic, bemused, and a little in awe of the man before him. Like a judo master, he knows how to step off and let the force of these personalities hoist their own banners or dig their own graves. But even in the case of the most heinous of men, Jacobson's ability to unearth some saving grace,
some charm, or simply a shred of sympathetic humanity in the bastard is unfailing.
From heroin kingpin Frank Lucas to the Dalai Lama, Jacobson's fact-gathering is impeccable, his presentation of the Big Picture plain as day, the conversations (you can't really call them “interviews”) often hilarious. Most important, though, his love for this world, these people, is apparent in every nuance, every finely observed detail. His is the song of the workingman, the immigrant, the street cat, the cryptician with more crazy-eights than aces up his sleeve, and Jacobson knows that the bottom line for this kind of profiling is self-recognition; each character, each sharply etched detail in some way bringing home not only the subject, but the reader and author, too.
I was born in New York City in the baby boom year of 1948 and lived here most of my life. I started my journalism career back in the middle 1970s, writing more often than not about New York. There have been ups and downs over the past thirty years, but I can't say I have ever been bored. After all, the Naked City is supposed to have eight million stories and, as a magazine writer, I only need about ten good ones a year. So I can afford to be picky. Whether I've been picky enoughâor managed to tell those stories well enoughâyou can decide for yourself by thumbing through this book. That said, some stories are just winners, fresh-out-of-the-blocks winners. The saga of Frank Lucas, Harlem drug dealer, reputed killer, and general all-around enemy of the people, was one of those stories.
An odd thing about the genesis of my involvement with Lucas is that I'd always been under the impression he was something of an urban myth. That was my opinion when Lucas's name came up in a conversation I was having half a dozen years ago with my good friend, the late Jack Newfield. Newfield said he'd seen Nick Pileggi, the classic pre-Internet New York City magazine writer who had been smart enough to get out at the right time, making untold fortunes writing movies like
. Nick had mentioned to Jack that Lucas was alive and living in New Jersey.
“You mean, Frank Lucas, the guy with the body bags?” I asked Newfield, who said, yeah, one and the same. This was a surprise. Anyone who had their ear to the ground during the fiscal crisis years of the 1970s, those Fear City times when New York appeared to be falling apart at the seams, remembered the ghoulish story of thousands of pounds of uncut heroin being smuggled from Southeast Asia in the body bags of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. The doomsday metaphorâdeath arriving wrapped inside of deathâwas hard to beat, but this couldn't really be true, could it?
This was one of the first things I asked Lucas when, after much hunting, I located him in downtown Newark. “Did you really smuggle dope in the body bags?” I asked Frank, then in his late sixties, living in a beat-up project apartment and driving an even more beat-up 1979 Caddy with a bad transmission.
“Fuck no,” responded Lucas, taking great offense. He never put any heroin into the body bag of a GI. Nor did he ever stuff kilos of dope into the body cavities of the dead soldiers, as some law enforcement officials had contended. These were disgusting, slanderous stories, Lucas protested.
“We smuggled the dope in the soldiers' coffins,” Lucas roared, setting the record straight. “
, not bags!”
This was a large distinction, Frank contended. He and his fellow “Country Boys” (he only hired family members or residents of his backwoods North Carolina hometown) would never be so sloppy as to toss good dope into a dead guy's body bag. They took the trouble to contact highly skilled carpenters to construct false bottoms for soldiers' coffins. It was inside these secret compartments that Lucas shipped the heroin that would addict who knows how many poor suckers. “Who the hell is gonna look in a soldier's coffin,” Lucas chortled rhetorically, maintaining that his insistence on careful workmanship showed proper deference to those who had given their life for their country.
“I would never dishonor an American soldier,” Frank said, swearing on his beloved mother's head as to his “100 percent true red, white, and blue” patriotism.
Frank and I spent a lot of time together back in the late winter and spring of 2001 as he told me the story of his life. It took a lot to make him the
biggest single Harlem heroin dealer in the 1970s, and Lucas was determined that I know it all, from the first time he robbed a drunk by hitting him over the head with a tobacco rake outside a black-town Carolina whore-house, to his journey north where he would become the right-hand man of Bumpy Johnson, Harlem's most famous gangster, to the heroin kingpin days, when he claimed to clear up to a million dollars a day.
Declaring he had “nothing but my word,” Frank said every little bit of what he said was true. This I doubted, even if some of his most outrageous statements seemed to bear out. Most of the tale, however, was hard to pin down. When it comes to black crime, organized or not, there are very few traditional sources. I mean, forty years after the alleged fact, how do you check whether Frank really killed the giant Tango, “a big silverback gorilla of a Negro,” on 116th Street? Some remembered Lucas being with Bumpy the day the gangster keeled over in Wells' Restaurant. Some didn't. The fact that Frank can't read (he always pretended to have forgotten his glasses when we went out to his favorite, TGI Friday's) didn't matter. We were in the realm of oral history narrated by some of the twentieth century's most flamboyant bullshitters and Frank Lucas, with “a PhD in street,” can talk as well as anyone.
Even though I often employed the phrases “Frank claims” and “according to Lucas” when writing the piece, the tale's potential sketchiness did little to undercut what I always took to be its cockeyed verisimilitude. The enduring importance of Lucas's story can be found in the indisputable fact that very few people on earth could reasonably invent such a compelling lie about this kind of material. If nothing else, Lucas is a knowing witness to a time and place inaccessible to almost everyone else, and that goes double for white people. The verve with which he recounts his no doubt self-aggrandizing story is an urban historian's boon, a particular kind of American epic. I considered myself lucky to write it down.