I have been reading like crazy these last few weeks. Sniffing my way up and down the limited shelves of the Entebbe Public Library, seeing nuggets, getting gems, keeping an eye on the ones I want next. Beady eyed reading through most evenings, the TV off, or in another room when it has to be on, taxi views outside my window fleeting past unseen. There’s a lot in that library I must get through! The prospect has me keyed up, walking on air, because there are some books in there I used to hear of but had never been able to read for myself-like Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, My Life; Langston Hughes memoirs...there’s a certain section where I have found figures who have been lost to me because of the hagiography around them, speaking, changing my thinking of them. Like Malcolm X, ‘the angriest man in America.’
This is part one, just a sampling. I knew Malcolm X was once a pimp, a hustler, before he became a Nation of Islam, but obviously I had no idea how dramatic his life had been. What a blessing Malcolm X and Alex Haley run into each other, connected, and started taking down notes on the life X had lived up to that time. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I cannot help but wonder, mourn too, that so many of our history movers, makers, have not got their Alex Haley-imagine an unexpurgated rendition of the NRA bush war years (how I have wished and wished for the opportunity!)...
Malcolm take it away...
‘It was just about time for me to go and pick up Jean Parks, to go downtown to see Billie at the Onyx Club. So much was swirling in my head. I thought about telephoning her and calling it off, making some excuse. But I knew that running now was the worst thing I could do. So I went on and picked up Jean at her place. We took a taxi on down to 52nd Street. ‘Billie Holiday’ and those big photo blow-ups of her were under the lights outside. Inside, the tables were jammed against the wall, tables about big enough to get two drinks and four elbows on; the Onyx was one of those very little places.
Billie, at the microphone, had just finished a number when she saw Jean and me. Her white gown glittered under the spotlight, her face had that coppery, Indianish look, and her hair was in that trademark ponytail. For her next number she did the one she knew I always liked so: ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’- ‘Until you face each dawn with sleepless eyes...until you’ve lost a love you hate to lose-‘
When her set was done, Billie came over to our table. She and Jean, who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, hugged each other. Billie sensed something wrong with me. She knew that I was always high, but she knew me well enough to see that something else was wrong, and she asked in her customary profane language what was the matter with me. And in my own foul vocabulary of those days, I pretended to be without a care, so she let it drop.
We had a picture taken by the club photographer that night. The three of us were sitting close together. That was the last time I ever saw Lady Day. She’s dead; dope and heartbreak stopped that heart as big as a barn and that sound and style that no one successfully copies. Lady Day sang with the soul of Negroes from the centuries of sorrow and oppression. What a shame that proud, fine, black woman never lived where the true greatness of the black race was appreciated!
In the Onyx Club’s men’s room, I sniffed the little packet of cocaine I had gotten from Sammy. Jean and I, riding back up to Harlem in a cab, decided to have another drink. She had no idea what was happening when she suggested one of my main hang-outs, the bar of the La Marr-Cheri on the corner of 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I had my gun, and the cocaine courage, and I said I okay. And by the time we’d had the drink, I was so high that I asked Jean to take a cab home, and she did. I never have seen Jean again, either.
Like a fool, I didn’t leave the bar. I stayed there, sitting like a bigger fool, with my back to the door, thinking about West Indian Archie. Since that day, I never sat with my back to a door-and I never will again. But it’s a good thing I was then. I’m positive if I had seen West Indian Archie come in, I’d have shot to kill.
The next thing I knew West Indian Archie was standing before me, cursing me, loud, his gun on me. he was really making his public point, floor showing for the people. He called me foul names, threatened me.
Everyone, bartenders and customers sat or stood as though carved, drinks in mid air. The juke box, in the rear, was going. I had never seen West Indian Archie high before. Not a whiskey high, I could tell it was something else. I knew the hustler’s characteristic of keying up on dope to do a job.
I was thinking, ‘I’m going to kill Archie...I’m just going to wait until he turns around-and get the drop on him.’ I could feel my own .32 resting against my ribs where it was tucked under my belt, beneath my coat.
West Indian Archie, seeming to read my mind, quit cursing. And his words jarred me.
‘You’re thinking you’re going to kill me first, Red. But I’m an old man. I’ve been to Sing Sing. My life is over. You’re a young man. Kill me, you’re lost anyway. All you can do is go to prison.’
I’ve since thought that West Indian Archie may have been trying to scare me into running, to save both his face and his life. It may be that’s why he was high. No one knew that I hadn’t killed anyone, but no one who knew me, including myself, would doubt that I’d kill.
I can’t guess what might have happened. But under the code, if West Indian Archie had gone out the door, after having humiliated me as he had, I’d have to follow him out. We’d have shot it out in the street.
But some friends of West Indian Archie moved up alongside him, quietly calling his name, ‘Archie...Archie.’
And he let them put their hands on him-and they drew him aside. I watched them move him past where I was sitting, glaring at me. They were working him back toward the rear.
Then taking my time, I got down off the stool. I dropped a bill on the bar for the bartender. Without looking back, I went out.
I stood outside, in full view of the bar, with my hand in my pocket, for perhaps five minutes. When West Indian Archie didn’t come out, I left.’