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 enough—or managed to tell those stories well enough—you 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 Goodfellas. 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 metaphor—death arriving wrapped inside of death—was 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. “Coffins, 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.
Now, Frank’s life, or at least some highly reconfigured version of it, will be on display in the big-budget Hollywood picture American Gangster, with Denzel Washington, no less, playing the Frank part. By the time they get done advertising the film, which also features Russell Crowe and was directed by Ridley Scott, something like $200 million will have been spent to bring Frank’s story to the silver screen, which might even be as much money as Lucas made pushing drugs all those years. By the time you read this Frank Lucas will be perhaps the best-known drug dealer ever.
There is a bit of irony in this, since back in The Day, Lucas’s claim to fame was that he had no fame. While rivals like Nicky Barnes were allowing themselves to be photographed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine section and claiming to be “Mr. Untouchable,” Frank kept studiously below the radar. He trusted no one, and almost always appeared on 116th Street, his primary stomping ground, in disguise. With the release of the film, however, Frank, now in his seventies and confined to a wheelchair, will have his picture taken by hundreds of Hollywood photographers. Knowing him, he’ll go with the flow, laughing his blood-curdling laugh and gloating about how great it is “to be on top again.”
To have shared this Hollywood business with Frank has been a whole other trip. After Imagine Pictures optioned the story and Frank’s “life rights,” we were flown out to Los Angeles. How marvelous it was to sit with Frank and Richie Roberts, the man who prosecuted Lucas in the Essex County courts (Russell Crowe plays him in American Gangster) in a big-time meeting with the brass from Imagine and Universal Pictures. Seated around a long conference table, Lucas leaned over to me and asked, “Who’s the guy in the room with the juice?” I told him it was “the one with wacked-off hair and the skinny tie,” that is, überproducer Brian Grazer.
“That guy? No way,” scoffed Frank. “What about him?” Lucas asked, pointing to a dark-haired thirty-year-old wearing an expensive Rolex. “He’s just a studio flunky who is going to be fired next week,” I informed Lucas, again telling him Grazer was the guy.
An hour later, when the meeting was over, Lucas, nothing if not a quick study when it comes to power relationships, came over to me and said, “You know something, Mark? I thought I was in a rough business, but these people are off-the-hook sharks.”
Richie Roberts, now an attorney handling criminal cases in North Jersey’s Soprano belt (he was once the star running back at Newark’s Weequachic High School, where he passed, and ignored, Philip Roth in the hallways) has known the old drug dealer for more than thirty years. The producers of American Gangster have hung much of their film on the relationship between the two men.
“Frank, Frank and me . . . that is a long story,” says Roberts, who has decidedly mixed feelings about his relationship with Lucas. “I know who he is, the horrible things he’d done. Don’t forget, I put him in jail. And if there’s anyone who deserved to got to jail it was Frank Lucas. I was proud to get him. I’m still proud of it.” As for us being such good friends, I don’t know if I’d call it that. He has a young kid, Ray. When he was little I paid for his school tuition. I really love that kid. As for Frank, let’s say he’s a charming con man. But even knowing everything I know, God help me, sometimes I just can’t help liking the guy.”
As you will see from reading the piece, Lucas has always relied on his ability to make people like him. “People like me, they like the fuck out of me,” he says, cackling. I had to agree. There I was, sitting and listening to him talk about all the people he had murdered, how his brother, Shorty, used to delight in holding enemies by their ankles over the railing of the George Washington Bridge. He said they better talk or he’d drop them. They’d talk and Shorty would drop them anyway. Of course, Lucas was a miserable human being. On the other hand, he was giving me a heck of a story. And, to be honest, I liked the guy. I liked the fuck out of him.
The movie business cut into this. From the get-go, I told my agent that if a deal was to be made, my interests had to be separate from Frank’s. “I don’t want to be in business with him,” I said. Yet, somehow, this never got done. Now the money was on the table, waiting to be split up by me and my new partner, Frank Lucas.
When Frank called me one morning and said to come on over so “we can talk this thing out like men,” my wife, who upon hearing the tapes of our interviews had asked “Who you doing a story on, Satan?” told me not to go. She didn’t think I should talk about money with Frank. That was what lawyers were for, she said. I told her not to worry. Frank and I were friends. Buddies. I’d been over to see him in Newark a dozen times. Why should this be different?
I began to notice something might be amiss when I entered the restaurant and was told Frank was waiting for me in the back room. Lucas was sitting at a table off to the side. Against the wall were a few guys, big guys. I’d seen them before, on and off. One, Lucas’s nephew Al, about six-foot-seven, 240 pounds, had played football in the arena league. Al and I were friendly. I’d given him rides to the City a couple times. We’d smoked weed together, had some laughs. Now, dressed in black leather, Al stood impassively behind Frank. When I said hello, instead of his usual ghetto bear hug, there was only a curt nod.
“What’s this about, Frank?” I asked.
“It’s about I got to have all the money,” Frank said, smiling.
“All of it?” I’d already decided to give Frank a larger share. It was his life they were buying after all. But all?
“You can’t have it all,” I said. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
“Don’t care if it’s fair. I got to have it all,” Frank repeated, leaning forward. Once, when Lucas and I were riding around in Newark, he told me to drive over near a nasty-looking bunch of guys hanging out on a street corner. “Open the window and shout, hey you,” Lucas demanded. When I protested, he screamed, “Just do it.” I did. The guys froze. “Tell them to come over,” said Lucas, now crouching under the dashboard. When I didn’t he yelled, “Get your black asses over here.” The bad guys complied, nervously. When they got close Lucas sprang out and screamed, “Boo!”
“Uncle Frank!” the guys screamed, cracking up. Being as I was white, there was no reason for me to be in that neighborhood unless I was a cop. Scaring the guys was Frank’s idea of a joke.
This money demand could be one more laugh, but I didn’t think so. This was another kind of Frank Lucas, not the semi-lovable historical figure for whom I’d bought all those pitchers of Sam Adams. It occurred to me that long after my story about him was written and published, I’d missed a good portion of what I’d set out to find. It wasn’t until that very moment that I saw the real Frank Lucas, or at least the part of him that enabled all those nefarious deeds I’d been so enthralled to hear about. Eyes set, mouth motionless, for the first time he looked like the stone killer I knew him to be.
Frank had a piece of paper the agent had sent over. We were supposed to fill in what percentage of the option money each of us would get. Frank suggested I write “zero” next to my name.
At this point, I suppose, I could have told Frank Lucas that if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be on the road to having Denzel Washington be him on the silver screen. If it wasn’t for me, he’d still be up there in his rat hole project apartment, where the only place to sit was on those five-foot-high red vinyl bar stools he’d obviously got off a truck somewhere. But I didn’t.
“Look, Frank,” I said. “I’m gonna get up and go back to my car. Then I’m going to drive back to the City. We can work this out later, okay, on the telephone.”
So maybe Frank had lost a step or two, or maybe he wasn’t as hard as he made himself out to be, because no one jumped me. I didn’t take a shiv in the back. Probably the wily old operator realized that wouldn’t have served any purpose, since the paper required both of our signatures. If I was dead, I wouldn’t be able to sign. Then Frank would get nothing.
This became the strategy: I wouldn’t sign. I figured I could live without the money longer than Frank could. One day I told him he could have one more percent than me, and he agreed. All of a sudden, we were cool again, just like before. I heard Frank bought himself a brand-new SUV with some of his take and smashed it up the very next week. That was too bad, I thought. Because when it comes down to it, I like Frank. I like the fuck out of him.
All in all, American Gangster has been a winning experience for me. Better than the usual dealings I’ve had with Hollywood. The producers bought my story. I got paid. I didn’t have to do anything but cash the check. This is good. Most times when Hollywood guys buy the rights to these journalism stories—as they often do—things don’t go so smoothly. Years ago some guys took an option on a piece I wrote about the New York City high school basketball championship, Canarsie High School vs. Lafayette, both of them from Brooklyn, and hard-nose. The story, written in 1976, took a while to “set up.” In 1992, the buyers said it finally looked like a go, except now the story had been changed some. Now it was about two girls softball teams in Compton, California. They hoped I didn’t mind. Why should I mind? As a big NWA fan, Compton softball sounded great to me. Needless to say, nothing ever happened.
This said, the specter of Frank Lucas, icon of a New York City that no longer exists, hangs over this entire collection of stories. It is like Frank says about how he feels going into a giant Home Depot. In his gangster days whenever he walked into any bank or store—anyplace where they had money—he’d reflexively figure what he’d do if he wanted to rob the place. But at Home Depot, he was stumped. The place was so big, so decentralized, confusing.
“You don’t know where to stick the knife in,” Frank allowed dejectedly, as if the changing times had just passed him by.
Reading over many of the pieces in this book, I wonder if that is true for me as well. After all, much of the stuff I write about here either no longer exists, or has changed irrevocably. Little of this change is to my liking. Not that it hurts the work since in New York, the journalist accepts that what he writes about today may not be there tomorrow. All you can do is try to capture what’s put in front of you, on the day you’re looking at it. Once the parade passes by, the work becomes part of urban history. Besides, there’s plenty new around that isn’t owned by some tinhorn condomeister. Those supposed eight million stories have become twelve million, maybe even fourteen if you count all those Mexican soccer fans out in Queens. That should be enough to keep anyone busy.
No introduction is complete without the usual-suspect acknowledgments. For the most part the pieces in this book are different from the ones that appeared in the first collection of my journalism, The Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, but most of the thank-yous remain the same. Special shout-outs to Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of this book, John Homans, editor of many of these pieces, Caroline Miller, and Adam Moss, boss of New York magazine, who continues to enable my health plan. Ditto the wife and kids. But tell me, how mauldin is it to thank the City itself: always my inspiration, mentor, and antagonist.
Mark Jacobson, 2007