Rise to Powerby Edwin Torres
Published to coincide with a major motion picture release based on Edwin Torres’s classic gangster novel, which Newsweek calls “exhilarating . . . boils with raw energy”
Published to coincide with a major motion picture release based on Edwin Torres’s classic gangster novel, which Newsweek calls “exhilarating . . . boils with raw energy”
Published to coincide with a major motion picture release based on Edwin Torres’s classic gangster novel, which Newsweek calls “exhilarating . . . boils with raw energy”
A powerful, gritty, and vivid novel adapted as a forthcoming major motion picture with big-name stars, Carlito’s Way is the riveting, unforgettable story of Carlito Brigante, a
Drug dealer, thief, and murderer, Carlito Brigante was once just another Spanish Harlem street punk with a poor boy’s dream of flash and fast money–but as he gets older he determines that it’s either take or be taken, and he knows which role he intends to play. Soon he’s a mob-connected professional with an easy charm, joie de vivre, stubborn pride, and hair-trigger temper. But the rules change rapidly in a sudden-death world of scams, sell-outs, and payback, where only the strongest and smartest predator can be king of the barrio. And when there’s a major changing of the guard in the top echelons of the mob, Carlito will have some hard choices to make. This is a novel that recalls Richard Price’s The Wanderers, but with a swagger and spirit all its own. Taut, thrilling, and a joy to read, Carlito’s Way established a voice that has lost none of its vivid color or power to enthrall.
Carlito’s Way: The Beginning, the prequel to the film Carlito’s Way, will be a major motion picture released by Universal Pictures in fall 2005, starring Jay Hernandez, Mario van Peebles, Giancarlo Esposito, and P. Diddy.
“It is in the grisly tradition of Little Caesar, The Jones Men, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and it is the equal of any of them.” –The New Yorker
“His books are a brass knuckle to the groin. There isn’t a false note on any page.” –Richard Price
‘reminiscent of the work of George Higgins. The dialogue is tough, fast and accurate. . . . His knowledge of crime and criminals is evident of every page. . . . [Carlito’s Way] packs a lot of punches. An auspicious debut for a gifted writer.” –News American (Baltimore)
“Carlito’s Way is no ordinary book.” –The N
‘seems utterly authentic . . . Be prepared to roll with the verbal punches and societal implications.” –Library Journal
“Carlito, a pusher and killer, is an oddly sympathetic character. Never self-pitying, as exuberant as his creator, he’s a keen observer of his times. His voice is rich with the sounds and rhythms of the street.” –
I CAME ON THE SCENE IN THE 1930S. ME AND MY MOMS. Brigante Sr. had long since split back to Puerto Rico. Seem like we was in every furnished room in Spanish Harlem. Kind of hazy some of it now, but I can remember her draggin” me by the hand from place to place–the clinic on 106th Street, the home relief on 105th Street, the Pentecostal church on 107th Street. That was home base, the church. Kids used to call me a “hallelujah” –break my chops. My mom was in there every night bangin” on a tambourine with the rest of them. Sometimes they’d get a special reverendo who’d really turn them on. That’s when the believers, feligreses, would start hoppin” and jumpin” –then they’d be faintin” on the floor and they’d wrap them in white sheets. I remember I didn’t go for this part. I was close to my mom, it was just me and her.
I was comin” into my teens in the 1940s when they laid her out at Gonzalez’s Funeral Home on 109th Street.
Looked like she was into one of her faints, like she’d be all right. Wasn’t like that. I ain’t sayin” my way would have been any different if she’d been around. That’s all you hear in the Joint–aw, man, I didn’t have a chance. Bullshit. I was already a mean lil” fucker while my mom was alive, but I always respected women because of her.
Anyway, the court put me on to this jive uncle who come out of nowhere up in the Bronx. I got promoted from the basement to the sub-basement. No good. I cut out. Back down to Harlem. Sleepin” on the roof. Stayin” with friends. Then the juvenile people put me in the Heckscher home near 104th Street. But I was always takin” off on them. I was still in my teens. World War II was over but they was warrin” in the streets. Kiddie gangs was goin” strong. The Puerto Ricans was boxed in. Irish on the south, Italians to the east, Blacks to the north and west. Wasn’t none of that brotherhood jive in them days. Git that Po’Rican! We was catchin” hell.
The crazy part is me comin” up rumblin” against these groups as a kid–it should end up that the only two cats that was ever in my corner was Earl Bassey, a black dude, and Rocco Fabrizi, a wal-yo. Unbelievable. But I’m jumpin” ahead.
Lemme tell you about them rumbles. The wops said no spics could go east of Park Avenue. But there was only one swimming pool and that was the Jefferson on 112th Street off the East River. Like, man, you had to wade through Park, Lexington, Third, Second, First, Pleasant. Wall-to-wall guineas. The older guys be standing around in front of the stoops and stores, evil-eyeing us, everybody in his undershirt; the kids would be up on the roof with the garbage cans and in the basements with the bats and bicycle chains. Mostly busted heads, black eyes in those days. First into the street was always me, loved a swingout. That’s when I first saw Rocco Fabrizi. He was running with a wop gang, the Redwings. One day we went down to the pool with about twenty or thirty P.R. guys–a hell of a rumble–and right up front is this guy, Rocco, swinging a stickball bat. Stuck in my mind, tough kid. We took a beating–their turf, too many guys. A while later we get the word that this Rocco is sneaking up on a roof with a Latin chick named Carmen–fine head–near Madison Avenue and 107th Street. The balls. He caught some beatin”, but he stood up; the Lopez brothers wanted to throw him off the roof but I said enough. He remembered.
The spooks said no Ricans could go west of Fifth Avenue. So if they caught you in Central Park, shame on you. The Copiens, the Socialistics, the Bachelors, the Comanches–all bad motherfuckers–these were the gangs that started using hardware. Then the rumbles got mean–like if the Copiens caught you, you knew they were going to stick you. Then the zip guns came out, metal tubes with door latches as firing pins set off by rubber bands–if the pin hit the .22 on the primer and the piece was held close to your head, you were in trouble. Lucky for a lot of diddy boppers it wasn’t often. I once got caught by the Copiens in Central Park by the lake near 106th Street. Me and this black kid duked it out after he said, “Let me hold a quarter.” I said, “Let yo’ mammy hold it.” We got it on, I was kicking him on the ground when his boys arrived on bikes–my blood was up; I said, “I’ll take any one of you motherfuckers.” “No, motherfucker, we gonna kill yo’ ass,” and they started pulling the rubber bands on the zip guns. So like I quit the scene, they chased me all the way to 110th Street. That was the last chase on me like that. I always carried a piece from then on. I wasn’t about to take no shit. You step up, I’m gonna knock you down.
Summers were hotter in them days. No air conditioning–the asphalt could burn your sneakers. Took the bus up to Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights. The Irish jumped us in the locker room–we fought with the metal baskets. Know what the pool guard said? “You don’t belong up here.” No sooner we was on the bus back, we had to bail out the windows on to Amsterdam Avenue, a mob of micks was comin” through the door after us.
That same summer I got hit in the head with a roller skate by some spade in Central Park by the boats near 110th Street. Another time I got my neck all scraped up from a bicycle chain some eye-talian wrapped around me. We caught it from everybody. Don’t get me wrong, we gave good as we got–but you remember your own lumps better. We was tryin” to melt into the pot but they wouldn’t even let us in the swimming pool. Hijos de puta.
Irregardless, I was never a race man. Us P.R.’s are like that–maybe “cause we come in so many shades. We always had a stray wop or Jew-boy and plenty of spades with our gangs. Anyway, I figure them beatings get you ready for later on–when you gotta get the money.
But the clubs wasn’t always fightin”. There was a lot of stickball playing–we had the Devils, the CBCs, the Home Reliefers (dig it), the Turbens (that’s the way they spelled it), the Viceroys, the Zeniths, the Falcons, the Tropical Gents, the Royal Knights, the Boca Chica– these all claimed to be S.A.C.–social and ataletic club–ha.
Pimping was popular. Tony Navarro, the Cruz brothers, Bobby Roldan, all had whores. We looked up to these guys–big cars, always a ringside table at the Palladium: always clean, none of that zoot-suit shit–wingtip shoes, conservative-cut clothes. Imagine lookin” up to a pimp! Later on we wouldn’t let one of them scumbag motherfuckers stand near us at the bar.
About that time motherfucker came into style–it came down from black Harlem in a game called “the dozens.” Two cats would meet on the street and start playin” the dozens; one guy would say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, your mother has a pussy like a Greyhound bus,” and the other guy come back with, “The dozens ain’t my game but the way I fuck your mother is a goddamn shame!” Rough on the mothers. From then on everything was motherfucker.
Mostly we stood around corners on Madison Avenue. Just like Middletown, U.S.A.–ha. The schools, Patrick Henry, Cooper–forget about it. No YMCA, no Boys’ Club, no gym, raunchy houses, scummy streets. If you inclined to plea-cop, them streets contributed to the delinquency of a whole lot of minors. But who wants to hear that shit? Only plea I ever copped cost me three years in the slams. A man got to stand up. Take his shot.
Like when the junk started arrivin” about this time. And where did the wops first arrive it? Right on ol” 107th Street between Lexington and Third. A punk-ass kid I was, but I looked it over. I’m gonna ride the horse, or the horse gonna ride me? That was the question on a lot of them corners, “cause the junk was still a new scene in the forties. All the losers went for the spike and the dynamite high behind it. Only a skag high ain’t but good the first few times out, then you hooked, all they gotta do is reel you in, by the crotch now, and squeeze till you cough up another five dollars for a bag. I seen the horse play with them junkies like a cat with a rubber mouse.
Age fourteen, I saw that. I said, uh-uh. Them’s the humped–I’m goin” with the humpers. The dealers had the pussy, the clothes, and the cars. That’s what I wanted, in that order. The dope fiends had the sores, the scabs, the O.D.’s. Maybe that’s what they wanted. Must be crazy–couldn’t see it then, can’t see it now.
I was thinkin” myself, among other things, half a pug in them days. I didn’t really know the science of the game, but I was heavy-handed, with a lot of snap in my shoulder, so when I tagged a stud, he was hurtin”. So now I’m gonna go in the Gloves, this must have been round “48 or “49. With a little trainin” everybody said Carlito was a natural. I was gonna fight for the Police Athletic League. Ha. And who was the man there? Moran of the Twenty-third Precinct, my sworn enemy. “What, this fuckin” troublemaker on my squad?” So I ended up fightin” unattached. My trainin” was drinkin” wine and smokin” pot. One time I ran around the 106th Street lake in the park–finished up puffin” on a joint. Some program for a contender. Irregardless, I kicked some ass down in Sunnyside and Ridgewood, including a bad spook from the Salem-Crescent A.C. But then they busted my jaw in a street fight on 105th Street and I had to drop out of the tournament. What a laugh on Moran if I had gone all the way to Chicago. Him with his squad breakin” their ass runnin” around the reservoir every day.
Anyway, I’m too good-lookin” to be a pug. I’m gonna be a pimp. I’m runnin” round with these fly broads from 111th Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s where all the whores were trickin” in them days. Whores galores. But I could take a knock-around broad but so long. I didn’t go for that scene too tough. Pimp got to hate women. That sure wasn’t me.
There was some nice chicks around but their mothers wouldn’t let them out the house. Specially with delincuentes like me waitin” on the stoop. Them was not “free sex” days. Leave it to me to come up at the wrong time. The good girls held on to their cherry. And it was a big deal. If a broad dropped her drawers, right away she lost her rating–even to the scrounge who copped them; “I ain’t gonna marry no broad what lost her cherry!”
I used to get laid in Central Park, but you had to have a long switchblade ready “cause always some degenerate motherfucker would be sneakin” up on you and your girl from behind the bushes. I didn’t mind a guy lee-gating (peeping), I used to do it myself, but these pre-verts would want to gang-bang your broad. I chased more than one around that park at night. One guy tried to hit me with a wooden Keep Off The Grass sign, which he pulled out the ground while he was running from my sticker. He missed, I didn’t. Many a piece I missed out on, gettin” interrupted by this element.
I was a big pussy-hound. Ain’t changed much either.
Was a big movie fan too. Knock-around kids was always in the movie house. No TV in them days. The Fox Star on 107th Street and Lexington Avenue was our show. There was some bad guinea racketeers in there. You had to go with a gang, “cause if the wops caught you alone on the balcony, you was a flyin” Po’Rican. I remember once they had a singin” contest on the stage on a Saturday. They was givin” ten dollars to the winner. I was there with a whole mob of guys smokin” pot in the balcony. I ran up on stage and sang “Bei Mir Bist Du Sch”n,” which I sang as ‘my Dear Mr. Shane.” I couldn’t sing worth a damn, but you rated on applause and my people made the most racket. I won. Then I did “Playmate” and the dirty version of “La Cucaracha,” which was my best number–they couldn’t get me off the stage.
I was into being a musician too. This was “cause I noticed they was gettin” all the fine women. Some ugly clown be shakin” maracas or a cowbell in front of a band and all the chippies be saying, oh, he’s showbiz! Jiveass bitches. Showbiz is the guy giving enemas to the elephants in the circus. Anyway, I got me a big conga drum out of the pawnshop and thought I was Chano Pozo, the great Cuban conga player used to work the skins for Dizzy Gillespie. Chano was the greatest. Bad too, big stud, used to be strongarm for the politicals in Havana. Came to Harlem, was bad there too. Somebody forgot how bad and blew him away. But he had some tough hands while he was around. My hands couldn’t keep no beat, I was not about to be no great conguero. So be it. I’ll get me that trim some other way.
Used to play at block parties–everybody in Harlem be there, dancin”, drinkin”, smokin”, “n fightin”. Had one on 107th Street, Copiens or Dragons came around– forget who–anyway, they started shooting pistols. My friend, Tato–”Carlito, they got me” –fell on his back under the lamppost. Co’o, Tato, he’s dead! No way, cap hit him on his belt buckle–didn’t have a scratch. Just like in the movies. After that, I used to throw myself on the ground–”Tato, they got me!” I was a big ballbreaker as a kid.
But don’t get me wrong, I used to do a lotta good things too. Although later on they never showed up in any of my probation reports. Like God forbid somebody abuse a buddy of mine. I’d travel for blocks to duke with a cat that would try to gorilla a friend–I tangle-assed with Sabu from 104th Street and Flash from 110th Street, bad motherfuckers in the first degree, and it wasn’t even my beef. “This ain’t witchoo, Carlito’–”Never mind, take to the street.” That’s the kind of guy I was. But sometimes could backfire on you. Like m’man Pol”to–went up to 113th Street to straighten a kid out for somebody. Pol”to told me he was a stringbean black kid. Skinny arms and legs. Pol”to was a regular lil” buzz saw. He said sheeit, I’ll tear “im up. Pol”to say that spook kid like to bust him everyway but loose. Later on he found out the kid was Sandy Saddler.
One time I had to rumble a deaf-mute guy. On me like white-on-rice. Couldn’t get off on this guy. Whipped me. I had respect for the handicapped after that.
A lot of Hollywood names in Harlem at the time. We had Tarzans and Sabus and Cheyennes. I remember a guy used to call himself Naiyoka–like from Pago Pago. We had Cochise and we had Apache. Sometimes a name could cause a problem. Like Cheyenne from the Bronx would come down with ten or twelve guys to see Cheyenne from Harlem–”Who said your name was Cheyenne?” –”Not me, my name is Jacinto Quinones.” I seen that one. Then you had a pimp name of Red Conk on account of he conked his hair red (hair was straight in them days one way or the other–Dixie Peach or Sulfur 8). We had a white guy named Negro, and we had a black guy named Indio. We had a lot of Louies–Louie the Jew (crazy Jew got killed in a stickup, spoke better Spanish than me), Louie Lump-Lump (had a funny-shaped head), Louie Push-Push (used to run fast). We had Tobacco, Chuleta, Machete, Frankie La Cagona (Frankie the Shitter).
How’d I exist on the street? Somtimes legit–like delivery boy on an ice truck, or a grocery, or a dry cleaner’s. But mostly hustlin”, thievin”, break and entry–shootin” pool was my main stick. I used to catch merchant marines for a hundred, hundred-fifty dollars playin” nineball–this when I was fourteen or fifteen years old–always had good wrists. Then there was boostin” in department stores–and there was dice, cards, writin” numbers (single action) for Jakie Cooperman, one of the few Jew bookies left around. We had a little scare with Jakie once. Jakie used to book out of a candy store on 108th Street and Fifth Avenue–he was a degenerate gambler himself. Me and some other kids were hangin” around one night. This big black car pulled up with four rays of sunshine–older wops from the East 107th Street mob out of the Fox Star. Two stayed in the car, two came into the candy store. Skinny guy, Nino, he had half a button, cool head, he’d talk to you. The other guy, Buck, was a terror–looked like a buffalo, only bigger–and he used to carry a softball bat– was the bouncer at the Fox Star. God forbid he should catch you sneakin” in the side door. Buck stands by the door, Nino walks up to the counter and pulls an empty bag out of his coat (the two of them was wearin” black coats and black hats with the brim turned up–wops got this Al Capone shit down to a science). Anyway, the bag was a cement bag. Nino gives the bag to Moe, owner of the store–”This is for Jakie.” Moe shit a milk shake right there. Then Nino turned to me and the rest of the kids–”Anybody here seen Jakie around?” No, not us, never happen. They split. We was shook up. Seems Jakie was into the shylocks for fifty thou. The wops said he ran away to the coast on them, but Jakie himself would have given you five hundred to one he was planted on Long Island. Wops was already leery about goin” up to Black Harlem. Not Buck (really Buccia)–he’d jump out of a car on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue bat in hand–”C’mere” –spook would run–one shot–lay “im out. Buck didn’t give a fuck. He went up in the mob later on. Stayed mean.
There was other guys like Buck around. Abusadores, we called them–abusers or ballbreakers. Uptown Harlem had one named Jenks, or Jinx. Bad nigger. Big–didn’t fit through no door, “cept sideways. Take everybody off. Take your money, your welfare check, your watch, your dope–take a wheelchair, glass eye. Mean. When he was outa jail, people stayed home. Jinx had a pretty long run, then he tried to run a game on a friend of mine. Shakedown. So much per week “cause I’m bad. My buddy was hardnose, so he had to deal with Jinx. Shot him in the legs–kept coming. Shot him in the chest–kept coming. Finally stopped Jinx with a bullet through his head. All this time Jinx was chasing him around the bar. My friend had to do time for this. Judge said, “Victim was unarmed” –that motherfucker was armed when he was unarmed. Some judges will say, “Why didn’t you go to the police?” The fuckin” police only want to know you as one of two ‘de’s’–de deceased or de defendant. In between–’don’t bother me, I got lotta paper work.” If the judge took time to check out a “victim” like Jinx he’d give the defendant the Distinguished Bronze Cross, first degree. And if His Honor had to live in the same tenement with a Jinx or a Buck, he’d put the contract out hisself. Buck and Jinx–some neighbors we had.
Another source of livelihood for me was a first-class Murphy game I used to run up on 111th Street with the tricks looking for whores. Me and m”partner Colorado used pencil and paper (that would impress the Johns)– “Okay, write it down, eh, Chico? These two gentlemen, ten dollars a piece–that’s twenty dollars. No rough stuff or fancy fuckin”, boys; Lolita is only sixteen and just startin” out. I’ll hold the money.” Colorado would go upstairs, then he’d call down, “Lolita wants to see the money and the list first, Pancho.” Wait right here, boys, she’s very shy–I’ll call you from upstairs. You could come back an hour later and they’d still be waiting with their hard-on. Lo-leeta, Lo-leeta, they’d be yodelin” in the canyon. Sometimes me and Colorado would fall down on the roof from laughing.
Them roofs was busy for us. Flyin” pigeons, flyin” kites, flyin” dope. Somebody was always jumpin” off the roof too. Usually some Rican who couldn’t cut it on the street. But the street got him anyway–unless he jumped in the backyard.
Anyway, I was a busy lil” snot in them days.
SOMETIMES MORAN THE COP WOULD GET A BUG UP HIS ASS and grab me or Colorado on the street and put us back in the Home. Maybe a kick in the ass and a few smacks in the face from a telephone book in the Twenty-third Precinct before he took us over. He wanted me to go over to another precinct to break chops–I said I was a citizen of this precinct and he couldn’t deport me. To this day I don’t pick up a phone that I don’t say, ‘moran of the Twenty-third Precinct.” I used to do it then figuring the phones in the poolroom or the bar was tapped and Moran’s name would get on some shoo-fly tape. He was a tough sombitch. One night, one of them traveling carnivals came to the lot on 108th Street and Madison Avenue. This guy Lucky ran out of luck in a fight with some marine tiger who cut him to pieces with a butcher knife. I remember him on his back on the ground trying to kick up at the guy. He never made it to the emergency table at the Flower Hospital. Moran was there with some photographers from Life magazine and he got a write-up with pictures and all. Lucky was a sharp dresser, used to be in the furnished rooms on 107th Street between Park and Madison. He didn’t come out too good in the pictures though. Moran, believing his own publicity, became a worse ballbuster than ever.
Another ballbuster cop was Schula or Schuler, known as “Cara de Palo’ (Woodface). He was a fat guy with glasses, but he could move, specially the time they threw the garbage can off the roof at him.
Baddest of the bad was Big Jeff from the ‘mutt and Jeff” detective team from the Twenty-third. One was a little wop, Lil” Jeff, the other a big mick, Big Jeff; you couldn’t call either one Mutt or they’d break yo’ ass. When they’d pull up to the poolroom on 106th Street and Madison, everybody start walkin”. Nearly everybody. Legend says that one time they wanted everybody lined up against the wall in the poolroom–”All you Puerto Ricans up against the wall” –this smart guy wouldn’t get up–’me no Puerto Rican, me Cuban” –wap! ‘same shit.” None of that ‘move-along-boys’ jive in them days.
Little Jeff give you sass, Big Jeff look around like he ain’t even listening, but if you gave backlip–wap!–Big Jeff laid you out. I ain’t seen nobody, in the ring or out, hit harder than him. Elbow close to body, leverage– lights out. Better you fell off a roof than he should land on you. Big Jeff finally got put out of commission by a little P.R. name of Augie Robles. Robles was a contract killer, one of the few we had around there. I mean this dude would travel to other states on hits. Around Harlem, he’d feed off the policy bankers. Like, “You know me, Augie Robles; you got a thousand for me by Saturday, okay?” Everybody was scared shit of him. Big Jeff and Augie finally got around to it on 112th Street. There must have been ten thousand people watching that shoot-out. Just like in Scarface. Big Jeff, as usual, was the first bull through the door. Imagine, Augie Robles, cornered, with four, count “em, four pistols, waiting on you. Shee-it. The bulls killed Augie that night, but not before Big Jeff got his knee blown up with a dum-dum. They tried to do this gunfight in a jive movie, Madigan. Big Jeff make Madigan look like a faggot. He was bad. But he wasn’t no flake artist. He let me walk away from one that wasn’t my doing even though he could have laid it on me. Bulls ain’t never been my bag–but here’s to you, anyway, Big Jeff. You done the right thing.
The Ricans had some other hairy guys. Was a guy, Cabezon, sat down in a barber chair at Lino’s on 107th Street off Madison–”Lino, cut my hair short today. Tonight I’m going to settle with a guy. No telling where I’m gonna go afterward.” That’s cold. He goed it too. Electric chair.
Then was a guy, Johnny Lata, had his face cut by a rival pimp, Tony Navarro. Lata kept a straight razor in a pan filled with onions and water so that when he got his revenge the scar on Tony’s face would never heal. Lata did cut a forget-me-not on Tony’s face, but the onion bit never checked out because Tony’s liver gave out from too much coke not long after. Tony had in his stable of four the best lookin” whore in Harlem, a German war bride. When that fenomeno used to walk down the street I used to lay right down on the pavement–’vee gates, fraulein” –but I was too broke to hit on her. When I think of all them fine women I didn’t get nothin” of! Years later, after Tony died, I went to a party at Birdland and there she was with a spook band leader, one of the biggest in the country. Being broke never was no fun. I’ll be dead or in jail, but I ain’t ever gonna be broke. Believe that.
That’s all I was ever interested in, makin” a dollar without hurtin” nobody. By my lights, I wasn’t nasty or no troublemaker like them other motherfuckers around there; them guys was just burnin” up inside–the streets was battery acid to them. But the streets never whipped me that bad. I always saw the signs leading out–they was always painted green. Right this way, Mr. Brigante.
That guy Lino, the barber, used to worry about me. He was from the same mountain town in P.R. as my moms. They gonna kill you on the street, Carlito, they gonna lay you out in Gonzalez’s Funeral before you’re twenty-one. He wanted me to go to school like this guy on the block Wilfredo–imagine a grown man still going to school. Never learn nothin” out of no book. Keep your eyes and ears open, maybe read the Daily News to know who’s gettin” locked up. If the smarts are there, you be all right–if they ain’t, you can read books from shit to Shinnecock, ain’t gonna help. Lino was a okay guy, used to bring me Baby Ruths when I was in the Home. He beat me to Gonzalez’s. Here’s to you, Lino–you done the best you could.
IN THE MATTERS OF RACE, THE PUERTO RICANS WAS AHEAD of their time in the forties. We accepted everybody. Nobody accepted us. Since black was not in style in them days, us P.R.’s declared ourselves white. We had a few variations but that didn’t bother us none. The Cubans say, El que no la tiene del Congo, la tiene del Carabal”. Myself, I don’t go for colored guys–but what about colored gals? This country can’t do without them fine women– no kinda way. This country can make all them cars, toasters, ice boxes–goin” to the moon–meanwhile, it’s still hung up on the race watzis. Bunch o’ bullshit. If the rest of the country had listened to us it wouldn’t be in the mess it is now. You take me for instance. I been light enough to sit in the front of a Jim Crow bus but dark enough to be worried about it. I been taken for spook, wop, and one faggot (used to come to the door jay-naked when I was delivering clothes for a cleaner) said I was Armenian. You’re better off having a little bit of everything. That way you are what you have to be whenever you got to be. But who gives a shit, the main thing is to be good-lookin” so the broads will go for you.
Ricardo Montalban I ain’t. But many a kitty has gone for me even when I didn’t have big bread behind me. Believe that. It is true I spend all my time pursuin” good trim and, thank God, have a good rap. It is also true I have had knocked-out-lookin” broads. Tremendos pollos. White, black, tan, green, “n in b”tween (never had no Chinese broad). In other words, I have done all right with the fair sex. I got no squawks in that apartment.
Fact is, I got no beef about my first twenty years. Had me a hell of a time. Warts and all, the streets was my playground. Couldn’t ground me down–not the bulls, not the thugs, not the landlord, not the welfare, not nobody. I ran all over them. Fact is when I was in the get-o I didn’t even know I was there. I didn’t even know how dee-prived I was or that I was one of the downtrotted– it was news to me when the socio workers told me about it. I was happy as a pig in shit.
I would say by and large and mainly Carlos Brigante, mainly known as Carlito, had a good time as a kid. The next twenty years is more tricky. In other words, in the 1950s I was mostly a criminal. I have to admit that. And I did a lot of time for it too. But then Earl Bassey wised me up and Rocco Fabrizi gave me a break into the heavy wood. So like the sixties was big time for me and I was less into bein” a thug and more like a class guy. But I’m runnin” ahead again.
OKAY, THE END OF THE FORTIES SAW ME INTO THE SLAMS at Elmira Reception Center, Elmira, New York. Thereafter known as “the El.” First whiff of country air. Alma mater for many a mope majorin” in thievery, roguery, lechery, and mopery. Thirty-six-month bit I did. I had been on probation for sticking a guy who’d busted my jaw with brass knuckles made out of ashcan handles. Probation don’t mean I didn’t have a few things going– burglaries, cars, like that. So like I’m shooting dice on 105th Street off Madison Avenue on a Saturday afternoon when this bad-ass named Chago grabs all the money on the ground and says, “These dice are loaded. You guys are robbing me; I’m taking the money,” and he pulls out the difference, size .38, so I say, ‘motherfucker, you ain’t going nowhere with my bread.”
“I’ll kill you, Carlito.”
“Kill me, hijo de puta, kill me–”
Everything is real quiet now except for Chago’s breathing–he ain’t got no heart. I grab the piece, bust him in the face with it; he falls down some basement steps, and I grab a garbage can full of ashes and throw it on him. That night I’m shooting nineball in Ramon’s parlor on 106th Street and Madison when Mutt and Jeff from the two-three squad come in.
“Chago’s over at the Flower Hospital. He’s asking for you, Carlito.”
“Chago who? What right you–”
Smack. Right off my ear.
“Okay, let’s go see him.”
No lineup, no reading of rights–they even gave me an admission. Times were rough. Judge put me away– felonious assault, violation of probation. For Chago, they shoulda give me a medal.
In the Joint, thirty-six months. Up there I meet a lot of the boys, including Rocco Fabrizi, who was up for stealing cars. He was tight with Earl Bassey. Earl was up there for dealing in pot. I’d been hearing about him on the Street in Harlem, he was the war counselor of some click uptown on Lenox Avenue. Earl was around our age but he was slick beyond his years. He could see something coming around the corner, like he’d say, ‘so-and-so is a faggot,” and there would be this big stud with tattoos and muscles blowing everybody in the Joint. He knew things. I can’t explain it; he never went to school but he could read people in minutes. His skin was black, but his eyes were like yellow, and when he put them on you everything was cool, like calm. Nothing went down without discussing it with Earl. Even the hacks would check out a beef with Earl.
Me and him got real tight when I started boxing again. Even in the street when I was smoking pot and drinking wine, my hands were quick and my wind wouldn’t quit. Like I’d get inside a cat and hook to the body–I’d catch a few or be pushed off, but I’d get back inside–I’m swinging without stop–most guys couldn’t stay with me. Earl had fought pro in the ring. He was my trainer, taught me how to hook to the head, how to finish a cat when you hurt him. I took a few guys out and my rep was made. Like Earl used to say, ‘don’t mess with Hoppy.” Being Earl was smarter than me, I’d listen to him. He’d come on with, “Look here, Holmes, you got to dig yo’self–you gonna be on the street soon, forget about that okey-doke shit–gorilla-ing people, robbing pads–the shit is on, Briss, I got the word from Rocco– the junk is already here. And we is in–you think some guinea is going up to 125th and Lenox to deal with the niggers or to 111th and Fifth to deal with the spics? They gonna need distributors with brains and with heart– stand-up motherfuckers. I don’t know about you, but I’m declaring myself in. These wops don’t fuck around, bro– you got to play with their rules. Your word is your life– they make a meet, be there! This Mickey Mouse jive with the pussy and the coke and the booze don’t mean nothin”. Got to be cool, stay clean. Make the move a few times a year–that’s it. After a while, I’ll have my own crew– then I’m gonna make my own world. I ain’t gonna be a nigger all my life, pushing wooden Cadillacs on 37th Street–not Mrs. Bassey’s boy. I’m going all the way– they got to kill me, Jack, kill me!”
“What about me, Earl, what about me?”
“You gonna be my man with the Ricans, Chappie– they ain’t nothing but niggers turned inside out.”
Rocco was from another garage–but a boss-type. Tall, lean, with light hair, he didn’t look like no eye-talian to me. And he didn’t give you the wise-guy jive. He was mobbed up with the Pleasant Avenue outfit. But his uncle was a made-guy, a lieutenant with the Mulberry Street crew–a heavy hitter–so like you knew that Rocco was marked. He couldn’t miss, he was a down cat, and he was connected. Rocco didn’t talk with no dese and dose; he spoke nice and soft–like dignity–but he wasn’t no punk. Word was he had already iced some greaseball in the Bronx whose bail had dropped too low. The only thing wrong with Rocco was his love life; he had this thing for a P.R. chick, which in those days was unheard of, so like his uncle kept him in the boondocks–but I knew he’d work it out. Like I say, he was a natural bosstype.
The three of us used to pal out. They’d rap and I’d listen.
“Earl, I’m out of the doghouse, so I’ll be moving downtown–you know where to reach me. I’m not promising you guys anything, but if I get a shot then I’m dealing you in. We may connect once in a year, or even five years–in the meantime I don’t even know if you guys are alive. We meet, we deal, good-bye. Now I’m not talking Harlem shit, I’m talking kilos, up to ten thou a kilo. On my okay you’re going to get stuff on consignment at the beginning. You cross me, I’m dead, because I’m responsible for you–but you know you go right behind me. I’m moving up; you guys can move with me or stay in the shithouse hustling quarters.”
“I’m your man, Rocco.”
‘deal me in, Rocco.”
It’s hard to explain, but when you’re doing time with a man you can read him faster than when you’re on the street. He can’t hide behind his rep or his clothes–shit like that don’t work inside. Inside, all you got is mostly yourself. Like Earl used to say, yo’ hole and yo’ soul is buck neck-id in the Joint. So that’s how come three cats from different alleys got close and stayed close for twenty years. The time was ripe, was overdue–but that don’t mean nothin” if the right people ain’t on the scene. Me and Earl was the right people, and we was ready. We needed a break. Rocco–Rocco had the inside rail from before, what with his uncle, Dominick Cocozza, who was a boss. But he saw their thing had to open up–open up or it was gonna bust open.
So he brought us in out of the rain. He didn’t do it overnight,’specially for me; I was still a cowboy for years yet. But I knew he knew I was stand-up, and later than sooner he would cut me loose into the big bucks. Earl first, then me. Rocco was the icebreaker and he done the right thing. And it took balls, because there was fool wops that couldn’t see it–no put grits, rice, and beans in the pasta. Prejudiced old fucks like Rocco’s boss, Pete Amadeo (maldita sea su madre), who thought they could sit inside the one tent with a whole bunch of Indians like me and Earl runnin” around outside bare-ass in the cold. Not to forget the hole the feds was diggin” under the floor.
Sick–some of them guys is sick too. You take Amadeo–a/k/a Petey A. One night at the Copa–this is when Tom Jones was at his peak. All the wise guys “n dolls was jammed in–place was hysteria. Broads throwin” their keys, their drawers even, at Jones. Pete says to this button-guy with him,
“He’s a fuckin” nigger. All this noise over a fuckin” nigger.”
“No, Pete, you got it wrong–he’s English.”
“I say he’s a fuckin” nigger, awright?”
“Eh, yeah, you’re right, Pete–lookit the way he dances.”
We split from the El in the order we came in. First Rocco, then Earl, then me. I hit Harlem like Sonny hit Floyd.