Part Three: A Harlem Dude
January 8, 1979
On my first day at the Sixth Homicide Zone in Harlem, I went out in a radio car with two black detectives. A cold white sun was gleaming in the February sky, and jagged mounds of pockmarked snow were piled at the curbs. I kept losing my sense of direction, and only occasionally did I know precisely what street we were on. Lenox Avenue looked very much like Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, which was actually Seventh Avenue — or maybe Eighth; I couldn’t keep them straight. As the car bounced down the potholed street, the snow chains set up such a deafening whackety-whack that we had to converse in shouts. From the back seat I shouted questions about Harlem drug traffic, and the detectives threw back answers about things that had happened on 16th Street or 47th Street, and for a while I thought there must be some huge drug operation downtown that I had never heard of — until I realized they were just dropping the hundred.
I looked out the grimy windows. It was more like the South Bronx than I had expected — somehow I hadn’t realized that Harlem was burning too. Handsome neo-Renaissance apartment buildings from the turn of the century stood, hollow with decay. Large stores and whole rows of tenements had black gaping windows and doors bricked up with cinder blocks or covered with galvanized sheeting. Looking inside, you could sometimes see calendars still fixed to the peeling walls, or pinups, or a leaking pipe. One graffito was everywhere, always in the same hand: BECOME A CATHOLIC. The whole place looked just like everybody said — a bombed-out town.
Most of the small shops were shabby but relatively intact. A disproportionate number seemed to have orange facades, and the incidence of astrological references was striking: Zodiac Bar, Gemini Fresh Scooped Ice Cream, Libra Cleaners, etc. There were hundreds of storefront churches, and quite a few barbers, fish stores, pet shops, and florists. A number of the flower shops had spanking-clean facades that stood out from their surroundings and I asked why they were so prosperous.
“Funerals,” shouted the older detective, Jeddy Gates, who was driving. “Hardly anybody’s so poor he don’t get a wreath when he dies.”
The police radio was crackling beneath the dashboard, and whenever a bulletin of particular interest came across, Gates turned up the volume. “Robbery in progress at bakery, 125th and Eighth. Respond without siren. A man is holding a knife around the baker’s neck.” That was work for the uniformed cops.
We rode down 116th Street, which was largely bombed out but still teeming with life. It was a street where you could make big weight connections, they said. They showed me the block where Nicky Barnes grew up, between Manhattan and Eighth, and some hotels where dealers operated, and the Jack Daniels Bar, a one-story hole that had witnessed three or four drug-related murders. A few doors down, on the corner of Lenox, stood the light blue mosque with its galvanized dome. The ground floor contained Muslim-run shops.
“Those are the only stores in Harlem with no shutters,” Gates said as we stopped for the light. “The hoodlums don’t fuck with those people.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because they’ll come out and protect their property,” he said. We turned onto Lenox and I asked them where the main drug locations were. They started shouting coordinates at me — 127th and Eighth, 128th and Lenox, 131st and Madison… and when I’d filled an entire page of my notebook, I said that was enough: I got the idea.
“Wherever there are a lot of abandoned buildings,” said Gates, “the junkies and dope dealers feel they can congregate without anybody complaining. That’s why you get these drug pockets. As for 116th Street, that’s big because of the easy access. The Lenox Avenue subway, the Eighth Avenue subway. People can come from all over. And 127th Street is big because it has five or six fleabag hotels, it’s always been an area frequented by prostitutes. So, naturally, the customers and the whores themselves are people who buy drugs.”
“But where exactly is Nicky Barnes’s turf?” I shouted.
“That’s not how it works,” Gates answered. “It’s like a farmers’ market. Everybody’s free to put their wares out.”
We drove slowly down the marijuana street — 123rd, I think it was. The younger detective, Joe Leake, rolled down his window. “They’ll usually come right up to the car,” he said. Figures in blue-hooded sweatshirts popped out from behind doors and under stoops. They glared, and waited, and glared some more, but nobody approached. It was mainly a West Indian block, said Leake. There had been a decapitation, with a machete.
At 124th and Eighth, a group of middle-aged men with pails and brushes were scrubbing a long line of brightly colored Cadillacs.
“That’s the dealers’ car wash,” Leake said.
Then we drove farther uptown, past Colonial Park, where children were playing under the brow of a spectacular cliff. The detectives showed me on Eighth Avenue where Nicky Barnes and his people used to hang out — the Taureans II, with a stucco front and Tudor beams — and the Third Planet, painted orange. A tall man in a denim cap stood alertly in the doorway of the Third Planet. “That’s the doorman,” said Gates. “He got shot twice last year in the same knee.”
We drove down a certain block of 143rd Street, which had recently become a major drug retail outlet. There were about 50 scramblers standing around, on stoops and on the sidewalk, hawking packets of dope like newsies. As soon as we came along, there were shouts of “Yo!” which Leake explained was the standard warning when cops arrived. A few of the scramblers ran into the buildings, but most of them stood their ground, looking impatient and angry. Gates pulled over and shouted a question at one of them he knew; the others all started walking away in disgust. They were mostly young men, under 30, with mean battered faces. They were dressed in ski parkas and air force jackets and wore plastic golf hats backward or sideways — also porkpie hats, fishing hats, safari hats, and comb picks in their hair. Harlem is the last bastion of male headgear.
Of course, wherever you see scramblers you see junkies. But then you see junkies almost everywhere in Harlem, standing around in groups, passing the time of day — on street corners, in doorways, in vacant lots, on the curb hovering over trash-can fires. They were very keen to the scent of cops, and when we drove by they darted up the street like schools of frightened fish. There was nothing to distinguish them from any other group of bums and winos except for the damaged, wolfish look in their eyes — and one other feature, which I wouldn’t have noticed if Gates hadn’t pointed it out. He nodded toward one of the junkies and drew his finger down his own cheek. “See,” he said, “he’s the same color as I am, except there’s no shine to his skin.”
There were two things that everybody told you about Jeddy Gates. One was that he was 64 years old, the oldest man in the NYPD. This was offered mainly for its shock effect, because Gates looked much younger. The other was that Gates had been a colonel in the paratroopers.
Gates was that increasingly rare phenomenon in American life, a legend who has not become a celebrity. “Do you know how long I’ve been hearing about him?” one of the younger black detectives said. “Jeddy has been around a long time and he knows a lot of people. A lot of people. He’s a genuine Harlem dude, the real thing.”
In Sixth Homicide, Gates was on special assignment. He didn’t catch any cases himself but was supposed to help the other detectives with homicides in the 32nd Precinct. That area — roughly from 130th to 155th streets — was where he had grown up and still lived; the assumption was that he had special access to information via the famous Harlem grapevine. He was the detective with whom I felt safest in the street, and the one with whom I spent by far the most time.
Gates was a charming man, extremely candid, and completely at home in three worlds about which I knew next to nothing: the army, the police, and Harlem. One reason we got along well is that he can’t stand people who think they know everything, and I had little choice in Harlem but to admit my ignorance quite often.
Gates was a very alert type. On his hip, he wore a big, military-looking nine millimeter semi-automatic; just in case anyone took that away from him, he also kept a standard .38 police revolver tucked away in an ankle holster. One day we were standing on Lenox Avenue across from his apartment house, a red-brick high rise, and I asked which floor he lived on. He nodded curtly toward a window filled with golden trophies. It turned out they had all been awarded for marksmanship. In his 17 years as a cop, he had been shot at on one occasion, but he had never fired at anyone — an achievement he attributed to his habit of careful planning.
Harlem was his element; it was an education to watch him move through it, talking about its musical history, its bars, its drug dealers, and his main fascination, the numbers business. He knew, without thinking about it, when the betting closed and when each digit hit the street. Under his tutelage, my ear became attuned to the ubiquitous numbers talk, and I began to hear everyone saying, “The first one’s out, the first one’s three,” and I understand what people meant when they told Gates they were going to bet his license plate — a cop’s plate is one of several thousand things that are supposed to bring good luck. I began to learn which stores and holes-in-the-wall were numbers spots, and I heard about some of the personalities in the business, like the 67-year-old comptroller who was shot mysteriously one night while standing next to the Watermelon Man’s stand on Eighth Avenue, a few blocks from where Jeddy lives. This comptroller, according to Jeddy, had two million dollars stashed away and was “well thought of in the community.” I even knew the tailor shop the comptroller had established for his girlfriend and used as his office.
Jeddy’s first assignment on the force had been as an undercover agent in the commissioner’s confidential squad. They had wanted to buy him a numbers spot, he said, but the plan fell through because the department couldn’t get up the money. He would have had both the prestige of a numbers guy and the legitimacy of a cop; I think that arrangement would have made him supremely happy.
Jeddy would answer any question I asked about the Harlem of the present and sometimes even drew me diagrams, but when it came to history, I sometimes had to pry it out of him. He was the father of teenage children, stayed very au courant, and took great pride in his youthfulness; I don’t think he liked being reminded how much history he had seen. He had lived through a lot of changing attitudes and mores.
One day he let drop the fact that when he was a kid, Louis the Gimp had delivered the ice on his block. Louis the Gimp, as I had learned only the week before, was at one time an important Italian connection in Harlem. I asked Jeddy to tell me about him.
Louis was about five-foot-seven, said Jeddy. “As far as appearance, he was on the George Raft type… See, in the old days, the mobbies used to have their guys right in Harlem, running the numbers business. Then, later, they had to cede the black guys some of their spots. In my neighborhood, black people would do the writing, and Louis would collect the money. He was like a general supervisor.”
“Didn’t the blacks resent guys like Louis?” I asked.
“Naw,” Jeddy said in an impatient tone, “those guys were all right.”
One day in July, I arrived in the office just as Gates was going out. A young man had been shot to death the night before in the park at 139th and Lenox. The victim’s sister, Vanessa, had just called in to say that she’d spotted the murderer, whose name was Billy. The detective who had talked to Vanessa got the message garbled, so that Gates couldn’t be quite sure where the perpetrator was supposed to be, but he decided to go out anyway. He grabbed a walkie-talkie out of the wall rack and we went downstairs to Gates’s own car, a red ’76 Cadillac El Dorado with a white vinyl roof. He started the car with one hand and fixed the squelch dial with the other.
As we stopped for a light on Lenox, he called in to the precinct, and Frank, the radio man, reported that Vanessa had phoned in again. “Perp is in the park at 139th and Lenox. Dressed in blue sweater with blue hood and blue jeans.
“Where’d she call from?” Gates asked.
“Gus’s Tavern, 138th and Lenox.”
Gates stepped on the gas, ran a red light, reached down and withdrew a .38 revolver from the ankle holster covered by his blue fretted sock. He slipped the revolver into his right jacket pocket. “I’ll have to ease up on this guy and take him by surprise,” he muttered to himself. “I can’t run after him. I’ll lose him.”
On 140th, we made a U-turn around the divider strip and parked at the curb on the west side of Lenox. On our right was a modern pocket park, with a little playground built on a rise and a section of benches for the older folks, shaded by trees. Gates got out of the car without locking his door; he told me to stay and listen for messages on the walkie-talkie. After taking a tour of the park, he headed downtown and disappeared. Three other detectives pulled up, fanned out across the park, came back, and drove off.
I sat there, sweating, and remembered what one of the detectives had told me early on. “Now, Timmy,” he had said. “If you go riding around with any of the guys, don’t be letting them run out a back door and leave you stranded. Because people up here go out with guns the way you go out with house keys. And if you do get stranded, just put up your hands and surrender to the enemy!” This was followed by hideous laughter.
I thought of that poor kid McEvoy who had got shot in the head over on Broadway by some 12-year-old black kid who didn’t like his smile. I locked the door and pushed the button to send the windows up.
The walkie-talkie in my lap kept chattering away, but none of the messages had to do with our case. I watched the kids playing on the jungle jims, and the older kids strolling by, embracing huge Sonys and Panasonics. Finally Jeddy came sauntering up the street, climbed into the driver’s seat, and said there was no sign of either the perp or Vanessa. He eased the car out into the southward flow of traffic, rolling slowly, and we started back to the precinct — and then I saw the perp. He was a big, evil-looking dude, swaggering toward us on 139th, in blue hooded sweatshirt and jeans.
“That’s him, Jeddy!” I pointed with my finger. I felt very proud.
“Don’t point,” Jeddy snapped, making a sharp turn west on 139th.
A squad car was there already, stopped in the middle of the street, parallel to the perp. The cop in the driver’s seat waved him over. (Suicidal move, Gates said later. They were sitting ducks in that car.) The perp responded with an exaggerated gesture — “Who, me?” — and tossed his car keys to a friend. He was standing on the perimeter of a milling curbside throng whose diffused intelligence took about 30 seconds to crystallize into the singlemindedness of a mob. By that time, Gates had his .38 out and was striding toward the perp. He pushed him up against the squad car, spread his arms out over the roof, patted him down, signaled the two cops to get out and help — all in one unbroken swoop — and then drew himself up and looked around to make sure the phalanx behind him wasn’t about to attack. They were still at the brandishing-fists stage.
Gates then demanded the car keys. The man began to walk away, so Gates went after him, making three or four downswings with his arm, as if trying to steal a basketball, and finally pried the keys out of the man’s fist. (“Had to get those keys,” he said later. “Suppose the murder weapon was in the glove compartment.”)
The two cops drove off with the perp handcuffed in the back seat. By then the crowd was jeering at Gates, with the loudest heckling coming from a tall young man in bright yellow pants and shirt and a Panama hat. When Gates got into the El Dorado, he was snorting with anger at something the kid in yellow had called him. “I don’t want to see you around!” he shouted to the kid as we drove off. The kid shouted something I couldn’t hear. Gates stepped on the brake and turned to the window. “You’re wrong,” he shouted. “Keep it up and you’re gonna be dead wrong.”
When Gates cooled off a little, I asked, “Is that our man?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I called him Billy and he said that wasn’t his name. We’ll just have to check him out.”
By the time we arrived at the 32nd Precinct, on 135th Street, the perp was threatening to sue the two cops for false arrest. “My name is Willie Vanderbilt!” he kept screaming. He was a handsome, well-built man; his face and neck were taut with fury. Gates calmly introduced himself, took him inside, and looked at his driver’s license. “W’e’ve probably got the wrong guy,” he announced finally, and ordered the cuffs removed.
“I understand, Gates,” said Willie, shaking his head. “You’re looking for a young guy. I’m 30.” Gates radioed the Sixth to say he was bringing in Willie for an identity check.
“Don’t worry. You won’t have any problem checking me out,” said Willie, as he got into the El Dorado. “Everybody for a radius of 10 blocks knows me.” He stretched out his legs in the back seat, and his view of the arrest began to mellow. “You never know how popular you are until something like this happens,” he said. “It really makes me feel good, man, to see that kind of support.”
“Well, this’ll only take a few minutes,” said Gates. “I’ll get you right back there, and I won’t even charge you for the ride!”
“Right on, Jeddy,” said Willy. “Any time you’re involved, man, it’s done right. Whenever these bluecoats come around, there might always be a shootout. But people come to you, man, they rat to you, I know. They’d rather come to you than some whitey. I hope you don’t ever retire, just in case anything happens to me.”
Willie brought up the murder of his own accord. “I’m glad he got killed. I’m glad he did,” said Willie. “I heard he pulled his shit first and it didn’t shoot. Simple as that. This is the street talking, Jeddy, I’m just telling you what I hear, not what I know. It’s because of the girl that the boy is dead, because of that Vanessa. Because of her a life had to be lost.”
Jeddy listened in a friendly way but didn’t press for details. We arrived at the precinct, and as we got out of the elevator on the third floor, a uniformed cop said, “Hi, Willie, how you doin’ man!”
“See,” said Willie. “He called me Willie. He’s my main man, known him since I was so high.”
Gates didn’t even wait for the official check to go through but started back with Willie almost immediately. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A few weeks later, the real killer turned himself in.
“Every city,” said Jeddy, “has its rundown part, where people don’t have money, but they’ve got to pay rent, buy food, eat — so they resort to crime.”
But this was not true of his own family, which had come from Alabama, via Cleveland, and settled in Harlem about 1923, when Jeddy was 10. His father first worked as an elevator operator, then got a job as a super in a house on Lenox Avenue — a five-story boarding house that is still standing; now painted pink with a red stoop, it faces Jeddy’s modern high-rise apartment. The family lived rent free, in the basement. Jeddy and his two younger brothers helped with the supering chores, besides shining shoes, selling papers, saving rags, running errands, and doing odd jobs. Their mother cleaned houses in the Bronx. The whole family was given a job by a white congregation in the West 80s; every Thursday night in return for washing up after the church supper, they were allowed to eat leftovers. The family refused to go on welfare. Aside from stealing an occasional apple from a fruit stand, Jeddy never committed a crime. He attributed this to tight supervision and training.
His strongest ambition as a young man was to play trumpet, like his hero, Louis Armstrong. It was in hopes of achieving artistic inspiration that he started smoking reefer, which in those days cost 25 cents a stick, more than he could afford. To make some money, he and a friend tried to steal a case of soda from a truck, and got caught. As punishment, his father barred him from doing all the things he did to make money. He ended up joining the national guard.
Jeddy spent 10 years there and 20 in the army. He told me he’d fought at Okinawa, lobbing grenades into Japanese caves 200 yards up the beach from where Ernie Pyle got killed; postwar, at Fort Bragg, he commanded a segregated paratrooper battalion known as the Black Panthers; he was wounded with shrapnel in Korea. In the late ’50s, he worked at the Pentagon, in personnel, setting standards for promotions and severances. Apparently he had retired reluctantly, due to some kind of general troop reduction. Just before he left, the CIA offered him a job spying in Cuba. His cover story was going to be that he was embittered by an unjust dishonorable discharge. He was all set to do it until they told him the salary was $24,000 a year. He knew that Gary Powers and the guys who flew the U-2s were making $25,000 a month.
That’s when he became a cop. “What else was there for me to do?” he said. In 1961, there weren’t a lot of jobs for 47-year-old black men with management skills. Thanks to his army experience, he was able to skip the police academy and start off with the rank of detective; he was sworn in secretly as an undercover agent, assigned to investigate gamblers. The gamblers assumed he’d been away too long to know his way around. “But the numbers locations are passed down from father to son,” he said, “and I knew all of them, just like the day I left.”
With his army pension and his detective’s salary he was able to live quite comfortably and could easily have moved out of Harlem, but he chose to stay. “One thing I got to do before I die,” he told me, “I got to see Gai Paree.” His father, who had fought in France during World War I, had been deeply impressed by the hospitality of Paris. But Jeddy didn’t seem in any hurry to get there. When his vacations came, he spent them in Harlem.
After a while, the question of what kept Jeddy in Harlem answered itself. There were things there that I literally could not see, that he could see — and that he loved. They were things he knew from his past, history that his eyes could not forget.
One time he pointed out his “favorite neighborhood bistro,” the Renney Lounge. It was a modern-looking bar with a red-brick facade. FDR and Rocky had both made campaign stops there, and it sat right beneath the Renaissance Ballroom, which, unlike the defunct Savoy and bombed-out Minton’s, is a healthy and still-functioning shrine of an incandescent musical era. The Renney had many pleasant associations for Jeddy. He’d lived just around the corner as a teenager and used to go to the Renaissance to listen to the bands because it made him feel hip and cool, as though he belonged to something special. The ballroom also served as a basketball court in those days, and one of Jeddy’s brothers, William “Pop” Gates, had played there for Harlem’s premier team, the Renaissance Big Five.
A lot of bars uptown are filled with drug dealers now or are owned by them, but the Renney has managed to keep out what Jeddy calls “the sneaker people.” It’s located right across from Striver’s Row, the best block in Harlem and one of the handsomest in the city. The neighborhood is still relatively safe, Jeddy told me, because a lot of cops hang out there.
Jeddy had a way of making certain corners of Harlem sound snug, but he wasn’t a fool, blinded by his own nostalgia. Harlem was a place filled with a craziness that could strike virtually anywhere, and the craziness was drugs. Drugs were eating away at the core of the community. What made the craziness so violent was the all-pervasive presence of coke, heroin, angel dust, and guns. God knows, we have our share of coked-up megalomaniacs downtown, but not too many of them walk around with .357 Magnums. Angel dust produces the same total false confidence as cocaine, with an added touch of lunatic viciousness. And junkies, although they can’t take too much resistance — which is why they like to pick on old ladies — can sometimes find a lot of strength in their cravenness.
Drug-provoked craziness was the common thread that ran through many of the stories I heard in the office. People did incredibly brazen things. They shot someone and came back on the same block two days later, expecting everyone to have forgotten the incident. They went on insane rampages. Drugs seemed to cut off their ability to calculate consequences. But the craziest thing they did, it seemed to me, was jumping out of windows, as if every street were equipped with nets. I myself suffer from a serious fear of heights, and I kept wondering what it was that these people could have feared worse than a three-story fall. Was a three-story fall less drastic than it sounded? Was I that neurotic?
“A couple of years ago,” one detective, Jim Coffey, told me, “we had one in a railroad flat, the front apartment on the fifth floor. A brother and sister, ripping off three junkies. There was a dresser with a broken mirror, two mattresses, and the place smelled of urine. Glassine envelopes all over the floor. It was a typical skell’s apartment.
“What happened was, they made the junkies stand up, and the sister went to search them while the brother held the gun on them. The gun discharged accidentally and one of the guys got scared and went out the window. They started looking for him and there he was, hanging onto the window sill. They tried to pull him back in, but he slipped away and fell five stories.
“We found the guy a couple of hours later. He was walking around, fit as a fiddle. All he had was a sprained wrist. He’d fallen into eight feet of garbage. It was like a gigantic cushion. So you might say that the slumlord and the Sanitation Department and all did him a big favor.
“It was the sister who died. She’d been leaning over one of the junkies, and the bullet went into the back of her neck and right up into the head.”
Two other detectives, Capetta and Leinen, once knocked on the door of an apartment where there were a couple of suspects who happened to be in the coke business. “Police!” said Capetta, and the first thing the two men did was to jump out the window into a courtyard. It was three stories down. Even if they hadn’t broken their legs, they would have been hard put to make good their escape because the courtyard was locked from the outside.
One day I heard a detective in the Sixth regaling his friends with this story, which he’d heard from someone in Narcotics: “This guy was in his apartment with his girlfriend, smoking angel dust. He got good and dusted up and he started biting her — I mean really taking big chomps out of her flesh. She tried to get away from him, but he was too fast and kept catching her. So, finally, she freaks out totally and jumps out the window. Three stories down, boom. She’s lying there with God knows how many bones broken, and then he flies out the window after her. And on two broken legs, he crawls over to where she is and starts biting her again.”
Finally, it occurred to me that the best authority I could consult on jumping was Jeddy Gates. Around his neck he wore a gold Master Parachutist’s Medal with a diamond set in the middle. The medal signified that he had made over 500 jumps. He’d never been injured, he said when I broached the subject. Nor had he ever needed to use the reserve chute. It was all just a matter of training.
You had to get used to it: three seconds, then a shock of nine Gs. “When you land, if the wind has swung you sideways, it knocks the shit out of you, literally.” He showed me how you had to distribute the impact along calf, thigh, side, and shoulder. “Landing with no wind, it’s like jumping from 14 feet,” he said.
I asked him if he would ever jump three stories.
“If they had a gun?” he asked.
“I’d jump two stories,” he said pensively. “If it was three, I’d have to face the guy.” ■
This is the third story in a series on Harlem: