A clash between the two of us, between our two families, was inevitable. We were like two locomotives barrowing toward one another on a collision course. Actually, Stevie didn’t have a family: he had a network, a dizzying patchwork of blood relatives.
Let me explain. Stevie’s mother and step-father, Mimi and Peter, worked regular jobs, but enjoyed a life well above their means. Mimi was a nurse, or a lease she wore a white nurse’s uniform to work and she was younger and prettier than most of our moms. I still don’t know what Peter did for a living, but he kept working man hours.
Most powerful of the clan members was Stevie’s Uncle Harvey known as ‘Big Harv’. Harvey was squat in stature with a humpty dumpty build, but maintained an unassailable presence. This little man, head tilted with a self-glorifying strut, was the center of attention wherever he went. He knew everybody. Perhaps, more importantly, everyone knew him.
He wheeled a black man’s Rolls Royce, a Cadillac; a new one every year. In the store, he peeled off tens and twenties from a humongous knot like it was nothing. We kids could only stare with our mouths open wide. That alone was enough to enshrine him in our neighborhood hall of fame.
His wife, Miss. Delores, and son, Reggie, were two of a kind, wicked to the core. No wonder they got along with the Johnson’s so well. There was even some talk that the two families were related. Reggie Harvey’s mere presence instilled feared in most kids, who instinctively kept their distance. Miss Delores seemed to have it in for me. She never looked directly at me; instead, she leered out the corner of her eye while tossing out little veiled insults.
Chapter Seventeen: Firecrackers
The fuse was finally lit when I turned eight. My father brought me a couple of packs of firecracker around the Forth of July. I had been going downstairs by my self for two years now. So it wasn’t a big deal. However, that day, ‘Fat Stevie’ tried to ‘Bogart’ my firecrackers. He asked if he could hold them, to see if they were the genuine article. When I handed them over, he refused to give them back.
“You can get hurt,” he said in his usual its-good-to-be-the-king manner. “You should be glad that I’m going to set them off for you.”Later on, he would claim that he tried to give them back, but I took off running. He was probably right. Faced with a bully, I’d always run to tell my daddy. I remember my father popping his head out the backyard window.
“Daddy, ‘Fat Stevie’ stole my fire crackers.” After hearing my story, he disappeared back inside. When he returned, he let dropped an ancient tennis racket that he probably kept around for just this kind of thing. With some not so subtle prodding from my father, I confronted ‘Fat Stevie’ head on. Turns out, daddy was right. A few whacks upside the head were all it took.
After school the next day, I was told in not so delicate language, but in words intended to cut like glass, about the fight between my mother and Delores Harvey. Reaching the building, I spotted my mother. Her dress was torn in several spots, her wig clownishly askew, and her face greatly distressed. I didn’t see what shape Miss Delores was in, but my first impression was my mother got the worse of it.
I was grounded for the next couple of days. When I resurfaced, I had to suffer the slings and arrows of neighborhood commentary on the battle royale. My mother threatened to sue, in keeping with her reputation, but nothing ever became of it. We had offended the neighborhood’s most infamous family thus placing us at odds with most of the neighborhood. Though, we weren’t entirely at the Harvey’s mercy.
My mother had some powerful and influential political contacts that Harvey and his brood needed in order to soften their lascivious image. They needed to wash away the taint of their criminal lifestyle by rubbing shoulders with civil rights dignitaries and those in public office. Thus, they needed someone like my mother to make the right introductions. So, in time the incident faded from discussion, but it was never forgotten by either family.
While Peter gave every appearance of being Stevie’s father, everyone knew that ‘Bobby White Boy’ was his real father. One only had to see them together. Stevie was a miniature version of the overweight policy (numbers) banker and racketeer. ‘Bobby White Boy’ was a massive 300 lbs and the quintessential Harlem hustler.
Men like ‘Bobby White Boy’, ‘Rip’, ‘Mr. Gene’, ‘ Red’, ‘Puppy Dog’, amongst others, weren’t gangsters, not in the mold of Italian and Irish Mafia figures like Lucky Luciano, Dutch Shultz, or even John Gotti. They never commanded crime families.
Chapter Eighteen: Harlem Racketeers
They were racketeers, hustlers who used violence as a last result. They didn’t order drive-bys, toss people from rooftops, or hand out hotshots (overdoses) to boost the sales of their product. They even gave back to the neighborhood now and again through block parties, sponsored sports tournaments and holiday giveaways. As a result, they were respected by most folks and admired by some.
These men specialized in gambling, loan-sharking, and the numbers. By comparison, today’s gangsters, hoods, and thugs honor no rules, recognize no sense of obligation and traffic in any illicit trade that will turn a buck, even if it means devouring the very neighborhood that sustains their way of life.
After being MIA all winter, when spring rolled around, ‘Bobby White Boy’ reappeared out of thin air. Some speculated that he spent his winters in jail. Others said he had a house in Miami where he laid on the beach all day counting his money.
Nonetheless, each and every summer there he was cruising up Convent Avenue. I could see him now, leaning to the side in his canary-yellow convertible, arm stretched across the top to the car seat, his eyes hidden behind dark shades. Everyone took notice, but he took no notice of anyone.
His soft, light skin glistened under a hot sun. He kept a white cotton towel draped across the back of his bulging neck to absorb the gushing fountain of sweat. I can still see his Cadillac convertible, spoke rims gleaming, coming to a screeching halt in front of one of his underground numbers holes (gambling locations).
When pissed off, he’d turn lobster red then rampage up and down the street. The precious few who dared approached him spoke in reverential tones, cowering before the big man. When it came to ‘Bobby White Boy’ even the beat cops respected his space. He was top dog in the neighborhood and not to be crossed.
Chapter Nineteen: It Pays to Lie
‘Fat Stevie’, because of his family, his family associates, and his ties to ‘Bobby White Boy’, was clearly the most feared and admired kid I’ve ever known. And, wheeling this power came natural to him, like he was born to shine. His star qualities even carried over into school.
In 1965, I went the whole year without missing a single day of school. Miss Vatacca, my third grade teacher, had the same effect on all the boys in her class. For us, she was Bewitch, I Dream of Jennie, and That Girl all rolled up into one. Her skin was dove-white, her eyes soft-blue, and her lips rose pedal.
But, it was her mini shirts and low-cut blouses that sealed the deal. We lived to watch her reach high into the supply closet, revealing the better part of her smooth thighs; setting fire to more than our blossoming imaginations.
To no one’s surprise, Fat Stevie was the teacher’s pet. For example, we were lined up preparing to go to music class, when Miss. Vatacca caught the class off guard. Evidently, she had been tipped off that one of her student was in possession of a pack of cigarettes.
“Alright boys and girls, eyes on me,” she started out. “I know that one of you has brought cigarettes to school. This was not cool, children. I demand that you turn them over now and make matters easy on yourself,” she said, searching our puzzled faces. She didn’t say what was going to happen if the kid didn’t come forth, but we all knew. When no one stepped forward, she promptly sent for the vice principal.
I was positioned between Crystal Summers, my class crush, and ‘Fat Stevie’. I was in perfect position to witness Stevie dump the pack of Kent cigarettes into Gino’s coat pocket.
“Miss Vatacca, I know who got the cigarettes,” Fat Stevie offered, stepping forward dutifully. After scanning our stunned faces, he raised his finger accusingly. “It’s Geno; he’s got em’.”
Geno’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. He tried to plead his innocence, but Stevie wasn’t having it. “They’re in his coat pocket,” Stevie lied, pointing to the closet. “He showed them to us at lunch.” Just then, Mr. Young, a baldhead, overweight tyrant of a vice principal, arrived in a huff.
“I’ll handle it from here, Miss. Vatacca,” his eyes narrowed to slits as he marched down the line, peering into our eyes, his hot cigar breath spoiling the air.
“Stevie informed me that Eugene, here, had a pack of cigarettes during recess,” said Miss. Vatacca.
“Ooooh, is that right, “groaned Mr. Young.
He stormed toward a shivering Geno, demanding that he point out his coat. Mr. Young quickly searched the coat. Holding the evidence aloft, he exited the closet and strolling back toward Geno. The frightened Geno was starting to mutter something when a humongous white hand landed flushed against his face sending him flying backwards. He reminded me of a bowling ball, taking out desk like pins before crashing into the supply closet.
The rest of the class was never questioned. Of course, everyone would have covered for Stevie. They would if they knew what was good for them. But, that’s beside the point. Why was Stevie’s word taken as Gospel? Geno was carted off bruised and sobbing, having been made the patsy.
‘Fat Stevie’ for his good deed was awarded the privilege of fetching Mr. Young’s lunch from the bodega (Spanish grocery store) up on 131st Street and Amsterdam. In exchange, ‘Fat Stevie’ got a deluxe hero and cold soda. Who said, it doesn’t pay to lie.
Stevie could have placed the pack in anyone’s coat, even mine. But, he chose Geno’s. Perhaps, it was because Geno was his only real competition. Geno was, like him, a lighter shade of black and had ‘good hair’. He was also a growing favorite of our Miss Vatacca. And, his family also had ties to the streets. But, more importantly, the grapevine had it that he too was a product of ‘Bobby White Boy’s’ loins, another one of the powerful man’s scattered seeds.
My early encounters with the Johnson brood, the Blake boys, and ‘Fat Stevie’ led to another defining moment, shaping the person that I would one day become. I realized, through them, that if I was going to survive, I had to embrace a new set of values, not the scriptured lessons handed down by Reverend Mo’ or the moral teachings of my mother and father.
From that point on, I set out to prove to the neighborhood that I wasn’t this little spoiled brat. To, prove, in essence, that I was one of them. So, I set out to earn my place in the neighborhood by trading one type of education for another, one belief system for another.