Beneath the Spin * Eric L. Wattree
It is not my intent to promote living outside the law. I’m against that - period. But knowledge is power, and the fact is, the hustlers of my youth had a tremendous impact on my life, just as the current wannabes have on the lives of many Black youth today. So I want to do two things in this piece - first, I want to make it clear to the Black youth of today that most of what they think of as "hustlers" were not anything like they're being portrayed in the media; and secondly, I want to give the wider audience a perspective on how these Black "renegades" are perceived by Black youth by allowing them to view these hustlers through the eyes of my youth.
When Val and I were about to go on our first date, a gigolo by the name of Shelton called me earlier that day from out of the blue and said, "Hey Eric, I hear you and Valdie are hooking up. I was just thinking, man, you know, that's Big Joe's niece, so you're gon' have to come strong. So check this out. Why don't I scrape me up a chauffeur's cap and swing by your pad tonight and we can pick her up in my Bentley? We can give her a night she'll never forget. Just leave it to me" - and that's exactly what happened. We were in good hands with Shelton, because as a male escort, that was what Shelton specialized in, showing women a good time. He did it for the Hollywood studios. My father had given me forty dollars to take Val out, but I didn't have to spend a penny of it. Everything was taken care of.
The night started with Shelton pulling up to Val's house with me sitting in the backseat, and then he went to Val's door and retrieved her. Thereafter, he escorted her to the Bentley, and as he opened the backdoor to helped her in, he touched the front of his cap - and from that moment on, she got the Cinderella treatment all night long. Essentially, this was Shelton's date, I was just along for the ride, and Val talked about that night until the day she died. She used to say, "That Shelton was the prettiest man I've ever seen in my life!" But that night, Big Joe made absolutely sure that what I smelled what'n cookin'. I didn't realize that Shelton was actually our chaperone until I was grown. I had been what they called "finessed" by the best. But when I looked in Val's eyes, I knew it was just a matter of time - a very short time - because even now, long after her death, I'm still trying to live up to the man I saw reflected in her eyes.
When Val and I got married at 19 and 21 years old, our wedding reception looked like a peacock's parade. And then when Kai and Eric was born, in spite of our young age - and the fact that I was penniless - we always lived under palm trees and at the edge of swing pools. We never wanted for anything. Every time money got tight, something seemed to fall out of the sky. The guy at the liquor would say, "Hey Eric, I need some help around here. How'd you like to come help me out in the evenings after you get off from work?" And I mean, from out of the blue! I had just come to get a drink., not a job, but I sure could use it, because while the price of rent in the "Jungle" was only $165 a month, that was twice what most were paying at the time - and it was considered outrageous for a 22 year-old.
Then after I started working at the liquor store the local gangsters started coming in and selling me top-of-the-line ten-speed bikes for $15 a piece, which I would turn around and sell for a $100 dollars or more. I never bothered to inquire where they got them, but I knew they weren't being taken from kids, because they were brand spankin' new. Before long everybody in Baldwin Hills knew that if they wanted ten-speeds that I was the go-to guy. And again, this just started happening from out of the blue - and I was making a killin'!
Then we were encouraged by Big Joe to enroll Kai and Eric in Windsor Hills Elementary School. As a result, they went to school with the children of doctors, lawyers, and politicians. And once they got there, they were assigned a teacher, Ms. Faye Armstrong, who became their PERMANENT teacher. They didn't change teachers every year like most kids. We got so close with Faye that we used to go to dinner together, and Kai became so close to her that she began to take on Faye's Texas drawl. By the time Kai graduated, Faye had her so sharp that she was doing her class' valedictorian speech.
So I strongly suspect that something was at work here, because when I look back on it, Kai and Eric grew up like royalty. It seemed like even when I did something wrong, it somehow, miraculously, turned out right. As a young man, I always wanted to think it was about what Val and I were doing right, but was it? Today I'm almost certain invisible hands were at work in the background, because the chances of two kids getting married at 19 and 21 years old and managing to raise two children into adulthood without hitting even ONE bump in the road severely challenges the odds of statistical probability. When we were raising Kai and Eric, we literally, never struggled. Life was one big party. Our home was a house with four kids in it, running itself . . . or so it seemed.
|Kai Doing The Valedictorian Speech|
In return for the assistance that my mother had been given by people in the community, when people in the neighborhood needed medical attention but couldn't afford to pay, my mother would treat them right there in our home - for free. And the community was good to her as well. A multi-faceted hustler by the name of Big Eddie Carr pulled up one day with a huge box (I'll never forget Big Eddie; he was a very suave and elegant brother who used to always wear cummerbunds. He was also a singer - "It's Hard But It's Fair"). He told my mother, "Hey, Ver, I ran across this the other day and it had Verlee written all over it, so I thought I'd pick it up for you" - a FUR throw rug. It became one of my mother's prize possessions - not only because it was so beautiful, but because Big Eddie was thoughtful enough to get it for her. And Buddy Cox, who dealt in clothing, kept me as clean as a young man could be in top-of-line slack suits.
As early as junior high school I used to go to school dressed like a grown man. I had acquired the hustlers' taste and style, so I used to go to school wearing expensive slack suits, Floresheim's, and jewelry - not gaudy and ostentatious stuff like you see today (quiet style was what it was about back then), but I dressed much too old for my years, and that caused me a few problems. It brought suspicion upon me, and I was looked upon by many of the staff as a bad influence on the "kids." Every time something went wrong at school they would come and pluck me out of class, even though I wouldn't know a thing about what was going on. And the irony was, I was probably one of the few students there that was there for the right reasons. The hustlers taught me to respect knowledge, so I was there trying to soak up everything I could get. But I was profiled, much like the hustlers themselves. None of the administrators liked my image, and that haunted me, and caused me a lot of trouble until I was 19 years old - but it also led to the event that changed my life.
My father explained it simply - it was all about surviving in a White man's world without having to carry a tin cup. It was about living with dignity. He told me that what he and his friends engaged in was no more criminal than what White business men do every day, within the law. He said, crime is robbery, theft, mayhem, and taking from others what doesn't belong to you. They didn't engage in that kind of activity. What he and his friends did was provide "services" for consenting adults, just like the White man does routinely, and legally, on a daily basis. According to my father, the only difference between what they did, and what the White man does is they don't have politicians in their pockets to sign off on it. So the crime wasn't what they did - the crime was not giving the White man his cut.
|My Father, Mac McClain, and Brother, Virgil, in 1966.|
Mac was a good neighbor and loving father,
but he wasn't one to toy with. He had one mindset
for dealing with his neighbors, and another for dealing with
people on the street.
|Robert Beck (Iceberg Slim) after he moved |
to Los Angeles in the 60s.
He was a little different - he had an East Coast
edge to him . . . a dangerous edge.
My father was a part of that lifestyle, but you would never have known it by the way I was treated as a child. When I was a young boy and visiting my dad, the neighbors wouldn't hesitate to whip my butt if they caught me doing something I wasn't suppose to do. I was treated just like the other kids in the neighborhood, because they knew they had nothing to fear from my dad. He reserved his wrath for the people who lived the street life.
One of the reasons I could see through Cornel West and that I'm so relentless against him in my column is due the words of a friend of my father that they used to call "Sweet Willie." When I was about 16 years old he told me, "Never trust a brother who's always trying to be the coolest thing in the room, because he's using so much of his brain trying to maintain his image that there's nothing left for him to think with. The primary reason he's trying to be so cool in the first place is because he's insecure, which means that inside, even HE knows he ain't shit, and he's trying his best to hide that fact from the rest of the world. It also means he scary, so if you're ever busted with him, he'll turn out to be a turncoat and a snitch every time." And I began to read "Psych-Cybernetics," and later, majored in psychology in college based on the words of another hustler that they used to call "Genie Boy." He told me, "The human mind was one of the most powerful forces in the known universe, so if you don't control it, it WILL control you." Later, as a student of psychology, I found that the words of both men were valid. Carl Jung, a protégé of Sigmund Freud said, everything we do, short of seeking to satisfy our homeostatic (biological) needs, we do in an attempt to reduce our feelings of insecurity.
So yes, I really admired these people. I loved just hearing them say my name. It made me feel like I was a part of an inner circle, or a world that others couldn't gain access to - and indeed I was. But I especially loved hearing those gorgeous and pretty-smelling women say my name - "Eric, honey, will you run around to the drug store and ask Mr. Reed to send me a large jar of this?" And then they'd hand me an empty jar of something. "Thank you, baby." How I loved that - especially when Harriett did it, and she'd rubbed her hand against my face or shoulder.
Some of the greatest minds I've ever known
held court while sitting on empty milk crates
in the parking lot of ghetto liquor stores.
At their feet I embraced the love of knowledge,
And through their tutelage defined self-worth
In my own terms.
These were the "Eulipians" — writers, poets,
musicians, hustlers, and uncommon drunks —
those shade-tree philosophers who
contemplate the fungus between the
toes of society;
Who danced with reckless abandon,
unfettered by formal inhibition,
through the presumptuous
speculation of the ages;
Who live in county jails, cardboard boxes,
alley ways, and luxury Apartments.
Insignificant here in Great Bruteland,
but of ultimate significance in the eyes of God.
While these obscure intellectuals
stood well outside the mainstream
of academy, I watched
with astonished delight as
they sang, scat, and scribed their various
philosophies into the mainstream of human knowledge.
knowledge is free, thus,
will transcend attempts
to be contained through barriers
of caste or privilege,
leaving man's innate thirst
for knowledge free to someday
overwhelm his passionate lust for stupidity.
Preacher, politician, potentate or monk,
Blues For Mr. C
The Sounds of Central Avenue