Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Hustlers Revisited

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.

Many young people in "the hood" are fascinated by the mystique of the hustler. While I see education as the preferred mode of upward mobility, I can understand how the renegade persona of the hustler mystique has captured their imagination. But their idea of a hustler has been forged by the media, where they're portrayed as murderous sociopaths who specialized in victimizing the community. As a result, many young wannabes seem to feel that they have to run around ravaging the community to build their "street creds" as a bonafide hustler.
But that's not how old-school hustlers were at all. I know, because both me and my late wife, Val, were children of this culture. She was the niece of Big Joe Langford, a well known hustler in Los Angeles, and I was the son of Mac McClain (My maternal grandfather insisted that I wear his sir name so I wouldn't grow up with unnecessary baggage), and they brought Val and I together as teenagers (My mother, and Val's aunt).
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
So what these hustlers actually were, were flamboyant and bigger-than-life businessmen who didn't pay taxes - and that was during a time when Black people didn't have the opportunities that we have today. But, in spite of the fact they lived slightly outside the law, most were very responsible and caring people in many ways.
Many of these people had a lot of class, wisdom, and knowledge. When my father was arrested and sent away, they came together and got my mother a job as a greeter at the world renowned Dynamite Jackson’s jazz club, and then, helped send her through nursing school. She later not only became a nurse, but a PA (Physician’s Assistant) - the closest you can come to a doctor, without actually becoming one - thanks to her close friend and mentor, Dr. Morris P. Atkins. They opened the 55th St Medical Group together. That's where I met Val. My mother hired her when Val was only 14 years old to send Christmas cards to the patients.
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.  
So while old-school hustlers weren't all angels, and they were capable of emphasizing a point quite brutally when necessary - that was simply a matter of survival - that wasn't their preferred method of operation.  For the most part, they weren't vultures going around victimizing the community like they're often portrayed in the media. Many contributed to the community in many ways, including participating in assemblies and "May Day" parades that was put on by Holmes Ave. Elementary School. And I personally benefitted greatly from my exposure to them. They taught me a lot, which I try to pass on in my writings. So I look back upon them with much fondness.

So as I stroll down memory lane, thinking about the old-school hustlers of my youth, I can't help but think about how different they were than many of the wannabes that we see around today. First, they weren't in it for show. They were hustling to maintain a lifestyle that society was doing it's very best to deny them.  No joggin’ suits, baseball caps and tennis shoes for these brothers, it was Florsheims  and very expensive Brooks Bros. suits all the way - and you’d never see ‘em in the same one for weeks. And they weren't loud and crude cutthroats. While they undoubtedly lived outside the law, they reflected a style that was all their own - elegant and laid back, although, with an edge that said to anyone with anything less than the purest of motives, "I'm not the one." 
Billy Dee Williams would have fit right in with these brothers, because he has their persona down to the last digit. Their most pronounced characteristic was class and style, not brutish swagger as they're often portrayed. They were the product of an era where class was everything.  These were gentlemen . . . illegitimate businessmen. And again, unlike the young brothers you see today, they weren't in it for show. They were dead serious about what they did.
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 pocket 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.
I remember how Ronnie, who was something of a hustler himself, would open up his barbershop just for them every Monday so they could get their domes laid. Monday was Hustler's Day at Ronnie's barbershop. The shop was closed for everybody else. What was funny about that, and the hustlers used to joke about it inside, was how the up-and-coming wannabes would try to get in there on Monday through hook-or-crook, because just managing to get their hair laid at Ronnie's on a Monday could make their reputation on the street. It would also allow them to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers, and maybe gain the attention of one of them, which meant a tremendous boost in both prestige, and pay grade.
I recall how one Monday even a preacher tried to get in there. After Ronnie politely turned him away, they waited long enough for him to get out of earshot, then everybody fell-out laughing. Wakeen, who used to run "the book," said, in his slow and draggin' voice, "You should have let 'em in, Ron. He got more game than anybody in buildin' - and his game is Betty Crocker approved." Everybody started laughing. Then the ladies started telling stories about the good reverend. That taught me very early in life that no matter where you go, you just cannot escape politics - or jackleg preachers.
So every Monday around noon, the whole block would be lined with a row of shiny new hogs, and the beauticians who worked for Ronnie (only on Mondays) were the cream of the crop. They were the most fabulous sisters in the hood, and everyone of them smelled like a freshly picked rose after a Spring rain. I can still smell their aroma to this day. They were absolutely, the cream of the crop - they had to be - because they were servicing the royalty of the Black community.
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.
And these weren't silly wannabes with delusions of grandeur, trying to pattern themselves after someone they'd seen on television. These brothers were the real deal. They were the aristocrats of the darker side of the Black community, those who simply chose not to allow a racist society to hold them hostage. Any one of them could have thrived on Wall Street had they not been blessed with various hues of Black skin. And the community recognized this, so while many "mainstream" Black people weren't crazy about their lifestyle, they understood the rationale behind it. So the community not only accepted them, but they even treated them with a grudging respect and deferment.
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.  
Ronnie was a friend of the family, so during the Summer, every Monday at 11 a.m. I was headed for his shop. That was my hustle. Between working Ronnie's on Monday, and working the candy concession at Mr. Pierce's liquor store after school, I made a young boy’s fortune. At Ronnie's, just going back and forth to the store and taking messages around the corner to the various people who worked for these impressive brothers could fill my pockets up - all the way up - and all four of them.  But I didn’t just love the money, it was a thrill just being acknowledged by these bigger-than-life personalities who made such a huge impression on my life, and I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit it. Sometimes in my writings even today, I'll take on the persona of one of them to make a point, because they had a dry, bottom-line wit about them that cut straight through all  manner of bullshit. Listening to them taught me to look beneath a person's words and address the motive behind what he were saying. I also learned to never tap dance around the edges of an issue - get to the point. That's why I call my column "Beneath the Spin."
One of the reasons I could see through Cornel West and that I'm so relentless against him in my column is due to 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 power 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's 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.
Harriett was so beautiful that she didn't even look real. She was the finest and most refined of them all. She looked like someone had painted her. And when she moved she was so sensuous that as she walked I imagined her thighs must've even made one another feel good as they rubbed up against each other. That's right!  That woman was tough. Yet, she didn't even seem to notice how beautiful she was.  That's where the class came in.  Every man who knew her yearned for her, but they also knew not to cross the line, because Harriett wasn't the kind of woman that a man could just choose - she had to choose you.
And Harriett was the one I knew best. We had a special relationship, because we had Jimmy in common. She was Jimmy's girlfriend, and how I envied him that accomplishment. But actually, it wasn't an accomplishment on Jimmy's part. Harriett just sort of dropped into his lap. Jimmy was a guy my father hired to teach me to play the saxophone. He had a serious heroin addition at the time, and he used to drink a lot too. So we'd see him nodded out in alleys and behind the pool hall, or getting sick and throwing up in public. So everybody used to look down on him - everybody, that is, accept Harriett. She went to high school with Jimmy, so you'd often see her waking him up, and scooping him up from behind the pool hall. He probably would have died if it weren't for Harriett, because his wife left him for another man, and she and the other dude would walk right past Jimmy nodded out somewhere without even looking down. So he didn't have anyone who gave a damn about him - except Harriett, the finest thing who ever lived. Go figure it.
So just think about the character of that lady. Harriet was a woman who was so beautiful, sexy, and classy that she could, literally, get any man she wanted, at any station in life - in or out of the hood. Yet, she catered to the needs of a man who had been a dope fiend for years, and had degenerated to the point that he'd become the neighborhood joke. Jimmy wasn't simply at the bottom, the bottom was sitting on him.
The situation with Jimmy was one of my first big eye-openers in life. Jimmy was a metaphor for the direction that many of our young people are headed today. But Jimmy turned out to be a guy who had more character, more class, and much more talent than any of us (I tell his story in a link below). But when Jimmy was down and needed us most, we not only stepped over him, but laughed at him as we were doing it - and as young as I was, I was a big part of it. When it came to Jimmy, I was one of the most prolific practical jokers against him.  If I found him passed out somewhere, it seemed like I just couldn't get myself to pass by without playing some kind of practical joke on him, like tying his shoes together or something childish like that.  To this day I wonder if he knew that.  I'll never know, because he had so much class, that even if he did, he would have never let me know about it. So as I sit here, I agonize over that decades later, because that miserable dope fiend ended up teaching me about everything I know about the importance of maintaining a sense of humanity, and he nurtured everything that sustains my life today.  But Harriett was the only one with the empathy to see the inhumanity in the way we treated Jimmy, and she had the courage of her convictions. She dropped lifelong friends over Jimmy, including Jimmy's wife - and I don't mean temporarily; I mean, permanently!  She even got on my ass over him once, but she gave me a pass because I was so young.
But Harriett had the last laugh, because by the time that's being discussed here, Jimmy had become one of the most impressive and respected personalities in the community. While Jimmy wasn't a hustler, he could walk into Ronnie's any day of the week and command the respect of everybody in the place, and everybody loved seeing him coming - ESPECIALLY, if he had his gig bag slung across his shoulder. Harriett helped to make that happen - and not because she wanted him, but because she was a devoted friend. I think the only reason they ended up together was because Jimmy made such an impressive comeback, and so fast, that it made her fall in love with him, as it did the entire community, including his wayward wife - who USED to be Harriet's best friend, until she deserted Jimmy for another man and left him to die in the street. But when she deserted Jimmy, Harriet immediately dropped her as a friend, and due to Harriet's stature in the community, that meant Wanda also lost a lot of other "friends." She went from the A list to the Z list, almost overnight. The love between Harriett and Jimmy was one of those rare stories in the hood that had a happy ending. It was clear to everybody who knew them that Jimmy was the man that Harriett had been waiting for. It was also clear that Harriett was the woman who Jimmy needed. They were very happy and devoted to each other, because they DESERVED one another.  But that's another story - and a very tender one - but I digress.
I used to hang on to every word of these ghetto aristocrats. I would listen to their stories, and live a vicarious life through theirs. But what I really loved most was their music. It literally painted a portrait of who they were. They’d fill Ronnie’s juke box up with coins and one monster after another would flow from it’s speakers - Miles, Trane, Bird, and they loved Jimmy Smith.  Areatha was the new kid on the block. She hadn’t really established which direction she was going at that time, but everybody assumed that she was going to be a jazz star, because the only thing by her on the juke box was "Sky Lark."
Yeah, those were the days, but what I remember most was how suave and gracefully those enigmatic products of adversity would glide across the floor. With diamonds gleaming from their manicured fingers gently pinching the seam of their trousers, and the light altering the colors of their sharkskin suits, they seemed to be dancing on a cushion of air as they did the "Soft Shoe" to what they seemed to have adopted as their collective theme song - Killer Joe.

No, we don't see nothing like 'em today, and I don't think we ever will again . . .  because they're the product of a bygone era - an era that I miss tremendously, and one that will continue to live, as long as I do.
The Eulipians
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.
Their philosophy?
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.

The Eulipians
So yes, I'm the quintessential hood rat, but if you think that your education from Harvard or Yale is superior to my own, I hereby challenge you to bring it on:
I’m sure you know that I love you.
You’re everything I need.
You fit the bill of all my desires,
a perfect match for all of my dreams.
From the moment I first laid eyes on you,
You were everything I craved -
that luscious vision
from across the tracks,
that delicate flower,
just beyond this hood rat's blade.
But what you ask is foreign to me.
You need something that I’m not.
You said, just tweak my nature a little bit,
and you’ll give everything you’ve got.
But that "tweak" you need is who I am -
it’s my essence, can’t you see?
So how can you speak of loving my soul,
yet, not the hood rat that makes me, me?
While "hood rat" may seem trite to you,
it’s the very essence of my being.
So forget about what other’s say,
here’s what it means to me:
I’ve been brutally dragged through the pits of hell,
yet, managed to survive,
well educated, and fully functional,
when I came out the other side.
I scrounged the lessons taught at Harvard -
because knowledge, I found, was free.
But they’ll never obtain the lessons I’ve learned -
or my knowledge of adversity.
While the "elite" may have heard a mournful Trane,
or Miles muted on a Summer night,
not in the context of hunger and pain,
or hopelessness, hatred, and blight.
So while I've lived the life of a hood rat,
I’ve reaped a knowledge that money can't buy; 
a knowledge passed on to my son and daughter,
which has greatly enhanced their lives.
Thus, I wouldn't change a thing about my life -
I’ve faced hell and passed the test.
I have a PhD in adversity, and
it's made me much more,
rather than less.
So unlike the people at Harvard and Yale,
who try to buy intellectual clout,
they only study the genius of Miles and Trane,
while I'm who they’re talkin' about.
So when snobs try to slur me as "just a hood rat,"
I say, "thank you," and don’t take offense.
I take great pride in surviving the pits of Hell -
That’s what gives me my confidence.
The Ivy League degrees of those of means
are only paper compared to mine;
they merely have a "receipt"
for what's suppose o be  knowledge,
while my  knowledge is ETCHED in my mind.
I can TEACH philosophy to Aristotle and Plato
with the adversity that I’ve endured,
and any snob who seeks to match my wit,
will come up short, and
that’s for sure.
Snobs walk about quoting Socrates and such,
because through their "education" they are prone;
but while they’re spewing the thoughts of various dead men,
I spend my time developing my own.
Because we should never give the thoughts of ANY man,
living or dead, priority over our own;
collect the facts, and think for yourself,
that’s where
Harvard and Yale has gone wrong.
Preacher, politician, potentate or monk,
whatever their tale or point of view,
God didn't give them anything,
that he failed to also give you. 
And being seen as a hood rat has its advantages -
especially against racists of limited wit;
I simply quietly wait for their condescension,
then show ‘em that they ain’t shit.
God made birds to fly, fish to swim,
and man to think and that's the key.
So any man who claims to be superior
will have to PROVE his wit to me.
Thus, knowledge is the key to set us free -
it doesn’t matter what the people say,
and there’s nothing more formidable than
a knowledgeable hood rat, and
that’s what you’re looking upon today.
Yet, these are the things you want me to purge -
you want me to spurn the life I’ve led,
but I’m sorry, my love,
as much as I adore you,
the soul of a hood rat is my edge.

 Eric L. Wattree
Citizens Against Reckless Middle-Class Abuse (CARMA)
Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

Sphere: Related Content