Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mark Steyn: GOP looks like the party of diverse ideas

Democrats, meanwhile, have got a woman, a black, a Hispanic and a preening metrosexual – and they all think exactly the same.

Orange County Register
Friday, November 23, 2007

Only five weeks left to the earliest Primary Day in New Hampshire history, and still, whenever I'm being interviewed on radio or TV, I've no ready answer to the question: Which candidate are you supporting?

If I could just sneak out in the middle of the night and saw off Rudy Giuliani's strong right arm and John McCain's ramrod back and Mitt Romney's fabulous hair and stitch them all together in Baron von Frankenstein's laboratory with the help of some neck bolts, we'd have the perfect Republican nominee. As it is, the present field poses difficulties for almost every faction of the GOP base.

Rudy Giuliani was a brilliant can-do executive who transformed the fortunes of what was supposedly one of the most ungovernable cities in the nation. But on guns, abortion and almost every other social issue he's anathema to much of the party. Mike Huckabee is an impeccable social conservative but, fiscally speaking, favors big-government solutions with big-government price tags. Ron Paul has a long track record of sustained philosophically coherent support for small government but he's running as a neo-isolationist on war and foreign policy. John McCain believes in assertive American global leadership but he believes just as strongly in constitutional abominations like McCain-Feingold.

So if you're a pro-gun anti-abortion tough-on-crime victory-in-Iraq small-government Republican the 2008 selection is a tough call. Mitt Romney, the candidate whose (current) policies least offend the most people, happens to be a Mormon, which, if the media are to be believed, poses certain obstacles for elements of the Christian right.

On the other hand, as National Review's Jonah Goldberg pointed out, the mainstream media are always demanding the GOP demonstrate its commitment to "big tent" Republicanism, and here we are with the biggest of big tents in history, and what credit do they get? You want an anti-war Republican? A pro-abortion Republican? An anti-gun Republican? A pro-illegal immigration Republican? You got 'em! Short of drafting Fidel Castro and Mullah Omar, it's hard to see how the tent could get much bigger. As the new GOP bumper sticker says, "Celebrate Diversity."

Over on the Democratic side, meanwhile, they've got a woman, a black, a Hispanic, a preening metrosexual with an angled nape – and they all think exactly the same. They remind me of "The Johnny Mathis Christmas Album," which Columbia used to re-release every year in a different sleeve: same old songs, new cover. When your ideas are identical, there's not a lot to argue about except biography. Last week, asked about his experience in foreign relations, Barack Obama noted that his father was Kenyan, and he'd been at grade school in Indonesia. "Probably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations," he said, "is the fact I spent four years overseas when I was a child in Southeast Asia." When it comes to foreign relations, he has more of them on his Christmas card list than Hillary or Haircut Boy.

Sen. Clinton was gleefully derisive of this argument. "Voters will have to judge if living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face," she remarked dryly. "I think we need a president with more experience than that, someone the rest of the world knows, looks up to and has confidence in."

As to what "experience" Hillary has, well, she's certainly visited Africa enough to acquire plenty of venerable African proverbs ("It takes a village", etc.), even if no African has ever been known to use any of them. When I mentioned on the radio how much I was enjoying the Hillary/Barack snippiness, I received a lot of huffy e-mails from Democrats saying, "Oh yeah, well, how much foreign policy experience do Romney or Giuliani have?" Sorry, but you're missing the point. On the GOP side, the debate isn't being conducted on the basis of who was where in fourth grade.

To be sure, John Edwards is said to have been hammering Hillary on her Iraq vote, but this is an almost surreally post-modern dispute. Five years ago, Sen. Clinton's Iraq vote was exactly the same as Sen. Edwards': They both voted for war. The only difference is that the former stands by her vote while the latter has since 'fessed up and revealed he was duped, suckered, played for a sap by George W. Bush. Bush is famously the world's all-time biggest moron but that's apparently no obstacle when you're seeking to roll the Democratic Senate caucus. Anyway, Sen. Edwards is now demanding Sen. Clinton repudiate her Iraq vote and concede she's as big a patsy and pushover as he is. And this is apparently what passes for "toughness" on the Democrat side. Judging from the number of "North Country For Edwards" signs that have sprouted in the first snows throughout the White Mountains in recent weeks, it may even have some traction on Primary Day.

Let me ask a question of my Democrat friends: What does John Edwards really believe on Iraq? I mean, really? To pose the question is to answer it: There's no there there. In the Dem debates, the only fellow who knows what he believes and says it out loud is Dennis Kucinich. Otherwise, all is pandering and calculation. The Democratic Party could use some seriously fresh thinking on any number of issues – abortion, entitlements, racial preferences – but the base doesn't want to hear, and no viable candidate is man enough (even Hillary) to stick it to 'em. I disagree profoundly with McCain and Giuliani, but there's something admirable about watching them run in explicit opposition to significant chunks of their base and standing their ground. Their message is: This is who I am. Take it or leave it.

That's the significance of Clinton's dithering on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. There was a media kerfuffle the other day because at some GOP event an audience member referred to Sen. Clinton as a "bitch," and John McCain was deemed not to have distanced himself sufficiently from it. Totally phony controversy: In private, Hillary's crowd liked the way it plays into her image as a tough stand-up broad. And, yes, she is tough. A while back, Elizabeth Edwards had the temerity to venture that she thought her life was happier than Hillary's. And within days the Clinton gang had jumped her in a dark alley, taken the tire iron to her kneecaps, and forced her into a glassy-eyed public recantation of her lese-majeste. If you're looking for someone to get tough with Elizabeth Edwards or RINO senators or White House travel-office flunkies, Hillary's your gal.

But tough on America's enemies? Thatcher-tough? Not a chance.

The Return of Superfly

Frank Lucas, once the city's biggest, baddest heroin kingpin, the original O.G. in chinchilla, now seems like just a very likable guy. But don't be fooled.

[This is the original article from New York Magazine that inspired the film "American Gangster". - jtf]

Read Mark Jacobson's 2007 conversation with Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas here:

By Mark Jacobson
New York Magazine
Published Aug 7, 2000

(Photo: New York Magazine, August 14th 2000)

During the early seventies, when for a sable-coat-wearing, Superfly-strutting instant of urban time he was perhaps the biggest heroin dealer in Harlem, Frank Lucas would sit at the corner of 116th Street and Eighth Avenue in a beat-up Chevrolet he called Nellybelle. Then living in a suite at the Regency Hotel with 100 custom-made, multi-hued suits in the closet, Lucas owned several cars. He had a Rolls, a Mercedes, a Corvette Sting Ray, and a 427 muscle job he'd once topped out at 160 mph near Exit 16E of the Jersey Turnpike, scaring himself so silly that he gave the car to his brother's wife just to get it out of his sight.

But for "spying," Nellybelle was best.

"Who'd think I'd be in a shit $300 car like that?" asks Lucas, who claims he'd clear up to $1 million a day selling dope on 116th Street.

"One-sixteenth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue was mine. I bought it. I ran it. I owned it," Lucas says. "When something is yours, you've got to be Johnny-on-the-spot, ready to take it to the top. So I'd sit in Nellybelle by the Roman Garden Bar, cap pulled down, with a fake beard, dark glasses, long wig . . . I'd be up beside people dealing my stuff, and no one knew who I was . . ."

It was a matter of control, and trust. As the leader of the heroin-dealing ring called the Country Boys, Lucas, older brother to Ezell, Vernon Lee, John Paul, Larry, and Leevan Lucas, was known for restricting his operation to blood relatives and others from his rural North Carolina area hometown. This was because, Lucas says, in his down-home creak of a voice, "a country boy, he ain't hip . . . he's not used to big cars, fancy ladies, and diamond rings. He'll be loyal to you. A country boy, you can give him any amount of money. His wife and kids might be hungry, and he'll never touch your stuff until he checks with you. City boys ain't like that. A city boy will take your last dime, look you in the face, and swear he ain't got it . . . You don't want a city boy -- the sonofabitch is just no good."

Back in the early seventies, there were many "brands" of dope in Harlem. Tru Blu, Mean Machine, Could Be Fatal, Dick Down, Boody, Cooley High, Capone, Ding Dong, Fuck Me, Fuck You, Nice, Nice to Be Nice, Oh -- Can't Get Enough of That Funky Stuff, Tragic Magic, Gerber, The Judge, 32, 32-20, O.D., Correct, Official Correct, Past Due, Payback, Revenge, Green Tape, Red Tape, Rush, Swear to God, PraisePraisePraise, KillKillKill, Killer 1, Killer 2, KKK, Good Pussy, Taster's Choice, Harlem Hijack, Joint, Insured for Life, and Insured for Death were only a few of the brand names rubber-stamped onto cellophane bags. But none sold like Frank Lucas's Blue Magic.

"That's because with Blue Magic, you could get 10 percent purity," Lucas asserts. "Any other, if you got 5 percent, you were doing good. We put it out there at four in the afternoon, when the cops changed shifts. That gave you a couple of hours before those lazy bastards got down there. My buyers, though, you could set your watch by them. By four o'clock, we had enough niggers in the street to make a Tarzan movie. They had to reroute the bus on Eighth Avenue. Call the Transit Department if it's not so. By nine o'clock, I ain't got a fucking gram. Everything is gone. Sold . . . and I got myself a million dollars.

"I'd sit there in Nellybelle and watch the money roll in," says Frank Lucas of those near-forgotten days when Abe Beame lay his pint-size head upon the pillow at Gracie Mansion. "And no one even knew it was me. I was a shadow. A ghost . . . what we call down home a haint . . . That was me, the Haint of Harlem."

Twenty-five years after the end of his uptown rule, Frank Lucas, now 69, has returned to Harlem for a whirlwind retrospective of his life and times. Sitting in a blue Toyota at the corner of 116th Street and what is now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard ("What was wrong with just plain Eighth Avenue?" Lucas grouses), Frank, once by his own description "tall, pretty, slick, and something to see" but now stiff and teetering around "like a fucking one-legged tripod," is no more noticeable than when he peered from Nellybelle's window.

Indeed, few passersby might guess that Lucas, at least according to his own exceedingly ad hoc records, once had "something like $52 million," most of it in Cayman Islands banks. Added to this is "maybe 1,000 keys of dope on hand" with a potential profit of no less than $300,000 per kilo. Also in his portfolio were office buildings in Detroit, apartments in Los Angeles and Miami, "and a mess of Puerto Rico." There was also "Frank Lucas's Paradise Valley," a several-thousand-acre spread back in North Carolina on which ranged 300 head of Black Angus cows, including a "big-balled" breeding bull worth $125,000.

Nor would most imagine that the old man in the fake Timberland jacket was a prime mover in what federal judge Sterling Johnson, who in the seventies served as New York City special narcotics prosecutor, calls "one of the most outrageous international dope-smuggling gangs ever . . . an innovator who got his own connection outside the U.S. and then sold the stuff himself in the street."

It was "a real womb-to-tomb operation," Johnson says, and the funerary image fits, especially in light of Lucas's most culturally pungent claim to fame, the so-called Cadaver Connection. Woodstockers may remember being urged by Country Joe & the Fish to sing along on the "Fixin' to Die Rag" -- "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box." But even the most apocalyptic-minded sixties freak wouldn't guess the box also contained a dozen keys of 98 percent-pure heroin. Of all the dreadful iconography of Vietnam -- the napalmed girl running down the road, Calley at My Lai, etc., etc. -- dope in the body bag, death begetting death, most hideously conveys 'Nam's spreading pestilence. The metaphor is almost too rich. In fact, to someone who got his 1-A in the mail the same day the NVA raised the Red Star over Hue City, the story has always seemed a tad apocryphal.

But it is not. "We did it, all right . . . ha, ha, ha . . . " Lucas chortles in his dying-crapshooter's scrape of a voice. "Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier's coffin? Ha ha ha."

"I had so much fucking money -- you have no idea," Lucas says, riding around Harlem, his heavy-lidded light-brown eyes turned to the sky in mock expectation that his vanished wealth, long since seized by the Feds, will rain back down from the heavens.

Aside from the hulking 369th Infantry Armory, where Lucas and his boys unloaded trucks they'd hijack out on Route 1-9, little about Harlem has remained the same. Still, nearly every block summons a memory. Over at Eighth Avenue and 113th Street, that used to belong to Spanish Raymond Marquez, the big numbers guy. On one Lenox Avenue corner is where "Preacher got killed"; on the next is where Black Joe bought it. Some deserved killing, some maybe not, but they were all dead just the same.

In front of a blue frame house on West 123rd Street, Lucas stops and gets nostalgic. "I had my best table workers in there," he says, describing how his "table workers," ten to twelve women naked except for surgical masks, would "whack up" the dope, cutting it with "60 percent mannite and 40 percent quinine." The petite, ruby-haired Red Top was in charge. "I'd bring in three, four keys, let Red go do her thing. She'd mix up that dope like a rabbit in a hat, never drop a speck . . . Red . . . I sure do miss her . . ."

At 135th and Seventh, Lucas stops again. Small's Paradise used to be there. Back in the day, there were plenty of places -- Mr. B's, Willie Abraham's Gold Lounge, the Shalimar. But Small's was the coolest. "Everyone came by Small's . . . jazz guys, politicians. Ray Robinson. Wilt Chamberlain, when they called the place Big Wilt's Small's Paradise . . ." At Small's, Lucas often met his great friend the heavyweight champ Joe Louis, who later appeared nearly every day at Lucas's various trials, expressing outrage at how the state was harassing "this beautiful man." When the Brown Bomber died, Lucas, who once paid off a $50,000 tax lien for the champ, was heard weeping into a telephone, "my daddy . . . he's dead." It was also at Small's, on a winter's night in the late fifties, that Frank Lucas encountered Howard Hughes.

"He was right there, with Ava Gardner . . . Howard Hughes, the original ghost -- that impressed me."

In the end, the tour comes back to 116th Street. It's now part of Harlem's nascent real-estate boom, but when Frank "owned" this street, "you'd see junkies, nodding, sucking their own dicks . . . heads down in the crotch. People saw that, they knew that shit was good."

A moment later, Lucas looks up. "Uh-oh, here come the gangstas," he shouts in mock fright, as a trio of youths, blue kerchiefs knotted around their heads, go by blaring rap music. Lucas is no fan of "any Wu-Tang this and Tupac that." Likewise, Lucas, who thought nothing of spending $50,000 on a chinchilla coat and $10,000 on a matching hat, doesn't go for the current O.G. styles. "Baggy-pants bullshit" is his blanket comment on the thug-life knockoffs currently in homeboy favor.

"I guess every idiot gets to be young once," Lucas snaps, driving half a block before slamming on the brakes.

"Here's something you ought to see," the gangster says, pointing toward the curb between the Canaan Baptist Church and the New Africa House of Fish. "There's where I did that boy . . . Tango," he sneers, his large, squarish jaw lanterning forward. "I told you about that, didn't I?"

Of course he had, only days before, in minute, hair-raising detail.

For Lucas, the incident, which occurred in "the summer of 1965 or '66," was strategy. Strictly business. Because, as Lucas recalls, "when you're in the kind of work I was in, you've got to be for real. You've got to show what you're willing to do."

"Everyone, Goldfinger Terrell, Willie Abraham, Hollywood Harold, was talking about this big guy, this Tango. About six five, 270 pounds, quick on his feet . . . He killed two or three guys with his hands. Had this big bald head, like Mr. Clean. Wore those Mafia undershirts. Everyone was scared of him. So I figured, Tango, you're my man.

"I went up to him, asked him if he wanted to do something, some business. I gave him $5,000 worth of merchandise. Because I know he was gonna fuck up. That's the kind of guy he was. Two weeks later, I go talk to him. 'Look, man,' I say. 'Hey, man, when you gonna pay me?'

"Then, like I knew he would, he started getting hot, going into one of his gorilla acts. He was one of them silverback gorillas, you know, you seen them in the jungle. A silverback gorilla, that's what he was.

"He started cursing, saying he was going to make me his bitch and he'd do the same to my mama too. Well, as of now, he's dead. No question, a dead man. But I let him talk. A dead man got a right to say what he wants. Now the whole block is there, to see if I'm going to pussy out. He was still yelling. So I said to him, 'When you get through, let me know.' "

"Then the motherfucker broke for me. But he was too late. I shot him. Four times, right through here: bam, bam, bam, bam.

"Yeah, it was right there," says Frank Lucas, 35 years after the shooting, pointing out the car window. "The boy didn't have no head. The whole shit blowed out back there . . . That was my real initiation fee into taking over completely down here. Because I killed the baddest motherfucker. Not just in Harlem but in the world."

Then Frank laughs.

Frank's laugh: It's a trickster's sound, a jeer that cuts deep. First he rolls up his shoulders and cranes back his large, angular face, which, despite all the wear and tear, remains strikingly handsome, even empathetic in a way you'd like to trust but know better. Then the smooth, tawny skin over his cheekbones creases, his ashy lips spread, and his tongue snakes out of his gate-wide mouth. Frank has a very long, very red tongue. Only then the soundtrack kicks in, staccato stabs of mirth followed by a bevy of low rumbled cackles.

Ha ha ha, siss siss siss. For how many luckless fools like Tango was this the last sound they heard on this earth.

Hearing tapes of our conversations, my wife leaned back in her chair. "Oh," she said, "you're doing a story on Satan . . . " She said it was like hearing the real interview with a vampire.

"After I killed that boy," Frank Lucas goes on, gesturing toward the corner on the other side of 116th Street, "from that day on, I could take any amount of money, set it on the corner, and put my name on it. FRANK LUCAS. I guarantee you, nobody would touch it."

Then Frank laughs again, putting a little extra menace into it. This is just so you don't get too comfortable with the assumption that your traveling partner is nothing but a limping old guy with a gnarled hand fond of telling colorful stories and wearing $5 acetate shirts covered with faux nascar logos.

Just so you never forget exactly who you are dealing with.

When asked about the relative morality of killing people, selling millions of dollars of dope, and playing a significant role in the destruction of the social fabric of his times, Frank Lucas bristles. What choice did he have? he demands. "Kind of sonofabitch I saw myself being, money I wanted to make, I'd have to be on Wall Street. On Wall Street, from the giddy-up. But I couldn't have even gotten a job being a fucking janitor on Wall Street."

Be that as it may, there's little doubt that when, on a sweltering summer's afternoon in 1946, Frank Lucas arrived in Harlem, which he'd been told was "the promised land," his prospects in the legitimate world were limited. Not yet 16 years old, he was already on the run. Already a gangster.

It couldn't have been any other way, Lucas insists, after the Ku Klux Klan came to the shack where he grew up and killed his cousin. "I couldn't have been more than 6. We were living back in the woods near a little place they call La Grange, North Carolina. These five white guys come up to the house one morning, big rednecks . . . they're yelling, 'Obadiah . . . Obadiah Jones . . . come out. Come out, you nigger . . .' They said he was looking at a white girl walking down the street. 'Reckless eyeballing,' they call it down there.

"Obadiah was like 12 or 13, and he come out the door, all sleepy and stuff. 'You been looking at somebody's daughter. We're going to fix you,' they said. They took ropes on each hand, pulled them tight in opposite directions. Then they shoved a shotgun in Obadiah's mouth and pulled the trigger."

It was then, Lucas says, that he began his life of crime. "I was the oldest. Someone had to put food on the table. I started stealing chickens. Knocking pigs on their head . . . It wasn't too long that I was going over to La Grange, mugging drunks when they come out of the whorehouse. They'd spent their $5 or $6 buying ass, head jobs, then I'd be waiting with a rock in my hand, a tobacco rack, anything."

By the time he was 12, "but big for my age," Lucas says, he was in Knoxville, Tennessee, locked up on a chain gang. In Lexington, Kentucky, not yet 14, he lived with a lady bootlegger. In Wilson, North Carolina, working as a truck driver at a pipe company, he started in sleeping with the owner's daughter. This led to problems, especially after "Big Bill, a fat, 250-pound beer-belly bastard" caught them in the act. In the ensuing fight, Frank hit Bill on the head with a piece of pipe, laying him out.

"They didn't owe me but $100, but I took $400 and set the whole damned place on fire." Told by his mother to run and keep running, he bummed his way northward.

"I got to 34th Street. Penn Station. Then took the bus to 14th Street. I went over to a policeman and said, 'Hey, this ain't 14th Street. I want to go where all the black people are at.' He said, 'You want to go to Harlem . . . 114th Street!'

"I got to 114th Street. I had never seen so many black people in one place in all my life. It was a world of black people. "And I just shouted out: 'Hello, Harlem . . . hello, Harlem, USA!' "

People told him to be smart, get a job as an elevator operator. But once Frank saw guys writing policy numbers, carrying big wads, his course was set. Within a few months, he was a one-man, hell-bent crime wave. He stuck up the Hollywood Bar on Lenox and 116th, got himself $600. He went to the Busch Jewelers on 125th Street, stole a tray of diamonds, broke the guard's jaw with brass knuckles on the way out. Later, he ripped off a high-roller crap game at the Big Track Club on 110th. "They was all gangsters in there, Cool Breeze, a lot of them. I walked in, took their money. Now they was all looking for me."

The way he was going, Frank figures, it took Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, the most famous of all Harlem gangsters, to save his life. "I was hustling up at Lump's Pool Room, on 134th Street. Eight-ball and that. So in comes Icepick Red. Red, he was a tall motherfucker, clean, with a hat. A fierce killer, from the heart. Freelanced Mafia hits. Anyway, he took out a roll of money that must have been that high. My eyes got big. I knew right then, that wasn't none of his money. That was my money . . .

"'Who got a thousand dollars to shoot pool?' Icepick Red shouted. I told him I'm playing, but I only got a hundred dollars . . . and he's saying, 'What kind of punk only got a hundred dollars?' I wanted to take out my gun and kill him right there, take his damn money.

"Except right then, everything seemed to stop. The jukebox stopped, the pool balls stopped. Every fucking thing stopped. It got so quiet you could've heard a rat piss on a piece of cotton in China.

"I turned around and I saw this guy -- he was like five feet ten, five feet eleven, dark complexion, neat, looked like he just stepped off the back cover of Vogue magazine. He had on a gray suit and a maroon tie, with a gray overcoat and flower in the lapel. I never seen nothing that looked like him. He was another species altogether.

"'Can you beat him?' he said to me in a deep, smooth voice.

"I said, 'I can shoot pool with anybody, mister. I can beat anybody.'

"Icepick Red, suddenly he's nervous. Scared. 'Bumpy!' he shouts out, 'I don't got no bet with you!'

"Bumpy ignores that. 'Rack 'em up, Lump!'

"We rolled for the break, and I got it. And I wasted him. Icepick Red never got a goddamn shot. Bumpy sat there, watching. Didn't say a word. Then he says to me, 'Come on, let's go.' I'm thinking, who the fuck is this Bumpy? But something told me I better keep my damn mouth shut. I got in the car. A long Caddy. First we stopped at a clothing store -- he picked out a bunch of stuff for me. Suits, ties, slacks. Nice stuff. Then we drove to where he was living, on Mount Morris Park. He took me into his front room, said I should clean myself up, sleep there that night.

"I wound up sleeping there six months . . . Then things were different. The gangsters stopped fucking with me. The cops stopped fucking with me. I walk into the Busch Jewelers, see the man I robbed, and all he says is: 'Can I help you, sir?' Because now I'm with Bumpy Johnson -- a Bumpy Johnson man. I'm 17 years old and I'm Mr. Lucas.

"Bumpy was a gentleman among gentlemen, a king among kings, a killer among killers, a whole book and Bible by himself," says Lucas about his years with the so-called Robin Hood of Harlem, who had opposed Dutch Schultz in the thirties and would be played by Moses Gunn in the original Shaft and twice by Laurence Fishburne (in The Cotton Club and Hoodlum).

"He saw something in me, I guess. He showed me the ropes -- how to collect, to figure the vig. Back then, if you wanted to do business in Harlem, you paid Bumpy or you died. Extortion, I guess you could call it. Everyone had to pay -- except the mom-and-pop stores."

With Bumpy, Frank caught a glimpse of the big time. He'd drive downtown, to the 57th Street Diner, waiting by the car while his boss ate breakfast with Frank Costello. Frank accompanied Bumpy to Cuba to see Lucky Luciano. "I stayed outside," Frank remembers, "just another guy with a bulge in my pocket."

"There was a lot about Bumpy I didn't understand, a lot I still don't understand . . . when he was older, he'd lean over his chessboard in his apartment at the Lenox Terrace, with these Shakespeare books around, listening to soft piano music, Beethoven -- or that Henry Mancini record he played over and over, 'Baby Elephant Walk' . . . He'd start talking about philosophy, read me from Tom Paine, 'The Rights of Man' . . . 'What do you think of that, Frank?' he'd ask . . . I'd shrug. What could I say? Best book I remember reading was Harold Robbins's The Carpetbaggers."

In the end, as Frank tells it, Bumpy died in his arms: "We were at Wells Restaurant on Lenox Avenue. Billy Daniels, the singer, might have been there. Maybe Cockeye Johnny, J.J., Chickenfoot. There was always a crowd around, wanting to talk to him. Bumpy just started shaking and fell over."

Three months after Martin Luther King's assassination, the headline in the Amsterdam News said BUMPY'S DEATH MARKS END OF AN ERA. Bumpy had been the link back to the wild days of people like Madame St. Clair, the French-speaking Queen of Policy, and rackets wizard Casper Holstein, who reportedly aided the careers of Harlem Renaissance writers. Also passing from the scene were characters like Helen Lawrenson, a Vanity Fair editor whose tart account of her concurrent affairs with Condé Nast, Bernard Baruch, and Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson can be found in the long-out-of-print Stranger at the Party.

Lucas says, "There wasn't gonna be no next Bumpy. Bumpy believed in that share-the-wealth. I was a different sonofabitch. I wanted all the money for myself . . . Harlem was boring to me then. Numbers, protection, those little pieces of paper flying out of your pocket. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the world."

A few days after our Harlem trip, drinking Kirins in a fake Benihana, Frank told me how he came upon what he refers to as his "bold new plan" to smuggle heroin from Southeast Asia to Harlem. It is a thought process Lucas says he often uses when on the verge of a "pattern change."

First he locks himself in a room, preferably in a hotel in Puerto Rico, shuts off the phone, pulls down the blinds, has his meals delivered, and does not speak to a soul for a couple of weeks. In this meditative isolation, Lucas engages in what he calls "backtracking . . . I think about everything I done in the past five years, look in each nook and cranny, down to what I put on my toast in the morning."

Having vetted the past, Lucas begins to "forward-look . . . peering around every bend in the road ahead." It is only then, he says, "when you can see back to Alaska and ahead as far as South America . . . and know nothing, not even the smallest hair on a cockroach's dick, can stand in your way" -- that you are ready to make your next big move.

If he really wanted to become "white-boy rich, Donald Trump rich," Lucas thought, he'd have to "cut out the guineas." He'd learned as much working for Bumpy, picking up "packages" from Fat Tony Salerno's Pleasant Avenue guys, men with names like Joey Farts and Kid Blast: "I needed my own supply. That's when I decided to go to Southeast Asia. Because the war was on, and people were talking about GIs getting strung out over there. I knew if the shit is good enough to string out GIs, then I can make myself a killing."

Lucas, traveling alone, had never been to Southeast Asia, but he felt confident. "Because I knew it was a street thing over there. You see, I never went to school even for a day, but I got a Ph.D. in street. When it comes to a street atmosphere, I know I'm going to make out."

Checked into the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, Lucas soon hailed a motorcycle taxi to take him to Jack's American Star Bar, an R&R hangout for black soldiers. Offering ham hocks and collard greens on the first floor and a wide array of hookers and dope connections on the second, the Soul Bar, as Frank calls it, was run by the former U.S. Army sergeant Leslie "Ike" Atkinson, a country boy from Goldsboro, North Carolina, who happened to be married to one of Frank's cousins, which made him as good as family.

"Ike knew everyone over there, every black guy in the Army, from the cooks on up," Frank says. It was this "army inside the Army" that would serve as the Country Boys' international distribution system, moving heroin shipments almost exclusively on military planes routed to Eastern Seaboard bases. Mostly these were draftees and enlisted men, but "there were also generals and colonels, guys with eagles and chickens on the collars, white guys and South Vietnamese too," Lucas swears. "These were the greediest motherfuckers I ever dealt with. They'd send people out to get their ass shot up but do anything if you gave them enough money," says Frank who, as part of his scam if need be, would dress up as a lieutenant colonel himself. "You should have seen me -- I could really salute."

Lucas soon located his main overseas connection, an English-speaking, Rolls-Royce-driving Chinese gentleman who went by the sobriquet 007. "I called him 007 because he was a fucking Chinese James Bond." Double-oh Seven took Lucas upcountry, to the Golden Triangle, the heavily jungled, poppy-growing area where Thailand, Burma, and Laos come together.

"It wasn't too bad, getting up there," says Lucas. "We was in trucks, in boats. I might have been on every damn river in the Golden Triangle. When we got up there, you couldn't believe it. They've got fields the size of Tucson, Arizona, with nothing but poppy seeds in them. There's caves in the mountains so big you could set this building in them, which is where they do the processing . . . I'd sit there, watch these Chinese paramilitary guys come out of the mist on the green hills. When they saw me, they stopped dead. They'd never seen a black man before."

Likely dealing with remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomintang army, Lucas purchased 132 kilos that first trip. At $4,200 per unit, compared with the $50,000 that Mafia dealers charged Stateside competitors, it would turn out to be an unbelievable bonanza. But the journey was not without problems.

"Right off, guys were stepping on little green snakes, dying on the spot. Then guess what happened? Banditos! Those motherfuckers came right out of the trees. Trying to steal our shit. The guys I was with -- 007's guys -- all of them was Bruce Lees. Those sonofabitches were good. They fought like hell.

"I was stuck under a log firing my piece. Guys were dropping. You see a lot of dead shit in there, man, like a month and a half of nightmares. I think I ate a damn dog. I was in bad shape, crazy with fever. Then people were talking about tigers. I figured, that does it. I'm gonna be ripped up by a tiger in this damn jungle. What a fucking epitaph . . . But we got back alive. Lost half my dope, but I was still alive."

It is a fabulous cartoon, an image to take its place in the easy-riding annals of the American dope pusher -- the Superfly in his Botany 500 sportswear down in the malarial muck, clutching his 100 keys, Sierra Madre-style, bullets whizzing overhead. "It was the most physiological thing I done and hope not to again," says Lucas.

Throughout it all, Lucas swears, he remained a "100 percent true-blue, red-white-and-blue patriotic American." Details concerning the dope-in-the-body-bags caper have been wildly misrepresented, he says, stories that he and Ike Atkinson actually stitched the dope inside the body cavities of the dead soldiers being nothing but "sick cop propaganda."

"No way I'm touching a dead anything. Bet your life on that."

What really happened, he says, was that he and Ike flew a country-boy North Carolina carpenter over to Bangkok. "We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins . . . except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos . . . It had to be snug. You couldn't have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys' coffins. He didn't put them in no skinny guy's . . ."

Of the dozens of smuggling operations he ran from Asia, Frank still rates "the Henry Kissinger deal" as an all-time favorite. To hear Frank tell it, he and Ike were desperate to get 125 keys out of town, but there weren't any "friendly" planes scheduled leaving. "All we had was Kissinger. He was on a mercy mission on account of big cyclones in Bangladesh. We knew a cook on the plane and gave $100,000 to some general to look the other way. I mean, who the fuck is gonna search fucking Henry Kissinger's plane?

". . . Henry Kissinger! Wonder what he'd say if knew he helped smuggle all that dope into the country? . . . Hoo hahz poot zum dope in my aero-plan? Ha ha ha . . ."

During the dope-plague days of the late sixties and early seventies, when the Feds (over)estimated that half the country's heroin addicts were in New York and 75 percent of those in Harlem, the Amsterdam News reported what 116th Street was like during the reign of Frank Lucas. "We're being destroyed by dope and crime every day," said Lou Broders, who ran an apparel shop at 253 West 116th Street. "It's my own people doing it, too. That's the pity of it. This neighborhood is dying out."

In the face of such talk, Frank, who recalls the 1967 riots as "no big thing," exhibits typically willful obliviousness. "It's not my fault if your television got stolen," he says. "Besides, Harlem was great then. It wasn't until they they put me and Nicky Barnes in jail that the city went into default. There was tons of money up in Harlem in 1971, 1972 -- if you knew how to get it. Shit, those were the heydays."

To hear Frank tell it, life as a multimillionaire dope dealer was a whirl of flying to Paris for dinner at Maxim's, gambling in Vegas with Joe Louis and Sammy Davis Jr., spending $140,000 on a couple of Van Cleef bracelets, and squiring around his beautiful mistress -- Billie Mays, step-daughter of Willie, who, according to Lucas, he'd snaked away from Walt "Clyde" Frazier. The grotty 116th Street operation was left in the hands of trusted lieutenants. If problems arose, Lucas says, "we'd have 500 guns in the street in 30 minutes, ready to hit the mattress."

Frank's money-laundering routine consisted of throwing duffel bags filled with cash into the back seat of his car and driving to a Chemical Bank on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Most of the money was sent to Cayman Island banks; if Frank needed a little extra, he'd read the newspaper in the lobby while bank managers filled a duffel with crisp $100 bills. For their part in the scheme, Chemical Bank would eventually plead guilty to 200 misdemeanor violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.

As Bumpy had once run the Palmetto Chemical Company, a roach-exterminating concern, Frank opened a string of gas stations and dry cleaners: "I had a dry-cleaning place on Broadway, next to Zabar's. Once I had to go behind the counter myself. And you know I ain't no nine-to-five guy. These old ladies kept coming in, shoving these shirts in my face, screaming, 'Look at this spot' . . . I couldn't take it. I just ran out of the place, didn't lock up or even take the money out of the cash register."

Show business was more to Frank's taste, especially after he and fellow Harlem gangster Zack Robinson began hanging out at Lloyd Price's Turntable, a nightclub at 52nd Street and Broadway. "There'd be Muhammad Ali, members of the Temptations, James Brown, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross," says Frank, who calls the Turntable "a good scene -- the integration crowd was there, every night."

In 1970, Price, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who'd had huge hits with tunes like "Personality" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," decided to make a gangster movie, The Ripoff, set on the streets of New York.

"The idea was to get real, practicing gangsters to play themselves," Price remembers. "We needed the villain romantic lead, the guy with the sable coat and the hat, so I thought, why not get Frank?"

"It was like Shaft before Shaft," says Lucas. "All the cars in the picture was mine. We did a scene with me chasing Lloyd, shooting out the window of a Mercedes on the West Side Highway. I put 70, 80 grand into the movie. It was real fun."

Never finished, the footage missing, The Ripoff qualifies as the Great Lost Film of the blaxploitation genre. "A lot of strange things happened making The Ripoff," says Lloyd Price. "Once, we went over to the editing room. Frank didn't like the director. 'You want to cut, I'll show you how to cut,' he said, pulling out his knife. 'Frank, man,' I told him, 'this isn't the way they do it in the movie business.' "

A drug kingpin attracts attention from the police, and according to Lucas, most of his trouble came from the NYPD's infamously corrupt Special Investigations Unit. Known for its near-unlimited authority, the SIU wrote its own mighty chapter in the crazy-street-money days of the early-seventies heroin epidemic; by 1977, 52 out of 70 officers who'd worked in the unit were either in jail or under indictment.

The worst of the SIU crew, Lucas says, was Bob Leuci, the main player in Robert Daley's best-selling Prince of the City. Says Frank: "We called him Babyface, and he had the balls of a gorilla. He'd wait outside your house and fuck with you." Once, according to Lucas, Leuci caught him with several keys of heroin and cocaine in his trunk. "This is gonna cost you," the detective supposedly said after taking Lucas down to the station house. The two men then reportedly engaged in a heated negotiation, Lucas offering 30 grand, Leuci countering with "30 grand and two keys." Seeing no alternative, Lucas said, "Sold!"

"That's why I had to move downtown," wails Frank. "To duck Babyface."

Lucas likewise expresses no love for his more famous Harlem dope-dealer rival Nicky Barnes, who rankled the older pusher by appearing on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in his trademark gogglelike Gucci glasses, bragging that he was "Mr. Untouchable." The brazen assertion soon got then-president Jimmy Carter on the telephone demanding that something be done about the Harlem dope trade. "Talk about bringing the heat," the Country Boy moans.

According to Lucas, it was Barnes's "delusions of grandeur" that led to a bizarre chance meeting between the two drug lords in the lingerie department of Henri Bendel on 57th Street. "Nicky wanted to make this black-Mafia thing called the Council. An uptown Cosa Nostra. The Five Families of Dope. I didn't want no part of it. Because before long, everyone's gonna think they're Carlo Gambino. That's trouble.

"Anyway, I'm with my wife at Henri Bendel's, and who comes up? Nicky fucking Barnes! 'Frank,' he's going, 'we got to talk . . . we got to get together on this Council thing.' I told him forget it, my wife is trying on underwear -- can't we do this some other time? He says, 'Hey, Frank, I'm short this week, can you front me a couple of keys?' That's Nicky."

Lucas says he thought about quitting "all the time." His wife, Julie, whom he met on a "backtracking" trip in Puerto Rico, begged him to get out, especially after Brooklyn dope king Frank Matthews jumped bail in 1973, never to be heard from again. "Some say he's dead, but I know he's living in Africa, like a king, with all the fucking money in the world," Lucas sighs. "Probably I should have stayed in Colombia. Always liked Colombia. But I had my heart set on getting a jet plane . . . there was always something."

For Lucas, the inevitable came on January 28, 1975, when an NYPD/DEA strike force, acting on a tip from two Pleasant Avenue guys, staged a surprise raid on his house in a leafy neighborhood of Teaneck, New Jersey. In the ensuing panic, Julie Lucas, screaming "Take it all, take it all," tossed several suitcases out the window. The cases were found to contain $584,000 in the rumpled bills Lucas refers to as "shit street money." Also found were keys to Lucas's Cayman Islands safe-deposit boxes, property deeds, and a ticket to a United Nations ball, compliments of the ambassador of Honduras.

"Those motherfuckers just came in," Lucas says now, sitting in a car across the street from the split-level house where he played pickup games with members of the Knicks. For years, he has contended that the cops took a lot more than $585,000 from him. "Five hundred eighty-five thousand, what's that? Shit. In Vegas, I'd lose 500 G's playing baccarat with a green-headed whore in half an hour." According to Lucas, agents took something on the order of "9 to 10 million dollars" from him that fateful evening. To bolster his claim, he cites passing a federally administered polygraph test on the matter. A DEA agent on the scene that night, noting that "$10 million in crumpled $20 bills isn't something you just stick in your pocket," vigorously denies Lucas's charge.

Whatever. Frank doesn't expect to see his money again: "It's just too fucking old -- old and gone."

A few days later, I brought Lucas a copy of his newspaper-clip file, detailing the Country Boy's long and tortuous interface with the criminal-justice system, a period in which he would do time in nearly a dozen state and federal joints. Lucas silently thumbed through dog-eared headlines like COUNTRY BOYS, CALLED NO. 1 HEROIN GANG IS BUSTED; 30 COUNTRY BOYS INDICTED IN $50M HEROIN OPERATION. There was also an October 25, 1979, Post story entitled CONVICT LIVES IT UP WITH SEX AND DRUGS, quoting a Metropolitan Correctional Center prisoner named "Nick," convicted killer of five, whining that Lucas had ordered prostitutes up to his cell and was "so indiscreet about it I had to have my wife turn the other way . . . he didn't give one damn about anyone else's feelings."

One clip, however, did engage Frank's attention. Titled EX-ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR FOR HOGAN SHOT TO DEATH IN VILLAGE AMBUSH, the November 5, 1977, Times story tells how Gino E. Gallina, then a Pelham Manor mouthpiece for "top drug dealers and organized-crime figures," was rubbed out "mob style . . . as many passersby looked on in horror" one nippy evening at the corner of Carmine and Varick Streets.

Lucas reckons he must have spent "millions" on high-priced criminal lawyers through the early eighties. Gino Gallina, however, was the only lawyer Lucas ever physically assaulted, the incident occurring in the visiting room of the Rikers Island prison. Lucas had reputedly given Gallina a large payoff to fix a case, $200,000 of which became "lost." Upon hearing this, Lucas, said the Daily News, "leaped across the table in the visitors' pen and began punching Gallina savagely."

Acknowledging that he told Gallina "if I didn't get my money in 24 hours he was a dead man" and asserting that the lawyer "did not deserve to live," Frank still steadfastly maintains he has "no idea at all" about who murdered Gallina.

What Lucas will absolutely not talk about is how he got out of jail, the stuff described in clips like a Newark Star-Ledger piece from 1983 entitled 'HELPFUL' DRUG KINGPIN GRANTED REDUCED TERM, in which Judge Leonard Ronco of Newark is reported as cutting in half Lucas's 30-year New Jersey stretch. This followed the previous decision by U.S. District Court judge Irving Ben Cooper, who "granted the unusual request of Dominic Amorosa, chief of the Southern District Organized Crime Strike Force, to reduce Lucas's 40-year New York prison sentence to time already served."

"I ask two things," Lucas demanded in our first meeting. "One, if they are slamming bamboo rods beneath your fingernails with ball-peen hammers, do not reveal where you saw me; and two, none of that bullshit about being buddy-buddy with the cops. That is out . . . " Then, so there was no mistake, he added, "Don't cross me on this, because I am a busy man and have no time, no time whatsoever, to go to your funeral."

Still, it was hard to let it go. How was I supposed to explain how he wound up serving less than nine years? To this, Frank replied: "I know I have that mark on me. I was always playing games with them. Go back and look -- I never, ever testified against anyone in court. Not once."

Then finally, Frank said, "Look, all you got to know is that I am sitting here talking to you right now. Walking and talking -- when I could have, should have, been dead and buried a hundred times. And you know why that is?

"Because: People like me. People like the fuck out of me." This was his primary survival skill, said the former dope king: his downright friendliness, his upbeat demeanor. "All the way back to when I was a boy, people have always liked me. I've always counted on that."

That much was apparent when I went to the Eastern District federal court to see Judge Sterling Johnson, the former narcotics prosecutor instrumental in putting the Country Boy behind bars.

Frank told me to look up Johnson, whom he calls "Idi Amin." "Judge Johnson likes me a lot. You'll see," he said.

Johnson greeted me with a burnished dignity befitting a highly respected public official. "This is Judge Johnson," he said. When I mentioned the name Frank Lucas, Johnson became notably more familiar. "Frank Lucas? Is that mother still living?!" A few days later, chatting in his stately chambers, the judge told me to call Lucas up.

"Get that old gangster on the phone," Johnson demanded, turning on the speaker.

Lucas answered with his usual growl. "This is Frank. Who's this?"

Johnson mentioned a name, someone apparently dead, likely snuffed by a Country Boy or two. This got Lucas's attention. "What? Who gave you this number?"


"Top who?"

"Red Top!" Johnson said, invoking the name of Lucas's beloved chief dope cutter.

"Red Top don't got my number . . ." It was around then that Frank figured it out.

"Judge Johnson! You dog! You still got that stick?" Johnson reached under his desk, pulled out a beat cop's nightstick, and slapped it into his open palm loud enough for Lucas to hear it. "Better believe it, Frank!"

"Stop that! You're making me nervous, Judge Johnson!" Lucas exclaimed before gingerly inquiring, "Hey, Judge, they ever get anyone in that Gallina thing?"

Johnson laughed and said, "Oh, Frank. You know you did it."

Smiling through Lucas's denials, Johnson said, "Well, come down and see me. I'm about the only fly in the buttermilk down here."

After he hung up, Johnson chortled, "That Frank. He's a pisser."

"You know, when we were first investigating him, the FBI, DEA, they didn't think he could pull off that Southeast Asia stuff. They wouldn't let themselves believe an uneducated black man could come up with such a sophisticated smuggling operation. In his sick way, he really did something."

The memory clearly tickled Johnson, who quickly added, "Look, don't get me wrong: Frank was as bad as they come. You should never forget who these people really are. But what are you going to do? The guy was a pisser. A pisser and a killer. Easy to like. A lot of those guys were like that. It is an old problem."

A couple of days later, eating at a T.G.I. Friday's, Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. "Look at this shit," he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn't have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. "What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that's the way it is now. You can't find the heart of anything to stick the knife into."

Then Frank turned to me and asked, "You gonna make me out to be the devil, or what? Am I going to Heaven or hell?"

As far as Frank was concerned, his place in the hereafter was assured after he joined the Catholic Church while imprisoned at Elmira. "The priest there was getting crooks early parole, so I signed up," he says. As backup, Frank was also a Baptist. "I have praised the Lord," he says. "Praised Him in the street and praised Him in the joint. I know I'm forgiven, that I'm going to the good place, not the bad."

But what did I think? How did I see it going for the Country Boy beyond this world? It was a vexing question, as Sterling Johnson said. Who knew about these things? Frank was a con man, one of the best. He'd been telling white people, cops and everyone else, pretty much what they wanted to hear for decades, so why should I be different? It was true: I liked him. I liked the fuck out of him. Especially when he called his 90-year-old church-lady Hulk Hogan-fan mother, which he did about five times a day. But that wasn't the point.

Braggart, trickster, and fibber along with everything else, Lucas was nonetheless a living, breathing historical figure, a highly specialized font of secret knowledge, more exotic, and certainly less picked over, than any Don Corleone. He was a whole season of the black Sopranos -- old-school division. The idea that a backwoods boy could maneuver himself into position to tell at least a plausible lie about stashing 125 kilos of zum dope on Henry Kissinger's plane -- much less actually do it -- mitigated a multitude of sins.

In the end, even Lucas's resounding lack of repentance didn't seem to matter. About the only flicker of remorse I'd seen from him occurred following a couple of beers we had with one of his brothers, Vernon Lee, who is known as Shorty.

A bespectacled man now in his early fifties, Shorty followed Frank to Harlem in 1965. "We came up from Carolina in a beat-up car, the brothers and sisters, Mom and Dad, with everything we owned, like the Beverly Hillbillies." From the start, Shorty knew what he wanted. "Diamond rings, cars, women. But mostly it was the glory. Isn't that what most men really dream of? The glory."

Then Shorty reached across the table and touched Frank's hand. "We did make a little bit of noise, didn't we?" Shorty said. To which Frank replied, "A little bit."

Later, sitting in the car, Frank watched his brother make his way across the frozen puddles in the late-afternoon light and sighed. "You know, if I'd been a preacher, they would have been preachers. If I'd been a cop, they'd have been cops. But I was a dope dealer, so they became dope dealers . . . I don't know . . . if I'd done right."

After a while, Frank and I stopped in for another beer. The surroundings were not plush. Frank said, "Shit . . . from King of the Hill to dumps like this."

The Knicks game was over, so we sat around for a few hours watching The Black Rose, an old sword-fight movie with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. Welles is a favorite of Lucas's, "at least before he got too fat." Then, when it was time for me to go, Lucas insisted I call him when I got back to New York. It was late, rainy, and a long drive. Frank said he was worried about me. So, back in the city, driving down the FDR, by the 116th Street exit, I called Lucas up, as arranged.

"You're back, that's good," the Country Boy croaked into the phone. "Watch out. I don't care what Giuliani says, New York is not so safe. You never know what you might find out there." Then Frank laughed that same chilling haint of a laugh, spilling out the car windows and onto the city streets beyond.

Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas back in the spotlight with ’American Gangster‘

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Frank Lucas, the man that Denzel Washington portrays in "American Gangster" is shown in New York in this Nov. 2, 2007 file photo. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/ Jim Cooper

NEW YORK - Frank Lucas, at 77 years old and wheelchair-bound, still has a small gang doting on him.

Sons, publicists and friends swirl around Lucas in nearly perpetual commotion, fetching him everything from pills to a cooling fan. A recent visitor is directed kindly - though in no uncertain terms - in and out of the room.

There’s still plenty of power left in Lucas’s presence, even though his days as a Harlem drug lord are decades past, his millions long ago seized by the government.

Lucas is again in the spotlight because of "American Gangster," the Ridley Scott-directed film in which Denzel Washington portrays Lucas. A special as part of BET’s "American Gangster" series also recently profiled him.

"If you can find one better than Denzel Washington, I want you to tell me," says Lucas, in a halting drawl similar to bluesman John Lee Hooker’s. "What’s their name? What’s their name?"

Lucas’s story is unbelievable even by Hollywood standards. After a childhood in North Carolina, he moved to New York, eventually becoming the driver for and pupil of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a powerful Harlem gangster.

After Johnson’s death, Lucas, who went by the nickname "Superfly," took over his heroin dealing business, but made one audacious change. He established his own drug connection, cutting out the middleman and landing huge amounts of nearly pure heroin. Sold on the street as "Blue Magic," it netted him an incredible profit - up to $1 million in revenue a day, Lucas claims.

He managed this by buying his dope in the jungles of Vietnam, tipped off by U.S. soldiers then fighting in the war. To get the drugs back to the States, Lucas established the infamous "cadaver connection," hiding the heroin in the caskets of dead soldiers.

Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, who prosecuted Lucas and played a major role in bringing him down, once called the operation "one of the most outrageous dope-smuggling gangs ever."

Lucas wasn’t the only arrogant gangster in New York then. His rival, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the film) appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in an article titled "Mr. Untouchable" - which prompted then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter to pressure for a crackdown.

In "American Gangster," Lucas is depicted to a certain degree as an entrepreneur, who broke through the racial barriers of traditional organized crime.

"That had nothing to do with it," says Lucas, who also sold his drugs to Italian mob families. "I saw an opening, a soft spot - the soft part of the belly - and I took advantage of it."

After Lucas was arrested in 1975, his sentences in New York and New Jersey added up to 70 years in prison and he quickly turned into a government informant, most notably against the then-corrupt Special Investigations Unit of the NYPD.

Out of 70 SIU officers, 52 were eventually either jailed or indicted. Lucas claims he only informed on corrupt police officers. He insists: "The only people I ever informed on were them . . . cops who took my money."

But prosecutors involved in the case have contradicted that. Richard "Richie" Roberts, who prosecuted the superseding indictment in New Jersey, says plainly: "Absolutely not. He gets mad every time I tell the truth."

Lucas’s sentence was reduced to five years after his informant work. Once released, Lucas was quickly arrested again for drug dealing but on a much smaller scale. He served seven more years and, when he got out of jail in 1991, Roberts came to his aid ("I couldn’t buy a pack of cigarettes," says Lucas).

Today, they are good friends. Roberts is Lucas’s defence attorney and the godfather to his 11-year-old son, Ray, whose education Roberts has paid for.

"We’ve had our ups and downs over the years," says Roberts, speaking from his New Jersey law office. "The charm that Denzel exhibited in the movie was the way Frank was. Frank would probably shoot you and make you feel pretty good as you were dying."

Russell Crowe plays Roberts in the film, though the character is a composite of the many detectives and prosecutors who arrested and tried Lucas. Lucas for a moment hesitates to speak ill of his friend, but the inflated screen persona given to Roberts riles him.

"Richie Roberts and his crack crew couldn’t catch a . . . bad cold in Alaska in the wintertime," he says with undimmed competitiveness. "They were the bad-news cops."

It was originally Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote "Wiseguys," the book "Goodfellas" was based on) who brought attention to Lucas’ story. He introduced Lucas to writer Mark Jacobson, whose 2000 New York Magazine article was the basis for "American Gangster."

Lucas, Roberts, Pileggi and Jacobson flew to L.A. together to meet with producer Brian Grazer, who Pileggi says, snapping his fingers, "bought it right in the room."

The stars of "American Gangster" and its writer, Steve Zaillian, consulted heavily with Lucas and Roberts. Lucas was present almost daily on the Harlem film set, lending Washington frequent advice on details like how he taped his gun.

On the BET special, Washington said about Lucas: "He’ll have you working for him by the end of the day."

Of the slow pace of film productions, Lucas poetically says: "It was kind of like watching a flower grow in the nighttime." He then adds with phrasing rather alarming coming from a former gangster: "The way they do it is not according to Jim, you know what I mean? I usually am bang, bang, bang - I’m gone."

Lucas, who lives with his wife and youngest son in Newark, N.J., says that the experience couldn’t help but rekindle his memories.

"You’re back in the saaame thing," he says with a laugh. "The girls I knew, some of them came up claiming they got kids by me. Since I started making the movie, I got 10 more sons."

But Lucas says he’s repentant. Aside from any murders he himself committed or had carried out, the strength of Lucas’s potent heroin killed many young users.

"I regret it very much so," he says. "I did some terrible things. I’m awfully sorry that I did them. I really am."

Many of those who lived through the events depicted in "American Gangster" worry the film could glamorize Lucas’ drug-dealing days.

Pileggi, also an executive producer on the film, says he hopes "American Gangster" above all makes clear "that you’re going to get caught, even if you’re as clever and try to be as laid-back as (Lucas)."

"He can never redeem what he did, he can never bring those kids back or clean up the schoolyards, but there is rebirth or redemption in realizing what you did was bad," says Pileggi.

Lucas now touts a charity founded by his daughter, Francine Lucas-Sinclair, that seeks to raise money for the children of incarcerated parents (

"I always keep my eye on the prize," says Lucas. "The film, in three or four months, it’ll be gone - but I’ll still be here. And I gotta keep the fire burning."


On the Net: Movie Web site:

New York Magazine story on Lucas:

What a crime: Denzel & friends pretty up a drug thug

By Stanley Crouch

New York Daily News
Monday, November 5th 2007, 4:00 AM

Two films called "American Gangster" have arrived recently, both focusing on Harlem druglord Frank Lucas. One comes from Hollywood and is in movie theaters. The other is a cable television documentary. The air-brushed Hollywood vehicle stars Denzel Washington; the other is part of an ongoing Black Entertainment Television documentary series that proves, yet again, how responsible and excellent the station can be when it tries to make something both important and entertaining.

The Hollywood version of the Lucas story comes off as more than irresponsible when we realize one thing: Scores of young men have been influenced by the Tony Montana character in Brian de Palma's "Scarface." In the extra content on the "Scarface" anniversary DVD, rappers go on the record saying how much they like it.

Andre 3000 of Outkast says it most clearly: "He's doing wrong, but the crowd is rooting for him because he's coming from nothing and he rose to the top."

Sean (Diddy) Combs assures the viewer that Montana's amorality was not a hindrance to audience identification: "You just happy to see another cat that had nothing making it, no matter how he was getting it."

Russell Simmons agrees because, he says, "One of the things about hip hop is that it is about empowerment at all costs, and 'Scarface' was about empowerment at all costs. When you see that, it kind of inspires you not to take 'no' for an answer."

In those terms, "American Gangster" will probably be a very big hit, and Washington's performance could well earn him another Oscar nomination.

But here's the rub. Frank Lucas has been given qualities that he simply did not have. We see him played as a soft-spoken and sophisticated man who closely studies the written word and only explodes into violence every now and then.

In actuality, as the BET documentary reveals, Lucas was illiterate and could not count. He helped keep his books by learning that 22 pounds of $100 bills amounted to $1 million. He not only killed people to impress his ruthlessness on the underworld, but even put out a murder contract on one of his own brothers, whom he had brought from North Carolina to work in the drug trade with him. Lucas squashed the contract only because another brother had been killed and the druglord did not want his mother to have to mourn for two dead sons at the same time. Always a family man.

That such icy qualities are not in the movie makes it a highly crafted piece of poisonous eye candy. One wonders why Washington himself, one of the few actors in Hollywood with what seems to be absolute integrity, did not demand a more realistic script about Lucas. Great roles like the officer in "Courage Under Fire" and private detective Easy Rawlins in "Devil in a Blue Dress" were both complex and soulful - and could have been easily matched here. The real Frank Lucas was like a polished walnut with nothing but black rot inside.

As the BET documentary shows, and the article by Mark Jacobson on which the film was based validates, Lucas himself burst into loud sobs as he was being prosecuted in court. This happened as he heard the overwhelming testimony of the mother of an addict who died from an overdose of Lucas' brand-name heroin and was probably found as cold as a fish on ice at the market.

That would have been a fine moment to capture on film - but it would also have ripped the mask from Lucas.

Instead, "American Gangster" proves, yet again, that Hollywood is much less interested in aesthetic grandeur than it is in profits. In that sense, it is often no better than the lousy gangsters it makes into well-dressed entrepreneurs rather than the glittering spiritual vomit that they actually are.

Television Review

BET tells real story of drug kingpin Frank Lucas

By David Hinckley

New York Daily News
Thursday, November 1st 2007, 11:34 AM

The real deal, Frank Lucas, and the reel deal, Denzel Washington (below) in 'American Gangster'

With Denzel Washington due in theaters Friday as the famed Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in "American Gangster," BET has arranged for us to meet the real Frank Lucas Wednesday night.

It's a fascinating encounter in which Lucas reflects on his drug-dealing career the way the retired chairman of Nabisco might reflect on double-stuffed Oreos.

This makes the show mildly disturbing, since some folks are undoubtedly going to come away with the impression that illegal drug dealing backed with lethal brutality can in some cases be a well-chosen career option.

Unlike most shows on drug dealers, this one ends with the main man neither dying young nor sounding penitant.

Lucas served almost 10 years in prison, which he views as payment in full for anything he did.

Okay, he says, some people died from using his heroin. But it was "their own damn fault."

His sales force, he explains, told the customers up-front his stuff was stronger than most street dope. If they chose to shoot it up like usual anyway, that wasn't Lucas' problem.

Like previous "American Gangster" episodes, this one finds a dozen or more characters who were also part of the story.

Richie Roberts, the prosecutor who finally nailed Lucas, describes his eventual arrest as a classic cops-and-robbers showdown in which Lucas finally made a mistake.

For those who tuned in late, Lucas was a Southern farm kid who came to New York and became the right-hand man to Bumpy Johnson, drug king of the black New York streets.

Lucas learned from him for 15 years and when he died, Lucas took over with an expanded agenda. The Vietnam War was raging and Lucas realized that soldiers not only gave him a vastly expanded potential consumer base, but that Southeast Asia could be a rich source for the product.

He set up direct supply lines that enabled him to undersell the other giant of the heroin industry, the mob. Among his smuggling techniques was packing dope into the coffins of dead soldiers, and his network of accomplices stretched from CIA and local officials to Harlem cops.

One moment he particularly savors, he says, was smuggling drugs on a flight that carried Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Now retired and claiming he's all legit, Lucas expresses mild regret at making money with a product that killed people. He expresses only pride in having made the money.

To most viewers, this will come off as a tough, hard-boiled story. To a handful, one imagines, it will be downright inspiring.

Friday, November 23, 2007


By Ann Coulter
November 21, 2007

Here's a story that may not have been deemed "Fit to Print": In the six months that ended Sept. 25, The New York Times' daily circulation was down another 4.51 percent to about a million readers a day. The paper's Sunday circulation was down 7.59 percent to about 1.5 million readers. In short, the Times is dropping faster than Hillary in New Hampshire. (Meanwhile, the Drudge Report has more than 16 million readers every day.)

New York Times Tower

One can only hope that none of the Democratic presidential candidates are among the disaffected hordes lining up to cancel their Times subscriptions.

The Times is so accustomed to lying about the news to prove that "most Americans" agree with the Times, that it seems poised to lead the Democrats -- and any Republicans stupid enough to believe the Times -- down a primrose path to their own destruction.

So if you know a Democratic presidential candidate who doesn't currently read the Times, by all means order him a subscription.

On Sunday, Times readers learned that despite this year's historic revolt of normal Americans against amnesty for illegal aliens: "Some polls show that the majority of Americans agree with proposals backed by most Democrats in the Senate, as well as some Republicans, to establish a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally."

Was the reporter who wrote that sentence the Darfur bureau chief for the past year? By "some polls," I gather he means "a show of hands during a meeting of the Times editorial board" or "a quick backstage survey in the MSNBC greenroom."

As I believe Americans made resoundingly clear this year, the only "path to citizenship" they favor involves making an application from Norway, waiting a few years and then coming over when it's legal.

Americans were so emphatic on this point that they forced a sitting president to withdraw his signature legislative accomplishment for his second term -- amnesty for illegal aliens, aka a "path to citizenship" for illegals.

This was the goal supported by the president's acolytes at the Fox News Channel as well as a nearly monolithic Democratic Party and its acolytes at ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, MTV, Oxygen TV, the Food Network, the Golf Channel, the Home Shopping Network, The in-house "Learn to Gamble" channel at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and Comedy Central (unless that was just a sketch on the "Mind of (Carlos) Mencia").

But ordinary Americans had a different idea. Their idea was: Let's not reward law-breakers with the ultimate prize: U.S. citizenship. And the ordinary Americans won.

The Times disregards all of that history to announce that it has secret polls showing that Americans support a "path to citizenship" for illegals after all! These polls are living in the shadows!

Only those "angriest on immigration," the Times said, are still using the various words related to immigration that liberals are trying to turn into new "N-words," such as, for example, "immigration." With an exhausting use of air quotes, the Times reports that: "The Republicans have railed against 'amnesty' and 'sanctuary cities.' They have promised to build a fence on the Mexican border to keep 'illegals' out."

In liberal-speak, that sentence would read: "The Republicans have railed against 'puppies' and 'kittens.' They have promised to build a fence on the Mexican border to keep 'baby seals' out." (In my version, the sentence would read: "Believing New York Times 'polls,' Democrats irritate 'voters.'")

Half the English language is becoming the "N-word" as far as liberals are concerned. Words are always bad for liberals. Words allow people to understand what liberals are saying.

According to the Times, all decent, cultured Americans cringe when politicians use foul words like "illegals" to describe illegals. Apparently, what most Americans are clamoring for is yet more automatic messages that begin, "Press '1' for English." That, at least, is the message the Times got from the stunning victory of grassroots over the elites on the immigration bill this year.

It is against my best interests to mention how utterly out of touch Times editors and reporters are with any Americans east of Central Park West and west of Riverside Drive. I enjoy watching the Democratic presidential candidates take clear, unequivocal positions in favor of driver's licenses for illegals and then denouncing those very positions a week later (after the real polls come in).

Some people love watching the trees change color every fall. I enjoy watching the candidates' positions on immigration change.

But it is too much for any human to endure to read the Times' version of history in which "most Americans" agree with the Times on illegal immigration in the very year Americans punched back against illegal immigration so hard that the entire Washington establishment is still reeling. It's not like we have to go back to the Coolidge administration to get some sense of what Americans think about amnesty for illegals. (I mean "amnesty" for "illegals.")

Using the Times' calculus, "most Americans" have also enthusiastically embraced soccer and the metric system.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Film Review: "I'm Not There"

NYT Critics' Pick

This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

Jonathan Wenk/Weinstein Company
Christian Bale as an incarnation of Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There."

Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Another, and Another ...

The New York Times
Published: November 21, 2007

From Andy Warhol to Lonelygirl15, modern media culture thrives on the traffic in counterfeit selves. In this world the greatest artist will also be, almost axiomatically, the biggest fraud. And looking back over the past 50 years or so, it is hard to find anyone with a greater ability to synthesize authenticity — to give his serial hoaxes and impersonations the ring of revealed and esoteric truth — than Bob Dylan.

It’s not just that Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish teenager growing up in Eisenhower-era Minnesota, borrowed a name from a Welsh poet and the singing style of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl troubadour and bluffed his way into the New York folk scene. That was chutzpah. What followed was genius — the elaboration of an enigmatic, mercurial personality that seemed entirely of its moment and at the same time connected to a lost agrarian past. From the start, Mr. Dylan has been singularly adept at channeling and recombining various strands of the American musical and literary vernacular, but he has often seemed less like an interpreter of those traditions than like their incarnation.

His persona has been as inclusive as Walt Whitman’s and as unsettlingly splintered as that of Herman Melville’s Confidence Man. Vulnerable as Mr. Dylan is to misunderstanding (“I couldn’t believe after all these years/You didn’t know me better than that” in “Idiot Wind”), he also actively solicits it (“Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” in “Ballad of a Thin Man”). So it is only fitting that Todd Haynes, in “I’m Not There,” his incandescent rebus of a movie inspired by Mr. Dylan’s life and music, has chosen to multiply puzzles and paradoxes rather than solve them. Not for nothing does one of Mr. Haynes’s stories take place in a town called Riddle.

Cate Blanchett in the Felliniesque sequence.

Among its many achievements, Mr. Haynes’s film hurls a Molotov cocktail through the facade of the Hollywood biopic factory, exploding the literal-minded, anti-intellectual assumptions that guide even the most admiring cinematic explorations of artists’ lives. Rather than turn out yet another dutiful, linear chronicle of childhood trauma and grown-up substance abuse, Mr. Haynes has produced a dizzying palimpsest of images and styles, in which his subject appears in the form of six different people.

Not one is named Bob Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman), though all of them evoke actual and invented points in the Dylan cosmos: Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie, the Mighty Quinn. They’re not all musicians: One is a poet named Arthur Rimbaud; another is a movie star.

These divergent visions of Dylan are played by two different Australians (Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett); a young British actor (Ben Whishaw); a prepubescent African-American named Marcus Carl Franklin; Richard Gere; and the most recent Batman. Their stories collide and entwine, adding up to an experience that is as fascinating and inexhaustible as listening to “Blood on the Tracks” or “The Basement Tapes.”

It is unusual to see a masterwork emerge from one artist’s absorption with the work of another, though Mr. Haynes came close with “Far From Heaven,” his 2002 homage to the director Douglas Sirk. And while “I’m Not There” is immersed in Dylanology, it is more than a document of scholarly preoccupation or fan obsession.

A scene from the “Woody”-era Dylan.

Devotees of Dylan lore will find their heads swimming with footnotes, as they track Mr. Haynes’s allusions not only to Mr. Dylan’s own music but also to the extensive secondary literature it has inspired, from books by David Hajdu and Greil Marcus to films, including D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, “Don’t Look Back,” some of which Mr. Haynes remakes shot for shot.

But the film is anything but dry, and like Mr. Dylan’s best songs, it is at once teasingly arcane and bracingly plain-spoken. Mr. Haynes, switching styles, colors, film stocks and editing rhythms with unnerving ease (and with the crucial help of Jay Rabinowitz and Edward Lachman, the editor and the director of photography), has held his cerebral and his visceral impulses in perfect balance. “I’m Not There” respects the essential question Mr. Dylan’s passionate followers have always found themselves asking — What does it mean? — without forgetting that the counter-question Mr. Dylan has posed is more challenging and, for a movie, more important: How does it feel?

As you watch the mid-’60s renegade folk singer Jude Quinn — embodied in Ms. Blanchett’s hunched, skinny frame and photographed in silvery Nouvelle Vague black and white — pinball through swinging London, subsisting on amphetamines, Camel straights and gnomic talk, it feels like a pop earthquake. The ’60s, man! As Mr. Ledger’s character and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) meet, marry and fall apart, it feels like the heartbreaking aftermath of a moment of high promise and possibility. (That would be the ’70s.)

A scene from the Richard Gere Dylan section.

Riding the rails in 1959 with a pint-size, wisecracking hobo who calls himself Woody Guthrie (Mr. Franklin) and saddling up with Mr. Gere’s Billy the Kid in Riddle, Mo., in the 19th century, you feel a piercing nostalgia for a pastoral America that probably existed only in legend. With Christian Bale, playing a star of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene who resurfaces as a Pentecostal minister in Los Angeles years later, you experience a prickle of confusion and morbid curiosity. As it all unfolds, there may be other feelings too, including awe at the quality of the performances and occasional exasperation at Mr. Haynes’s sprawling, hectic virtuosity.

Still, I would not subtract a minute of this movie, or wish it any different. Nor do I anticipate being finished with “I’m Not There” anytime soon, since, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” it invites endless interpretation, criticism and elaboration. Instead of proposing a definitive account of Bob Dylan’s career, Mr. Haynes has used that career as fuel for a wide-ranging (and, if you’ll permit me, freewheeling) historical inquiry into his own life and times. In spite of its title, “I’m Not There” is a profoundly, movingly personal film, passionate in its engagement with the mysteries of the recent past.

“Live in your own time.” That’s the advice young “Woody Guthrie” hears from a motherly woman who offers him a hot meal and a place to sleep. It’s sensible advice — he’s daydreaming of the Depression in the middle of the space age — but also useless. It’s not as if anyone has a choice. To slog through the present requires no particular wit, vision or art. But a certain kind of artist will comb through the old stuff that’s lying around — the tall tales and questionable memories, the yellowing photographs and scratched records — looking for glimpses of a possible future. Though there’s a lot of Bob Dylan’s music in “I’m Not There,” Mr. Haynes is not simply compiling golden oldies. You hear familiar songs, but what you see is the imagination unleashed — the chimes of freedom flashing.

Marcus Carl Franklin, as “Woody.”

“I’m Not There” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sex, swearing, brief violence and drug use.


Opens today nationwide.

Directed by Todd Haynes; written by Mr. Haynes and Oren Moverman, based on a story by Mr. Haynes; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by James D. Stern, John Sloss, John Goldwyn and Christine Vachon; released by the Weinstein Company. In Manhattan at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

WITH: Christian Bale (Jack/Pastor John), Cate Blanchett (Jude Quinn), Marcus Carl Franklin (Woody Guthrie), Richard Gere (Billy), Heath Ledger (Robbie), Ben Whishaw (Arthur Rimbaud), Kris Kristofferson (Narrator), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), David Cross (Allen Ginsberg), Bruce Greenwood (Keenan Jones/Pat Garrett), Julianne Moore (Alice Fabian), Michelle Williams (Coco Rivington), Richie Havens (Old Man Arvin), Peter Friedman (Morris Bernstein), Alison Folland (Grace), Yolonda Ross (Angela Reeves), Kim Gordon (Carla Hendricks), Mark Camacho (Norman), Joe Cobden (Sonny) and Kristen Hager (Mona).

Springsteen player Federici takes leave to fight cancer

Thursday, November 22, 2007
Newark Star-Ledger Staff

Nothing was said at Monday's Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert at Boston's TD Banknorth Garden. But Springsteen let the crowd know that the rumors were true: Danny Federici was seriously ill, and this would be his last show with the band, at least for a while.

The set list was full of songs that emphasized Federici's keyboard playing, like "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and "Kitty's Back." At the end of the show, when the musicians took their customary bows, Federici received special treatment.

"When Bruce threw his arm around Danny and brought him up front for his own bow, it was pretty clear that he was being honored," says Christopher Phillips, editor and publisher of the Springsteen magazine Backstreets.

"All the E Street Band members wanted to give him a hug or pat his shoulder," said Phillips, who attended the show. "And the crowd started shouting, 'Danny! Danny! Danny!' Half the crowd was probably chanting just because he had a great night. He sounded great, and he had a lot of chances to do his thing."

Federici confirmed yesterday that he will take a leave of absence from the band, starting with Sunday's show in Madrid, to pursue treatment for melanoma, a form of cancer.

"Danny is one of the pillars of our sound and has played beside me as a great friend for more than 40 years," Springsteen said in a press statement. "We all eagerly await his healthy and speedy re turn."

Charles Giordano, who played on Springsteen's 2006 "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" album and the subsequent tour, will fill in. His previous credits include stints in Pat Benatar's band and Buster Poindexter's Banshees of Blue.

Federici, a 57-year-old Fleming ton native, is one of three musicians who have been in the E Street Band every step of the way. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons and bassist Garry Tallent are the others.

The E Street Band c. 1973

Federici also played in Springsteen's pre-E Street bands Steel Mill and Child, and has released two jazz-pop albums on his own: 1997's "Flemington," re-released in 2001 with one new track as "Danny Federici"; and 2005's "Out of a Dream."

When Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he called Federici "the most instinctive and natural musician I ever met," and told him, "Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music."

The Madrid show kicks off a 3 1/2-week European tour that will be followed by more shows in the United States and Canada, begin ning in late February. But as long as Federici isn't there, it won't be the same E Street Band.

The sound probably won't be tremendously different. But the E Street Band is more than a sound. To its fans, it's also a symbol of friendship and loyalty, and the possibility that a bunch of hard-working guys can create something great together. With Federici not there, the band loses a little of its magic.

There is also a more concrete way that Federici's absence might affect the band. Like the other longtime E Streeters, he has an en cyclopedic knowledge of Springsteen's material.

"The Springsteen catalog runs so deep," said Phillips. "Where it might affect things is: Will they be as free to pull out anything that Bruce might want to pull out? When Bruce says, 'Okay, we haven't played "Ramrod" in five years, but we're playing it right now,' or whatever it might be ... Can they do that with Charlie? I don't know."

Jay Lustig may be reached at or (973) 392-5850.

'Let All Your Thinks Be Thanks'

An appreciation of an adult holiday.

The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, November 22, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

Conventional wisdom has it that Thanksgiving is the best of all American holidays. As a contrarian, I'd like to put that wisdom to the test.

Thanksgiving does have the absence of the heavy hand of dreary gift giving that has put the groans in Christmas, the moans in Hanukkah. And no one has written treacly Thanksgiving songs, comparable to "White Christmas" and "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," which, I suspect, have helped make Christmas one of the prime seasons for suicide. Let us not speak of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," of whose travail we shall all have heard more than our fill as we ride up elevators and pass along the aisles of department stores.

For some time in America we have, of course, been living under Kindergarchy, or rule by children. If children do not precisely rule us, then certainly all efforts, in families where the smallish creatures still roam, are directed to relieving their boredom if not (hope against hope) actually pleasing them.

Let us be thankful that Thanksgiving has not yet fallen to the Kindergarchy, as has just about every other holiday on the calendar, with the possible exceptions of Yom Kippur and Ramadan. Thanksgiving is not about children. It remains resolutely an adult holiday about grown-up food and drink and football.

The weather, which provides the backdrop to Thanksgiving, is also much in its favor. In most parts of the country cool, sometimes cold, it doesn't usually blow the holiday away with tornados, hurricanes or great snow storms. Warm jackets, sweaters, corduroy trousers are the order of the day--comfort clothes, the sartorial equivalent of comfort food.

Comfort food is what Thanksgiving provides, and to the highest possible power. Large browned turkeys, rich heavy stuffings, sweet potatoes, cranberries . . . but enough of this gastronomic porno. Everyone has in mind his or her own memories of splendid Thanksgiving dinners.

My own are those my late mother-in-law used to give at her house on a small lake in Michigan. She was a dab cook, everything fresh, handsomely set out, perfectly prepared, without the least bit of pretension. She invited her extended family, roughly 20 of us, most of whom drove up from Chicago.

The dominant figure at these dinners was a large, ebullient, red-faced man named John Lull, the second husband of my wife's Aunt Phoebe. John was at what Mencken once called "the country-club stage of culture": A man who lived for golf and food and drink, had an eye for women. At first sight, he was your homme moyen sensuel, except there was nothing very moyen about his sensuality, which was pretty damn extraordinary. Diet, cholesterol, calories, these were words that I never heard pass his lips.

Thanksgiving dinners at my mother-in-law's always ended with a choice of three pies: pumpkin, mincemeat and apple. John would choose a large slice of the apple, requesting a slice of cheese placed atop it, whereupon, with a goofy smile he would announce, with a regularity as if it were part of a liturgy, "Pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze."

Pro football on television from Detroit on Thanksgiving is a remnant of the old patriarchy. (The patriarchy as we know is now all but dead, and those of us who retain fond if dimming memories of it have, alas, nothing left to fight for but the double standard.) Detroit regularly used to play Green Bay in these Thanksgiving games, and my memory of them is of famous quarterbacks, Bobby Lane, Tobin Rote, Bart Starr, eluding oncoming bruisers to complete impossible passes that won games in their final seconds.

An aging couch potato--au gratin, to be sure--I still watch these Thanksgiving games. Not having a horse in the race--I am a Chicago Bears fan--I view them with a fine detachment, noting changes in the game since I long ago began wasting my time watching it, among them the advent of 6-foot-6-inch quarterbacks, the 300-plus pound linemen, the human equivalents of SUVs.

Thanksgiving also has inclusiveness going for it. The holiday really is for all Americans, though I suppose a sourpuss leftist might, with boring trenchancy, be able to interject it isn't such a fine day for Native Americans.


While secular in tone, Thanksgiving is also slightly religious in spirit. I am having Thanksgiving this year at the home of my son and daughter-in-law, and because of the slight religious nature of the holiday have asked them not to invite Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or any of the rest of the atheist gang, all of whom seem likely, if on the premises, to put a dampening spirit onto the proceedings.

I wish the poet W. H. Auden were still alive, so that he might be at the same table where I eat my Thanksgiving dinner. Auden, I think, nicely captured the spirit of Thanksgiving when he wrote that, in prayer, it is best to get the begging part over with quickly and get on to the gratitude part. He also wrote, "let all your thinks be thanks."

To be living in a prosperous and boundlessly interesting country, at a time of high technological achievement, and of widening tolerance --much to be thankful for here. "Wystan," I'd like to tell the poet, "you got it right, kid. Now how about a drumstick."

Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of "In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary and Savage" (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).