Through a friend of Ella’s, Malcolm lands a job working for the railroad, due to the war causing a labor shortage. Having always wanted to visit New York City, Malcolm jumps at the chance to work for the route traveling to and from the Big Apple.
While Malcolm may no longer live with Ella and she may no longer approve of his lifestyle, he will continue to benefit from her kindness and connections throughout his life.
Lying about his age and declaring himself 21, Malcolm instantly gets the job. They take him on as a dishwasher, but before working the NYC route, they put him on the “Colonial” to Washington, D.C. There, he sees the worst slums of his life, and all within proximity to the capital. There are nicer black neighborhoods as well, though; these well-educated residents work as janitors, porters, and mailmen.
In a very physical way, D.C. embodies the racist hierarchy that Malcolm sees throughout America. Right at the heart of the country’s center of power, one finds that racial oppression is at its very worst, implying that power and oppression are inevitably entwined.
After several trips to D.C., Malcolm jumps at the chance to join the “Yankee Clipper” route, working as the sandwich man. In New York, he goes with the train’s cooks to Harlem and to their favorite bar there, Small’s Paradise. Here, he is overwhelmed by the natural decorum and manners of its customers. Unlike the pretentions of the Hill in Roxbury, these patrons appear cool and collected in their quiet manners.
The customers at Small’s also carry themselves with dignity in a way that Malcolm has never seen before. Perhaps Malcolm will later be attracted to the Nation of Islam partially because their conservative, courteous manners will remind him of these hustlers.
Later, Malcolm continues his tour of Harlem, heading first to the Apollo Theater and then to the Braddock Hotel, a popular hangout place for black celebrities. From there, he heads to the Savoy Ballroom, which dwarfs Roseland’s in Boston. There he dances with several of the girls on the sidelines as the room maintains a furious pace. The singer Dinah Washington eventually goes onstage, making the crowd go mad (and Malcolm notes that he and Dinah eventually became great friends).
At this stage, Malcolm is still very much a newcomer. Whereas in Roxbury he is often at the center of the dancing, here in Harlem, he can only manage to keep up with the dancers along the sidelines. In addition, he will know the celebrities of Harlem – but not yet.
The streets are filled with black servicemen, taking in the night life. Meanwhile, the prostitutes and the pimps are out on the streets working every single man they see, while the hustlers try to sell their merchandise. Malcolm says that in a few years, he could give any of these hustlers a lesson, but at this moment, he is mesmerized by the atmosphere and certain that he belongs here.
Malcolm describes the atmosphere of Harlem in a loving way and glorifies its nightlife. But this is meant to reflect how he felt at the time, rather than to simply enchant the reader with a romantic past.
Malcolm heads back to Boston, his head spinning. He tries to convince Shorty to try and enter the New York music scene. Meanwhile, Sophia tells him that he will only ever be happy in New York, a diagnosis he agrees with.
Malcolm’s ambitions have outgrown the confines of Roxbury. He knows that he must be at the center of the action.
Malcolm works hard at his sandwich job, putting on a show for the passengers, which virtually assures that they will buy something from him. The others working on the train do the same, catering to white people’s egos through being more subservient, but in a very calculating and conscious way.
While the white customers believe that all black people simply are subservient, these train workers use that prejudice to their advantage to gain larger tips and deceive the customers.
Malcolm stays in Harlem for one day between journeys; he first takes a room at the YMCA, and then at a boarding house. He explores every area of Harlem, from the nicest to the most poor. Its atmosphere is like the town section of Roxbury “magnified a thousand times.” He goes into basement parties packed with people, music blaring and everyone drinking and dancing.
For Malcolm, there is no such thing as people being too low-class for him. He readily explores and meets with people of all economic levels, and in fact, he finds that he connects the most with the poor.
Malcolm quickly becomes a regular at Small’s and the Braddock bar, where the bartenders pour him a shot of his favorite bourbon as soon as he walks in. He’s known as “Red” to the old hustlers there, and he makes friends with many famous musicians.
The fact that the bartenders and regulars know him signals that Malcolm is no longer an outsider, but an accepted member of the group – or at least a welcome guest.
Malcolm’s record sales of sandwiches ensure that he keeps his job over the man he replaced; he understands that white customers, just like his old shoe shine customers, want to be entertained. However, the other workers begin to joke that he won’t last. Malcolm’s language has apparently grown too profane, and some of the customers have started to complain.
Malcolm remembers one large, white, drunk serviceman who had been offended and declared that he was going to fight Malcolm. Malcolm agreed, but insisted the man take off some of his clothes. As the man stripped further and further, people started laughing at him and he was escorted away.
Malcolm’s inflammatory language (whether profane or religious) will incite opposition throughout his life, but one of his greatest joys is to use his mind to defeat his enemies.
At this time Malcolm is living a very fast life, and his coworkers say he is out of control. In Boston, he goes out every night with Sophia. Then, coming to work drunk or high, he blasts through his shift before heading to the bars in Harlem in his zoot suit. Finally, after the railroad receives an angry letter from a passenger, Malcolm is let go.
Just like the train that is traveling back and forth every other day between New York and Boston, Malcolm himself is shooting between substances, his mind in a blurry haze.
Now that he is free of employment, Malcolm decides it would be a good time to visit his siblings in Michigan. He sees everyone except Wilfred, who has gone to university to study a trade, but his siblings barely recognize him. He causes quite a stir in Lansing, stupefying everyone. Malcolm, meanwhile, basks in the attention.
Malcolm does not long for the approval of his siblings or the townspeople in Lansing. However, in retrospect he also does not approve of his flamboyant appearance and attitude at the time.
Malcolm then pays several house calls in Lansing. He first goes to see his mother Louise, who doesn’t really recognize him. Shorty’s mother, an elderly woman, thanks him for news of Shorty. Mrs. Swerlin, on the other hand, is extremely uncomfortable in his presence, and he quickly leaves.
These mother-figures each keep their distance from the new Malcolm, either through non-recognition, not being his own mother, or through exhibiting clear discomfort with his new life.
Before leaving Lansing, Malcolm goes to a school dance, where he shows off all his best moves. He stuns the crowd, who all leave the dance floor to watch. He even signs autographs before leaving the gymnasium at the Lincoln School.
Suddenly, Malcolm himself represents the stardom and glory of New York to these rural young people.
With no employment, Malcolm goes to work for another railroad, the Seaboard Line, who need a man for their route to Florida. However, Malcolm is soon fired after running afoul of the line’s white conductor.
Malcolm’s options outside of Harlem are quickly closing around him.
Back in New York, one of the bartenders at Small’s tells Malcolm that a job as a day waiter is about to open up. With a railroad background serving as a good recommendation for a waiter, Charlie Small and Ed Small take him on, based on their impression of him always being calm in their bar. The year is 1942, and Malcolm is 17.
Malcolm gets extremely lucky with this job. Not only has he burned his bridges with the railroads, but he also must use those shaky credentials to get himself a new job.
For Malcolm, working at Small’s, which is the center of life in Harlem, is “Seventh Heaven seven times over.” He quickly starts to learn the trade and how to get on the good side of the cooks and bartenders. The customers, who are used to seeing him amongst them, treat him very well too.
The biggest advantage for Malcolm at this time is that he is a very sociable and likeable person. His character helps him to establish himself in his new work.
In fact, the customers begin to teach Malcolm about Harlem as they eat. Harlem had been home to many groups of immigrants throughout its history: first the Dutch, then the Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, and finally the African Americans. Meanwhile, African Americans had been in New York City since 1683.
The greatest advantage about Small’s, meanwhile, is the opportunities it affords Malcolm to learn about Harlem. This marks the beginning of a new kind of education.
In 1910, after a few black families started to move into Harlem, the Jewish community began to flee, which led to more black families moving in, until the neighborhood was nearly completely black. Then, in the 1920s, Harlem became a center for music and entertainment for New York City around when Louis Armstrong arrived in the city. Small’s opened in 1925, followed by the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom in 1926.
Like many minority groups before them, African Americans had not originally been welcome in Harlem. But once the neighborhood became a thriving center for music, they made the place their own.
Harlem’s reputation for great music attracts whites from downtown, and many of the clubs and impromptu speakeasies cater specifically to whites. The whole area is flooded with entertainers, hustlers, and pimps as everyone competes for white people’s money. The lindy hop, named for Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight to Paris from New York, takes off in 1927. The partying continues right up until the stock market crash of 1929.
The hustlers in Small’s draw a direct connection between the economic and cultural success of Harlem and the ability of white patrons from downtown to pay for it. Harlem’s economy cannot sustain itself, but rather must be fueled by outside cash.
Malcolm loves to hear the old timers talk about these bygone days, taking in everything they have to tell him about the past and about their own hustles. In this way, he gathers a vast trove of wisdom on how to make money and survive on the streets.
In addition to his history lessons, Malcolm begins to gain skills and knowledge that will carry him beyond the world of waiting tables at Small’s.