While working at Small’s, Malcolm sometimes waits on people who have just hit the numbers and are coming in to celebrate with their friends. Seeing their good fortune makes Malcolm long to hit the numbers too, and so he plays every day, spending all his tip money, sometimes as much as fifteen or twenty dollars.
This kind of gambling would give Malcolm a big payoff if he ever won. But instead, he simply loses all his money and can never save anything to use for anything more substantial.
A “hit” in the numbers racket constitutes replicating the last three digits of the New York Stock Exchange total sales for the day. The odds of doing so are a thousand to one, and the payout is six hundred to one—a $1 hit pays $600. Many of Harlem’s businesses had been founded or bought out from previous big hits.
The numbers game is an example of tragic irony, as the poor play a game which mimics the rich with the false hope of one day becoming rich themselves.
Either despite the widespread poverty or because of it, nearly everyone in Harlem plays daily, giving their bets and numbers to runners, who work for a controller, who report to the (white) banker. Everyone gets a cut of the profit, including the police. The methods for choosing numbers are infinite, from phone numbers, telegrams, zip codes, dream books (for interpreting dreams into numbers), and many other systems.
While there are many ways to pick numbers, there is no way to get around the fact that the odds are stacked in favor of the numbers guys. Thus Harlem daily gives its money away to these hustlers who represent a white banker.
At Small’s, many of the old hustlers take a liking to Malcolm and do their best to teach him their ways and “straighten him out.” One, for example, buys him an expensive, conservatively cut suit as a gift. This patron is a member of the “Forty Thieves” gang, who specialize in robbing high-end garment stores.
Malcolm’s new suit reflects a more mature and collected style compared to his more flamboyant days in Roxbury. He will wear suits like this for the rest of his life.
Malcolm’s coworkers and customers also start to identify the plainclothes police officers to him, an essential catalog of faces crucial to avoiding arrest. In 1942, the police and military are particularly interested in any hustles aimed at draft dodging or at hustling servicemen.
The police are always a worry for the hustlers. But now, the federal government begins to take an interest in anything that might jeopardize the war effort – as if hustling were a treasonous activity.
Lots of servicemen during this period are coming through Harlem, and often ask for illegal goods and services, but they are mostly treated curtly. The first rule of hustling, according to Malcolm, is to never trust anyone outside of your closest circle.
Malcolm will follow this rule throughout his life—especially since the threat of violence or police infiltration will always hang over him.
The bartenders pick out to Malcolm the customers who are “fronts,” (who merely pretend to have connections), the ones really involved in crime, and the dangerous ones to avoid crossing. These men, like “West Indian Archie,” mostly worked as strongarmers for Dutch Shultz, a prominent criminal boss and banker in the numbers racket until his assassination in 1934. They now work as big bet runners for the top bankers and are generally left alone by the police as being simply too dangerous.
The hustlers identified as “fronts” are portrayed as practically less than a person—just a façade. Meanwhile, the strongmen are elevated to the level of heroes, untouchable even by the police. For Malcolm, everyone in Harlem exists either on the level of myth or hardly at all.
Malcolm befriends some of the pimps who come through Small’s as well. “Cadillac” Drake, a large, bald man, only employs unattractive women on the theory that they “work harder.” His complete opposite is “Sammy the Pimp,” a young, smooth character, who employs the most beautiful prostitutes in Harlem.
Exactly who qualifies as a notable character can vary quite a bit. Rather than any one quality, it’s a persona that makes a person into a somebody.
One of Sammy’s girls is known as “Alabama Peach,” a tall, blonde woman with a characteristic Southern drawl. She frequently tells the story of how she heard as a young girl about the sexual prowess of black men and forced a black man to have sex with her, saying that if he didn’t she would cry rape. After high school, she moved straight to Harlem and went into Sammy’s employ. Malcolm, looking back, says he has frequently wondered what became of her.
Malcolm and the others are enamored with Alabama Peach’s stories, accent, and white skin, and they don’t see the racism underlying her story. After all, she used her privilege to force a man to have sex with her, and then essentialized and fetishized all black men as good lovers.
An old-time pickpocket named Fewclothes comes into Small’s almost every day to tell tales and make jokes. Once one of the best at his craft, he has now contracted bad arthritis, making it impossible for him to keep working. Nevertheless, the other regulars buy him dinner and drinks every night while they listen to his tales. Malcolm has reflected many times in life on the significance of that kindness, and how it spoke to the brotherhood among the hustler community.
Another regular is “Jumpsteady,” who specializes in burglary by entering through white people’s windows. Later, Malcolm will learn that he kept his nerves in check by getting high before his jobs. Despite naming so many criminals as regulars, Malcolm insists that Small’s was in fact one of the most respectable places in Harlem, especially at night time.
Malcolm challenges the reader to look at criminals differently. Rather than simply imagining slick hustlers in zoot suits, he insists that the reader imagine these men as also some of the most respectable and respectful people around.
Malcolm’s first room in Harlem is on the 800 block of St. Nicholas Avenue, where most of the tenants are prostitutes and where everyone uses some kind of drug to make their days bearable. The prostitutes display a level of trust and sisterliness that Malcolm says he hasn’t seen among married women. In fact, he believes most women, and particularly white women, to be much more dishonest and unvirtuous than most of those prostitutes, many of whom he befriended.
Malcolm’s admiration for prostitutes throughout the book is very out of character with his generally strict and conservative moral code. This admiration displays a more sophisticated opinion which admires them as people who are generally virtuous, but who are bound to an “immoral” line of work.
Men come and go all day long, but in the morning, there is a rush of men coming in before work, and then all rushing out again. Malcolm blames this behavior on overly controlling wives who have made their husband’s home lives unbearable. The prostitutes then have to let the men “be men.” According to the prostitutes, the men are too easy to push around and needed to be firm (physically) with their wives.
Malcolm’s views on marriage are quite old-fashioned and disturbing for a modern reader. Not only does he believe domestic violence is an acceptable practice, but he thinks that wives must let their men act out their sexual urges, whether the wife is interested or not.
Every once in a while, Sophia visits from Boston, and her looks and whiteness once again turn heads and increase Malcolm’s status in the bars. In particular, the musicians at the Braddock bar make a big deal about her. But it’s not just black men who are interested in mixed-race relationships; Harlem is full of white people from downtown who have come to get a piece of the “atmosphere” in Harlem.
The problem for Malcolm is not the idea of a mixed-race couple that loves each other. Rather, he reflects on how these relationships and attractions always seem to boil down to racial stereotypes and exploitation.
One white girl, for example, comes to the Savoy Ballroom to dance exclusively with black men, and then takes the subway home without saying a word to anyone all night. Another young white “hippie” who appropriates the style and slang of the black zoot suiters can be seen everywhere in Harlem. Nevertheless, this white boy still makes a nasty comment to Sophia about her being with Malcolm, and Malcolm learns how deep racial hypocrisy can run.
These two young white people represent different ways of appropriating and using black culture for their own pleasure, while still maintaining an idea of racial hierarchy (and all their own white privilege, of course).
Malcolm becomes good friends with Creole Bill, who runs a late-night speakeasy in his apartment. Malcolm leads white people there who still want to party after the bars close, and the room is filled with music, Cajun food, and booze. Eventually, Malcolm says, Bill made enough money to open a Cajun restaurant.
Like many other Harlem businesses, the speakeasy is dependent on performing a particular idea of blackness for white outsiders.
Sophia has recently married a white serviceman, but wants to maintain her relationship with Malcolm, who agrees. Sammy and Malcolm had discussed mixed-race couples before, and Sammy told him that white women were simply practical. They needed a white man for money and stability, and maintained their relations with black men out of either love or lust.
Malcolm may gain from this relationship, but he also is clearly second-place to Sophia’s husband. Instead, he is there for her to have fun and be rebellious or fashionable. While he pretends not to care at the time, it is hard to believe that this objectification would not affect him.
In early 1943, Malcolm (by now known as “Detroit Red”) observes a soldier looking lonely and sad at Small’s; on a bad impulse, he offers to give the man the number of a prostitute. He almost immediately realizes his mistake and sees that the soldier is a military spy hoping for that kind of offer. Malcolm is taken to the police station, but as he has no record, they merely scare him and let him go. However, as he’s attracted police attention, he is now barred from Small’s—a bitter loss.
The police and military are not content to simply observe crime and then react, but have resorted to baiting possible hustlers into offering illegal services to undercover officers. Malcolm is actually still inexperienced in this field, which saves him from a more serious punishment.
Sammy ends up taking in Malcolm in his time of need, helping him to plan his next move. They decide that the best business for him will be to go into selling reefers, as it is an easy business to start, pays immediately, and caters to Malcolm’s connections with musicians.
Besides the fact that he already has a willing client base amongst his musician friends, selling reefers also appeals to Malcolm’s sense of independence.
After an initial loan from Sammy, Malcolm starts to immediately turn a profit, selling mostly to his musician friends. With some money in his pocket, he feels truly independent for the first time. Around this time, Malcolm falls in love with the cinema. He often spends his days at the theater, and then prepares his supplies for the night and goes out to make his rounds.
Malcolm has begun to fall into a daily rhythm comprised of watching movies, getting ready, and heading to business. This routine gives him a sense of security and independence. Malcolm will one day advocate for black-owned businesses as also offering a sense of security.
With no obligations, Malcolm makes a trip to Boston. He visits with Ella, who still doesn’t approve of his life, but is pleasant. He calls Sophia to meet him at Shorty’s house; they have to be more cautious now that she’s married. After she leaves, Malcolm goes to see Shorty’s (newly formed) band, which he rates as “fair.”
As with his family back in Michigan, Malcolm’s friends and siblings in Boston remain an important part of his life, and his trip to see them reflects the importance he places on these relationships.
Malcolm recounts the story of how Sammy the Pimp became a pimp. After leaving Kentucky, he became a waiter in Harlem and would pick up single women. After having their house key duplicated and then robbing them, Sammy would then offer them a small amount of money to support them, and from then on, they would become dependent on him.
Malcolm recounts how he became great friends with Sammy the Pimp. However, it is impossible to hear this story and not imagine how Malcolm would have felt about this kind of clearly immoral exploitation later in life.
Malcolm quickly catches the notice of the narcotics squad, but he finds a method to avoid arrest. If he feels he is being followed, he simply drops his bundle of reefers from under his armpit and keeps walking. Then he goes back later to pick them up. He also begins to carry a small .25 caliber handgun in the small of his back, but he’s not sure exactly why.
When Malcolm was younger and found a more effective method for hunting rabbits, he reflected that if there is a method, it can always be improved. In selling reefers and not getting caught, this is his improvement.
Even with all his precaution, word gets out that the narcotics squad has labeled Malcolm a top priority. After he finds his room searched, he moves out and starts to move from place to place. Meanwhile, he is stopped and patted down nearly every day. To combat this, Malcolm starts hiding his reefers in old cigarette and bandage cartons, then leaving them in secret, public places. But as police harassment continues and he moves to a poorer neighborhood, he begins to lose too much of his product to thieves.
As will happen many times throughout his life, Malcolm finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Any less precaution and he may be sent to jail. Any more, and he won’t be able to sell enough of his product to survive.
With business at a crawl, Sammy advises Malcolm to use his railroad I.D. card to travel through New England, selling reefers to the traveling musicians. Most conductors, upon seeing a railroad I.D. would let him ride for free, allowing him a way to make money and get out of Harlem for a while. The bands, meanwhile, are pleased to see him so far from home and with marijuana to sell.
For nearly every occasion that Malcolm finds himself in a tough situation, an escape route presents itself. This is true of when he left Lansing with no future prospects and of when he found his job at Small’s on only his railroad credentials.
One day after Malcolm comes back from a trip, Reginald is waiting for him at Sammy’s apartment. They get a room at the St. Nicholas hotel and stay up talking about the family and their younger years. Malcolm is very happy to see his younger brother, who has gone into the merchant marine and is in town while his ship gets repaired in New Jersey.
In this scene, the reader sees a much softer side to the hustler who spends his evenings dodging the cops. Here, Malcolm describes his emotional reunion with his younger brother, back from the high seas.
Reginald fills Malcolm in on the family. Wilfred is an instructor at a trade school, and Hilda and Philbert are both talking about marriage. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s youngest siblings Yvonne, Wesley, and Robert are still in school in Lansing. Philbert has also apparently become very religious. Before Reginald leaves, Malcolm urges him to move to New York. Rather than jumping at the offer, Reginald promises to think about it, with a coolness Malcolm admires.
It is clear that Reginald and Malcolm have the most in common of the Little siblings, as they are the two who have struck out from home alone, while the others remain in the Midwest.
One day, Malcolm receives a draft notification; he is to appear in front of the draft board in ten days’ time. He immediately starts to make a show of seeming crazy and constantly high in public where military spies might see him. He even professes his desire to join the Japanese army.
The day of the draft board, Malcolm shows up wearing a brand new, outlandish zoot suit, and puts on his most over-the-top impression of a hipster possible. He walks in swaying, and presents himself to the receptionist. Nonetheless, he is led to the big hall with the other prospective inductees, where he proceeds to talk nonstop, attracting a lot of bad looks and condescending smirks from the mostly white men waiting with him.
Malcolm knows that zoot suits and the people who wear them are representative of white America’s worst prejudices about black men. By choosing to put on this character, he is actively resisting the militaristic mentality, which calls for uniformity, subservience, and respect for order and norms.
After his medical examination, Malcolm is led to the Army psychiatrist’s office. A young black woman is the secretary, and she clearly looks down on him. Malcolm, meanwhile, sees her as an uppity “first” – a black person who has risen to a higher position and then lords it over everyone else.
Whereas Malcolm and the secretary may have similar backgrounds, she has chosen to conform in order to rise economically, whereas he is purposefully not conforming in order to resist.
Upon entering the psychiatrist’s office, Malcolm starts to pull him in, not wanting to seem to be obviously faking his insanity. After answering the man’s questions for a few minutes, he confesses to wanting to organize an armed rebellion in the South among black people. With that, he is dismissed, and shortly thereafter, he receives a 4-F notification (designating medical or psychological unfitness) in the mail.
In the South before the Civil War, it was illegal to allow a slave to carry a gun for fear that they may start a slave rebellion. While he probably did not know that at the time, Malcolm nonetheless plays on deeply engrained, racist fears of violent, rebellious black men.