One day, Malcolm is playing blackjack with the other black railroad men in a locker room at Grand Central Station, when one of the others tries to cheat. Malcolm pulls his gun on him as a threat. The next time he goes back, Malcolm gets confronted by the police and is told to never come to the station again unless he has a ticket to go somewhere. And so his trips on the railroad come to an end.
Malcolm the narrator’s nonchalant and disturbingly calm tone in recounting these events reflects how familiar Malcolm the character was with violence and the threat of violence at the time.
Back in Harlem, the narcotics squad knows Malcolm too well for him to keep selling reefers. With no other skills, he has to find a new hustle. He likens the hustler’s life to that of an animal who must constantly move and prey on others to survive. He starts to do small robberies and stickups in nearby cities for the next six months. His use of narcotics keeps him from getting too nervous both on the jobs and in between, but he still changes rooms often.
Now that legal employment and low-level narcotics sales are no longer options, the only thing Malcolm can do is scale up the level of his crimes. He then copes with the psychological toll of this escalation in danger through using ever-increasing amounts of drugs.
Once, Malcolm and Sammy are nearly caught. As they are running away, they hear sirens behind them. The police car approaches, and they move into the street, pretending to ask for directions. The cops fall for the trick, curse them, and drive on to find the robbers.
This incident highlights Malcolm’s incredible ability to think on his feet in difficult situations. Yet the trick’s simplicity also testifies to the cops’ inability to imagine a black man as capable of outwitting them.
Malcolm disciplines himself to not perform more “jobs” than necessary; he only goes when he is running low on cash. Meanwhile, he plays the numbers every day, waiting to one day have a big payout—but he never gets a big hit.
A delicate balance exists between Malcolm’s need to survive and the danger of being caught, while his gambling is a constant attempt to quickly break out of this economic situation.
Reginald comes back on his ship one day, and this time, he decides to stay. He has fallen in love with Malcolm’s musician friends and their world. Malcolm introduces him to everyone, such as Billie Holiday, who then treat Reginald as their own baby brother.
Malcolm has long felt at home and amongst family with Harlem’s musicians. Now, his younger brother’s presence amplifies that feeling.
Wanting to provide Reginald with a stable home, Malcolm starts to rent an apartment for $100 a month. At nighttime, Malcolm “schools” Reginald on what’s happening around them, and then introduces him to his friends at the late-night speakeasies. Those speakeasies, as always, are packed with white people, who have come to take in black “soul.” Often at the most popular places, like Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, there are big-name celebrities, both white and black.
Malcolm’s actions reflect the treatment that Shorty gave him upon his first arrival to Roxbury, and he takes that role seriously. Malcolm wants Reginald to see him as a man who knows what he is doing and knows what is happening around them.
Malcolm gets Reginald a hustle that will make him money but be risk-free—he gets him a license to sell petty goods, and then takes him to buy cheap goods from a manufacturer’s outlet. Reginald will then present the goods as if they’re stolen and high-value, and thereby get more money for them.
Unlike Malcolm’s reefer business or burglaries, Reginald’s hustle is completely legal and mostly risk-free, reflecting Malcolm’s big-brother concern for Reginald’s safety.
Malcolm assumes that Reginald, like most black men at the time, will be interested in white women, but that is not the case. Instead, Reginald starts dating a black woman in her thirties who provides everything for him. His choice in partner gains Reginald even more respect from Malcolm.
While Malcolm is himself seeing a white woman on a regular basis, he still understands it to be a kind of weakness or betrayal of his race.
Racial tensions throughout the war simmer just below boiling point. Then, in 1943, a white officer shoots a black soldier, and a riot ensues. Many stores are smashed and lots of goods are stolen, which leads to even worse economic conditions after the riot ends. After this, very few white people keep coming to Harlem for the night life.
The economic downturn before the war, the fewer visitors, and the increased police presence push Harlem’s frustrations to its limit, which ultimately ends in even more difficult economic conditions.
Nowadays (in the early 1960s), Malcolm says, Harlem’s night life scene is gone, including the scene for black people. Black people that have money instead choose to go downtown and spend it in fancy white-owned hotels and restaurants, something Malcolm sees as simply another way of putting on airs and of undercutting black businesses.
By taking their hard-earned cash out of the community and spending it elsewhere, these individuals, according to Malcolm, are throwing their money away and not using it to support their neighbors.
The poor economic situation (in 1943) has hurt all parts of the Harlem underground, and the hustlers and prostitutes are all getting day jobs. Malcolm and Sammy start to pull more dangerous robberies together. One day they are caught mid-act, and Sammy’s arm is grazed by a bullet from a security guard. They split up, and then meet back at Sammy’s apartment early the next morning. Sammy’s girlfriend is crying very loudly and blaming Malcolm. Malcolm hits her “to shut her up,” and Sammy reaches for his gun. Malcolm is able to get away, and he and Sammy later make up, but things are never the same between them after that.
This is a key moment in Malcolm’s life, when the threat of death by violence is particularly high, as both a security guard and his own partner have tried to shoot at him in one day. Separately, Malcolm shows no awareness for why Sammy may be angry with him for enacting violence against his girlfriend. This blind spot towards women not only endangers Malcolm in the moment, but it opens him up to criticism (as a writer) of sexism.
Malcolm enters the numbers business on his reputation as a good hustler. His new boss and his wife have been granted control of a section of the city’s numbers racket for six months by the mob. Malcolm’s job is simply to pass on a bag of numbers slips to another man at a bus stop every day. Sometimes, he will have conversations with the boss’s wife about how the criminal world is actually inseparable from politics and the legal world.
The idea that politics and the criminal world are intertwined foreshadows and underlies the views Malcolm will hold as a minister in the Nation. If U.S. politics is corrupt and intertwined with the criminal world, then the “criminal game” is one that is constantly rigged to take money and opportunities away from black people.
Now that he’s in the racket, Malcolm decides to start placing his bets with West Indian Archie, who works for the same boss. Archie has a photographic memory, which makes him very valuable as a numbers runner, as he never carries evidence of gambling. Placing bets with him is a status symbol, since he only takes large betters. He also often pays off the hits from his own money, and then collects from his banker later.
West Indian Archie has already been referred to as one of the most feared strongmen in Harlem. Now, his character appears even more dangerous as Malcolm emphasizes both his intellectual abilities and his high status as a man with his own money (and who is therefore very prideful).
Malcolm meets a Brothel Madam who recruits Malcolm to help her outsource certain sexual requests that her workers won’t do. His job is to stand on the corner of 45th and Broadway with a white flower in his lapel, and then to accompany the customers to special locations in Harlem where their desires will be met. This steering gets him very heavy tips from the middle-aged and senior men, who are often big politicians and leaders in society. One of the people Malcolm directs his clients to is a big, strong black woman who whips her customers as they beg for mercy—and sometimes they pay Malcolm to watch.
The men who are the most respected and powerful in society also seem to be the ones who are most interested in sexual acts that even many sex workers won’t perform, which Malcolm sees as proof of white America’s immorality. While he clearly finds these men’s desires disturbing, Malcolm does seem to secretly admire the woman for making so much money by beating and degrading old and powerful white men.
Another of Malcolm’s acquaintances is a white lesbian woman who runs a “stable” of black men for white women. Having heard of black men’s prowess, these often bored, married womenpay heavily, and almost always with a color preference for the darkest men. Malcolm sees this color preference as ironic, because these customers nevertheless do not respect the people they use, men and women alike. Malcolm also believes that black men, like himself, who sleep with white women (in his case, Sophia) are also just using them.
The color preference for dark sex workers is the same for female and male customers, which is reflective of how society in general treats “blackness” as something exotic or sexually appealing—but because “blackness” is simply something interesting to be fetishized or enjoyed in sex, then black bodies are simply there to be used.
One morning, a bar in Harlem gets held up by a light-skinned black man, and Malcolm is considered a suspect. After he gets interrogated by some thugs looking for the robber, he calls Sammy and the Brothel Madam, who then help him to leave town and go see Philbert in Michigan. About a week later, Sammy telegrams him that the coast is clear: someone else confessed.
While he may no longer be involved in the underground world, Malcolm is grateful to all those people, like Sammy and the Madam, who were his friends and protected him so that he could become who he is today.
Malcolm then starts working for Hymie, a specialist in renovating bars and restaurants and then selling for profit. Malcolm’s main job is to transport bootleg liquor to some of the bars in Harlem, where it is substituted for brand-name liquor, unbeknownst to the customers. Malcolm and Hymie get along well, and he’s making good money. But after a scandal involving corruption at the State Liquor Authority, Hymie is murdered at sea.
Hymie’s brief relationship with Malcolm is one of the few good relationships he has had with a white person. Hymie’s murder, then, also reminds Malcolm and the reader that death could be around the corner at any minute for those in the criminal world.
In the Bronx, a tall, light skinned black man holds up an Italian mobsters’ craps game, once again bringing suspicion on Malcolm. Unarmed, he is confronted by two Italians, when all of a sudden a cop walks in, thereby saving him.
After having been so recently reminded of the randomness of violence, Malcolm once again finds himself suspect to a crime, and only narrowly escaping.
Meanwhile, Malcolm has just hit his number on a small bet and is going to meet his friend Jean Parks for a night out. He heads to Sammy’s place, where he tells him what just happened, and Sammy says that West Indian Archie just came looking for Malcolm. While they wait for the evening to proceed, they do some cocaine.
Just as many of the hustlers Malcolm has met use drugs to calm their nerves before a job, Malcolm now uses drugs as a way to push off his worries, even as violence and danger encircle him.