My grandfather had a half-sister who owned a brothel in Washington State. He went north by train once or twice a year to visit her. He and his sister, my father recalled, liked to go bird-hunting together — doves and pheasant mostly, the woman carrying a small-caliber rifle instead of the traditional shotgun, and her brother wearing a small pistol on his belt, because hunting with an easy-to-aim rifle or shotgun was “no challenge” for him.
Together, they never missed. A flushed bird might be given a chance to escape (more chance than a man would have received) but it made no difference. If one sibling missed, the other didn’t.
My father was especially proud of his gangster father, detailing incidents and idiosyncrasies as if, well into middle-age, he were still trying to decipher the nature of the man who begot him. My father was in awe of his father, showing the healthy idealized respect for one’s parents that the Bible teaches — but Daddy wasn’t religious, which made his attitude all the more exceptional.
Born a cynic among a race of cynics, my father was amazed that there was someone in the world for whom he had complete respect, and he was astonished that it was his own father. Daddy tried for fifty years to find the exact cause for his admiration, and one day — thinking he had found it, as if one fact alone were the major clue to his old man’s character — he told me about his father’s ability with a pistol.
Grandfather’s prowess with a handgun was interesting to hear about, but nothing more, not significant to me in any special way — until much later, after both my grandfather and father’s deaths, when our family’s heritage was distributed among the heirs. My share was a small silver medal shaped like a Boy Scout Honor badge, an inscription on a gold bar hanging beneath the shiny medallion. “Texas Freedmen’s Association,” the words engraved in gold read, “1911 — Pistol Champion.” That moment, as I held the medal in my hand fifteen years after its owner’s death, was when my grandfather first came alive to me, and when my father’s sense of wonder and appreciation (the silver still shining) was successfully passed down to the next generation.
What my mother knew about my grandfather (although no more important than my father’s evidence) revealed him in a different, oddly compassionate perspective. In Los Angeles at the height of his success in the rackets, the Old Man was persuaded to finance a small weekly newspaper, with his son as publisher and his daughter-in-law as editor-in-chief. There is an unwritten rule in the black press: everything the reader sees in print has been paid for, and everything the reader doesn’t see has also been paid for — only more. The newspaper was intended from the start as a money-making venture. Even so, journalism was a noteworthy change from the kind of business Grandfather had known in the past. To my mother, the purchase of the newspaper was the first step in my grandfather’s rehabilitation from mobster to legitimate citizen. But to me, it was Grandfather’s affair with a Hollywood starlet that made him human — made him something more than a pistol with a man attached to it.
Until she met the Old Man, the actress’ best critical notice had come from a modest film about a light-skinned black woman passing for Caucasian. Apparently the actress, who was in fact white, did her best work in the role of lover of a black gangster, including her big scene: resisting the collective pressure of the “liberal” Southern California film industry telling her to finish with him — and the twist of the climax, when he dropped her. My mouth fell open when my mother told me; the movie has been colorized and plays on Sundays once or twice a year, when the cable stations want to show how far we’ve come in this country on the subject of race. Formerly, my reaction had always been to shake my head and change the channel. But as my mother revealed her secrets, what struck me suddenly was that my father had known the same details, had known the actress, had seen the real-life movie being made — knew, in short, the whole plot, and more. He just never considered sex important enough to mention.
My mother’s psychological insights were, it seemed to me, especially impressive. She was the first to suggest to me, for example, that Grandfather’s height was a motivating factor in his life. Built like a bantamweight, little and wiry, he was not short short, not tiny by any means, but he was an inch or two smaller than is the norm for men descended from Slave Coast stock. “Short men are sons of bitches,” Mother often said, by which she meant they are hard, demanding, ambitious, and calculating — each of which she considered a positive personality trait. “Not all short men are sons of bitches,” she might have clarified, “maybe not even the majority of them, but the majority of sons of bitches are short. And your grandfather was one of them.” That was the kind of distinction that would have made perfect sense to her and might, also, have helped me to understand him as well.
My mother knew the difference that a few centimeters of height can make in a man’s character, and as a woman she could also offer psychological analyses of events that my father could only report in a straightforward way, as if they were “News in Brief” items on an inside page of the newspaper. Once, for example, a woman with whom my grandfather had had a long relationship, both business and personal, learned of another woman, younger and perhaps more attractive (certainly younger), whom my grandfather had also begun to see. The old lover did not turn her anger on my grandfather, which she must have known would have been counterproductive. Instead, she horsewhipped her rival within an inch of her life.
When the Old Man heard about it, he bought his longtime lover’s share of their mutual business, purchased for her a home in San Francisco, remembered her in his will — but never spoke to her again. The Old Man, who (my mother explained) had killed, cheated, and procured for half a century, considered jealousy the worst of all crimes.
At that time (from the thirties to the late fifties, but mostly the early forties), the everyday code of life in the Negro community was different than it is now. South Central Los Angeles was different. It was a time before welfare, when being on public assistance was a disgrace — before race riots, before big drug-dealing money, or drive-bys. There were no Japanese tourists riding down the streets in tall airtight buses taking pictures through the windows as if they were on photo safari, no talk of the “jungle,” no editorials bemoaning urban chaos. On the East Coast there was Harlem and, on the West Coast, South Central had many of the same pretensions to greatness. Most of the big-name musicians who played in the big clubs in New York also came west, staying in my grandfather’s hotel on Central Avenue, entertaining, and then, after the show, being entertained by the Old Man — for a price.
The housing market in California was never very strictly segregated, but as part of the herding instinct that affects man as well as beast, black people coming to the Los Angeles Basin still preferred to live together. Many of them being, like Grandfather, from Texas, they chose South Central. Migration routes — birds fly south, black people fled north — dictated that anyone escaping the Deep South went to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. But from a southwestern state like Texas, blacks followed the train tracks to Chicago, where it was too cold, then west to L.A. Everyone who arrived wanted to be big-city sophisticated overnight. On Central Avenue, the worst thing that you could say about anyone was not that they were niggers or Uncle Toms. The greatest insult was to be called “country.” Ray Charles later sang about sending his woman “back to Arkansas” — and at the time the threat was considered real. It was in that atmosphere — South Central at its best — that the Old Man was at his best too.
One night after leaving the hotel, my father and his father were walking together on “the Avenue,” as Central was then called. It was late, or early, depending on your point of view; the bars were closed, the clubs were closed. There were cars on the street, not many, but increasing in number as dawn approached. The two men were moving leisurely, unhurried by the hour — but nonetheless they took advantage of an alleyway as a shortcut. Daddy claimed later that he knew from the moment he and his father entered the alley that someone was following them, and perhaps he did know. In any case, only a few seconds passed before the barrel of a gun was pressed into the Old Man’s back — a voice first told them not to turn around, then demanded their money.
What goes through a person’s mind at a time like that? Does a gun in the back require a more visceral than intellectual response — the very choice of the response (instinctive versus thoughtful) being exactly what separates someone who survives a hold-up from someone who does not? My father was afraid, a natural enough reaction that he never denied later. He was not a coward, but my father enjoyed life, and he would never have risked losing it for any principle as intangible as principle itself. If he had been alone, he probably would have reached without hesitation for his wallet. But he knew, in a custom based more upon strength than seniority (yet more upon age, perhaps, than wisdom) that the next move would be his father’s.
Grandfather maintained a poker face at all critical times, even when the game was not cards. His reaction that morning was outwardly simple. A misconception about crime is that most victims are innocent people, but the truth is that many criminal offenses are committed against other criminals, a thought that had not, at one time or another, escaped my grandfather: He was in “the business,” after all. He knew that if word spread, as it almost certainly would, that he had been successfully robbed (the gunman would be drinking and bragging within hours because amateurs are like that, and this one had to be an amateur to be pulling stick-ups in alleyways, and sticking up the wrong people, too), the next night or the next week there would be someone else following when Grandfather left the hotel. And as a gambler (his profession, his passion, livelihood, and metier), Grandfather probably didn’t like the idea of being bluffed, if it were a bluff — there being only one way to know for sure. And then there was the pot itself. Because of his business, he was known to carry large sums of cash.
Certainly my grandfather didn’t analyze the situation in this way, dividing it into parts like a physics problem, or a metaphysical question, weighing pros and cons, action versus inaction. There was no time, and it wasn’t his style to be introspective. Instead he replied instinctively, with the casual disinterest of a tired businessman at the end of a long day, closing the door on an itinerant salesman or tax collector.
“If you want my money,” he said without turning around, “you better shoot. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get it.”
There was a long moment of silence. That was when the real calculations began. The bandit did his own arithmetic, measuring what he had to gain against what might happen if he pulled the trigger.
The next sound that my father heard was footfalls moving away, on the run, down the alleyway. For my grandfather, another long day of business had ended.
Contributing writer Lucius Lomax last appeared in these pages with a report on the disciplinary procedures of the Texas Department of Public Safety.