Authors: Iceberg Slim
The con game from A to Z as it was lived by White Folksâa white Negroâin the deadly jungle of Southside Chicagoâall the thrills, the danger, the triumphs (and failures) of men who made their livings in one of the most treacherous professionsâand the mistake that sent them running for their lives . . .
Other Titles by Iceberg Slim
The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim
Mama Black Widow
Pimp: The Story of My Life
Airtight Willie & Me
Long White Con
n the middle of October in Nineteen Sixty, I was nervously pacing cell A-4 in Chicago's House of Correction. I was having a bitch of a quarrel with a stupid jerk inside me.
Over and over I hollered at him, “You're Iceberg Slim, the pimp. You can't cash out like a square.”
I was trying to convince the screwy bastard that he shouldn't go crazy and hang himself from the steel-barred cell door.
I had been arrested on an old fugitive warrant for a spectacular escape, thirteen years before from the joint.
I heard a screw's key grate in my cell door lock. I spun around. The screw pushed a tall white con into the cell.
He could have been Errol Flynn's twin. I wondered why the hell I was getting a cellmate. Were they planting a fink to bleed my secret of how I had made the escape long ago?
He didn't speak. He nodded. I nodded back. He stood for a moment sweeping his sky-blue eyes over the crummy cell. He sighed and jumped to the top bunk.
I went to the crapper and sat on the stool waiting for him to rap something to tip me that he was a fink.
He was stretched out on his bunk staring through the cell door bars at the blank cellhouse wall. I stared at him. But I just couldn't place him.
I said, “I'm Iceberg. You look slightly familiar. It worries me because the only white studs I know are rollers and bastard undercover rats. Who are you, buddy?”
He turned quickly on his side and looked down at me with a hurt look on his handsome face.
He laughed like a nut and said, “Relax, Iceberg. I'm not white. I'm a Nigger hustler. My friends call me White Folks. My enemies call me Trick Baby. Blue Howard and I were pals and played con together for twenty years. Can you place me now?”
I said, “I goddamn sure do. You and Blue got on the syndicate wipe-out list a while ago. The wire had it that you got knocked off with him. What the hell are you doing back in Chicago?”
He said, “It's a long story. I don't want to talk about it. Christ, if I had known the bastards would shove me in this pigsty, I wouldn't have refused to sling a mop for my lousy ten-day bit. In here, it will be like a ten-year bit.”
I lay there that night on the bottom bunk remembering what I'd heard about him in the street. He was one of the slickest con men in Chicago.
One thing puzzled me. How did a fast grifter like him wind up serving a chump's ten-day bit? One thing for sure, he knew the con game backward.
So, since I was getting rather elderly for the pimp game, I figured I'd pick his brain and play con when I got out. After all, I'd picked Sweet Jones for the secrets of the pimp game.
That first night, White Folks gave me a bitch of a time. He kept waking up and hollering from nightmares all night long. I didn't sleep two hours. I had a screw that I was tight with. I scored for sleeping pills from him. I laid them on Folks. He was so happy, you'd have thought I gave him a million dollars.
Within a couple of days, White Folks and I were like brothers. A prison cell has the strange power to quickly create friendships and trusts that would never happen in the free world. I guess it's the loneliness and misery that draws two cellmates close enough to confide their secrets. And plus, in Folks' case, the sleeping pills.
Five days before his release, after the lights had gone out, White Folks started to tell me his life story. He started at the point when he and his pal, Blue Howard, got their toughest break.
I lay there in the gloom, forgetting my own troubles, fascinated by his story.
lue Leon Howard and I sat in the front booth of the Brass Rail Bar on Forty-seventh Street, Southside Chicago. I felt that thrilling complacency that a con man has after a clean fat score. I couldn't know a messenger of death would join us within minutes.
The Westside mark had been sweet as honeysuckle. He had blown ten grand on our slick version of the rocks.
I looked out the panoramic front window as we waited for our steaks. I felt sorry for the passing parade of hunched chumps buffeted by the December barrage of freezing winds screaming off Lake Michigan.
A gaunt car prowler paused and peered into my sparkling new fifty-nine Fleetwood at the curb. A squad load of Eleventh Street detectives cruised through the twilight. The prowler faded into the parade. I thought about Aunt Lula's crazy cathouse in Indiana Harbor. I'd slip up there later tonight.
I figured it was cheaper and smarter to simply rent a dame's machinery for a few hours. My fountain of romantic love was dust dry. The Goddess had cured me permanently. Old Blue was of a different opinion. He had to have a marriage lock on his dame. I turned toward him. His ebony face was almost invisible in the dimness. His processed white hair gleamed like burnished silver.
I said, “Blue, that score this morning just put us under the wire. Christmas is only a week off. I bet you make Cleo the happiest fluff in town. I bet you go down to Rothschild's and plank down your five-G end on a sable coat for her.”
“A guy has to keep his wife happy, you know. The young fancy ones get itchy feet in a hurry.”
His eyes flashed white lightning. His eyebrows zoomed up his brow like frosted boomerangs. Blue couldn't stand the needle into his love life. Believe me, if I had known this was to be our last time in the Rail together I wouldn't have ribbed him about the nineteen-year-old Cleo.
I had pricked him to the tender quick, because he blew air through the gap in his front uppers. His thick lips opened and closed over the dazzle of his chalky teeth like banging shutters in a windstorm.
In that whispery, rich voice of his, he said, “White Folks, please don't worry about what happens to my end of that score. If I stepped out on that street and played chump Santa Claus to my last deemer, that would be Blue's happiness, not yours.
“And, White Folks, please, for Christ's sake, don't forget that twenty years ago I had my foot on the gaff in my flat joint when I turned you out on the grift as a belly-stick. You blow your end your way. I'll blow mine my way.”
He was an old man really hooked by a pretty tramp. I had seen Cleo sneaking around with several young punks. She'd even wiggled her fabulous rear end in my direction. I couldn't tell Blue. I couldn't tear him to pieces.
The waitress with our steaks stamped out the blaze. I noticed when she leaned over to place our plates that her orange hair was loaded with glitter dust. I remembered Roxie at that cathouse in Indiana. I had found several of the glamour dots sparkling in my navel the morning after.
I had sliced off an aromatic piece of the filet with my fork. I
started to chew the succulent hunk. I was enjoying the delicious juices flooding my taste buds when a fearful silence crushed down on the crowded room.
I swung my eyes to the bar. The hustlers were like mute crows still-lifed on a mahogany fence. Blue was staring toward the door. He was hissing air through that gap like a berserk steam boiler. Then I saw him! He was standing in the gloom near the door. Blue turned his head away and dug into his salad.
He just stood there like a polka-dotted mummy. Only his crafty, hazel eyes moved. It was Dot Murray, and those frigid eyes were locked on us.
I was mesmerized. Blue stomped on my instep. I came out of the trance and glued my eyes to my plate. The steak tasted like the charcoal that had cooked it. The savory well went dry.
Blue whispered, “Play the chill for him. Remember, son, he's not bunco, he's only robbery detail. Just play the chill for him.”
My right leg twitched and bumped Blue's thigh. Blue groaned in disgust. I was thinking about how, years ago, Murray had clubbed the Memphis Kid into a slobbery vegetable with the butt of his thirty-eight special. The Kid's partner said Murray grinned like a hyena all the while.
The Kid and his partner, St. Louis Shorty, had made a smack score near the bus station at Sixty-Third and Stony Island Avenue. They were blowing off the mark when Murray showed. He wasn't bunco then, but he had a fine eye for the grift in play. He had gone mad dog. In his frenzy he accidentally smashed the mark's nose. He had a big hate for grifters all right.
The raucous crows resumed their cawing. I wondered why. Had he gone? To cover my gander, I trembled my water glass off the booth top. I raised it high and pointed it toward the aisle.
Murray was standing at the edge of our booth grinning down at us. Through the watery screen his jagged teeth made his mouth look like the open jaws of a famished shark.
In the velvet tones of a psychiatrist soothing a manic-depressive, Blue said, “Ah, Mr. Murray. Please, won't you sit down and join us? Have a drink, or perhaps a steak.”
Dot bent his knees and slithered over the leather seat facing us. He sat there silently with that sneering grin on his face. His spotted hands were splayed out on the tabletop. Puddles of dirty yellow had started to wash out the brown pigment. It was hard to believe they had once been dark brown.
Our waitress came toward him to take his order. He waved her away. Finally in a fruity, soprano voice, he said, “Blue, you knew I was going to join your party, didn't you? You really didn't have to give me an invitation, now did you?”
Before Dot's mouth could remold that awful grin, Blue said, “Now, Mr. Murray, how could Blue know you had a social interest or any other kind in him. You never have in the thirty years I've known you. So, since I'm a courteous gentleman, I couldn't just let you stand there in the aisle, now could I?”
Dot whipped his mottled hands off the table and spanked his palms together. His narrow grin closed shop. His hands were out of sight in his lap. I wondered if he had eased his rod from a waist holster.
Then his grin reopened as a wide corporation. He said, “Now, Blue, it's true we've never been friends, but it's the Christmas season. Maybe in my old age I'm getting sentimental. Suppose I told you it would be a wise practical gesture for us to exchange Christmas gifts this year.”
I took a huge drink of water. Perhaps I could cool those hot spasms in my gullet.