Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson - The Two Mr. Johnsons









Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson outside courthouse - 1953


I can remember when the name Bumpy Johnson first meant anything to me. I was ten years old, and still upset that my family moved from Harlem to the Bronx the year before. I found it hard to make friends and would often convince my mother to let me to take the number 2 train to Harlem to visit my pals from the old neighborhood. On this particular bright sunny day in July 1968, and I happily trotted up the subway stairs, grasping the two shiny quarters – my weekly allowance which I planned on using to buy a hamburger and a chocolate milkshake at the Rexall Drugstore on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue.
            As soon as I walked up the steps from the station I could see something was going on. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, the shoe repair store, which doubled as the neighborhood gambling spot, was closed. There were no shiny –faced Nation of Islam brothers hawking copies of Muhammad Speaks on the corner. Missing too were the winos who usually sprawled on the steps of brownstones, drinking brown-bag wrapped pints of Wild Irish Rose and Swiss Up. Something was up, and it had to be something big. A large group of people was milling through the streets – not a crowd or a mob, like I had seen during the Harlem riots just months before, but something gentler.  It seemed like a stream of swaying black faces, all pointing in one direction – east toward Central Park.





I pulled on the sweaty arm of one woman to ask her what was going on, but she looked down at me haughtily – readjusted her scruffy brown mink stole around her shoulders with one gloved hand, and gave me a slight push away from her with the other. Undaunted, and still curious, I tapped on the shoulder of a tall freckled teenage boy, dressed in his dark blue suit and a darker blue tie – obviously his Sunday best. “What’s everyone standing around for?” I demanded. “What’s going on?”
            On any other occasion I’m sure the teenager would have shoved me away, too, but he was excited, and he seemed to want to share his scandalous knowledge.
“Bumpy’s funeral!” he answered me in a loud whisper, as if we really were in church, and not in the middle of

Lenox Avenue
.
            “Bumpy who?” The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it.
            The boy screwed his face up with disgust. Sadly, my question had revealed I was unworthy of his wisdom. “Bumpy Johnson, stupid. The gangster.”
            “Boy, what’s wrong with you?” A big hammy paw came down upon his head, and the woman to whom it belonged glared at the two of us. “Ain’t you got no respect?”
            A funeral? That’s why all these people were out here? Didn’t make much sense to me.
I quickly decided to move on, and forgetting about hamburger and milk shake, I headed toward the sanctuary of

115th Street
. Bumpy Johnson. Yeah, now I remembered where I’d heard the name. My Uncle Nicky used to talk about him . . . called him a “Harlem bad man,” meaning he was meaning he was dangerous. The kind of man you’d better be careful around, because if you said something he didn’t like, he’d cut you or shoot you, or have you cut or shot. My Uncle Nicky knew something about Harlem bad man, because he had a pretty good reputation himself as one of the best second-story man in Harlem. Nobody could break into a second-floor window better than my Uncle Nicky. But I knew that Bumpy Johnson was a real bad man. The kind of man I’d never want to meet. I wondered if someone had finally shot him before he shot them.
Instead of walking away from the crowd, I was moving further into it as I tried to walk to

115th Street
. It was really stacked in front of St. Martin’s Church on

122nd Street
and Lenox. Many of the women were crying, and all of the men had their hats in their hands. I don’t know why I looked up, maybe I heard an airplane or the screeching of a bird, but when I did I saw that there were men on the roofs of  the buildings across the street from the church. But these men didn’t have hats in their hands, they had shotguns. Uniformed police officers with rifles were watching Bumpy Johnson’s funeral. Yeah, I decided, that Bumpy Johnson must have been really bad if the police was scared he going to jump from his coffin and start shooting or something.
I wiggled through the crowd and over to my friend’s house. Soon the tap tap of my double-dutching feet on the sidewalk jarred the thoughts of the funeral out of my head. There was no room  in my 10-year-old brain for funerals for people I didn’t know, or want to know. By the time I returned home that evening, the whole incident was totally forgotten.
It would be another twenty-five years before I thought about that day again.
I was a 36-year-old reporter for The Virginian Pilot, and living in Norfolk, Va., and raising my own young daughter. On this particular night I was doing my weekly ironing, and listening rather than watching, an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” The episode was about the only successful escape from Alcatraz Penitentiary, which occurred in 1962. The piece suggested that prisoners escaped with the help of a Harlem gangster, who used his connections to have a boat sent out to meet them in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. “Harlem gangster,” I said out loud to no one. They must be talking about Bumpy Johnson. I was right. I heard the narrator launch into a mini-biography on Bumpy – how he had fought a bloody war with the crazy Jewish mob boss, Dutch Schultz, over control of the numbers racket in Harlem. I knew about the story, of course – everyone in Harlem did. Bumpy may have been unknown to the white world, but in Harlem he was a legend.  And I had actually attended his funeral. Well, sort of.
As the show went on, I thought of another Mr. Johnson I had known. A man who once helped me in a way that seemed positively heroic at the time. He’d be the same age as Bumpy Johnson, but the two men couldn’t have been more different. I’d lost contact with him a child, and I suddenly regretted it. He was probably dead by now, I thought. I wish I had been able to attend his funeral.
I met nice Mr. Johnson when I was eight. My mother, my twin sister and my two brothers lived in a three bedroom apartment at

36 West 115th Street
, right around the corner from the real estate office where my mother worked as a minimum-wage bookkeeper. One of her sometimes co-workers was a woman I only knew as Madame, who was also the local number runner. I was a third-grader at P.S. 184 on

116th Street
when I stopped in my mother’s office to hand her my report card. All  ‘A”s as usual, but there was something different on this report card. In the comment section it said that I had been selected for the Intellectually Gifted Child program. My mother simply gushed when she saw it, and she proudly showed the report card around the office. Madame, whom had never said more than a quick hello to me before, reacted with such delight you would have thought I were her child. She said she wanted to reward me for doing so well in school by letting me hang out with her once in while. The next morning Madame picked me up in her black Cadillac – she was the only woman I knew in Harlem who had her own Caddy – and drove me around for an hour, making stops all over the neighborhood, without ever saying a word to me until we stopped and got out at Graham Court – a huge apartment complex – at 116th and Seventh Avenue. Oh, God, I was so impressed!

Graham Court
was huge, and had a gated courtyard with entrances to the four buildings which made up the complex. All of the buildings had locked lobbies with intercoms, like I had seen on television. The doorknobs and railings were shiny brass. The steps were made of veined marble. I had seen the apartment complex all my life, I once lived right around the corner, but I had only dreamed about actually going inside the gates. I was already feeling well-rewarded for my academic achievements. 
After we were buzzed into the building on the southeast corner of the courtyard, Madame leaned down, told me to mind my manners, then knocked at the door of a first-floor apartment. A giant of a man with a tiny hat perched on the side of his head, grunted us in. Madame left me sitting in an overstuffed chair in a room full of strangers – mostly men – all waiting around, some playing cards, while she went into a back room. I didn’t care for the half-hour or so, I was busy taking in the apartment. The ceilings were so high I knew even my tall cousin Wesley wouldn’t be able to reach it even if he were standing on one of our kitchen chairs. There was a chandelier, the first one I had ever seen, with a hundreds of tiny bulbs. I wished that it was evening instead of in the middle of the afternoon so I could see chandelier shimmer, or perhaps the warm glow of light that I just knew would come from the marble surrounded fireplace. I was so impressed with the apartment itself, I took no notice of the furniture. I just knew the person who lived in this grand residence had to be a millionaire. I wondered who it was. Certainly not one of the men who were in the room with me. They were big rough-looking men, not the kind of men who could be the master of this magnificent home.
I wondered if instead it was one of the people in other room who were speaking with Madam. I couldn’t make out what was being said among the raised voices, save for Madam, attempting to “explain” something. Fifteen minutes later, a distressed looking Madame walked back into the living room along with three men. One of them was Mr. Johnson.
He was dark-skinned, with hair so short he looked bald, and dressed in an elegant dark blue suit. When he entered the living room, everyone stood up. He paid them little attention, he looked angry, and was walking, fast, toward the front door when he noticed tiny me in the large over-stuffed chair.
“Well, hello there,” he said his face breaking out into a crinkly nosed smile.
“Ke-Ke, sweetheart, say hello to Mr. Johnson,” Madame said, suddenly all sugar. “Mr. Johnson, I’ll have you know that my little Ke-Ke is the smartest little girl in her third-grade class.”
Even as young as I was, I suddenly realized that Madame had brought me to the apartment because she knew Mr. Johnson, would be angry with her about something, and she also knew that Mr. Johnson couldn’t stay angry around children. Especially smart children who liked to read Langston Hughes.  He actually knew Langston Hughes, he told me at that first meeting.  I was impressed. The one question I had, I blurted out immediately.
“Is he nice?”
“Real nice,” Mr. Johnson answered with a laugh. “Go get this smart young lady some ice cream.” As if by magic, there was suddenly two bowls of vanilla ice cream on a large mahogany dining room table.
“What’s wrong,” Mr. Johnson asked as I slowly picked up my spoon.
“Um, I like chocolate.”
“Don’t be rude, Ke-Ke!” Madame said sharply.
“Go out and buy Miss Ke-Ke some chocolate ice cream,” Mr. Johnson said, his smiling eyes never leaving my face. “I like young ladies who aren’t afraid to say what they want.”
Our relationship was cemented over ice cream, vanilla for him, chocolate for me.
It was the first of many visits that summer. Each visit would begin a sometimes heated discussion between Madame and Mr. Johnson, and end with Mr. Johnson and me sitting at the table eating ice cream while he told me stories about Langston Hughes, and other literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, most of whom I didn’t know. But his friendships weren’t just limited to writers. Mr. Johnson said that used to be good friends with the famous boxer Joe Louis, and that he had been best pals with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the man who tap danced the steps with Shirley Temple. I was in total awe. I always hated when our visits ended, and would pout when Madame said it was time to go, but Mr. Johnson would smile and pat me on the head saying, “You know you’re going to be seeing me again, Miss Ke-Ke.”
It was towards the end of the summer when Mr. Johnson sat me down and gave me a good talking to when he found out that I had been selected to go to a white school downtown because I was an “Intellectually Gifted Child,” but didn’t want to go.
“Miss Ke-Ke,” he said puzzled over my hesitation. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.” 
“I don’t want to go,” I insisted as I gulped down the bowl of chocolate ice cream he always kept on hand for my visits. “I don’t want to go to school with a bunch of white kids.”
“Why not?” he insisted.
“Because.”
“Because what?”
“Just because,” I said, giving him my pat 8-year-old answer to all unanswerable questions.
But Mr. Johnson had a way with children, and it didn’t take long before I was confiding in him that I thought the children at P. S. _____ on

84th Street
and Columbus would laugh at me because I wore hand-me-down clothes that my mother didn’t have time to mend. Even the children at P.S. 184 laughed at me, and their clothes weren’t much better.
“Miss Ke-Ke, you don’t go to school to show off clothes, you go to learn,” Mr. Johnson told me with a quiet smile. “But I know just how you feel. The kids in my school used to laugh at my clothes, too.”
I looked at him incredulously. First of all, I never considered that Mr. Johnson could ever have been a child. I wasn’t good at guessing ages, but I figured he must have been as old my grandfather would have been if he were still alive. Secondly, I couldn’t even imagine anyone teasing Mr. Johnson about his clothes. He was always dressed so nicely, always in a suit and tie, and even at eight, I could see that his suits and ties were very, very expensive. And of course, he must have been a millionaire – after all he lived at

Graham Court
.
“Kids laughed at you because of your clothes?” I asked suspiciously.
“Yes, they did, Miss Ke-Ke.”
“And what did you do?”
“I beat them up.”
There were a bunch of men in the apartment – Mr. Johnson always had at least two or three really big burly men with him – and they hollered with laughter at his answer until he gave them a silencing glare.
“Now, I don’t want you go around beating people up, Miss Ke-Ke,” he said returning his attention to me, “because you’re a smart young lady, and smart young ladies should fight with their brains. But you have to go to school to learn how to do that. And you have a chance to go to a really good school. Don’t let the thought of people laughing at your clothes keep you from learning.”
I was pretty much convinced. Clothes or no clothes, I was going to that white school and get as smart as Mr. Johnson, and maybe I would get to meet people like Langston Hughes and Bojangles, and live in a grand apartment, too.
Madame stopped coming around my mother’s house to pick me up, and the rumor on the street was that she had been sent to prison for something or the other, so my visits to Mr. Johnson’s house stopped. But two weeks before school started there was a knock on our apartment door. My mother answered it, and a man gave her a white envelope that was marked “From Mr. Johnson.” Inside were -dollar bills, enough in 1967, to buy really nice school clothes for me and my twin sister and two brothers.
My thoughts were jolted back to the present when my cat suddenly leaped onto the ironing board, almost knocking down the iron. I took it as omen that I needed to break from housework. I walked into the living room and plopped down on the couch in front to the television just as a black-and-white mug shot of Bumpy Johnson appeared on the screen. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was my Mr. Johnson. I couldn’t believe my eyes, or my ears as the announcer called him the “most notorious gangster in Harlem.”
The television show went off, but not before citing a book which the episode had been based. I hurriedly scribbled down the title, Riddle of The Rock: The Only Successful Escape from Alcatraz,” by Don DeNevi. I hurried to the bookstore that very afternoon, and bought the book, and devoured it within hours. There was only one chapter on Bumpy Johnson, but there were two photographs of him. Yes, there was no doubt that it was my Mr. Johnson. I puzzled how the nice old man who had been so good to me could be the fierce criminal of Harlem lore. The more I puzzled, the more determined I was to find the answer.
And thus my odyssey to learn more about Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson began.

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