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Herbert Huncke's America - Edited By Jerome Poynton Literary Executor - Russian Blackie - November 2019

RUSSIAN BLACKIE



The first time I saw Russian Blackie, I was standing at the old Times Square Bar—Forty-second Street and Eight Avenue—now long gone—and he was rather weaving back and forth—both arms spread wide—clutching the edge of the bar with his hands—moving his head slowly from side to side—glaring straight ahead toward the huge mirror which made up the back bar—obviously very drunk and, as I learned later, loaded to his ears on Seconal and pot—at this point—tossing off double hookers of straight whiskey. Although the place was crowded with many of the regular habitués —most of whom knew Blackie—immediately around him was a cleared space—no one wishing to get too close to him as he was, even when stone cold sober, unpredictable—and drunk—if nothing else—was always full of anger and hostility.

Blackie stood about six feet tall and was broad-shouldered—neither slim nor heavy. His hair was almost blue black and he never allowed it to become long or unkempt. His facial features were regular and well shaped.

He was considered a very handsome man.

His eyes were deep brown and when one spoke to him—looking directly into his face—it was always difficult to read his expression and one could never be sure whether he was angry or pleased—amused or disgusted—bored or entertained.

He was immaculate about his dress—favoring dark colored suits—well tailored and properly fitted—with white shirts and neat conservative ties. In winter his overcoat invariably was of chesterfield styling and frequently he would go without a hat—but always wore gloves and they fitted his hands like another skin.

This was in the middle of a cold spell—the wind sharp and penetrating—cutting deep into the marrow of one’s bones. Although Blackie was very intoxicated he had somehow retrained his dapper appearance. I didn’t know anyone I wished to spend time with and didn’t remain long in the bar—what time I did stay was spent in observing Blackie and in a sense scrutinizing him.
  
At some point—he found something amusing—a great smile broke across his countenance. His teeth were large and even and very white and—seeing him smile—he stood revealed as a very intriguing and attractive person and the thought flashed through me—he would undoubtedly be a great guy to know.
I departed—and it was several days before I saw Blackie again and this time I was introduced to him. We each acknowledged the introduction and went our respective ways. From then on we would meet every day. Most of these times—we’d say “Hi” and keep going—once or twice we had coffee and killed about fifteen or twenty minutes talking about Forty-second Street—making scores—the whole Times Square scene—and the usual everyday topics such as weather—the approach of spring and how drunk we’d been the night before.
  
Once in a while I’d see him with other Forty- second Street characters. He knew everyone on the street and when not alone he was usually with a couple of fellows—and known to be hard-core Forty- second Street hustlers—who were sharp dressers and reputed to go out occasionally on jobs—maybe a stickup or burglary.
  
I had seen one of them knock a guy flat in one well-aimed blow. This same cat later became a good friend of mine—now married and a father—living in Brooklyn.
  
The Russian and I finally became close friends through a series of events which were in a degree cumulative and seemingly unrelated.
  
Times Square in New York circa 1940’s

As I grew more familiar with the environment of Times Square and particularly Forty-second Street, I learned to at least recognize my neighbors—or the people who lived and participated in the activities of the area. I joined or became part of the crowd that hung around the cafeterias—Bickford’s—Chase’s—Hector’s—The Automat—and many of the places of business and amusement which remained open all night. I got to know the hotels and stayed in them— sometimes alone but often with people I’d meet—mostly men and occasionally women.
  
Now and then sitting at the tables with other cats—like myself, living principally by their wits—I’d speak of my scores and gradually I became known and trusted—I suppose is the term best applied when people speak of their exploits in the underworld and expose their secrets. I became acquainted with the thieves who had become professional in their lines: pickpockets—boosters—muggers—a few stickup men— automobile hustlers—and many who never revealed their specialties exactly but hinted at knowing everything in the book—as they might have said.
  
Talking at different times with various people frequently we’d be joined by the Russian.

Once he fell-in and spoke to me directly about doing him a favor—copping some Seconals for him. He had run out, it seemed, and wouldn’t be able to see his druggist until the next day. I had lost no time in locating a drugstore following my arrival in the city that supplied me with bennies first—which had just become illegal without prescription. Later the same store sold me anything except narcotics.

I obliged Blackie and coped for him.
  
Next—when he asked me to do the same—I took him with me and introduced him to the druggist. And then one night zonked out of my mind on schmeck—pot—Benzedrine—and Seconals, I met a cat I had become friendly with who was a kind of john or mark. He would come to Forty-second Street after finishing work at his place of employment. He was lonely and attracted to young men of the knock-around—Times Square hipster—hustler types. He was a good spender and one always ate—and got a flop—and besides he came on fairly straight and one could relax and pretty much be yourself with him.
  
We spoke for a few minutes and he commented on how high I appeared and added that although he expected to see a friend from around the Square he’d promised to give money to—and if I understood I couldn’t expect to receive any money in the morning—he would like me to meet the cat and come along.
  
I accepted the invitation and met Blackie for the first time in an environment away from the hardcore Forty-second Street. He proved to be an amazingly congenial and affable companion—obviously well versed in ways of being entertaining and agreeable. Apparently he had known our host for many years and from parts of their conversation between them I gathered —although their acquaintance began in the usual fashion for both of them— it soon ripened into a friendship of mutual respect.

Blackie seemingly delighted in telling of his exploits and one could sense the amusement he stressed conversationally as being part of his interest in all of his activities involving the manner in which he lived and—at one point—he told of taking advantage of several opportunities to make money and named several people they both knew as victims—while they both gossiped and reminisced.
  
Both were conscientious about keeping me posted—frequently drawing me into communication—asking if I was aware of a particular place or building—or had I seen a particular person hanging around Bickford’s—giving quick biographical and descriptive clues as to exactly whom they might be discussing.
  
We all three got very high on Seconals and ale.
  
At any rate—from then on Blackie became part of my life with a certain consistency and we remained in close proximity—our relationship with various people overlapped and we shared experiences together.
  
We were never as close as Blackie was with other people but a sort of bond grew and existed between us. There are innumerable aspects to his personality I wasn’t aware of and would be pressed to analyse. We did share a kind of love and mutual regard for each other.

There was a reserve and hardness in him difficult to penetrate—yet there was always a straightness—perhaps—or consciousness of beauty in all his actions.
  
The Russian—as he was frequently called among his more intimate associates—impressed me and my life became—in a sense—richer or greater for having known him.

I suppose there were women in his life during the time I knew him— important and emotionally involved with him—but oddly it was his closest friend’s girl and later wife Blackie showed interest in and spent much time with.
  
His friend Frank trusted him implicitly—nor do I think his trust was ever misused—Blackie had the old-fashioned concept of loyalty—believing one does not covet his neighbor’s wife. I am inclined to think perhaps she may have tried testing her womanly charms but the Russian stood firm. They all three remained staunch friends and after the marriage and arrival of the first child it was amusing to see Blackie—red-eyed and angry—appearing— glaring defiantly out toward the shadowed corners of the room—ready to sweep clean the darkness of lurking danger in defence of Frank Junior— proud and pleased with the responsibility of babysitting.
  
There was a slight change in Blackie’s personality and general requirements after Frank married. Where once there had been a partner to rely on at a moment’s notice—it now became a matter of operating alone— more often than not.

He was and may still be an effective hustler. Still he did become more settled and was less apt to be seen staggering from one side to the other—ready for a slug-fest or to simply belt someone for the hell of it. Two years after the birth of the first baby there was a second baby and by this time Blackie was well trained.

We ran into each other about a year ago. Except for a little more weight—and less ebullience—he is very much as he has always been.

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