Curtis Haynes' New York

A white reporter crosses 125th street and gets beat at his own game

Mayor Beame throws basketball to unicyclist during sampling of Harlem Day entertainment at City Hall in New York City on August 24th, 1976. Credit: Frank Castoral/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

I'M GROWIN' PLANTS ALL THE TIME," says Curtis Haynes, pouring half a glass of water over a geranium. The floor and window ledge of his bedroom are covered with leafy pots. "Plants are everything. They give us oxygen and food. They also a home for insects." He brushes an aphid off a leaf. "Insects gonna inherit the earth."

He continues the tour of his room — recently painted electric blue by his mother — by pulling a picture off a shelf full of basketball trophies. Judging by his fleeting eyes and reticent tone of voice, he doesn't know what to make of me — a pale, white, 26-year-old, bearded magazine editor with thick glasses from a myopic childhood of too much TV watching and book reading in Madison, Wisconsin. Nor do I know what to make of him — a handsome, ebony-skinned, 16-year-old, short-haired high-school student with sharp vision from a childhood spent on the basketball courts of Harlem. "This my brother, Footie," he says, holding a blurred photograph of a teenager bearing a strong resemblance to Curtis. "Remember, remember, remember. . ." is inscribed around the margins. "We named him that because he had such big feet," he says. Curtis' Pro Ked basketball shoes equal my own 11 1/2 Adidas — and I am 6'2" while he is just 5'10". "He died in a fight two years ago. Puerto Rican friend got in an argument at a party and the other dude pulled a gun. My brother jumped between them. I never go to parties no more."

I'd first gotten to know Curtis over two years ago when I was doing a story on Adam Clayton Powell Junior High (JHS 43) on the corner of Amsterdam and 129th in Harlem. An ugly little building surrounded by towering, lookalike housing projects, the school often seemed a madhouse of students prone to rioting and teachers who had chosen one of two roads: to sainthood or hackdom. I spent a semester talking with ninth graders, one-to-one in empty classrooms, about their ambitions, which boiled down to achieving security and entering the middle class. They placed an extraordinary amount of faith in romantic love — no doubt fostered by dogshit song lyrics — as a savior from all the rottenness in their lives, though the highest emotion they could summon about specific members of the opposite sex seemed to be intense ambivalence. The flip side of this fascination was their endless self-hatred, manifest in their constant and brutal fighting, destructive drug consumption, lousy diets and general refusal to learn the intellectual skills that could pull them into the middle class. Although I found most everyone likable and bright, once I learned their language, I could see in their futures only a demoralizing reflection of the statistics that show New York City public schools graduating class after class of illiterates. Curtis Haynes was an exception. He could translate his perceptions of ghetto life into words I could understand, and he had managed to bring some of the motivation he brought to basketball into the classroom as well. Voted "Most Popular" in the school yearbook, he got respect and knew everybody in the neighborhood. When the opportunity arose to return to Harlem for another story, I sought him out. He barely remembered me, but looked on the story as a challenge to get a message to the world.

"I do some writin' too," he says. "I the only one I know who write for fun." He hands me an essay entitled A Thought. "People around my way are not to much into what's happening," it reads. "Like they just stay stagnated in one building. They don't go no where. . . . Like they just drink and fight and mess with stink disrespectful girls. Have kids with no financial backup. Messing around with cops. I hope they just realize that the way they're acting really is how the white man really wants them to act."

THE NEXT DAY I GIVE CURTIS A TOUR OF THE ROLLING STONE offices. Perhaps inhibited by all the white faces, he doesn't say much beyond minimal politeness until we get outside. "They have a lot of, uh, affairs in there?" he asks. I hem and haw about not following the gossip that much. "I knew it," he says. "They smoke a lot of reefer too, huh?" I have to admit that he's got the place pegged.

Walking up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, we end up in front of the baby gorilla cage at the zoo where I get into an argument with this moron throwing Cracker Jacks at the ape under a big DO NOT FEED — THESE ANIMALS REQUIRE SPECIAL DIET sign. The moron fails to respond to logic, so I approach an attendant who says, "What can I do? They do it all the time."

"I told you it was all right," calls the moron. "You're a crab."

"That animal is going to have diarrhea for six months because of you, you asshole," I say. The moron gives me the finger and throws the whole box into the cage. I rejoin Curtis in front of the mature gorilla cage.

"In Harlem, you learn not to get involved," he says. "You got to watch out for yourself. Like the other night at the pool hall, this dude start snappin' on this other dude's mother, sayin' she got big lips. Only he don't know it's all the other dude's friends in the place. These dudes was just back from the Marines, all wearin' combat boots. Seven of 'em, they chase him down the street and kick him and beat on him with pool cues. He knocked out and they hold him in the air upside down and slam his head with a pool cue. This real gooey blood start oozin' out his mouth and eyes, so you know he's in trouble, but they smashed his head into the concrete some more. I saw that with my own eyes. You see that trashin' shit everyday up there. Never see nothin' like that down here."

"You think that gorilla not be plottin' how to get over on us?" interjects a decrepitly dressed black man carrying a frayed suitcase. The ape is sitting Buddha fashion, his hands crossed over his belly, eyeing us calmly. "He know his day gonna come. There's animals humans was never meant to see. Like they gonna discover Bigfoot someday, and it gonna be the end of the world. Ain't no balance of nature — it every man for hisself."

His instinctive friendliness coming to the fore, Curtis introduces us and explains our journalistic purpose. "Harlem like this, man," the guy says. "In Africa, when they want an animal, they shoot it with a sedative. Here, the motherfuckin' cop shoot you with a bullet. . . . See, I ain't no smart dude. I get here from the South in 1957, spend six years in school and don't learn shit. Then my sister sit down with me for three months and I be readin'. Why they not do that in schools? Every time I go to prison, I read up on factual stuff, especially animals, none of this fiction bullshit."

I ask what he does to support himself. "Every day I walk from 42nd Street to 110th," he says. "I pick up trash. Look at this." He pulls a dictionary from his suitcase dated MDCCLI. "That mean 1700, don't it? I used to think only niggers was dumb enough to throw away stuff like this." He eyes me up and down for a couple of seconds. "I a dope fiend," he says, holding out his arms which appear to have been clawed by rabid cats. "I'm on methadone now, but I still can't find no job. That what Harlem like. I have to walk, man." He picks up his suitcase and heads for Fifth Avenue where the trash presumably offers better pickings.

Expressing the hope that we are finally getting somewhere in understanding Harlem, Curtis is delighted with the dope fiend and remains in an ebullient mood until we near the 72nd Street exit on Central Park West. A middle-aged white man is walking hand-in-hand with his young son who is eating an ice-cream cone. "Look at that shit!" Curtis exclaims. "How's that kid ever going to make it if his father hold his hand? My father just said, 'Always expect to get ripped off,' and let me learn for myself. Whenever we wanted something as kids, we'd just go over to Riverside Park. We trip the whiteys and grab their $50 skateboards. It was revenge, yeah, but they were weak. It's their parents' fault for raisin' 'em to be punks, you know, faggyish — like you ask them for their money and they just give it to you." Curtis spits on the ground. "They probably think we niggers savages."

I ask him if he can really blame them for thinking that, if the only contact they have with blacks is having their toys stolen. "They'll probably end up hating you the rest of their lives," I say.

"They our future. They fuck us forever," says Curtis, suddenly more thoughtful. "But you put them in Harlem, they wouldn't last a day. Tomorrow I show you a eleven year-old dude on my block who play celow [craps] and pool, smoke reefer and cigarettes, make his living on the streets 'cause his mother a dope fiend. He going to make it. Maybe not educationally, but he make money."

CURTIS IS A LITTLE LATE THE NEXT AFTERNOON, so I talk with his mother in their living room. They live on the twelfth floor of a project a few blocks north of the Adam Clayton Powell School. Despite the elevators constantly breaking down and the staggering uniformity of the architecture, the projects are relatively nice places to live, as evidenced by the long waiting lists to get in. Rent is $170 for a three-bedroom apartment, a small amount south of Harlem. The Hayneses are better off than most. The family is stable, and Mr. Haynes is a Teamster and part-time karate instructor with a solid income. Even so, they choose to remain in the ghetto.

"We could move to an area that didn't have rats or roaches or bums," says Mrs. Haynes, an attractive woman in her late 30s. "But I want Curtis to be able to deal with Harlem if he can't make it like I want him to make it on the outside and he has to come back here. I try to drop hints for him to go into law because he gets into everything so deep. He has a great mind for details, but you can never tell what will happen."

Two pictures hang on the wall: a print of the Mona Lisa and a Frank Frazetta science-fiction picture of a human sacrifice. A barbell takes up much of the floor. I mention Curtis' reaction to the white kid in the park. "He told me about that," she says. "He was right in a sense. We don't show a lot of affection in this family — we're not the mushy types, and I don't think they've suffered for it. If I hold my boy's hand, somebody might see him and he'll have to fight that kid the next day. Kids today tend to be militant — you know, down on whitey. I say you can do more harm to yourself than you can ever do whitey with that attitude. . . . You know, I try to tell Curtis to look decent when he goes on the train to other parts of town, not to be wearin' tattered blue jeans and a sweatshirt. But he say if he's sittin' there all proper and well dressed, they'll think to mess with him first. I can't argue with that."

Curtis finally arrives with a little kid, maybe 4'10", whom he introduces as Bobo. Bobo is wearing a golf hat cocked to one side. We retire to Curtis' bedroom where he directs Bobo to tell me what it's like in Harlem. The question is too abstract to draw much of an answer, and Curtis orders me, "Go ahead, interview him." After much fumbling, I ask what Bobo would like to do when he grows up. He says he'd like to be a pool player because he already beats many of the adults at the hall. The only problem he has is with dope fiends who keep asking him to hold their stuff in case of a raid (Bobo being underage and ineligible for jail). "Last time they had a raid, I was playin' pinball," says Bobo. "Made everybody line up against the wall. Cop found a gun on this dude and put it up against his head. Say, 'If this is loaded, you're dead,' and he pull the trigger. It wasn't loaded."

I ask Bobo about his own drug intake. "I smoke every day," he says. "I can do about six joints at a time." Though he appears proud to have drawn a gasp of shock from me, he is noticeably unimpressed with the rest of the "interview" and finally runs along.

Curtis has a chess board set up in one corner of the room and I ask if he would like to play. He immediately resorts to the black man's ploy of bombast and intimidation: "Of course I play you. I whip your ass. I the best in my project." I use the white man's ploy of false modesty to be followed later by insufferable gloating: "Well, I haven't played much since I was a freshman in college. I'm really out of practice."

Curtis immediately turns on his stereo to distract me. "You don't like this music, do you?" he says as the O'Jays intrude upon my memory of my pawn to King-3 defense (I have drawn the black players).

"Not particularly," I say. "I grew up with white rock 'n' roll, and that's still my favorite."

"Well, I tell you the truth. I don't like your music, either."

Despite all the distractions aimed at me, Curtis makes an early blunder and I take inordinate pleasure in crushing him beneath a mercilessly advancing wall of pawns.

THIS DUDE GET RESPECT EVERYWHERE FROM 116th and Eighth [a notorious hangout for junkies] to the Battleground [a basketball court at 151 st]," says Curtis as we walk down the dimly lit hallway of a crumbling tenement. A couple of toothless old women sit on the stoop in front. "He 42, but he still built like a horse. He named Stamp, 'cause he stamp people."

We enter a small bedroom, barely large enough for a single bed and TV set, where a black man watches the Mets game. Before greeting us, he turns his back and pulls on a white T-shirt. A livid scar bisects his left kidney. He shakes my hand warmly and exchanges family inquiries with Curtis. His accent is Deep South and the words come as fast as he can twist his tongue around the syllables, sometimes faster, and I have enormous difficulty understanding him. Curtis soon directs me to begin the interview, so I ask how he got the scar.

"Here, feel this," he says grabbing my hand. He lifts his shirt to reveal another hideous scar that covers most of his belly. He runs my fingers over it. The muscles are, literally, hard as rock but do not follow normal configurations. Amid the asymmetric lumps are two'distinct holes."That from a .38," he says. "I hit the number one day and these dudes owe me $2000. I go down a long hallway to collect and I get shot twice in the stomach. Run after the dude down the street and get shot in the back. Don't even know I been hit till my body get hot and I fall. I be on operating table 13 1/2 hours — doctor say he never seen a body like mine. They have to cut my arms with scalpels to get the needles in. Used to be, two men could stand on my stomach. I was the most famous young Negro in New York, I was so strong 'cause of all that fightin' and basketball. I woulda killed the dudes that shot me, 'cept somebody else killed 'em first."

"Tell 'em how you got your name," says Curtis.

"During the war, you need stamps to get sugar," he says. "I bring all these stamps to the store. My real name Sugar Stamp."

"I thought it was 'cause you, you know..." Curtis swings his fist.

"That true, too," says Stamp. "They make fun of my accent when I move here, so I have to stomp them."

Curtis and Stamp share a love for basketball — Stamp having developed an excellent jump shot over decades on the playgrounds, and Curtis being a star of teams from his junior high, community center and Riverside church (he once scored 45 of 47 team points in a tournament at City College). "You know, his uncle the best basketball player I ever saw," Stamp says. "He could dunk on Lew Alcindor or anybody else in the ghetto, and he only 5'11". He play on the Harlem Wizards, then he get drafted. Come home on leave and go to a party. Somebody give him cocaine, maybe heroin, to shoot. He go out to a car and when they find him in the morning, his heart be froze."

I mention Curtis' beliefs on the relative merits of ghetto and nonghetto upbringing of children. Curtis adds that no whitey could do half the things that Bobo can. "Well, maybe Bobo make a lot of money," says Stamp. "But he livin' too fast. He go on like this, he be dead by 20. Harlem be rough on a kid. What good it do to be driving a Mercedes at 15 from drug sellin' when you get killed for it?"

I ask what he does to support himself these days. "I got a friend on Long Island, a Jew boy," he says. "He sell me hot T-shirts for $ 1.50, and I sell 'em for $3.00. Only thing I want to do is just get back in shape so I can play in the Goat Tournament [an over-30 basketball game]. See, I never stuck no needle in my arm till I was 41 — stayed on about a year. Me and my wife was separated, and I was worried. Met another girl who want to skin-pop me. It feel good, so we do it again and again. It feel better than a woman, but a junkie will steal from anyone, his own mother. I seen them shoot in they own peter when they run out of veins. Went to Harlem Hospital detox program — wanted to kill myself for two weeks. I had to do it — kids in the neighborhood, they do like I do. Don't want to go to jail for that shit up here. Down South I got strong on the chain gang. In jail in New York, you just watch junkies shit on theyselves, puke on theyselves. It make you sick."

At dusk the next day, Curtis introduces me to his buddies, Lenny and Truck, on a park bench in front of his project. He says I'm a music editor and Lenny immediately asks, "It true Michael Jackson had his sex changed?"

Since I have no information on that particular rumor, the conversation steers itself onto sex in general. I ask when they lost their virginity. "I be nine," says Truck, now 16. "My brother get me into it with this babysitter. She 12 or 13."

"Me, I'm through with it forever," moans Lenny, 15. "I got a baby, so ain't nobody gonna mess with me. They say I'm dangerous."

"Dangerous!" Curtis howls with laughter. "I ain't never heard no such shit. Dangerous!"

"He say he through, but what he mean is, nobody will have him," hoots Truck.

"You's in jail, man! You can't get no woman," says Curtis, suddenly sobering when he senses Lenny's feelings might be hurt. "Don't get offended. But it is funny."

Lenny shudders: "It true, though. You should see what them bitches says to me. Every time, the first thing is, 'He had a baby.'"

"Can't you just have the girl you had before?" asks Truck. "She real nice. She ain't no freak [a term of contempt that means someone who engages in oral sex]."

"Every bitch out there is a freak," says Lenny.

"Not necessarily," says Curtis. "She ain't no freak if she freakin' only for you."

"A freak is someone who freak," insists Lenny. "She a freak 'cause she freakin' for me."

"No," says Curtis. "If she freakin' for you and this nigger and that nigger and every other nigger on the street, then she a freak."

Lenny has no answer to that argument, so I ask him about school. He says he was left behind last year because he skipped so much and didn't expect it to be much better this year because he had to sell dope and steal homing pigeons to support the kid. "It's hard times," he says." Very hard times. I was sure surprised when that shit happen to me."

AFTER DARK, CURTIS AND I DECIDE TO WALK from Harlem down to my apartment on the Upper West Side. Curtis makes sure I don't miss any of the big piles of garbage or burnt-out tenements that the city hasn't bothered to board up for years. We arrive at the 124th Street entrance to the little park above Grant's tomb. It is dimly lit and surrounded by trees. "Uh, you sure this is safe?" I inquire.

"Oh man, you scared?" he taunts. "Ain't nobody gonna mess with me. You got to be aware of what you got on. This belt here, it's a weapon." He pulls the belt out of his jeans and wraps it around his fist. I do the same, leaving about a foot of leather between my hand and the heavy buckle.

"You could crush somebody's skull with this," I say, assaulting a couple of bushes and feeling absurdly, well, masculine.

"You hang it over your shoulder like this," he smiles, "and we walkin' for trouble."

"Jesus." I put the belt back in my pants, which are falling down anyway. We sit in a couple of swings in a kiddie playground. The air is clean and cool and you can see the lights of New Jersey over the Hudson. "I haven't been in a fight since I was 11 years old," I say. "I wouldn't know what to do. Bobo could probably punch me out. Those white kids in the park you've been complaining about, that was me 16 years ago. Not that my father ever led me around by the hand. . . ."

"So how come you argue with that dude in the zoo? He coulda killed you, man. You'd never make it in Harlem."

"He was a wimp. Look, I don't believe in fighting. It's fun to write about, but it's idiotic to do. The only question worth asking at this point in human history is why we persist in making ourselves so miserable. There's no logical reason for the ghetto, no logical reason for anybody to shoot Stamp, no logical reason for us to walk around with our belts out to defend ourselves. Besides, if I want to get somebody, I can humiliate him in print in front of millions of people. That hurts worse than a broken jaw."

"Yeah?" says Curtis, pondering. "You know, I think we'll be friends. You all right." He holds out his hand and we shake.

Some minutes later, walking on the sidewalk over Riverside Park, I tell Curtis my great-grandfather held slaves in Tennessee and fought as an artillery captain under Robert E. Lee to keep them.

"No offense to you," he says, "but whites back then was devils. I hate your great-grandfather. But that's why blacks are the strongest race on earth. Your great-grandfather, he's sittin' in his mansion, lettin' cholesterol clog up his heart. We the healthy ones, pickin' cotton out in the fields, gettin' strong all day in the sun. You whites is flabby. You got nothin' under your skin."

A couple of homosexuals making out on a park bench interrupt his theory. "Look at that shit!" he exclaims. "That is the worst shit I ever saw!" About 50 steps further along, he adds, "You see a whole lot more white people is fags than blacks."

We reach 72nd Street and walk east past Trax, which I explain is an in-crowd hangout for musicians and record-industry types. He wants to see it, so we stop by. It is the usual bunch, in their expensive haircuts, wearing their neo-rock & roll outfits. Curtis grabs my arm after a couple of minutes and whispers, "I gotta get out of here." Back on the street, he breathes deeply and declares, "They all fags in there."

"Twits, maybe, but not fags," I say.

"Look, I knew about your office. I know about that place. They fags."

At my apartment, I try to put on a record but Curtis will have none of "that hippie shit" and insists I put on WBLS, the FM soul station. "You gettin' paid for this story?" he asks. I say I'm not getting extra money for it, I just draw a regular salary from the magazine.

"How much your salary?" I tell him the figure, and he says, "How come I'm not getting paid for this, too?" " 'Cause it's just not done," I say, surprised. "It's unethical. CBS paid H.R. Haldeman $100,000 for an interview and every commentator in the country jumped on their butt. You just don't pay for journalism."

"I work as hard on this story as you have."

"Yeah, but I'm older than you are. I've been to school for about seven more years, most of which was spent learning how to write better. I have a Master's. I can tell your story in print better than you can. . . ."

"Oh yeah?" he shouts. "We have a writin' contest right now to see who the better writer."

"Huh?"

"You go get two pieces of paper. We each write a story for 15 minutes and we see who's better."

My honor on the line, I have no choice but to agree. The ground rules are that we each have to write a story about the other one, and we have to put down our pens at exactly 2 a.m. Curtis starts writing immediately, while I sweat and moan and crumple up a couple of false starts. "I told you I was better," he goads, Finally the words start to flow and I barely finish as the second hand crosses the 12. Both nervous, we exchange essays.

"At first I thought it wasn't going to work out," writes Curtis. "What I mean is a prejudice conflict. From what I see it's not that at all. It's to people from different backgrounds, and different cultures and beliefs. Respecting one another's ideas and thoughts. Not what happened many years ago keeping us from being friends. He's alright and honest. . . . Your giving me exposer, and a better look on things. That's what I'm getting out of your company and thoughts. Your report on 'Harlem.'"

My story says that I find Curtis to be a very smart young man. His questions have been sharp, and I hope he will continue to work on his writing. One of his attitudes that I disagree with is about homosexuals. "I think homosexuals have as much right to be who they are as heterosexuals do," it reads. "I hope Curtis and I remain friends after the article is finished. I'd like to help him get into college when the time comes. I'll always whip his ass at chess, though."

I can find nothing wrong with Curtis' story, but he finds two serious mistakes in mine. "That line about homosexuals, I never believe that," he says. "And I'm gonna whip your ass at chess next time. That make two bullshit remarks in your story and none in mine. I win."

The next day I ask for a check to Curtis Haynes for $100, the same amount I got for my first article in this magazine.