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- The Ear in the Wall - 20/51 -
There were negroes of all degrees of shading, down to those who were almost white. Scattered about at the various tables were perhaps half a dozen white women, tawdry imitations of the faster set at the Futurist which we had just left, the leftovers of a previous generation in the Tenderloin. There was also a fair sprinkling of white men, equally degraded. White men and coloured women, white women and coloured men, chatted here and there, but for the most part the habitues were negroes. At any rate the levelling down seemed to have produced something like an equality of races in viciousness.
As we sat down at a table, Kennedy remarked: "They used to drift down to Chinatown, a good many of these relics. You used to see them in the old 'suicide halls' of the Bowery, too. But that is all passing away now. Reform and agitation have closed up those old dives. Now they try to veneer it over with electric lights and bright varnish, but I suppose it comes to the same thing. After they are cast off Broadway, the next step lower is the black and tan joint. After that it is suicide, unless it is death."
"I don't think this is any improvement over the--the bad old days," I ventured.
Kennedy shook his head in agreement. "There's Harris, down there in the back, talking to someone, a white man, alone."
A waiter came over to us grinning, for we had assumed the role of sightseers.
"Who is that, 'way back there, with his chair tipped to the wall, talking to the man with his back to us?" asked Kennedy.
"Ike the Dropper, sah," informed the waiter with obvious pride that such a celebrity should be harboured here.
I looked with a feeling akin to awe at the famous character who, in common with many others of his type, had migrated uptown from the proverbial haunts of the gunmen on the East Side in search of pastures new and untroubled.
Ike the Dropper may have once been a strong-arm man, but at present I knew that he was chiefly noted for the fact, and he and his kind were reputed to be living on the earnings of women to whom they were supposed to afford "protection." I reflected on the passing glories of brutality which had sunk so low.
There were noise and life a plenty here. At a discordant box of a piano a negro performer was playing with a keen appreciation of time if of nothing else, and two others with voices that might not have been unpopular in a decent minstrel show were rendering a popular air. They wore battered straw hats and a make-up which was intended to be grotesque.
From time to time, as the pianist was moved, he played snatches of the same music as that which we had heard at the Futurist, and between us and Harris and Ike the Dropper several couples were one-stepping, each in their own sweet way. As the music became more lively their dancing came more and more to resemble some of the almost brutal Apache dances of Paris, in that the man seemed to exert sheer force and the woman agility in avoiding him. It was an entirely new phase of afternoon dancing, an entirely new "leisure class," this strange combination of Bohemia and Senegambia.
At a table next to us, so near that we could almost rub elbows with them, sat a white man and a white woman. They had been talking in low tones, but I could catch whole sentences now and then, for they seemed to be making no extraordinary effort at concealment.
"He was framing a sucker to get away with a whole front," I heard the man say, "or with a poke or a souper, but instead he got dropped by a flatty and was canned for a sleep."
"Two dips--pickpockets," whispered Craig. "Someone was trying to take everything a victim had, or at least his pocketbook or watch, but instead he was arrested by a detective and locked up over night."
"Good work," I laughed. "You are 'some' translator."
I looked at our neighbours with a certain amount of respect. Were they framing up something themselves? At any rate I felt that I would rather see them here and know what they were than to be jostled by them in a street car. The sleek proprietor kept a careful eye on them and I knew that a sort of unwritten law would prevent them from trying on anything that would endanger their welcome in a joint none too savoury already.
Nevertheless I was quite interested in the bits of pickpocket argot that floated across to us, expressions like "crossing the mit," "nipping a slang," a "mouthpiece," "making a holler" and innumerable other choice bits as unintelligible to me as "Beowulf."
After a few minutes the woman got up and went out, leaving the man still sitting at the table. Of course it was none of my business what they were doing, I suppose, but I could not help being interested.
That diversion being ended, I joined Kennedy in his scrutiny of Harris and his choice friend. Of course at our distance it was absolutely impossible to gain any idea of what they were talking about, and indeed our chief concern was not to attract any attention. Whatever it was, they were very earnest about it and paid no attention to us.
The dancing had ceased and the two "artists" were entertaining the select audience with some choice bits of ragtime. We could see Ike the Dropper and Dr. Harris still talking.
Suddenly Kennedy nudged me. I looked up in time to see Dr. Harris reach into his inside breast pocket again and quietly slip out a package much like that which we had already seen him hand to Marie at the Futurist. Ike took it, looked at it a moment with some satisfaction, then stuffed it down carefully into the right-hand outside pocket of his coat.
"I wonder what that is that Harris seems to be passing out to them?" mused Craig.
"Drugs, perhaps," I ventured offhand.
"Maybe. I'd like to know for certain."
Just then Harris and Ike rose and walked down on the other side of the place toward the door. Kennedy turned his head so that even if they should look in our direction they would not see his face. I did the same. Fortunately neither seemed interested in the other occupants. Harris having evidently fulfilled his mission, whether of delivering the package or receiving news which Ike seemed to be pouring into his ear, had but one thought, to escape from a place which was evidently distasteful to him. At the door they paused for a moment and spoke with the proprietor. He nodded reassuringly once or twice to Dr. Harris, much to the relief, I thought, of that gentleman.
Kennedy was chafing under the restraint which kept him in the background and prevented any of his wizardry of mechanical eavesdropping. I fancied that his roving eye was considering various means of utilizing his seemingly inexhaustible ingenuity if occasion should arise.
At last Harris managed to shake hands good-bye and disappeared up the steps to the sidewalk still followed by Ike.
Kennedy leaned over and looked the "dip" sitting alone back of us squarely in the face.
"Would you like to make twenty-five dollars--just like that?" he asked with a quick gesture that accorded very well with the slang.
The man looked at him very suspiciously, as if considering what kind of new game this was.
"That was your gun moll who just went out, wasn't it?" pursued Kennedy with assurance.
"Aw, come off. Whatyer givin' us?" responded the man half angrily.
"Don't stall. I know. I'm not one of the bulls, either. It's just a plain proposition. Will you or won't you take twenty-five of easy money?"
Kennedy's manner seemed to mystify him. For a moment he looked us over, then seemed to decide that we were all right.
"How?" he asked in a harsh but not wholly ungracious whisper. "I'll tip yer off if the boss is lookin'. He don't like no frame- ups in here."
"You saw Ike the Dropper go out with that man?"
"The guy with the glasses?"
"The guy with the glasses gave Ike a little package which Ike put into the right-hand outside pocket of his coat. Now it's worth twenty-five beans to me to get that package--get me?"
"I gotyer. Slip me a five now and the other twenty if I get it."
Kennedy appeared to consider.
"I'm on the level," pursued the dip. "Me and the goil is in hard luck with a mouthpiece who wants fifty bucks to beat the case for one of the best tools we ever had in our mob that they got right to-day."
"From that I take it that one of your pals needs fifty dollars for a lawyer to get him out of jail. Well, I'll take a chance. Bring the package to me at--well, the Prince Henry cafe. I'll be there at seven o'clock."
The pickpocket nodded, slid from his place and sidled out of the joint without attracting any attention.
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