Malcolm X’s Train Days

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Some 19 years after a college professor mandated I do so, I’m finally reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. X spent bits of his teen years working as a Pullman Porter on New York trains–making sandwiches for travelers, and later, running “reefers” to his jazzbo pals up and down the coast. It was the early ’40s. Pullman Porters played a large part in the black experience in America–Pullman had a pretty good record of hiring black men at a time when others would not.

I’ve learned a few things about Mr. X. in the book’s first third. I’m not downplaying his role in the civil rights fight in America–it’s huge. But the guy was also a raging racist, sexist and narcissist. X viewed women as mere playthings to be draped on a man’s arm (preferably his), saw just about every white person as the devil personified, and viewed himself as Allah’s great gift to the world–with exceptional taste in zoot suits, a Lindy-hopping ability to make women swoon, and a mix of brains and brawn that helped him outfox evil white men and prevail over scary black ghetto figures.

I’m only on page 175 or so. Maybe he changes his tune.

Anyway, X found work on the railroad when he was a teen. With minimal assistance from Alex Haley and even less from an editor, he writes:

Off the train, I’d go through that Grand Central Station afternoon rush-hour crowd, and many white people simply stopped in their tracks to watch me pass. The drape and cut of a zoot suit showed to the best advantage if you were tall–and I was over six feet. My conk was fire-red. [Editor’s Note: A “conk” was a popular black hairstyle at the time, which involved scalding one’s scalp in an effort to straighten one’s hair.] I was really a clown, but my ignorance made me think I was “sharp.” My knob-toed, orange colored “kick up” shoes were nothing more than Florsheims, the ghetto’s Cadillac of shoes in those days. (Some shoe companies made those ridiculous styles for sale only in the black ghettoes where ignorant Negroes like me would pay the big-name prices for something that we associated with being rich.) And then, between Small’s Paradise, the Braddock Hotel, and other places–as much as my twenty or twenty five dollar pay would allow, I drank liquor, smoked marijuana, painted the Big Apple red with increasing numbes of friends, and finally in Mrs Fisher’s rooming house I got a few hours of sleep before the “Yankee Clipper” rolled again.

X made sandwiches on the Yankee Clipper, which led to a pretty unfortunate nickname: “Sandwich Red,” owing to the red shade of his hair.

Malcolm was fired from the railroad, but retained his employee ID and would use it to get on board even after his termination. “The conductor–even a real cracker, if you approached him right, not begging–would just wave you aboard,” he writes.

X would pack up hundreds of joints, board the train, and turn up wherever his pot-starved musician friends were performing.  

In New York, I rolled and packed a great quantity of sticks, and sealed them into jars. The identification card worked perfectly. If you persuaded the conductor you were a fellow employee who had to go home on some family business, he just did the favor for you without a second thought. Most whites don’t give a Negro credit for having sense enough to fool them–or nerve enough.

I’d turn up in towns where my friends were playing. “Red!” I was an old friend from home. In the sticks, I was seomebody from the Braddock Hotel. “My man! Daddy-o!” And I had Big Apple reefers. Nobody had ever heard of a traveling reefer peddler.”

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