Depression-era Harlem is home for twelve-year-old Francie Coffin and her family, and it’s both a place of refuge and the source of untold dangers for her and her poor, working class family. The beloved “daddy” of the title indeed becomes a number runner when he is unable to find legal work, and while one of Francie’s brothers dreams of becoming a chemist, the other is already in a gang. Francie is a dreamer, too, but there are risks in everything from going to the movies to walking down the block, and her pragmatism eventually outweighs her hope; “We was all poor and black and apt to stay that way, and that was that.”
First published in 1970, Daddy Was a Number Runner is one of the seminal novels of the black experience in America. The New York Times Book Review proclaimed it “a most important novel.”
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"I dreamed about fish last night, Francie," Mrs. Mackey said, sliding back the chain and opening the door to admit me. "What number does Madame Zora's dream book give for fish?"
"I dreamed about fish last night, too," I said, excited. Maybe that number was gonna play today. "I dreamed a big catfish jumped off the plate and bit me. Madame Zora gives five fourteen for fish."
I smiled happily at Mrs. Mackey, ignoring the fact that if I stood here exchanging dreams with her, I'd be late getting back to school and Mrs. Oliver would keep me in again.
"What more hunch could a body want," Mrs. Mackey grinned, "us both dreaming about fish. Last night I dreamed I was going under the Bridge to buy some porgies and it started to rain. Not raindrops, Francie, but fish. Porgies. So I just opened up my shopping bag and caught me a bagful. Ain't that some dream?"
She laughed, her cheeks puffing up like black plums, and I laughed with her. You had to laugh with Mrs. Mackey, she was that jolly and fat. She waddled to the diningroom table and I couldn't keep my eyes off her bouncing, big behind. When she passed by in the street, the boys would holler, "Must be jelly 'cause jam don't shake," and she would laugh with them. They were right. Her behind was a quivering, shivering delight and I hoped when I grew up I would have enough meat on my skinny butt to shimmy like that.
Mrs. Mackey sat at the dining-room table and began writing her number slip.
"Mrs. Mackey," I said timidly, "my father asks would you please have your numbers ready when I get here so I won't have to wait. I'm always late getting back to school."
"They's ready, lil darlin'. I just wanna add five fourteen to my slip. I'm gonna play it for a quarter straight and sixty cents combination. How is your daddy and your mama, too?"
"They're both fine."
She handed me her number slip and two dollar bills which I slipped into my middy blouse pocket.
"Them's my last two dollars, Francie, so you bring me back a hit tonight, you hear? I didn't mean to spend so much but I couldn't play our fishy dreams cheap, right?"
We both giggled and I left. I raced down the stairs, holding my breath. Lord, but this hallway was funky, all of those Harlem smells bumping together. Garbage rotting in the dumbwaiter mingled with the smell of frying fish. Some drunk had vomited wine in one corner and peed in another, and a foulness oozing up from the basement meant a dead rat was down there somewhere.
The air outside wasn't much better. It was a hot, stifling day, June 2, 1934. The curbs were lined with garbage cans overflowing into the gutters, and a droopy horse pulling a vegetable wagon down the avenue had just deposited a steaming pile of manure in the middle of the street.
The sudden heat had emptied the tenements. Kids too young for school played on the sidewalks while their mamas leaned out of their windows searching for a cool breeze or sat for a moment on the fire escapes.
Knots of men, doping out their numbers, sat on the stoops or stood wide-legged in front of the storefronts, their black ribs shining through shirts limp with sweat. They spent most of their time playing the single action — betting on each number as it came out — and they stayed in the street all day until the last figure was out. I was glad Daddy was a number runner and not just hanging around the corners like these men. People were always asking me if I knew what number was out, like I was somebody special, and I guess I was. Everybody liked an honest runner like Daddy who paid off promptly the same night of the hit. A number runner is something like Santa Claus and any day you hit the number is Christmas.
I turned the corner and raced down forbidden 118th Street because I was late and didn't have time to go around the block. Daddy didn't want me in this street because of the prostitutes, but I knew all about them anyway. Sukie had told me and she ought to know. Her sister, China Doll, was a whore on this very same street. Anyway, it was too early for them to be out hustling, so Daddy didn't have to worry that I might see something I shouldn't.
A half-dozen boys standing in front of the drugstore were acting the fool, as usual, pretending they were razor fighting, their knickers hanging loose below their knees to look like long pants. Three of them were Ebony Earls, for sure, I thought. I tried to squeak past them but they saw me.
"Hey, skinny mama," one of them yelled. "When you put a little pork chops on those spareribs I'm gonna make love to you."
The other boys folded up laughing and I scooted past, ignoring them. I always hated to pass a crowd of boys because they felt called upon to make some remark, usually nasty, especially now that I was almost twelve. So I was skinny and black and bad looking with my short hair and long neck and all that naked space in between. I looked just like a plucked chicken.
"Hey, there goes that yellow bastard," one of the boys yelled. They turned their attention away from me to a skinny light kid who took off like the Seventh Avenue Express when he saw them. With a wild whoop the gang lit out after him, running over everybody who didn't move out of their way.
"Damn tramps," a woman muttered, nursing her foot that had been trampled on.
I held my breath, hoping the light kid would escape. The howling boys rounded Lenox Avenue and their yells died down.
I ran down the street and turned the corner of Fifth Avenue, but ducked back when I saw Sukie playing hopscotch by herself in front of my house, not caring whether she was late for school or not. That Sukie. She was a year older than me, but much bigger. I waited until her back was turned to me, then with a burst of energy I ran toward my stoop. But she saw me and her moriney face turned pinker and she took out after me like a red witch. I was galloping around the first landing when I heard her below me in the vestibule.
"Ya gotta come downstairs sometime, ya bastard, and the first time I catch ya I'm gonna beat the shit out of ya."
That Sukie. We were best friends but she picked a fight whenever she felt evil, which was often, and if she said she was going to beat the shit out of me, that's just what she would do.
I kept on running until I reached the top floor and then I collapsed on the last step, leaning my head against the rusty iron railing. I heard someone on the stairs leading up to the roof and my heart began that crazy tap dancing it does when I get scared.
Somebody whispered: "Hey, little girl."
I tiptoed around the railing and peaked up into the face of that white man who had followed me to the movies last Monday. He had tried to feel my legs and I changed my seat. He found me and sat next to me again, giving me a dime. His hands fumbled under my skirt and when he got to the elastic in my bloomers, I moved again. It was the same man, all right, short and bald with a fringe of fuzzy hair around the back of his head. He was standing in the roof doorway.
"Come on up for a minute, little girl," he whispered.
I shook my head.
"I've got a dime for you."
"Throw it down."
"Come and get it. I won't hurt you. I just want you to touch this."
He fumbled with the front of his pants and took out his pee-pee. It certainly was ugly, purple and wet looking. Sukie said that everybody did it. Fucked. That's how babies were made, she said. I believed the whores did it but not my own mother and father. But Sukie insisted everybody did it, and she was usually right.
"Come on up, little girl. I won't hurt you."
"I don't wanna."
"I'll give you a dime."
"Throw it down."
"Come on up and get it."
"I'm gonna tell my Daddy."
He threw the dime down. I picked it up and the man disappeared through the roof door. I went back around the railing and leaned on our door and the lock sprang open. Daddy was always promising to fix that lock but he never did.
Our apartment was a railroad flat, each small room set flush in front of the other. The door opened into the dining room, so junky with heavy furniture that the room seemed tinier than it was. In the middle of the room a heavy, round mahogany table squatted on dragon-head legs. Against the wall was a long matching buffet with dragon heads on the sideboards. Scattered about were four straight-back chairs with the slats falling out, their tall backs also carved with ugly dragons. The furniture, scratched with scars, was a gift from the Jewish plumber downstairs, and was one year older than God.
"Mother," I yelled. "I'm home."
"Stop screaming, Francie," Mother said from the kitchen, "and put the numbers up."
I took the drawer out of the buffet, and reaching to the ledge on the side, pulled out an envelope filled with number slips. I put in Mrs. Mackey's numbers and the money, replaced the envelope on the ledge, and slid the drawer back on its runners. It stuck. I took it out again and shoved the envelope farther to the side. Now the drawer closed smoothly.
"Did you push that envelope way back so the drawer closes good?" Mother asked as I went into the kitchen.
I sat down at the chipped porcelain table, tilting crazily on uneven legs. Absentmindedly I knocked a scurrying roach off the table top to the floor and crunched it under my sneaker.
"If you don't stop racing up those stairs like that, one of these days you gonna drop dead."
I wanted to tell her that Sukie had promised to beat me up again, but Mother would only repeat that Sukie would stop bullying me when I stopped running away from her.
Mother was short and dumpy, her long breasts and wide hips all sort of running together. Her best feature was her skin, a smooth light brown, with a cluster of freckles over her nose. Her hair was short and thin, and she had rotting yellow teeth, what was left of them. In truth, she had more empty spaces in her mouth than she had teeth, but you would never know she was sensitive about it except for the fact that she seldom smiled. It was hard to know what Mother was sensitive about. Daddy shouted and cursed when he was mad, and danced around and hugged you when he was feeling good. But you just couldn't tell about Mother. She didn't curse you but she didn't kiss you either.
She placed a sandwich before me, potted meat stretched from here to yonder with mayonnaise, which I eyed with suspicion.
"I don't like potted meat."
"You don't like nothing. That's why you're so skinny. If you don't want it, don't eat it. There ain't nothing else."
She gave me a weak cup of tea.
"We got any sugar?"
"Borrow some from Mrs. Caldwell."
I got a chipped cup from the cupboard and going to the dining-room window, I knocked on our neighbor's windowpane. The Caldwells lived in the apartment building next door and our dining rooms faced each other. They were West Indians and Maude was my best friend, next to Sukie. We were the same age, but where my legs were long, Maude's were bowed just like an O. Maude's father had died last year, and Pee Wee, her oldest brother, had just gone off to jail again, which was his second home. Maude came to the window.
"Can I borrow a half cup of sugar?" I asked.
She took the cup and disappeared, returning in a few minutes with it almost full. "Y'all got any bread?" she asked. "I need one more piece to make a sandwich."
"Maude wants to borrow a piece of bread," I told Mother.
"Give her two slices," Mother said.
I gave Maude two pieces of whole wheat.
"Elizabeth's coming back home today with her kids and Robert," she said. "Their furniture got put out in the street."
Elizabeth was her oldest sister and Robert her husband. He used to be a tailor but wasn't working now.
"Y'all gonna be crowded," I said.
"Yep," she answered, her head disappearing from the window.
I returned to the kitchen and told Mother Elizabeth was coming home.
"Lord, where they all gonna sleep?" she asked.
Maude and her sister, Rebecca, sixteen, had one bedroom, their mother the other, and their brother, Vallie, slept in the front room.
I sat down at the table and began to sip my tea, looking at the greasy walls lumpy with layers of paint over cracked plaster. Vomit-green, that's what Daddy called its color. The ceiling was dotted with brown and yellow water stains. Daddy had patched up the big leaks but it didn't do much good and when it rained outside it rained inside, too. The last time the landlord had been there to collect the rent Daddy told him the roof needed fixing and that if the ceiling fell down and hurt one of his kids he was going to pitch the landlord headfirst down the stairs. The landlord left in a hurry but that didn't get our leaks fixed.
The outside door slammed and my brother Sterling came into the kitchen and slumped down at the table. He was fourteen, brown-skinned, and lanky, his long, tight face always bunched into a frown, and today was no exception.
"Where's James Junior?" Mother asked.
"I'm not his keeper," Sterling grumbled. "I didn't see him at recess."
James Junior, my oldest brother, was a year older than Sterling, and good looking like Daddy. He was nicer than Sterling, too, but slow in his studies, always getting left back, and Sterling had already passed him in school and was going to graduate this month.
The door slammed shut again and I could tell from the heavy footsteps that it was Daddy. I jumped up and ran into the dining room hurling myself against him. He laughed and scooped me up in his arms, swinging me off the floor. Mother was always telling me that men were handsome, not beautiful, but she just didn't understand. Handsome meant one thing and beautiful something else and I knew for sure what Daddy was. Beautiful. In the first place he was a giant of a man, wide and thick and hard. He was dark brown, black really, with thick crinkly hair and a wide laughing beautiful mouth. I loved Daddy's mouth.
He sat down at the dining-room table and began pulling number slips from his pocket.
"Get the envelope for me, sugar."
I removed the drawer and handed him the envelope, smiling. "I dreamed a big catfish jumped off the plate and bit me, Daddy. The dream book gives five fourteen for fish. And Mrs. Mackey dreamed it was raining fish."
"Great God and Jim," Daddy cried, and we grinned at each other. "My chart gives a five to lead today. I'm gonna play a dollar on five fourteen straight and sixty cents combination."
Daddy said that of all the family my dreams hit the most. If 514 came out today we'd be rich, which would be a good thing 'cause Mother was always grumbling that we were playing all of our commission back on the numbers.
From force of habit I huddled close to the radiator, which was cold now. The green and red checkerboard linoleum around it was worn so thin you couldn't even see its pattern and there was a jagged hole in the floor near the pipe almost big enough to get your foot through. Daddy was always nailing cardboard and linoleum over that hole but it kept wearing out.
"Henrietta," Daddy called, "where are the boys?"
Mother came to the kitchen door. "Sterling's here eating, but James Junior ain't come home yet."
Daddy's fist hit the table with a suddenness which made me jump. "If that boy's stayed out of school again it's gonna be me and his behind. Sterling," he shouted, "where's your brother?"
"I ain't seen him since this morning," Sterling answered from the kitchen.
Daddy turned on Mother. "If that boy gets into any trouble I'm gonna let his butt rot in jail, you hear? I'm warning you. I've done told him time and time again to stop hanging out with those Ebony Earls, but his head is damned hard. All of them's gonna end up in Sing Sing, you mark my words, and ain't no Coffin ever been to jail before. Do you know that?"
Mother nodded. She also knew, as I did, that Daddy would be the first one downtown to see about Junior if anything happened to him.
Junior had started hanging around with the Ebony Earls a few months ago, together with his buddies Sonny and Maude's brother Vallejo. Sterling didn't belong to the gang. He said gangs were stupid and boys who hung out together like that were morons.
Daddy started adding up the amounts of his number slips and counting the money. Mother sat down at the table beside him and said nervously that she heard Slim Jim had been arrested. He was a number runner like Daddy.
"Slim Jim is a fool," Daddy said. "His banker thinks he can operate outside the syndicate but nobody can buck Dutch Schultz. The cops will arrest anybody his boys finger, and they did just that. Fingered Slim Jim and his banker."
"Maybe you'd better stop collecting numbers now before ..." Mother began nervously, but Daddy cut her off.
"For christsakes, Henrietta, let's not go through that again. How many times I gotta tell you it ain't much more dangerous collecting numbers than playing them. As long as the cops are paid off, which they are, they ain't gonna bother me. Schultz even pays off that stupid ass, Dodge, we've got for a district attorney, so stop worrying."
Mother played the numbers like everyone else in Harlem but she was scared about Daddy being a number runner. Daddy started working for Jocko on commission about six months ago when he lost his house-painting job, which hadn't been none too steady to begin with.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Daddy Was A Number Runner"
Copyright © 1970 Louise Meriwether.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Front Cover,
2. Title page,
3. Copyright page,
5. Foreword by James Baldwin,
6. Part 1, Daddy was a Number Runner,
14. Part 2, Yoruba's Children,
22. About the Author,
23. About the Feminist Press,
24. Also Available from the Feminist Press,