Leroy Looper’s Autobiography: Chapter 2

by Leroy Looper on December 11, 2006

(In which future Tenderloin hero Looper gets his first taste of reform school, books, panhandling, and of freedom)

My mother Loveline was a very gentle woman who deeply loved my father, who was a tall dark handsome man. He was truly a Wheeler-Dealer. He wore beautiful clothes and smoked White Owl cigars. The stories started in Philadelphia, Pa. where I was born. Daddy had a cleaners and he and his partner broke up for one reason or the other. So he got drunk. When my father got drunk he stayed drunk for two to three months at a time. When he finally pulled himself together, he went to Washington D.C., busted my mother up side the head and put me on the outside of the door. My father was very repentant about the whole thing so he stayed in Washington and because my mother loved him, she did what she always did. She went back to him. Daddy quickly started a new business moving or hauling furniture. Ice and coal was another one of his ventures. He also opened a candy store. From what my mother said, “He hired his women to be the cashier.” Daddy took care of Mama also. As fast as he knocked out her teeth he brought her gold ones. It was a good investment for him because he always had something he could take to the pawn shop. He only did this when he went on his periodic drinking sprees.

The psychiatric terminology that best describes his drinking sprees is dipsomania. My father would not touch a drop of whiskey for several months, then out of nowhere the beautifully dressed Daddy would be a slobbering drunk.. Then the trips to the pawn shops would begin. After the clothes, radio and clocks would be the trucks. As a child and an adult I was constantly bewildered by the spectacle of his being so totally out of it. It hurt me to see him this way. I loved my father and wanted always to be close to him. I used to work my ass off carrying ice, wood and coal to his customers just to be near him.

Between all these pictures of my father’s business ventures was the picture of welfare, W.P.A. and food lines. I don’t remember him giving me things. I was one of the kids who didn’t have skates nor did I have a bicycle. My father once said to me with real anger in his voice, “Boy, don’t skate on one skate, you will wear out one of your shoes.” I never learned to skate! I was beyond my teens when I finally learned to ride a bicycle.

At age five, six, and seven I found myself sleeping in the street. Going to my Aunt Carrie’s or the police picking me up and taking me to Police Station No. 13. I spent more time at the police station than at home. All the police knew me. I became their pet. I was beginning to like the street more than I did home.

During the times my father went on his drunks and there was no money in the house, my mother went to work for “White Folks” or her “White Lady” which allowed me to hit the street. I was good at making money even at that age. One of my hustles was selling the Afro-American Newspaper. You had to pay so much for a paper then whatever you got for the paper was yours. I made all the Bars! Theaters! Passing people and built up a business at some homes. One day I opened up the paper and found out that I was in the missing column.

I really liked school! But I always felt afraid and stupid. So I played hookey. When I should have been in school I was sneaking into the movies. Another one of my hustles was building my own shoeshine box and going downtown and shining shoes. I discovered very early that there were two worlds: a black and poor one, and a white and rich one. An Uptown (Black) and a Downtown (White).

I quickly learned the Art of Begging for money. I found out that begging for money was one of my greatest joys. As fast as I begged for and received some money I would put it into my shoes, back and front pockets. As fast as I got five pennies I would turn them into a nickel so that they wouldn’t jingle in my pocket. My day would start off with three or four cents short of carfare and a story of being lost and hungry. I wouldn’t have to dress the part—-most times I looked like a raggedy kid. If I was successful enough I would make enough money to buy left-over donuts and go to the show. Every now and then the police would raid the movie and turn the kids over to the school officer. I don’t know how many times I wound up before the judge.

One day I decided I would go to the “0” Street Market and make me some money. I was nine years old. It was a nice sunny day. I saw a lady with a pocketbook that looked somewhat tempting so I snatched it and began to run! I really like running. It was one of the few sports that I enjoyed. Just when I thought my feet were carrying me to safety a big black man started running after me. My feet picked up speed, my heart began to pound.

I was darting around corners, jumping over fences, running down alleys with him getting closer and closer. He would not give up. He finally caught me. The judge gave me one year in reform school. Blue Plains Reform School was like a military camp. Everybody had a gang. I was scared to death! I was really in trouble! I was assigned to a building, a schoolroom and a work detail. If you did something that the teacher didn’t like, she would beat you with a ruler. Behavior mod was in fashion.
The punishment system was unique. If you were a little bad, they beat your hands with a ruler. If you got out of hand, they would make you sit on your knees or kneel on your knees in the hot sun on non-smooth concrete from one hour up to a half a day, depending on the nature of the offense. If that didn’t solve your problem, (their problem)–then they would send you to the whipping rack.

To arrive at the whipping rack carried status and pain. You could make it there by fighting one of the staff, running away from the institution or stabbing someone. I once watched a kid who had been caught after he ran away. They tied him to the rack in front of everybody so that they could imprint us well with the consequences of our follies. They took a bullwhip and beat his ass. I decided that I could easily do my year without running away. I also decided I would not wind up on the rack. Part of the system also was getting up at five a.m., taking your wooden rifle and drilling like soldiers, then doing calisthenics for another hour. My main problem was knowing my right from my left.

The only way you could survive was to keep a knife or a brick. The only thing they respected was a person who could fight. I learned to box. I also learned to further develop my street fighting techniques. One of the things I learned at Blue Plains was to read in private and don’t let people know what’s important to you. They were always trying to psyche you out. If they could force you to hit first, then they would tell the staff that you provoked the fight. It was important to find out who was the baddest–who could beat who. They had many games that would help them to determine this. They also knew how to provoke you. One of the oldest was the “Dozen” –talking about your mother like a dog was enough to bring tears to your eyes. My time passed and one year later I was released from there. On returning home I found the home front the same! Again it was my mother who came after me. I can’t say that I was glad to be away from the reform school. I guess I just wandered around to the alley to see Aunt Carrie and the alley folks and also get myself ready to go back to school.

The name of the public school was Cleveland. I have no fond memories of it. It was just another battleground. I used to be very, very good at shooting marbles and we used to play each other for marbles. When I found myself winning someone’s marbles and they were getting mad about it, I would prepare myself to run or fight. You develop a reputation by being a graduate of Blue Plains. So people don’t just jump up into your face. They think about it.

One day as I was roaming around the city looking for something .to do, I snatched another pocketbook and was immediately apprehended •by the police. The judge (same woman) at this point felt that I was a little crazy and sent me to District Training School which was a combination reform school and crazy house. There were six different buildings. One was for black girls that were’ somewhat together, another for whites. One for black boys who were somewhat together, another for whites. One building was for really crazy people, one-half for blacks, the other half for whites. They also had a hospital and a great big farm. The whole place was surrounded by woods. The same games that were played in Blue Plains were played here, only more bizarre. Sometimes you didn’t know who was really crazy.
Two important things that happened for me were one, I found my older brother, Robert. I really forgot that I had a brother. Two, I smoked my first cigarette. When I first arrived at the institution we all jumped out of the truck. One guy offered me a cigarette and I smoked it. It damn near knocked me under the truck. The guy who offered me the cigarette wanted me to pay him for it.

I said, “I don’t have any money.” He said give him back the cigarette I had smoked. I said “It’s gone.” He said, “You now owe me 500 hot dogs, 500 buns or donuts.” Just when things were going to get out of hand my big brother introduced himself. It sure was nice to have a big brother. He must have been in and out of reform schools ahead of me, because prior to seeing him here, I can only remember one other time: when Robert and a guy named Thorston tied up a teach at school and were throwing daggers at her.

One of the best thing that happened for me was my new teacher, Mr. Orange. Mr. Orange was Jewish and a very serious man. During those years America had quota systems for Jews: so many doctors and so on. Many highly qualified persons looked to other categories to train in and earn a living. Mr. Orange was the one staff member who just didn’t fit in to the regular staffing profile. He was too good for the place. Under the direction of Mr. Orange, the school I attended was excellent. He stopped most of the games before they got started. Behind his back most of the kids called him greaseball but when he was standing in front of the class, he was a teacher.

Books became very important to me. Math, history and English took on new importance. I became one of the top students. Harold Lomax and I vied for first place, but he usually won–which didn’t make me stop pushing to be No. 1. Because of my new interest in books, Mr. Orange used to bring me special books from the library. Harold Lomax and I were the first kids at the door when the school opened.
My time was spent trying to figure out how to run away. As I began to really miss home and the streets of D.C., the more I listened to people who actually ran away and were successful. Most walked a couple of miles and caught the Greyhound bus. Some went by the railroad track which was forty miles away. Some had mapped out the time, day and staff movement. The one that appealed to me was going at. night and following the stars like Co1umbus.

The night finally arrived when three of us jumped out of the window with a supply of food, and adventure in our hearts. As I looked up at the sky for my favorite star, it looked like a hundred million stars had gone completely crazy. But I took heart. As we began to blend into the woods I felt rapturously good. I was with my friends (the woods). As the night wore on it got colder and colder. We could not see two feet in front of us.

All the stars began to look like each other. We couldn’t tell one dipper from the other. The North Star kept changing position with the Southern Star. After many, many hours we decided to lie down and hug one another (fuck homosexuality–we were cold). As the dawn began to come over the horizon, we woke up and found ourselves in a puddle of water and very damp. As we emerged out of the woods the police met us. Right on to the police! I was glad to see them. They took us to the police station and gave us some food. That’s when I found out that we had been going a-round and around and around all night long. Well, back to the drawing board.

On my sixteenth year I finally found a person who knew how to escape by way of the railroad track. But I had to keep convincing him that we should give it a try. He had been in the place so long, it was like his home. Unlike everybody else, his route was totally different. We went through cornfields, over back roads, around apple orchards and hit the railroad track. It was the longest walk in my life. The freight and passenger trains would be zooming by all day into the night. At last we saw the Washington monument and knew that success was around the corner. Five years of my life was spent in the institution; at last I was free. Forty long miles by foot was tiring, but it was worth it.

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