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You Can't Win by Jack Black

2000 (reprint ed.); 340 pp. $16. Nabat/AK Press.

You Can't Win is the autobiography and apologia of Jack Black, a burglar-turned-librarian, an opium-smoking "reconstructed yegg" who robbed from the rich and the not-so-rich for no redeeming social reason, then turned honest too late to squeeze into the social fabric of his times.

Published in 1926, the book documents the life of a pre-depression, post-Jack London, con man and sneak thief whose shenanigans were successful because the routine use of deadly force was not incorporated into the law enforcement codes then. Try some of Jack's tricks today and you will be blown into bits of frown and gristle.

This is an exciting book, full of jailbreaks and murder in the hobo jungles and plenty of how-to tips for the aspiring felon. Woven throughout the tale is a plea to those on the top of the pile to help the grifters and grafters and ex-cons and prostitutes find a place in society instead of in jail. Good advice to a nation where incarceration has become a very big business.

"While waiting on appeal the great earthquake and fire occurred. All the records in my case were destroyed. I could not be sent to prison, and the attorney could not get me out, so I became a permanent fixture in the county jail.

The old Broadway county jail was a stout structure and resisted the quake, but was fire-swept and abandoned. When the fire threatened, all prisoners were removed to Alcatraz Island and later to the branch jail at Ingleside. I was there over six years and the things that happened there during that time would fill a book.

During the graft prosecution that followed the fire, Ingleside housed the mayor, the political boss of San Francisco, and many of the supervisors. A looting banker was there, many strikebreakers indicted for the murder of union men during the car strike, and soldiers for wantonly shooting down citizens while the city burned. Jack Johnson, the colored heavyweight champion, was with us for thirty days for speeding.

Money was plentiful in the jail. The grocer came every day and we all got enough to eat. The political boss bought many books and founded a library. He also got a big phonograph that was kept going all day and far into the night. I was "appointed" jail librarian, and at once catalogued the books and installed them in an empty cell.

The jail was a cross between a political headquarters and an industrial plant. The political prisoners did politics, and prisoners whose records were burned in the fire turned to industry.

We got contracts to address envelopes and sublet the work to others. We sewed beads on "genuine" Indian moccasins for a concern downtown. Best of all, we bought cheap jewelry from mail-order houses and sold it at a profit to visitors, giving them to understand that it was stolen stuff we had smuggled in with us.

"I kept it [burglary] up for years, and quit it only because I got tired of playing the peon for crooked pawnbrokers and getting "fifty fifty" from the professional "fences." The fences' notion of "fifty fifty" is to put a lead dollar in the Salvation Army tambourine and ask the lassie for fifty cents change.


ISBN: 9562915093

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