Who Would’ve Thought Of It?

Should I tell this story? Probably not, but everyone involved is long dead. What harm can it do? All right, I’ll tell it.

Benito Mussolini
Il Duce on the Stump

After the Great War, the First World War, things were difficult for my grandfather in Italy. Italy had come out on the winning side, but her politics had become terribly unstable. The Communists were powerful and active, intent on creating civil unrest and overthrowing the government. In response, people turned to Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, and his Fascists.

My grandfather didn’t like the Fascisti and he let them know it. They, in turn, through the administration of several doses of castor oil, gave my grandfather to understand that he should remove himself to America for reasons of his health. He did so, taking with him his wife and infant daughter.

Barbers
A way to earn money

Thus it was that, sometime in 1921, my grandfather and his little family found themselves in Boston, Massachusetts. If he wanted them to eat, my grandfather needed to find a job, any job. As a boy in Sicily, he had dreamed of a career in medicine. His father had apprenticed him to a barber. He learned how to pull teeth, dress wounds, set bones and, incidentally, cut hair. While serving in the Italian army, he had made decent money barbering. So, relying on his wartime experience, he went to work as a barber.

But my grandfather was an ambitious young man. Barbering paid the bills, but it didn’t offer much upside potential. No one comes to America to cut hair. You come to America to make your fortune, to pick up those gold bricks they pave the streets with.

After a few weeks, he made a few acquaintances among his mainly Italian-speaking clientele. Like him, they were veterans of the War. Unlike him, they seemed relatively prosperous. At least, they weren’t working with barber shears. My grandfather let them know that he was looking for a way to better himself.

Soon, one of them asked my grandfather if he knew how to drive a truck. Having driven munitions trucks along the Austrian front, he boasted he could drive anything with four wheels. The man said he had a friend who needed truck drivers and would pay more, considerably more, than my grandfather made as a barber. My grandfather was interested.

But there was a catch. The friend’s business was in Chicago. My grandfather didn’t know exactly where Chicago was, but he knew it was a long way from Boston. He wanted the job, but it might not work out. He and his wife and child had just settled into a house owned by his brother-in-law. He didn’t want to move them all the way to Chicago on a lark. He decided to leave them in Boston while he started the Chicago job. If it worked out, he’d send for them later.

Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago in the 1920s

Not long after, my grandfather stepped off the train onto Chicago. He looked up the address his acquaintance had given him. It was a big warehouse, with trucks coming and going to and from its loading bays. A policeman stood in the street, stopping traffic so the trucks could back out without incident.

More 1920s Chicago
More 1920s Chicago

My grandfather walked in. He was comforted to see that everybody working there was Italian, just like him. He asked to see the boss. Someone directed him to a husky man wearing a slouch hat and a cashmere overcoat. My grandfather introduced himself, told the boss he was looking for a job and mentioned their common acquaintance.

The boss’s heavy face lit up. He asked my grandfather, “Can you drive a truck?” My grandfather repeated that he could drive anything. “Good,” the boss said. “Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll put you to work.”

Barrel Trucks
Barrel Trucks, from the Boston Public Library

Bright and early the next morning, my grandfather presented himself at the warehouse. This time, he took a good look at the trucks. They were big, straight jobs with open beds, their loads covered with tarpaulins. Under the tarpaulins, my grandfather could see that the loads consisted of oak barrels, standing up, stacked two rows high.

The boss wasn’t there, but he had left word about my grandfather with one of the supervisors. The supervisor explained that my grandfather wasn’t going to drive the truck. He was going to ride with the driver. That’s fine, my grandfather thought, he probably needs me to help with unloading.

The driver got into the cab and my grandfather climbed up next to him. But before he could close the passenger’s door, the supervisor grabbed it, held it open, and handed my grandfather a loaded, sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun.

“What’s this for?” asked my grandfather.

“What do you think it’s for?” barked the supervisor. “It’s for protection.”

“Protection?!” my grandfather sputtered. “Protection from what?”

The supervisor swept his hand toward the bed of the truck. “From anybody who tries to steal the beer.”

“Oh, per la Madonna,” my grandfather exclaimed, “what kind of a country is this? People try to steal your beer in the light of day?”

The supervisor slammed the truck’s door shut without answering. The truck pulled out of the warehouse and into the traffic, my grandfather cradling the street cannon in his lap. This is it, he thought, Chicago, America, the Wild West. He’d read all about it. Now, he was in it. Cowboys. Indians. Bandits.

He made it through the first day without incident. In fact, he made it through the first six or seven weeks with nothing untoward happening. He was happy to be able to send so much money home to his wife. But as time went on and his English improved, he got the impression that, despite the cooperation of the Chicago Police Department, what they were doing was not entirely legal.

As he explained to me many years later, “If you didn’t know about Prohibition, coming from another country, who would’ve thought of it? Who would’ve thought that a whole country would make alcohol illegal?”

Even though the money was good, my grandfather didn’t see much future in this line of business. He knew he had to get out of it. But the acquaintance and the boss had treated him so well, he couldn’t just quit. He had to have a reason.

The next day, as soon as he saw him at the warehouse, he went up to the boss and explained that he had to quit and go back to Boston. His wife, he claimed, was ill, and he had to go home to take care of her and their daughter.

Al Capone
“Scarface’ Al Capone

At that, Mr. Capone put a fatherly arm around my grandfather’s shoulder. “Joe,” he said, “we hate to lose you. You’re a good worker. But family’s got to come first.” And, despite my grandfather’s protests, Scarface Al insisted on paying his train fare back to Boston.

 

Author, Attorney, Humorist