Excerpts from THE CANDY BUTCHER
The beginning of Chapter 2 "The Little Godfather"
While America was struggling with its Civil War, southern Europe was ablaze with its own civil wars, particularly Italy. Starting after the American Civil War and continuing over the turn of the century and through World War I, immigration from Italy and Southern Europe to the United States escalated from half a million annually to almost five million.
The earliest Italian immigrants came through the port of New York and were largely those foresighted enough to see the impending wars in their country and affluent enough to escape them while also expanding their children's education and their international business interests. They came from the wealthy metropolitan areas in Northern Italy such as Rome, Venice, Florence, and Milan, and they settled in New York, Chicago, and the surrounding areas that offered the greatest opportunities as importers and restaurateurs, and the greatest cultural interests in opera and the fine arts.
The successive wars in Italy, however, worked the greatest hardship on the poorer people of Southern Italy and the ultimate persecution of the vanquished led many to seek survival, as much as opportunity, in the United States. For decades after the major wars in Italy, the political ripples of their aftermath sent waves of Southern Italians to American shores.
Marco Perilli, Frankie's father, was born in 1899 in a little town in Southeastern Italy named Bitritto in an area known as Bari. At the age of twelve he fought in the Italian army against the Austrians in the prelude to World War I, the battles that were immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in his book, Farewell To Arms. In those tragic and futile battles, where the Austrians were the first to use mustard gas as chemical warfare, little Marco was a bugle boy who trumpeted the call to attack, then was expected to put down his bugle and pick up his rifle with bayonet and join the haggard Italian infantry on the corpse strewn battlefield.
When his father would scream in the middle of the night, little Frankie would hear his mother console her husband, and sometimes hear his teary explanation to his mother of his nightmare; of the times after the battle when the victor would send men with clubs that contained a spike in the end with which they'd kill any wounded enemy that were still alive, or the time he retrieved a pair of boots he needed and found the remnants of the former owner's feet still in them. Coming to America was more than an escape from poverty, it was an escape from a war torn country filled with desolation and horrible memories.
At Ellis Island, the American clerks mis-spelled Perillo as Perilli, and laughed at his bell bottom trousers, even though they were a decade ahead of America's fashion evolution. His brother, Dan, had preceded him, although his parents, Francisco and Marie Perillo, would remain in Italy. Little Frankie was named after his grandfather, Francisco Perillo.
After joining the family in Chicago, Marco's brother, Dan, took him to the wake of a deceased friend. There he met Mary Gillog, who had been born Mary Gallechio, but her wise brother, Frank, had told her to change her name to Gillog because Americans couldn't spell Gallechio, much less pronounce it. Her parents were from Calabria in Southeast Italy, but Mary was born in the United States. It was unusual at that time that Mary's father, Joe Gallechio, had divorced her mother, Katie, who then had to live with her son Frank. Joe Gallechio worked for the railroad as the guy who pressed the button to lower the traffic barrier at train crossings, and he remained in the background, despite the divorce. Mary was fifteen, Marco was twenty-five, and he asked Katie for and received Mary's hand in marriage. They were married August 26, 1924.
Frankie was born on August 30, 1925 in a $15 a month third floor cold water flat on Ogden Street while kids and rats and cockroaches skipped through the halls and neighbors gossiped on the front steps. In a hospital across town, film dancer/actor Donald O'Connor was born the same day to a much more affluent successful vaudeville family. Although they both grew up in Chicago, their paths did not cross until many years later in show business when they compared notes about their diverse lives after sharing the same birth date.
The people from the Southeastern region of Italy were famous for their colorful language. Despite the fact that they peppered most sentences with cursewords, Frankie's parents raised their sons to have certain traditional manners and cultural interests. The one luxury his father, Marco, indulged in was the opera No matter how tight the money was, Marco somehow found the time and money to attend the opera regularly, and if Mary wasn't ready to leave in time for the opening, he'd leave without her.
In addition to respect for the institution of the opera, the Perilli boys were instilled with respect for their elders, mens respect for women, and, despite their rejection of God and Catholicism, a grudging respect for the clergy, particularly nuns who had the double whammy of being both women and clergy. Despite the fact that Frankie's language often got him in trouble with some of his peer's conservative parents, he was generally known as a polite child less inclined to get in trouble than most.
He also developed an early appreciation of image. It was obvious that the ladies, both the old ones who sat on their doorsteps daily and the young ones who played in the streets, seemed to like his curly hair and the dimple in his chin. When his mother bought him a sailor suit, he was well aware of the attention it garnered. After seeing the movie, Zorro, he convinced his busy mother to fashion a cape and mask for him and made himself a sword out of salvaged wood lath, and it won him an entourage of children following in the wake of his fluttering cape.
Frankie was born just after the immigration from Southern Europe waned and just before the stock market crash of 1929 that precipitated The Great Depression. The infrastructure of America's largest cities were being overwhelmed by massive immigration, and the poverty of economic depression gave rise to ghettos and gangsters. When a major city does not have adequate sanitation and police departments, ghettos are created. When an economic system has massive unemployment, crime becomes an inevitable industry.
So Frankie entertained his peers first with impressions of colorful family members and friends, then with impressions of movie gangsters such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart. But, in reality, even greater hero status was achieved by the real gangsters: Al Capone, Sam Giancana, and Machine Gun Babba. These real live anti-heros actually lived within blocks of Frankie who often interacted with them, sometimes without knowing their criminal history.
The Perillis moved frequently, first from Ogden Street because the porch roof fell, narrowly missing Mary cradling Frankie in her arms. Then they moved from Marshfield Street when the rent was raised higher than $11 a month. Then they moved from Spruce Street, later renamed Loomis Street, to escape the memories of little Joey's death. By the time Frankie entered the hospital, they had moved to Congress Street and, after his open wound took almost a year to heal, he was happy to return there.
Each time they moved on a weekend so Marco would not lose any day's work, so Mary's brothers could help, and so they could hire Potato Man's woebegone horse and wagon. Little Frankie lamented to his mother, "That poor horse, it hauls fruit and vegetables all week, then on weekends it has to haul coal and move people like us."
Mary did not look up as she unpacked boxes. "So what do you want from me. It's a horse. They're strong. That's why people say 'strong as a horse.'"
Frankie looked concerned. "But, Mama, it's back is swayed and it looks so sad. Honestly. I looked in its eyes and, I swear, I think it was crying." Mary stopped opening the box and looked at little Frankie with a sad smile. Frankie looked at her appealingly. "Mama, next time we move, let's not make that poor horse do it."
Mary's smile brightened, she blinked and said, "Okay, Frankie, next time we'll hire One Eyed Tony and his ice truck. He doesn't deliver ice on the weekend."
Frankie looked relieved. "Oh, thanks, Mama. Potato Man's horse will appreciate having a day off."
As Frankie ran out to play, Mary said to no one in particular as she continued unpacking, "If he lives long enough to enjoy it."
Playing with the other children, Frankie saw the elderly woman who lived across the street returning from the store with bags of groceries. She tripped, fell, and the groceries rolled out of the fallen bags. Frankie rushed to her, helped her up, and began returning the groceries to the bags. She looked at the other playing children who had ignored her, then at Frankie as he handed her the bags with a concerned look. "Are you okay, lady?"
She smiled at him. "What's your name, young man?"
Frankie smiled. "Frankie, Frankie Perilli. I live across the street over there."
She gestured to her door. "Bring those inside, Frankie." And Frankie obliged, admiring her ground floor apartment impressively furnished with rugs, upholstered furniture, and framed pictures on the walls. After setting the groceries in her kitchen, he watched her open her purse and hand him a dollar bill from it. "My name is Louise. Thanks for helping me, Frankie, and, maybe, you could earn more money by running errands for me. Would you like that?"
Frankie's eyes bulged as he held the dollar bill in his hand. "Yes, ma'm! Any time. You just yell for me and I'll be here." Louise smiled as Frankie ran back into the street to show his peers the windfall of his dollar reward.
Another elderly woman they'd met was their landlord, Jenny Bevalaqua and her retired husband. Jenny had brought them a loaf of her home made bread the day they moved in and Mary had brought out some jelly so they could all feast on the delicious bread. Jenny had a huge old bulldog she had named Mussolini, after the current dictator of Italy at the time. Like the bulldog, the dictator, popularly known as El Duce, had a chunky figure and large lower jaw in a pugnacious face. But Mussolini, the bulldog, was a sweet animal who bonded with Frankie as soon as the two met, although Jenny warned him that Mussolini only understood commands in Italian.
The day after the Perilli family had moved in, Jenny was hanging up washing in the back yard as Mussolini snoozed beside the laundry basket. Frankie explored the backyard, which was completely covered with concrete, finding nothing but a handful of pebbles. Frankie decided to tease Mussolini by throwing the pebbles tantalizingly close to him. Mussolini raised his head and uttered a low growl as each pebble came closer and closer. When Frankie had used all his pebbles, he walked toward Mussolini to retrieve them. As Frankie got closer and closer, picking up the pebbles, Mussolini got more and more anxious. Finally, when Frankie got too close, Mussolini charged and bit him, gripping the lower part of his face and causing blood to flow profusely. Frankie pleaded with the dog, "Stop! Stop! Don't! Don't! Leggo me you crazy fucking dog!"
Hearing the screaming, Jenny came out the back door with more laundry which, seeing Frankie struggling with the dog, she dropped. Running to the pair she screamed, "Basta, basta!" And Mussolini immediately released Frankie and slunk away.
The drama moved out to the front stoop of the house where Mary and Jenny waited with blood covered Frankie for the arrival of the doctor. Doctor Loyal Davis was an example of those people in your everyday life who will someday surprise you. His stepdaughter, Nancy, would become a film actress and marry another film actor named Ronald Reagan, who would become the 40th President of the United States. Davis, himself, would someday become Surgeon General of the United States. Similarly, Mary had a Jewish friend in the next block, Mrs. Goodman, with whom she gossiped and exchanged recipes. Mrs. Goodman's son, Benny, would eventually become a world famous musician. As a result of Mussolini biting him, Frankie would come in contact with another famous character, but whose fame was more notorious than celebrated.
By the time Doctor Davis arrived, neighbors had congregated on their stoops, including Louise McGurn across the street, to witness the surgery as Mary and Jenny held Frankie still in their iron grip while the doctor put a dozen stitches in Frankie's lower lip. Marco arrived home from work before the doctor left and the doctor asked, "Do you want me to report this? I'm supposed to, because the dog may have rabies, but, if I do, they'll probably take the dog away and destroy him."
Marco looked over at his landlady, Jenny, who stared at him fearfully. Marco closed his eyes, sighed, then looked at the doctor and said, "We have moved so many times. The Bevalaquas are good people. Doctor, can you please let this go?" Doctor Davis nodded agreement, patted Marco's shoulder, and left. Marco smiled sadly at Jenny whose face registered relief.
Frankie's blood stained clothes were changed, but the bloodstained bandages on his face made him look like a soldier fresh from the battlefield. As the Perillis and Bevalaquas sat in chairs around the front stoop, Jenny kept stopping every vendor that came down the street, first to buy Frankie an assortment of peanuts, candy, and pumpkin seeds, each item scooped from the vendor's cart into tiny little brown paper bags that sold for a nickle a bag. Marco watched Frankie chew the pumpkin seeds, shells and all, and swallow them. He frowned at Frankie. "No, no, Frankie! Donna eat the shells, too! Watch. You hold the seed in you front teeth lika dis, den you squeeza just enough to crack de shell so de seed she pop in you mout, den you spit out de shell. Now you try it." After three tries, Frankie mastered the art of eating pumpkin seeds, also known as 'pepitos.' Frankie smiled proudly as all the adults praised him.
The next vendor was Bruno the pizza man. Dressed in a chef's outfit and carrying slices of pizza in a white bucket on his head, he could be heard a block away with his sing song chant, "A pizzioala. Ten cents a slice." Jenny stopped him and ordered slices for everyone.
Suddenly a new Chrysler Coupe pulled up in front of Louise McGurn's building, the fancy kind with two tone paint, chrome spoked wheels, and a rumble seat. A handsome but angry looking young man got out and rushed into the building, only to reappear a minute later with gun in hand headed straight for the Perilli's stoop.
Bruno's eyes bulged as he exclaimed, "Que cozzo, you know who that is?"
Mary had not seen the gun in the young man's hand. "I never saw him, but he must know Mrs. McGurn."
Bruno started putting his spatula and wax papers in his bucket hurridly. "That's Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Capone's gunman who committed the Valentine\'s Day Massacre, and he don't look happy."
As Bruno made a hasty exit in the opposite direction and neighbors, who obviously recognized McGurn, started carrying their chairs indoors and vacating the street, the young man took a menacing stance ten feet in front of them. Actually, thirty year old McGurn had been born Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi in Licata, Sicily, and emigrated to the United States at the age of four. As an aspiring boxer in his teens, he had changed his name to Battlin Jack McGurn because boxers with Irish names got better bookings. Since being Capone's principal gunman in the 1929 Valentine's Day Massacre that eliminated a rival Irish gang, he was ever after known as Machine Gun Jack McGurn.
McGurn waved his automatic pistol at the group. "Where's the fucking dog that tried to kill my mother's friend?"
Everyone looked at Frankie, then they all looked at Jenny, who was breathing heavy and wide eyed. Jenny's voice quavered as she said, "Everything's okay, Mister Jack. The boy's okay. He just didn't remember that Mussolini only understands Italiano."
McGurn frowned in puzzlement. "Mussolini?"
Jenny looked at Marco for support. Marco took a deep breath and said, "The dog's name is Mussolini." He gestured to Frankie. "This is your mother's friend, Frankie, my son, and he's okay now."
Everyone looked at Frankie's face wrapped in bloodstained bandages. McGurn shook his head sideways. "He don't look okay. He looks like he just got carted off a World War battlefield." McGurn took two steps toward Jenny and pointed his gun at her. "You, where's your fucking dog? I'm gonna blow his brains out."
Mr. Bevalaqua surreptitiously side stepped away from his wife and spoke in a stage whisper. "Tell him, Jenny. Tell him." He looked at McGurn with a broad phony smile, then at his wife and spoke in a pleading voice. "Maybe Mr. Jack is right, Jenny. Maybe it's a best thing to do. We get another dog."
Jenny turned to her husband and vented her fear in anger toward him. "Shut up, you bacala." Then she turned back to McGurn with renewed courage. "Please, Mr. Jack, it no happen again. Frankie learn to speak Italiano to Mussolini."
McGurn waved the pistol in the air like a baton, gesturing as he spoke. "That fucking dog could have rabies. What if he bites my mother?" Then he looked at Frankie. "Better yet, I'll leave it to the kid." He took two steps toward Frankie, lowered his pistol, and spoke in a calm voice. "My mother likes you, kid. You decide. It's up to you."
Frankie had no understanding of who Al Capone or Jack McGurn were or what the St. Valentine's Massacre was all about. All he knew is that the adults around him were petrified with fear because of this man who wanted to kill his friend, Mussolini. Unable to speak, he burst into tears.
McGurn stood up straight and put the pistol in his belt. "Okay, I'm giving the fucking mutt another chance." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill, handing it to Frankie. "Frankie, put this in your pocket. Buy some ice cream." After Frankie accepted the bill, McGurn turned back to the group. "But, if that animal hurts this kid again, I'll bump off the dog...," and then he turned to Jenny and her husband, "...and then the owners." At this point, Mr. Belavaqua turned and ran into the house. McGurn chuckled, turned his back to the group, and shouted to the neighborhood. "To all you people who can hear me, Little Frankie, who just moved into this building, he is my little Godson. If anyone hurts him, he hurts me. Capish?" Then he removed the gun from his belt and fired a shot in the air. He turned back to Frankie and spoke normally. "I gotta go, Frankie. If you need me, ever, just tell my mother. Capish?" Then he walked to his car and drove away.
Frankie wiped his eyes and asked his father, "Papa, who is Mister Jack? A policeman?"
Marco looked at Frankie and shook his head sideways. "Police? Ooooh gotz! Madonna mio! Why did I leave the old country?"
Suddenly the Chrysler coupe reappeared in the middle of the street with screeching tires. McGurn stuck his pistol out the window and fired two shots in the air, then shouted, "Remember, Frankie is my Godson." Then the Chrysler burned rubber as it disappeared again.
Excerpted from the beginning of Chapter Eight: "Turning Points"
There are many things that determine the course of our lives. Some of us would like to believe that our lives follow the path of our pre-determined plans and goals. Indeed, there are urban legends of children who announce early in life that they intend to become movie stars or brain surgeons or presidents of nations, and, if we believe their press agents later, they do.
For some of us the acts of God or man, wars, pestilence, and mother nature's bag of natural disasters, often thwart the best laid plans of mice and men. But for most of us, sometimes with equal triumph or tragedy, sometimes for better or for worse, our paths are determined by the people who enter and exit our lives.
With the combined income from Casino Royal and Wit's End, Frankie felt secure enough to have his wife and son join him, and they got a second floor apartment on Bourbon across the street from the former Latin Quarter. Hidden on the ground floor was a bookmaking establishment, and hidden in the doorway to the bookie was a panic button to warn of any impending police raid. Little Marco made his presence known by unwittingly pressing the panic button and causing pandemonium in the bookie joint.
Later, when Dr. Lawfer learned about Frankie's family having to live in an apartment over a bookie, he offered Frankie a beautiful apartment on Madison Street in the French Quarter for ridiculously low rent. Madison Street is only one block long and therefore secluded from almost all tourist pedestrian and auto traffic, yet within a few short blocks of all the major restaurants and clubs in the quarter. The very old apartments and houses were palatial and exclusive, and many international celebrities had maintained apartments and homes there because of the luxury and privacy they afforded.
This gave promise to relieve many of the tensions the old apartment had created, not the least of which was the bookmaker on the ground floor. While in California, Julia could only guess why the money was so tight, but, once again living day to day with Frankie, his constant companionship with Shecky at the racetrack became a reality that taxed their finances and their love. Frankie denied having a habit or obsession with the 'sport' of horse betting, even when he did a benefit for the jockies at the track, and even when he played a joke on the audience at Casino Royal by having three famous jockies jump out of the huge oyster shell on the stage, instead of Evangeline the Oyster Girl.
Despite the salary from Casino Royal, the perceived profits from Wit's End, the small stipend from the entertainment column, the salary from the N.O.P.D. series, and the occasional sizeable payments for film roles, they were frequently so short of cash that Frankie would hock Julia's rings to make it through the week. When they were finally at risk of having their utilities turned off in their beautiful Madison Street apartment, Julia told Frankie that she was going to Casino Royal to pick up his paycheck that was due that day so she could personally take care of the utility bills. When she asked Casino Royal's owner, Lyle, for Frankie's check, Lyle apologetically told her that he had already given Frankie three weeks in advance and could not advance any more. Julia was stunned and embarrassed, then said in disbelief, "How can that be?"
One of the B-girls at the nearby bar looked at her compassionately and, pointing out the front window to Bourbon Street, said, "Honey, you see that bookie standing on the corner over there? You ask him how that can be."
Julia looked at the man she recognized as the bookmaker from the bookie joint on the ground floor of their old apartment, narrowed her eyes, then said angrily, "I wish that bastard would break his legs," then left the club in tears.
Three days later she started packing her bags and boxes of household items. When Frankie asked why, she opened another box to pack and said, "Frankie, I've always felt lucky that, unlike so many of the kids we grew up with, you never joined the mob, you never used drugs or became an alcoholic, and you never laid an unkind hand or me or Marco. I felt lucky to find a sweet, handsome, generous hearted man who could make me laugh and make me tremble when he whispered sweet love words in a movie star's voice."
Frankie looked confused. "Then why are you packing?"
Julia closed the box she was packing. "I've found an apartment in Meterie where Marco can finish out his school year. If you can pay off all our bills and convince me that you can control your gambling addiction, then we can talk. Otherwise, I'm taking Marco to Chicago before the beginning of the next school year."
Frankie rolled his eyes. "Oh come on, Julia. You don't have to move out." He raised his hands in supplication. "Now, here's what you do. You pick up my paycheck from Lyle every week, and from the TV series, and from the entertainment column. All I need is lunch money, and whatever it takes to keep Wit's End open."
Julia carried the box to set beside the door. "Wit's End is just your beard for the money drain. The real holes in the bottom of our pockets are that damn bookie and the betting window where you and your drunken friend, Shecky, spend more time than you spend with your wife or your son."
Frankie closed his eyes and shook his head sideways. "Julia, please." He opened his eyes as tears fell down his face. "I love you and Marco more than anything else in life."
Julia closed the last box and carried it to the door, then turned, bit her lip, and looked at him with tears in her eyes. "I know you love us, and I think you know we love you. But, more than anything in life? No! From somewhere in those mean streets of our childhood in Chicago, you fell in love with the fantasy that there was some shortcut to success, some gimmick or trick or horse with a funny name that would drop a million bucks in your lap without you having to risk your pride or your emotions on a stage or in a marriage. I signed on for the love of you, but not for the fantasy." The sound of an auto horn was heard outside. Julia looked down and spoke softly. "I'll send the cabbie up for the boxes."
As the cab driver loaded the bags and boxes in the trunk and back seat, Julia stood beside the cab and looked across the street. She inhaled suddenly in shock. Passing by the corner was the bookie the B-girl had pointed out three days before, and he was walking on crutches with a cast on his leg.
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