Al Capone’s first house in Chicago was just three blocks from my great aunt’s home on the South Side. My grandfather (her brother) sold undertaking supplies in Chicago around 1930, when Capone was at the peak of his career as America’s best known gangster. With killings like the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 (organized by Capone), sales to funeral parlors must have been pretty brisk.
Listening to my Grandpa talk gave me the impression that he might have preferred the life of a gangster to his life as a traveling salesman. I remember hearing about “the boys” playing the “Chicago piano” (machine gun), putting on a pair of “Chicago shoes” (cement blocks) and taking someone “out for a swim” (dumping a body) in the Chicago River. And there was some story about putting a wild paint job on an unidentified body in a mortuary…
I can’t recall ever seeing Grandpa without a shirt and tie, even if he was just hanging around home. He never left the house without a hat, and he had a new Ford at least every other year for decades. He loved going to the racetrack with our elderly neighbor Frank – isn’t that what grandfathers do? It never occurred to me to ask him to read us a story or take us fishing or go to the zoo. The movie “Sea Biscuit” startled me with its familiar portrayal of men just like my grandfather.
Grandpa was a man of few words. One part of his code was, “Loose lips sink ships,” or simply, “Don’t tell ’em too much.” I’d guess he was also the “speak softly and carry a big stick” type. Showing us how he’d face down an attacker, he would introduce one big fist as Sleeping Sickness, the other as Rigor Mortis, rehearsing how he would tell his prospective attacker to choose one. He enjoyed some of WC Fields’ jokes about children: “Go away, kid – you draw flies.” “I like children – when they’re properly cooked.” And if Grandpa was around at bedtime, he’d offer to rock us to sleep – after he found a nice, big rock.
Under big bushy eyebrows his blue eyes often had a playful twinkle. My Mom says he was the consummate salesman: he knew and understood his customers, and they took obvious pleasure in dealing with him. Mom also knew that a softer side lay beneath Grandpa’s gruff exterior. If someone told a sad story, he was the first one to tear up. After my Mom’s two year-old sister died of leukemia, Grandpa readily agreed to take the family on a spur-of-the-moment trip to California.
My grandfather loved good food – one reason he wore a size 18 collar. He was especially fond of a nice cut of beef. Before carving he would smack his lips and announce that it “made his teeth water.” Grandpa also enjoyed onions and horseradish, and ate them in quantities that made him cry. He appreciated a good knife, and would explain to us that a blade should be “so sharp you could cut your head off and not even know it until you went to shake your head.”
Grandpa was a whiz with crossword puzzles, and he and my Mom played highly competitive games of Scrabble. He possessed an uncanny knowledge of obscure words, could rack up astronomical scores on the board, and had an elegant gloat comprised of sniffing, clearing his throat, slightly shrugging his shoulders while turning his head as though his collar was too tight, and peering out from under those eyebrows. Gangsta style.
My grandparents lived in the Midwest and our family lived on the West Coast, so we didn’t see them very often. My Grandpa and Grandma had been married for 62 years when he died. I’m sorry I didn’t know him better.