My father was a good fella

Rudy Winston hung out with tough guys and showgirls, and was `a good man to know' in Al Capone's Chicago. The novelist Barry Gifford recalls his father's warm but intermittent presence
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If my father were alive today, he would be 86 years old. A few years ago, my son Asa and I visited his grave in Chicago for the first time. He's buried in a plot owned by his sister and brother-in-law, on the far west side of the city.

We found his stone easily. I was immediately surprised that the year of my father's birth, engraved on the marble slab, was one year earlier than I had understood it to be. Also, I had never known his precise birth date before - 13 August. Neither of his wives could remember it. When I asked my mother, she told me, "I think maybe in September, possibly August. It was a warm month."

I realised long ago that, if forced to choose between revelation and mystery, I'll take mystery every time. Revelations solve very little; they serve only to preclude further thought, whereas mysteries continue to force speculation. The object, I concluded, is to encourage invention, not reduce possibilities.

My son and I stood there, 35 years after my father's death, on a midsummer's day, and }I thought of Blind Lemon Jefferson's lyric: "If there's one kind favour I'd ask of you, it's to see that my grave is kept clean." At least now we knew exactly when he'd been born. I picked up two small stones, handed one to Asa, and told him to kiss it and place it on top of the headstone, which he did. This was a Jewish custom, I said, although I don't know how or from what occasion I could have remembered it.

"I wish you could have met your grandchildren, Dad," I said. I kissed my stone and placed it next to my son's. "And I wish you could have met me, too."

I was seven years old in June of 1954 when my dad and I drove from Miami to New Orleans to visit his friend Albert Thibodeaux. It was a cloudy, humid morning when we rolled into town in my dad's powder blue Cadillac. The river smell mixed with malt from the Jax brewery and the smoke from my dad's chain of Lucky Strikes to give the air an odour of toasted heat. We parked the car by Jackson Square and walked over a block to Tujague's bar to meet Albert. "It feels like it's going to rain," I said to Dad. "It always feels like this in New Orleans," he said.

Albert Thibodeaux was a gambler. In the evenings, he presided over cockfights and pit-bull matches across the river in Gretna or Algiers, but during the day he hung out at Tujague's on Decatur Street with the railroad men and phoney artists from the Quarter. He and my dad knew each other from the old days in Cuba, which I knew nothing about, except that they'd both lived at the Nacional in Havana.

According to Nanny, my mother's mother, my dad didn't even speak to me until I was five years old. He apparently didn't consider a child capable of understanding him or a friendship worth cultivating until that age, and he may have been correct in his judgement. I certainly never felt deprived as a result of this policy. If my grandmother hadn't told me about it, I would have never known the difference.

My dad never really told me about what he did or had done before I was old enough to go around with him. I picked up information as I went, listening to guys like Albert and some of my dad's other friends, like Willie Nero in Chicago and Dummy Fish in New York. We supposedly lived in Chicago, but my dad had places in Miami, New York and Acapulco. We travelled, mostly without my mother, who stayed at the house in Chicago and went to church a lot. Once, I asked my dad if we were any particular religion and he said, "Your mother's a Catholic."

Albert was a short, fat man with a handlebar moustache. He looked like a Maxwell Street organ-grinder, without the organ or the monkey. He and my dad drank Irish whiskey from 10am until lunchtime, which was around 1.30pm, when they sent me down to the Central Grocery on Decatur or to Johnny's on St Louis Street for muffaletas. I brought back three of them but Albert and Dad didn't eat theirs. They just talked and, once in a while, Albert went into the back to make a phone call. They got along just fine, and about once an hour Albert would ask if I wanted something, like a Barq's or a Delaware Punch, and Dad would rub my shoulder and say to Albert, "He's a real piece of meat, this boy." Then Albert would grin so that his moustache covered the front of his nose and say, "He is, Rudy. You don't want to worry about him."

When Dad and I were in New York one night, I heard him talking in a loud voice to Dummy Fish in the lobby of the Waldorf. I was sitting in a big leather chair between a sand-filled ashtray and a potted palm, and Dad came over and told me that Dummy would take me upstairs to our room. I should go to sleep, he said; he'd be back late. In the elevator, I looked at Dummy and saw that he was sweating. It was December, but water ran down from his temples to his chin.

"Does my dad have a job?" I asked Dummy. "Sure he does," he said. "Of course. Your dad has to work, just like everybody else." "What is it?" I asked. Dummy wiped the sweat from his face with a white-and-blue chequered handkerchief. "He talks to people," Dummy told me. "Your dad is a great talker."

Dad and Albert talked right past lunchtime, and I must have fallen asleep on the bar because, when I woke up, it was dark out and I was in the back seat of the car. We were driving across the Huey P Long Bridge, and a freight train was running along the tracks over our heads. "How about some Italian oysters, son?" my dad asked. "We'll stop up here in Houma and get some cold beer and dinner." We were cruising in the passing lane in the powder-blue Caddy over the big brown river. Through the bridge railings I watched the barge lights twinkle as they inched ahead through the water.

"Albert's a businessman, the best kind." Dad lit a fresh Lucky from an old one and threw the butt out the window. "He's a good man to know, remember that."

One typically blazing, hot and muggy afternoon in the summer of 1959, when I was twelve-and-a-half years old, my pal Vinnie and I wandered up to the A-rab's drugstore on 30th Street in Tampa, Florida, to get a Dr Pepper and browse through the skin magazines and cheap paperbacks that the A-rab stocked in rotating wire racks next to the soda fountain.

I'd nicknamed the drugstore owner the A-rab because he had a scimitar- shaped proboscis and often wore a white towel over his head to absorb the sweat. At first, I liked to imagine that the A-rab had fled Riyadh or Abu Dhabi in order to escape decapitation for having violated some powerful sheikh's favourite daughter. He certainly looked the type; but after having gotten to know him as well as I did, it seemed more likely for him to have violated the sheikh's favourite camel. In reality, the A-rab was a Jew from New Jersey who, like most snowbirds, couldn't take the bad weather anymore. He was a weird bird, though, with a really bizarre, sick sense of humour. I once named a pet alligator after him.

Vinnie and I often walked up to the A-rab's place to relieve the boredom of those long, unbearably humid days. We liked to sip our Dr Peppers and read passages to each other from such immortal sleazeball paperback classics as Sin Doll by Orrie Hitt, and Four Boys, a Girl and a Gun by Willard Weiner.

On this particular afternoon, however, after first having been greeted by the A-rab in his usual genteel fashion ("Hey, kid, know why God invented women?" "No, why?" "Sheep couldn't do the dishes."), Vinnie or I plucked from the rack a faded-blue, Gold Medal novel by a man named Jim Thompson entitled The Killer Inside Me. "It was too bad about Joyce Lakeland," began a quote from the first inside page of the book. "If only she hadn't loved it when I beat her, the whole trouble wouldn't have started." Obviously, Vinnie and I agreed, we had stumbled onto something a little bit over the border from Sin Doll. This Jim Thompson sounded like the A-rab's kind of guy.

We killed the afternoon hanging out at the A-rab's, reading the Thompson novel. It turned out to be a strange, unforgettable book about a small- town southern sheriff named Lou Ford who specialised in boring people to death before actually murdering a number of them. Ford's peculiar weapon was the platitude, cliches repeated over and over ("every cloud has a silver lining") while his victims, too frightened of Ford to run or rebuke, writhed in mute agony.

Walking home, Vinnie said something that startled me: "Your dad was a killer, wasn't he?" "What do you mean?" I asked angrily. "Why would you think that?" "Oh, just something I overheard your uncle say to your mother one day." "What was it?" "He was talking about Chicago," said Vinnie, "and why he left. `You've got to be able to take care of somebody that needs taking care of', he said. `Rudy knew how to handle that kind of stuff, not me'. Something like that."

We walked the rest of the way without talking and, after Vinnie turned off to go to his house, I cut through the old boatyard to the river. I sat on the pier where earlier that summer my uncle had skinned the hide off an alligator some cracker had shot for table meat, and dangled my legs above the water. I thought about how my dad was dead now and I couldn't ask him if he'd killed anybody. Nobody else could know for sure about something like that, I figured. Nobody could ever know for sure.

My father was Jewish and, soon after his funeral, my mother was approached by my father's family, who told her that the least she could do was to have me bar mitzvahed. "For Rudolph's sake," Esther, my father's sister, said. "He would have wanted his son to be bar mitzvahed."

She knew as well as I and my mother that Rudolph had not been at all religious. In fact, he had almost been ostracised by his family for marrying my mother, a Catholic. The marriage had not worked out because of family interference, mainly by my mother's mother, who didn't want her 22-year- old daughter (my father was 15 years older) running around with gangsters.

That part of it was true. My father ran an all-night liquor store on the corner of Chicago and Rush, next door to the Club Alabam, where I used to watch the showgirls rehearse on Saturday afternoons. I often ate breakfast at the small lunch counter in the store, dunking doughnuts with the organ-grinder's monkey. Big redheaded Louise ran the counter and fed me milk shakes while I waited for my dad. The place was a drop joint for stolen goods, dope, whatever somebody wanted to stash for a while. The story was that you could get anything at the store, day or night. I used to see my dad giving guys penicillin shots in the basement, and I remember my mother throwing a fit when I was four years old sitting at three in the morning on a bundle of newspapers playing with a gun Bill Moore, a private cop, had given me to look at.

This kind of thing spooked my mother. My dad wore black shirts and gold ties, spoke with "dese" and "dose", and was famous for knocking guys through plate-glass windows. He'd done it twice - once in the newspaper the next day he'd been described as "that well-known man-about-town". Al Capone's brother, who was then using the name White, would come into the store often, as well as movie star Dorothy Lamour, ex-middleweight champ Tony Zale (who had a restaurant across the street - he used to show me the gloves from his matches), and whoever else was in town. We lived on Chestnut Street, next to the lake, in the Seneca Hotel, which was later described to me as containing "the lobby of the men with no last names".

My grandmother's fears were not unfounded. At one point, while my mother and father were vacationing in Hawaii, my dad received a phone call telling him somebody had been shot and that it would be best for them to extend their holiday. That was the first six-month absence of which I was aware. Later, my parents spent a few months as the guest of Johnny Reata in Jamaica during another cooling-off period. Reata, my mother told me, had made his money running guns to Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

While my mother, being a former University of Texas beauty queen, enjoyed the high-life aspects of being married to my father, the hoodlum end of it, plus the great influence her mother had over her, forced her to leave him, and I moved with her to the far North Side of the city. I continued to see my dad regularly until he died, and at no time did he ever so much as point out to me what a synagogue looked like, let alone tell me that he wanted me to be bar mitzvahed.

For some reason, my mother allowed herself to be influenced by my aunt Esther and my dad's brother, Bruno, both of whom were hypocritical Jews. Neither they, nor my uncle Joel, Esther's husband, who also interceded on my deceased father's behalf, and who once told me, looking me straight in the eye, that deep down inside 95 per cent of the Gentiles hate the Jews and could not be trusted - including me, he meant, because of my mother - went to the synagogue, except for High Holiday services; social appearances. They were stingy, mean, conniving people who had always been envious of my mother's good looks and power over my father, resenting the fact that my father had ever married her.

What made it so important that I be bar mitzvahed, they told my mother, was that I was the first son in the family. Both Bruno and Esther had had two girls apiece. I was the first one eligible to carry on the family name and tradition. And my father's father, the old man, my grandfather Ezra, who used to run numbers from his candy stand under the Addison Street el, was still alive. For his sake, before he passed away, they whined to my mother, I should be bar mitzvahed.

So my mother was persuaded. Her mother had died a few years before so there was no one to whom she could go for advice. I had to take Hebrew lessons. Three days a week after school, I would sit with a little man who smelled of smoked fish, who spoke almost no English, and memorise words I did not understand. I also went to the synagogue each Saturday morning for nearly a year after my father died to say a prayer for him. My father's family insisted that I go, even though I had never been inside a synagogue before in my life. This was necessary, it was a son's duty, they explained, and my mother reluctantly acceded to their wishes. So on Saturdays I stood at the back of the temple, put on a black skullcap and recited a prayer written in English next to the Hebrew on a little pink card.

As the bar mitzvah day came closer, I thought more and more about it, about why I was having to do this. Several times, I told my mother I wouldn't go to Hebrew lessons anymore. None of it made sense to me; it was stupid, the whole thing was ridiculous.

She knew I was right, but she told me to go through with it. "For your father's sake," she said. "My father's dead," I told her. "It doesn't matter to him, and it wouldn't matter to him if he were alive."

But she said to finish it, then the debt to the family would be paid. This reasoning escaped me. I didn't see what we owed to them in the first place. But I stuck it out and vowed that it really would be the end of it, that no one would ever make me do anything again.

After the bar mitzvah, which ritual I performed like an automaton, mouthing the lines as if I weren't really there, weren't the one doing it at all, I did not see a member of my father's family - except briefly, when my grandfather died - for seven years.

Passing through town those seven years later, I went to see my dad's brother. Like my father, Uncle Bruno was a strong- willed, stubborn man. He had done well financially and kept his large, brown brick house locked up like a fortress. When he saw me through the front-door window, he motioned for me to come around the back way. "Too many bolts to undo in the front," he explained, as he and his wife admitted me through the rear entrance. They expressed their surprise at my being there; they hadn't recognised me right away. I told them I'd just come by to say hello, that was all.

Uncle Bruno insisted that I eat with them, they were just sitting down to dinner, which I did, and tell them what I'd been doing the past few years. I gave them a brief history, after which Uncle Bruno asked me if I'd come to see him about a job, or did I need money?

"I don't need any money," I told him, "and I have a job. I'm a writer," I said. My uncle looked annoyed and got up and walked into the living room and sat down. I followed him in and stood by the window. "Why did you come here then, if you don't need any money?" he asked.

"Out of curiosity," I said. Bruno lit a cigar. "Curious about what?" he said.

"Do you think things would have been different with me had my father lived?" I asked. "Of course they would," Bruno said. "You would have been a doctor or a lawyer or a pharmacist. Something important."

I knew it bothered Uncle Bruno that I didn't want any money, or anything else, from him. It would have bothered him had I asked for something, but at least then he would have had the satisfaction of being right.

"Then I'm glad he died when he did," I said, "before we had any trouble about it."

"Being a Jew means nothing to you, does it?" said Uncle Bruno. "You're one of your mother's people."

I realised I had no reason to be there, that I should never have come. I put on my jacket.

"What did you expect?" I said, and left.

Extracted from `The Phantom Father', published in America by Harcourt Brace, 15 East 26 Street, New York NY 10010

John Dillinger aide begins 1 to 10 years in prison

Chicago, 14 Dec, 1945 - Samuel "Dummy" Fish, 42, said to have been a contact for the gang headed by the late John Dillinger, was taken to Stateville Prison yesterday to begin serving a 1- to 10-year term imposed in Criminal Court 26, Nov. 1942, upon his conviction on a charge of receiving stolen property. He was convicted of receiving $3,000 worth of stolen furs.

Rudolf A Winston, of Chicago, arrested with Fish, was convicted as being an accessory to the crime and given a suspended sentence of 1 year.

Find body in car on West Side

Chicago, 13 July, 1946 - Gangland guns barked death here again today in what police called a burst of violence in the liquor black market.

The victim was Arnold "Suitcase Solly" Banks, 30, of 1300 Marine Drive, whiskey salesman and suspected operator in a liquor black market flourishing between Chicago and New York.

Banks's body, a bullet hole in his head, was found behind the wheel of his 1942 maroon Mercury sedan at 6.40am. The motor was still running and the radiator was boiling.

Deputy Chief of Detectives Arthur Grant said: "There is a general belief that Banks was slain because others thought he had squealed, or was getting ready to squeal, about the black market."

Banks's pockets had been emptied of everything, and his wristwatch was missing. Three quarters lay on the seat, all that remained of the $1,000 he had collected earlier from Rudolph A Winston, the propriety of Lake Shore Liquor Store, Rush Street.

The victim's wife, Arlene, 26, former professional dancer at Colosimo's and other nightclubs, became hysterical when she learned of the killing. She refused to view the body.

"Suitcase Solly" went into the liquor business in 1941 as a salesman for the Blue Seal Liquor Co, a business, police said, owned and operated by Capone mob big shot Willie "the Hero" Nero. Nero is known to have been a beer boss during Prohibition days.

Banks is reputed to have gained his nickname of "Suitcase Solly" due to his having carried large amounts of cash from one location to another for the mob.

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