As a teenager, I was the school ringleader. Loved and feared. Loathed and respected. My role model was Charlie Chaplin. Just kidding! My idol, the man who made me shudder, who haunted my dreams, was Al Capone.
Romantic comedies didn’t do anything for me. I hoarded books and movies about Capone, and my bedroom walls were lined with his best photos: Al fishing, Al at a baseball game, Al smoking a cigar, Al in a bathing suit, Al with his gang. Above my bed hung a portrait of Al at his most handsome, sporting his white Panama hat, a three-piece suit, and a striped necktie. He gazed at me with his light, twinkling eyes that seemed to laugh, even though he wasn’t smiling. Such a baby face!
And so it was that years later, when I moved to Chicago, I obviously had to retrace my mentor’s steps.
What a disappointment to discover that the Lexington Hotel, where he kept his offices, had been demolished. Sacrilege.
My eyes filled with tears, but I kept my dignity as I stood before the small parking lot that had taken the place of the garage where the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre went down.
And I was happy again, at the Green Mill on North Broadway. This legendary spot, known the world over by jazz lovers, had seen the salad days of Al Capone’s gang, especially Jack McGurn, alias Machine Gun, who managed the club. Machine Gun was the alleged mastermind of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The circle was closed.
“You talkin’ to me?” Mr. De Niro, the question is surprising, because even when asked nicely, even when asked with a smile, the hint of violence is there.
But to my surprise, I found myself asking that very question that night at the Green Mill, in my halting English…and then I met my gangster.
He smiled at me, placed the card of a local restaurant on the table, and, in a quiet voice, invited me to join him there next Thursday.
I miss the evenings at the restaurant in Little Italy. Coolly going inside, smiling at the customers—always plenty of regulars—walking over to the private room, being welcomed by hugs so tight I can’t catch my breath. Sitting by my gangster, picking out a wine, patiently awaiting a plate of ziti, knowing that the man posted at the other end of the room is watching over us.
Then doing a little group therapy, listening to these hardened men, these uncommon men, men who all their lives have walked a line between morality, a code of honor, and…you know the rest.
Listening to the memories, understanding the silences, shuddering at the outcomes.
Starting at an unexpected sound…then remembering that everyone has their finger on the trigger.
Keeping an eye on the nephew, the hot-headed nephew, the one who takes everything literally. If you tell him to get the door…he’ll go get it.
In any case, he has a problem with doors: he hates being followed too close when he walks into the restaurant. You have no idea how many men are walking around the neighborhood with bloody noses.
Listening to the partner, always smiling, always so polite—too polite—with a record as long as his arm and a value judgment for everyone. I like to remind him that he is no better than us, and he doesn’t take offense. On the contrary, in a nod to his Sicilian origins, he pinches my cheek with a paternal “Aren’t you brave.”
Admitting that I’m not in therapy for my anger management problem and hearing my gangster counsel me to be polite in all circumstances, then, after a pause, remind me that nobody should get too comfortable with the idea of disrespecting me either.
Looking one by one at the three men at the table, with their habitual smiles, then going from laughter to tears as I realize I will never be alone again. Surrounded, encouraged, protected.
Understanding loyalty, forgetting the names of some people who don’t matter anymore, but knowing that I will never forget the name of the man who lent me a hand.
Finally, leaving the restaurant, but never at the same time, never in the same direction, for habits are to be eschewed…except for dinner Thursday night.
And realizing, Mr. Robert De Niro, that “Life rarely changes you totally but it consistently changes you in details.”