Chicago 1931, at the height of The Great Depression …
“Rent’s due,” Pooch said while counting out three singles, his half of the weekly rent that included someone else dealing with their dirty laundry. “What with you and me practically family, if money’s a problem, you can pay me your share later.” He winked before adding, “With interest.”
“Like hell.” Matt Pagano eyed Pooch from where they sat at the battered table in the basement room they occupied. “Just deduct my part from the two-week deposit you still owe me. In case you forgot, it was me and me alone who paid the entire amount out of my pocket.”
Pooch backed off with an exaggerated show of upright palms. “Just yanking your chain. And not to keep harping on job opportunities, but Oscar’s still got room for one more worker. The night shift, in particular, so I can move to strictly days instead of working the second and third shift straight through. Sixteen hours be damned. The pay ain’t worth a hill of beans but one free meal comes with each eight-hour shift. Think meatloaf and taters, ham and beans, corned beef hash.” Pooch lowered his eyelids and smacked his lips. “Don’t get me wrong—Any Time’s food can’t hold a candle to what your ma and mine used to cook, but there’s enough to fill the belly of most hungry men.”
Matt’s belly rumbled in sympathetic response. True hunger he’d never known but he could feel it coming somewhere down the line if his luck didn’t change pretty soon. God knows, since coming to this once proud city, he’d seen hunger on more faces than he could begin to count. Going without an occasional meal was nothing compared to the loss of a roof over an entire family’s head or sleeping in a bug-free bed. Chicago’s homeless were making do under the Michigan Street Bridge, in cardboard shanties near the Loop and Randolph, or in Hooverville’s garbage dump at 31st and Cicero. Not even the corrupt mayor and his corrupt cronies could make the Depression poverty disappear. “How long you been shoveling garbage at Any Time Bar?” he asked Pooch.
“Ten days, give or take.”
“Enough to collect one week’s pay, right?”
“You bet. Plus occasional tips—two bits here, two bits there. It all adds up to me earning every nickel, dime, and quarter that goes in my pocket and then some. Cleaning up blood and vomit, piss and shit, tobacco juice, cigars, cigarettes, and overflowing spittoons ain’t my idea of proper employment. And don’t get me started on the toilets. I swear, women are nastier than men and that’s saying a lot. Not that I’m complaining, you understand. Between Any Time’s around-the-clock booze and betting, the job should last as long as customers keep making asses of themselves.”
“Yeah, let the good times roll,” Matt said with a stretch of arms overhead. “Let me get this straight. You want me to hire on at nights so you can at least see the mess you’d be cleaning during the daytime.”
“Something like that.”
“No thanks. I’ll keep looking.”
“Got any prospects?” Pooch asked.
“Maybe so, maybe not. It’s too soon to tell.”
“In other words, you ain’t got nothing.”
“In other words, until I got something worth talking about, it’s none of your business.”
“Okay, okay, don’t be so touchy,” Pooch said. “I just thought … well, since we’ve been buddies since third grade ….”
“Say no more. If I get a job somewhere better than Any Time, I’ll keep an eye out for you too.”
“Thanks, Matt. I really hate working there. If it wasn’t for you here with me, I’d be on the first train back to Joliet.”
Matt figured as much. “What’s the worst thing about Any Time?”
Pooch heaved a deep sigh before answering. “Not the stinking customers. Not the bartender or the cook. Not even Oscar whose bark is ten times worse than his bite. It’s that damn guy who comes in every other day to collect the take for The Big Fellow.”
“The Big Fellow—not sure I’ve heard of him,” Matt said with a straight face.
“You’d hear nothing but if you worked at Any Time. Or any other bar or restaurant or diner in Chicago. For that matter, any money maker in Chicago—underground or legit. The Big Fellow has his finger in everything. Even in the boonies south of Springfield, wherever there’s money to be made off the sweat and fear of others. I’m talking about the one and only Al Capone.”
Matt lifted his brow in mock surprise. “No kidding. Sure, I’ve heard of Capone but not in terms of The Big Fellow. What about his problems with the Internal Revenue?”
“Ain’t going away, leastways that’s what I hear at Any Time. But it’s still business as usual and when collections come due, Capone sends his bagman, the meanest no-good sonofabitch in all of Chicago.”
“This sonofabitch, he has a name?”
“Sure as hell does. Ever heard of Fingers Bellini?”
Again, Matt replied with the blank expression he picked up from Ugo Sapone. “Only in passing, what about him?”
“Well for starters, the other day he accused Any Time’s bartender of shorting Capone’s take. When Eddie denied doing such an idiotic thing, Bellini punched him in the gut, so hard he crumpled like yesterday’s Tribune. Then Bellini kicked him in the kidneys, again and again until my own started to ache so bad I threw up in the waste basket.”
“Where was Oscar?” Matt asked.
“Hiding out in the john. Didn’t I tell you Oscar’s all talk and no guts? To keep peace, the owner Terry Carmody handed Bellini two sawbucks from his own pocket, whatever it took to get Bellini out the door. As for Eddie, he got carried out that same door on a stretcher. Not sure when he’s coming back, if ever.”
“Maybe you should apply for the bartender job,” Matt said.
“I did, practically got down on my knees. But Terry gave it to this guy Billy, which made perfect sense since Terry was looking for a way out from totally supporting Billy and Billy’s widowed mom, who happens to be Terry’s sister. Family first, I get that. And since you and me are tighter than Siamese twins, I’d vouch for you, Matt. Show you the ropes if you got hired, which, on my say-so, I sure as hell know you would.”
“Like I’d need special training to clean up,” Matt said.
“More like keeping your nose out of certain things that don’t concern you.”
“I’ll think on it.”
End of excerpt.