Joseph Epstein has got to be the best essayist in the American language today. His account of his native Chicago in the Feb. 23 issue of the Weekly Standard ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the rise and decline of great American cities.
Chicago remains a perpetual front-runner for murder capital of the U.S.A. Its reputation stretches back to the days of Al Capone and Co., when the city was almost synonymous with the Mob's rule. The Mob went by other euphemisms: the Syndicate, the Outfit, or the informal, almost friendly the Boys. But calling it the Mob made it sound as innocent as a barbershop quartet. Even if its favorite instrument was a tommy gun. Those were the days, my friends, and some thought they'd never end. But they did as surely as the basic reason for them did: Prohibition.
There is still a certain cachet in Chicagoland to having a personal connection, however tenuous, to gangster figures. They showed style even if their bodies might be found sprawled on the pavement outside a speakeasy. It was a style their brutish successors of today lack. Consider names like Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, Sam Giancana, Joseph Lombardo. They were all celebrities. It was said that when figures in the Mob showed up to play a round or two of golf at Chicago's Tam O'Shanter Country Club, the prudent unarmed citizen would do well to let them play through.
As for Jews, we found ourselves in the minority as usual, this time in the mainly Italian precincts of the Mob's hierarchy. We were assigned to clerical tasks like running numbers or taking bets as a bookie. Doing anything else could be hazardous to one's health. Joseph Epstein recounts the sad tale of Maury "Potsy" Pearl, who'd made a comfortable living selling aluminum awnings. Then he made the mistake of handling a few boxers, which led in those days to getting mixed up with the Mob, which led to his being hunted by both the FBI and a gunman known as "Milwaukee Phil" Alderisio.
Chicago used to be summed up as a city of neighborhoods because each ethnicity preferred to stick with its own, which meant that, according to Epstein, all you needed to know about a kid was where he lived, and you could deduce "his ethnic heritage, his family's income, and whether the family ate in the dining room or kitchen, his father in a collar or in his undershirt. Apart from going into the Loop to shop at Marshall Field's or Carson Pirie Scott or to Wrigley Field for a Cubs or Bears game, there was no reason to leave the friendly confines of one's neighborhood. The neighborhood contained everything--church or synagogue, schools public and parochial, shops, like-minded neighbors--one might possibly require ... Ethnicity and race was the organizing principle behind Chicago neighborhoods. Greeks, Italians, Poles, Irish, Jews all wished to live among their own, and they did so."
So ingrained was our own family's fear of anything that might prove a scandal in the eyes of the gentiles, that when a cousin showed promise--why, he even learned how to fly his own plane!--all in the clan were proud of him and wished him the best. But as fate would have it, he chose the worst course.
He used that plane to try and smuggle a load of drugs across the border. But he was apprehended as soon as he set his aircraft down in what he must have thought was an empty field. The authorities were waiting for him as soon as he landed, and arrested him promptly. They say it happens in the best of families, and they're right. It turns out that culture isn't everything; character still counts.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 03/18/2018
Print Headline: Chicago inside out