Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tales of a Street Aristocrat and a Hustler's Dynasty : A Memoir

As I progressed through my Senior year at college my mother urged to me to tell my menotor Doc of my family history. "It is a rather important element of Black History," she said. But I hesitated and procrastinated and shook with fear at the thought of it. After all, adolescents want nothing more than to fit in and to be part of the crowd. Even adolescents who go out of their way for attention by adopting the newest fashion trends, speaking in coded language and incomprehensible slang are still working overtime to fit in with their own chosen gang of peers.

As a child, then as an adolescent, and into my young adulthood as I finally trudged unwillingly to my mentor's office to "out" myself, in a manner of speaking, the one question I dreaded more than anything from friends  -- or worse, from friends' parents -- was "What does your family do?" That question always means Where does your money come from? What is your social class? It is a coded reference that allows us to categorize one another, to draw conclusions about one's lifestyle. Even though race in America is so oversimplified that it becomes entirely complex and fraught with drama   still cultural and ethnic affiliation are the short-hand definitions that we rely upon as quick reference self-definition. Having attended chi-chi private schools all my life I was adept at talking in these codes and quick to understand true meaning when questions were being asked of me, even if the language was polite and innocent seeming. I was fluent in offering up truthful, satisfying and convincing answers to all questions without revealing the entire story. And by the time I was old enough to participate in coded language anyway my family had become part of that legitimate social class with all the trappings to my family history.

My grandfather, Claude Caldwell -- my mother's father -- was a professional gambler. He was not some petty card sharp, mind you, nor some back alley craps shooter. My grandfather presided over a large racket of underground lotteries that were so popular and profitable that the state eventually followed suit  in the 1990s and legalized a state lottery in order to avail itself of the large profits, despite the fact that informal "pea shake" lotteries had been thriving for over a century.The state thought that its own legalized lottery would supplant the underground rackets but of course government officials are never known for prescience or common sense: true gamblers don't abandon their own tried and true games but they will happily avail themselves of new ones. After all, luck is luck and luck doesn't discriminate. Folks who like to gamble are a superstitious lot who place immense importance on routine and fierce loyalty to their chosen recreational games. The state officials were never able to end the underground lotteries as they had hoped but they did discover that their own profit potential was by no means endangered; if anything the two parallel institutions flourished  and everyone prospered accordingly.

My grandfather -- whom I called Grandpoppy -- operated his own little fiefdom on the East side of the city complete with multiple locations for  his gambling "houses." These places were never fancy, merely functional. His flagship pea shake house was a large-ish cinder-block warehouse that was converted on the inside to a make-shift bank. Keep in mind, however, this was no fancy steel, marble and oak decorated establishment; I use the terms "bank" and "lobby" merely to give you a picture of the pea shake environs. Any person driving by this establishment would never notice the building, it was so drab and non-descript. There was nothing about Grandpoppy's pea shake houses that would attract attention from law-enforcement or strangers; if you knew what the place was it was because you spent a lot of time there writing numbers and waiting for the "shake" to come out to see if you won.

There was a counter that wrapped itself around three sides of the outer "lobby"  behind which eight to ten employees waited to write your numbers down on little carbon papers much like bank receipts. Hidden behind the counter and its workers, and nearly un-noticeable was a door that led to Grandpoppy's office where he held court at very large and exquisitely made dark wood desk. This was where he sat from 6am to late evening counting up the day's take, paying out the winning numbers - called "hits" - providing cash to each of his tellers - called "pea shake writers" -so that they could to make change as people paid to place their bets. Grandpoppy owned and operated  numerous  taverns, restaurants, saloons, "variety stores" -- bodegas - and pea shake houses. He managed a great many businesses, and many employees from behind that desk.

As a young man he developed polyps on his vocal cords and ever after his voice sound like he had swallowed burning gravel and crushed glass. He had a deep voice to begin with but the gritty, whispery-growl in which he spoke always made me cautious around him when I was very small. I can remember visiting him at one of his variety stores with my mother when I was about four and my baby brother had only just begun to walk. The display at the counter featured all kinds of colorful and delicious looking candy to tempt children as well as grown-folks. So I asked Maude the manager of the store if I could have some candy and Maude said "You have to ask your granddaddy." (She was teasing me because she knew I got  a fright out of asking my grandfather for anything but at four years old I didn't know she was teasing!!)

"Gran'poppy can I have some candy please?" I asked.

"NAW YOU CAN"T HAVE NO CANDY!!" he growled. " Where's your money at?!". My eyes went big as saucers and I stood rooted to the ground in terror. The adults burst into gleeful laughter like it was the funniest thing they ever heard. He did eventually prepare me a little bag of candy but I must admit that I still resent that whole episode. You had to HEAR my grandfather's voice to believe it. No Hollywood villain has ever sounded so menacing and venomous.

There were a lot of strange characters around any of my grandfather's establishments. One man, called Door Shaker, Grandpoppy paid as a janitor to sweep and clean up the place. Grandpoppy was very strict about keep his properties neat. I never once heard Door Shaker talk but he wasn't mute. He would go about his work quietly and diligently. Yet every two minutes or so he would stop abruptly which prompted anyone watching to freeze as well to catch a glimpse of what it was that had seized his careful attention which must be something to note, if one judged by  Door Shaker's enraptured attention.  He would approach the object - a door handle, or fence post, or thecrack in the wall and begin to shake, wriggle, adjust  the door handle or fence post, or loose brick with intent focus. After a few moments of this wriggling, adjusting, knocking, jiggling he would stop abruptly and continue his task of sweeping and cleaning. Moments later he would become distracted again by some other object and repeat the process.

One day -- I don't think I was more than ten years old -- I noticed Door Shaker for the first time and observed him perform this ritual over and over again. It made me feel uneasy and a little bit frightened on the inside. I tugged my mother's arm and pointed him out.  "Who is that man?" I asked, interrupting her conversation with another adult..

"That's Door Shaker. You know Door Shaker," she said and went back to her discussion. Eventually I managed to find out Door Shaker's story from my grandfather. Door Shaker had been to prison and had served many years. I don't recall his crime but I believe it may have been murder. On the inside he had been punished with many years of solitary confinement despite severe claustrophobia. "He's always shaking the door, looking for a way out of his prison cell," Grandpoppy said

My brother and I weren't legally allowed to go inside the pea shake houses because we were underage and my grandfather strictly enforced this rule. But he made an exception for the flagship establishment on 15th Street where we visited him at  his office. Illegal gambling racketeer though he was, you would be hard pressed to find a more law-abiding citizen than my grandfather. No liquor or drugs were allowed on his premises at all. And besides he owned bars so that patrons who needed a little taste of liquor as they contemplated what numbers they wished to play could go to The Canvas Lounge or the Wonder Bar to write their numbers.

Now The Wonder Bar earned its name  by the legendary characters who were its clientele. For a short time, my father managed The Wonder Bar when  my parents from Chicago, which was my Dad's hometown and my birth place, to Indianapolis which of course was my mother's hometown. To this day there are people of a certain age who can testify to the Wonder Bar's idiosyncrasies.  Simply put, the place was so wild and utterly dangerous that my mother was forbidden to ever go there. She did get to see it one time, accompanied by her father and husband, at mid-day before it opened. It's tempting to explain away tales of The Wonder Bar as exaggeration but there are far too many people with their own unique tales of  wild nights and wilder customers. The cops shut it down in the late 70s after one too many stabbing occurred there.

There was one  particularly strict  rule of courtesy  that my brother and I learned  to observe   -- as  my mother had as well when she was a child -- when we visited Grandpoppy no matter which establishment be it his variety stores or restaurants or the 15th Street pea shake house: Be Courteous Be Polite Be Friendly No Matter What. All of Grandpoppy's business were in the inner city. We were suburban kids. And some of the characters who frequented his establishments were strange and scary folks,  no doubt about it.

 For instance, Wally, the man who answered the phones at 15th Street, was a gentle and soft-spoken man who had killed five people. (Ed. Note: On one occasion my mother had the chance to see his full name spelled out on his driver's license and the printed name was WILEY. However when spoken with a slight Southern drawl and slur of the tongue it was pronounced by one and all, including himself, as WALLY.)   One of the people he killed had been his wife. He served 15 years in prison and upon his release married the murdered wife's sister. "But them other ones was self-defense," he said mildly, regarding the other people whom he dispatched.

Another man, Melvin, rented one of my mother's properties. He was about her age and reasonably attractive and he always liked to talk and flirt with Mom. "I wonder if he's single,"she said every month when she came by to pick up the rent check.

One Saturday, Mom, my brother and I were watching the 11 o'clock news and sort of half-drifting off to sleep when the news anchor said that two women had been killed in a local nightclub. A man, Melvin Thomas, entered the club with a sawed off shotgun and opened fire. One of the victims, who  had been shot at point-blank range, was  his ex-wife.

Underground economies are peopled by folks who would stick out like a sore thumb in the mainstream world yet nevertheless those people have stories, lives, families and hopes and  dreams just like normal straight citzens.  And yes sometimes there were some scary characters around. But no matter how scary someone looked  or sounded - like my grandfather!! -- or smelled, we were expected to treat everyone  politely, to look a person  in the eye, to speak when spoken to.

But the truth was that being Claude Caldwell's family meant that we were treated very kindly and  looked out for us by people we didn't even know.

A janitor at my brother's school, a black woman, noticed him one day and said, "You look familiar. I know you from somewhere." They both took a moment each assessing the other. Cautiously he said finally, "Do you pull tickets at Claude Caldwell's 15th Street pea shake?"

"Yeah! Boy what you know about that?" the woman said.

"Because he's my grandfather!" he told her, the revelation causing them both an hysterical laughing fit. That woman looked out for him at school after that. She was even able to recover his favorite jacket when it was stolen by another kid.

There was a sense of community in that world of pea shake house and variety stores and soul-food restaurants that has long since disappeared. There was never more than two to three degrees separation from anyone in the city regardless of race, and my grandfather's  name was like a password that built bridges across the distance to complete strangers. "Is that your granddaddy? I been knowing Claude a hundred years!!" people said to us all the time. And that was the thing, my grandfather knew everybody in town. Sometimes we would ask "Grandpoppy do you know so-and-so?" just to watch him think and then hear the tale of how he was acquainted with that person, even if just by reputation. My grandfather and his pea shake houses were a fraternity of extended family. He knew the stories behind people's superficial facades.

If the pea shake houses were my grandfather's fiefdom then my grandparents were its Lord and Lady. Their   love affair was nearly a mythical legend. Accordingly so, my grandmother Laura, was as beautiful as a Lady of the Manner should be.She didn't merely inspire double takes or even triple takes, she inspired people to stop and approach her to say "You are so beautiful." Even into her old age, as she lay dying at 92 the nurses told us that she had been the most popular resident and had more than one gentleman caller at the nursing home. "She's so beautiful," a nurse whispered as she slept. She had the inner aura that emphasized and enhanced her physical features.

Laura and Claude met at a house party in 1936. For Grandpoppy -- he was merely Claude at that time and I didn't exist at all -- it was love at first sight. But the house was crowded and despite his efforts he never got a chance to talk to her. For weeks he walked around the neighborhood and up and down Indiana Avenue trying to find her again.. He stopped random women at bus-stops and accosted others inside stores and on the street saying "Excuse me are you Laura?"   only to realize too late, once the woman turned to face him that the highly offended stranger whom he had just hounded was indeed NOT the vanished beauty whom he restlessly and relentlessly sought. It got to the point that his sisters and friends mocked him regularly for about his obsession.    

After weeks of asking everyone he knew, of chasing down every woman he saw who looked similar, finally someone  recognized the description of this fantasy beauty and told him, "Yeah she live over 'bout a few blocks from the Avenue." But his ordeal was not over yet:: he still had to convince her to go out with him.

In courting my grandmother he was as methodical and precise as he was in any business matter. Claude was a persuasive, dynamic  and charismatic personality with an outrageous sense of humor as well. By the end of the first date  he knew he was in love.

 The next evening he returned to the house where she lived with her mother and sister bearing a special gift. He had to bring a friend along to help him because it was very large, heavy and quite expensive as well: a brand spanking new RCA entertainment  console, one of those impossibly large cabinet units complete with radio and record player. Mind you this was before television.

My grandmother had graduated Valedictorian of her small, segregated Kentucky high-school and went on to study at Kentucky State Normal School, an all-girl's historically black college that is now Western Kentucky University. She majored in Education but the Great Depression put tremendous pressure on her mother and sister who supported her and she dropped out after two years. She returned home to Indianapolis and found employment as a domestic servant, or working "private family" as she always referred to it. This beautiful and brilliant young woman who had been the number one ranked student of her year at Kentucky State had now become The Help.

My mother and brother and I often teased her and quizzed her about her initial reaction to Claude, particularly in regard to his showing up at her house with a hugely expensive gift. All this from a man who was practically a stranger? Shouldn't this have been a very clear indication that this dude was a baller?

But to ask this question or any questions of those two people about their love affair was to confront a delicate situation. They were devoted to one another in very deep and complex manners. Their relationship was an intense life-long love affair that they conducted without regard to obstacles, in spite of judgments from others, the world be damned.

Claude and Laura married in 1938. They divorced in 1947. They re-married in 1949. Their only child, Patricia, my mother was born in 1951. Claude and Laura divorced for the second and final time in 1955 due in large part to his philandering, an activity he engaged in order to exact revenge as payback for some hurtful slight by Laura. But whoring was my grandmother's deal-breaker and so they ended the marriage again.

However it is a known and accepted fact that if the circumstances had allowed then they would have married a third time. The end of the marriage(s) had little to do with the love that existed between them; my grandparents were soul mates.

Mind you,  Claude had been married twice prior to his (first) marriage to Laura, making her his third wife. Following their first divorce Claude married on the rebound to make my grandmother jealous. Apparently it worked because soon Nanny and Grandpoppy were seen sneaking in and out of each other's houses again at dusk and dawn.

 So let's recap:  this formerly married couple cheated with each other, thereby betraying their new lovers (neither Claude nor Laura had been much "into" the new lovers anyway.).    My grandmother's lover and my grandfather's Rebound Wife (whose name I have never known) were merely beards used to provoke jealousy and force the Ex-wife/husband to come back. A tactic which proved to be a successful strategy and achieved their reunion.

Claude divorced the Rebound Wife who had been used as a pawn in the gladiator bloodsport between them and re-married Laura. My grandmother has the dubious honor of being my grandfather's third  and fifth wife.

How did my grandmother deal with   his unusual profession as a gambling racketeer? Good question!!In fact when they were together he hadn't yet become a lawless man. During WWII he worked in CCC camp and after the war he worked at Chrysler  pouring molten steel. My mother tells stories of how he would come home with horrible, ghastly burns and injuries. Back in those days the assembly line was still segregated and the dirties, hardest, most dangerous and unpleasant labor went to blacks. He worked for Chrysler for 30 years in fact.

Claude was recruited into the numbers and peak shake business by the Jewish gangster Tuffy Mitchell. Ultimately the main reason that Grandpoppy stayed at Chrysler, even after he no longer needed the income was that he built up his clientele from his work mates. He gained a reputation as a fair and honest numbers man who could be counted on to pay up on winning bets without cheating people. This street credibility is every bit as critical as one's credit score is today however unlike the shady world of white collar bank credit stealing, cheating, robbing and lying are punished decisively.

A man's reputation is the coin of the realm and there is no equivocation tolerated. Just as we children were expected to behave and be polite and friendly to scary people and strangers be they janitors, or murderers in the underground economy business is business as long as your money is green. One's attitude and fair dealing are the traits that others will know you by. It is the consistency and quality of your that constitute your reputation, not where you went to school or what car you drive or who your parents are.

When Tuffy Mitchell had a heart attack, keeled over on top of a pool table and died in the 60s it was Claude Caldwell who had been groomed as Tuffy's successor to Tuffy; and Claude took the reigns of the pea shake business, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another . By that time he was well known and trusted and so the transfer of power was smooth. One critical point that must be kept in mind is that the underground economy of today's world which is dominated by guns and drugs is not at all familiar or similar to  the rules and customs of that world;  that is long gone which belongs to the distant past.

Drugs were not tolerated by the old school hustlers under any circumstances. Once when my mother took me and my brother to visit Grandpoppy at his office on 15th Street, a man scurried up to me and mumbled that he had some weed to sell if I wanted it. I remember that it was a lovely summer day and it very close to "shake time so 15th Street was beginning to get very crowded. (Shake-time is the scheduled time at several points during the day when the winning lottery numbers would be drawn) Drugs on the premises, even something as small time as weed was a serious thing.

 I went to my mother and tugged her arm, "Mommy that man said he has weed." Her eyes bulged out of her head.  She grabbed my arm and dragged back to the office to tell Grandpoppy. I remember feeling a bit guilty for getting the man in trouble. I knew that the police were generally benign toward Grandpoppy's pea shake empire -- not blind to it of course; there was a police raid every three months or so, one of  Claude's workers, never him, would be  arrested and business would be temporarily halted for a day or two -- but drugs were forbidden, verboten, taboo, not allowed.  If the police had even suspected that drug dealing were a part of my grandfather's business he would never have been allowed to operated. Also he would have been put in jail for a very long time.  "A muthafucka tried to sell you some weed?" he growled furiously growl and he stalked out to find the offender. I remember my mother just shaking her head in disbelief at the gall and nerve a this dealer who obviously knew that he was violating the code. Drug dealing on my grandfather's premesis -- on any of his premises -- was a serious business.

 Those times were very different from today's world. My grandfather was part of that Old School where drugs were looked down on. My grandfather loved money. He loved money in an obsessive, dark, devoted, worshipful way. However he was not willing to do just anything to earn it. It wasn't as much a matter of business ethics or personal morality, although I do believe those elements factored into his refusal but drugs brought attendant responsibilities as a business and other risky side-effects like danger and police harrassment and the near certain consequences of jail and death. The money one could earn from drug trafficking was significant but the profit boom didn't last long enough to be enjoyed if you were dead or locked up.

  The draw for the winning lottery numbers, known as "shake time", occurred approximately every three hours Monday through Saturday  beginning at 7:15am....10:30am.....12:30pm.....3:30pm.....6:30pm and during the summer there was an 8pm on Friday and Saturday nights (Grandpoppy did not conduct business on Sunday and he was a regular church goer).

It was always great fun to visit him at 15th Street on weekends during the summer months to be part of the  festive,carnival like atmosphere which would sweep over the entire block as shake time approached. People with things to sell would set up tables or create make-shift booths out of the trunks of cars. Probably 60% of the items being sold were "hot," or stolen goods. On any given day you buy find tee-shirts and other casual or formal clothes  designed by some ambitious entrepreneur, or television sets (stolen); baked goods; computers and cell phones (stolen); musicians might be pushing their CDs (or cassette tapes!);  every kind of knock off designer bags for sale. You could buy food stamps for cash even. Back in the day food stamps were issued as actual large sized paper money in colors of red, purple and blue; a $60 packet of food stamps were ripped from a perforated coupon-like book, and plenty of folks who needed cash sold their food stamps on the street; the typical street price was $40 in cash for  a $60 coupon book of food stamps.

 This was a common street transaction for all sorts of people from honest hard working mothers who needed true, hard cash to be able to purchase things like toilet paper, laundry detergent and other things not covered by food stamps. Of course there were less honest folk practicing food stamp fraud to get money for liquor or drugs even, but the bottom line was that folk weren't just looking to cheat the government program but engaging in the timeless activity of barter and trade  because the government program consistently deprived poor working people of the needs that should have been covered and attended to by the food stamp program and Family Services.

When those needs were ignored, the working poor, the hustlers and criminals as well, had no choice but to turn to the streets to sell and barter in order to meet their needs  their needs. My grandfather's pea shake houses, restaurants, and variety stores  functioned as a safe and trustworthy "free-zone" where the people could go to inquire and transact this kind of business. His businesses, his employees and  especially his clientele were more reliable than CNN for information and far more trustworthy in business deals than Wall Street.

 Politicians found themselves in a precarious and peculiar predicament regarding the technical illegality of the peas shake  empire. Every few years, for publicity's sake, some foolish candidate for Attorney General or some ambitious fool angling for the DA spot would whip up a frenzy of headlines by threatening to permanently end the menace and nuisance of the pea shake houses. Mind that you note that violence never occurred at the pea shake houses. No fights, no gun shots, nothing more than the grief-stricken wails of losers who had placed their hopes and dreams on the statistical possibility that a large sum of cash would be theirs and crushing despair when shake time passed yet again and their number failed to hit. There was no violence and no drug dealing and no disorderly conduct as pea shake houses. It wasn't even a consideration to create chaos and violence in that arena; people respected the pea shake houses as common territory and safe space for one and all.Upon engaging the insincere political theatre by raising the question on eliminating the illegal yet benign gambling racket that  politician, usually a newbie,  found his life to be utterly miserable and sometimes lost the race due in part to the backlash regarding false, silly and ill-advised threats.

Wise politicians on the other hand recognized that there was a significant and serious constituency that conducted their recreation at the pea shake house. And these wise politicos then made an un-scheduled, un-official and very under the radar visit to my grandfather's 15th Street establishment to talk to the people. Over the years, Claude Caldwell became recognized as a community elder and it was not uncommon for him to receive a visit from some emissary seeking advice or campaigners looking to be elected. Some city councilmen were near daily visitors who sat to shoot the breeze and drink Grandpoppy's top shelf alcohol. Personally he despised those politicians, the suck-ups and corrupt ones as well as the brothers of these less ethical visitors. He had no interest in personal attention, fame or self-aggrandizement all of which were terribly bad business particularly in his line of work. But on occasion he might make use  of his political weight: his station in life if a cause were truly important and justice needed some added pressure to ensure that it didn't get railroaded. His chosen profession denied him from occupying any claim to respectability but he was undeniably a prominent citizen and therefore not someone who could be ignored, as many a politician learned, too late to correct the error, to their dismay.

State lotteries construct elaborate sets and colorful enumerated blocks and balls  to draw their winning numbers. Down in the Hood, at my Grandpoppy's it was much simpler: a brown pitcher or carafe was filled with small marbles that had a number painted on it, someone would shake the container as we all watched, picked out four marbles and usually Wally, he of the five self-defense murders, wrote the numbers on a chalk board. All the people who had payed to write down their numbers would look at their little receipts to see if they had won. Depending on your bet a winner might net as little as $10 or $300 or $20,000. And pea shake was not the only game one could place bets on: one game simply called Bank called for bets with the winning number determined by the closing number of the Dow Jones. Grandpoppy had a standing subscription to the Wall Street Journal which was the Bible in regard to determining the winning numbers for Bank.

Occasionally a bettor would hit a windfall so massive, so huge that my grandfather did not have enough cash on hand to pay the bettor off immediately. When this happened it was known as "breaking the bank". You can't imagine how angry and mean and pissed off my grandfather was when this happened. I don't know where he went to get the money  when this catastrophe happened (bettors actually winning was always a catastrophe for Claude Caldwell who hated parting with cash) but he always payed out winning bets. Not every numbers man was so scrupulous. But his diligence and fair dealing cemented his reputation as the senior and most respected numbers man in the city,

Down at my grandfather's there was a whole other world that didn't have any resemblance to the world of white prep schools that my brother and I  attended. The people at 15th Street talked in a down home way with just the hint of Southern drawl and they sounded like home. The words "pea shake"  were as foreign as Dothraki  to the white people we went to school with.. How we were able to pass between so many different worlds with such ease I cannot say. When my mother took us to play at an inner city park "so you can play with some black children sometimes" the kids would stare at us like we were aliens. "You talk white," someone would say. Every. Singe. Time. "You talk white."  She would take us to different parks yet we heard the same assessment everywhere. Not that it mattered too much, kids are kids and  as long as you know how to play and demonstrate that you can't be punked, then eventually you will all find common ground.

But sometimes the two worlds would come together in terrifying ways and since no rule book existed, we had to wing it, march through the fear of discovery like a boss even though we were quaking on the inside.

When my parents moved from Chicago back to Indianapolis I was a toddler. Still my Mom and Dad promptly enrolled me in school at the Jewish Community Center where we also belonged as members. My dad loved tennis and swimming. The JCC was the only club in Indianapolis that accepted black members. It was a friendly and warm place and our whole family was quite active in the community. The only thing my grandfather would spend money on without having  a nuclear fit  was in regard to school tuition. So Mom and Dad moved to the suburbs to give themselves a bit of distance from Grandpoppy and his Wonder Bar and pea shake houses. Dad would get dressed in the morning, strap on his shoulder holster over his dress shirt and roll out the door to do ....whatever it was that he did for the few years he worked with my grandfather.

Mom stayed home to take care of the baby (me!). One morning as we were in the midst of our morning routine she opened the front door to grab the newspaper. On the front page -- above the fold, no less -- The Indianapolis Star reported in large type that Mr. Claude Caldwell and Mr. H----- P---- had been arrested in a raid on local pea shake houses blahblahblah......Her father AND her husband.

Mother grabbed me up, put me on her hip and shut the door. Locked it. As if the eyes of curious neighbors could be thwarted by a dead bolt. She phoned her mother, Laura (still divorced from Claude though it became clear after they both passed away that they had remained lovers throughout the rest of their lives)

"Mama!! Did you see the newspaper? It's all over the papers! What am I going to do? What am I going to say? I have to take the baby to school! What if they ask me to leave or  something?" she wailed, fretful and weeping.

Through the phone it wasn't possible to hear a shrug but there was a smile present in Laura's voice: "Well you have to go out. The baby has to go to school. And you paid your tuition just like everybody else there. Hmmph!! It's probably some folks that are behind on their payments but that's not you. Now go on and get that baby ready so she can go play with her friends."

Not a single person said a single solitary unkind word. It was almost as it they hadn't looked at the morning paper at all. Lakshmi my Indian teacher with the red dot on her forehead and the glorious black braid fawned over me and my hair, the other mothers talked to Mom and planned playdates. It was a normal day.....in this world.

Certainly the world down at 15th Street was in chaos just now. But really the raid wasn't such a big deal. It was an election year. Every election year the presiding Attorney General would exploit the pea shake houses to make a  splashy law and order headline but nothing much ever came of it. Back when my grandfather inherited the business from Tuffy Mitchell the numbers business had been a federal offense. Just getting caught with a numbers receipt was a punishable offense. It created a tense atmosphere. But Grandpoppy never once served even so much as a single day in prison a fact that was due in no small part that he knew everyone in town.

As a child he liked to hang out on Indiana Avenue which was like Main Street for blacks. Al Capone would come down from Chicago with Frank Nitti and Claude would shine their shoes. Capone tipped him a quarter, a pretty nice sum for the 1920s. Claude listened to the men talk and he thought "I want to be like them." It was unquestionable that my grandfather's brain was like a machine in regard to numbers. He was a math wizard. But his intelligence in all areas was astonishing. There is truth that opportunities were limited for a black man of his generation and he rose to the top of his game because it was one of the few games he was allowed to rise up.  But he was also an individual who like that fast life, the quick money life. I truly believe that if he had wanted he had the right stuff to excel despite the racism and oppression.

Just his networking skills alone are a glimpse into how adept he was as a businessman. He was such a "valued customer" at Chase Bank that they invited him to their regularly monthly  invited to breakfast meetings.

One day my brother and I were visiting at his office and chatting on his big comfy couch which he had for occasional afternoon naps. At our school one of the most respected Jesuit brothers had died and there were elaborate preparations for his funeral. Despite his hearing problem -- a condition that was largely selective and conditional: he could never hear properly if you asked him for money, for example -- he asked us whom were we discussing.

"Brother Pat Sheehey, Grandpoppy. He's like really important at our school and --"

"Pat Sheehey!! Pat Sheehey's dead?" he said. A strange tone of glee in his voice and a glitter in the eye.

We nodded. "Yes, Grandpoppy." I was looking at my brother and he's looking at me: What is going on?

"Pat Sheehey used to be a cop. Yeah. I used to know him," he growled a deep satisfied purr. Then he went back to his perpetual office work of counting his money.


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