When I was a teenager I worked for my Uncle Floyd in the summer stocking and maintaining amusements in Grocery Stores, Pool Halls but mostly Bars. Cigarette, Candy and Chip Vending Machines, along with Juke Boxes, Pool Tables, Pinball Machines and Tampax, Kotex also Condom dispensers. He even had the penny gumball machines anything that could turn a buck. I sometimes was given the job of slapping on the new Big Brothers Big Sisters or Kiwanis Club donation stickers on the gumball machines. I’m pretty sure they never saw a penny. I can’t be certain because I knew better so I didn’t ask.
Floyd was actually my 2nd uncle. He is my father’s uncle, my grandmother’s brother on the Italian Capelli side of the family. He had three children Anthony pronounced “Ant-knee” and Alonso “Lon-zoe” their sister Angelina “Ange”. All their names started with an “A” because their grandfather’s name was Angelo. It was some dago show of respect bullshit. I thought the reason was because they were all “assholes”.
People were always so hard on me as a kid, not bellyaching just saying. I was small for my age and older family members especially cousins on the Italian side called me ‘short-load’ My older brother filled me in on the derogatory meaning.
I usually rode with Ant-knee in the new truck delivering smaller amusements, restocking vending machines, maintenancing and collecting the change from every machine in service. You wouldn’t think a bag full of quarters could be so heavy but the weight made hauling them a task. Ant -knee when emptying the machines would have me follow him with a red tool box containing only a screwdriver, pliers and crescent wrench with a piece of foam rubber on the bottom. When collecting change from a machine he’d ask for a tool. I’d open the tool box and hand him a tool in exchange he’d deposit a bag of quarters skimmed from each machine. When we finished the red box would be packed full. He would sit at the table with the manager or owner and they’d count the change together putting the coins into paper rolls.
“Santi take the empty bags and tool box to the truck and bring back my ledger in the center storage compartment and don’t forget to lock the doors. You got it?” Barking orders at me like he was my ole man. Others witnessed the kind of treatment I was subjected to and assumed it was acceptable behavior to treat me in the same degrading manner as my old man.
The split for the owner was 15% of the take in some cases 20% if the machine required electricity like juke boxes pinball machines. Some bars are money makers netting three hundred, four hundred dollars a week. The bar owner would get 15% of the net except for the cigarette machine, usually 10% because the cost of the cigarettes. However my uncle had that covered as well. Cigarettes were smuggled from Missouri , Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee because the tax on cigarettes in those states was much less than Illinois. Ant-knee never discussed his skimming activity and me being half Italian was aware of the rule. So I didn’t ask.
There were territories assigned to every business operating in the Downtown Chicago area and they were strictly enforced. I couldn’t tell you by whom because I didn’t ask.
Capelli Amusements territory was considered one of the most profitable and referred to as the Cherry Grounds. North of Grand…West of Racine\Clark …South of Montrose….East of Kedzie. An extremely large area although Wrigley Field, Hotels and the Loop were off limits. We couldn’t even drive through other areas in a company vehicle; it was considered a violation and resulted in punishment. I don’t know what the punishment entailed because I didn’t ask.
I disliked install deliveries because of the lifting and moving involved. And when pool tables were included in the delivery my enthusiasm and work ethic was close to nonexistent. It wasn’t due to me being lazy, I was always given a task to perform that was nearly impossible to complete by myself. They’d watch me struggle with a pool table or pinball machine on a Dolly pushing and pulling without success. Standing there laughing making comments in mispronounced Italian and in an English dialect from a Jimmy Cagney Gangster film.
There was another guy working for my Uncle, a teenage kid older than me they called Magilla after a gorilla cartoon character. He was a tall muscular quiet type with a scary kind of smile. If he was working and noticed my planned dilemma he’d help me out much to my cousins dismay. He was enormous with superhero strength. Smoked, drank beer and when he did speak he was articulate voicing complaints about my cousin’s sadistic behavior and racist attitudes. He was a Holden Caulfield type character protecting those unable to defend themselves. A Catcher in the Streets whose unsolicited assistance I appreciated without ever having to ask. For some odd reason the cousins and others never made him the subject of jokes or ridicule. I never knew why because I didn’t ask.
It was a Saturday in late June and we had a work order to supply a new bar owner with the full assortment of Capelli Amusements with Uncle Floyd accompanying us to the location. It was a rare event when the “Capo” came along on a mission. You could bet there was some major situation requiring his immediate and masterful attention. I didn’t know what it was because I didn’t ask.
We were wrestling with the juke box pushing it through the front door when the yelling started.
“Get your shit outta my bar. Ya understand fucking whop bastards?”
The bar owner eloquently stated his objection to joining the many satisfied customers of Capelli’s Amusements.
“I’m not gonna let youz tell me how to run my business! Now turn around and get your dago ass outta my bar.”
Uncle Floyd reacted in the exact opposite manner than I would have expected. He leaned over the bar and whispered something to the owner then shook his hand. He calmly asked us to take what we unloaded and put it back on the truck. The bar owner’s small dog barked non stop nipping at Floyd’s ankles as he left. He didn’t say a word on the ride back to the warehouse. I have no idea what he whispered to the owner because I didn’t ask.
Back at the warehouse we finished unloading the trucks and Uncle Floyd gave us the rest of the afternoon off with pay. Magilla asked me if I wanted to go to Wrigley and catch the Cubbies in action against the Cardinals.
“I’d really like to go but I can’t afford it. I’m broke until we get paid next week.” I answered in a disappointed tone.
“Didn’t ask if you had any money. I asked if you wanted to go to a Baseball game. So whatta ya say there short stuff?”
“Let’s giddy up I’m in!”.,
We had to transfer three times on the bus to get to Wrigley Field. You don’t have to be a sports fanatic even a baseball fan to feel the electricity, the fever and the awe attending a Big League Ball Game. The air tastes of Hot Dogs, Popcorn and Peanuts (never a big fan of Cracker Jack).
On the bus journey to Wrigley Mecca I found out my new friend’s name because I asked. We exited the bus with me following Frankie as he passed the ticket windows, the park entry gates then into a tunnel manned by two monstrous security guards that waved us through with smiling faces.
“Hey man this is awesome, who are you Frankie some kind of Celebrity?”
He gives me the all too familiar Italian don’t ask stare.
“Never mind. ‘ I squeaked
We stopped at some large red doors guarded by a couple of Chicago Cops not saying a word to Frank and I. One of the cops got on his Walkie-Talkie telling someone to come over. When he finished he said to Frankie;
“He’s on his way Little Tuna.”
Little Tuna? Why the hell would the cop call him a fish? That’s not cool .
“Hey officer his name is Frank. He’s my buddy and you shouldn’t be calling him names.” I speak up in defense of my friend?
“What do we have here Mike?” The cop says to his partner.
“A Mini Guinea. Little Grease Ball with a big mouth.”
“It’s okay Santi. He’s just a grumpy ole cop that doesn’t like my father. Maybe I should tell my father the “Big Tuna” you don’t like him. What do ya think there Officer Joyce?” Frankie mentions looking at the cops name tag.
“Come on kid I was only razzin ya! Just a joke, I didn’t mean anything by it. What’d say, buddies?” Officer Joyce nervously replies. Frank never said a word back to the cop; he just gave him a stare.
We waited for a couple minutes, then a guy in a Cubs uniform appears and walks straight up to Frank. He gives him a light slap on the back then speaks.
“Hey Frank good to see ya back. See ya brought a buddy. So section eighteenth behind Home Plate or twelve behind the Dugout?”
“Where ya wanna sit Santi? Behind home plate or Cubs Dugout?” Frankie asks me.
“The Dugout for sure! Are you kidding me?” I scream with excitement
“Ok then boys tell the Andy Frain Usher to put youz in Section twelve Seats six and seven. And Frank no orderin beer ya hear me. I caught hell last time.”
“I won’t, Mr. Amalfitano. Thanks for the seats. Ya didn’t see my old man or Sammy Giancona around did ya?”
“No sir you’re on your own. Have a good time. Go Cubs!” Mr. Amalfitano says
“Go Cubs” I yelled back, unable to hide my excitement.
The Usher leads us to our seats and I’m doing everything I can to not act like a kid. I wanted to jump, scream and slap Frank on the back . I’m close to pissing my pants from the excitement.
“Frank this is great! Thanks for inviting me. You’re a real buddy to bring me with ya. Did I say thanks? Thanks” I’m talking fast without punctuation Chicago style.
“You’re welcome Santi. Want a Coke or something? “
I check my pocket and find two dollars with maybe sixty seventy cents .
“Don’t worry about it, I got it. You don’t have to pay. What about a hot dog too? You like mustard and relish?” Frank asks.
I shake my head yes .
“Be right back.”
The players are so close I can tell who they are without seeing their numbers. Beckert , Kessinger, Santo , Hundley taking infield practice. I can’t believe this is happening. There’s Billy Williams, seeing him sends me into idol fever. Suddenly I’m unable to breathe, my body starts to shake and my vision momentarily becomes blurred. A bat someone had set on top of the dugout rolls off and lands at my feet.
“Hey kid hand me back that bat . Will ya please?” Someone asks from below in the dugout.
I can’t move my mouth is so dry I can’t speak.
“Hello? Please champ give me the bat.” The player asks again
I find the strength to free myself from my paralysis and pick up the bat and hand it to “MR. ERNIE BANKS.”
“Thanks. You ok there buddy?” He asks
“Uh huh” Is all I can say.
Uh huh damn it. Uh huh! That was Ernie Banks! Ernie Banks! And I act like a dope. What a complete jerk I made of myself in front of one of my idols.
I sit back down and an old guy smelling like cheap Whisky and cigars slaps me lightly on my back.
“You know who that was son? That was Ernie Banks. He plays for the Cubs.” Says Old Crow breath.
Why is it that people ask you a question then without giving you the chance to respond they answer it for you? And on top of it tell stuff you already know.
“My name is Santiago not kid.” I inform cigar odor guy.
“Ok San Diego.” He answered
“You’re not funny Mister .Why do you want to piss me off?”
Then one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen up close sits down right next to me.
“Barbi this here is San Francisco. This is Barbi”
Whisky breath jokes with the her.
“You’re very pretty . Your father thinks he’s funny calling me by the wrong name. I’m Santiago, nice to meet you Barbi.”I shake her hand introducing myself politely. They both begin to laugh with Old Crow reaching over to shake my hand.
“This beautiful lady is my wife Santiago not my daughter. You’re not the first to make that mistake.”
Frank shows up loaded with drinks and food.
“Hello Mr. Hefner hey Barbi . Santi give me a hand will ya.”
I stand grabbing the two large drinks and Frank walks past me sitting to my left leaving me next to beautiful Barbi.
“Frank how have you been? Haven’t seen you in awhile. What have you been up to?” Hefner asks
“How’s your father doing?’
There he goes again asking question after question before Frank can get a chance to answer.
Frank takes a large bite of his hot dog . I’m wondering if it’s because he’s hungry or it’s to avoid having to answer with a mouth full.
“Your friend Santiago. Did I get
the name right?”
Hef looks at me smiling like a kid who just answered a question correctly in school.
“Yes sir I’m very proud of you.” I fire back.
“Santiago made friends with Ernie Banks earlier .”
“Frank gives me a punch in the arm then takes another bite of his Red Hot . He gives Hefner a thumbs up.
“Are you working Frank? I told you I’d give you a job at the Playboy Club but you never called me back. That was a month ago.”
“I know Mr. Hefner but my mother didn’t like the idea. I called the Club and left a message. “Frank answers.
Then like a kick in the ass it hits me. (I know you most likely put it together a short while ago). I’m not slow in the mind, I was so caught up in the Ernie Banks meeting I wasn’t paying attention. And I was distracted by the beautiful Barbi.
Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton; I’ve seen her naked in Playboy and watched her on Hee Haw. Frank had an opportunity to work at the Playboy Club? Could I be any more retarded? Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton and Ernie Banks all in the same day!
Play ball the Umpire hollers.
Frank wolfs down three Red Hots, a bag of chips and a super sized Coke.
“Santi, I’m going to get a Corn Dog. Do you want something else?”
I’ve still got another hot dog, chips, bag of peanuts and half a coke left.
“I’m good Frank thanks.”
“Hef or Barbi can I get you anything?”
“If you wouldn’t mind I could go for an ice cream bar or popsicle .”Barbi tells him
Hef (that’s right I said Hef my new friend ) pulls out a twenty dollar bill and tells Frank to keep the change. Why didn’t I think of going for a Corn Dog?
The fifth inning ends and the Cubs come off the field to bat. They haven’t done well with only three hits.
Hef gets up and walks over to the side of the dugout. He turns then calls me to come over motioning with his hand. Hef steps back and Ernie is standing there motioning for me to come over. I walk up and this time there’s no tongue tied kid.
“Mr. Banks, I just want to tell you that you are my favorite player .”
“I’m happy to hear that young man. Here I’ve got something for you. It’s a baseball signed by most of the players. I appreciate your help earlier.” Banks says handing me the ball.
“I’m overwhelmed Mr. Banks thank you so much. I will keep it forever.”
“You’re welcome but you should thank Mr. Hefner as well. He’s the one that suggested the baseball. ”
“Call me Ernie!”
“Ernie can you please just get a base hit. That’s all.”
“Give it my best effort. “He says disappearing into the Dugout.
I thanked Hugh Hefner, my new friend and talked with Barbi most of the time. When I mentioned College after I finished High School Hugh pushed the University of Illinois on me. Told him I’d definitely attend if he helped pay my tuition. He laughed it off and took immediate interest in the game.
Frank had been gone an inordinate amount of time. Seventh inning stretch and Hugh and Barbi get up to leave.
“Santiago you’re a pretty smart kid. Keep up that attitude of yours. Here take my card it has my personal number. Give me a holler if you ever need anything. Let me know if you get into U of Illinois .”
“Thanks Mr. Hefner I’ll do that. Thanks again for everything.”
Barbi grabs my chin and gives me a kiss right on the lips.
“Bye Santiago you be good.”
“Uh huh.” Really Santi just uh huh?
Frank returns and hands Barbi her ice cream as they leave. It’s obvious he’s high I can smell the beer and marijuana on him. He doesn’t say anything about where he was. And of course I didn’t ask.
“Hey Frank I should be headed home. My old man will be pissed off if I come home late. So I’m gonna catch the bus and I’ll see you at work on Monday. Thanks again man I had a great time.”
“Relax you aren’t going anywhere. I called home and the driver is coming to pick us up. I’ll give you a ride right to your front door. And if there’s a problem with your old man Giovanni will talk with him. Got it buddy?”
“I don’t wanna be a problem, I can take the bus. I’ll be ok. You’ve been more than generous with me today. Buying me food and getting me this great seat. I’m not sure I know what I did to deserve all this?”
“Ya wanna know why? Why? Never before has anyone ever stuck up for me. Nobody.
My old man has never offered to defend me or my brother. After you talked to the Cop like that, told him to lay off and you being just a little guy, it told me a lot about who you are. Thank you Santiago. Now relax he’ll be here in about fifteen minutes. “
We listened to the Cubs lose the game on the radio in the Lincoln Continental driving to my house. Giovanni was a huge guy with a wonderful sense of humor who talked surprisingly very similar to my father. Unable to pronounce the “TH” sound making three sound like tree etc.
Frank and he spoke some Italian for a while which I am not very proficient at speaking. I understand more than I speak knowing Spanish and three years of French I’ve taken in High School. They are all somewhat similar being the “Romantic Languages” especially Spanish and Italian. My grandparents from Italy didn’t want us children to learn Italian the reason being the United States was the new world Italy was the old world. Plus they remember when bigotry and racism toward Italians was commonplace . They lived in an intolerant society back in the 1900’s when they first came over.
Frank admired my autographed baseball and I offered it to him as a thank you gift. He didn’t take me up on my offer explaining that he already had a couple.
We arrived at the detention center and I said my farewells to Frank and Giovanni.
“See ya at work on Monday Frankie. Thanks again man. You’re the best.”
“Hey Santi now that I’ve got your number I’ll give ya a call tomorrow to see if you’re doing anything. Alright? “
“You bet Frank ciao.”
The old man was missing in action and my mother was on the phone with some relative I figured because she was speaking Spanish. She motioned for me to come over then she sniffed me up and down then made me give her a kiss on the cheek.
I didn’t discuss my day because it would’ve just open up a go round with me fielding
questions that would somehow end with having me done something wrong.
The remainder of the weekend slipped by quickly with the old man never showing up. I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t ask or care.
Frank didn’t call on Sunday and I was ok with it.
Monday morning I made it to the warehouse early with just Floyd and Ant-knee inside. My uncle told me to wash the truck and clean out the bed because we had an installation today. Shit, great way to start off the week.
The rest of the crew showed up just as I was finishing with my job. Frank seemed to be feeling well wishing me a good morning and immediately began carrying the items I had unloaded from the truck bed into the warehouse.
It took us close to two hours to load all the machines and pool tables onto the truck in between Lon- so and Ant-knee screwing around with a new pinball machine.
I rode with Floyd and Ant-knee sitting in between with Floyd driving. I can count on both hands how many words were spoken during the ride.
We pulled up to the same bar that we were thrown out of on Saturday by the irate owner. I didn’t say a word and started pulling machines off the back with my cousin. Once inside the owners attitude had done a complete 180. I was rolling the jukebox past the back end of the bar and confronted the owner. He told me where he wanted it and where the electric outlet was located.
His right arm was in a cast, his eyes both black and blue and he walked with a crutch tucked under his left arm. Looked like he had been hit by a bus. We finished rather quickly with the now soft spoken bar owner thanking us. When Floyd walked over to him for his signature on the contract I heard him say…
“It’s gonna be hard to sign with my goddamn right arm broken. And tell me why they had to kill my dog?”
“Terrible thing that happened to you. Hope they don’t have to come back for any reason.” Floyd answers.
There is nothing amusing in the word amusements.
I had a suspicion who suggested the bar owner change his earlier decision concerning having Floyd’s machines in his bar. Although I’ll never be sure because… I didn’t ask!