Read the full short story here: https://wordpress.com/post/bigshorts.home.blog/115
I remember the day I took the job of Santa Claus like it was yesterday. It was three weeks before Christmas, nineteen thirty-two. I had just finished my shift at Filene’s Department Store on Washington St and was rushing to join the boys at the speakeasy, The Rabbit Hole Tavern, to have a few pints and watch the Bruins game. The missus was working a shift at the hospital until eleven, so I had enough time to unwind with the fellas and get dinner on the table when she got home.
Though it was Christmas, there was not a lot to cheer about. Nineteen thirty-two was one of the worst of the Great Depression so far – since the crash in twenty-nine. By the end of the year, the jobless numbers were something like twenty-five per cent across the country. People were sleeping in the streets, families were lining up to get a meal, and men were taking their lives – humiliated for not being able to provide for their families.
Things were not as bad in Boston as in other places but finding enough regular work to pay the bills was a stretch for me and my pals. The good times rolling in the “Roaring Twenties” kept on rolling right off a cliff. If thirty-two was any indication, the thirties were promising to be a big wet blanket.
Despite the tough times all around, downtown Boston was still lit up with Christmas lights. At the Downtown Crossing, you had Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, and Gilchrist’s doing their best to perk up the dingy mood all over the place. By year’s end, the outlook was what the newshawks at The Globe called “cautiously optimistic.” People were putting on a brave face, though most were itching to see the back end of that crummy year. The best way to describe the feeling was to say, when you’re sitting at rock bottom things can only go up.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had just whipped Herbert Hoover in the Presidential elections by promising to turn things around for working people. For a politician he seemed like a good egg who gave a lick about the fact us Regular Joes everywhere were getting the bum’s rush at every turn. Democrats were never the cat’s pajamas in conservative-minded Massachusetts, but Frankie won our hearts with vows to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment – better known as the Volstead Act, which led to “Prohibition.”
I took the odd job rum-running for Frank Wallace’s Gustin Gang – not the hijacks of Charles Solomon’s or Joe Lombardo’s merch, but getting shipments of bootlegged hooch from the big rigs anchored just outside the twelve-mile limit to the Southie shore in souped-up speedboats. One of the rum-running bastards put airplane engines in his boats to give him the leg-up. Nothing the feds could put on a boat could catch one of them. My best pal Ducky was an out of work fisherman who lent his family’s boat and his sea-faring abilities to the cause. Me and Kicks were his hands on-deck.
So, here we were. The bosses in North End had sent a couple of toughs to do Mickey’s dirty work. I knew the Italians meant business – they took care of Wallace and Dodo all right.
Did I want a smoke? Damn right I wanted a smoke!
The short one was all balled up. The sheik frowned and gestured with his head, as if to say, “Maybe he’s deaf or something.”
“Hey pal, you go somewheres?” said the ugly stump.
I was daydreaming again. If Jane was there, she would have kicked me in the shin to bring me back from the trip.
“Uh, yeah … sure. I’ll take a smoke. You gotta light?” I reached into the pack and grabbed the smoke.
“Full service with this one, huh Joey?” the ugly stump said.
He spoke with a thick Italian American accent; different than the mugs from Lombardo’s crews in the North Side, but definitely Italian-American. I nick-named him La Stumpa, which seemed both Italian and insulting in my mind.
“Ach, Tony not ze Joey!” said the sheik in strongly German-accented English.
The sheik reached into his side pocket and whipped out the shiniest, most classy gold lighter I had ever seen. He spun the flint, igniting a tall flame, and held it towards me slowly and gracefully; with the air of someone who grew up in the Kaiser’s castle. The nickname that came into my head: Wundershiek.