“Welcome to my cigar store,” I said as the stout, older man entered. “I’m glad you dropped in today. Not much business these days or customers to chat with. Cigar smoking is much less popular than in the old days. I just turned 80 and I’m looking to sell the shop but I’m not optimistic that I can find a suitable buyer. My store's been a landmark on the block for more than seventy years. But I’m rambling, just like the old man that I am. How can I help you?”
“Well,” the customer responded. “I’m interested in trying one of your Cuban cigars. I love them but find them hard to find in stores these days. However, now that you’ve raised the topic, I’m also interested in hearing about your long career. What’s it been like here over all of the years? I suspect sort of uneventful, even boring, just standing here behind the counter and working the cash register.”
“You’re largely correct," I said. "It’s now 1986 but something happened to me more than 60 years ago that turned me into a mob desperado of sorts for a few months. I was able to put the incident in the rear-view mirror with some effort, but it took a while. I don’t mind telling you about this chapter of my life. Interested?"
“I was born in Detroit in the Hastings neighborhood, part of what was known as Paradise Valley. The area was later demolished to make space for the superhighways crisscrossing Detroit for the benefit of the suburban folks. It was unlike any ‘paradise’ you’ve ever seen. Run-down houses and apartment buildings, dirty streets, lots of trash strewn around, and small businesses. My parents had emigrated from Poland in 1901 because some of their relatives were already here and also because of the cheap rent.
“My father worked in this store but it was owned by his uncle Jake. He didn’t think it necessary to pay living wages, even (or especially) to relatives. It was a hard life but the family made it through somehow. I pretty much grew up on the streets, sometimes getting into trouble with the law. Nothing too serious. I soon learned, however, about the risk of running with the wrong crowd.
“In 1922, I was sixteen and looking for a job of any kind to help at home. One of my father’s best customers at the cigar store was Izzy Bernstein. He and his brothers had created the Purple Gang. The gang’s meanness was such that they quickly dominated the Detroit underworld and were feared by everyone. Even Capone, who had entered into a deal with them to supply bootleg liquor for Chicago, showed them respect.
“This was Prohibition but whiskey could be easily obtained in Windsor, only a couple of miles across the Detroit River that separated Detroit from Canada. Canada had banned the use of alcoholic beverages like in the U.S. but still licensed distilleries and breweries to manufacture and export alcohol. Canada was thus able to satisfy the thirst of Detroit’s 20,000 speakeasy’s and blind pigs as well as its illegal Canadian trade.
“My dad mentioned to Izzy one day in the store that I was looking for a job and he, in a jovial mood as he lit up one of his Havana cigars, told dad to send me over to the 'social club' where he and the Purples hung out at all hours of the day. And this was exactly where I headed one cold, rainy Tuesday morning in January.
"I was wearing only a thin coat and was wet and shivering. I knocked on the front door and was greeted, sized-up, and patted-down by a tough-looking guy who was guarding the door. I said that I had an appointment with Izzy and he pointed toward a long corridor to the left. I needed to pass through the main room where a bunch of guys in suits and ties were lounging on sofas and chairs scattered across the room. None of them paid any attention to me.
“Come on in, kid,” Izzy said after I knocked lightly on his office door. He motioned for me to sit in the chair opposite his desk. “Your dad told me that you’re looking for a job. I think that I may have something for you. But I need to know whether I can count on you. You can’t talk about what you’ll be doing for us. Got it, kid?”
“Yes, Mister Izzy,” I responded. You can count on me.” I pinched my lips with my fingers to indicate that I clearly understood the rules of the game working for him.”
“OK. First of all, do you know how to drive a Model TT Ford truck? It’s a one-ton job built on a Model T chassis.”
“Sure, I know how,” I replied. “I’ve driven them all over town.” This, of course, was a lie. I had never even been inside an automobile or truck. You need to understand that this was my first job interview and I was trying to put a very positive spin on it to please.”
“Good! Put this inside your pocket,” he said as he slid a small piece of paper over the top of his desk in my direction. “It’s the address of a warehouse I own on Atwater very close to the river. Report there at one o’clock early tomorrow morning. I have a little job for you.”
“I guess you’ll will be wanting me to move stock around in the warehouse? That’s perfect. I am very strong. You’ll be pleased at what I can do.”
“No, I have something else in mind for you, kid. I want you to drive a truck across the river to Windsor, pick up some crates with merchandise, bring them back to my warehouse, and help unload them. That’s about it, job-wise.”
“Uh, Mr. Izzy,” I responded in an earnest tone, “probably a dumb question. But, how can I drive a truck across water?”
“You’re beginning to make me a little nervous, kid. You may not be as smart as your father said. The river is always frozen at this time of the year. Some of my men will have walked across the ice earlier in the day and marked out the best route to Windsor with a double row of kerosene lanterns. All you need to do is drive the truck over and back with the cargo, staying between the lit-up lanterns.”
“We’ll see you tonight,” Izzy continued. The job interview was apparently over and so I left his office, trying to think about how I could learn to drive a Ford truck in a few hours. I headed toward home, looking for any unattended trucks or cars on the street.
“Luckily, I found a Ford truck parked on the street near my house and borrowed it for a short spin. I checked out the pedals and such in the passenger compartment—very confusing! Trial and error was often my teacher so I turned on the ignition and took off, gears grinding. My own personal driving school. After about 20 minutes, I got the hang of it and was in total control.
“To tell you the truth, I was scared shitless about the whole deal. I was 'sort of' ready for the job, perhaps forgetting that a truck loaded with cases of whiskey which could jostle and veer off course. And I also was supposed to make the trip without a map and on slippery ice. I immediately began to think that my future cloudy at best but what the Hell? My fate was now in the hands of the Purples.
“I arrived at the warehouse in the dead of night as instructed by Izzy. The truck was in the warehouse surrounded by a few of the gang members. They wished me good luck, smirking at the same time. I started the motor and began to drive slowly across the frozen surface of the river toward Windsor, skidding as I went.
“The lanterns, as promised, were mostly in place but the route was confusing. Fog was a big problem. The truck also skidded around a lot on the icy surface but I eventually made it to the Canadian side where I was met by a another hard-looking crew who loaded the truck with fifty cases of Canadian whiskey.
“I was ready for the return trip. The crew waved me goodbye and pointed me in the right direction where I could just see a few sparkling Detroit lights. That’s when things began ‘to go south’ which is another way of saying that they turned to shit. I say this with a hint of irony because Windsor is actually south of Detroit.
“I knew I was in big trouble about three-quarters of the way across the frozen surface as I headed into a particularly dense fog cloud hugging the ice. I couldn’t see much at all so I was hanging my head out the driver’s window as I drove. Also, some of the lanterns had run out of kerosene so my route was no longer obvious. I continued to steer in the direction of Detroit but must have somehow veered off the path. When I was somewhat close to the Detroit shore line, the ice became thinner. I then heard the surface ice begin to crack. Oh my God!
“The right front tire broke through the ice and, shortly afterwards, the left one. The truck then started to sink quickly in the frigid water. I was able to push open the door on my side, jump out onto more solid ice, and sprint toward one of the lanterns that was still lit. Just made it to the thicker part of the surface in time and walked toward the shore. I glanced over my shoulder to see the truck disappearing into the cold and murky frigid water, whiskey cargo and all. A few bubbles appeared on the water surface. Woops! A very bad ending for my first job. And perhaps even worse.”
“I made my way to an all-night Greek diner I knew in the neighborhood, running as fast as I could. I had some loose change in my pocket so I called my dad at home on the pay phone in the restaurant. I totally panicked and knew that I was now a marked man. I thought, in my panic, that perhaps my dad would be able to come up with a solution to get me out of the mess. How in the world could I set things right with Izzy?
“It was about five o’clock in the wee hours when my dad, bleary-eyed, still wearing his pajama bottoms, walked into the joint. I was sitting way back in a booth. I kept my head down but motioned gently to him to join me. He sat down beside me and said: “Why all of the mystery, boychik? Why the emergency call and meet-up in this crummy joint? What’s up with you?”
“I’m in big trouble, dad. My life is a disaster and my future is doubtful.” I went on to describe for him what had happened with my first, so-called, job since my visit with Izzy. The warehouse and the drive across the ice. Bringing back the truckload of booze. The thin ice and my escape from the sinking truck. I left out the part about pinching the Model T for my first driving lesson. That would have really pissed him off.”
He buried his face in his hands and softly moaned. Then finally looked up at me and said: “This situation calls for some creative thinking.”
He continued, speaking softly with his lips close to my ear. “Let me think about this for a minute. What does Izzy care about besides money and kicking people around? There’s got to be something we can do.”
Finally, his eyes lit up and he said: “I’ve got it. His family is the third thing he cares about, especially his youngest named Rachel. She’s about sixteen. You’ve got to find her, chat her up, and tell her you are crazy about her. Izzy knows that it won’t be easily to get her married with her looks and, especially, because of the reputation of his family. He will think twice about directing any violence toward a boyfriend of his Rachel.”
“I asked around the neighborhood and learned that Rachel Bernstein went to the same high school as me. I was waiting outside the front door of the school the next day after class as she came out.
“Everybody was right about her looks—she was no beauty queen, but this was an emergency. I needed to ditch my normal standards. I approached her, coming up from behind, and matched her stride. She was not sure what was happening so she glanced my way nervously. She was probably thinking to herself: Who is this jerk-off and what does he want with me?
“Hi Rachel,” I said somewhat breathlessly. “I seen you around and want to know you better. You’re really good looking. My name’s Jake.”
She slowed her pace, turned her head, and scanned me head to toe, like a hungry tiger stalking a small antelope in Africa. “Are you the Jake I been hearing so much about as in: Dump a Truck into the Detroit River with a Big Load of My Father’s Hooch Jake?”
“Yep! You got it right. That’s exactly me.”
“And what exactly do you want from me, Mr. Lame Jake? Are you about to ask whether I can save your sorry ass?”
“You took the words out of my mouth, Rachel. To be very frank, your dad is unhappy with me and I thought that he might be able to overlook our small misunderstanding, particularly if the two of us were seriously keeping company.”
Rachel replied: “You’re not bad looking Jake but I’ll need some time to see if you meet my lofty standards. However, I am willing to tell my dad this evening at dinner that we’re friends, He doesn’t want me or my sisters to have anything to do with the rackets so he will be happy that I’m not dating one of the bums in his crew. Where should I tell him you are headed, profession-wise, after you begin to shave?”
“Podiatry,” I replied. “I had no idea what that was but I seen it on a sign in the neighborhood and the career seemed to be associated with some degree of prestige.”
“OK, Dr. Podiatrist” she replied. “You look like you would be able to master the anatomy of the human foot although you don’t seem to have known which truck pedal to push to haul your ass back from Windsor.” She then smiled at me as she picked up her pace, gave me a delicate wave, and turned the corner, heading for home.
“I was walking in the neighborhood a couple of days later when a long, black Packard pulled up to the curb beside me. The rear window lowered and Izzy poked his head out. He motioned with his hand for me to come closer. I contemplated running away but he was smiling so I approached the car and started to wring my hands. I then began to chatter nervously.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Izzy, for what I done on the river. I lied to you when I said that I knew how to drive and it was so foggy and I got onto thin ice and I almost drowned.”
“Forget about it, kid. I’m not angry with you anymore. My boys were able to get a winch cable around the truck from the shoreline and recover the booze, which is all I really care about. The truck was stolen so I don’t really miss it. My daughter Rachel says that the two of you are friends. Forget you tried to do a job for us. We’re now square.” He raised the window and the car abruptly pulled away from the curb.”
“I wasn’t able to get into podiatry school. One of the requirements was a high school diploma which I lacked and didn’t know how to pinch one. Remarkably and surprisingly, my uncle left this cigar store to me, perhaps to clear his conscience on his death bed.
“My wife Rachel and I (yes, Rachel Bernstein) raised three kids who went to the University of Michigan. I always keep a flotation vest in the trunk of my car in case I ever had an urge to drive across the river to Windsor for a shot or two of whiskey.”
“How you likin’ that Cuban cigar, my friend? I said to my customer. "I got plenty more in the humidor?”