Chicago: My Kind of Town

CHICAGO : My Kind of Town

The international blockbuster Chicago won 6 Oscars at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 23. The musical, set in 1926, is a tale of obsession with fame and celebrity during the period of Prohibition. But what was Chicago really like at that time? Steve DeBretto, who grew up in the Windy City, writes that the real characters and stories of Chicago are even more fascinating than the musical.

The smoky, sex-charged cabarets in Rob Marshall's hit film Chicago give you an idea of the city's high life in the Roaring Twenties: sharp-dressed men rubbing shoulders, and more, with beautiful, available women amid the tinkle of champagne glasses and the seductive rhythms of a jazz band.

Most people in the real Chicago couldn't afford that flashy lifestyle, however, so for many young Italian men a job with the Mafia might have seemed like a ticket to "Easy Street." Al Capone and his men controlled the city's liquor, prostitution and gambling, and success in these businesses offered both money and fame. Joining one of these gangs was a long-term commitment; no one really worked part-time for the mob, and while it wasn't easy to get in, it was even harder to get out - alive, anyway.

Chicago owes its gangland reputation to hundreds of conmen, murderers and thieves, but a few of them stand out.

 Al "Scarface" Capone: The most famous of Chicago gangsters, young Capone got his scars when he insulted a woman in a bar. Unfortunately for him, her brother was nearby with a knife. Capone amassed millions of dollars from illegal business and was responsible for dozens of murders. But the police could never prove his involvement. He was finally jailed for tax fraud.

George "Bugsy" Moran: He was Capone's archrival in the bootleg alcohol business. The two men hated each other. Moran was the target of the infamous "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre", when Capone's thugs staged a fake business appointment and machine-gunned six of Moran's gang and an unlucky bystander. Moran himself was luckier - he was running late for the meeting that day.

Albert Anselmi: One of the Mafia's most feared hit men. People who knew him said he enjoyed killing his victims. He was once assigned to "knock off" Capone, but instead went to work for him. Ironically, Capone later killed Anselmi for plotting against him. According to legend, Capone invited Anselmi to a formal dinner and then clubbed him to death in front of the terrified guests. You can see Al Pacino give a haunting performance of this scene in the film The Untouchables.

Detective Work, Chicago-Style

The spectacular violence of gangsters like Capone and Bugsy Moran makes it easy to forget that most Italians who came to Chicago between the two world wars didn't commit any crimes worth making films about. Regular families like mine read about the mob in the papers, but organized crime's biggest influence on them was the general disregard it fostered toward law and order: especially among the police.

About once a week two policemen would come to my grandfather's house to say that they had had reports that he was illegally manufacturing alcohol. Technically, they were right. My grandfather, like everyone he knew, made wine in his basement. This was against the law but rarely punished. My grandmother would bring out plates of hot spaghetti and home made sausages. And after dinner my grandfather would send the policemen on their way with a few bottles of red wine tucked under their arms. The following week they'd be back to continue their "investigation".
Prohibition, the period between 1920 and 1933 when it was illegal to make, sell or drink alcohol in America, made corruption worse. Capone may have built secret tunnels under his "safe houses" and "speakeasies" to move liquor in and out when the police arrived, but these passageways were just as popular with the politicians who drank with Capone. They even had to avoid newspaper reporters' cameras on their way out of the bar.

Today, Chicago politicians don't have to crawl through tunnels to drink with mobsters, but corruption is just as common, many argue. For the past quarter-century an average of about two city officials have been convicted of felonies each year, usually for taking bribes. Two of the candidates for city council this year have served time in jail, one of them for taking bribes while in the same office he's trying to win back.

Family Ties?

The Mafia was strong and it was ruthless, and even today it's a lot more active than most Chicagoans would like to admit. For most of us, though, it's not something we think about much unless we're reminded.

Which reminds me...

One spring morning, shortly after my parents got married, a long black limousine stopped in front of their house and three men in dark suits got out holding cakes. An old friend of my grandfather, they explained, had asked them to congratulate my parents on their wedding. The men left the cakes with my parents and never returned, but their brief visit caused some concern on the block. The neighbors had seen my father's friends and decided that he should be treated with respect. The next day some garden tools he had lent out long before and forgotten about were returned, the neighbors apologizing profusely for the delay. Please don't be offended, they asked. Please.
The truth is my parents neither knew the men in the limousine nor had any idea who had sent them. My father was just happy he'd got his tools back. And he learned something important. People often say that to get ahead in life it's not what you know that counts but who you know. To that he could now add that it's even more important who thinks you know who.

Now that's Chicago.


blockbuster - sth that is very succesfull (hit, przebój)
(to) rub shoulders with sb - be in close proximity to someone (otrzeć się o kogoś)
seductive - enticing (kuszący, uwodzicielski)
easy street - (idiom:) a state of well-being and comfort (pot: beztroskie życie)
conman - fraudster, a man who tricks other people, especially in order to get their money (kanciarz, oszust)
fraud - the action of producing false documents or information in order to get what you what (oszustwo)
archrival - main opponent, enemy (główny rywal)
bootleg - illegally produced and sold (z nielegalnego źródła)
thug - man who is violent (pot: zbir, oprych)
hit man - contract killer (płatny morderca)
(to) knock off - murder (pot: zamordować, zlikwidować)
(to) plot - make secret plan to do sth bad (spiskować, knuć)
(to) club - hit sb with a heavy object (zakatować kogoś na śmierć) (to) foster - promote, encourage (popierać, sprzyjać)
safe house - place where money or bootlegged good could be hidden form authorities (kryjówka)
speakeasy - illegal club where alcohol could be drunk (nielegalny bar w czasie prohibicji)
mobster - member of a criminal organization (członek gangu, gangster)
felony - serious crime (ciężkie przestępstwo)
profusely - in large amounts (wylewnie)