By: Joseph Grant
The venerable old Grand Central Market was as good a place to meet as any, thought Eddie Ruggerio. It had been on Grand Street for almost a decade on the entire ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building and Eddie had gone shopping there with his dear old mother for the cheapest and best vegetables, fruits and meats. He told her that he had been in the flower business and that was why he knew everyone down at Grand Central. Unbeknownst to his mother, Eddie had a small piece of the place in the form of Louie Maltzer. Maltzer’s boss was Al Patz, a childhood friend of Al Capone’s back in Brooklyn. Under Patz, Louie controlled the produce markets in Downtown Los Angeles and all of the growers who drove their flat bed trucks to the market to unload, gave Louie a small donation, as he called it, for the honor of selling in the open bazaar. Eddie just happened to own the flower concession.
Not only was Grand Market a top shelf place to buy fruits and vegetables, but it was a zone of many markets under one large building. When it opened, it created a hullabaloo among the smaller grocers, butchers and fruit stands in the area. It was an almost unheard of, yet modern, idea. One could do such things as shop for the week, buy jewelry, get prescription medicine from the onsite pharmacy, wet one’s whistle with Pale Ale at the bar, have one’s shoes shined, enjoy some good Jewish deli and rye or get a haircut without ever leaving the building.
The clock near the seafood quarter chimed 6 pm; closing time. Maltzer was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t like him. Seems that Louie had a bit of business in the Wilshire district off Westlake Park. He had told Eddie that he might be running a little late. Eddie walked out to the front as the vendors began to lock up and nervously lit a cigarette. He spotted Frankie Tolo walking quickly up the street.
“Say, Eddie.” Frankie called out. “Where’s Louie?”
“He ain’t here yet.”
“Whaddya mean he ain’t here yet?”
“Exactly what I mean, mac. He ain’t here yet.”
“Well, he’s gotta show.”
“Steady, steady…don’t blow a gasket. He’ll be here.” Eddie said and looked up at the Angel’s Flight at the end of the block near the Third Street Tunnel. “He’ll be here.”
The two men remained in the growing shadows of the market as the gas lamps inside were turned off one by one and they were suddenly faced with the bare electric streetlamp silhouetting them from a few doors down. “C’mon, Louie…” Eddie said and nervously palmed the gun in his holster. He looked over towards the new Central Library Building. Louie was conducting business in what was then considered the outskirts of the Los Angeles. He was up in the Westlake District where many vaudeville theatres such as the Vagabond, Wilshire-Ebell and Park of the thrived. Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre began to pull entertainment towards Hollywood. A few blocks further westward there could be found the numerous oil wells and derricks in and around Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, which was then still a small community that was soon becoming home to more and more movie stars. Locals decried the change to Beverly Hills, as only a few decades before it was a large sprawling ranch where lima beans grew.
“Jeeze-us.” Frankie said and wiped his cheek.
“It’s starting to rain.”
“It is?” Eddie said and put his hand out. “I ain’t feelin’ nothin‘.”
Just then the trolley came chiming round the bend. Its lights flickered as it came closer and slowed to a crawl before eventually stopping.
“Hiya, fellas!” Louie came bounding off the barely-stopped trolley.
“Where’ve you been?” Eddie asked impatiently. “We got a job to do, see?”
“Taking care of some personal business.” Louie smiled and straightened his tie.
“I see that, wise guy.” Eddie muttered. “That ticket broad from the Westlake Theatre?”
“You got guts, Louie.” Frankie offered. “I’ll give ya that.”
“Why’s that?” Louie shrugged.
“That’s DiCiolla’s dame.” Eddie explained. “You got moxie.”
“You guys’re trying to needle me. Well, it ain’t gonna work.”
“Alright, if that’s yer poison.” Eddie shrugged. “Them dames are a dime a dance. Besides, we got more important things to worry about.”
“My cousin said he can only get us in between the time the screw does his rounds. That’s when he hands the keys over to the old guard.”
“And we’re running out of time.” Eddie added.
“Well, er, what time we have to be there?” Louis asked.
“In about half an hour.”
“No flatfoot is gonna be wise to us, get me? Seein’s how this Red-Car is just about to leave, I say we hop to it, gentlemen.”
The Red-Car was mostly empty at this time of day, with the majority of its usual 44 passengers capacity having already made their way home from the factories, sweat shops and six or seven storey office buildings. Few of them even looked up from their weary day or their newspapers to take notice the three well-dressed strangers on their trolley as it creaked past the double-barreled tunnel at North Hill Street. Even less, did any ever consider they were in the presence of three hired killers.
Just because the Red-Car cost a penny to ride, didn’t mean it kept the riff-raff off, even if they were well-dressed. The same was true with the Angel’s Flight, the funicular railway Los Angelinos would take from the heights of Bunker Hill down to the market and to lower Broadway. There had been talk of the fare going up another penny or two and that caused an uproar among the populace of the great Downtown area of Los Angeles. The location where the three associates were headed on this rainy evening was located in the Lincoln Heights section, just eastside of Downtown along Lamar and North Main Street. The “there” was a winery still in operation despite the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the consumption, making and distribution of alcohol, except without a medical license or use as sacramental wine for the Roman Catholic Church.
The three men got off the Red Car some blocks before and footed it along the abandoned cobblestone streets. It was an area that had seen a recent influx of immigrants, mostly Italian, French and Irish, Mexican and Asian émigrés who had moved to the area. The three well-dressed men didn’t fit the profile of the working-class neighborhood; a Jew, an Italian who was obviously a few generations removed from Ellis Island as well as his Italian friend, only slightly less removed.
The entrance to the winery was not heavily guarded, even for these Prohibition times. It appeared nearly identical to almost any automobile garage, save that it was cleaner. There was a chain-link fence to the side that held the copious redwood casks, but this was easily rectified if one wanted to get to the booze, although the fence was curiously intact. This may have come at the idea of the cost of eternal damnation or the gangsters who would send you there free of charge.
Not that any thought of damnation, eternal or otherwise ever kept the three hoods out of any scrapes with the law in the past. Eddie and Frankie were cousins in and out of juvenile detention who ran in the same thieving pack and once they were both pinched and sent to San Quentin, they met Louis who was doing time for embezzling and armed robbery.
Frankie and Eddie’s cousin, Jimmy, had boasted to them about being a security guard in one of the few wineries allowed to operate by law during Prohibition and how every now and then he and his fellow guards would partake of the vintages and no one was ever the wiser. There was so much booze in and out of the warehouse, he said, no one would ever figure that the guards took a nip now and then until the spoiled delivery was made to whatever parish and by then it was impossible to prove they had siphoned off a few bottles. Besides, he argued, wasn’t it Jesus who turned vinegar into wine? Religion never being one of Philip’s strong suits, he was just happy to be employed. Good-paying jobs were getting harder to come by, but access to real booze was even harder and Philip, a reformed morphine addict from the Great War; found the irony in churches preaching about the evils of alcohol, yet having all the wine they could drink and then some.
The San Rafael Winery was the largest supplier of sacramental Communion Rose’ wine in the entire country. Other than supplying the Roman Catholic Church in America with its vino, the winery was responsible for making medicinal wines, as well. It was a well-kept secret during these Prohibition times, but Frankie knew it was good having family on the inside. His cousin, Jimmy, would use the excuse of stopping by the warehouse on his night off just for a friendly visit.
Frankie, Eddie and Louis walked the cobble stone streets passing Zesto Beverage Company and North Broadway and Daly Streets, passing the Bank of Italy on the corner. They joked about knocking that over next. They passed the Wenz Mortuary with a knowing smile that a number of their gangster cronies having sent more than a few customers their way. A bellowing rumble wiped the smirks off their faces and broke the silence of the barren streets.
“Jeee-zus.” Frankie asked. “What the hell was that?”
“One of the lions at the Luna Park Zoo.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“You tellin’ me they got lions here?”
“Sure, they got lions, you nutsy falloon. It’s a zoo, ain’t it?” Eddie said.
“They got an ostrich farm too, ya know.”
“Ostrich farm? Boy, Los Angeles is a real goddamned menagerie ain’t it, fellas?” He said, looking at Eddie and Louis.
The old San Rafael Winery was to their left. It was now dark and there were only a few lights on, save for a bare streetlamp shining down onto the gleaming redwood casks in the doorway and a light or two off of what looked like a former garage. A chain linked yard next to it held wooden boxes and pallets.
At the anointed time of 8 o’clock, Frankie lit a Turkish cigarette across the street. A match flickered in the eaves of the doorway. This was Frankie’s cue. The trio walked across the street and scoured the area one last time for any set-up. They were ex-cons wary of a fix.
“Hey, Jimmy, what’s shakin’?” Frankie whispered as he met his cousin in the shadows.
“The screw is out in the yard checking up on the locks.”
“You bring the truck?”
“Yeah, of course I brought the truck.” Jimmy mimicked. “It’s right there.” He pointed.
“That’s aces, cousin.”
“Well, just remember to keep me in mind when you run your racket and get some scrip for the vino.” Jimmy reminded him.
“Yeah, yeah.” Frankie nodded. “You don’t gotta worry ’bout me.”
“Just stick close, huh? Tail me, fellas.”
“Like Dempsey to Willard.” Frankie smiled, referring to the boxing match a few years back where a young Jack Dempsey relentlessly mauled the hell out of the older Jess Willard.
The four men stuck close together and made their way into the musty warehouse. The owner, old man Santo, was already gone and the lone security guard wandered the yard in a bored manner. He stood against the wooden fence taking a piss and a smoke.
Frankie had the idea of busting Los Angeles wide open as the premiere bootlegging town. It had miles and miles of coastline where rum and the like could be run and many ports where just the greasing of the right palms would make them a fortune in a few months’ time. They would start here at the winery. It was a fool-proof plan, Frankie would tell his associates.
While Jimmy stood look-out, the other men backed up the truck in neutral to the large dock bay door and loaded the truck as quietly as possible with clinking cases and cases of Communion Rose’. There were over a hundred cases, but this was not enough to be detected, only when inventory was done at the end of the month. By then, it would be anyone’s guess who had taken it and where. The guards would definitely be questioned by the police, Jimmy included and he would play it calm and cool and plead ignorance, of which he had plenty.
The only mistake made was when a case slipped and came crashing down. This clamor sent the guard sprinting into the warehouse before Jimmy could say a word. A crack over the guard’s head with a two by four solved one problem but lead to another; the lifeless body of the old security guard. With the guard now out of the way, they loaded up the truck and then broke into the winery safe for a huge payday. Not knowing this was Mob-related money, they took the loot, rolled up the old guy in a battered blanket and tossed him in the back with the wooden cases. Perhaps lending to gallows’ humor, they thought about making a quick stop at the Wenz Mortuary and dumping the body. Cooler heads prevailed and they went to an open field and undressed the body to a guinea tee shirt, socks, garter and skivvies in order to preserve the former’s identity and get rid of the body once and for all. They also buried the money with him for safekeeping. They could always come back for it later, they said.
Many cases of Communion Rose’ eventually found their way to a middle buyer who then took the labels off and sold the cases to the Church at a steep return, as shipments were never delivered and this created a shortage in the local dioceses who were now unexpectedly in desperate and immediate need of sacramental wine. Other cases were sold to brokers at speakeasies and small-time clip joints, as well as less-than-ethical physician’s offices to use as medicinal spirits.
As for the four would-be thugs, after they ditched the body of the security guard and hid their hootch in Frankie’s garage, they made their way to Ptomaine Tommy’s for a late night bite of celebratory chili-burger. Ptomaine’s was the only 24-hour joint in the area. As they dined on their masa-thickened beanless chili that was ladled onto the burger by the owner Tommy DeForest himself, they boasted loudly of their exploits in the near empty diner.
An associate of both crime bosses Jack Dragna and Joe Ardizonne happened to be in the establishment at that time. This link was none other than Albert Marco, part of the City Hall Gang; the corrupt political engine that ran Los Angeles. Marco was not a made-man like Dragna or Ardizonne, but instead was the worst sort of gangster of all: a legitimate businessman. Marco stayed out of the Mafioso matters and was essentially the number one vice capo of all of Southern California. He earned half a million dollars alone from Los Angeles-area bordellos. City Hall also controlled the police and the upper echelon and their minions were told to look the other way when they weren’t busy counting bribes. Even the racketeers and the Mob itself had to go through City Hall to operate their vice, bootlegging and gambling houses and anyone who operated outside these boundaries were subject to being shut down by the police at best and at worst, being put down permanently by a vindictive and blood-thirsty Mafia.
Luckily for Johnny, Louis, Eddie and Frankie; this incursion into multiple crime family territories, not to mention interfering with the Holy Roman Catholic Church was seen only as a breach of etiquette with City Hall. What wasn’t forgiven was the stash of money that was taken from the winery. The would-be gangsters pleaded ignorance and blamed it on the missing security guard. This was plausible to the Mob and they continued their ceaseless search for a man who was already dead and buried in an unmarked grave, along with the money for safekeeping. Fortunately for the four men, they got off with a slight working over as both parties were put in a fix as how to handle this conundrum, plus their being directly associated with Al Patz and Capone. Shortly thereafter, bigger problems were dawning over the horizon in the power structure of Los Angeles and the Syndicate.
Times were rapidly changing. The Victorian Age was being edged out by the Modern Era. Lindbergh flew to Paris that year and the world became a much smaller place. Marcos was convicted of assault on a reporter a few years later. This turned the newspapers of the day against the City Hall Gang. Subsequently, the power structure was voted out of office in a reform sweep that took out most of the old guard. With no one tending the liquor store, as it were, the existing crime families exploded in an all-out gang war in a power grab to control all of the bootlegging business. This too would change with the repeal of the 18th Amendment five years later, legalizing alcohol once again, sending the gangsters to look for their ill-gotten gains elsewhere. In the coming years, Capone would be sent to jail on tax evasion charges of all things and his childhood buddy, Al Patz would be found shot to death and stuffed in a metal drum off the Hoboken Ferry terminal side of the Hudson, courtesy of the burgeoning and disenfranchised families fighting for control. Such control would be neutralized. As the blood baths reached a crescendo, it was decided amongst the crime families who sought a truce that they would be run like a legal business and would develop into what would be forever known as organized crime under the auspices of Meyer Lansky.
The days of Prohibition had ended and with it, the dream that was Los Angeles as the bootlegging capital of the world. Eddie, Frankie and Louis would go their separate ways, but never straying far from their roots in the unseemly side of life. Both Eddie and Frankie would die in the fire they started aboard the SS Normandie while it was being converted into a troop ship in 1942. The fire was a scheme by Lucky Luciano and his men to get the mob boss out of jail It would be then proposed to the authorities that such an act of sabotage would never occur again if Luciano’s men could guard the ports. After being shot while robbing a warehouse, Jimmy had saw the light, became a pious man and served in the Navy during the war as a decorated chaplain and retired with honors. Louis lived a long life and died of unnatural causes for a gangster; old age at 91 and with them went the secret of where the money was buried.
This is a cool story. Love the setting.
Thank you, vrabinec! I appreciate your comment.
Fabulous story! The dialogue is just amazing.