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Mr. Capone

Mr. Capone by Robert Schoenberg
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All I ever did was to sell beer and whiskey to our best people. All I ever did was to supply a demand that was pretty popular.

    Why, the very guys that make my trade good are the ones that yell the loudest about me. Some of the leading judges use the stuff.

    When I sell liquor, it's called bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it's called hospitality.

-- Al Capone
HarperCollins; June 2009
504 pages; ISBN 9780061936258
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Mr. Capone
Author: Robert Schoenberg

Chapter One

A Twig Grows in
Brooklyn--and Is Bent

Gabriel Capone picked a rotten time to bring his young family to America. At age twenty-eight, with a twenty-three-year-old wife, the former Theresa Raiola, their year-old son and another on the way, Gabriel left Castellammare di Stabia, his native village sixteen miles down the bay from Naples. They landed in New York just in time for the Panic of 1893, which would wrack the country's economy for years. Gabriel wisely chose Brooklyn as home in preference to the even greater squalor and density of Mulberry Bend, Manhattan's Lower East Side Italian colony.

Not that the depression spared Brooklyn. Unemployment would soon idle one quarter of the borough's workforce, making it no time for the unskilled. Yet most Italians who arrived in America then lacked skills that could land them decent urban jobs. The Industrial Revolution had largely bypassed their part of Italy; nearly 97 percent of them had been peasants.

Why did so many flock to the cities? Why didn't they look for farm jobs or continue west to homestead what remained of the frontier? First, they had emigrated to escape a rural life they could conceive of only as brutal and dehumanizing; they came to better themselves, not suffer more of the same. The second reason bore more directly on Gabriel Capone's experience in America.

However hard, his lot was easier than that of most Italian immigrants because he did possess an urban trade. He was a barber, which implied considerable skill at a time when many still visited barbers to be bled and have teeth yanked. Even so, Gabriel could not practice his trade right off the boat, because like his fellows, he had no money. The average Italian immigrant family in the nineties had just $17 when they landed, enough to sustain them at best for ten to twelve days.

That meant most could not have searched for farm work or traveled to it even had they wanted. They took what they could get--which they could seldom get on their own. Most spoke no English. They typically became virtual chattel, recruited by one of the padroni, entrepreneurial countrymen who would sell the newcomers' services in work gangs to perform the most backbreaking labor at the lowest pay. One Italian later recalled bitterly his daily ten hours with pick and shovel for only a dollar, with a Saturday-night kickback of one day's pay to the foreman, followed by the present of a chicken at each Monday's shape-up if he hoped to work that week. That arrangement was extreme. More usual was the hod carrier who pulled down a good $1.50 for his ten hours--fifteen cents for each hour lugging bricks up ladders.

For Gabriel, lack of capital meant he could not open his own shop; and with haircuts and shaves a nickel each, no one could support a growing family barbering for someone else. Those nickels represented the other side of depressed wages: prices had to match, which usually meant immigrants could afford only the dregs. Four dollars a month rented a two-room apartment with bare walls, no gas or electricity, water carted in from a pump in the yard, a communal privy out back. A really poor family might cook on a kerosene stove, which doubled as their only source of heat. The better-off fed chestnut-sized coals into a potbellied iron stove. No one considered heating both rooms, not with coal at thirtyfive cents for a hundred-pound bag. "In winter," says someone who lived like that, "our place was just a little hotter than outside." His mother refrigerated food by storing it in the bedroom. Some weren't that well off. One investigator found five families--twenty people--sharing a single room, twelve feet by twelve feet, with two beds, no partitions, screens, tables or chairs.

The Capones lived better than most. Though Gabriel could not ply his trade at first, he avoided the drudgery and extreme low pay of manual labor because he boasted another skill that went with his trade: he could read and write. In Italy, as well as in America, the illiterate expected their barber to read them any letters that came their way. Gabriel's learning earned him a job in a grocery store until he could gather enough of a stake to open his own barber shop, a storefront in the tenement at 69 Park Avenue.

Children came. The Capones christened theirs with Italian names, though except for one, all of them grew up known by American equivalents. Vincenzo, born in Italy the year after the Capones' 1891 marriage, was called Jimmy in America. Raffalo, born not long after they landed in 1893, was Ralph. Salvatore, always known as Frank, was born in 1895.

Theresa had her fourth son on January 17, 1899, a mild Tuesday.

Exactly three weeks later, on February 7, the infant's godmother, Sophia Milo, bundled him off to the church where Theresa prayed with devout regularity, the cramped, in-a-basement St. Michael the Archangel, on Lawrence Street at the comer of Tillary in downtown Brooklyn. The Reverend Fr. Joseph Garofalo baptized him Alphonsus, Latin for Alfonso. Later, many would claim that his family name was really "Caponi," the implication being that he had Americanized it. In fact, his last name, at baptism, was spelled with an e. And since the Church required only one sponsor, he would grow with the guidance of no godfather.

When little Al came along, the Capones lived at 95 Navy Street, five blocks from St. Michael's, bordering the New York Naval Shipyard--better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Predictably, the neighborhood was rough, Sands Street especially. Conveniently dead-ending on Navy Street at the Navy Yard gate, Sands offered all the diversions suggested by the phrase "drunken sailors."

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