“So how did it start,” they all want to know. Then, before you can answer: “Didn’t it all start at the Cream of Michigan? On that night when the ghost of Joe Bernstein walked into the diner?”
As a matter of fact, no. If you want the truth, it started four years earlier, during the Palmer Raids. Of course, people don’t want to hear about things they’d rather forget. What they want is a ghost yarn or a gangster tale, and if they can get both at the same time, even better.
So they always start with that night at the diner—the night I strolled, big as life, through the front door of “the Crime,” as it was known back then. It was quite a moment, I’ll admit: The place was filled with forty of the mouthiest guys you’d ever want to meet, yet they all went dead quiet soon as I entered. Art Goldman actually let out a tiny squeak, like a mouse. He told me later that the moment he saw me, he pictured being eaten alive and that caused the squeak.
The amazing thing was that nobody reached for anything. The only motion came from a guy named Meltzer, who had been constructing an igloo out of sugar cubes on one of the tabletops (yes, this is the kind of productive work that was done back then). When he saw me, Meltzer’s hands went limp and crashed down on his igloo, spilling cubes onto the floor.
After coming through that door I stopped and looked around at all of them as they huddled in the diner’s ten booths. I held my hands up in the air, palms out, to show I was unarmed.
“Hello, fellas,” I said. “Been a while.”
Not a sound from any of them, not even another squeak.
So I continued: “I am not here to make trouble. I am only here to make a suggestion.”
I explained to them that a new time was beginning in Detroit. It was something big, and they could be part of it if they so chose.
I then moved towards Art, figuring he was the closest thing to a leader this decimated group had left. I extended my hand as I approached. Art seemed to be studying the lower part of my face. He was trying to get a look at my teeth, he told me later—wanted to see if they were pointed. Imagine that.
Art slowly reached out to meet my handshake, not knowing whether he was going to touch something solid or not, or if the hand would be cold as death, or maybe wet with river slime. But he got a warm handshake from me, and that seemed to change things.
At that point, the forty men in that diner began to ease up. For the first time in months, they could relax a little—knowing that I was right there in front of them, instead of lurking behind them or above them or who knows where. And upon hearing my offer—“Why not come be a part of this purple gang of mine,” I said—they began to see the possibility of a future wherein they could once again go to a movie or even just take a piss without having to worry about being pierced in the back by a blade or, worse, chewed to small pieces. They saw a fresh chance to start a new life.
And half of them were right about that. Whilst the other half ended up, over the next three days, in various sections of the Detroit River.
But I get ahead of myself.
* * *
To understand any of it—why those men reacted to me the way they did, how I came to be in a position to dictate the future for them and for a lot of other people in Detroit at the time—you have to start at the start. You must go back to Palmer: four years earlier, on the night of the second day of 1920.
On that bitter cold night I was stretched out on a mattress on the floor, looking up at the ceiling of a drafty little Hastings Street apartment. I was 19 at the time and my brother Max, 17, was sleeping like a baby in the apartment’s only bedroom. Somewhere in the middle of the night (whilst I was just lying wide awake the way I do) I heard footsteps out in the hall and then creaks in the floorboards, just outside the apartment door. Then began a light tapping on that door—once, twice, three times, four, five, six. Only an idiot would tap so many times, so I figured it must be Solly.
Whatever bad things I may henceforth say about the Original Solly Levine—and there will be many—let it be noted that he was the one who, that night, knocked on my door and brought me the news.
“Joe, you will not believe it,” he said as I opened the door.
I hate it when people try to predict what I will or won’t believe.
“Just spill it,” I said.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes, ” he said.
“Well, I wouldn’t trust them either,” I remarked.
I should mention here that Solly wore thick glasses that made his eyes look like big dark marbles. Behind the lenses, the eyes were so crossed and cockeyed it was hard to tell if he was looking at you or at something on your chin.
“There is nothing wrong with my eyes,” Solly said to me.
“Then you wear those glasses because they make you look so good?”
He folded his arms. “Want me to tell you what I saw or not?”
I rolled my hand, meaning get to the point.
Like me, Solly was a lackey at the time for the local Sugar House Gang. His real name wasn’t Solly Levine—he took the name from a local gangster who died years earlier (this was sometimes done back then as a tribute to the dead). As Solly started using the new name, someone once asked: “Are you the original Solly Levine?” Being the liar he was, Solly couldn’t help answering, “Yes, I am the original Solly Levine.” We caught him doing it, and then made fun of him by calling him the Original Solly Levine and it stuck.
He proceeded to tell me what he saw, though it took a while. At one point I had to take a hold of his ear and give it a short clockwise twist—just from 12 to 3 o’clock—to encourage him to keep the story moving ahead. After I did that, he kept his hand cupped over the sore ear as he continued talking, and it made him look like one of those radio announcers.
The story was that he was driving down Hastings and noticed a commotion in front of the apartment building where my girl Rachel lived. He saw two guys escorting her into a car.
“Were they cops?”
Solly shrugged. “They wore regular clothes. Feds, maybe.”
I had my hand on the doorjamb and found that I was squeezing it so hard there was a tiny cracking sound as my fingernails dug into the wood. But otherwise I was calm.
“How did she seem? Was she putting up a fight?”
“Hell, yes,” Solly said. “I think she bit one of the bastards.”
Solly smiled after he said that. As if amused.
“And while she’s fighting, you’re watching? You’re just a spectator?”
His little smile uncurled. “Christ’s sake, Joe, what am I supposed to do? Against three Feds?”
“You said two.”
“I said two held her. A third behind the wheel. What, I’m supposed to take them on? I played it smart.” He tapped a finger against his cranium. “I tailed them. Saw where they took her.”
I lifted my hand off the door-jamb and laid it upon Solly’s collarbone. I clenched firmly, but nowhere near hard enough to snap the bone.
“If you saw where they took her,” I said, “then that is the point. And now is the time to get to it.”
* * *
We left shortly thereafter. Before we did, I tiptoed through the apartment, past my mattress on the living room floor and over to the bedroom door. I cracked it open. Max was still asleep, curled on his side with his hands tucked between his knees under the blanket. His mouth was wide open as if he’d discovered a surprise. Maybe in his dream he had just invented a new engine that would put Heinrich Ford’s to shame. I crept quietly to the bed and something made me want to touch his shoulder. I did it lightly, the way you’d touch a bubble that might burst. His breathing shifted a little—in his sleep he must have felt the touch. For a second, a thought popped into my head: What if I never see him again?
As Solly drove me downtown in his Ford T—and I hate Fords, which is just one more reason why the ride was unpleasant—we bumped and bounced on streets that were mostly still cobblestone. It was cold in the car and Solly’s breath formed little white clouds as he told me how he’d tailed the car carrying Rachel all the way to Cadillac Square.
“They took her inside the Federal,” he said, his big eyes giving me a sideways glance whilst he drove.
He was talking about the old Detroit Federal Building, the one used be in Cadillac Square. It’s not there anymore; they tore it down sometime after the night in question. Maybe they were all ashamed of what went on in the building that night in 1920. So a couple of years later they leveled the place with a wrecking ball. Today, a lot of people don’t even know about what happened—you mention the Palmer Raids, you get a blank stare.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know anything myself. I sat there in the passenger seat of Solly’s car, my heart pounding and the rest of me bouncing to the bumps in the road, and I tried to figure why they’d grab a poor girl in the middle of the night and toss her in that building.
If they’d taken me, that I could understand: I’d been breaking the law one way or another since I was recruited, at age 12, right out of the schoolyard by a member of the Sugar House Gang. The guy stood outside the fence and asked, “Who wants to make half a buck?” And me, a boy who never once raised a hand in class, shot my arm straight up. From then on, I carried things for the gang, passed them, swiped them. As I grew big enough to do damage, I did my share.
Now, at 19, I was still a grunt doing odd jobs for the Sugars, earning enough to pay for the lousy apartment. I mostly kept to myself, didn’t carouse or engage in loose talk, didn’t mess with politics, had no use for unions. So there was no reason for someone like me to be wise to this whole Palmer mess.
“Did you talk to anybody at Cadillac Square to try to find out what the hell’s going on?” I said to Solly as we drove.
“I talked to a couple of guys. They said the cops were just grabbing people from all over.”
“Jews?” I asked.
“Who ordered it?”
Solly shrugged. “Nobody knows.”
“For what reason?”
“No reason. They were grabbing people for no reason at all.”
I knew that couldn’t be true—there’s always a reason. I found out later what it was: The raid was a response to a bombing by some crazy anarchist who tried to blow up the house of a guy named Palmer, the Attorney General in Washington. The government got spooked and decided to round up “troublemakers” everywhere. Raids were going on that night all over the country. But the one in Detroit was big: Some say they grabbed close to a thousand. I cared only that they grabbed one.
When the car got to Cadillac Square, I told Solly to drop me.
“You’re doing this on your own?” he said, in a tone that struck me as very hopeful. “You sure, Joe? Because you know I would go with you. If you want.”
“I’m sure you would, Solly. Just give me your tie.” I figured I should look proper—didn’t know what I might be called on to do.
Solly took off his tie and handed it over, loosened but still knotted. I slid the little noose over my own head and tightened it at the throat.
“Keep the engine warm,” I said. “I don’t know how long this will take.”
“What if you don’t come out?”
“Then don’t forget to visit,” I said as I opened the car door.
* * *
Cadillac Square was jammed. It looked as if everyone in Detroit had lost their minds and decided to go sightseeing in their pajamas. This was four in the morning on a night that would freeze the snot in your nose, and yet there were hundreds of them out in the square, just shuffling along in furry slippers. I mingled amongst them, hands in my pockets and head down, just trying to get a feel for what was happening and what I was going to do about it.
People kept pointing at the big white Federal Building, located just across from the square. I figured these shufflers were all in the same boat as me: Hunting for a loved one who’d been snatched in the night and tossed in that building. But the place was guarded like a fortress, cops all over the entrance, so there wasn’t anything much that these wandering idiots could do. They just went round and round crying, “Bwah-hah, where’s my Louie?”
As for me, I circled that square with a purpose, looking for my opening. For a good half-hour, my eye was trained on the building and its broad marble staircase and those giant pillars that glowed white in the dark. I watched the cops huddled in front of the entrance. They formed a circle whilst they smoked and tried to stay warm. Now and then, they’d part the circle to let someone into the building. They didn’t seem to be letting anyone out.
I was watching that entrance when I saw opportunity arrive, limping on a cane. I’m talking about the gimp, of course. I noticed him before the cops at the door did. He hobbled right up to them and barked something. When they turned to him, he flashed some kind of I.D., which he then returned to the inside pocket of his overcoat (I took note of that). The cops gave each other looks as he passed between them and went inside. One cop, behind the gimp’s back, put on a little act for the others: He grabbed his own leg like he was trying to drag it, and the asshole cops all laughed, though the gimp never turned back.
* * *
About fifteen minutes later, he came back out from inside the building, hobbling through that same entrance. Down in the square, I was waiting and ready. I calculated the angles, worked out the timing of his limping down those steps. But first, he paused at the top of the stairs and looked around at all the chaos in the square. He pulled a hanky from his pocket, wiped his forehead. He wasn’t much older than me, in his mid-20s, but I saw his shoulders sag like an old man’s as he wiped his face and exhaled. He neatly folded and pocketed the cloth, then started down the steps—angling his body sideways, stepping first with his right foot, planting the cane, then bringing down the left leg, which was stiff and clearly a fake.
“Move it, Peg, I don’t have all night,” I muttered.
Halfway down the steps, he stopped—I thought he was just taking a breather. Then I realized he saw the woman with the nose. And I thought, Oh, for shit’s sake, this is gonna be a while. The woman was sitting on the steps, about the same level as the gimp was standing, but maybe ten yards to the side. She quivered as she sat, her hand cupped to her face. Blood seeped through the fingers. Some heartless prick of a news photographer stood nearby, popping her picture. Earlier, she’d tried to rush past the cops to get in the building, and one cop pushed at her face; the bridge of her nose must’ve gave way (women’s noses will do that). Now she just sat there quaking.
The gimp came toward her, moving sideways across the wide step like you’d creep along a ledge. When he got to her the first thing he did was reach with his cane toward the photographer—he pointed that stick right at the camera lens and gave a sharp little poke, and the photographer scrammed. When it was just the gimp and the woman, he said something to her but she didn’t seem to hear. He fumbled in his pocket for that hanky again and gently stuffed it into the woman’s hand, still cupped against her face.
I thought he’d never be done with his good deed. When he finally resumed coming down those steps, I shifted gears. The further down he got, the faster I walked. By the time he was all the way down and a few paces out into the square, I was approaching like a gust that blows in from nowhere.
My shoulder collided with his, muscle against muscle, and it stopped him cold. He’d have tumbled backwards but I gripped the shoulder of his coat with my free right hand and steadied him. Then we got tangled up with each other and did a little clumsy dance; I could feel his hard unnatural leg against my knee. When he pulled himself back from me, the look on his face was not so much startled as suspicious. I could see now that he was fair-skinned and soft of chin, but the eyes were hard.
“Sorry, it was an accident,” I said.
He glared for a moment, then moved on.
And so did I, his wallet in my own coat pocket now.
* * *
Soon as I had some distance from him, I peeked into the wallet and saw the badge. It was silver metal; next to it in the wallet was an ID card from the Wayne County District Attorney’s office.
When I saw his name—Harry Riley—my first thought was: Can I pass for a mick? And do I really look like someone who works for the D.A.? I knew my age might give me away, or the cut of my coat, or my shoes, or the way I walked. There are lots of ways to tell who belongs and who doesn’t.
I couldn’t stop to think about all that. I headed toward those cops guarding the entrance. I approached with a confident stride, which is the way I walk anyway. When I got to them, I flashed that badge without saying a word. I barely acknowledged them, acted as if I considered them beneath me (and that didn’t require much acting).
And then, just like that, I was through the front entrance and inside. It was faster and smoother than expected. But then again it is always easier to get into trouble than out of it.