My Father, the Bootlegger

My grandfather died when my father was two years old, so Pop and his siblings all went to work early in life. My father’s first job as a young boy was bootlegging. It was the family business, you see.

Both sides of my family immigrated to the States in sporadic waves from the 1890’s to the early 1930’s, until the Depression killed the job market that attracted us. We discovered that alcohol was illegal in the States, so naturally my family began to make and sell home brew.

We were small potatoes compared to bigger, criminal organizations like Capone in Chicago. Capone created an empire; the McGrane’s business was a cottage operation, brewing beer in the basement using family recipes from Ireland. We sold beer to the neighborhood locals to earn a living. After all, Grandma McGrane was a widow with six kids to feed, and there was no social safety net in the 1920’s.

Bootlegging is how my mother and father met. Grandma O’Leary would send one of her daughters down the alley with a clean beer bucket to “buy a draw” from the McGranes. My mother Jane would appear at the back door of the McGrane house – a little waif in a hand-me-down dress, bob cut hair, and a steel pail in her wee fists – and my father drew her a bucket for a nickel. My father was 10, my mother 8.

We got away with this illegal business because my Uncle John, eldest McGrane boy, was the local cop on the beat. He made sure the McGranes were ignored by the police and that no one else in the block set up a competing operation. You might say we had exclusive rights to the territory. Years later, my brother Harry asked Uncle John why only one block?

“Well, other people need to make a livin’,” Uncle John said. “One block’s enough.”

I think about Uncle John’s comment when I ponder over today’s business practices. They are rapacious. Just a generation or two ago, even bootleggers had a sense of the common good. Today, businesses have all the morals and ethics of an alligator: a large, non-sentient reptile that only knows “eat-breed-and-grow”. I wonder what Uncle John would say today about a world where a guy selling illegal cigarettes on a street corner is choked to death during his arrest, while no one at Bank of America goes to jail after stealing the homes of millions of people.

By 1933, Prohibition was repealed, our bootlegging business went bust, and the McGrane boys had to find real jobs. Uncle Larry went to work at a car parts factory, my dad went into the meatpacking plant, Uncle Jimmy drove a truck, and Uncle John stayed in the police force, eventually retiring as a detective. My Aunt Ruth married a bus driver, and Aunt Dorothy married Uncle Ray, who owned a tiny five-&-dime store.

Uncle Ray was the only family member who kept alive our family’s larcenous ways – he ran a numbers operation out of the back room of his store. For years, he was the local bookie. But only on one block. After all, other bookies needed to make a living.

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