© copyright 1998, 2013 by Sara Jacobelli
In the mid 70s my father got busted for running hookers out of a string of sleazy massage parlors in Miami, Florida. He never was a PTA kind of guy. My parents had relocated from the Northeast the previous year, driving south in my father’s trademark twenty-year old gun-metal gray Cadillac. I always suspected there was more to this Grapes of Wrath saga than a desire for a change of scenery and to leave behind the brutal New England winters. My father was a compulsive gambler of the Italian variety and had a tendency to get in way over his head with bookies and loan sharks. Settling into a rundown section of Miami, Mom and Pop rented a claustrophobic weekly room and Mom found a sales clerk job at a JC Penny’s. Pop worked the “boiler rooms” (phone room scams) on commission, selling stuff like lady’s wigs and patriotic garbage bags. In choosing to settle down in Miami, I think my father was emulating the Sinatra character in one of his favorite movies, High Hopes.
The folks were starving and facing eviction until Poppy finally landed a good job, my mother excitedly told me over the phone. I was sixteen and on my own, having hitchhiked to Denver from the East Coast with my boyfriend Carlos. We were working out of labor pools, dining at the Salvation Army, dumpster diving, panhandling on Colfax Avenue, and also crashing in weekly rooms. Family history seemed to be repeating itself. “He makes $250 a week, under the table, plus all the sex he wants,” Mom said matter of factly. I opened the creaky phone booth door and bummed a cigarette from a passerby. “Mom, come on, does he. . .” My mother, who ran the franchise on denial, insisted he wasn’t having sex with the massage parlor cuties because her former Lothario now had emphysema and a pot belly. “He’s too vain and too sick to fool around these days. Besides, this is the best job he’s had in years.”
It was true. Poppy, a World War II vet, had managed to survive the Battle of Normandy unscathed, but never was too good at keeping jobs. He quit school at twelve to deliver Western Union telegrams on a bicycle. Since then he’d been a boxer, numbers runner, loan shark collector, bouncer, bartender, waiter, cab driver, oil burner mechanic and used car salesman. In his younger days he played on a city league football team and a Yankee farm team. He’d been arrested but not convicted for a 1950s Baltimore bank robbery. Lately, he’d taken to sitting around quaffing Budweisers and shots of Seagram’s Seven, smoking Pall Malls and watching old John Wayne and Frank Sinatra movies on the black and white portable. He’d get smashed and toss his crumpled beer cans at the wall and proclaim loudly that the government should “give a man a million dollars just for making it to fifty.” (If you’re thinking Jake LaMotta and the film “Raging Bull,” you’re close to the visuals). Mom, who dutifully toiled in laundries, dry cleaners and department stores and never made more than minimum wage in her entire life, was understandably grateful for Poppy’s new career, even though he was, well, technically a pimp.
But the clock was ticking on this happy little scenario. Pop’s massage parlor gig meant that he collected the money, “managed” the places, and listed his name as proprietor on the business licenses. In other words, he was the Fall Guy. The true owners, an Italian hood from Chicago and an Irish thug from Brooklyn (with made-up sounding handles like Tony Morelli and Dan Mulligan) made all the money and were supposed to get Pop out of jail and pay his lawyer if they were raided.
Which they soon did. I talked to my parents once after the arrests. My Irish mother was too tough to cry, but I could hear her voice cracking. “Things were going great until he was arrested. We had rented a nice studio apartment in Miami Beach. The rent, the light bill, the phone bill was paid every month. That fridge was filled with groceries. We went to dinner at Tony Roma’s and the Place for Steak. We went out dancing and to the movies.”
My father got on the phone. “Politics, kid, it’s all politics. Elections. Some bum forgot to pay off some other bum. I was just tryin to make a buck.” He mumbled something about the Grand Jury. I didn’t have any idea what a Grand Jury was. I pictured wealthy, disapproving people in a big courtroom looking down their noses at Poppy. Despite his lack of success in the real underworld he had the misfortune to look, dress and talk just like everyone’s movie tough guy.
That was the last time I ever talked to my father. It occurred to me as I hung up the phone that he never asked me if I was OK. But I was young, he knew I’d be all right. Somehow it doesn’t seem so dismal to be on the streets when you’re young.
I tried to call again a few weeks later, but the phone had been turned off. Letters were returned, “no longer at this address.” I didn’t find out what had happened to them until after my father died. All I knew was that he was out on bail. So were the rest of the gang, including a dozen masseuses with monikers like Kandy Kane, Cookie Crystal, Tiffany Smith and Sherri Siren, all employees of the Top Hat, Silk Lady and Velvet Touch Massage Parlors.
Though Morelli and Mulligan did get Pop a lawyer, they quickly left town and left Pop holding the bag. He had the option of going to prison for a few years or testifying before the Grand Jury. The old man might have been a deadbeat, but he was never a rat. He chose a third option. Flight. He and Mom split Miami’s blue skies for another round of hope. They lived out his last year under phony names in Fort Myers, by outward appearances just another anonymous middle–aged Florida couple who had fallen on hard times. Having already suffered three heart attacks, my father knew he didn’t have long to live and understandably didn’t want to spend the rest of his life behind bars. He found a job managing another boiler room. He sold tickets to the Sheriff’s ball. The employees were all giggling teenage high school and college girls who thought Pop was cute and found him to be a great boss. Mom made up a social security number and got a job as a grocery store cashier. Their lives were like the really bad B-movies Poppy liked so much.
The last time I told the tale of my father’s getting busted for pandering, I was having a few drinks in a San Francisco bar. Lloyd, an investment banker wearing an expensively tailored suit, was buying, while I held court. “Wait a minute,” Lloyd interrupted my anecdote about my father’s failed criminal career. “How much money did he make?”
“$250 a week,” I answered. “Cash.” I swallowed my third screwdriver courtesy of Lloyd.
“But that’s not very much money,” Lloyd insisted. Pulling out a fifty, he ordered another round, tipping the bartender generously. “Especially to risk going to prison for. I don’t get it.”
I reminded him that this was in the 1970s, in Miami. “Still, that’s not that much dough. Are you sure that’s all he made?”
I guess investment bankers like Lloyd who make tons of money legally find it hard to believe that every day of the week guys like Poppy break the law and risk their freedom for what they consider small change. If my mother were still alive, I know what she’d tell him. “Groceries in the fridge and the rent paid? That’s nothing to sneeze at.”
Author’s note: An earlier version of this story was previously published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Boonville, CA.
Photo Credits: “Change Happens,” by adam*b. CC License Attribution Only. Flickr.
“Frank Sinatra at Girl’s Town Ball in Florida, March 12, 1960.” by Wikipedia. Public Domain Photo.