© Copyright 2014 by Sara Jacobelli
Papa Goes to Jail
Sunday April 11, 1982
Well, Nonna, sorry it’s been so long since I have written to you—it’s been THREE whole months. So much has happened here in New Orleans that I don’t know where to begin. We did have fun going to the parades at Mardi Gras, and for St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day, but other than that, 1982 has not been a good year so far.
The Biggest News around here is that Papa and his Sleazy Friends, as Mama likes to call them, got busted for Dealing Coke. Papa and Angelo are still sitting in Orleans Parish Prison waiting for a trial. Silvio got deported back to Palermo, Sicily. Mama said that you live in a small village and you never go to Palermo anymore, so you probably won’t run into him. But I remember Papa telling stories about the Projects you all used to live in in Palermo, a long time ago when he was a Little Kid like Gino. The Projects were called Cortile Cascino and he said they were tough Projects, just like we have here. Papa said him and Angelo and Silvio knew each other as kids back there. He said they were so poor that when they were nine or ten years old, they had to steal food to feed their younger brothers and sisters. Papa always says, “A Sicilian will steal to feed his family, but he will not beg.”
Remember when Papa and Mama had that Big Fight, and he beat her up, and Hacksaw took Papa down to the Bar? Well, Mama said she wasn’t taking him back, that they were Split Up For Good. Papa stayed away for a few weeks, then Mama took him back. When he came back, I was still mad at him. He tried to make up for it by taking us all to the Café du Monde for coffee and donuts. It was fun, but I still wouldn’t talk to him. We all laughed watching Gino steal donuts from other people’s plates. Him and Antonietta were covered head to toe in the powdery sugar. Mama said they looked like two Giant Donuts. We all took a walk by the Moonwalk and watched the ships try to make that big curve on the Mississippi River. Then we took the ferry to Algiers Point. Mama said it would be nice to live over there.
“We could get a cute little place, wouldn’t that be nice? A yard?” Her and Papa were holding hands. As far as I was concerned, this whole Family Day was just Papa trying to move back in. I couldn’t even believe that Mama was falling for it.
“Non so. I don’t know,” Papa said. “I don’t like to be so far away from the Quarters.”
Mama shook her head. “It’d do us all some good to get out of the Quarter for awhile.” We walked back to the ferry landing and waited for the boat to come back. When the boat docked, we clambered on board.
“Wow, just look at that view of New Orleans from here. Look at that skyline.” She lit a cigarette and looked out over the water. The Little Kids chased each other around, then I chased after them.
“Maybe we should start going to Church again,” she said.
Papa put his arm around her shoulder. “Come on, woman, you gettin carried away, trying to make everything perfect, you just gotta accept, we’re married, this is our Life.” Papa swept his arms wide to indicate us kids. “Not perfect, but I accept. No church, come on, they just want money from you.”
I mumbled to myself something like, “Our life is perfect without you going crazy and drinking and gambling and getting high on coke and selling drugs and hitting Mama,” but I didn’t dare let him hear me. We got off the ferry and walked back to the Bastille. Papa went into the bar and Mama took us upstairs.
I know he’s your Son, Nonna. . . and Mama says a woman always loves her Son, no matter what, even if he’s a Murderer. But sometimes I hate Papa, sometimes I love him. Sometimes he makes me Laugh. Sometimes he makes me want to run away and run down the dark streets Screaming in the Middle of the Night. Deep Down Inside. I know I’ll always be afraid of him. And that makes me mad, because I like to think of myself as Tough and Strong and not afraid of anyone.
Mama decided not to bail Papa out of jail, “because we need to spend the Money on the Lawyer.”
“WHAT money?” I asked. We were sitting on the benches in Jackson Square. Some Tourist Ladies bought a bag of pigeon feed from one of the stores and gave it to the Little Kids. They were feeding pigeons, and running around screeching when the dirty gray scraggly pigeons chased them down for more food.
“Mr. Carlo gave me some money. . . for bills and things. I thought I could bail Papa out, but it’s not enough.” Mama studied her fingernails carefully. “Umm. I guess I should use the money to pay the Light bill and stuff.”
“Mama, don’t even TRY to bail him out. Let him sit there for awhile. You should pay the Bills with that money. And we need clothes, everyone at school has better clothes than us. Besides, he’s got a Lawyer.”
Mama shook her head. “Those Public Defenders aren’t worth shit.”
Antonietta ran up to me and hugged me. I hugged her back then chased her off, “Girl, go play!”
“And honey,” Mama touched my face, ran her fingers gently through my hair, “It’s just that, seeing him at that arraignment thing, in that orange jumpsuit, all chained up with those Criminals. . . “
“Oh Mama, stop. The three of them looked like some Gangsters in there. They looked OK to me.”
“Well, he’s done time before.”
“Papa’s done time? Where? When? You never told me!”
“Honey, he did some time in Sicily, I think. And Mexico too. That’s where he learned Spanish. He speaks that Mexican better than the Spics do. Believe me, Papa’s been around. He’s been around girl, I’m telling you.”
“No, you’re not telling me anything. You never do. And Mama you shouldn’t say Spic. I know a boy who’s Spanish. . .”
“What boy? You like a boy?”
An older gentleman walking with a cane and wearing a suit and red bow tie and bowler hat came up to Gino and Antonietta and gave them each a brand new dollar bill. Then he came up to me and gave me a dollar too. He winked at Mama. “You have beautiful children, Miss,” he said in a Southern drawl.
“Thank you,” Mama smiled.
“And you are Beautiful too my dear. As Beautiful as the Morning Sunshine.” He tipped his hat. We both giggled as he walked away.
“Mama, there’s your New Husband.”
“He probably owns a St. Charles Avenue Mansion.”
“Mama, we could live there! Maybe he owns the Big Stone one. We could sit on the big porch in rocking chairs drinking sweet tea and watch the streetcars roll by.”
“You want that one? Not me, I want the Wedding Cake House.”
The Little Kids ran up to us. “I want the Little Stone house with the lions out front, not the Big One,” Gino chimed in. “And I want to make a motorbike racing track in the yard, with a ramp, and a skateboard park too. And a baseball field.”
“I don’t know which one I want.” said Antonietta quietly. “Maybe I want our old house on Spain Street. I want a birthday party too.”
“Stupid baby! That’s not a Mansion, it’s just an apartment!” Gino said. He pushed her. “And it’s not your birthday, raggazina!”
“Mi onomastico was in February.”
“Alright kids, enough!” Mama said. “I can barely afford birthday presents, never mind onomastico, name days.”
We walked back to the Bastille at Bourbon and Toulouse. Mama’s shift was starting, so I took the kids upstairs to feed them. They cried a little about missing Papa when I put them to bed.
I sat on the couch and watched Old Movies by myself. I missed Tootsie and Dakota, they were living with Hacksaw in Mid-City, over on Banks Street. I couldn’t call Dakota because we didn’t have a phone, we just used the phone in the bar.
It didn’t seem fair to me that Mama would spend every penny we had for a Lawyer to get Papa out of Jail. I thought about my thirteenth birthday—just three months away. I wondered if I would feel different then, what it would be like to be a Real Teenager. Maybe me and Dakota could run away together.
I felt like my life was turning into one of those old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, with each week being a different episode, a different adventure. I wondered what would happen next.
Photo Credit: “Twenties,” by The.Comedian. License CC NonCommercial. Flickr.