Certain Windows Excerpt

Ninth and Race


Prostitution, gambling, fencing, contract murder, loan sharking, political corruption and crime of every sort were the daily trade in Philadelphia's Tenderloin, the oldest part of town. The Kevitch family ruled this stew for half a century, from Prohibition to the rise of Atlantic City. My mother was a Kevitch.
Not all Jewish boys become doctors, lawyers, violinists or Nobelists: some sons of immigrants from the Pale became criminals, often as part of or in cahoots with Italian crime families. A recent history calls them "tough Jews:" men like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, who organized and ran Murder Incorporated for Lucky Luciano in the twenties and thirties; and Arnold Rothstein, the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, who fixed the 1919 baseball World Series. The Kevitch family were tough Jews. . . .

My mother's brother Albert was a taciturn man. He lived with his wife, Babe, nee Marian D'Orazio, and their four girls in a row home at Twenty-fourth and Snyder in South Philadelphia's Italian neigh-borhood. He had no son. Babe was a great beauty, hence the nickname which she still bears proudly at ninety-two, and her daughters were beautiful as well. From the street their house looked like any other working-class row home in the neighborhood, but inside it brimmed with toys, televisions, clothes and delicacies. The daughters were pampered and much envied. Education for Uncle Al, Aunt Babe and their daughters stopped with South Philly High. They attended neither church nor synagogue. There were no books on their tables nor art on their walls, excepting a mural of a bucolic Chinese landscape painted on their living room wall.
Uncle Al was a detective on the Vice Squad, the Philadelphia Police Department's special unit charged with reducing prostitution, gambling, loan sharking, fencing, protection and other rackets. The opportunities for corruption were many; some said the Vice Squad's function was to protect vice. Clarence Ferguson was the head of the Vice Squad. Babe's sister was Ferguson's wife. . . .

One of Uncle Al's daughters described her father by saying, He collected. The things he collected included antique swords, guns, watches and jewelry, as well as delinquent principal and interest on extortionate loans the family "corporation" made; protection money from shopkeepers, pimps, madams, numbers writers, gambling dens, thieves and racketeers; and gifts from the Philadel¬phia branch of the Gambino Mafia family run by Angelo "the gentle don" Bruno. Joe and Uncle Al died within months of each other, and at Joe's funeral Babe proudly told me how Al would make the more difficult collections, say from a gambler who refused to pay his debts. He would cradle his .38 in the flat of his hand and curl his thumb through the trigger guard to hold it in place, like a leather palm sewn to a wool glove. Then he'd slap the delinquent hard in the head with this blue steel palm. His collection record was quite good.


© All poems and prose remain the copyright of Dan Burt and are reproduced with his permission