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The Unstoppable Jennie Justo: Episode Three

Episode 3: The Boys Take Charge ©

Heading home on the train is like being in a time capsule. Thinking about the time around Papa’s death leaves me antsy, so I figure I’ll get up and stretch my legs.

It’s a challenge walking the corridor of a swaying train. I stagger like I’ve been on a binge. Running a speakeasy in Madison, I’m familiar with the gait. I have to grab the seat-rests in front of me for balance.

I walk to the back of the train and then turn around and walk to the front of the train. Having been in prison for the past six months, I’m not used to too much exercise. This brief stroll will do me until lunchtime— although with nothing packed and no money, I won’t be eating.

Thing is, I’ve gotten used to a certain organization in my day. Meals are served at the same time; I sit with the same women. I’d never been one for predictability before the joint, but being inside its important the day have some structure. My cellmates and I rely on routine to make it through. Correction: relied. I’ve served my time.

The other thing that I never really got used to was living under the thumb of the warden and guards; my back goes up when someone tells me what to do. It always had and, I guess, it always will. I’ve been one to think for myself and do things my way because my way is usually better. Mama has called me stubborn. My brothers have other words, and none are ones nuns approve of.

The walk lets me give fellow passengers the once over. It’s strange to be amongst regular people doing regular things. Mothers are riding herd over children. Children are bored, excited, fidgety, sleeping, or just being annoying. I pass by a brother tormenting his sister by keeping a toy just out of her reach. Their frazzled mother seems oblivious to it as she tries to comfort her fussing baby.

‘Keep away’ was a favorite way my three brothers liked to irritate me when they were small, and when I got older. Some things never change.

* * * *

The year after Papa’s death, life had settled into a new, yet diminished, routine. Mama ran the speakeasy much like it had always run. If there was a decision to be made, it was always punctuated by a ‘that’s what Papa would have done’.

I’d objected. And I’d persisted, “But Mama, I want to help. I’ve got good ideas. You never listen to me.” I’d complained again and again.

That’s what Papa would have done.’ That thinking had grated on my nerves. Modern times called for modern ways; I’d been a keen watcher of our competitors. I had ideas for things our customers would pay for. There was a lot going on in my head as I scrubbed the tables and stacked the empties.

“You are helping, tesoro. Now pass me those glasses and we’ll get things cleaned up before opening,” Mama would say.

“No, I mean really help. I think we should sit down and talk. Mama, we need to bring in more people. People who drink more. I think that we should do things to bring in the college crowd. Maybe put up some posters around the campus, run specials after exams, bring in music.”

I had a million ideas of how to turn our sleepy little speakeasy into a hopping joint. But instead of building up the business, I’d stacked glasses on the counter by the sink. Life wasn’t fair.

It was a steady repeat of, “Jennie, cara. Move it. We open in an hour and we have much to do to be ready. Your brothers should have done this last night after closing.”

My brothers were the darlings. Even Dom, who was still away in prison, had been forgiven. Mama, Pepe, and Joe ran the bar the way that Papa always had. We were the neighborhood speakeasy; every neighborhood had one or two. The problem as I saw it was our customers were old men who nursed their wine and beer and played cards. Slow and boring.

It didn’t help that Mama’s rule was ‘men only’. The names my mother called the women who dared to try to come in would make a dockworker blush.

‘No women allowed’ meant no one brought dates to our ‘speak’. I wanted to get a more upscale crowd into the place; folks with fatter wallets. I’d been to a couple of joints near the campus, and they were a ton of fun and full of young people… fellas and dames.

My little world was the bar, and I wanted to remake it to be a place I wanted to be. There would be music and dancing, everybody would have a swell time. We’d sell less wine and more beer and whiskey. If we made our bar that way we could charge more for the drinks, and we’d sell more.

I’d even talked Pepe about it. He was usually willing to at least think about taking my side on things. But he wasn’t interested either.

“Why change the way we do things, Jennie? We make a good living. It was good enough for Papa, why do you want to try something new?”

Every part of me yearned for new. In my mind, our speakeasy was not in the basement, and there were no mismatched tables and chairs. I saw pennants and banners from the University. The school mascot, a stuffed badger behind the bar. School colors: cardinal red and white. Badger Specials during exam week. Weekends would feature small jazz combos. Students would dance, and drink, and buy food. The place would be jumping. Go Badgers!

That was my dream. And Mama was no help. “But cara, why do you want to run a bar? What you want is to find a good man, and have lots of bambinos. Spend your time looking pretty, and find yourself a good husband. Not one of these pigrones. These lazybones.”

Between Mama pinching my cheek and customers pinching my bottom, my dreams were a mass of bruises.

It took a few months of constant pushing, but eventually, I got Mama and the boys to come with me to one of the student speakeasies. Dom was home by then. He was the tough guy, the oldest. He wanted to be the capo della famiglia, the head of the family. I worked on Dom.

At the student hangout, Mama’s sharp, shopkeeper’s eye took in the quality of the décor, the prices of the drinks, the crowded room, how often the glasses were cleared, and the number of fresh rounds set down.

“Look, Dom, you don’t want to spend your time behind the bar, polishing glasses,” I said. “You want to be building up the bootlegging business, finding customers, suppliers, making connections. That’s where the real money is. Running the bar is women’s work.” It was my ace in the hole.

“Maybe we should let her try, Mama,” Dom suggested. “It’s a nice little business. Something for her to do. And maybe she’ll meet a nice, smart Italian boy from the University.” Dom winked at me.

“And what would Pepe and Joe do, Dom? Help you, I suppose?” Mama asked.

“I’d drive, Mama,” said Joe. He fancied himself a bit of a speed demon. “And I’d help with deliveries,” said Pepe.

“And Dominick would be the mastermind behind the business?” Mama said. My heart sank. Dom was many things, but a mastermind he wasn’t.

“I’d always come to you for advice, Mama. You worked with Papa and know how things are done.” Dom’s charm soothed her, as the four of us held our breath.

“Mama made the sign of the cross. “Your blessed Papa, he put his blood, sweat, and tears into building the business. He owned Regent Street. Everyone respected him. He’d be happy to see that his boys want to take over where he left off. It would be good. Bene.” She nodded once and placed her hands flat on the table. ”Bene.”

I was going to get a chance to run the speakeasy.

* * * *

If I knew then what I know now, I still would have done it. Sure, there’d been a lot of hard work, but I made all the changes I’d pushed for. The first few months were an interesting mix of students and old-timers, but eventually, the old guys found another place to go play cards. The basement speakeasy business grew and thrived. And it was mine. I even made enough to expand and buy another place around the corner.

Dom and the boys stayed small-time hoods, but my two speakeasies became the talk of the town. Which maybe wasn’t such a good thing, it being Prohibition and all.

If you’ve missed an episode, you can get them here…

Episode One

Episode Two