In those days I was a frequent visitor to Baldi’s Funeral Parlor which was the last way station for Philadelphia’s Sicilian immigrant population. I saw My Uncle Charlie, my namesake, come to send off Serafino Colletti, my mother’s cousin who had died suddenly, but not violently. Serafino was a favorite among us younger cousins because he was full of stories. He never had a real job but he patched together a living by driving limousines in funerals, pall bearing, and driving carloads of gamblers to itinerant crap games outside the city limits He was fun, but trying for his wife, my mother said. His sons turned out well: Bennie was into numbers, high up, nice for his classy wife who could pretend he was straight. His brother Nunzio was an accountant.
Here was Uncle Charlie, Serafino’s kindred spirit, sobbing, his face drenched. standing before Serafino’s open casket.
“Zu Calo, I didn’t know you and Serafino were so close.”
“Close? We were in jail together.”
“Jail. When? Where? ” He clammed up and I let it drop because I knew my mother would tell me. With a few glasses of wine in him he himself would tell me.
In 1919 when my cousin Beatrice was born, my uncle and his family lived in tiny row house on the black fringes of little Italy. Beatrice, like her sisters, (like her cousins including me) was born at home, on the second floor back, delivered by a midwife. On the first Saturday after her birth, the relatives came round to pay their respect and to drop a dollar on the bedspread. The visitors went first to the second floor where the wives remained, seated along the walls by the bed while the husbands descended to the first floor kitchen. There was wine and coffee, and a friendly card game was in progress. My father did not stay. He went to the burlesque theater whose message was intelligible even to a horny illiterate whose wife was seven months pregnant.
Serafino was entertaining the women on the second floor. In the first floor kitchen the men were intent on the card game. They looked up to see a gunman enter the room quietly with his gun drawn. The paisani were wearing their Sunday best, with gold watches and chains. And Friday salaries to pick clean. However, a man sitting at the table, my uncle’s brother-in-law from Jersey City, surreptitiously pulled out his gun, and shot the gunman dead. He immediately ran into the back yard, jumped the fence and disappeared. Serafino came running down the stairs with his gun drawn. Already there were cries from the street. He ran back to the bed room and handed his gun to my mother. “The police won’t search a pregnant woman.” And they didn’t. The cops arrested Uncle Charlie as the house owner and Serafino for the friends he kept. They told the police that two gunmen had entered the kitchen, they started to argue, one shot the other and fled. “Why didn’t you tell the truth?” I said, it was a perfect case of self-defense. “We couldn’t because my brother-in-law was wanted for a shooting in Jersey City”.
Their improbable alibi netted them 30 or 40 days in jail. No one knows how many days exactly because they were never charged. They were held illegally, unconstitutionally. They were slapped around a bit, but they didn’t change their story. Who knows why they were released. The dead gunman was a bad actor, good riddance. Because they were never charged, there was no public record. Chilling. Who supported their families meanwhile?