I’m not so old to have any first hand knowledge of bootleggers and gangsters in America. My parents aren’t even that old. But my teenaged daughter, well, that’s a different story.
For several months now, she’s been a part of a world of prohibition and prostitution, murder and mayhem. A typical high school experience? Why, yes. The culmination? This weekend’s production of CHICAGO, THE MUSICAL
It was an amazing show with a cast of talented singers, dancers and actors, but it was the cast party that motivated me to write this post. Parents of cast and crew were invited to join their children to celebrate this evening, after the final show. While the kids gathered in one part of the house, the parents mingled in another.
My husband and I were standing with another couple, whom we know but only as acquaintances. As we chatted, we covered all the basic questions: do you have other kids? where do you live? where did you grow up? I don’t know about you, but when I ask these questions in a social setting, I’m interested in hearing the answers but I don’t expect to learn anything too exciting. Two kids, live in Massachusetts, grew up outside Baltimore. That’s MY fascinating story.
But we lucked out tonight. The man beside me not only grew up in Chicago but came from a family of serious bootleggers. He talked about how they brought the liquor down from Canada and how the longest street in Chicago bears his family’s name (hope I got that right. I admit to having a glass or two of wine by the time he told this story.)
As I let my thoughts drift away from the conversation at hand and I found myself lost in my imaginings of the life of this man’s relatives, dramatized by my mind’s ability to take all that I’ve heard from others or seen on stage and screen or read in books or school and mix them all up and elevate them to the level of high melodrama, I heard something that brought me back to reality: my husband’s voice.
The surprise wasn’t that my husband was speaking; he’s a pretty conversational guy. The surprise was that he was telling these people a story about his grandfather that I had never heard. I obviously don’t know everything that he has ever heard or seen or done, but after almost 30 years together (we were 18 on our first date), I figured I was privy to most of the juicy stuff.
He spoke of his grandfather who grew up in the American South. My husband has always been into cars, so when he was still a teen, his grandfather thought he’d be interested to know about how bootleggers in the South found that by changing the suspension on their cars, they were able to put a whole lot of liquor in their trunks without causing the cars to drag down in the back, which would have made it obvious to the police that something, most likely contraband booze, was being smuggled over state lines to be distributed illegally. He also told of how they had a way of setting up a valve that bypassed the muffler, allowing the car to move faster, which they could activate if they found themselves being chased by the authorities.
In the case of the altered suspension, once the booze was delivered, the cars returned home, tail ends raised high because there was no longer anything in the trunk to hold it down. And those cars with the bypass valve open made a loud engine noise.
Hmmm. Jacked-up tail ends and engine noise that can make you go deaf. Does that make you think of anything?
From what I gather from what my husband remembers from his long dead grandfather’s stories, the bootlegger’s car was the inspiration for the hot-rod cars of past and present day. There is an element of danger driving a car that could have been used to smuggle contraband liquor during Prohibition. Who better to have others compare to you than those crazy bastards who dared to break the law in a huge way to stockpile a load of extra cash?
As a teenager, I was never interested in those guys who showed off, driving around in noisy cars with their back ends jacked up in the air. At least, I pretended not to be interested. Like most men often can’t help but turn and watch a long-legged, long-haired blond woman swish by, I can’t help but turn and stare when a man revs his car engine and zooms away, car tail up in the air.
Before, I thought it was the volume of the noise that made me look, but now I wonder if some deep-seated cultural memory boils up at the vroom-vroom sound and a small part of me that I’m not even sure I know very well is seduced by the animal magnetism of the he-man who spends his days putting himself at risk of peril.
Or maybe it’s just that it’s too loud. And all that jazz.
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