When I was a kid I always wanted to be a hustler. Growing up in the slums around Spadina Avenue, I practically worshipped the neighborhood wise guys. I'd study them as they lounged on the sidewalk outside Jimmy's pool hall or rolled dice in the alleyway behind the College Street storefronts. After a while I learned to ape their patter, mimic their movements-the loose-limbed gait, the knowing wink, the cynical smile. School didn't hold much interest next to the streets. I dropped out of sixth grade and got by doing odd jobs, the same kind open to all smart-aleck ghetto urchins: hawking newspapers, shining shoes, running errands for the local merchants, or, more and more, those sharpies idling on the corner. This was in Toronto, in the '30s. The worst of times. Row houses packed with poor yids. You did what you had to do. I tried my hand at petty theft-fruit filched off the produce cart, tschotkes pocketed from the big department stores downtown-but it turned out I was no good for anything more serious than that. I didn't have the kishkas. Not like the real gonifs. Those genuinely tough Jews, the bona fide crooks, they were a different breed: hard and mean, no morals whatsoever. You had to be willing to hurt somebody in that racket. You had to be willing to do some harm. But that wasn't for me. Sure, I could appreciate a good score, keep an eye cocked for the main chance, but I wasn't some heartless son of a bitch. I had a conscience, for crissakes, not that cold antisocial mentality. I never had what it took to be a hoodlum. So I stuck to small-time scams. Betting, mostly, and then liquor-yeah, liquor was the perfect line for me. In fact, before things went sour, I made a decent bit of dough selling booze on the black market during the war.
The army sent my draft notice in the fall of '42. I was twenty-one and ready to fight, but instead of shipping out I got rejected on medical grounds. They said I was "physically unfit" because of a perforated eardrum-just like Sinatra. After that I avoided getting a straight job, never mind all the work available on account of wartime production. I wasn't interested. How come? Simple. My father slaved away half his life in sweatshops and what did he ever have to show for it? Nothing-unless you count the bad stoop, the chip on the shoulder, and the hacking cough that only got worse as the years went by. Back in Poland he'd been a rabbinical student, pride of the yeshiva, but over here he clocked twelve-hour days sorting schmattes for that greedy son of a bitch Meyer Weisbrot, a landsman from the old country but no less a bastard of a boss in the new. When he wasn't working the old man parked himself in his armchair in our three-room flat-freezing in the winter, sweltering all summer-and complained about his life, his terrible misfortune, and the son (yours truly) who never appreciated all his numerous sacrifices. Now and then he got up enough strength to trudge over to the temple and curse his fate some more to the poor rabbi. He was a bitter man, a wheezing victim till the day he died. I swore I wasn't gonna be like that. No, sir. No menial routine, no backbreaking labor, no Meyer-son-of-a-bitch-Weisbrot for me. I'd make my own way. Of course my father thought I was a bum, a good-for-nothing, uneducated, unemployed, carrying on with a rough crowd and wasting my life on late nights, fuhcocktuh schemes, and grubby low-stakes gambling. He was ashamed to have such a shiftless son.
Back then I spent the bulk of my time at Woodbine racetrack in the beaches, or, after hours, at the Diamond Gym, a fleapit boxing club above a Chinese laundry on College. You could lay a wager on practically anything at the Diamond. The fighters trained up front by day-scrappy counterpunchers for the most part, some solid amateur welterweights like Sammy Luftspring and Albert Roher, hard-nosed Hebes with the Star of David stitched onto their blue-and-white trunks. At night, though, the back room became a boisterous betting parlor, full of bookies and card sharps, con artists and kibitzers-the joint was positively rife with lowlife. Loud and dim and dense with smoke, the place reeked permanently of tobacco fumes mixed with stale male sweat. I loved it.
Most nights I played penny-ante poker with the other pikers, and I probably would've passed the duration in similar pursuits if Sal Rabinowitz hadn't offered me a job out of the blue. "Brickman," he growled, buttonholing me in the back hallway as I came out of the john. "I gotta business proposition for you." Sal was a two-bit bootlegger from way back. He was fat and perspired profusely; his lapels were mottled with greasy fingermarks. "What makes you think I'm interested?" I said, trying to play it cool. I felt a need to hide my actual eagerness for easy money. He said, "Don't be a wiseass, kid. If there's dough involved, I know damn well you're interested."
"It's like Prohibition all over again," Sal explained later over hot pastrami at Yitz's delicatessen. The government was rationing alcohol on account of wartime shortages, and Sal was all of a sudden back in business in a big way. His old customers ran the gamut from hopeless winos to well-heeled boozehounds, but they all had one thing in common: they were in an uproar over the new liquor rules, which limited everybody to just one forty-ounce bottle a month. At least that was all you could get through legal channels. "One bottle a month!" Sal howled. "Can you believe that? Some of these lushes drink that much every day. So naturally they want more. What am I saying? For crissake, they need more. They call me up, they're practically begging me over the phone. They absolutely need more booze. And here's the kicker-they're willing to pay more to get it." Which sure sounded like a good opportunity, but it also put Sal in a bit of a pickle, because he didn't have nearly enough stock at his disposal. People just weren't gonna settle for the watered-down bathtub product he'd peddled in the old days. They wanted the real thing-store-bought whiskey. Problem was the liquor shop owners. "The bastards," said Sal, "won't sell me diddly squat without those goddamn ducats"-that last bit, the "goddamn ducats," was what Sal called the ration coupons the government was giving out at the time. Every month you got a new book of coupons for all the stuff that was in such short supply because of the war: sugar, butter, coffee, tea, beef, gasoline-and now liquor. Each coupon told you how much of something you were allowed to buy and how much it was gonna cost: say, a pound of sugar for sixty cents. You took your little paper book to the store-the butcher, the baker, the grocer, et cetera, all of them now specially licensed to handle rationed goods-you turned over your coupon along with your cash, and you got your rightful share.
Part of the new deal was that the shopkeepers all needed to collect coupons so as to exchange them for fresh stock from the distributors-which is why nobody was gonna sell anything to Sal until he coughed up some of those goddamn ducats. Now Sal tried to lay his hands on as many coupons as he could. He bought some from scalpers at a buck a pop, but he never found a reliable source, and pretty soon he was spending more and more time beating the bushes, until every day became a long struggle to track down all the ducats he needed to fill the orders for the coming night. By the time Sal cornered me in back of the Diamond, he was just barely keeping up with demand-though fortunately for him the liquor dealers were all crooked enough to accept the "loose" coupons he managed to scrounge up on the sly. ("Loose" coupons, ripped from a ration book and re-sold for hard cash, made the black market possible in the first place.) Still, the effort was exhausting him: "It's goddamn draining. I can't schlep around all day and make the rounds at night. I'm too old for this mishigoss." Sal realized he had to hire somebody to help him out. He needed a delivery man, and he figured that I, as the onetime neighborhood errand boy, would if nothing else at least know my way around. "So what's in it for me?" I asked when Sal was done his spiel. "Ten percent commission, plus tips." I told him I wanted time to think it over. "What's there to think about?" He squirted mustard onto his second bulging smoked-meat sandwich of the night. "Either you're in or you're out."
The trunk of Sal's car had a false bottom for hiding his stash-pints, quarts, and forties, mainly rye but sometimes he'd get ahold of a decent bottle of Scotch, too. I met him at dusk in the narrow lane behind his house to load up for the night. He gave me the keys to his beat-up old Plymouth and a patent-leather suitcase with padded lining to cushion the product. I carried that case all over town, from respectable homes in the hoity-toity section of Rosedale to seedy rooming houses along the harborfront. There was almost no market among the Jews-they didn't drink back then. Sal catered to the goyim. (Years before he'd waited tables at a swanky restaurant downtown. When Prohibition hit, the upper-crust clientele pleaded with him for a taste of the hard stuff. He saw the angle right away-that's how he broke into the racket.) The best whiskey was reserved for the swells. I drove Sal's car to plush hotels and private clubs. At the Windsor Arms, I gritted my teeth when I passed the "No Jews Allowed" sign posted at the reception desk, a bottle of unblended Glenlivet snug in my case for the gentleman in the penthouse suite. Standing at the open door while Mr. B.-a shiny-faced Bay Street type with a weak chin and slicked silver hair-casually peeled bills off his roll, I tried to catch a glimpse of his mistress hidden just out of sight in the adjoining boudoir. I never actually saw the woman, but the smell of her perfume-something flowery, lilac maybe-lingered in the air, and one time I did hear her call out from the bedroom, "Darling, we're out of ice. Don't forget to ask the boy for more ice."
It wasn't all upscale haunts and high-class patrons, though. Sal's bread and butter came from the rougher trade: old alkies with rheumy eyes sunk deep into their ruddy, pocked, and swollen faces; defeated men who'd been around since Sal first built a still in his basement and served them gin at ten cents a glass after a long day on the line. They were sad, pathetic characters, and I hated calling on them all alone in their dingy little rooms. I thought I'd seen my share of riff-raff before, but those rummies really rattled me. I wasn't much of a drinker myself; still, they scared me off the sauce for good. Desperate, defenseless, no dignity whatsoever. I tried to convince Sal to cut them loose, use that stock to expand the business, but he wouldn't hear it. They were drunks, sure, but they were his drunks, and he felt a responsibility. Say what you will about Sal, he was nothing if not loyal. He just refused to forsake those souses. "Where would they be without me?" he'd say. "Lying face down in the gutter is where." Sal believed he was a source of consolation for the poor wretches, a balm in an otherwise cruel world. "And besides," he said, probably trying to counter the impression he was being soft or sentimental, "if they don't get their bottle from us they're sure as shit gonna get it from somebody else. All things being equal, it might as well be me that profits offa their misery."
Lady customers were less common, though Sal had a few faithful in that department as well. Mrs. W., for instance, lived in a rundown Victorian in Forest Hill, a mansion gone to seed, dark and sealed up tight, the lawn overgrown, a hulking mess. She was a stringy-haired dame, maybe no more than fifty but frail, and she always answered the door in the same faded flapper outfit, like she was going to some fancy party circa 1922. She clutched a little silk purse in her quivering hands, and it took her forever to dole out the money for her daily bottle. Once, when she didn't have enough cash in her purse to cover the order, I told her we could settle up next time. She shook her head. No. She was adamant. Wouldn't let me go. Then before I knew it, before I could set her bottle down in the vestibule and turn to leave, she unpinned the cameo brooch from her baby blue blouse and pressed it into my hand. "Now we're even," she said. It was a pale oval stone with a white matron bust carved out in profile against a crimson background. (About a year later, when I showed it to a jeweler, he told me it was a gem-a "sardonyx," which you could tell because of the different colored layers of "chalcedony.") "I'm sorry," I said to Mrs. W. "I can't take this." I brushed my thumb over the cool ridged surface of the broche before offering it back to her. Still she wouldn't take it. "Please," she said. "I want you to have it. In fact you must keep it! I'm giving it to you. It's yours now. I have no further use for it myself."
For the first time in my life I had a steady flow of income. In fact, I was so flush in those days I gambled freely and didn't worry if I won or lost, and I could afford other little kinds of luxuries, too: extra portions of sugar and butter for my mother; for my younger brothers, who I still shared a cramped bedroom with, I bought candy, baseball cards, and those combat adventure comics we called "black-and-whites" because they were printed without color ink on account of a wartime dye shortage. My mother was proud, my brothers ecstatic-but my newfound success only infuriated my father even more. Every night the old man watched me like a hawk from his chair as I came and went at all hours. He didn't know the particulars of what I was up to, but he was suspicious. And he must have started snooping through my stuff, because he finally stumbled on half a case of rye I'd carelessly hidden under my bed. Furious, he cursed me in his guttural Yiddish and called me a gangster-he spat out the English word like it was a foul-flavored gob of phlegm. He wanted me out. Immediately. My mother pleaded with him to let me stay, but he wouldn't budge. I'd had enough of the old blowhard by then anyway. I packed a couple of bags and moved into a basement flat below a two-family house a mile and a half away on Clinton Street.
The next day my father went to see the rabbi and bemoaned his horrible son the bootlegger. Rabbi Mintz somehow managed to calm the old man down; he must've promised to counsel me about the wayward course my life'd taken. The rabbi was a measured and pragmatic man, younger than my father and native born, but devoted to the immigrant poor, the greenhorns who made up the core of his congregation. I'd stopped going to synagogue years before and hadn't seen the rabbi in that time, so I was surprised when he showed up later that week at the back door to my new apartment. He wore traditional dark garb, but his beard was neatly trimmed, as if to declare he was a modern man, no throwback here. He got right to the point: "Is it true," he said, "you sell liquor on the black market?" I admitted it was. "And obviously you know it's illegal?" I confessed that I did, but that it was still too good an opportunity to pass up, and that I was just trying to make a living, even if my father found my actions disgraceful. I was expecting a rebuke, a scolding, some stern admonishment at the very minimum, but the rabbi just nodded, apparently satisfied by my answers.
Then he asked me how it was done.
I described it all as simply as I could, and then when I was through he took a large, crumpled paper bag out of his overcoat and set it on the rickety kitchen table. Mintz could sense my puzzlement because he motioned me to have a look. I opened the bag and gasped. There must've been hundreds-maybe even thousands-of alcohol coupons inside. They were neatly sorted into bundles, and each bundle was tied with a red rubber band. I'd never seen so many goddamn ducats in one place before. I said, "Where the hell did you get these from?" "My congregants don't drink," he replied. He looked almost sheepish. "So they give them to me. They don't know what else to do." I was getting the picture. "Wait a second," I said. "You wanna sell these to me?" The rabbi smiled shyly; he almost chuckled. "Why else would I be here?" It was clear now he hadn't come to give me advice or broker peace between a father and a son. "But you're a man of God," I said. "Why would you wanna get involved in this… this racket?" Mintz shrugged. "You know very well my congregants are not wealthy people. Somehow we manage to scrape by, but always just barely. In the meantime the shul is falling apart. The roof and windows leak, the benches are buckling, the paint is peeling off the walls. How else am I to afford the repairs?"
With the rabbi's coupons in hand, I broke from Sal and struck out on my own. "Goddamn you, Brickman!" he wailed when I told him. "I brought you into my good thing, and this is the gratitude I get?" I also poached some of his better customers; the way I figured it, Sal'd had a long exclusive run with them and he could stand a bit of competition by now. "I treated you like a son, goddammit. Like a son!" But I already had a father, and one was enough-hell, one was plenty-so I showed Sal my back, and let Mr. B. and the other well-to-do types know I was in business for myself. Because of my reliable coupon source (which I kept a closely held secret), I could practically guarantee a steady stream of top-shelf product. I set up shop in my flat and waited for word to spread through the right circles that I was the guy to call for quality goods. Before I could really make a go of it, though, there was one more thing I needed: my own set of wheels. Back then that was the dream of every boy on my block. Own your own car. Show 'em you'd made good. A new model was out of the question. They weren't making them anymore, on account of the war. I had to settle for a used job, a dark green '38 Chevrolet sedan. It was a solid heap, nothing flashy, but it was mine-and that was the important thing. I drove it around the neighborhood in the afternoons before my nightly run, just smoking and staring out the open window, marveling at how different those same streets could seem when looked at from this new vantage point. I'd come up from all that, and though I hadn't really left it behind, I still felt like I was finally on my way.
Before dinner I always stopped by Murray's gyp joint, which is what we called the corner cigar store, on account of Murray being such a rip-off artist and all. I bought my smokes there. It was convenient. And that's where I first saw her, standing behind the counter, the quiet new cashier with sand-colored hair and a nervous country smile. In a sales situation I was known as a fairly smooth talker, but around girls my tongue got all tied up. That particular day I was so bowled over by her simple beauty that I could barely mumble a request for my usual brand: "Export A, unfiltered." Over the next few weeks I made it a point to dress better and park my car out front of Murray's, not so conspicuously as to make it obvious I was showing off, but still clearly enough that it wouldn't escape her notice. I tried some small-talk, sticking to safe subjects-the movies, the Maple Leafs, the weather-but I just couldn't seem to work up the courage to ask her out. Then one rainy night I was running late and when I reached the shop door it was locked, the CLOSED sign dangling in the window. I could see somebody at the register inside so I rapped on the glass till I caught her attention. "Export A, right?" was all she said when she let me in. The cigarettes were on the counter. My coat was soaked through and I could feel myself starting to shiver. Still, I knew I had to seize this opportunity. In the suavest tone I could muster I said, "You're not really gonna walk home in that downpour, are you?"
"I don't see that I've got much choice."
"Sure you do. You can let me give you a lift."
"Sorry. I don't ride with strangers."
"Who's a stranger? I come in here every day."
"That makes you a customer."
"Which's better than a stranger, right?"
"I don't even know your name."
"Well, it's Isaac. Isaac Brickman. My friends call me Izzy."
She paused then. She had to be considering how familiar she was willing to get with an anxious, wet, wiseass little mug such as myself. After what must've been just a moment, but felt like a millennium to me, she smiled and said, "Pleased to meet you, Isaac. I'm Irene Reilly."
I drew out her story during the ride home and then over the course of several more dates-dinner at Yitz's; a double feature at the Royal Theatre; dancing at the lakeshore pavilion among sailors home on furlough with their long-suffering sweethearts. She was a farm girl from up north, near Owen Sound. The family on her mother's side came from Iceland; her ancestors were Vikings. In profile, her proud nose and high sloping forehead looked distinctly Nordic. Her father was a pitiless hard-luck Irishman. When the crops'd failed again the year before last, he sent her alone to the city. It was for her own good; there was no work to be had around there. Told her she was on her own. Fend for yourself. She was seventeen. She boarded with cousins and found the job at the cigar store. Murray was a good boss. Sure, he gouged the customers, but he treated "his girls" fair and square. I was smitten. A month and a half after I first drove her through that spring storm, I had the cameo brooch set on a gold band and proposed to her on the carpet in her cousins' threadbare sitting room. I invited my family to celebrate at the House of Chan, a classy uptown Chinese place, but my father refused to come. As if troublemaking, gambling, and bootlegging weren't bad enough; now I was about to marry a shiksa-and that was more than he could abide. My mother claimed he was unwell. His health, after all these grueling years, was failing. I still couldn't forgive him. My mother welcomed Irene and asked sincere questions in her limited English about our wedding plans, all while looking the other way as my brothers devoured a boiled lobster-forbidden treif our father would've never allowed-and I forced myself to smile and simulate high spirits even though I was incensed by the old man's snub.
Irene insisted on converting, and Rabbi Mintz prepared her for the mikvah. She'd hoped that adopting my faith might go some way towards placating her future father-in-law, but I knew the old man would be unmoved by the gesture. In any case, by the time the wedding came around he was too sick to attend even if he hadn't mulishly withheld his blessing. Mintz married us at the tiny synagogue on Palmerston Avenue; the rabbi was a real mensch that day, but in business matters he'd be putting the screws to me soon enough. After more than a year of mutually beneficial relations, he suddenly upped his asking price to a dollar per coupon-double what I'd been paying before. "Are you crazy?" I fumed. "No way am I paying that much. That wasn't the deal." "Deals change, Izzy. We don't exactly have a written contract here." "You gave me your word! That's gotta be good for something. You're a man of God, for crissake!" "It's nothing personal." "Don't you dare say 'it's just business'!" "Things are different now." "You're telling me." "Look, it's just not the same. Everybody knows the cards are worth something. They can trade them, get something in return. Not so many people just hand them over to the rabbi anymore. I have to solicit. And still I can't get as many as before." "And what if I say no? How're you gonna get rid of 'em then?" "Please, Isaac. I'm not as helpless as you suppose. We both know you're not the only game in town. In fact, I hear Sal Rabinowitz is in dire need of coupons and offering a pretty penny in return." The goddamn rabbi had me in a jam. I needed him more than he needed me, especially now with winter and the holidays coming on-in other words, the busiest time of year, when I absolutely had to have the most product on hand. I'd already promised to take care of a New Year's bash for Mr. B. at his Rosedale mansion, not the usual hotel hideaway. I was laying down the best part of my stake to bankroll the job, and I had to start stockpiling Scotch soon if I was gonna have enough for all his fancy-pants guests. I needed every goddamn ducat to make it happen. So I had no choice but to accept Mintz's terms, though looking back, after Mr. B.'s party proved to be my undoing, I'd kick myself for caving to that so-called man of God-what the hell, I should've known my luck was running low when I got outfoxed by a rabbi.
Before we got married, I confessed to Irene what I did out in the streets every night. I was relieved when she had no qualms about the operation (turns out bootlegging ran in the family-her old man'd made moonshine in his barn when she was a little girl). But as time went on she started worrying about me. "You better watch out," she said, pointing to a front page headline. "It says here they're going after guys like you." Which was true. The authorities were cracking down on the black market. The law was the law, after all. Never mind that nobody saw any harm in paying a little extra under the table for something they really wanted. The newspapers were full of stories. Irene read about speakeasies being raided; coupon rings busted; traffickers of all kinds hauled onto the carpet. I told her the feds and the local fuzz were too busy chasing down real racketeers to bother with small fry like me. She was still concerned for my safety. And with good reason-it was getting more dangerous out there. Sal Rabinowitz's delivery boy got robbed at knifepoint by some goon posing as a buyer. I assured Irene I'd be all right. I took precautions. My policy was no new customers without a referral-I sure as hell wasn't gonna get rolled by some random stick-up man. Plus I traveled light. I kept only small amounts of cash and inventory in the car at any given time. I'd fly under the radar. I knew all the angles. I convinced her I was too smart to get into trouble.
But sitting alone in that dank jail cell after midnight on New Year's Eve and then into the early morning of the next day, the first of 1945, I had plenty of time to wonder about where I went wrong. Only hours before, I'd been driving toward the biggest score of my life, a cool five hundred clams in exchange for the load of Scotch in the trunk. I was less than a mile from Mr. B.'s place overlooking the ravine when a squad car swerved into my rearview. I pulled over. A cop lumbered up to the window. He had a creased forehead and white hair poking out from under his cap. "You live around here, son?" "No, sir." "What's your business in the area, then?" "Nothing." "Nothing, huh? You have no reason at all for being out here tonight?" "Just driving." He asked for a look at my license. "Brickman, huh? That a Jewish name?" He nodded at his partner in the cruiser, then ordered me out of my car. I stood at the curb while the other cop went about the search. It didn't take long. He rummaged around in the trunk till he found the stash. "Bingo," he said when he popped the lid off the crate. They seized the liquor, dragged me down to the station, and booked me.
At first I was sure I'd been set up. That smoothie Mr. B., rallying me to round up more and more booze with the promise of a big payday-he'd played me for a chump. He must've informed the police I was coming. They were lying in wait. Just pick up the Jew and grab the goods. Easy as pie. Mr. B. and his guests were probably still swilling my best hootch while I stewed here in this pit. And those crooked cops, off-duty now, were no doubt enjoying the half-case they'd claimed as their own share of the loot. At least that's what I imagined. Mr. B. would naturally never admit to it, and he sure as hell wasn't gonna pay me for the product I never delivered. My only recourse was revenge. A just retribution against the rich man. I had some leverage, after all. I could blow the whistle on his affairs, drop Mrs. B. an anonymous note telling her exactly where and when her husband scheduled his extramarital activities. Better yet, I could blackmail him to keep the whole thing quiet. Either way I was gonna get my money back. I'd rebuild the operation, make it even bigger than before. Just wait and see. I'd be back on top in no time flat.
But Irene was having none of it.
She bailed me out in the morning and paid the fine with the last of the savings squirreled away in my sock drawer. I was filthy and stiff after my night in the can. My good suit smelled like piss. At first Irene didn't yell at me, she was trying to be tolerant, she wasn't gonna hold this over my head, but as soon as I started going on about getting back at Mr. B., she cut me right off.
"Don't you think it's about time you got a more regular job?"
"Oh, sure. Just like my old man. Busting his ass till he can't get out of bed in the morning. No thanks."
"It doesn't have to be in a factory. You're good with people, Izzy. You can sell something other than booze."
"I'm not working for nobody else."
"The war's going to end, you know."
"So you can't do this forever."
"It's easy money."
"It's not easy if you end up in jail!"
"Look, I'm exhausted. Can't we talk about this later?"
"No, we can't."
"Because you've got responsibilities!"
"You think I don't know that!? That's all I got these days."
"Well, you're going to have more."
That woke me up. It was like getting cold water splashed in your face: harsh at first, a shock, but then everything becomes clearer. All of a sudden I realized how much I'd been deluding myself the night before. There was no conspiracy. I wasn't set up. Nobody was out to get me. The cops were patrolling because it was New Year's Eve. They were protecting the rich folks from holiday mischief-makers. It was bad luck I got nabbed. Bad luck pure and simple. I wasn't ever gonna get back at Mr. B. There was nothing to get back at him for. And I was never gonna sell booze again either.
The war ended a few months later. Irene was right about that, too. On VE Day, the telephone rang and rang-it was my old customers, desperate for a celebratory drink. I turned them all away. There was rioting in the streets that night. Mobs of thirsty men looted empty liquor stores when supplies ran short. With some of my old stock I could've made a killing, but I'd promised Irene I was out of the racket for good. She was the love of my life. I would've done anything for her. After a few calls, Irene disconnected the phone. "Jacob's trying to sleep," she said. Our son. I needed sleep, too. I had to get up early for work. I was selling vacuum cleaners now. Door to door. Things were tight but we'd get by. My bootlegging days were behind me.