Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Windy Night at the Biograph

It was a harsh, windy night in Chicago, a powerful downpour was on top of Lake Michigan, and I was walking along the shore, safe and warm inside of my slicker, thinking about Dillinger.

Now Charlie Floyd was a polite, jovial and likable thug, and having come from poverty and hardship, when he fell down in a burst of gunfire in that Ohio cornfield, old men in his native Oklahom
a cried like children and farmers choking in dust and debt wore black in remembrance of one of their own who fought, at least for awhile, against their enemy, the banks. Then there was Lester Gillis, who was every bloodthirsty nightmare of violence and death at the end of a tommy gun wrapped up in one tiny package of psychoses and rage. When he finally died, alone in a ditch, shot in the head by the last G-Man he killed, nobody missed him, not even his wife.

Clyde loved Bonnie and when they died, he tired in vain to cover her body with his own, but the gunfire was such that they were both cut in two. Suicide Sal, had seen her fate, and wrote her ballad of defiance and love, but the two of them were laid to rest far from each others side. And Al Karpis, always the smart one, the one who knew when the going was good had left the country with his loot and his life, where it all would have worked out if only he had kept just a little more quiet, but instead got a cell in Alcatraz where he sat from the day it opened until the day it closed, watching from his tiny window the city lights across the bay, like a vague memory of a long forgotten dream.

And then there was Dillinger, sly and strong, with a smirk and a laugh robbing banks while handing money back to patrons. Bank after bank fell, and no jail seemed to be able to hold him. For awhile Dillinger seemed to be invincible, striking at will and leaving the newly empowered FBI looking like amateurs and fools, while making a bitter enemy of the stocky little man in Washington who was more dangerous than old John would ever have believed.

Walking away from the lake I crossed through a park and then walked several long city blocks west, along businesses and houses. It was a well cared for, upscale area filled with coffee bars and restaurants, and music flowed from nightclubs and couples crossed by me arm and arm rushing against the rain. I saw the Theatre, and then walked a few feet further to the small ally along the closed Mexican restaurant next store. I stood under a small cover, briefly dry from the rain, and fished a cigarette out of my pocket, moist but still workable and lit it up.

As I stood there smoking, looking down on the spot where decades before a crowd of people had laughed and gawked, excitedly dipping their handkerchiefs into his pooled blood for souvenirs, and wondered if he knew this was how it was all going to end and if he even cared. It beats the chair I suppose, but I wondered if he would have agreed that night walking out from the fantasy gangster world of Clark Gable and into the very real one he had spent his short life reveling in.
His daddy was scared that gunfire would be Johnny’s fate even when he was young and had moved him far from the city to a farm with the hope that in the new environment the rebellious young man would settle down. But it just wasn’t to be and after a period of jobs and marriage, and even a brief time in the Navy, John found himself in a long stretch for a minor crime. And when he finally did escape, John was a man of loyalty who engineered the prison bust of his entire crew. Where he followed his mentor Harry and his best friend Homer on an interstate bank robbery spree with more success, skill and daring as anyone since Jessie James. When Johnny was eventually captured he smiled for the cameras, and put his arm around the DA like his oldest friend and the very next day escaped again with nothing more than a bar of soap and shoe polish making a mockery of all that was good and just, Men armed themselves and women locked their doors, Dillinger was on the loose and nobody was safe.
Throwing the butt of my smoke into a puddle, I leaned against the wall, cold from the rain and sighed. It’s easy to have a fantasy of being a badman, but the reality is short and bloody, never ending well. And yet for me anyway, despite the people who died because of him and the fear and chaos he brought, I still just can’t help but to admire the suicidal gusto that he embraced his life and his fate.

I shook my head, pulled my hood back up and with one final look began my long trek back to the hotel.

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