CHAPTER IX

MR. PONZI PULLS A FAST ONE ON THE NEW ORLEANS CITIZENRY AND DUCKS NONE TOO SOON

From Mobile I went to New Orleans just in time to witness the terrible hurricane of September 1915. "Witness" is no word. I was right in the midst of it! Everything was flying but the birds! Store-signs, shingles, tiles, tree-limbs, galvanized iron-roofs! In Esplanade Avenue the trees were bending like blades of grass! I never saw the like of it before or since. It remained the worst storm in the history of the city until Huey Long struck New Orleans. His antics made it look like a breeze in comparison. As a political twister, Huey couldn't be beaten on this side of hell by either man or elements!

In New Orleans, Tulane did not need a librarian. They could have used me as a score keeper. But I could not keep myself, much less a whole score. As a half-back, it was entirely out of the question. I wouldn't have known what to do with the other half while one half was playing.

So, I reverted to painting. The good old reliable vocation. The only steady and permanent job. More permanent than a permanent wave.

Most store-signs had been blown by the storm to Baton Rouge and points North. It was cheaper for the store-keepers to have new ones painted than to move their stores up there after the old ones. I worked, they worked, we worked. And, by Mardi Gras, New Orleans again looked the same as it had for the past couple of centuries, only a little more spic and span on account of the fresh paint. I had those signs as flashy and bright as a Creole.

So far as appearances went, everything was normal by Spring. Only, the storm seemed to have kindled old feuds along the water front and around the market district. Hardly a week passed without some shooting, or some stabbing, or both. Blood flowed more freely than water. Life in New Orleans began to look like one murder after another. Things were so bad that people were selling their houses to buy cemetery lots.

It was after the wholesale slaughter in front of the Monteleone Hotel that an Italian Protestant minister and I were commenting on the situation, at his house, over the supper table. We were both very indignant. Such a state of affairs put the entire Italian colony in a bad light. The press was yelling blue murder as usual, and demanding action. The Mayor was pulling his few stray hairs and wishing his constituents would behave themselves until after election. The police were following imaginary clues which led nowhere. Chasing rainbows. Chasing everything but the culprits. And the killers were nonchalantly oiling their guns and honing their stilettos.

The Italian minister and I were in complete accord that something ought to be done. But who was going to do it? Huey Long wasn't there yet. And nobody else knew where to start from or what to do. Except burying the dead. The mortality was so great that National Casket shares soared out of sight on the exchange. Insurance companies were on the verge of bankruptcy, while undertakers were buying apartment houses. We decided to step into the fray and throw a monkey wrench into the feudists' ranks.

The two of us, in size and weight, could not have licked more than a couple of sheets of postage stamps without running out of breath. We were no Cameras. However, what we lacked in muscular development and boxing technique we possessed in ingenuity and practical psychology. We knew the killers were bold because they felt secure from detection. And why wouldn't they be? The cops, as cops go, couldn't detect a wisp of smoke even if they were sitting on a bon-fire. Informers were scarcer than flying elephants. Nobody dared to squeal. Not even the pigs. But let the fear grow among the killers that they might secretly be denounced by persons whose identity they could not establish, and they would undoubtedly slow up. That's what the minister and I thought, because nothing deters a man from evil more than the certainty or a strong possibility of being caught at it and punished for it.

With all of our wisdom, the minister and I were a couple of nuts, so to speak. Full of crazy ideas. We were about the same age and had much in common. He knew I couldn't paint any better than he could preach. He knew he couldn't preach any worse than I could paint. Our religious views did not clash. He was a Protestant. I was a Catholic. But he didn't give a "darn" what I believed in. And I didn't give a "damn" what he believed in. All considered, we were like two peas in a pod. Two bodies with one soul.

Having reached unanimous conclusions on the subject of the killings, we decided to act. We pulled one of the craziest stunts ever conceived. Actually took our lives into our own hands. No doubt about that. If word had got around in that community connecting us with what we did, we would have been stuffed with more lead than a fisherman's sinker.

We constituted ourselves as a committee of two, allegedly the spokesmen of a newly organized secret society which only existed in our fervid imagination. On the stroke of midnight, we slipped mysteriously into the city editor's office of the New Orleans States and whispered to him to lead us somewhere where we could converse in all privacy. It was a matter of life and death, we told him. He believed it. A matter of his own life and death, he thought perhaps, by the looks of us two. But he decided that the safest way for him was to humor. us. To gain time until he could find out whether he was dealing with a couple of lunatics on a furlough from the bug-house, or with a couple of murderers, or with two good men with a real story.

He led us to a little room. Made us sit down.

"Spill it," he said, using a verb that would cover the situation from all angles. It was clear that we were there to "spill" something. But he didn't know for sure whether it was a story or his blood. And he felt that the quickest way to find out was to use a verb which would compel us to show our hand.

"Not so fast, my dear sir," I warned him. "Before we speak we must have your word that you will never disclose our identity under any circumstances. If it became known that we have come to you, we would be killed in no time. Will you give us your word?"

"Yes. I can do that. I will give you my word that I will never divulge your identity to anyone," he promised. "But what's the story?" he asked.

"The story is this," I told him. "The better element of the Italian colony have decided to take matters into their own hands and put an end to all these killings. They have organized a secret society and pledged every member to gather information about every person suspected to be connected with any murder. The information will be turned in daily to the executive officers of the society, pieced together and transmitted to the police. The secret society will have spies everywhere."

"Who are the members of the society?" the editor asked.

"That, we cannot disclose. A fairly large number of Italians attended the first meeting and took the pledge. They came a few a time and at different hours so as to not arouse curiosity. They conferred with the leaders. Took their pledge. Learned the pass words. And left a few at a time as they had come. This is as much as we can tell you," I replied to the editor.

"What about yourselves?" he inquired.

"We have been delegated to represent the society and communicate with the press, the authorities and the police. Our first call has been for you. We will arrange later to meet the Mayor and the Chief of Police. We have brought a copy of a resolution adopted at the first meeting of the society. Here is the copy," I said handing it to him. It was a resolution the minister and I had drafted after supper. The editor took it and read it.

"That's swell!" he said. "I am going to print it as it is on the front page of tomorrow's morning edition. Who is it signed by?" he asked looking at the signatures.

"By us," I answered. "The Reverend here is the executive secretary of the society. I am its executive director. But you must not publish our names."

"Of course not," he agreed. "I'll cut the signatures off before the copy leaves my hands."

We lingered in the editor's office long enough to be complimented for our high spirited sense of civic duties. And make a few arrangements too. We told the editor we would be glad to meet both the Mayor and the Chief of Police. But could not risk being seen either at City Hail or at headquarters.

"You ring me up in the morning," he suggested, "I'll speak to the Mayor and the Chief and have them meet you anywhere."

The following morning the New Orleans States came out with a front page article on our midnight call. It painted us as two potential martyrs for the cause of "law and order." Only, that they did not exactly use the same words that make Cal Coolidge as famous as the beer did Milwaukee. They said something to the same effect. Praised the predominantly law-abiding element of the Italian colony. Published the entire resolution, minus the signatures. Thank God for that! The minister and I had been up all night waiting for a copy of the States to make sure that we were not named. If our names had been mentioned, dawn would've found us en route for parts unknown.

The story was a scoop which made the city editors of the Times-Picayune and other papers sizzle in their editorial chairs. There was more swearing around their offices that morning than at an atheist congress.

Reporters were aroused from their slumbers and rushed to the Italian district. Told to come back with a story or not at all. Promised all sorts of bonuses if they brought in a real whopper. But where could they land a story? They might as well have gone down to the sea shore and interviewed a whole clam colony. The Italians, as a rule, are very tight lipped. But on that occasion, the New Orleans Italians were ever more so. In the first place they had nothing to say, because they didn't know anymore about the whole thing than the reporters did. Then, they were scared to death to open their mouths.

In fact, they were in a pickle. They couldn't deny to be members of the secret society without permitting inference that they sided with the criminal element. They could not admit of being members without risking their lives. They were in a jam no matter which way they turned.

To make matters worse, every darned one of them believed in the existence of this imaginary society. Yes, everyone realized that he had been left out. If he was a good citizen, he was worried. He felt he had been left out because he was suspected to be bad. If he was a bad citizen, there was no question in his mind that he was also under suspicion. And, not only was he worried, but he was scared.

The reverend and I didn't realize what it was going to be like until we took our usual walk down the Italian district. It was almost pathetic to watch some of these people. Men ordinarily talkative and sociable had shut down like clams and were rude. Or, they spoke in whispers. Constantly, they were looking over their back, perhaps. With a sober look in their face, they would meet in the street and exchange signs. Signs that were soundless questions and answers. Peculiar of the southern Italians. But which spoke volumes. Volumes of fear and anxiety over a situation beyond their comprehension.

The minister and I did not hang around the district very long. We couldn't. Knowing what we knew, it was an awful strain for us to keep from bursting out laughing. But a mere smile would have been fatal. It would have doomed us. That district had lost all sense of humor. We had to go home to relax. And to phone our friend the editor.

We called him up. The Mayor wanted to see us, he said. Wanted to thank us for what we had done. And the Chief likewise. He was very anxious to confer with us. Both wanted to know when and where they could meet us. We suggested an appointment. The editor picked us up in his car and drove out of the city somewhere. There we met another car with the Mayor and the Chief. The Chief was driving it.

The cars turned into a side road and stopped. We all alighted and were introduced. Then we talked. The conference lasted about an hour. It was mostly with the Chief. We had to arrange with him so that we could make daily reports of the society's activities. He gave us a phone number and some sort of pass-word to identify ourselves. He said there would always be someone on their other end of the wire to take our messages. He offered us police protection. But we refused it. We couldn't very well give the police a chance to find out that we were a couple of fakes.

The Mayor didn't say much. Except promising his full cooperation. And we were willing to let it go at that. But the editor butted in. He suggested that the city appropriate some money to help the society in its investigations. The Mayor jumped at the suggestion. It did not involve any of his money, anyway. He said he would have $30,000 available for it right away. Just think of it! He was ready to throw 30,000 bucks right in our lap! The minister and I thanked him effusively for his generosity. But, actually, we got sort of panicky. To accept money under those circumstances would have been entirely too dangerous.

The conference broke up. We went home to talk things over. They had gone too far, we decided. What were we going to do with it? We did not want that money or any money.

We were just a couple of madcaps. Not swindlers. But how could we refuse the money and still appear genuine?

The more we discussed the situation, the more we became convinced that it was fraught with danger. One little slip and we would be sunk.

"Let's scram," I suggested. "This burg is getting uncomfortable."

"Together?" the reverend asked.

"Not on your life!" I replied. "I like you and all that. But you and I are just like nitric acid and glycerin. If you keep them separate, they are harmless. But if you mix them, there is hell to pay."

We parted. The minister solicited and obtained an immediate transfer to some other distant pastorate. I accepted a job as a foreign salesman for a motor truck company in Wichita Falls, Texas. The Mayor, the Chief of Police and the city editor of the New Orleans States were left to pull their own chestnuts out of the fire. I have never bothered to find out what they thought of us. Whether they ever discovered that they were duped. If they haven't they know it now. But I might as well tell them that it was done out of mischief and not out of malice. I hope they can take a joke.