Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Chicago Cowboy


II / The Chicago Cowboy

I have heard stories of personalities that are notorious. That is the extent of my involvement in any criminal activity.
– Ruby, to Earl Warren (1964)

We could not establish a significant link between Ruby and organized crime.
– The Warren Commission Report

***

It was 1947. Jack heard he’s be getting a call.
After all these Windy City years, it was surely his time to go West
and he was thinking Los Angeles, maybe Vegas. He was thinking
he was that important: finally they’d let him have his own piece
of some sophisticated action. When the word came down
he’d be heading to Dallas, Jack couldn’t believe someone had him
all wrong. His talents would be wasted in a nowhere town like that.
The Chicago Boys smelled Texas oil, and they were looking
to control the wide-open gambling scene. They thought of Jack
as a man who could handle the chump change, and would he please
be good enough to dole it out as needed, making fast friends
with the Dallas police?
They promised he’d feel bigger down there,
and Jack had to admit he liked the sound of that, even if
down there was some kind of joke. He’d suck it in. He’d zip it up.
He’d be their Chicago Cowboy, as long as he got his.
He’d ask them to spring for a little velvet, something jazzy
In a white snap-brim hat. He could show them good, but
they shouldn’t count on Jack anymore to be that good for nothing.

***

Sixteen years later there’s not much left for Jack to think about:
the Carousel club, 1312 ½ Commerce. The half’s because he’s one flight up,
where rent’s a little lower. The stenciled message on the stairway wall,
A FEW STEPS CLOSER TO HEAVEN, wasn’t Jack’s idea. The single
rectangular room wasn’t quite the place he’d hoped for, either.
He’d dreamed of a sumptuous club-in-the-round, slowly revolving
on the top floor of a tower, where some kind of breathtaking view
was just a reservation away.

Still, by his peculiar standards,
he’s made the most of it: jet-black booths, dark red carpeting,
gold mesh curtains. Over the bar, a squadron of gold crowns
hanging from the ceiling – Jack liked the idea of working around those.
From the moment he first walked in and took over the operation,
he could see it wasn’t called the Sovereign for nothing.
And one enormous black velvet painting of a well-hung stallion in gold.
Jack guaranteed the bartender who helped him nail it to the wall:
The 3-D effect is what makes it real class. His favorite word,
class, is all he wants to be known for. This wouldn’t be a joint,
but a nightclub. And his girls would be dancers, hostesses,
entertainers
. Truly a man ahead of his euphemistic time, this Sultan
of Schmooze, this Kibitzer King, with his homespun sense of nobility.
And this is his low-rent kingdom. Welcome to the house
that Jack built: If they complain about the two-dollar cover,
tell them it’s worth it just for an eyeful of the d├ęcor. We’re fucking
class on top of class in here.

***

Before making a go of the Carousel: the Silver Spur. The Ranch House.
Hernando’s Hideaway. Then enough of the Texas motifs. Let’s try
the Vegas. And, of course, the Sovereign. Jack had a rapid succession
of dreams that didn’t stick. But this is the one he can’t seem
to shake: the Carousel, sandwiched between the Weinstein brothers’
Colony Club and the Theatre Lounge – where every night is Amateur Night
and the Weinsteins have got Jack fuming. He’s the one paying
for professional talent, trying to keep up some thin veneer of class.
He’s been known to travel out of town just to recruit it.
He’s still trying to live up to the good name he’s made for himself.
Jacob Rubenstein’s no proper name for a night-spot operator.
The reporters and cops come here to hang with Jack Ruby, club owner,
Producer, dispenser of small favors: free drinks any time.

***

If you ask Jack, he just can’t help thinking of Dallas
as one gigantic Amateur Night. In his heart it’s never been a city.
Back when Chicago was nearly wiped out by fire, Dallas was barely
on the map, too green to burn. It’s still too new. There’s no fire,
there’s nothing neighborhood about it, and Jack is neighborhood
all the way: do-for-you, do-for-me. No questions. No problem.
He learned his lessons on solid concrete stoops, along miles
Of narrow fire escapes, in tenement backyard clothes-flapping breezes
where any street worth its name had something new to teach you,
like how you could finally manage to stand to your own full height
and deliver. Even as a sawed-off kid, Sparky Rubenstein delivered:
sealed envelopes, a buck an errand, for Capone’s associates.
He pushed keychains, bottle openers, knives from a cart. Scalped tickets
outside Soldiers Field, hustled peanuts during the game. He sold himself
on helping others: tip sheets at the races. Carnations in the dancehalls.
Awful chocolates in the burleyque’s raucous dark.

***

Jack believes in what he insists on calling his orchestra:
four sorry tuxedos sitting at the back of an otherwise naked stage.
Ever since the night a musician bit off the tip of Jack’s finger,
there’s been no love lost between Jack and the music. Still, he wants
to do it up right. He’s always looking for any cut above.
More clothes are coming off to the sound of rock ‘n roll records
all over town. But where Jack’s the master of ceremonies,
he wants everything live.
He’s making his uneasy way through the crowd
with a microphone in his hand, when bang, out of nowhere:
the drummer’s rim-shot. And good evening, he’s our host, Jack Ruby,
and we’re not going to believe what he’s planned for us this time.

***

The best music Jack ever heard was in Havana.
When he squeezes shut his eyes just right, he can still see
the dazzling lights of the Tropicana after sundown. Now, that
was a nightclub, cabaret, casino supreme – room after room
of posh and glitz. No other action in the world came even close.
In exchange for delivering some crates of unnumbered rifles and guns,
Jack shot the Caribbean breeze with the wheels of the operation:
Santo Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, and his particular heroes,
Meyer Lansky and brother Jake. As long as Batista could hold on,
there would be the fabled Tropicana, where the insignificant likes
of Abe and Barney Weinstein would be spots on the silverware.
Everyone at the table knew what was coming if Castro moved in to stay:
there goes the glittering neighborhood.

But no one can take it away
from Jack now: his few days in the Cuban sun, the bloody steaks
a cut above, the umbrella drinks he never touched, but he liked how
they were there for him. Trafficante himself nearly busting a gut
when Jack played Conway Twitty air guitar on It’s Only
Make Believe
. And Jack soaked it in, he ate it all up, this living
at last high off the hog, an honorary Kosher Nostra boy.

***

This afternoon Jack’s in his tiny Carousel office,
and his head is spinning. Along with the gun-metal-grey desk,
beat-up easy chair, and the hand-lettered sign on the wall – SHOW
SOME CLASS – now there’s a safe Jack actually had installed.
For the man who’s always kept his cash in brown paper sandwich bags
or wadded thick in his pockets, who’s never had a checkbook,
who never cracks a smile when he calls his money dough,
this may take some serious getting used to. He’s on the phone,
letting his attorney know he’s just in from the Tropicana
in Vegas, and he’s got the simoleons to pay off his back taxes.
And Jack is nearly giddy, for Jack. He’s off the hook again.
He can keep his doors wide open for the indefinite future.

They’d told him it was the least they could do, a small 40-grand
favor he should consider more of a thank-you for all the years
in the Texas sun. For being there.
And for a minute
he almost dreams himself out of his cash-and-carry life. Jack’s
good for it
is what they’d said. For Dallas. For business.
For the long green. Somewhere out West he’s sure he could be
a real nightclub operator. A-listed partygoer. Fedora sensation.

Confidant to the stars.
But there’s no time off for good behavior
in the Lone Star State, and the Chicago Cowboy will be right back
where he’s always been: would-be highroller in a rumpled suit,
in precarious business for himself again
a few steps short of heaven. 1312 ½ Commerce – halfway between
the police station and the county jail. A rock-and-a-hard-place
kind of thing
, he jokes nightly at the mike. The cops drink free
and barely pay attention. But except for the Weinstein brothers,
Jack’s never minded being in the middle. If there’s any action.

So plug him in and light him up. Full of his misguided sense
of decorum, he’s about to go out there again and try shooting off
his mouth full of cornball gratitude in front of another crowd
that isn’t here to listen. They’ve paid their deuce apiece
for Girls! Girls! Girls! and who’s Jack Ruby to insinuate himself
into such a straightforward arrangement?
He’s learned one thing
over and over again in his obligated life: there’s no way
he can really help himself.

*

*

From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

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