The Shawshank Connection
Issue #8: I went back to Ohio...
December is usually a great month for me, energetically speaking, but this last one was strange - I wasn’t excited at all and was avoiding all the things I normally like to do - set up a new calendar, plan out certain things, make a list of goals and things to improve, get my tax stuff together, and generally set myself up for a productive New Year.
Nope, didn’t do any of it this time. I got distracted.
This was my first holiday season as a work-at-home/stay-at-home mom, and gosh, it was awesome. Lots of cooking, baking, just hanging out with my kids. They are pretty cool young human beings. No pressure to be anywhere, no real schedule.
With everyone around, though, it was also super tough to focus on all the stuff that I was “supposed” to be doing, work-wise. I’m a sitting duck for interruptions when they are home - but I can’t get frustrated with it. I love the fact that my kids stop to chat, show me stuff, give me hugs, ask for my help.
They won’t be in my house forever, so I just go with the flow. Cutting myself some slack gave me time to evaluate the past six months, and it opened up a little room in my brain. I got completely caught up by a project that’s been tugging on me for a while.
And then some really Big Magic showed up - so I had to go chase that bone and gnaw on it for a bit.
And now I have the beginnings of another book.
As a rock n’ roll-loving teenager growing up in central Ohio in the late 1980’s, the best place to see live local music was a place called the Alrosa Villa. I saw dozens and dozens of shows there over the years and I was there almost every weekend during high school. It was the place to be in Columbus before I moved to Los Angeles.
Now, The Alrosa wasn’t glamorous at all. It was basically a big beige shed in a parking lot beside a set of railroad tracks in North Central Columbus. It was a classic dive bar, a typical Midwestern-biker type speakeasy that could have been a drive thru liquor store, a buy here-pay here car lot, or a strip club. It was that kind of neighborhood. The bands could get pretty loud, and drunk people from the club would wander the street and railroad tracks and no one cared.
I moved to Arizona in 1995, and on different trips to Columbus to visit after that, I managed to see Faster Pussycat and then RATT, sometime in 1999 or 2000 - but that was it. Those were the last two shows I attended at The Alrosa.
Unfortunately, The Alrosa will always be most famous for the shooting massacre and the death of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott while he was on stage with his band Damage Plan (along with four others in the club) in December of 2004.
It was one of those moments that upon seeing the news of it literally took my breath away and I had to sit down. I was in my second year of being a librarian, and I was in my cube at work shedding a few tears as I was reading the article online.
My coworkers knew I was from Columbus and that I liked heavy music, but when I explained my connection to the place - they were all like “Dimebag? The guy's name was Dimebag?”. Of course they’d never heard of Pantera, and despite their baby-boomer liberal arts backgrounds and the fact that we were located two miles from the campus of one of the largest universities in the country - they did not actually know what a dimebag was until I explained it to them.
I’d met Dime only once, back in 1991 in Los Angeles, and I was just so deeply, deeply sad - horrified - that such a thing had happened in my hometown, on my home turf.
The Alrosa never really recovered. As shitty a place as it was, it deserved a better fate.
In December, 17 years after the tragedy, The Alrosa Villa was finally bulldozed to the ground to make way for a new apartment complex.
Holy ground for the holy dollar.
Our rockin’ little speakeasy by the railroad tracks is gone forever.
A few issues ago here at Library Confidential, I mentioned watching The Soprano’s again and the impact it had on me. I also talked about my Sicilian grandfather and going down the rabbit hole of research.
Intuitively, though, there is something inside of me calling - DEMANDING - me to write about our family. I know that sometimes family history is passed through DNA. And I also know that I have a strong enough sense of history, of culture, of my family's own stories that somehow I can write in a way that will connect me to family directly as they guide me forward.
One thing I know for sure - my intuition is everything, and my ancestors are calling to me. There are many stories there to examine. Maybe my grandfather’s dreams of being a writer are finally manifesting in me.
Since writing that post, a whole bunch of new information has come to me, and it started with a blog post by Justin Cascio over at Mafia Genealogy. He’s been doing some fascinating research, and because this entry was specifically about Ohio during the time I knew Papa was in the area - I found it super-interesting.
I mentioned it all to my Ma. She’s 74 now and I am pumping that woman for every scrap of information I can about my grandparents. She was born when Papa was 56 and Mama was 42. As I’m finding out, Papa had quite the life before he settled down.
Ma didn’t know anything about fruit vendors or The Banana Society, but I recall how she used to tell me about the Black Hand and La Cosa Nostra. We lived in a small town up near Cleveland in the 1970’s and there was always this little whiff of danger. I was aware of it even as a young kid. Lot and lots of bombings happened but I didn’t really understand it until I saw a movie called Kill the Irishman about ten years ago, which explained an awful lot about 1970’s Cleveland.
So, I started researching all of that. The history of the Sicilians in Ohio. How Lucky Luciano hid out in Cleveland. How Al Capone rode the railways between New York and Chicago, often stopping at various speakeasies along the railroad tracks to drink bootleg booze during Prohibition, like this one in little old Bucyrus (pronouced Byou-sigh-russ), with booths built of solid brick to protect the occupants from bullets.
Holy cow, it’s so fascinating. All these tidbits are filed away and I’m not sure what to do with them except to take notes and ask more questions. And I’ve always found that once you start focusing on something that interests you - things start to line up and fall your way.
That’s the Big Magic.
So, when my Ma got a call from her brother, my Uncle Virgil, a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even surprised. They haven’t spoken in 30 years. She doesn’t know why they don’t talk - it’s always just been like this in our family. But he called. He’s 83 now, maybe he’s feeling his age. I only met him once, when I was 15 and he was in town for a wedding.
Then, the next week, my Uncle Johnny called my mom. Same thing - out of the blue, they hadn’t talked in decades. Uncle Johnny is in a nursing home now. I grew up next to Uncle Johnny and until a few years ago, he still lived in the brick 1880’s farmhouse that Papa had bought in the early 1940’s. Ma was never really close with these two brothers, who were 9 and 10 years older than she, but her oldest brother, my Uncle Jim, was like a second father to her. She was baffled but appreciative of the calls and of course, I started asking her more questions.
And then Ma said, almost as an afterthought: “Oh yes, Johnny asked me if I knew that Papa and Uncle Tony had a fruit store in Marion and that Uncle Tony killed a guy in self-defense and spent a year at The Ohio State Reformatory?”
I almost fell over.
Holy shit. My great-uncle Tony had spent time at Shawshank!?!
Down the rabbit hole I went. That bit of information blew the whole thing wide open.
Since then, I’ve put some serious time into researching. Downloading news articles from the early 1900’s, birth records from Sicily, phone directories from multiple small towns in the 20’s-30’s, census records, immigration records, draft cards, platt maps, biographies, mobster names, railroad lines, and histories and maps of Marion, Lorain, and Ashland. I’m getting records from historical societies and compiling a list of other writers whose research intersects with mine so I can reach out to them with questions. I also need to call my uncles.
Papa owned several businesses over his lifetime, in a few different cities, some of them on ghost streets that don’t exist anymore and can only be found in the Sanborn fire maps.
In looking at all these maps (thank you Library of Congress), I noticed one thing that all his businesses had in common: they were all near the railroad tracks. Like RIGHT NEXT to the railroad tracks - blocks and blocks from the passenger depot. A hotel, a couple of restaurants, a fruit store, and a cement block factory.
It’s really probably nothing - railroads were everywhere back then and used heavily. Maybe it was the cheapest rent he could find, buildings next to the tracks. It makes sense to have a cement-block factory next to the rails. But a hotel? A fruit store?
What kind of hotel was it? Would people really travel a mile from downtown into the vast Erie Railyards to buy fruit? How many fruit stores were there?
I don’t know. I’m going to put it all together and see what it reveals. People leave clues and residue in the historical record, you know? I’m creating a timeline for Papa and his three brothers, and mapping out their families all across Ohio. What’s coming together is actually quite a remarkable story. Doing this kind of work is the equivalent of crack cocaine to a girl like me. It’s a treasure hunt - and when you find gold, it’s pretty amazing.
I only knew Papa as an elderly man - I was born when he was 79 and he died at 91. But I have such vivid, fond memories of him, of snuggling with him on the Davenport while he watched wrestling, sitting on his lap while he worked at his enormous roll-top desk full of cubbies and treasure, out in the garden with him when he weeded the tomatoes. He was a tiny man, but he had that solid old-man strength from a lifetime of fitness and hard labor.
The above photo is great, but a few weeks ago I was sent a picture of Papa from an archive from when he was 22. Officially, he’d been in the country for about three years. It’s now the earliest known photograph of him and no one in my family has ever seen it.
And when I saw it, I wept. It literally took my breath away and I had to sit down. PURE GOLD, my friends. Immeasurable treasure.
There is something about the look in his eyes - like he is speaking directly to me. I see my young, almost childlike Papa, but I also see my mother, myself, and my son. I see a force of nature.
I feel very strongly that Papa is revealing himself to me on purpose. I think he knows that the time is finally right for this story to be told. I think he chose me, his youngest grandchild, to speak for him. I’m the book lover, the researcher, the seeker, the dreamer, the survivor.
Out of all of his grandchildren, I’m the one most like him. The most outspoken. The most defiant. The most independent.
And so, it hit me a couple of weeks ago: I think The Papa Project has jumped the line for a little while. He’s made it obvious.
Library Confidential will have to simmer for a bit. It’s there, but Papa is done waiting.
Because family comes first.
Because I’ve got this meaty bone to gnaw on.
Because Big Magic is afoot.
Because I’ve got to figure out what those railroad tracks mean, even if they end up being nothing but a small detail upon the landscape of a much bigger story.
RIP Alrosa Villa 2021
RIP Darrell Abbott 2004
RIP Giacomo Baptista Bonfiglio 1983
Thank you for reading, friends. Writing these posts keeps my fingers moving and my head in the game as I do the deep work of writing another (two?) memoirs. Please consider sharing my work with your people if you think it’s appropriate.
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I do have one special offer, though: If you are interested in writing a memoir, or are struggling with how to begin, consider subscribing at the Founding Member level. As a way to connect, I’m including a one-hour coaching call (or a Tarot card reading - your choice!) in addition to my regular posts for the donation amount. I have a limited number of one-on-one coaching slots still available in February and March. I’ll shoot you an email to schedule if you go that route.
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I have another podcast coming out soon, and I’ll be participating in an intuitive writing summit in March. I’ll keep you posted on all of that for sure.
And lastly - I’ve been hearing from so many people who want to get started on a memoir, but it’s been such a strange time in the world lately that they are really finding it hard to stay focused.
We are experiencing what my friend Ayelet Baron calls The Great Questioning. This has been a stressful time for so many, but there will be abundant opportunity to grow and move through it. We can architect our future, and as we do it, there can be great relief and clarity in doing creative work - memoir especially.
Writing a memoir forces you to question everything. It’s the way to work through the complexity, depth, and truth of our experiences. It can rewire your brain to think differently about trauma and stress. Writing about your past is a way to write your future. And at the heart of it, your story is way to serve others.
With all that said - I’ve had a few people suggest that I host and teach a memoir workshop or class online, which is super exciting - and a little scary for sure - but hey - I am supposed to share what I know, and I know alot about memoir and all the challenges a writer faces when starting one.
So if any of this resonates with you, I’ll be putting together a workshop soon, and I’ll probably be asking for your help as I fine-tune my first-ever class.
I’m so excited to get this going. I have a really good feeling about it. And if you know someone who might be interested, please do share. It’s my honor to help people with their creative work.
So, thank you for being here. My readers, clients, and friends give me great ideas and inspire me all the time - and I am ever appreciative for the love and support.
Happy New Year, everyone.