Prohibition

Hoist a Glass to the End of One Prohibition, and Hope for an End to Others

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Illegal brewery
National Archives

As noted earlier by Meredith Bragg, today is the 80th anniversary of the end of the ignoble experiment, Prohibition. It was a national toe-dip into massive social engineering that proved so impressively unsuccessful and self-defeating that, even after it was repealed, its basic premise was repeated with a host of other disfavored substances and services—and without the bother of authorization via a constitutional amendment. For part of my family, Prohibition was a special time. It marked a period of prosperity that really wasn't replicated for several generations.

After years of trying make a living, with varying degrees of success, in Italy and Argentina, Giuseppe "Joe" Marano arrived in this country early in the twentieth century. Before long, my great-grandfather was doing pretty damned well for an immigrant. 

As my father documented in his book Heretic:

When Prohibition was imposed on the nation ten years later, Joe's ristorante was flourishing openly as the most successful speakeasy in the Bronx. Marano's Bar and Restaurant was the place where some of New York City's leading politicians, including the police commissioner, adjourned to drink contraband beverages far from the scrutiny of nosy reporters.

Even with his entire business operating outside the law, Joe put out a free lunch for customers. My grandmother, Virginia, was instructed to exercise a heavy hand with the red pepper, since it encouraged thirst and sales at the bar.

Marano's business efforts largely paid for a string of girlfriends and a comfortable lifestyle, but he also acquired property in the Bronx that was split between a cousin, and his daughter. Virginia married Salvatore "Chips" Tuccille, who made part of his living running illegal games in defiance of another prohibition.

Marano died soon after Prohibition ended. Well…After that prohibition ended. There was still gambling to keep my grandfather occupied. A cousin indulged in loan-sharking, to satisfy high-risk borrowers with a need for short-term loans of the sort the law doesn't allow. Another relation of mine became somewhat prosperous through a connection to what became known as the "French Connection," though I'm ignorant of the details of that venture.

For my part, college was a lot more affordable than might have been the case since I "corrected" identification documents to help fellow students escape the lingering alcohol restrictions left in the wake of Prohibition's repeal. I also sold grass in defiance of the biggest prohibition to replace the one on alcohol.

Frankly, those license-and-regulation-free ventures were a lot easier to navigate than any "legit" business I've worked since. But I could have done without the headache of looking over my shoulder for the cops. As the ACLU reported recently. thousands of nonviolent offenders are serving life in prison as a result of drug prohibition and resulting "tough on crime" policies. To save myself some worries, I should have followed Joe's example and cultivated the police commissioner as a customer.

So hoist a glass to the end of Prohibition. But take a moment to raise a pipe, a joint, a fake ID, a deck of cards, a loan receipt, or a host of other forbidden items in hopes that remaining prohibitions will follow the one that starts with a capital "P" into the history books.