Albert H. Morehead

Dago Pete was a murderer by profession, but his ambition was to be a pool hustler. I discovered both facts quite early in our acquaintance by listening to a conversation between Pete and his elderly friend Joe the Greek. Joe was asking him why for Chrissakes he all the time stood at a pool table and practiced trick shots. Pete explained, “Joe, I want to be a good pool shooter so I can hustle me some chumps and make me a few dimes off of them.”

“So then where are you?” Joe retorted. “These pool hustlers around here, they don’t eat regular even.”

“Well,” said Pete mildly, “the racket I got now, it ain’t nice. You think I like sticking a knife into some poor son of a bitch I got nothing against? And what do I make? A few lousy lines!” In the lexicon of Pete and Joe, a line is fifty cents. Dago Pete did slightly understate the going rate for his services, but only slightly. In that year of 1927 he would occasionally accept an assignment for a ten-dollar fee.

Joe still felt argumentative: “When you hustle pool, ain’t it the same thing? You chisel a few dimes off of some poor chump you got nothing against.”

“Yeah,” Pete said philosophically, “but you work steadier.” He pulled out his murderous-looking knife and drew It across his sleeve as though stropping it. “Look at that knife! I don’t use it enough so it wouldn’t get rusty even.” He surveyed the table and essayed a “hop shot,” a device whereby a billiard ball may be induced to bridge an obstacle it cannot penetrate.

“Anyhow, they catch you pretty soon and you burn,” Joe mused. “They sit you in a big chair and they put straps on your arms and you won’t feel like shooting no pool then.” He laughed uproariously. “The only hop shot you make then is how you hop when you start to burn, sitting in that hot seat.”

“They ain’t putting me in no hot seat,” Pete said mildly. The reference to his impending death had not disturbed him; he continued to practice his pool, without looking up. “I ain’t giving you no break, letting you watch me burn.” He laughed in turn, apparently thinking he had the better of the repartee.

Dago Pete was then seventeen years old, or perhaps eighteen. Perhaps because of his youth and his simplicity, he was quite a popular member of the underworld circles in which he moved.

It should not be thought that the epithet Dago was in any way opprobrious in those circles. It is not true, except in lurid fiction, that “every crook has his moniker”; but in a society in which a man’s patronym is a confidential matter, some way must be found to identify persons having the same given name. Racial and geographical designations are most common.

So, if he is the only member by that name, a man is called simply Tom, Bill, Dick, or even Reginald, Aloysius, Wolfgang. But if there are two Toms, both will be given surnames: Scranton Tom, and Tom the Greek.

Not only Dago but nearly all the unmentionable epithets are inoffensive in underworld circles. A Jew may be Lou the Jew or Benny the Sheeny or Sid the Yid (rhyming and alliteration are employed as much as possible). An Italian may be Tony the Guinea or, as with our hero, Dago Pete. The position of the surname follows set rules that are scrupulously maintained. Greek and Sheeny always follow: “Nick the Greek,” never “Greek Nick.” Dago, Mex and Nigger always precede: “Mex Pete,” or “Nigger Mike”; “Mike the Nigger” would be incorrect and might even be offensive. However, there are not many that are offensive. Nigger is not, though Negroes dislike dinge or shine (carnival terms). Kike and greaser are offensive, and to some extent wop is,

I often chatted with Pete after that, sitting in the high chairs along the poolroom walls, and we became quite friendly, so much so that one day in an excess of devotion he assured me that “If there’s some G you don’t like, I’ll take care of him for you and it won’t cost you a cent.” Though I took no advantage of this generous offer, there have been times since then when I felt I would like to have it renewed.

Pete never confided in me as to the exact times and circumstances of his professional operations, but he did tell me once about an assignment he rejected. A great deal of righteous indignation went into the telling, and it is worth recounting here.

Like any other performer, Pete seldom made his own business arrangements. Various agents relieved him of that service, for a fee that I have since estimated to be ninety to ninety-five per cent; that is, they probably charged five hundred and gave Pete twenty-five or fifty. But in this case the intermediary seems to have turned the client over to Pete directly. No doubt — in view of the peculiar circumstances — this was at the client’s own behest.

“This crazy G,” according to Pete, “I meet him at Thompsons, see, and he says, ‘Now tomorrow night you go up to 316 East 97th Street,’ see, and I say yeh, sure, and he says, ‘And you go Into apartment 3D,’ see, and I say yeh, and he says, ‘The door will be open, you just push it and walk in, you have no trouble, and there’s a couple of C-notes In it for you,’ see, and I say yeh, sure, but don’t you have a picture of this G, I wouldn’t want to get the wrong G, see, and what do you think this crazy G says to me?”

“1 wouldn’t know,” I answered honestly.

“This crazy G says to me, he says, ‘You’ll him all right, it’s me.’ Can you beat that? This crazy G, he’s going to pay me a couple of C-notes to bump him off!”

“Why would he want to do that?” I asked wonderingly.

“That’s what I want to know,” said Pete with rising indignation. “‘I’ll be asleep on the couch,’ he says, ‘and the money will be right on the table. After you’re finished, you just pick it up and walk out.’ You know what I say to that crazy G? I say, ‘I’m walking out now,’ see? So I get up and walk out of Thompson’s like that, see. Can you beat that, that crazy G! I say to him, you must be nuts, I tell him! If you want something like that what do you want me for?”

“Well, didn’t he say anything about why he wanted you to — uh —” I asked, trailing off lamely because I could never think of proper euphemism for Pete’s unusual type of service and I always felt delicate about coming right out with it.

“Sure, he’s blabbing about insurance or something,” said Pete, answering my unfinished question. “What do I know what he’s blabbing about? That crazy G!”

“So you wouldn’t do it?” I said, rather than asked.

“Do it!” Pete exclaimed, horror in his tone. “This G is nuts!”

I have never been entirely sure whether Pete’s aversion was to killing the insane or to killing his own customer, though I think It was the latter. But I did eventually arrive at a rational explanation of the rejected motive for self-destruction by proxy.

As I see it, this man had determined on suicide for the benefit of his heirs. (I remember the president of a company in Cincinnati who killed himself for the benefit of the company, which had a half-million-dollar policy on his life.) However, this particular crazy G’s Insurance policy had (a) a suicide clause, and (b) a double indemnity clause. Only by contracting for his own murder could he evade the former while taking advantage of the latter. A clever way, in my opinion, to kill two birds with one stone. But not with one Dago Pete.