My Father was a Gangster

Renee_Roland_BB_openingThe Making of a Chef

I would sit at the window and count cars until his Chevy pulled up to the curb.  He was always about forty to fifty cars late. I spent hours waiting for his visits, only to hate him out loud once he came to the door.  My smart aleck comments reeked of pain, and boomeranged through the screen door, keeping me separate from my hurt and fear. My father moved from our apartment before my memories became crystal clear.  He would reappear periodically, adding facets to my recollections, sometimes bringing more clarity and other times more distortion.   You’d think I’d have preferred to count cars than fool myself into believing he wouldn’t come home and inflict the inevitable terror over and over again.

Or perhaps my mother had found him again at the bar and brought him home after closing time. It would only be a matter of minutes before Mom’s badgering began, and the evening ended with a fistfight and the inevitable police call. In the morning, my mother was always left alone with yet another black eye or bruised rib, and a promise to us she could not keep, that he would not come back again. This was the norm in a household that never healed.

As a child, I learned early that love meant enduring pain inflicted by the people you love most. I grew up believing this definition of love. Undying loyalty was a hard lesson to unlearn and reframe.

As much as I loathed my father, I revered him. His gangster predispositions shaped my moral make-up from a young age.

I once believed that all men were part of the mob, carried guns, and had sausage rolls of hundred dollar bills in their bulging pants pockets.  His folktales could satisfy a hungry beggar; they were the square patties of ground beef grilled at Harry’s Hamburgers, Dad’s favorite roadside stand. Bar rooms were his stage and my classroom.   Little did I know that safe cracking was not an acceptable trade for career day at school.

As a child my father was dirt poor.  He was a cowboy who played the guitar and sang in a country band. He never told me the straight story, forever changing melodies as his bulky fingers two-stepped down the neck of his guitar.  Watering his thirst for money, he opened a Country Western Bar called the Office Lounge when I was ten.  The slogan was, “Don’t lie to your wife, when you say you’re at the office, be at the Office. “  That was Dad’s variety of honesty.

He was a workaholic, always at the Office, and a ladies’ man. Women lined up throughout his life claiming to have born his offspring; two of these children have shown up in my life since his death.

When dad and his younger brother were still in diapers, his father volunteered for a WWII suicide mission with an infamous U.S. Army Paratrooper unit, The “Filthy Thirteen” made of rabble-rousing Canadians, crazy as they were brave. Six months before their mission, they are said to have exchanged a blood oath to neither wash nor shave until after D-Day. They slept in their clothes – including jackets and parachute boots.  They trained in a style then compared to the warfare tactics of Native American Indians, had Mohawks and wore war paint on their faces. “They fought among themselves with their fists until they dropped from exhaustion,” one newspaper account reported.

One night my grandfather, Frenchie Baribeau, got into a barroom brawl, left, and came back an hour later dressed in his full army uniform ready to kill.  My father apparently inherited these traits from his father.  While he would willingly die at gunpoint for his loved-ones, Dad was incapable of living for us.

Granma Baribeau, as we called her, never remarried, and shared her shack with her brother, my great Uncle Richie, a devout Catholic who missed his calling as a priest. The house had the same construction as the chicken coop in the back corner of her two-acre farm, with rooms tacked on as needed when two more children came along. She was the original entrepreneur in our family who ran a roadside produce stand to supplement her war pension. My grandmother taught both my father and me that sometimes it is ok to shape the story to fit the circumstance.

I worked for her before I could even reach the counters without standing on a crate, earning a bounty of $1.00 per day. I grazed all day long, moving from succulent peaches to juicy tomatoes with mayonnaise on white bread, to perfectly cooked Gentleman John’s corn that my grandmother simmered for exactly 6 minutes, with just a touch of sugar and salt. The lie I learned to tell was that we grew all our produce in the fields the customers could see from the road. In truth, the only thing growing out behind the house were the four rows of corn we cultivated to shield the dirt acre field.  Beyond the flowing golden tops of the façade were abandoned cars under a blanket of weeds.

My early love affair with food began with that job. However I would double my height before I would ever eat anything at home beside cheeseburgers and bologna sandwiches.


One spring morning Dad arrived in Syracuse by plane. Tempered by Bloody Marys, looking like a Smithfield ham; his big belly hanging over tacky lime green polyester pants, his fist-size gold nugget on a neck chain bobbing up and down off his belly, he climbed into my lemon colored Ford.

We set out to inspect the building where I would soon build my first restaurant.  I was ecstatic; thrilled for once, that he showed up to do something special for me.

After an instant appraisal he gave his conditional approval but insisted that I buy the building solo, authoritatively shutting out my business partner and beloved mentor Lena.  Inside I was anxious, although I exhaled excitement. I knew the consequences of not speaking up for Lena.  But I swallowed my truth. I accepted his offer.

Up until then, the only way he knew to show his love was by doling out money, and for a long time, my willingness to accept his signature on anything had been rare. At fourteen, my animosity erupted, and I stood before this giant, ripping up his birthday offering like used scrap paper, insisting he dig deeper to find a meaningful gift. Even his high school graduation gift, a Mercury Comet, came to a crashing end when I slammed it into the back of a turning car one drunken night.

Now it was time to come to some resolution in order to work with my father, and quite frankly, I did not have the proper tools. I had already sold out for his approval and his money. My joy fled within the hour after I took Dad to the South Side to see my home.

This was his first visit to Syracuse since I moved there ten years earlier.  Even though he had freehandedly given me the $1300 to buy the pigeon-infested, city-owned nightmare of a “house,” Dad could not see beyond the neighborhood or my next-door neighbor’s Afro to appreciate my renovation.  He spent even less time at this property than at the proposed restaurant site.

I had become accustomed to his prejudices, but still, I would squirm in my skin during his outbursts, hoping no one I loved got hit in the crossfire. His bigotry was the microscope he used to view the world. He could not see how many times he crushed my spirit.

A few drinks later, tensions eased and resentments were replaced by laughter as he shared his escapades with my bar friends.  They perched on the edge of their stools, listening to Dad’s vinegary tales whose main characters were named Shifty, Speedy, and Bumpy.  For a week, I had bragged to my cronies that he might come to town; now he exceeded expectations as he bought another round.  I escorted him to all my drinking haunts, showing him off like a Beefsteak tomato at the fair.

The crocuses and tulips were singing for me that day.  Finally, after twenty-nine years, my dad was there for me.  He arrived on time and– for the first time in my life ever–and completed my first real initiation as an adult, co-signing the loan at the bank to get my business started.

Our fun came to an abrupt end when our celebratory spree made us late for his afternoon departure. He complained for days afterward about the black security guard who made him remove all his gold jewelry, causing him to miss his plane. He even threatened to drive back to shoot “that nigger” with his gun.


My Father died when I was only 33 years old. This is from a section of my unpublished memoir. You can download the first three chapters here. 

I still miss him and celebrate all the gift received by knowing him  this Fathers Day.