I am John Dillinger (a Memoir)



Bernard Levinson is a distinguished South African poet whose work has appeared in numerous scholarly publications and anthologies, including Jewish Affairs. Professionally, he is a psychiatrist based in Johannesburg. In the Pesach 2017 issue of Jewish Affairs, he describes being on the spot after Dillinger was killed.


John Dillinger. That’s who I am. I am John Dillinger spread flat against the wall of our small tenement. I slowly edge to the window. I lift a corner of the curtain peeping out. I make sure the police and the G-Men don’t see me. At moments, I leap in front of the window firing my make shift disabled cap gun. G- Men drop their Tommy guns and sag to the ground. Police are thrown back against the brick wall of our alley screaming as they die. At other moments I take the full force of a machine gun burst on my chest. I throw up my arms. The gun falls to the floor. I clutch at my chest jerked backwards by the force of the bullets. I slowly double up in agony and fall flat on my back, my arms spread wide. With my last dying gasp I whisper “They got me.” I am careful not to do this when any of my family are at home….

“Would you like a violin?” Florrie owns the beauty parlour on our block. My Mother is the cleaning lady. On Saturdays I have options. At home alone in our flat which I secretly love, or go with my Mother to her work which I also love. I know the routine. I will complain bitterly and go with her. I sit on the floor in a corner pretending to read a book. My eyes are on all the women. I am the only male there and clearly of an age when I am not really considered a man. They are all happily baring their shoulders. Their dresses are loose fitting and marvellously revealing. I am wide-eyed with the wonder of hair dryers and the mysterious pastes being painted into their hair. Florrie is a gigantic breasted blond . She likes me. I get a hug when I arrive with my Mother. I squirm and complain but I love being buried in her breasts and smelling all the astonishing scents. “ Would you like a violin”, she says. “ My sister has one . I know she wants to give it away.” I am in a sudden whirlpool. Would I like a violin?

The magic journey begins on a tram that runs along Roosevelt road. I’m to go to the end of the line. An hours journey. I had no idea Chicago was so big. I am already playing a violin before an enormous audience. A roof lifting applause. I am the youngest violinist ever to play with an orchestra. They love me. The applause is overwhelming.

The directions are clear. I find her sister. She gives me the violin case. It’s old and worn. I see an ancient dignity in this battered case. I’m afraid to open it. I return to the tram.

I walk slowly through the crowds at the concert hall. I am tired after so much playing but I hold my head high. They are all in awe as I pass. A musical genius. They can see the amazing talent in my walk and the casual way I carry my old violin case. I keep my eyes closed.

I go straight to the salon. My Mother is still there. Florrie is there. She opens the violin case. I see immediately there is a devastating problem. This is a skeleton. No strings. No bridge. No little knobs at the end of the arm, and no bow. I can see it has had a violent death. The wood is warped and agonisingly twisted. I look up at Florrie. She is smiling happily. There is no problem. The task is totally accomplished. I have a violin. I look at my Mother. Surely she will see the disaster. She will understand. She is also smiling happily. I stare at this sad ghost in his faded satin coffin. I don’t know how to carry the sudden heaviness in my heart.

I give Florrie a hug. I hide my face in her magical breasts smothering my tears in her apron.

We become inseparable. This ancient violin case and me. I swagger down Roosevelt Road my Tommy gun in my violin case. Everyone senses that a formidable gangster is right there on the streets with them. They quickly make way. I tuck my head deep into my collar keeping an eye on everyone. Penetrating sidelong glances. When the coast is clear I flash my case open and pull out my machine gun firing instantly. The car filled with police swerves and bursts into flames. In an instant my machine gun is back safe in its case and I nonchalantly tip toe away. I am John Dillinger.

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