One summer morning back in the Roaring ’20s, the body of a well known St. Louis gangster, Willie “The Dude” Devine, was found in an alley behind the old Michigan Avenue movie theater.
According to the report of his death in the Globe Democrat morning paper, Willie had been shot once in the back of  the head, and the bullet had taken out his left eye and much of his face.
The body was identified by a police detective who reportedly said, “That’s Willie, alright. I know that suit. He had six of them.” True story. Somewhere I still have a fading copy of the article someone in the family had retrieved and kept in a Bible.
I may have written about this in the past. Stop me if I have, but it’s a great story that was told and retold hundreds of times at Christmas parties and wedding receptions whenever someone, often myself, showed up in a new suit or splashy sport coat.
“You remember our cousin Willie, the gangster? He was a sporty dresser like you,” someone would say.
We were all shocked and surprised to learn that we once had a gangster cousin, but my brother Jim took to carrying around the newspaper clipping to show to girls at parties.
This went on for years, and I used it myself to impress girls from high school in St. Louis to bars in Tokyo and New York. “I ever tell you about my gangster cousin Willie?”
Finally, a nephew did some research and came up with the full article that revealed that Willie was indeed a gangster, but he was black.
After that revelation, no one spoke of it again.
That story came to mind this morning when NBC reported that St. Louis, Missouri, has been listed as the most dangerous city in America. Well, we all kind of knew that our family home city for generations was no Disney Land full of magic castles and moonlight, but it gets worse.
It appears that St. Louis, once the queen city on the river, the “Gateway to the West,” has consistently ranked among the most dangerous cities in America. In 2015, the FBI’s Crime Report identified it as the “most dangerous,” with 1,817 violent crimes per 100,000 people.” Not including Willie I presume.
It’s kind of embarrassing, because I’ve been writing lovable stories about the city of my birth for years. But I left there to live with other family members when I was 16, and apparently that’s when things started going down hill.
I have an old friend still there, a nun who is one of the few remaining sisters of her order, whose Mother House is in my old neighborhood. For a while, we kept in touch by email. She reported that nothing there is like it was when I was an altar boy up the street. She wrote that a couple of nice Vietnamese restaurants had opened near the alley where “Cousin” Willie departed, and that there was a problem now with Vietnamese gangs. Oh, dear.
This report comes just as I was contemplating one more trip back to visit my last piece of family still there, to reconnect with my storied childhood, visit Rosemary De Branco’s grave, and maybe leave a flower in “Cousin Willie’s” alley.
There is only my baby sister there now in a nicer neighborhood far away from our childhood streets. She’s a widow, retired and sitting in a lawn chair, holding a hose that she uses to water her plants.
I’m not worried about her. She’s safer than anyone in her neighborhood, where she’s lived for 60 years. She shares her house with her daughter, my niece, a veteran officer on the St. Louis Police Department. A very big gun lives in that house, and it would take my niece about 20 seconds to come down from upstairs  in case of an incident.
One of my sister’s sons, a nephew I haven’t seen since he was a toddler, is also a law enforcement officer and lives only two blocks away. It would take him about 10 minutes to come to her aid. A very big gun lives in his house as well.
She, who, even if we could afford it, refuses to visit Paris, fearful of dying from a terrorist bullet. So I guess she would not be joining me on any visit to St. Louis.
Well, I guess Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again.” So any trips for us  in the next few years will probably be limited to the bar at the Liberal Cup in Hallowell or Renys in Farmington.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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