I stood frozen with two of my sisters, Donna and Elaine, as we stared at the millions of pieces of little white paper that were lying in front of us on the floor, items that had spilled from a shoebox hidden in my parents’ walk-in closet. We knew that these little bits of paper with combinations of letters and numbers on them were what the FBI was hunting for just one flight below us.
I was 12 years old and doing something seriously unlawful, though I didn’t know that at the time and it didn’t occur to me to ask my sisters. All I was thinking about was doing right by my family. We all knew something was about to change in our household—the question was how.
The year was 1970. Federal agents had stormed our house in Schenectady, New York, searching for evidence against my father. My sisters and I, without realizing it, had seen that evidence almost every evening after dinner: these small pieces of papers written in code that my dad called, “figgers.”
The feds’ voices downstairs were getting louder. They were now at the bottom of the stairs. As if on cue, my sisters and I dove for the items, rapidly stuffing them down our pants.
“Don’t put them in your pockets—they can search there,” Donna, the older of my two sisters, said. “Put them in your underwear.”
“But they’re scratching,” balked Elaine, who was a year older than I.
“Just do it!” said Donna.
Elaine and I did as we were told.
“What about the notebook?” I asked, opening it.
There were men’s names and numbers written next to them, which made sense to none of us. It was clear, though, this had to be hidden as well. Donna snatched the notebook and put it under her shirt.
“Does this look natural?” She tried to cover its outline with her long hair.
“Yeah, just keep your arms crossed,” I said, shifting my pants trying to make the papers in my undies more tolerable.
The shoebox was now emptied of its contents. I grabbed the lid to it put back onto the box when Elaine gasped and pointed at it.
“What? What is it?” I asked.
There on the back of the lid in my father’s own handwriting were numerous more letter and number combinations. We all gasped.
“I’m not putting that in my underwear,” Elaine said pointing at the lid.
“I’ll take the box with me,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
With the box clutched to my chest I peeked out the bedroom door for the feds’ location. They were still in the foyer with their backs to us. We gave each other a brisk, final check, making sure none of the evidence was peeking through our pants. Then, in single file, Donna with her arms crossed tightly over her chest, me with the shoebox pressed into mine, and Elaine bringing up the rear, we snuck out of my parents’ room. We fled down the hallway as the sound of heavy footsteps ascended the stairs. Just as we got to my sister’s room, the feds reached the top of the landing, with my mother in tow.
“Which is your room?” the man with the badge asked my mom in a demanding voice. My mother pointed to her bedroom and the men entered to continue their search.
Safe in my sister’s room, Donna whispered, “Go in the bathroom and flush the papers down the toilet.”
“I’m not going out there—you go,” Elaine said to Donna.
“Here, give me your papers and I’ll flush them down,” I said to Elaine.
Elaine quickly dug into her pants, producing fistfuls of the little white paper. Donna followed suit.
“You flush your own papers down the toilet,” I said to Donna, not wanting to extend any generosity on her behalf.
“It’s better if just one person goes,” she said throwing the paper at me.
Elaine pulled out a paper clip from her underwear.
“That was hurting me,” she said and handed me the clip.
“I don’t want that,” I said tossing it onto the floor while continuing to put rumpled paper down my jeans.
I got up to leave for the bathroom when Elaine exclaimed, “Wait! What do we do with the shoebox?”
We all paused.
“Put shoes in it and hide it in the closet,” Donna said.
“But what if they look inside?” Elaine asked.
“They’re not going to look inside if it’s in my closet,” said Donna.
Elaine did as ordered, though, unbeknownst to us, this logic did not make sense. Slowly, Donna opened the bedroom door and peeked out. The men were preoccupied with digging in my parents’ already excavated bedroom.
“OK,” she whispered, motioning me out the door. “Act normal,” she commanded as I slipped past her towards the bathroom and tried to walk casually despite the rumpled papers rustling in my panties.
One of the men in the flannel shirts stopped and looked up at me. My insides froze.
“Can I go pee?” I asked.
A bit embarrassed, the man nodded.
Slipping into the bathroom, I locked the door and turned on the faucet. Unbuttoning my pants over the toilet, the incriminating contents spilled over the bowl and onto the floor. I coughed to cover up any atypical bathroom sounds and ran the faucet water even harder. Then, as quickly as possible, I scooped up the countless of pieces of paper from the floor, threw them into the toilet, and flushed them down. I watched as the little white papers swirled around the bowl, then down through the narrow funnel, and disappeared with the water. A sense of relief and accomplishment came over me. The evidence was gone.
I looked in the mirror with a sense of pride, took a deep breath, then shut the faucet. As I closed the lid on the toilet seat, I suddenly noticed numerous pieces of white paper casually floating back up in the bowl as the water refilled the basin.
Panicked, I jostled the knob to re-flush the toilet, but it wouldn’t flush again since the tank hadn’t fully refilled. I turned the faucet back on, straddled the toilet seat, lifted the heavy tank cover, placed it on my lap, and desperately tried to see if I could somehow speed up the water flow. A forceful knock suddenly shook the door. It was so jarring my body jumped, knocking the hefty lid off my lap. My hands grabbed the sliding, porcelain top only millimeters before it smashed onto the tile floor.
“Is somebody in here?” a man’s voice said.
My heart palpitated.
“Yes, just a minute.” I said, trying to sound casual and calm.
My hands shook as I flushed again. But it was still too soon and the papers just swirled around as if on floats in a swimming pool.
Suddenly, in a moment of feminine inspiration, I grabbed a large box of sanitary napkins from the bathroom closet and put a pad down my undies. I then snatched the numerous pieces of paper from the toilet and put them between the pad and me. Water splashed over my pants. It felt as if I were wearing a wet diaper.
The box of sanitary napkins, with the word “Kotex” prominently labeled on its side, purposefully remained on the counter. I tried to dry off the wet spots on my pants to no avail, took a deep breath, then opened the bathroom door. The large man with the badge stood on the other side.
“You can use the bathroom now,” I said nonchalantly and stepped aside, revealing the family-size box of Kotex on the counter.
The man stiffened a bit and looked away. I walked back to my sister’s room. The satisfaction of seeing his red face made the stress of the situation and the discomfort between my legs totally worth it.
Back in Donna’s bedroom, my sisters circled around me to see if everything went as planned. I shook my head.
“Some are still in my pants. And it’s gross.” I said miserably.
“Why didn’t you flush them?” Donna demanded.
“I couldn’t. The toilet’s still screwed up since you flushed that stupid Kotex down it,” I shot back, remembering only then why the toilet hadn’t work properly.
“Well, I doubt anyone will want to look in your pants anyway,” she said.
Just as I was about to fire back, an abrupt knock interrupted us. No one moved. The doorknob rattled, but couldn’t open. It was locked.
“Open the door, please,” a man’s voice on the other side insisted.
I adjusted the contents in my pants. Elaine looked at me in alarm.
“You’re all wet down there,” she whispered, pointing to my crotch.
My pants were wet from my waist to my thighs.
“Hide,” Donna said.
I looked around for a safe haven, but there was none. Another knock hit the door.
“Open the door,” the man commanded, this time without attempting to be polite.
I dove into my sister’s bed, pulled the sheets up to my waist, grabbed a magazine from the nightstand, and pretended to read it.
“Not in my bed,” Donna insisted.
“Too late,” I said with satisfaction.
“Open the door now,” the voice demanded.
Elaine and I looked at Donna. Donna inhaled deeply. With one arm still crossed over her chest trying to hide what lay underneath, she unlocked and opened the door. The large man with the badge stood on the other side of the doorway glaring at us. The three of us stared back. Donna played with her hair, placing it over her chest.
“We’ll have to search this room.” He said then turned towards me.
“You’ll have to get out of the bed.”
Donna and Elaine shook their heads, mouthing the words: “No, don’t!” Just then the other three men entered the room.
“Excuse us, girls—we’ll need to check your room,” said the nicer man in the flannel shirt and khaki pants.
“Do I have to get up? I’ve got wicked cramps,” I groaned in feigned agony.
“You need to get out of the bed,” demanded the man with the badge.
The guy in the flannel shirt and khaki pants elbowed him.
“She’s fine.” He then turned to me. “You can stay there,” he said in a fatherly way, which didn’t please the head honcho.
Donna and Elaine sat beside me on the bed. The men began their search of the room. My mother stood in the doorway, depleted, with a shell-shocked expression on her face. It was only years later I was able to understand the anguish she was going through.
The men opened each drawer in the dresser, removing garments. Then they searched the closet. Our eyes were glued to their every move as their hands went through sweater pockets, jean pockets, all pockets. One of the men took the boxes from the closet. One by one, he opened and inspected them, inching his way closer to the shoebox with the “figgers” inked under its lid. Just as he was about to reach for it, the man with the badge got up.
“OK, let’s check the other room,” he said, and left.
The two other men followed him out. We waited, praying the man searching the shoeboxes would leave as well.
“I just want to finish in here,” he said.
We wished, hoped, and prayed to Jesus that our thoughts could levitate his body up and out of the room.
They could not.
He reached for the last item: the box with the incriminating evidence under its lid written in my father’s hand. We watched as his right hand lifted the cover exposing to us the handwritten code.
The man stared into the container, then looked up at us puzzled. A dirty, old sneaker and a red shoe lay smashed together inside the shoebox that read, “Nurses White Clogs Size 8 ½.”
We smiled back.
The man placed the box top back over the shoes never looking to see what was inscribed underneath its lid. He smiled politely back at us and left the room.
The three of us watched as he disappeared out the door. Without speaking a word, we looked at each other. Had we done it? Had we hidden the “figgers”? My sisters and I sat motionless listening to the men in the other room rummage through drawers and closets.
Then the clanking stopped. The men’s voices moved from the other room past our door, then down the hall. Their heavy footsteps descended the stairs and after what seemed like an eternity, all was quiet. We sat and waited.
The muted sound of a door closing came from downstairs. The three of us raced to the window. The four giant men walked out from the garage, the same way they entered, got into two Ford sedans—one black, one grey—backed out of the driveway, and disappeared down the road.
Downstairs my mother was on the phone as she stood over the stove, staring at the saucepans as bubbles rose and popped in the red, thickening gravy.
“I always hated what he was doing. That damn Fiorentino. I knew he should have never gotten involved with him.” My mother’s voice trembled as she spoke. She was crying.
“Mom, is Dad okay?” I interrupted as my sisters and I stood in the kitchen waiting for reassurance.
“Why don’t you go out and play, honey,” she said softly. “I’m on the phone.” She turned away to wipe her eyes.
“But, is he arrested?” Donna asked.
“Everything’s fine. Why don’t you go do something?”
“Can I stay over Louise’s tonight?” Donna asked, seizing her opportunity.
“Yeah, go.” My mom said dismissively.
Donna ran upstairs to get ready, probably to meet some boys with her best friend.
Frustrated and confused, I went into the family room where the once folded laundry lay spewed over the floor, chairs, and disheveled couch cushions.
“Jerks,” I muttered under my breath.
The hockey game was still on. It was the third period and the Rangers were losing. I sat on the couch and picked up the laundry that lay on the floor and started folding it all over again. I didn’t care about the game. I didn’t care if the towels were folded perfectly. I just wished those four stupid men had never come here, had never set foot in this house on this day looking for my father. And all I wanted was for my dad to come home.
Hours later, my dad briskly walked in wearing his pelted fedora and grey wool overcoat. His mood was upbeat, much more upbeat than usual. I was in front of the television and turned to him, surprised.
“Hey, Kack!” That was the nickname he used when joking around with me.
I wanted to run and put my arms around him, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do so I just looked at him. He smiled at me and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. Whispers were heard, though I couldn’t make out what my parents were saying. I went into the kitchen. My mother was serving my father his dinner. She did not seem too pleased.
“Daddy, are you going to go to jail?” I asked.
My dad leaned toward me, smiling. “Don’t worry,” he said lightly.
“Let your father eat his dinner. Go watch TV,” my mother said firmly.
Reluctantly, I obeyed.
My dad’s name was in the papers a day or two later. Some relatives distanced themselves from us, feeling ashamed and angered to have the family name sullied. Even some of my father’s close friends didn’t come around as often. I was ridiculed by a boy at school.
One thing his arrest didn’t affect was the family business. Regular customers continued to patronize our store. Many joked, teasing my father that they had no idea he was such a gangster. He had always been good to them and they loved him no matter what.
My father didn’t serve time. In fact, the charges were dropped. No physical evidence was ever found (something of which my sisters and I were secretly proud). We never told him we hid the “figgers.” We couldn’t. We were never allowed to speak about what happened. And as time went on, we never did.
My father no longer brought home bags or shoeboxes full of little pieces of paper. I believe he distanced himself from Fiorentino and Cathy since I never heard him on the phone talking code after that, but I was never really sure; for about a year afterwards, there would be clicking on the other end of the line when I picked up the receiver to make a call.
Perhaps my father did know what we did on that Saturday, though he never acknowledged it. When I became an adult, he often invited me to join him for lunch with his friend Tony at The Joint, a diner the local politicians and bookies frequented. He pointed out the two-way mirror on the back wall where cards and numbers were being run in the room behind it, and the hidden buzzer under the counter by the front door that alerted those in the back room if law enforcement entered looking for something other than a good, Italian meal.
My father believed that to be a good husband and father, he had to be a good provider. He was, even if it meant bending the rules to do so. I’m not sure what this says about me, maybe just that on the deepest level I’m my father’s daughter. We needed to save him and that was all that mattered.
I didn’t emerge from this experience with any great moral strength, perhaps the opposite. As I got older, I realized that this event planted a seed of an understanding in me: Doing what is necessary in life involves actions that may not always be quite, shall we say, on the up and up.