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Confessions of a Goodfella

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288 pages
"Jean-Claude Kella – aka « The devil » – was born in one of the poorest areas of Southern France, just a few months after the end of World War II. After dabbling in petty criminality for most of his teenage years, he became a millionaire thanks to the prominent part he came to play in the infamous French connection. But every rise has a downfall, and just a few years later he was arrested, tried and sent to the Atlanta State Penitentiary. His biography gives a fascinating account of the French underworld of the sixties with its traditions and codes of honour, and introduces all sorts of colourful characters – Italian prostitutes, Spanish thugs, ex-war criminals, Brooklyn mobsters, Hells Angels, Black Muslims and beautiful girls on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean ".
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eISBN 978-2-8100-0613-7

Tirage n° 1 

 

© Les Éditions du Toucan, 2013

16, rue Vézelay — 75008 Paris

 

www.editionsdutoucan.fr

 

 

Maquette et mise en pages : Nohémie Szydlo

 

 

Le code de la propriété intellectuelle interdit les copies ou reproductions destinées à une utilisation collective. Toute représentation ou reproduction intégrale ou partielle faite par quelques procédés que ce soit, sans le consentement de l’auteur ou de ses ayants cause, est illicite et constitue une contrefaçon sanctionnée par les articles L. 335 – 2 et suivants du code de la propriété intellectuelle.

In December of 2009, it will be fifty years since my first trip to jail. Fifty years! It’s amazing how time flies, except in prison where hours seem years and years seem ages.

I was partially released from prison in August of 2008 after ten years detention, six of which I spent in a high-security facility, loafing around, playing cards and reading books to kill time. I was so bored that I even got around to writing my own story.

Most of the stories penned down here are ones I have told my friends again and again over the years. Obviously, some names and events have been altered, but all in all, this book gives a good account of the events that led me to spend more than twenty years of my adult life in prison.

I have no literary ambitions whatsoever, and the main reason why I decided to publish this book was to answer the questions my children kept asking about my past. So this is how it all began...

PART ONE

Saint-Roch I

“Wow, it’s just like the movies!” said David

A persistent stench of cabbage soup was just creeping up my nostrils, and the heavy door of Toulon’s Saint-Roch prison closed on us with a loud clang. Above us, the glass roof was dimly lit by the pale December sunlight. The U-shaped building spread all around us three floors high. The floor was gleaming from a mix of wax and rancid grease. A huge net was hanging across the empty space in the middle, supposedly to prevent suicide and murder. I couldn’t help but shudder. I should probably have been scared but in fact I was rather excited.

I had just turned fourteen. I had left childhood without noticing it, to then fall into this iron and concrete nightmare. It was two days before New Year, two days before a new decade: the 1960s.

 

The cakes set out neatly on the table in the corridor looked strangely out of place in these austere surroundings. Cream slices, chocolate éclairs and cream puffs sat staring at us, begging to be eaten.

We hadn’t eaten anything for the last two days but a couple of stale ham sandwiches. “So this is prison,” I thought. It hardly seemed to be the nightmare everyone told you it was. It looked more like a dream to me. A soft nudge by the guard woke me from my blissful daydream.

They took us to the anthropometry room. Despite its barbaric name, it was quite harmless: they weighed us, took our pictures, measured us, and took our fingerprints before asking all kinds of questions on our family history to make sure none of our ancestors were crazy, then they moved us to another room for the body search.

“Get naked! Kneel! Cough! Stick your tongue out! Lift your feet! Throw out your arms...”

While I was struggling to follow the never ending flow of orders being barked at me, I couldn’t help but watch the eyes of the examiner, to check if he was peeking at people’s fronts or at their backsides, and to figure out if he was actually enjoying it or just going through a painfully humiliating routine.

After going through the frozen shower and being sprayed with a variety of disinfecting powders to get rid of all the bugs, we left our civilian clothes behind, and put on the official minors’ uniform that we would wear until we left this gloomy place. It was made out of coarse brown wool, just like the blankets they gave us, and the shirts had been cut from the same cotton as the sheets. We also got a pair of shoes, a towel, a glass, a bowl and a plate made of Pyrex, a knife and fork, and a lump of Marseilles soap.

We followed the guard down the corridor carrying our two identical bundles.

“Hey kids,” he said, “how did you end up here two days before the New Year, did you kill someone?”

He spoke with the same heavy Corsican accent we were used to hearing in our neighbourhood, and it made us feel at home, so we warmed to him a little.

“No sir, we’re robbers. In fact, I’m surprised that you haven’t heard of us.”

“And who did you rob may I ask, the Bank of France?”

David stuck out his chest, and defiantly answered: “Don’t you read the papers? Ever heard about the famous ‘Coast skimmers’?”

The guard didn’t seem to appreciate his cockiness and he was eager to let him know:

“Well I don’t care where you’ve been messing around. I don’t want any of it in my quarter. I am the one who calls the shots in here, so don’t mess with me. But follow my orders and you’ll be just fine. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!” we both said, lowering our heads to hide an irrepressible fit of laughter.

 

I got a cell on the second floor. The bedsprings were squeaky and the straw mattress was filthy and smelly. In the corner was a squat-toilet. A sink and a small cupboard completed this Spartan accommodation.

You were only given a table if you accepted to work fitting springs on clothes pegs with a nail stuck in the middle of the table. It was awful work, but you took it just for the table, and for the extra food of course.

Above the cell door, a speaker boomed all day long with the silliest of radio shows. On Sunday mornings, we listened to mass, and those who wanted to could do gymnastics. There was a window with iron bars but if you looked out from it you were punished. As soon as the door slammed shut, I couldn’t help but run to the window to see what was on the other side.

Ironically, I saw the courthouse. I could spot the great big windows of the office where we had met with the judge just a few hours earlier.

“I will squeeze you like a lemon.” he had told us, during a tea break, before doing just that with the slice of lemon that was in his cup.

We had to leave our trousers on a hook in the alleyway and our shoes on the floor before being locked up for the night, that way, if one of us decided to saw the bars off his window and escape down a rope made from the sheets into the courtyard, and then jump over the two rows of walls, he would end up half naked in the cold winter night, like Cinderella waiting for her carriage.

After two sleepless night on the concrete floor at the police station, and two days of endless questioning by the cops and the judge, I was tired as hell, but I didn’t fall asleep right away. I couldn’t help thinking about my mother. What was she doing at that very moment? Was she still crying? Was she still under shock from when the police had stormed our house?

It wasn’t the first time the cops had come round, but when they had told her to get my wash stuff, she had understood right away how serious it was, and that I might be away for quite a while. Poor mother! She had cried and shouted, telling them they were all beasts, that they couldn’t take her little one, and that I couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong.

In a way she was right, at least I didn’t believe that I was doing anything wrong by breaking into posh houses. I didn’t ever break anything. I just picked up the cash and any random valuables I saw lying around. I was under the naïve delusion that if there was no crime, there would be no punishment. But is it really a crime to steal when you are hungry? Well, maybe it wasn’t a crime, but I had to admit it was most definitely a failure: here I was now, locked up in jail and still as hungry as ever.

On the first evening, I hadn’t managed to swallow hardly any of the disgusting soup dished out from two huge pots guarded like a treasure by a prison officer in arms. The smell had carried me years back to my miserable childhood, and I had felt my stomach heave. The inmate serving the soup had noticed my distressed look and had given me a gentle smile.

“Don’t you worry, kid. By tomorrow you’ll be hungry enough to eat anything.” he had said. And sure enough, the next morning when I met once again with the two gigantic pots, soon after the wake-up call at six thirty, my stomach was rumbling in anticipation.

They were filled to the rim with watery liquid – the first the colour of coffee, the second with a remote milky hue, and moments later I was eagerly dunking a slice of rye bread in a large bowl of this infamous “café au lait”, and rather enjoying it too.

 

While the speaker was booming with cheesy pop music for those who wished to get a bit of morning exercise, I washed with the water from the tiny sink, so cold I had to apply it in brief splashes shaking like a scared kitten. There was no heating in the cell, and it had been so cold during the night that I had shivered all through it, even with my socks on.

When the door opened, the warden told me to make the bed immaculately, and warned me against lying down on it during the daytime – unless you had a medical certificate, you were severely punished for doing so.

Making any sort of noise was also forbidden, and it was one of the hardest things for me to get used to at first. Street life in Southern Europe is always full of noise and life, but here, most of the time, all you could hear was deafening silence so you never stopped thinking.

“Time for the walk, proceed to the yard…” cried the speaker, setting halt to the maddening carousel of questions going around in my head. Unless the doctor advised against it, you had to go for the walk, so I half-heartedly got up and slowly headed down the corridor.

But what a pleasant surprise it was, when the door opened, to see David’s face smiling back at me. We stood next to each other in the line, trying not to look too smug. As we marched down the steps, we saw a group of adults also waiting to go out for a breath of fresh air. We tried to scrounge a few cigarettes from them, even though we knew they would get sent to segregation if they were caught giving them to minors, but you would always find a good Samaritan willing to put a smile back on a kid’s face.

I started smoking like most kids do, to avoid fidgeting too much when chatting to girls. I bought my first cigarette from the chemist. It was eucalyptus flavoured and, ironically by today’s standards, it was supposed to cure bronchitis. In those days most people smoked, and the tobacco industry was eager to make you believe that its products would enhance your manhood, and instantly turn you into some kind of Superman. New brands would regularly pay people to stand in the streets handing out free four-cigarette packets to passers-by.

Until the early seventies, a packet of cigarettes was part of each young Frenchman’s daily ration during the obligatory military service, thereby encouraging and sustaining the state monopoly of the SEITA. At the time, lung cancer clearly was not a priority. But that’s the way of the world. Do what I say, not what I do, says the state, or I’ll send you to the galleys, and if you’re real lucky, we’ll even let you smoke yourself to death.

 

The yard was camembert-shaped. Each different group of inmates had a territory you had to keep clear of. I quickly figured out that we would have to act tough to avoid being picked on, and since I was the youngest of all the inmates I had to act even tougher.

I was quite capable of holding my ground in a fight, as David had found out for himself in the past, but this time it was better to keep a low profile and slowly establish a reputation for ourselves, so I decided we should get out to work right away.

David owed me one, since he had grassed on me to the cops, so I cornered him and told him he had better do what I said and keep his mouth shut from now on, not just for my sake but also for his own. He was eager to get even and later on he never lost an opportunity to brag about me to the rest of the pack.

“Yeah,” he would say, “my mate here has balls. He always went in first when we were looting a place, and he was always the best at sniffing out where the money was.”

A prison courtyard is probably the best place to be for a young apprentice criminal. You’re always learning new tips and hearing about interesting jobs. That’s probably why the system sends you to jail in the first place, to give you a theoretical crash course to bigger stuff, so they can catch you again once you’re out. That way the never ending game of cops and robbers keeps going its unalterable course.

At the time I was first jailed, I was still quite an amateur. The first thing I did upon entering an empty villa was to ransack the fridge. To me a fridge was the symbol of unlimited wealth: we didn’t have one at home, and eating all I could was my poor man’s revenge against the rich. After feasting all I could, I would grab any cash or jewels I found, leaving everything else, since I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with it.

I remember one day picking up a silver snuff box just because I found it pretty, Two days later the newspapers spoke about a theft worth several million francs, involving professionals and a truck. Insurance frauds are quite common, and many a peaceful bourgeois would be surprised to find out from one of us how little he knows about his own neighbours’ treacherous ways.

On New Year’s Eve, dinner was served an hour earlier, at 6 pm. We got a huge plate of steak and chips, and one of those beautiful cakes that had been tempting us the day we arrived. We also got a parcel from the Salvation Army, with a few sweets and two oranges. Since then, I have had endless respect for the institution, and whenever I see them in the streets singing Christmas Carols, I go out of my way and give them all the change I have.

At midnight we heard the customary chorus of shouts and horns from the happy crowds passing by, and we answered with our own concert of howls and clanging of all sorts, just so that Fate would not forget us.

 

I quickly settled into life in jail. I learned to make a lamp out of a water glass, a wad of toilet paper and a bit of oil or margarine. Like most other things it was utterly forbidden, but to keep from dying of boredom I had started reading an awful lot, and I desperately needed the light at night.

It was amazing how time flew when I was absorbed in a book. At times, I even got through two a day. Thanks to my little lamp, I ploughed my way through Victor Hugo, Eugene Sue, Zola, Alexandre Dumas... Every night I escaped from the solitude of my cell to a marvellous world of adventures, identifying with the characters’ sense of honour and friendship, with their fearfulness and stoicism in the face of adversity.

That year the winter was colder than ever, and it snowed on the Mediterranean coast, which only happens once or twice in a century. I would set fire to old pieces of newspapers, to heat my frozen fingers when I wished to write to my mother. I had managed to steal a box of matches and to make them last longer, I had quartered each one with a razor blade. But although I burned newspapers abundantly, I would never have set fire to a book. It would have been like desecrating the heroes I worshipped.

Two other guys had been caught with us but they were both over twenty-one, so they were locked up in another section and we weren’t able to meet up with them in the yard either. Fortunately though, Guy, the older of the two, had been put in the cell just beneath mine, so at night we were able to speak, or rather yell to each other through the window. He told me one evening that he would be seeing his family the next day so I decided to send him what we called a yoyo (a note attached to a piece of string), telling his brother where to look for a part of the booty, some diamonds I had buried in the garden at home while my mother was out working.

I carefully twisted my treasure map at the end of the string so it wouldn’t fall, and then started lowering it towards him, but then, all of a sudden, I lost control of my frozen hands, and the yoyo went crashing down into the yard, just where the night watch would pass a few minutes later. How stupid of me!

The next morning two guards marched me down the long tunnel to the courthouse, where the judge was waiting for me with a nasty smile on his face.

“Well then, young man, you are contemplating a career in literature from what I gather. Is this your writing?” he said, displaying the note.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about, sir.” I answered.

“Trying to play smart, are we? I’ll soon teach you. I read your file, you are awfully young.”

What could I say? Of all people, how could he have understood? Besides, I was too proud to explain.

My father left home when I was only five years old, and since then, my mother had been slaving as a cleaning lady to raise me and my brother. She had started working to support her family as a young girl when she they come to France fleeing from fascist Italy.

My older brother had been away for a while too, fighting that bloody colonial war in Algeria, meaning I was left to myself most of the time.

How could the judge understand, with his gold rimmed spectacles and his Errol Flynn moustache? When I was seven, we had to queue at the soup kitchen for our meals until my mother found a job. I still feel nauseous now whenever I get a whiff of cabbage soup.

Maybe it all started because my mother was an honest, simple woman, who tried to give me moral principles, and teach me to honour traditions. So I ended up thinking that soup kitchens were a punishment for honest people’s toil. “Not for me,” I thought. “If this is what you get from being honest, well tough to honesty.”

Could I tell this self-satisfied, patronizing judge that the only Christmas presents I ever got were the used and broken ones my mother brought home from the rich people’s homes she cleaned, with a few leftover bits of turkey? That the first bike I had, when I was eight, was one I stole because I thought it unfair that some rich kid had one when I didn’t? I wasn’t aware yet at the time that righting a wrong only makes the world more unfair.

When I turned ten, my mother made countless sacrifices to save money and bought me a beautiful copy of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. I can still remember its red and gold engravings. That’s probably where I first got the urge to travel. She wanted so strongly for me to become “someone” that she also let the salesman talk her into buying an Encyclopaedia on credit and ended up deep in debt for the next few months.

We both knew, the judge and I, that we came from worlds apart. His was bent in keeping me down where I belonged, amongst the oppressed, the working class, the cannon fodder of their absurd imperialistic wars. But I wanted to escape from this shoddy destiny, and jump over the wall of fate to enter the precious garden where I imagined the rich harmlessly reclining in the endless bliss of effortless pleasure. Was it really such a crime? I didn’t choose to become a delinquent.

“You aren’t born a criminal Your Honour, you become one,” I thought. “I probably wouldn’t be here facing you if my father had been someone responsible, from a wealthier background – someone like yourself.”

Of course I wasn’t the only kid stuck in such a situation. Most kids in my neighbourhood, where poverty was the norm, were just as bad off as I was. But how was that supposed to make me feel better about the whole situation?

 

When I was ten I bit the bailiff who kicked us out of our home when my mother could no longer pay the rent, but we had no choice but move to the Mourillon area, which was poorer still.

Although I was quite good at school, I got distracted thinking too much about girls, and I ended up leaving school aged thirteen, without the certificate for elementary primary education.