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514 Topics: The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre; American Playwrights – David Mamet; to atone versus to make amends versus to do penance; compassion versus empathy; to reckon

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 514.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 514. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com, or download this episode’s Learning Guide, an eight-to ten-page guide we provide for all of our current episodes. You can also take a look at our ESL Podcast Store and like us on Facebook at facebook.com/eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous event and a famous person, both from the city of Chicago, Illinois. The event is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, and the person is the American playwright David Mamet. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Today we’re going to talk about the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, which took place in Chicago on February 14th, 1929. Let’s start by defining the word “massacre” (massacre). A “massacre” is when a large number of people are killed by another person or group of people. In order to understand what the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is all about, we have to know a little bit about the 1920s in the United States.

Actually, we’re going to start at the very end of the nineteenth century, on January 17th,1899. That’s the day that a man by the name of Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born – also known later, more popularly, as Al Capone. Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn is part of the city of New York – one of the five, what are called “boroughs,” or regions of New York City. Capone was the son of Italian immigrants, immigrants from the country of Italy.

When he was 12, Al Capone joined a gang. A “gang” (gang) is an organized group of people who usually commit crimes, who do illegal things. There have been gangs in the United States since the nineteenth century, and we still have gangs today, especially in big cities like Los Angeles. The gang Al Capone joined was run by, or was led by, a man named Johnny Torrio. In 1909, Torrio moved from New York to the city of Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago is located in the central northern part of the United States. It is on the very southern tip, or end, of Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes, as we call them in North America. Capone himself decided that he would also go to Chicago because in 1919, Torrio sent him a message asking him to go to Chicago and work for him in his new criminal gang. Capone agreed and moved to Chicago.

He worked for Torrio for about six years and became a very important person in Torrio’s gang. He also built a reputation for being very violent and cruel. “To build a reputation” means to do things that make other people have a certain opinion of you. In this case, people’s opinion of Capone was that he was very violent and cruel. Capone was responsible for killing many other gang members in Chicago – members of other gangs, even some very important ones.

In 1925, Torrio decided he was going to retire from his life of crime. “To retire” (retire) means to leave your job and stop working. Usually it’s something you do when you reach a certain age. In the United States, most people retire when they’re 62, 65, or perhaps as late as 70 years old. Some people never retire, of course, because they love what they do.

Torrio may have loved what he did, but he decided to stop being the leader of the gang in 1925. I guess you could say he “retired,” but normally we use that verb when someone has a formal job with a company, a real job. Though I guess Torrio thought he had a real job to do in being a criminal. Capone took over the gang after Torrio retired. “To take over” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning to become the leader of or to take control of something.

With Capone as the leader, the gang grew even more powerful. It was involved in a lot of different kinds of businesses – illegal businesses including gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging. “Gambling” is when you have what are called “games of chance,” such as poker, and you risk money to try to win more money. Usually you lose your money, especially if you go to places like Las Vegas. “Prostitution” is when a person has sex in exchange for money.

“Bootlegging” (bootlegging) is making, selling, and moving or transporting alcohol illegally. You may remember that from 1920 until 1933, it was illegal in the United States to make, sell, or transport alcohol. This was part of a constitutional amendment, a government law, usually just called by the name “Prohibition” (prohibition). In 1919, the U.S. Government added the 18th “amendment” or “change” to our constitution, which was the Prohibition amendment. It basically said you couldn’t make, sell, or transport alcohol anywhere in the United States.

Many people thought Prohibition was a good idea, that it was going to end problems with alcoholism and drinking, especially among America’s immigrant population (I suppose in particular my ancestors, the Irish). But it didn’t really work. In fact, what happened instead is that Americans continued to drink, but they did so illegally. People made alcohol and sold alcohol illegally, and this making, selling, and transporting of alcohol illegally is called “bootlegging.”

Organized groups decided to get into the business of selling alcohol, and this was one of the origins, one of the beginnings, of what is called “organized crime.” Organized crime is when you have a gang of criminals who have a very organized leadership structure. You have people who are at the top, and then you have people below them, and then people below them. It’s just like a regular business.

If you’ve ever seen the American television program The Sopranos or the American TV series which I really loved called The Wire, you know a little bit about organized crime in the United States in the modern era, in recent times. Back then, as now, each gang had a certain area that they controlled within a city or town. And in this area, they were the ones who sold the alcohol. Gangs of course would fight each other to win new areas of control, new areas they could sell alcohol in. These fights were often violent, and then, as now, often ended in people being killed.

As bootlegging became a better and better way to make money during the 1920s, more and more gang members decided that they would join this activity, and more gang members died violent deaths. In 1929, there were 64 murders just in the city of Chicago related to organized crime. Capone and his gang were known for gunning down gang members who tried to stop them from doing business. “To gun down” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning to kill someone with a gun, usually out in public on the street.

Capone quickly became the most powerful gang leader in Chicago. In fact, some people say that by the year 1927, he had made nearly $100 million from his illegal activities, which would be even more, of course, in today’s dollars. But Capone wasn’t alone in trying to make money. In Chicago, there were other “gangsters” – people who were members of gangs – in other gangs, and one of the most famous ones was a man by the name of George Siegel. He was called by his nickname, Bugsy.

Siegel was a rival of Capone. A “rival” (rival) is a person who tries to win the same thing that another person is trying to win, someone who competes against another person or a group that competes against another group. We talk about high schools or college athletic teams having rivals. Here in Los Angeles, for example, the University of Southern California has a rival in the University of California, Los Angeles. Their sports teams play each other. They are rivals. They both want to win.

Bugsy Siegel was the leader of the Irish gang on the north side of Chicago, and Al Capone was the leader of the Italian gang on the south side. When I say Irish and Italian, I of course mean Irish American and Italian American, since these were sons of immigrants for the most part. Capone wanted to grow his power, to increase his power, by getting rid of Bugsy Siegel. He had done this before with other gang leaders, so it wasn’t something new for Capone.

That brings us to February 14th of the year 1929. February 14th is also celebrated as “St. Valentine’s Day” – or as some people call it simply now, “Valentine’s Day,” without the “Saint.” In 1929, on February 14th, Bugsy Siegel was on his way to a garage that his gang controlled. A “garage” is a place where you get your car fixed. As he got close to the garage, he saw a police car going towards the same garage.

He thought it was a raid by the police so he drove away. A “raid” (raid) is a sudden attack on an enemy, or in this case, when the police come suddenly and arrest you. Raids were common at this time as the police tried to find and arrest people who were bootlegging. Four men, including two men dressed as police officers, went into the garage that Bugsy Siegel controlled. They told the seven men who were there to stand up and face against the back wall – that is, have their faces towards the back wall.

The men believed that this was in fact a police raid. So they did what they were told. Then the four men who had entered the building shot the seven men who were standing against the wall. They used between 70 and 90 bullets. So, they were not taking any chances. Of course, this was not a police raid. These were men pretending to be policemen, but were in fact members of Al Capone’s gang. Of the seven men, six were in fact members of Bugsy Siegel’s gang. But one of them was a local doctor who liked to spend time with the gang members just for fun.

When the real police arrived at the garage, they found most of the men already dead. Only one who was still alive was able to answer any questions, but he refused to speak. He didn’t say who was responsible. Even though everyone believed Al Capone and his gang were responsible for this massacre, the police could never prove it. No one was ever accused of the crime and no one went to jail because of it. Bugsy Siegel, however, did lose his power and his control of his gang in Chicago, and Capone became the leader of the most powerful gang in Chicago, and really in the United States.

What happened to Bugsy Siegel? Well he found a home right here in Los Angeles where he took over the illegal betting operations, including the one at the Santa Anita Race Track, which recently closed. Siegel eventually made his way to Las Vegas and ran gambling operations there as well. There was a movie about Bugsy Siegel called Bugsy. If you’re interested in his life story while he was here in Los Angeles, he became good friends with many famous actors – Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and later Frank Sinatra among them.

Al Capone, however, had his own problems. He didn’t survive as long as Bugsy did, at least as a criminal. He was arrested in 1932, not for being a criminal gangster, but for tax evasion. “Tax evasion” (evasion) is when you don’t pay the government the taxes that you’re supposed to. He was sent to prison for 11 years, but he was released from prison early and eventually died poor in his home in Florida in 1947. Interestingly enough, Bugsy Siegel also died in 1947 in his home, not from a disease, but from a bullet fired into his Beverly Hills home.

The U.S. federal government finally ended the practice of prohibition in 1933, but by this time, the organized crime gangs made money in other ways and were already so strong and so powerful that, well, they continueto this day.

Let’s turn now to another Chicago topic, this time to the American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter David Mamet. A “playwright” is a person who writes plays that are performed in theaters. A “novelist,” of course, is a person who writes fictional books. A “screenwriter” is a person who writes the scripts or stories that are used in television and in the movies.

David Mamet, coincidentally, was born in 1947 in the city of Chicago. He began writing plays in college at a small college in Vermont called Goddard College. Vermont is in the northeastern part of the U.S. After he finished college in 1969, young David Mamet moved back to Chicago and worked in a variety of different jobs. Some of them were in a factory, others were driving a taxi cab. Each of these experiences he used to create his books and plays and, later, movies.

Mamet’s work usually focuses on the difficulties of people who we would describe as “working class” – people who are working in jobs that don’t pay a lot of money and often don’t require a lot of education. This is typically what we would also call “manual work” – work that you do with your hands, physical work. Many of Mamet’s work focus on working-class characters, but also on sexual relationships and anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitism” is prejudice against or hatred of Jewish people.

One of the things that’s unique about David Mamet’s style, that you can notice if you watch one of his movies, is the way that the characters talk to each other. There’s often what we would call “overlapping” – two people speaking at the same time. The sound of the dialogue is what some people have described as “staccato.” “Staccato” (staccato) in English is a term normally used in music to describe sounds that are short and separated from others, often creating a very fast rhythm or pace. In Mamet’s plays and screenplays, his dialogue was his way of bringing attention to people who are dishonest by the way that they spoke.

Many of Mamet’s plays are set in Chicago. They take place in the city of Chicago. His first play was written in 1972, just a few years after he graduated from college. His most famous early work, the play that made him famous, was called Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and it was published in 1974. It showed how a couple’s relationship was ruined after their friends became involved. Sexual Perversity in Chicago was later made into a movie in 1986. They changed the name, however – the movie was called About Last Night.

Mamet’s next play was also made into a movie. That play was published in 1975 and became a film about 20 years later. It was called American Buffalo. Mamet won the highest prize for drama in the United States, the Pulitzer Prize, for his 1983 play called the Glengarry Glen Ross. The Pulitzer Prize is the most respected award given for writing in the U.S.

The play, Glengarry Glen Ross, tells the story of four men who work in the same real estate company in Chicago. “Real estate” refers to buying and selling homes and buildings. It’s something that Mamet knew about because he worked briefly in a real estate company during the early ’70s. The play was eventually also made into a movie. It was called Glengarry Glen Ross. It was made in 1992 and stars Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, and Alan Arkin – four great modern American actors. If you haven’t seen the movie, I can definitely recommend it.

Mamet has also been successful in writing “screenplays,” or scripts for movies. He worked on The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1981, House of Games in 1987, State and Main in 2000, Heist in 2001, and Hannibal in 2002. He was nominated for an Academy Award, an Oscar, for his screenplay for the 1982 film, The Verdict. I love Mamet’s films. I’ve seen almost all of them. I really love his staccato dialogue and the way that the story develops.

Mamet has also written some fiction, including a novel called The Village, as well as some non-fiction – books about things that are real. It is unusual for a playwright like Mamet to be as successful writing plays as in writing movies, but Mamet has definitely accomplished that feat.

In recent years, Mamet has been very outspoken in his political opinions as well. “To be outspoken” (outspoken) means to let everyone know what you think, not to be afraid of giving people your opinion. And Mamet certainly has done that. But you don’t have to agree with his politics to like his plays and movies, in particular. I like the movie House of Games that he made in the late 1980s. That’s one of my favorite movies, actually.

Now let’s answer some of your questions.

Our first question comes from Norbert (Norbert), now in Germany, originally from Poland. Norbert has a question about three similar verbs, “to atone,” “to make amends,” and “to do penance.” Let’s start with the first one, “to atone” (atone).

“To atone” means to do something good as a way of showing that one is sorry about having done something bad, usually after you have committed some sort of sin, some sort of act against God’s laws or teachings. We don’t use the word “atone” anymore so much in that religious sense, at least outside of religious writing, as we do to talk about someone who is doing something to make up for some serious mistake that he has made. The mistake that isn’t necessarily something religious, although that’s the original meaning, and it’s still used in that sense when you read about certain religions.

“To make amends” (amends) is to try to improve the situation again after having done something wrong, stupid, or harmful. It’s not quite as serious as the situation involving the verb “to atone.” It would be for things that are perhaps, less serious, especially when you have hurt or damaged a relationship with someone. Maybe you’ve said something to someone that was hurtful to that person. You can “make amends” by trying to talk to that person and apologize and perhaps, I don’t know, take them to dinner. You know, guys, the kinds of things you have to do when you say the wrong thing to your wife.

I suppose, though, it could also be used in a more serious circumstance. Perhaps you’ve stolen something from another person and you want to make amends – you want to do something “to make up for,” we would say, the mistake that you’ve made.

“To do penance” (penance) is like the first example of “to atone,” something that has a religious meaning but can also be used in a non-religious sense. “Penance” is doing something to make up for the wrong that you did, so in that sense, it’s similar to the previous verbs “to atone” and “to make amends.” But unlike the first two, “to do penance” means to do something to yourself, to take on some sort of burden to show someone else how sorry you are.

Doing penance would often require traditionally, in a religious context, perhaps not eating certain kinds of food, or fasting – not eating at all. It often involves some act of self-denial, of denying yourself of not doing something even though you could. In a non-religious context, it would mean punishing yourself in order to show that you are sorry for having done something wrong. You’re not doing something for another person. You’re doing something, in a sense, against yourself to show how sorry you are.

Our next question comes from Ahmad (Ahmad) from an unknown country, a secret country. The question has to do with the difference between two words, “compassion” and “empathy.”

“Compassion” (compassion) is a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, or in need of help in some other way. The word actually in its original sense referred to the sharing of someone else’s suffering. However, nowadays we use it more to indicate a psychological state where you feel like you want to help someone, or it could actually be an act where you do something to help someone. We would call that an “act of compassion” – giving someone food who’s hungry, or money who’s poor.

“Empathy” (empathy) is understanding and sharing another person’s experiences and emotions, being able to understand how another person feels. That doesn’t necessarily relate to compassion. “Empathy” is a more general term that would refer to your ability to understand how other people feel – to understand their emotions.

Finally, James (James) in Thailand wants to know how to use the word “reckon” (reckon), and the verb “to reckon” means to believe that something is true or to think that something is true. It is not used very much in American English anymore, unless you are trying to be funny. It’s an expression that we associate with the nineteenth century, especially out in the western part of the United States or perhaps in the southern United States.

You’d expect a character in a John Wayne western to say something like that. “Well, I reckon we’re going to have to build a bigger fire.” “I reckon” means “I think” – “I think it is true.” Again, it’s not used anymore in conversational English in the United States unless you’re trying to make a joke, you’re trying to be funny.

If you have a question, funny or not, email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and
Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational

massacre – when a large number of people are killed on purpose by another person or group of people

* The number of massacres in U.S. schools in recent years has made many people want stricter gun control laws.

gang – an organized group of people who commit crimes and do other illegal things

* Police told residents that a local gang of teenagers was breaking into cars and stealing valuable items.

reputation – the general beliefs or opinions that people have about a person or thing

* Enrique has a reputation for being honest and hardworking, which is why many people choose him as their personal banker.

to retire – to leave one’s job and stop working, usually after a certain age

* Bina was excited to retire and finally have time to spend traveling and seeing her grandchildren.

bootlegging – making items illegally and selling them; making and selling alcohol illegally

* Jack’s grandfather was a bootlegger, making whisky in his shed and selling it to neighbors.

Prohibition – the period from 1920 to1933 when it was illegal to make, sell, or transport alcohol

* During Prohibition, many people went to secret clubs called “speakeasies,” where they bought illegal liquor and listened to music.

organized crime – a group that has a leadership structure and many workers that makes money illegally

* Today, organized crime is often involved in bringing illegal drugs to the U.S.

rival – a person who competes with one for control or to win

* Lorenzo’s rival for Jeannine’s heart was his own brother Bruno.

raid – a sudden attack on an enemy by the military or police

* During a raid on the house, police found thousands of dollars in cash, as well as over 70 kilos of cocaine.

working class – the group of people in society who have manual or physical jobs and who tend to be paid hourly instead of yearly

* Monica grew up in a working class neighborhood, where most people held jobs in the local factory making car parts.

anti-Semitism – a prejudice against or hatred of Jewish people

* The golf club was accused of anti-Semitism when it denied membership to any Jews who applied for membership.

staccato – a term used in music for sounds that are short and separated from others, often creating a very fast rhythm or pace

* It’s difficult to understand Rick’s speech because he speaks so quickly and in a staccato manner.

to atone – to do something good as a way to show that one is sorry about having done something bad, usually after having committed a sin (acted against God’s laws or teachings)

* For years, Benoit helped others in order to atone for the wrongs he did to friends and family while he was struggling with his alcohol problem.

to make amends – to do something to improve a situation after having done something wrong, stupid, or harmful

* I’m sorry I forgot to feed your fish and it died. Is there anything I can do to make amends?

to do penance – to punish one-self in order to show that one is sorry about having done something wrong

* The candidate apologized to local women’s groups as penance for his hastily spoken and offensive words.

compassion – a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, or otherwise in need

* Many felt compassion toward the family whose son had be diagnosed with cancer.

empathy – a feeling of understanding and sharing of another person's experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else's feelings

* A good grief counselor feels empathy toward those he or she is trying to help.

to reckon – to think or suppose (something); to believe that something is true or possible; to expect to do a particular thing

* I reckon I’ll need to go over this accounting again if I want to find where the mistake was made.

What Insiders Know
Ford’s Theater

Ford’s Theater was a “venue” (a place for an organized event, such as concerts, conferences, or sports events) used for various stage performances starting in the 1860’s. It was built in 1833, and before it became a theatre, the building was a used as a church. It served as a meeting place of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861, however, the “congregation” (group of people gathered for religious worship) moved to a new building. A man named John T. Ford bought the former church and “converted it” (changed it for a different use) into a theatre. It was then called Ford’s Athenaeum. The building was destroyed by fire in 1862 but was quickly rebuilt. The following year, it reopened as Ford’s Theatre.

Ford’s Theatre is also the “infamous” (well known for some bad quality or event) site where Abraham Lincoln was “assassinated” (for an important person, especially a political figure, to be killed). On April 14, 1865, Present Lincoln and his wife were at Ford’s Theatre to watch a performance of a play. During the play, a man named John Wilkes Booth, stepped into the box where the president and the people with him were sitting and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.

After the assassination, the U.S. government “prohibited” (forbid; banned) the use of Ford’s Theater for public entertainment. Between 1866 and 1887, it was used by the U.S. military as a facility for the War Department. In 1893, a part of the building “collapsed” (suddenly fell down), killing 22 people and injuring 68 others. It was repaired and used as a “warehouse” (a place to store or put things until they’re needed) by the government until 1911. In 1955, a law was passed removing some of the “restrictions” (limitations) place on the building, and on January 30,1968, it reopened as a theater.