The last I heard about Harry Garbus was that he was serving his second term in federal prison and had tried to escape.

And then, the other day, I picked up the phone. It was Garbus.
"I've been out of the joint six months," Garbus said. "But the terms of my parole prevent me from working." He laughed.

"I don't even have a car and I'm living so far up on the north side of Chicago that I don't care which way I head when I go out the door.

"I'm on social security until I can go back to work.
"The woman I'm living with is an old friend. This is what it's come to for me."

Garbus was always quick with a buck. He carried his stash in a fat roll of bills and peeled off the big ones on the outside like they were going out of style.

We used to run into each other frequently. Garbus was always around the big trials, working the wrong side of the bench.

Cops and prosecutors hated him. Newspapermen put up with him because he was not only a character but worked at it.

Every time we'd meet, Garbus would tell me some fantastic story about his activities. He loved the publicity, even though it raised the heat on him from both the cops and the feds.

Garbus was a private investigator for big-time criminal lawyers who represented members of the Chicago Mob.

He was a skilled soldier. He tapped phones. He went through locked doors. He ran errands.

The cops were always stopping him and finding burglar tools in his trunk.
"What are these for?" they'd ask.
"I always want to be prepared in case I lose my keys," he would answer.

Obviously, Garbus wasn't the kind of private eye you read about in Robert Parker novels. Garbus worked the opposite side of the street from Spenser. The only thing they have in common is that they both appreciated fine wines, a good dinner and the apt literary phrase. Yes, Garbus was an Outfit guy who read books.

Garbus was for hire, too, just like Spenser. But the only people with deep enough pockets to employ him were the heavy guys in the Mob.

Whenever an Outfit guy got into trouble, it was Garbus who began snooping around, trying to dig up dirt on the complaining witnesses.

It was amazing how nervous it could make witnesses to a crime when Garbus showed up. And how angry it would make the cops. Garbus always arrived at the scene in a black Caddy. He would be wearing an expensive sport coat under a fur coat, and he'd tell the witness he was there merely to check out his employment records. In the course of the conversation, Garbus would ask all about the witness's relatives and where they lived and what they did for a living.

Before the meeting was over, the witness was more worried about his own well-being than he was about giving testimony that might put a mob guy in jail.

That wasn't all Garbus did, of course. But it was all he was willing to talk about.

Garbus made a very good living in those days. He should have. It was a high-risk business that he was in.

He bought a new Caddy every year. He always traveled with flashy women and even married four or five of them.

"If you're coming to Chicago, I'd sure like to see you," Garbus said. "I've got a great story to tell you." I didn't call, but we met anyway. By accident. I was sitting on a barstool at the rear of Miller's Pub next to the Palmer House, right in front of the black-and-white blowups of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

I saw Garbus come through the door before he saw me. He looked old and tired. You could tell that through the dye job in his hair. His step was slow. All the juice was gone. Finally, he spotted me and moved down along the bar. His step turned jaunty.

"When I talked to you on the phone the other day, I must have been a little crazy," he said.

"My plan was to tell you everything I know so that we could do a book about it. I know the real story behind how things went down. I know who did the hiring. I know who the shooters were.

"And I know what judges and cops they had on their side." The problem is that a lot of other people know by now, too. Besides the Greylord scandal took down a lot of judges. The cops are retired to Arizona and Florida.

Garbus took a sip from his beer stein.
I kept quiet. I knew that he knew. Garbus grinned.
"You know something. I took the wrong career path," he said. "I never wanted to be a wiseguy. I wanted to be in the newspaper business. "Both times that I've been in the joint I worked on the prison newspapers. I was the editor one time. I liked it. I liked interviewing people and writing their stories.

"But I never went to college. In the days when I worked for `The Boys,' it was a career thing. They paid really well. I never got rich like people thought, but I always had a lot of cash and could get big advances." Garbus shook his head.

"I can't believe it. I'm over sixty years old now. It's hard to do the things I used to do in the old days." Why not find somebody to work with you on the book, I suggested.

His chin dropped.
"I got a visit the other day. It was nice. A guy from the old days dropped off some money to take me through this hard period.

"He didn't tell me it was a warning about keeping my mouth shut. He didn't have to. And after all, these people have been good to me."

What will you do? I asked.
"I get my private investigator's license back in a few months," Garbus said. "What else is there? I'll go back to work." "What do the cops tell you about that?" "My parole officer tells me that next time I'll be a three-time loser. They can put me inside and throw away the key." "And you'll risk that?" Garbus grinned.

"Why not? Hey . . . I learned it ain't so bad on the inside. It's where us wiseguys take our retirement." PRODUCTION: make sure to include the second and third pullquote.

If need be, drop the first one.
Thanks, sarah

Garbus was always around the big trials, working the wrong side of the bench.

He was a skilled soldier. He tapped phones. He went through locked doors. He ran errands.

It was amazing how nervous it could make witnesses to a crime when Garbus showed up. And how angry it would make the cops.


Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >