SANTA ZANNI: Jacob Opinsky

Jacob Opinsky

Jacob Hadassah Opinsky was as Irish as you could get. He had been born in the city of Banja-Luka, 90 miles north northwest of Sarajevo in the heart of Bosnia-Herzegovina. His parents, both Jews from the heartland of Russia, had fled west from the pogroms in the East and settled in Banja-Luka because it was a transportation hub for the region. His father started as a cargo loader on wagons and switched to cargo handling when the trains made their appearance in the Balkans. As the climate for Jews worsened in the Balkans, the Opinsky family, now six, pulled up stakes and headed west, to, in sequence, Palermo, Milan, Carcassonne and finally St. Nazaire. In the last decade of the century, the family, again, saw the forming clouds of war and forsake the Old World for the New. The family joined the hordes of Italians headed for Ellis Island and arrived as WOPs, the designation for immigrants who arrived “With Out Papers.”

America was truly the land of opportunity and the family prospered in New York. The elder Opinsky had a decade of experience with the railroads and quickly found a job as a cargo handler. From there he moved up into a supervisory position which assured that his two sons would get job with the same railroad company. There were some things that were the same in both the old world and the new. Jacob, the oldest, became a mechanic while Moshe became at telegraph operator. Rachel, the mother, became a fixture in the expatriate community and the daughters, both comely, were quickly married off to rising stars in the business and legal community of the Lower East Side.

While the family’s start in the New World had been auspicious, it did not take long for them to become lost in the weeds of politics. New York was a city exploding with population and while it was easy to get a job, the slots for advancement became fewer and fewer the further up the administrative food chain one went. The elder Opinsky never rose above supervisor and Moshe was stuck with a wife and four children in a job that didn’t pay much more than his monthly expenses.

In spite of a lack of formal education, Jacob could reading the writing on the wall. There was no future for him in New York so he headed west, hop-scotching from railroad job to railroad job across the country until he ended up in Santa Zanni. He settled in Santa Zanni because it was small, quiet and he could get a good job as a mechanic with the emerging Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. Things got even better when there was a need for automobile mechanics and he was able to pull in a few extra dollars a week by moonlighting.

Starting in the summer of 1912, Jacob Opinsky became indispensable. He and another Irishman by the name of Ryan Murphy O’Sullivan were the most dependable railroad mechanics between San Francisco and Salinas. There was nothing they could not fix. This became a critical talent as the volume of railroad traffic went up because of the First World War and General Graves’ battalion in Siberia. Even more important, they were dependable. In an industry where drunks were the norm, Opinsky and O’Sullivan never arrived at work drunk or hung over and while on the job were as close to perfect as humans could be. They would and often did work around the clock to keep the trains running.

An odder pair of close friends one could not find. Opinsky towered over O’Sullivan by a good foot and outweighed him by a ton. Opinsky was as bald as a cue ball while O’Sullivan had to cut his hair every three weeks and could grow a full beard in a week. Opinsky was a modest drinker while O’Sullivan was Irish. Opinsky was a bachelor in the sense he refused to married, particularly after what he had seen of his brother and sister’s lives after they did become married. O’Sullivan, a Catholic, had married early and was the living proof that matrimony on the West Coast was just as stressful as it was on the East Coast. Things got much more eventful when O’Sullivan’s sister and her husband were killed in a freak boating accident in 1916. This moved the couple’s three daughters, all under ten years of age, in with the already burgeoning O’Sullivan family. Opinsky enjoyed the extended tribe of O’Sullivan’s but was always happy to go home.

The decade of the teens, from 1910 to 1920, was one of the most fascinating in American history. It was an era of violence, technological change and corporate greed. The decade began with the destruction of the Los Angeles Times and ended with the Wall Street bombing. Between these two events were scattered labor strikes, the rise of the automobile and airplane industries along with the purging of economic radicals from America. But the hallmark of the era was the increasing power of the large companies, called the trusts. Later it would be looked upon as an economic respite between the rapacity of a few massive trusts in the first decade of the 20th Century to the utter collapse of the stock market and the national economy because of the greed of many large companies in the 1930s.

But in 1913 there was the birth of the Progressive Era. Woodrow Wilson was elected by a plurality. Political and economic change was in air. Both the Democrat and Republican parties had a sense of social responsibility, primarily because that was where the votes were, and the unions were beginning to flex their muscles. Immigrants were flooding into America on the East Coast and the Panama Canal had dropped the price of goods into and out of the West Coast.

But the most significant social change was the status of women. Most clear-thinking Americans knew that women’s suffrage was a waste of time because it concentrated on the one thing that the federal government could not constitutionally do: manage elections. The real matters of concern were the equality of women in both the workplace and the court room. But the nuts-and-bolts of the matter was that women would never be equal in either of those locations without a proper education and that would never occur if society continued to look upon girls as baby-machines in the making. This attitude was encapsulated in the joke “Why did the woman cross the road?” The answer was a snide, “I don’t know but what is that pregnant woman doing out of the kitchen and who gave her those shoes?”

Ryan Murphy O’Sullivan was caught in the cultural crossfire. He and his wife were raising seven girls and both — along with their uncle Jacob — wanted to make absolutely sure that each of those girls got the best education possible. Ryan and Jacob could see the future closing in fast. Technology was creating jobs that had never been before. There were still going to be trains for the next few decades but there was going to be competition from trucks and planes and now that the Panama Canal was open, ships. There was a war going on and women were working as nurses and stenographers and secretaries and office managers. With so many men away, women were filling jobs they could not have had a decade earlier: doctor, accountant, lawyer, truck driver. It was the dawn of a new era.

The transcendent figure in the life of the O’Sullivan tribe, all girls, was Jacob Opinsky. He had seen the servitude his brother and sisters had fallen into by being married and had watched a decade of Santa Zanni girls become pregnant before they left school. Even more important, he watched as young women filled the jobs of young men who went off the war. He was no fool. He could see the future coming fast. He could also see that there were seven girls who might as well be his own daughters about to jump into the maelstrom of real life. Three of them were unquestionably destined for motherhood. Two, the twins, were crackerjacks in school. The last two were too young to predict what they would become.

Over the last decade of his life Opinsky became a staunch advocate for a woman’s right to work and equality in the court room. He stayed out of and away from the suffrage movement but was a fixture in Santa Zanni for real, meaningful change. He was not alone. Though Santa Zanni was a small cul-de-sac of America, everyone with sense knew what women’s equality meant. While there were a few stick-in-the-muds, for the most part the community, men and women, were advocates of women’s rights. A large part of this was because of the war. Many of the jobs previously held by men were not held by women, the young being in the military. Thus it was an economic reality that the choice for the community was to have local women fill the jobs or bring in men from outside of Santa Zanni. The local women were those who would work in the city and spend their money in Santa Zanni. The outsiders, men and women, would work in Santa Zanni and spend their money somewhere else. It made sense for the money earned in Santa Zanni to be spent in Santa Zanni.

Toward the end of the decade, Opinsky’s vision of the future came to pass. Three of the O’Sullivan girls did become pregnant before finishing high school and went on to raise broods of children which increased in number with each passing year. The twins, Rachel and Ethel, married but kept their maiden names, began working as bookkeepers at the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. It should be added that they had to fight to become employed in the first place. Young women, unlike young men, did not have the ease of familial connections. Within a year Jerome Hoggatt, the station manager, had promoted them ensemble up the administrative food chain.

All was going well until Ryan’s wife died of a female complication in 1916. Ryan went into a funk that was so low that Opinsky moved in with the family. It was a necessity since there were still two small girls still at home.

He never moved out.

Ryan passed away within a year leaving Opinsky with a family he had adopted rather than procreated. He was the perfect father though he was decades older than the other parents at the school gatherings. But he was no less fiery when it came to his daughters. He did very well by the last two girls. One became a lawyer and joined with Moshe and Sara Liebovitz to form Liebovitz and O’Sullivan. The other went to a Leland Stanford, Jr. University, which Opinsky had never heard of, where she became and married a medical doctor.

In his last year of life, Opinsky saw the underbelly of progress snake its way into Santa Zanni. The instigator, as always, was money. Big money. There was so much money to be made in supplying the war effort that the big companies were squeezing out the little ones. This was done in the name of efficiency but Opinsky knew better. It went by the catchphrase of Social Darwinism and the mantra was “Survival of the Fittest.” Large companies said they were better equipped to survive and this gave them a scientific duty to swallow the little one. It’s a “dog eat dog world,” they said. In fact, as Opinsky knew, it was nothing of the kind. It was a big dog debowel little dog world. There was just too much money to be made by the big boys to let the little boys survive.

In his declining years the focus of Opinsky’s life was the O’Sullivan girls and the heartbeat of that world was Santa Zanni. The lifeblood of the city was the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. He had worked for that railroad for more than a decade and in that time he had seen the Southern Pacific take larger and larger bites out of the local rail line. He knew the giant would not stop until it had swallowed the entire line. He knew his railroad would not survive the next decade so, before he died, he did what he could. If you cannot quench a fire with water you use fire.

Two years later what he predicted would happen did happen.

The takeover of the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad by the Southern Pacific was both abrupt and brutal. The ink on the contract was still drying when the corporate minions descended on the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad and seized it lock, stock, barrel and account books. These men were the corporate raiders of their day and were well aware of what happened in the closing days of any takeover enterprise. Things disappeared, large and small, and disgruntled employees could damage rolling stock and structures. Further, since it was in the cards that none of the current employees were going to be retained they expected a certain amount of local animosity. This do not bother them in the least since the Santa Zanni railyard was going to be shut down permanently so that animosity would only be a passing inconvenience.

Working in favor of the corporate minions was that fact that the now-defunct Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad was by far the smallest railway ever acquired by Southern Pacific. It was not even small by their standards; it was miniscule. It was also headquartered in what was called an “eye scratching” town; if you scratched your eye as the train passed through town, it was gone. These folks were yokels and would never know what hit them until it was too late.

It was not until more than a year after the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad had been sold and cannibalized by the Southern Pacific that certain irregularities came to light. Jerome Hoggatt, in forced retirement, was asked by the Southern Pacific bean counters why it was that among many others, Jacob Opinsky, deceased, was still on the payroll. Hoggatt replied that he had absolutely no idea who Jacob Opinsky was and therefore had no idea why a dead man should be on payroll. For an answer he suggested that they contact the bookkeepers of the old Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. As both had been abruptly released from employment when the Southern Pacific had purchased the Santa Zanni and San Francisco there was no way to trace the two, women by the names of Rachel and Ethel O’Sullivan, on a West Coast that was brimming with O’Sullivans. Why, there was a gaggle of them right there in Santa Zanni.

As Jacob Opinsky was no longer working, the Southern Pacific cut off his salary. It tried to recover what moneys had been paid by following the money trail through Opinsky’s bank where the money was being paid. The Santa Zanni was bank was helpful in the sense that it provided the Southern Pacific with the name of the person who was the heir of the Opinsky estate, Opinsky’s wife. Her name was Gloria Susan but she had died so the money was being legally transferred to her brother, Ryan Murphy O’Sullivan, now also deceased, and the money was being split among O’Sullivan’s surviving daughters. When the bank dug further it found that Opinsky had married Gloria Susan in 1919 even though she had died in 1912. On her death certificate it was learned she had previously been married to a Sean O’Reilly when she died and his brother was Ryan Murphy O’Sullivan.

It did not take the Southern Pacific long to put the pieces together. Their legal department had a marriage certificate signed by a dead woman and ill-gotten money passing through three dead people to seven siblings. And there was nothing they could do about it. The priest in Salinas who had married Jacob and Gloria Susan could not remember them but swore that a man and a woman had been there when he gave the vows — after all, there were two signatures on the certificate. The bank had broken no laws by transferring legally deposited money to the rightful heir and as the chain of ownership of the money was intact, the bank was under no obligation to question the legitimacy of the transfer. The sibling swore they knew nothing about where the money had come from and even if they did, the Southern Pacific would have to take them to court to get a dime.

In Santa Zanni.

With a Santa Zanni jury.

In a town that the Southern Pacific had just devastated by closing the railway.

The local judge refused to allow a change of venue and reprinted editorials from the Santa Zanni Gazette were ravaging the Southern Pacific all along the West Coast under headlines that read SNOOKERED BY YOKELS, WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND and, drawing satirical reference to the classic Frank Norris novel of the evils of the railroad in California, THE OCTOPUS, SUCKERED BY SANTA ZANNI.

The Southern Pacific threw in the towel. There was no way it was going to win against the O’Sullivan family. So they bagged the matter and moved on. Less than a month later they were back in court in Santa Zanni. This time it was as a defendant. To recover the moneys it was certain had been purloined, the Southern Pacific had cut off the retirement pension of Jacob Opinsky. The O’Sullivan siblings then hired the legal firm of Liebovitz and O’Sullivan to demand that the Southern Pacific pay the siblings Jacob Opinsky’s retirement.

It took less than a week of legal wrangling before the Southern Pacific, again, threw in the towel. There was a quiet settlement which was duly reported by the Santa Zanni Gazette. Thereafter the ashes of Jacob Opinsky were taken to the new Catholic priest in town where he, Jacob, was retroactively baptized. Then his ashes were transported to an Irish wake in the Santa Zanni City Park where Jacob Opinsky was made an honorary Irish saint and, with whiskey glasses held high, his ashes were scattered to the wind.

[This short story is from Steven Levi’s SANTA ZANNI available on Kindle. His mystery novels are at]



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