Poem: Louis the Coin, by Ravi Shankar

Louis the Coin

Ravi Shankar


Decades before a cadre

of Secret Service agents

and New Jersey gaming

troopers surveilled, busted

him in the parking garage

of Caesars Atlantic City

with a Milano red Honda

Civic with a trunk stuffed

full of eight hundred lbs.

of counterfeit casino chips

(plus cash, an unregistered

handgun), you would have

found the late Louis the Coin

toiling at his Italian immigrant

father Benedict’s tool shop,

forging handmade gavels

and engraving corbeled brick

dentils for window lintels.

That’s where he learned not

to make fakes, but authentic

imitations. He would trial

alloys of strip metal stock,  

peer under a microscope,

cut shapes with blanking

tools on a roller mill, overlay

surfaces with a vintage electric

plating machine and a Mario

Dimaio coining press

(for nothing beats Italian

pasta nor craftsmanship)

to make molds in his closet

that produced perfect tokens

that allowed him to bilk

the ultimate swindlers,

the casinos, for four years,

before, well, he grew greedy.

Lavish Louis in his loafers,

on a yacht flying one sail:

LLO, ladies love outlaws.

Even in prison, he laughed,

played bocce with the wise

guys, never ratted anyone

out, though he was connected

to the Patriarca crime family

in Providence and had seen

bodies in the back of Buicks

maimed beyond recognition

and knew which Federal Hill

jewelry shops were actually

fronts for laundering money.

When I first met Louis years

later at a benefit for young

writers, he had on his arm

a young woman wearing black

lipstick and all he had left over

from the high life was a taste

for blow and Berluti alligator

leather loafers scuffed around

the heel yet still shiny, supple

as a new glove unwrapped

from tissue paper on Epiphany

Eve in the devoutly Catholic

Colavecchio household.

The last time I saw the Coin

he was living alone in a weary

one bedroom in Pawtucket,

which he had transformed

into an atelier: piles of wood

fiber, animal glue, aluminum

chloride, ultraviolet lights,

melamine formaldehyde resin

in jars stacked like blackberry

jam on a supermarket shelf,

it was like the enchanted inside

of a sorcerer’s workshop

and shifting gingerly around,

not wanting to touch anything,

I could hear the warning

of Goethe’s ballad tolling:

the spirits I have summoned

I now cannot rid myself of again…

Now standing at his grave

at the sprawling Cranston

St. Ann’s cemetery, I recall

that he still owes me money

and how he had held up

a reproduced and magnified

quarter inch of a C-note

to show me the watermarks,

security threads, color-shifting

ink, microprinting he knew

he could exactly reproduce

with practice in his kitchen.

If suspected, he had an alibi

even: undercover counterfeit

deterrence specialist. 15 more

months in prison was the net

result and I don’t know how

he weathered hypertension,

wardens, dementia, chronic

obstructive pulmonary disease,

correctional officers, chaplains

and loneliness those last months

of his life. Around me, obelisks

and granite monuments and fake

flowers and rosaries and framed

portraits and votive candles

and huge headstones engraved

with anchors, lilies, weeping

willows, phrases that seem flimsy

when carved into stone: loved

by all, into the sunshine, blessed

mother, till we meet again, the gates

are open, on the wings of angels.

Of the deceased, he must be

one of the most colorful,

yet his final resting place

is one of the simplest here,

and there’s some modern

parable in that paradox

which someone else can

puzzle out, for dark clouds

are forming on the horizon

and evening’s growling low.

I will work this poem over

the way he worked the lathes

until it shimmers with enough

of him that becomes genuine

effigy and candid elegy both,

faceted and beveled and 3-D

enough to trick the cosmic

slot machines into paying out

its jackpot in lurid, astonishing,

confounding stories, leaving us

richly barren, forever dreaming

of a time there will be more—   

(RIP Louis B. Colavecchio January 1, 1942 – July 6, 2020)


Shankar is a Pushcart prize-winning poet, translator and professor who has published 15 books, including the Muse India award-winning translations Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess and W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond called “a beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. He has taught and performed around the world and appeared in print, radio and TV in such venues as The New York Times, NPR, BBC and the PBS Newshour. He has won awards to the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, fellowships from the Rhode Island and Connecticut Counsel on the Arts, founded one of the oldest electronic journals of the arts in the world Drunken Boat, and recently finished his PhD from the University of Sydney. His memoir “Correctional” is forthcoming in 2021 with University of Wisconsin Press. Ravi Shankar can be reached at: https://www.poetravishankar.com/.

Also, see: https://louisthecoinbook.com/