For part one of “TRUE GANGSTER STORIES“, scroll down to the post from March, 2015.
“Hey, I’m Sonny. My father is in the Gambino Crime Family.”
This was the opening line of a neighborhood Brooklyn jackass when he tried to impress a girl. He used it on a 15 year-old who, years later, became my wife. Maybe it worked on the dimwits, but it repulsed at least as many. He may as well have worn a sign that read “Wannabe Gangster”, but he’d probably have had to borrow it from his clown father.
This particular father was a real tough guy, and Mafia enforcer.
At least, in his mind, and amongst a crowd of impressionable teenagers.
Young punk Sonny would start trouble with everyone. Then, when he had to fight to back up his instigations, he would show up with his bigger, older cousin to do battle for him. If that failed, he’d be back with his father.
No one we knew ever saw that father fight a man his own size or age.
In my prior gangster blog post, I referenced an old Brooklyn health club a couple of times. Sonny’s father had a memorable moment in that gym one day. While pumping iron, he mentioned to another member that he had been in that weight room on the night of the famous New York City blackout (July, 1977). He said “It was pitch black when the lights went out. I couldn’t see a thing. Couldn’t even find the stairway.”
The other guy said, “How black can it get in here? I’m pretty sure I could find the stairway.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Yeah, I could find the stairway.”
Boom. Weights flying everywhere. Fucking this. Fucking that. Walls being punched as everyone looked on. Sonny’s dad did his best Lou Ferrigno-becoming-the-Hulk impression, as he raged all over the gym.
Important note: He did not approach the other weight-lifting adult male or challenge him to a fight. If the other man was a young boy, the intimidation would have been full-on.
Word is that Sonny is doing life in prison, and his cousin died in jail. Not sure what became of the dad, but I’m guessing it wasn’t pretty.
He loved to describe himself as “Limo driver for the Gambinos”, which could only mean one thing; he was not a limo driver for the Gambinos.
You know the guy in the neighborhood who calls himself a “car service driver”? Now HE might be driving for the mob. I knew one of those. Let’s call him “Mac”. Mac was an Italian/Jewish-American, and as a non-full-blooded Italian, he could not become a full-fledged member of the Cosa Nostra, even if he so desired. But that didn’t preclude him from lower-level jobs, as long as he could keep his mouth shut and know his place.
Mac began by picking up customers – initially mostly well-off, older Jewish women from Long Island – and transporting them (and their checkbooks) to some of the backdoor, illegal gambling houses in Bay Ridge or Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. When driving those ladies, he was Jewish. In the casinos, he was an Italian.
After several weeks of chauffeuring, the powers that be had grown fond of Mac. He did his job and kept his mouth shut.
“Can you deal?”
Mac was offered a spot working the Blackjack tables. The secret casino had seven “21” tables and 4 for Poker. The bosses noticed that Mac had an eye for catching mistakes and before long he was a pit boss. The former driver was raking in the cash because he was on duty seven days per week, eleven hours per day.
One night, “The Shiek” walked in.
This was the highest of rollers. He owned an unknown number of gas stations and whatever he needed was provided by Mac and his staff. Mac was now in charge of extending credit, and The Shiek had the rare privilege of being offered unlimited credit.
It was a bad night for the gas tycoon.
He couldn’t win a hand. The Shiek wound up staying at the casino for three days. They fed him anything he wished. He was permitted to nap and bathe.
By the final night, the mob boss who ran the gambling house also was the proud owner of two gas stations.
When that big boss, and family don (a famous gangster whom Mac, decades later, still refuses to identify), decided to visit one of his casinos, everything stopped.
He would enter, as in a movie scene, with a beautiful woman on each arm, and a pair of enormous gorillas behind him. Mac would hurriedly, but politely, ask all seven gamblers seated at a given table to please stand and wait for an opening at another. Mac would then escort the boss to his now-private table, where he, and his entourage, could play as they wished.
Mac is one of many regular Joes who never hurt a fly, and certainly never killed anyone, yet provided for his family by working for the New York Underworld. He is a lot like the character Salvatore Salerno in my New York gangster novel, SONS OF THE POPE. The way Mac respects and protects the identity of his former boss is similar to the way some characters in SONS will not even mention the name of their don in public. They merely touch the tips of their noses when referring to him.
A lot of this stuff is amusing, but it’s important to understand that the mob is no comedy show, and if you choose to involve yourself, you may have to pay the ultimate price. (Continued below SONS OF THE POPE link).
I had a childhood friend I’ll call “Lenny”. He was probably the best all-around athlete with whom I’ve ever played sports. Could catch and run with anyone. When we played football, be it tackle or touch, when he received a kickoff or punt (or, in Brooklyn street football, a “throw-off”) there was probably a 50% chance that he was returning it all the way for a touchdown.
We used to sucker guys from the neighborhood who didn’t know us too well. We’d be tossing the football around in the street, throwing it weakly, dropping it here and there. Soon enough, they’d want to play us 2-on-2. We’d put a little money down. I’d be the quarterback, Lenny the receiver. We pulled it off so many times. We only lost once. It was a great gig.
Apart from his athletic prowess, Lenny was a scholar. A computer wizard in the 1970s.
Then, within a brief span, he lost both of his parents. He turned to drugs. Next, he owed money. Money borrowed from the streets. Before long, he was gone. Just gone. I’ve heard different rumors about his demise, but to me, my friend Lenny just vanished. Forever.
Another friend-of-a-friend had a similar issue with owing money. He went around asking everyone he knew for cash to pay back his street lenders. He asked everyone except his own family – he was too ashamed. None of his pals could afford the amount he owed. He was found, in pieces, in the trunk of a car on Bond St. No head. It was probably somewhere in the Gowanus Canal, with all the others. After that, his entire family moved to California.
Rules had to be followed. Yes, the mob sold drugs, but there were certain areas that were “off limits”. Maybe they were too near a church or school, or too close to the home of an important boss. Fred sold drugs for the Mafia. His problem was that he kept selling them in the “off-limits” areas. He’d been warned, but would “slip up”. A meeting was called. Fred left his house in a fancy suit. He wanted to make a good impression. At the meeting, he was relaxed by the other attendees. He got another warning, all very friendly. The meeting officially over, he changed into his sweat suit to make a meal for the boys. With the important business concluded, his clothes changed, and there no longer being the threat of him wearing a wire. They killed him as the pasta boiled.
There was a baker in Brooklyn who also happened to be a “numbers runner” for the local crime family. This was basically an illegal lottery. The runner would collect the money from a bettor, and, ideally, turn it in, with the chosen numbers, to his boss. If the bettor’s number came up, he won, otherwise he lost. Oftentimes these numbers runners would hang onto the bets and never turn them in. The odds were with them. Usually, the numbers wouldn’t come out. It was a longshot bet. The runner would just pocket the bet with his bosses none the wiser.
The problem was, sometimes the bettors did win. This particular time, a man had bet $50, playing the numbers in his wedding anniversary. He hit for $25,000. Adjusted for inflation, his score was worth almost $200,000 in today’s currency. The baker – the runner who never turned the ticket in to the crime family – was on the hook to pay the winner.
Nobody ever saw him again. His wife stood in front of their home screaming when he never came home from work. Did he flee the country? Was his head floating in the Gowanus? No one knew, but the next day the closed bakery went up in flames. The authorities never determined who torched the bakery, but soon after, a local kid was given a new nickname.
Right near that bakery lived the fella who was dating the daughter of the local boss-of-bosses. She became pregnant. It was assumed and arranged that they would be married immediately. One the eve of the big day, not only did the groom call off the wedding, he broke up with his expectant fiancée. I’m not sure what this man thought would come of this, but shortly after, he had his face sliced open from ear to mouth, then, on the other side, from mouth to ear. Many assumed he was permitted to live because he was still the father of the unborn child. The two up-and-coming gangsters contracted for this particular job had earned their own new nicknames.
Then there was The Butcher. Scary name, but not what you’d expect. The Butcher was a family man, and neighborhood good-guy. He was a great husband and father who had served our country quite honorably in the armed forces. He worked in the meat department at the A & P supermarket. Then, just like that, he was laid off. All he knew was honest work, so he applied for a job at something called Meat Kingdom. It was a thriving local business, their management knew he was a top-notch butcher, so he got the job. It was only then that he learned that Meat Kingdom was owned by a super-famous gangster (and one who would soon be rubbed out in one of the most famous hits of all-time). The big gangster’s son ran the shop’s day-to-day business. The Butcher happened to be father to one of my best friends. That friend had a very realistic, and quite creepy-looking, rubber rat. One day, the Butcher – always one for a good laugh – brought the fake rat to work. He placed the creature in one of the meat lockers and waited to see how the prank would play out with his co-workers.
You could probably finish this story for me. The junior gangster, son of the big boss, and manager of the store, came upon the toy rodent. The young mobster screamed like a cheerleader, wet his pants, and almost backed into a working bandsaw as he rushed to escape.
The backfired prank actually had the butcher concerned for his safety, and the future of his family. Having the don’s son make a fool of himself in front of all of his employees is not something that the Butcher intended.
Here’s what happened after.
Nothing. No broken legs, no sliced face, no “meeting”. No apology required.
The employees, after some time, figured that the Butcher escaped punishment because of a combination of things; he was not part of “the life” – just an ordinary citizen, he turned out to be the best meat-cutter they had, and maybe most of all, how could pants-wetting junior explain to his father the reason for any punishment?
Interesting fact about that Butcher: though he was a regular guy, and law-abiding citizen, his own father had been a collector and enforcer for a well-connected Brooklyn loan shark. He remembered that his dad always carried a tire iron on his person, and never entered or exited his own apartment through the front door. He would use the fire escape of an adjoining building, then, walk across the rooftops, leading to the fire escape of his own apartment.
St. Agnes Seminary was located on Avenue R in Brooklyn. Grades K-8, girls only. My cousins attended in the early 70s. Two of their young friends happened to be the granddaughters of the biggest crime boss in New York. A bit of a war broke out and there had been kidnapping threats against the two little girls.
The police were never involved. Instead, the girls showed up at school each day with a parade of black cars. Their “private security guards” were permitted to be posted all over the school grounds, and always outside the classrooms of the threatened children. Word was that this permission was granted due to a sizeable donation.
My cousins found it to be fun and exciting because the gangsters brought them along for a pizzeria lunch almost every day, and paid for the whole thing.
Kids born into a mob family are different than those who aspire to be gangsters. Those children of gangsters know nothing different. By the time than can make decisions for themselves, they’ve effectively been brainwashed. The outsiders trying to get in have made their own decision. I’ve known both kinds. A kid used to live next door to me. I’ll call him Petey. He was a decent kid, but not a friend of mine. Maybe he tried to act tougher than he was. He hung with a bunch of wannabe gangsters a bit older than he and I. They pretended to be “connected” but were basically big-talking morons. Petey had a younger sister who was a very sweet girl. I felt bad for her, always surrounded by those fools.
One time Petey came around in a car with three of these goons. I was standing on a street corner with one other friend. They called me over to their vehicle.
“Listen, did you take anything from Mrs. Freiberg’s yard?” one of them asked me. Mrs. Freiberg was my landlord, and I lived in the basement.
I told them I had no idea what they were talking about.
“You sure?” asked one obese faux mobster.
“Yeah. I didn’t take anything from the yard.”
“Hmmm,” he said, with Petey looking down. Petey wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
“What was taken?” I asked. Not sure why I cared.
“We planted some marijuana in her yard and it’s all gone. We’ll look into it further before anything gets done,” said Chubby.
I wanted to say, “Gets done? Who the fuck are you to threaten me?” But it was just me standing with one guy who wasn’t much of a fighter, and there were four of them – three who were quite a bit older. Almost men vs. boys. I said nothing and they drove off. I made a mental note to tell my older brothers – who did not live with me – but would’ve been there anytime I needed them. I wonder how tough those guys would’ve talked if a couple of big guys their own age had been with me? My brothers, Ed and Kevin.
Nothing ever came of that stolen marijuana situation. I assume Mrs. Freiberg just dug the shit up and threw it away. As for my neighbor Petey, a year or two later he was shot in the back of his head in Manhattan. Dead. I still feel bad for his little sister, wherever she may be.
Sometimes our mobsters seem to have better international relationships than our government. This became evident to a friend of mine who attended the funeral of a prominent Canadian gangster, north of the border. He wandered around the funeral home, reading the cards on the huge floral arrangements.
“Deepest sympathy, Detroit.”
“Condolences on your loss, New York.”
“Loved and remembered, Chicago.”
There was a ten year-old boy whose step-father would always bring him to a bar in Astoria, Queens. The kid was allowed to sit right at the bar, amongst the grown men, drinking his Shirley Temples, while the step-dad did his business in the back room.
Sometimes two men would come to the boy’s house. The same two well-dressed men – every time. The stepfather’s name was Fritz – everyone called him that.
For whatever reason, these two men called him Frank.
It turns out that Fritz (or Frank) did a lot of “favors” for these men. Much of the time it involved transporting weapons from New Mexico to New York City.
One day, the favor they requested would have had Fritz testifying in court as a witness to a major accident that had occurred. The thing was, Fritz had never witnessed the accident in question, and was quite adverse to court proceedings of any kind.
For the first time, he refused their request.
The outcome: Fritz immediately packed up his entire family and left New York for the southwest. No one who knew them has seen them since.
Well, I may have.
I will conclude this blog with the words of some mystery man whom I would be in contact with almost every evening, for a time, in The Borough of Churches.
During my first year at Brooklyn College, I was on an emotional roller-coaster. Things weren’t so great for me. I was quite depressed, but tried to keep a happy face. It wasn’t working. I had a Sociology class and I figured I could make something out of it. As an assignment, based on my suggestion, I transformed into another person. There was a neighborhood kid who was always picked on. He wasn’t the best-looking guy, and had some hygiene issues. He sold the New York Post on the street. I stopped shaving, showered a lot less, stayed away from my friends, and got a job selling the Post.
I would sell the evening edition, after school, out near the Verrazano Bridge, right off the parkway exit.
The newspaper sold for 25 cents. Each evening a long, black sedan would come off the highway and stop in front of me. The windows were nearly black. The rear window would roll down just a crack. I could never see who was in that car, but the transaction was always the same. There I was, looking borderline homeless, holding the papers, many times in the rain, with plastic over them and nothing over me.
He would slide a five dollar bill out the window crack and I would stuff the newspaper through it in return. He never accepted any change. He paid twenty times the price of the New York Post. Every night.
Then he would say only one word, and roll his window up. It is the same word I will sincerely pass along to all who have taken the time to read this blog.
These true stories would not be possible without the help of Paul Smith, Ken Angelos, Deborah Joyce MacDougald, Nora Ball, M.a. Tarpinian, Michael Musumeci, Marc Sheer, Thomas Pirics, Jason Altman, Richard Anderson, Ernest Loperena, Maureen O’Connor, & Joanne O’Connor.