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“Make-a sure you behave-a yourself!” After my mother’s father Giovanni—“Papa”—passed away in the late seventies, I never heard those words spoken with a gravy-thick Italian accent again. Up till then it was as reliable as clockwork. Headed out the door to school, mass, to play ball, or fuck around I always got the same reminder. When you’re a kid and an adult you trust tells you to be good what you usually hear is “have fun” or “don’t get caught.”
Papa was a Sicilian-American of the Old World school. He always dressed like he was going to a formal sit-down with equals, always unfussily attended to preparing food and made sure to have a glass of wine with every meal. He made the best eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had in my life and the lasagna he set down next to the turkey at Thanksgiving (a given in any Italian home) would be gone before the bird lost a leg. To him the simple things were the finer things. The way Papa peeled an apple was its own lesson in Old World precision and grace. He used a paring knife to painstakingly shuck the peel in a single uninterrupted spiral as if he were making a watch.
When my grandmother died the day after Thanksgiving 1972 my mother’s side of the family took turns putting up Papa. Actually, we fought over him. He was a great guy to have around the house. He took care of himself and let us take care of him in the right proportion. With Papa at my elbow I learned to make a grilled cheese sandwich, his favorite lunch, the right way—slowly, with just the right cheese, butter, bread, and frying pan temperature. It wasn’t a lesson in haute cuisine, it was an initiation into the old ways of doing things for a member of the microwave-and-TV-dinner generation. Not a formula, but a feeling—a sense for how things should go that a kid could relate to. I knew to cut the crusts off and always anticipated and felt the same pride when Papa would pronounce the results perfect and take his first bite. My sister and I still joke about it—he wouldn’t let her make his lunch. She rushed through it. Me, I was able to take it slow, savor the experience and get it done his way. I behaved myself. It was fun. We all loved him, and me, I worshipped him. I’d heard Papa’s words of advice as I headed out the door for just over five years when he died in 1978.
Even during baseball and football season, if Papa was staying with us, I’d hang out with him as many afternoons as I could. After lunch he’d hike his trouser cuffs and settle into the big recliner in the living room like a bocce ball in a catcher’s mitt and we’d watch The Mike Douglas Show together. Douglas was a toupee-and-leisure-suit guy who I guess must have had a singing career. His show was kind of an upscale Joe Franklin—John and Yoko would be on with Don Rickles. Alfred Hitchcock shared Mike’s couch with James Brown. The top of each show was the same—Mike would come out on the brightly lit flower-power set and do a song (usually a standard that my grandpa knew) before going into a softball monologue of corny jokes. It was routine and schmaltzy and engaging and surprising enough that Papa loved it. So did my mom.
But one afternoon, Mike followed a Totie Fields fat joke with a crack about Italians and the Mafia. At the time The Godfather was breaking box office records across the country. For much of the sixties organizations like the Italian-American Civil Rights League, led by Joe Colombo, moonlighting from running the mob family that bore his name, lobbied Hollywood and Washington long and hard not to use “the M word” in scripts or legal proceedings. TV and movies in those days usually substituted more ominous sounding but less ethnically specific terms like “the Syndicate,” “the Organization,” or “the Outfit” in its place.
Paramount, the company that made The Godfather, broke ranks on a picture called The Brotherhood with Kirk Douglas a few years before. It bombed. Threatened with union hassles and boycotts the suits at Paramount agreed to bleach “Mafia” out of The Godfather script. Around the same time Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell caved and ordered “Mafia” banned and excised from federal legal documents and memos. None of this kept Joe Colombo from receiving three bullets in the head at an IACRL rally courtesy of a hitman hired by his “Syndicate” rival Crazy Joe Gallo. Sticks and stones…
The Godfather was such a sensation that the dam burst. Overnight a word that had been taboo in movies and television for generations was okay after all. Not with my grandfather. As the canned laughter hissed out of the TV speaker, he got up, muttered something in his Italian dialect I wasn’t supposed to hear, changed the channel, and scowled wordlessly at the screen until supper. He never watched Mike Douglas again. My mother never watched it, either.
What I more or less understood at the time was that my grandpa Giovanni had arrived in New York from Sicily in the winter of 1900 aged eight years old with a paper suitcase in his hand. His sister had left the old country before he was born. They met face-to-face for the first time on the docks of the Lower East Side. Neither of them ever saw their parents again.
When they left, Sicily was still recovering from a civil war that saw thousands of their countrymen cut down. Their island was so remote and so barren of the coal and iron resources that leveraged northern Italy into the Industrial Revolution and the empire-building business that it was for all intents and purposes stuck in the Middle Ages. You couldn’t build a factory or a battleship with an olive or tomato harvest. You also couldn’t make a living in the fields and orchards in Sicily like you could doing just about anything on the other side of the Atlantic.
Thousands of years of invasions and occupations from Italy in the north and just about every country around the Mediterranean had made Sicilians tough and tight. Sicilian immigrants arrived in the New World with a suspicion of official rules and established authority and a trust only in each other that had been earned over centuries at foreign sword point. The Sicilian struggle for independence and survival played out against one enemy or another for centuries and in any war the line between crook and freedom fighter is hard to draw. Sicilians had hundreds of years of chaos and conflict in which to hone secrecy, brutality, and revenge into an art. American English has dozens of words in common use culled from Gallic, Yiddish, northern Italian dialects, and other immigrant languages. There are only two imported from Sicily—“vendetta” and “Mafia.”
By 1920, a million Italians (mostly Sicilians like my grandfather and his sister) had immigrated to the United States through New York Harbor. They were joined by about two million Jews driven from Eastern Europe from 1881 to 1924. Everyone was from somewhere else and the numbers grew larger every year. Legal and illegal opportunity knocked for new arrivals. The places to live were where other Italians had staked a neighborhood claim—Harlem uptown and inland from the waterfront on the Lower East Side at the downtown end of Manhattan. Gangsters and thieves lost their lunch over the same boat railings as everyone else headed to America to make some money. For these guys “yearning to breathe free” meant leaving home because they had to. Pioneers of American organized crime like Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta and the Morello brothers left Corleone a step ahead of the gallows. Guiseppe “Joe” Masseria emigrated from Marsala to beat a murder rap.
Joe Masseria set up house keeping in an apartment on Forsyth and Houston downtown and honed his god-given talent for harm as an enforcer in the Morrelos’ extortion, kidnapping, and counterfeiting rackets and as a soldier in a Sicilian Mafia versus Napolitano Camora gang war that pitted lower Manhattan against Brooklyn. Unlike his “mustache Pete,” first-generation gangster peers, Joe wanted more than just a piece of the transplanted homegrown rackets and local plunder. The era of nativist rule in New York’s underworld was coming to a close. Irish crooks had moved on and up into the police and politics. In a relatively short time Joe capitalized on the contacts he made in and out of jail and went from a side business of burglaries and petty heists to running his own gambling and extortion rackets. Joe’s timing was perfect. Shaking down store owners, running card games, fencing stolen goods, kidnapping the children of the wealthy, and other old school rackets could only have taken him and the rest of the new breed so far. But when Prohibition was enacted in 1920 it was as if the skies rained gasoline on what had been a bunch of little regional criminal barbecues.
Once Prohibition hit and he began running booze, Joe’s operation grew big enough that he soon outstripped the Morellos completely. The nickname he’d picked out for himself years before finally stuck—“Joe the Boss.” Any waiter that ever had to roll up the table cloth after the Boss finished a meal could explain his other nickname—“Joe the Glutton.”
The Eighteenth Amendment was an ivory tower crusade led by a small group of people who equated drinking with unchecked immigration and the erosion of supposedly Anglo-Saxon family values. Nobody with half a brain thought it made any sense. Unless they were some kind of obsessed fanatic, cops, judges, bankers, and politicians all knew on some level that banning the sale and manufacture of alcohol was bullshit. Most politicians were too scared of moralist newspapers and public opinion to vote against banning liquor and no cop could bitch about it without looking like he was being soft on crime. And, for lawmakers and law enforcers willing to play ball with bootleggers, it maybe wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
To Sicilian new arrivals in Papa’s generation, banning the production and sale of alcohol was just more Protestant insanity. Catholics already had enough to worry about in this life and atone for in the next. If it’s okay with the Pope, who was the U.S. Congress to say you can’t take wine? Then, as now, the American dream was a tease for new arrivals and the have-nots. Big business offered most immigrants a spot on the bottom rung and an opportunity to stay there indefinitely. The legal booze industry and just about every other mainstream U.S. business at the time had a glass ceiling that new Americans like my grandfather could never penetrate. But the illegal booze racket was wide open. For Italians, Jews, Irish, African-Americans, or anyone else from anywhere else willing to risk prison or a one-way ride back to their birthplace in a ship’s brig, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
What I didn’t learn until after he died was that my grandfather Giovanni seized that opportunity, took full advantage of the dawning underground economy, and went to work for Joe Masseria running bootleg booze and numbers. Papa was a good earner and the Boss became as fond of him in his way as Papa’s own family eventually would. Joe would borrow a diamond stickpin Papa owned to wear in his tie at big sit-downs and the marathon meals and pinochle games he hosted to relax and talk shop. The Boss always wiped the pin clean of spilled food before he returned it. With Joe the Boss’s blessing, Papa Giovanni went to Boston and ran numbers and liquor there until he got in a major jam with the local cops. Grandpa left Boston one night in a hurry, came back home to Little Italy, and married my grandmother.
My grandfather settled down and opened a café at 3 Catherine Street, a stone’s throw away from what’s now One Police Plaza. With a family of his own on the way, my grandfather was happy to run his business in the American style—an independent operator cultivating and maintaining necessary ties with the big shots. Big-talking tough guys like Joe the Boss made sure that the cops looked the other way while hardworking tough guys like Papa distilled and bottled unbonded hooch in the back of their storefronts and paid a percentage of what they made back to Joe in return. Joe the Boss still stopped by and still borrowed the stickpin when he wanted, but Joe was at war with his competition and with three kids at home and another on the way, Papa’s wild days were ending.
Joe the Boss ran his business in the Old World way. Non-Sicilians weren’t welcome on his payroll and pressures from competitors or anger from perceived insults were dealt with at gunpoint. Joe used a cadre of Sicilian natives handpicked from the Lower East Side tenements to stock his inner circle, his death squad, and his body guard.
In August 1922, Joe reached out to Rocco Valenti, one of his former employers’, the Morellos, deadliest guns and arranged a sit-down at John’s Restaurant on East 12 Street. Earlier that summer Joe the Boss had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt outside his apartment on Second Avenue around the corner from the future home of the Ninth Precinct on the Lower East Side. The hit had gone completely haywire. The shooters missed Joe with their bullets but nearly deafened him with close-quarter gunfire. When their getaway car accidentally ran into a labor protest, the hit squad gunned down, ran down, and pistol-whipped their way through the crowd to clear the street and escape. The newspapers howled for blood, the police chased their tails, but Valenti was Joe’s prime suspect and he knew what to do about it.
After some pleasantries and half-hearted bridge building at John’s, Joe excused himself and a trio of young turks on Joe’s payroll flanking him at the table stood up and began shooting Joe’s guest. They kept shooting as Valenti dragged himself out to the sidewalk and tried to escape one last time. The guns didn’t stop until Valenti took a head shot on the running board of a taxi and a pair of bystanders, including an eight-year-old girl from the block, had been winged.
The assassin who did most of the shooting was also a neighborhood kid. He could’ve walked the few blocks home in under five minutes. Salvatore Lucania was born in Sicily in a sulfur mining town that made nearby Palermo look like Paris by comparison. His family headed for greener pastures in L’America but settled for a Lower East Side walkup apartment on East Tenth Street, a half block from Tompkins Square Park. Young Salvatore watched his father scrimp and save to put food on his family’s table. The sweatshop and day-laborer work his father and their neighbors did was, Salvatore decided, “for crumbs.” Outside of extorting pennies from straitlaced students for protection, school was for future crumbs. At fourteen, Lucania dropped out of P.S. 19 on East Fourteenth Street. For a while he bided his time working a five-dollar-a-day crumb job as a shipping clerk at a hat factory and hanging out in the back of the DeRobertis pastry shop around the corner from his house with two Jewish neighborhood kids—a little nebbish math whiz named Meyer who’d stood up to Lucania’s shake downs at school, and another kid even wilder than Salvatore named Benny. Like a lot of teenagers their age they plotted to change the world to suit them. In a few years they did.
Lucania, Benny, and Meyer put in their time in the pool halls and back rooms of Little Italy and nearly anywhere in the city a dishonest buck could be had. By eighteen Salvatore had been arrested for armed robbery, gun possession, assault, grand larceny, and gambling charges. Benny was obsessed with broads. When he wasn’t planning and pulling heists or balancing his illegal accounts, Meyer pored over glossy magazine pictures of South America and the Carib be an islands—dreaming big like the luftmensch he was. But Lucania was as much a visionary as fellow Lower East Sider Nikola Tesla or revolutionary as Emma Goldman in his way. His association with renegade financier Arnold Rothstein taught him to think in bigger numbers, always look to the next racket, and to dress the part he wanted to play in life. Lucania had his eyes on a future that neither his friends nor associates like Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Dutch Schultz, and Lepke Buchalter could see their part in just yet.
After stretches in the reformatory and boot camp with the Five Points Gang and Al “Scarface” Capone, Lucania set out on his own, operating a racket nicknamed “the Broadway Mob” that reflected the diversification that Rothstein preached and the diversity of Lucania’s own Lower East Side upbringing. Salvatore Lucania or Charlie “Lucky” Luciano as he began to be called (hell, Meyer’s last name was originally Suchowljanski, not Lansky—and plenty of people called Benny Siegel, “Bugsy” behind his back) became a favorite of fellow Sicilian Joe the Boss. Joe admired Lucky’s nerve and brains even if he couldn’t understand his eagerness to consort with fetuso punks whose families came from northern Italy or Russia.
With Rothstein pointing the way, Charlie Lucky saw how the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Morgans, DuPonts, and other old money corporate big shots regulated the country’s legitimate economy. Monopoly and vertical integration—manufacture, distribution, and collection under the same control—that was the way to make a real living in the land of the free. The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Volstead Act that followed made the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages a federal crime. But every man enjoyed a glass of beer, a friendly wager, and the company of a woman. Owning the supply lines and establishments that provided those services and cooperating with other owners from other parts of town and across the country to share the risk and rewards would reduce losses and increase profits. Under Lucky Luciano, American crime got organized.
Now twenty-three, Charlie Lucky set up a trucking company as a bootlegging front. His old friends Frank Costello and Vito Genovese ran the operation. They owned the east side docks and saw to it that the scotch from Scotland, rum from the islands, and whiskey from Canada were unloaded, stockpiled, sold, and delivered with as little hassle as possible. While clearing close to a half-million dollars a year tax-free servicing his territory, Luciano grew eager to expand and form alliances with other operators. It didn’t matter one bit to him where they were from.
Lucky Luciano’s genius was weaving the old—the Sicilian Cosa Nostra traditions of silence and loyalty, with the new—opening up the rackets to any and all earning possibilities and partnering with Jews, Irish, blacks, and anyone else, all in the name of profit. In Luciano’s view Joe the Boss had taken big-time earning as far as he could. Joe’s kind of backward thinking placed grudges and ancestry over money. Prohibition wasn’t going to last forever. Any idiot could see that. Yet Joe Masseria and up-and-coming rival boss Salvatore Maranzano wasted a portion of the twenties’ precious and obscenely profitable years in a bloody and costly turf war with each other. First off, that had to stop. Under the pretense of a leisurely meal and a card game Luciano arranged for two of Benny Siegel’s guns to install four new holes in Joe’s head at his favorite restaurant in Coney Island and Maranzano declared himself the winner.
But Marazano was only a slight improvement on Joe the Glutton. A former candidate for the priesthood with an obsession with Roman history and customs, Marazano resented Charlie Lucky, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese’s ties with non-Italian gangsters. Like Joe the Boss Maranzano respected Luciano’s ambition and earning power, but saw his New World ways as a threat. For good reason. Eventually some more of Luciano’s old neighborhood allies paid a call to Maranzano’s plush offices in the Helmsley Building dressed as IRS auditors. Legend has it that they unknowingly passed the hitman Maranzano had hired to kill off Charlie Lucky in the hallway on the way in. Lucky’s men lined everyone against the wall of Marazano’s office then shot and stabbed the boss and his retinue to death. Their gunshots were muffled by the plush shag carpeting and enormous Roman tapestries decorating his office.
Charlie Lucky didn’t substitute ego for brains and install himself as “boss of bosses,” the way his two predecessors had. Instead, he streamlined, unified, and stabilized a volatile group of gangs by cherry picking the things that worked for Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. The Sicilian code of silence—omerta—that both Joe and Salvatore swore by would remain. Shutting up paid off handsomely, no matter what you called it. Charlie Lucky learned that the hard way while being tortured at blowtorch and knife point on a Staten Island beach while still in Joe the Boss’s employ. If the more sentimental bosses wanted to make it some kind of blood oath, that was just okay with him.
Some of Maranzano’s Roman legion–style organization stayed in place, too. It was a new country and a new century with a new deal on the horizon. Ring kissing, ceremony, swearing allegiance, and symbolic acts of discipline had their place, but ultimately decisions would be made with one thing in mind only—making a buck. Though it was mostly bullshit to Lucky, the mustache Pete pomp helped morale and curbed unchecked individual ambition.
With Joe the Boss out of the picture, my grandfather’s illegal business came under Lucky Luciano’s control. By day Papa sold food and coffee. At night you could also get booze—Lucky’s booze. Most days Luciano operated out of the back room of Celano’s Garden, a restaurant on Kenmare Street. Celano’s Garden was strategically located a few blocks from the curb exchange Luciano ran on the corner of Mulberry Street—an unofficial depot and marketplace where bootleg booze was bought and sold, loaded and unloaded from trucks, car trunks, wheelbarrows, and handcarts. Sitting in one place too long made Charlie Lucky nervous and he liked to move around the neighborhood. Papa’s café became a regular destination in Charlie Lucky’s rounds. A few times a month Luciano’s limo would pull up and the uncrowned king of organized crime would come in and have espresso with my grandfather and bounce my uncle Paul on his knee.
When he got into a beef, my grandfather didn’t call the cops. Like everyone else in New York making a living off the Eighteenth Amendment, he called Lucky Luciano. A neighborhood competitor approached Giovanni about selling him a few extra barrels during a periodic booze drought. When it came to buy them back from Papa, the guy welshed and refused to fork over the fair market price they’d agreed to when supplies opened up again. Charlie Lucky ruled in my grandfather’s favor. When Giovanni’s prized Cadillac, the same one he lent out for the Columbus Day parade and drove his wife, my mother, her sisters, and brother to the Jersey Shore was confiscated by the police during a liquor run, Luciano saw to it that it was stolen from NYPD headquarters and returned to my grandfather.
With repeal on the horizon, my grandfather began investing in the stock market, while Lucky Luciano took more of Arnold Rothstein’s advice and solidified his narcotics connections. My grandfather lost nearly everything in the crash of 1929. After a long illness he went the straight and narrow for the rest of his life, working as a military contractor making parachutes. Lucky Luciano began forging the international dope network that would prime the pump for the heroin trade I fought in Alphabet City in the eighties. I had no way of knowing all this as Papa cursed out Mike Douglas. As far as I knew I was just the son of a cop.
ALPHAVILLE Copyright © 2010 by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett