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Jeff GreenfieldA very funny novel…and a good one.
—The Village Voice
The idea for the six-day bike race came out of a meeting held in November, in Brooklyn, in the offices of Anthony Pastrumo, Sr. He is a sixty-eight-year-old man who is called "Papa" when he is at home and "Baccala" by his friends and business associates, all of whom share a common feeling toward Baccala. They are scared to death of him.
Baccala is one of the five big bosses of the Mafia gangsters in New York. He is also a very great dog-lover. Last year he bought a Russian wolfhound for his four-year-old niece so she could grow up in an atmosphere of teeth. The dog was stolen. Baccala had somebody write a form letter that was mimeographed and sent to every veterinarian and animal hospital in the New York area. It offered a reward of $250 to anybody who reported if a Russian wolfhound with specific markings was brought around for shots.
"I look to make a stool pigeon out of a dog doctor," Baccala explained. "All he tells me is who the guy is with-a my dog. I pay the $250. I go to the guy who stole my-a dog. I speak to him nice. Then I cut out his heart and feed it to the dog."
The bike race was Baccala's idea. He nominated a chubby real-estate man named Joseph DeLauria to be the actual promoter of the race. DeLauria has made large sums of money fronting for Baccala in business deals. DeLauria also has received many slaps in the face when he has irritated Baccala during these deals.
Baccala's office in Brooklyn is in a building which is listed as the home of the Lancer Trucking Company. There is no trucking company. If Baccala wants a trucking company, he will steal one from a Jew. Baccala held the meeting to deal with a dissident group in his gang: Reform Italians. The gang was headed by Salvatore Palumbo. He is known, among all illegitimate people and cops in Brooklyn, as Kid Sally Palumbo. In Brooklyn waterfront dialect, this often comes out as "Sally Kid." He is twenty-nine and he has a power base of five cousins and sixty others who live on the South Brooklyn waterfront and work, under Kid Sally's direction, at mayhem for the Baccala gang. For some time Kid Sally Palumbo and his group have wanted to get their hands on a major revenue-producing enterprise. Violence still pays less than any other job in crime. Baccala was of the opinion that Kid Sally Palumbo couldn't run a gas station at a profit even if he stole the customers' cars. But the level of annoyance from Kid Sally Palumbo and his people was becoming inordinately high. You could see that at a big meeting held to discuss the rift.
"You sit-a here, okay? you sit-a here, okay? you sit-a here, okay?" Baccala was saying, assuming his role of don cheeche. One of the major rewards for being a big shot in the Mafia is that you are in charge of seating arrangements at all restaurants or meetings. You tell everybody where to sit and keep the best seat for yourself.
Everybody in the meeting sat down except Kid Sally Palumbo.
"You sit-a," Baccala said, pointing at a chair in the corner.
"I don't feel like sittin'."
"I think I'm going to stand."
The two glared at each other. Baccala shrugged and sat down. He is known as the Sicilian Dean Rusk. Be a little smooth and give a little on the surface now. After the conference ends amicably, send in the B-52s.
"So what you want?" Baccala said.
"Do the right thing," Kid Sally said.
"What's?" Baccala said.
"We got to go around with a gun with loaded bullets. What do we get for it? You get everything, we get ungotz."
"You shut up you face," Baccala said.
"You old guys, we got to do deuces and treys in the can and you leave the money for your kids. What's this? You send your kids to West Point. We go to West Point, all right. Sing Sing West Point."
"You show no respect," Baccala said.
"I'm good people," Kid Sally said.
"You no act like good people."
"I'm good people!"
Kid Sally's grandmother, Mrs. Big Mama Ferrara, had rehearsed him carefully. "You just say you good people and you take-a no bullasheet," she told him.
The meeting broke up on that note. Baccala, watching Kid Sally and his cousins leave the office, realized they constituted political pressure. As Baccala is sensitive to this sort of thing, he decided to do something about it.
What Baccala wanted to do at first was not good. "Ciciri," he muttered one night. The three people with him at dinner became nervous. The word ciciri means bean, but to Baccala the meaning is much deeper. The only history he knows of is the rebellion of Sicilians in Palermo in 1282 against the French. A French soldier tried to rape a housewife in front of her husband in Palermo. The husband killed the soldier and all Palermo took to the streets. They surrounded French soldiers and told them to say the word ciciri. It is supposed to be an impossible set of syllables for the French tongue to handle. So the people of Palermo, with a great shout, slit the throats of the soldiers. Baccala, who knows the story by heart, loves to talk about the part where the hero of the uprising, Nicola Pancia, boarded a French ship in the harbor and had seventy French sergeants and their wives and children thrown overboard. Nicola Pancia and his men hung over the side and cheered each time a baby drowned.
"The baby makes-a bubbles in the water," Baccala always says, crying from laughter.
In more recent history, each time Baccala mutters this particular word, somebody in Brooklyn gets invited on a deep-sea fishing trip from Sheepshead Bay. Out in the ocean, a rope is put around the man's neck. The other end of the rope is attached to an old jukebox. The jukebox is thrown overboard. The man invariably follows.
On this particular occasion, however, Baccala spent a week glaring and muttering and then he called in Kid Sally Palumbo again and told him he was getting a chance to make money. A bike race.
Bike-racing is a thing out of the 1930s. It used to be called "the Ride to Nowhere." The only thing Baccala really knows about bike-racing is that Italians ride bikes. But it was indicative of Baccala's age that, when pressed, he went for an idea out of the 1930s instead of something modern, such as selling cocaine to grammar-school kids. During the Depression, when even fine gangsters were broke, Baccala went to a bike race at Madison Square Garden and quickly noticed that when everybody stood up to cheer they left their coats draped over the seats. On the second sprint of the night Baccala grabbed a great camel-hair from Row B, Section 205. A while later he took a black Chesterfield out of the last row of the end arena. He got into the side arena and came off with a terrific storm coat. He happened to look around, and he saw so many guys running around the arena and stealing coats that he thought he was having a vision of heaven.
Over the loudspeaker, later on that night, the announcer for the bike race said, "The score at this point ..."
"Forty-nine coats!" somebody screamed from the mezzanine.
Despite the different era, Baccala was certain his new bike race would make immense amounts of money. He intended to have open gambling on it. The event would be held in a field-artillery armory in the 91st Precinct in Brooklyn. The only thing not for sale in the 91st Precinct is the captain's bowling trophy. As Baccala saw it, the bike race would be a roulette wheel for six days and nights. He would let Kid Sally Palumbo handle the whole thing and keep nearly all the money. This would keep the fresh bum quiet.
This bike race is another example of how Mafia bosses weave their way into the fabric of society. The Mafia of New York is split into five groups known as "families." The Baccala Family runs all organized crime in Brooklyn. The gang has been in Brooklyn longer than the Ferris wheel at Coney Island. It was formed in 1890 under the leadership of Raymond the Wolf. He ate babies. Raymond the Wolf passed away in his sleep one night from natural causes; his heart stopped beating when the three men who slipped into his bedroom stuck knives in it. Joe the Wop, who had sent the three men, took over the mob. Joe the Wop shot nuns. A year later he dropped dead while being strangled. At this point Baccala heard that three people he had known and loved for twenty years were discussing ways to take over the gang. So was Baccala. This, of course, made his three great friends become treacherous enemies. One night Baccala stepped into the Roma Gardens Lounge to visit the three people. Baccala also brought a machine gun with him. The three old friends were eating dinner. Baccala caught them with the machine gun between the veal. A waiter was so close to Baccala's gun that he got powder burns all over the front of his waiter's jacket.
When the police arrived, they found the waiter nervously twisting a napkin between his hands. An inspector looked at the powder burns on the waiter's jacket.
"What shooting?" Louis the Waiter said.
For several months thereafter, whenever some hero would come into the Roma Gardens Lounge and order a meal, a hand would come up from under the table and set down a dish of veal Parmigiana.
After the machine-gunning was out of the headlines, Baccala took command of the gang. He has lasted as head of the family since 1944, which is a new record for gangsters, Brooklyn, single individual.
Kid Sally Palumbo came toward the top of the Baccala Family through personal service, great greed, and also great luck. His objectives were the power to say, "You sit here," and money. They go together. The financial structure of the Mafia is the same as in the film industry. Ten stars walk around earning millions, and thousands of unknowns get little pieces of work here and there and mainly earn nothing. They wait for the key role to pop up.
One day, in Kid Sally Palumbo's presence, Baccala announced he was very mad at one Georgie Paradise.
"Georgie Paradise, he's-a no do the right thing," Baccala said. "Georgie Paradise, he's a rat basset."
Kid Sally immediately got very mad at Georgie Paradise too.
"That dirty rat bastard Georgie Paradise," Kid Sally Palumbo said. He had never met Georgie Paradise.
Kid Sally called a saloon where he was told Georgie Paradise hung out.
"Hey! Is Georgie Paradise there?" Kid Sally said.
The phone on the other end dropped and then it was picked up again. "Hey! This is Georgie Paradise."
"You be on the corner in ten minutes. We got a important message from Baccala that you got to handle," Kid Sally said.
Georgie Paradise was on the corner in front of the saloon in ten minutes. Kid Sally and three of his people, Big Lollipop and his cousin Little Lollipop and Mike the Driver, who was driving, came to pick up Georgie Paradise.
"Hey!" Kid Sally Palumbo called out from the car.
"Hey!" Georgie Paradise said. He walked up to the car.
Big Lollipop jumped on Georgie Paradise's head as Georgie Paradise came into the car. Little Lollipop put both hands on Georgie Paradise's throat. Sensing something unusual, Georgie Paradise began twisting. Kid Sally Palumbo took a gun out. He tried to hold the gun against Georgie Paradise's head. Georgie moved his head around. Kid Sally's gun slipped off Georgie Paradise's head. Kid Sally fired three shots which went out the window. Georgie Paradise got a hand on the door and opened it and threw himself out onto the street. He began to run. Mike the Driver, who was driving, was afraid Georgie Paradise would start screaming and bring the cops. Mike the Driver put his foot to the floor so he could drive the car away. The car shot forward just as Georgie Paradise was trying to run around it. The car did some job of squashing Georgie Paradise.
The newspapers the next day wrote that Georgie Paradise had been the victim of a hit-run driver.
Baccala was elated. "You know that Kid Sally, he's a nice-a boy," he told everybody. "He does-a things with style. They no even investigate Georgie Paradise."
This great doing away with Georgie Paradise made Kid Sally a corner in the Baccala Family.
This Mafia of Baccala and Kid Sally Palumbo got into American life the same way the Greeks got into Buckingham Palace. They came by boat and worked their way up. The Mafia is known as the "Cosa Nostra" in publications and on witness stands. In America today it is a federation of gangsters, ninety-seven per cent of whom are Italian or of Italian origin. The other three per cent is comprised of Irish, who run the docks; Jews, who handle the money; and Greeks, who are the most underrated thieves in the world. The members of the federation work together as well, and have the same trust in each other, as members of Congress. At a wake of a Mafia leader who has been shot six times in the head, one huge floral piece always arrives with the ribbon saying, "I'm Sorry It Had to Come to This."
The foundation of the Mafia is its Sicilian blood. Calabrese and Napolitano bloodlines mean very much. But Sicilian stands over all. The older founders of the American Mafia refer to their group as the onorata società, or honored society. It was formed centuries ago in Sicily to protect the people from being robbed and tortured by foreigners who constantly invaded and controlled the island. Like any such organization, including the police in America, it was most responsive to the needs of the rich Sicilian landowners. Their property was most protected. The poor were robbed. Soon the rich were robbed too.
The basis of the Mafia was that it ignored all local laws, as they were laws set down by foreigners. The Mafia ruled by its own code. The Mafia liked this way of life so much that it has not given it up through the centuries. A true Sicilian in America today must smoke in the subway. Baccala himself goes three blocks out of his way for the privilege of going the wrong way on a one-way street. At the same time, the Mafia is very strict in upholding its own laws. Once a member of Baccala's gang cheated Baccala just a little bit on profits from a bookmaking operation. Baccala took the man to a dentist's office that night and put the drill just a little bit through the man's tongue.
In Sicily, in one thousand years of existence, the Mafia has never been able to spread from Palermo and Agrigento on the southwestern side of the island. There is no Mafia in Siracusa or any other place on the island's eastern coast. And today, when a Mafia member is arrested in Italy, he is treated with extraordinary disdain by authorities. In Palermo the shifting of the wholesale fruit market to a new location produced a wave of murders. Authorities indicted 118 hoodlums. A high-school gymnasium was used for the mass trial. Bleachers for the defendants were set up along one wall, and plumbers constructed a cage of thick steam pipes around the bleachers. Whenever one of the defendants would jump up from the bleachers and grip the steam pipes and shout out his innocence, policemen would reach up and smash his fingers with clubs. Late one afternoon one of the defendants, charged with cutting off a man's head among the tomato stalls, had to attend the men's room. Guards manacled his hands and ankles, looped a chain around his middle, and walked him like a dog. One of the magistrates, a magnificent gray-haired woman from Verona, watched the Mafioso shuffle helplessly at the end of his chain. In precise, cultured tones, the woman magistrate inquired from the bench as to why the police did not have another chain wrapped around the prisoner's neck so he could be yanked around more easily.
Excerpted from The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin. Copyright © 1997 Jimmy Breslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 22, 2000
I thought this novel was well written. The author kept me laughing the whole time I was reading the novel. The author did a great job developing both the characters and the plot of the novel. The author brought out each hilarious detail of each character. The author kept me laughing through each mistake the gang would make. This is one of the best comedies I¿ve ever read.
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Posted December 10, 2013
I didn't know what I was in for when I picked up this book. It turned out to be the funniest thing I've read in ages. I'm sorry I waited so long.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 6, 2013
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