Nick Pileggi, author of "Wiseguys"
Traditional Organized Crime was born out of poverty and necessity. Historically, though every ethnic group in America has or has had its share of gangs or organized criminal groups the mob, as we know it has its roots in The Two "Sicilies." That phrase is not used in modern times, but at one time the description encompassed not only Sicily (Mafia), but the entire southern region of Italy’s mainland, which included Campagna (Camorra) and Calabria (‘Ndrangheta). While Sicily is known to have been inhabited by foreigners…Greeks, Moors, Spaniards, Bourbon French…the entire southern region suffered the same fate. There was no government of the people, by the people, and so on and so forth. The population was at the mercy of foreigners who for the most part didn’t even speak their language. There was no way to get justice except for a sub-rosa government of local toughs who would enforce their longstanding rules of honor and general behavior. To be effective, that underground government, like any government, needed funds. Since it couldn’t openly tax its constituents, it took its taxes in the form of criminal acts: extortion, kidnapping, expediting business deals.
That tradition of a criminal government was exported to the United States in the earliest days of the great wave of immigrants who landed here from Southern Italy/Sicily and Eastern Europe. The Italian/Sicilian immigrants found the same conditions as they had left behind in the old country. Police and Courts, overwhelmingly Irish, Anglo-, Dutch, and German, did not speak their language and, in fact, looked at them as scum. They turned to the only group that had given them justice for almost eight hundred years, the criminal gangs known as Mafia, Camorra, and ‘Ndrangheta. It was because of that history that Italian/Sicilians saw crime as a way of life instead of as a vehicle from poverty to affluence, as other ethnic groups did. The great majority of the sons of Jewish and Irish mobsters went on to become business owners and public servants. Ian Schrager, former lawyer, Studio 54 owner, and hotel entrepreneur…not to mention rat…is the son of one of Meyer Lansky’s biggest numbers bankers. The twisted path that took him to prison was never one laid out by his old man. During that same time Italian captains and higher were pulling their sons out of college to induct them into their "thing." One, in particular, will spend the rest of his life in prison because of that unscheduled day off from school.
On the other hand, while Italians/Sicilians dominated crime…and for those who take offense in that, remember I didn’t create it and won’t rewrite history to cover it up…they also brought a Mediterranean lust for life, including food, style, etc., that, despite the danger to life and freedom, made being part of that subculture exciting, fun, and often glorious…not just for us, but for everyone close to us. Those were the days when we were kings.
I’ve been in Little Italy restaurants where I could spot tourists looking around for mobsters. They’d huddle and try to discreetly point with their eyes toward someone they thought was a wiseguy. As often as not, they would reference a guy from the neighborhood who was a fishmonger, worked for the Department of Sanitation, or manufactured tee shirts for a living. That was because of the Americanized Mediterranean-style of dress and carriage that pervaded Southern Italian neighborhoods. The diamond pinky ring associated with mobsters was worn by just about everyone in urban Italian areas. Silk suits, print ties (no Brooks Brothers rep-stripes, thank you very much), and lock-collar white on white shirts; Italian knits and worsted slacks for casual wear. Shiny Euro-shoes too. When I was doing a book signing at a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble, one reporter mentioned that John Gotti wore expensive clothes and so did I. He wondered why? Was it a peacock thing? I asked him what he got for Christmas when he was a kid. Toys, naturally, he said. I told him that I got socks, a belt (I can still remember that three quarter inch piece of leather), a stylish sweater. Expensive clothes were not just something I enjoyed, but a daily reminder of where I came from. He blushed; felt embarrassed. We became friends, and remain so to this day.
Neighborhood treatment was another badge of success to us. Celebrity for us growing up in ghetto neighborhoods wasn’t national, but like all politics was local. Being not only feared in our neighborhoods, but respected and looked up to made us local celebrities and a feeling that we were kings. Our legitimate neighbors knew who we were. They knew who had what position, who ran what racket, who the money guys were and who the hitters were. One time the FBI came looking for me at a social club I ran. I was next door in a luncheonette playing pinochle. Crowds of our neighbors crowded around the outside of the club, watching, waiting then dispersing after the Feds had left. Not one person told the FBI I was next door. Fear? No. They just identified with me and my guys than the authorities. In fact, they were enablers, and a party to our ability to operate and commit crimes. A parallel can be seen today in Muslim neighborhoods. The average, non-terrorist resident knows who the rabble rousers are, who the foreign strangers who stay to themselves are, and who the recruiters in the mosques are, yet they stay quiet. Like our old neighbors, these "good Muslims" are enablers, and responsible for whatever results from that.
Then there was the money, which made a difference in the lives of family members. By my late teens I was actually making ten times the forty or fifty dollars a week my father made as a factory worker. I was able to take my mother to a nightclub for the first time in her life and watch her cry from happiness, or regret for what she’d missed throughout her hard life. That was the first of many nights out. Her favorite restaurant became the nostalgic Bill’s Gay ‘90s (gay meant happy at that time), when previously it was Tads. Carnegie Hall was a thrill, as was meeting the star of the show, Jimmy Roselli. She had sacrificed her whole life for her children and placing a fur coat on her shoulders made me feel like a king. The methods I used to obtain the money were criminal, but, then again, what king ever rolled up his sleeves and worked for a dollar?
Two things make for an active and varied love life. Leisure time and access. No one doubts that street guys had time on their hands. In fact, most time spent away from home was spent wasting time: sitting in a café, playing cards in a social club, going to the movies or ball game in the days when baseball was played on weekday afternoons too. Time to roll in the sack with some bimbo or mistress was just as easy, and had a greater incentive. While time was a positive factor in mobster sex lives, access was incredible. Some of the access came from non-mobsters who came in contact with the real guys. In an effort to look tough by their acquaintance with gangsters, they’d talk the latter up to celebrity status. By the time they introduced their new friends to their wives or girlfriends, those females were halfway into a motel bed with their pals. News accounts of arrests provided even more mob candy. I remember when my friends and I were periodically arrested in a Brooklyn bar where we hung out. Each time the newspapers published accounts of the arrests, the following weekend saw the lounge packed with new females. Some arrived safely with a male who usually went home alone after the girl had attached herself to one of the regulars. One young lady (?) showed up on a bicycle. When told she couldn’t bring the bike into the bar she pleaded that she’d come all the way from Jersey to meet the guys. I stored her bicycle in the kitchen until she was ready to pedal back the next morning. It was a part of the life that made us all feel like kings.
More important in this headiness that pervaded this era of mobdom due to others’ fear or excitement, was the power of the dollar earned illegally, but not, as you’ll see, immorally in our minds. Yes, I could go on and on about the respect in the neighborhood, the front row in theaters and nightclubs, the fawning by legitimate business owners who needed favors, but none of them instilled the feeling of superiority that the cooperation of authorities did. Michael Corleone, in "Godfather II" told a Senator that they were both "…part of the same hypocrisy." Before the Knapp Commission Hearings in New York City (Serpico), authorities from local police to judges to the Governor’s office all had people on the take; willing to comply with us for a buck. It was commonplace to be stopped for a traffic ticket and, when a cop came to ask for license and registration, hold a twenty dollar bill (worth a LOT more then) out the window, say, "My name is Mr. Green and I’m in a hurry," and get waved on by the officer.
Nothing woke me up to that more than my first adult arrest. As a teen, getting caught for some crime usually meant getting shook down by the cops and smacked around before being chased home. This first gambling arrest, where my door had been smashed down really caught me unaware of what the real deal was. One detective took me into the bedroom and closed the door. I sat on the edge of the bed, watching him walk back and forth through the corners of my eyes, not listening to him but preparing to roll with the punch when he struck. Finally, without ever throwing a punch, he arrested me. I was so proud that I hadn’t said a word and couldn’t wait for the pats on the back and compliments for standing up when I got back to the club. Imagine my shock when the first words out of the attorney’s mouth was, "You moron!" What? "You’re a moron and you’ll always be a moron! This detective said he talked himself blue in the face, trying to get you to come up with some money, but you refused." I hadn’t heard a word the cop had said, instead wanting to avoid having my jaw wired. "You didn’t have to get pinched at all."
Later, on a felonious assault case, where I was on the lam, friends reached out for the guy I hit when he attacked me over a traffic argument. They offered him a thousand dollars, easily five or more times today’s value, to drop the charges. His battle axe of a wife refused to let him take it. She only wanted to see me go to jail. Plan B: We gave the judge five hundred dollars, half what we offered the victim, and he dropped the charges. That judge became targeted by the Knapp Commission and was drummed out of office. Seems I was nothing compared to what he’d accumulated in bribes.
Time to open an after hours club, or a poker game, or a full casino, our first stop would be to the local precinct to identify the location and make a deal for protection. If word came down from the Boro or City that a raid was coming, a call from the precinct would get there first and the raid would find nothing. As a matter of fact, the Gay Pride Parade has its roots in police corruption and a reaction to it. In those days it was illegal for two men to hold hands, kiss, etc. If Jack and Joe stole a kiss in someone’s bar or restaurant the liquor license of the establishment could be lifted. Mob guys used that condition to open illegal after-hours clubs for homosexuals and lesbians. They had the juice with the cops and the muscle to protect their clients, who were often brutally victimized. One club like that, in Greenwich Village, was called the Stonewall. Every time a raid was to ensue, a call would come from the precinct. The only thing the sex squad ever found was a few guys from nearby Little Italy playing cards. That infuriated one police official. One night he launched a secret raid. All his frustration came out during the raid, and instead of just arresting everyone he had his men destroy the interior with axes: bar, walls, everything. That didn’t sit well with the clientele or the neighbors of the club. For three days homosexuals, drag queens, transvestites, and lesbians rioted in the streets, throwing bricks at police cars and creating high profile mayhem. That three day disturbance became known as the "Stonewall Riots." It was the catalyst for the gay rights movement. The Gay Pride Parade each year celebrates the Stonewall Riots.
I could go on and on with anecdotes of how mob money bought privileges from law enforcement and politicians. This did not apply to the Feds for two reasons: 1) FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual being blackmailed by the mob with hidden photos taken in a Florida motel room, which made him deny the existence of organized crime (I am working on two separate biographies with relatives of Meyer Lansky and Vito Genovese, both of whom refer to the photos), and 2) there was a clear line between federal and state crimes, making it easy to dance on the state side where there was always someone to be bought). Handing a politician a bundle of money wrapped in brown paper and rubber bands made us feel like kings.
Those days are gone forever. Yes, I miss them. They were heady days and, in spite of the danger of losing my life or spending years in prison, of the stress of avoiding bullets and the law while trying to make a (dis)honest living, they were the best days of my life. But I stress to all young people contemplating a life of crime based on the past, THEY ARE GONE. There is no more neighborhood support for mobsters or widespread corruption at the street level. There’s not even a sense of humor or a kick in the ass mentality in society today. One of the things that breaks my heart is when I see sons or grandsons of my old pals going to prison for decades. I can almost see them sitting at my friends’ knees, soaking up stories of our glory days, of the days when we were kings, without those war stories being qualified the way I’ve done today: that those days are history, just as the Wild West is. If we felt like kings at one time, we are kings in exile, left with little but friendship toward the few that survive…and memories. My advise to you young people who concern me so much: find a better way.
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Other Features by this author:
Lansky and Miami
Outside of Las Vegas, there is probably no city in the United States that owes more of its development to the mob than Miami.
Arrivederci, Little Italy
The current demise of Little Italy can only be compared to the decades-long downward plunge of Atlantic City and Miami before their rebirths. Little Italy will have no such rebirth.
"Turning Mob Myths, From the Inside and Out, Inside-Out"
Some myths have been so ingrained in the public consciousness that gangsters themselves now believe them.
Why So Many Rats Today?
I asked a friend how many men who had testified against the mob since Joe Valachi had been caught up with and killed? He said, "None."
Good Friends Who Did Dumb Things
In the course of my life in the streets, I have had some friends, who did some really dumb things that resulted in their deaths.
To Mob Wannabes:
As someone who lived most of my life in organized crime, trust me, guys, there’s nothing left to wannabe.
Fooled you, huh? You thought I was talking about illegals crossing the Mexican border.
The Best True Mob Story
In the case of traditional organized crime, you're watching American history unfold.
Sonny Girard, a former mobster, decided to have his protagonist be caught between three agencies: the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence), the FBI, and…you guessed it…the mob.
SONNY GIRARD BIOGRAPHY:
Though born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Girard spent most of his formative years in the Red Hook and Navy Yard sections of South Brooklyn. Making little use of an IQ of close to 150, he instead chose to follow the path of the only people in that desperately poor neighborhood who seemed to have money: "wiseguys."
By the time a three-and-a-half year undercover operation by New York’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, targeted at Sonny Girard, was culminated with the arrest of seventeen, Girard was characterized by the New York Post as "…a middle echelon member" of one of New York’s five mob families. As a result of the arrest, Girard was sentenced to three years in State Prison, which he served to maximum time in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Downstate, and Arthurkill.
In 1985, Sonny Girard was convicted of racketeering, under the RICO statute, by Rudolph Giuliani’s office, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. During that term, which he also served maximum time on, Girard became interested in writing. Along with another inmate, who had sold a manuscript to a major publisher, Girard helped form a fiction writers’ workshop. It was during that time that Girard completed his first novel, BLOOD OF OUR FATHERS (Pocket/Simon & Schuster, hardcover, June, 1991; softcover, May, 1992).
Due to his experience in and ability to communicate about organized crime, the author has been in demand from various television shows and newspapers as an expert on various crimes, including organized crime activities. He recently appeared on Fox Network’s "National Enquirer T.V.," to analyze the authenticity of HBO’s hit show "Sopranos," Fox News Channel’s "The Edge," with Paula Zahn, to discuss John Gotti’s legacy, and "The O’Reilly Factor," regarding the disappearance of Chandra Levy, and ABC’s "Politically Incorrect," with Bill Maher, for "Mob Week." He was also called in to consult with the screenwriter of record on "Mickey Blue Eyes," starring Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and James Caan. Italy’s RAI T.V. has done a biographical piece on Girard, as have Italian national newspapers "Corriere Della Sera" and "Il Tempo."
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