Nick Pileggi, author of "Wiseguys"
Mobsters? Psychopaths? Mike La Sorte’s article “Mobsters as Buccaneers” lumps the two together, which is the mark of someone reporting on the subject of organized crime from the outside. It doesn’t matter that the reporter may have sources that feed him the information from those trying to make themselves appear more important than they are.
The first thing one must do is clarify what one considers mobsters. Young wannabe mobsters today? Those of the Twenties and Thirties? Or those in the last effective generation of organized crime figures that began to crumble in the late Sixties, at the same time the values of their fellow citizens were falling apart? After all, organized crime is no more than a microcosm of the rest of American society.
As a lifelong participant in organized crime, with no axe to grind and no need to blame indiscretions on others, like those who became rats, I can attest to the fact that most of those I’ve known are NOT psychopathic Killers. They just kill as part of the requirements of the life they’ve chosen; a life in many ways that imposes more discipline on those involved than any national government.
Crime, effective organized crime, came out of tradition, environment, and a search for shortcuts in life. Yes, they are and were criminals. I was a criminal. The one thing that helped me turn early crime into a criminal career was beyond the money or the influence of those around me. It was the active participation of law enforcement for money. As a young man, I could not see the difference between us and those in law enforcement and government, who took our money to allow us to work without punishment. As Michael Corleone told the senator in “Godfather II,” we were all part of the same hypocrisy. It wasn’t until the Knapp Commission hearings, featuring Frank Serpico, that the branch we were on was sawed off behind us by the same people who had let us occupy the branch in the first place.
A few real examples: On my very first adult arrest I was called at the club, where we hung out, to come home by detectives who were already there. Upon arriving, the detective took me into the bedroom. I sat at the edge of the bed, ready to roll with a punch when he threw it. After all, I’d been slapped around before. The detective rambled on, but I barely listened. I watched his feet, his legs, his hands flexing by his sides, ready to move at his first move. Finally, he arrested me without hitting me once. When my lawyer arrived, having been sent by the guys at the club, I expected glory. After all, the only words I had spoken had been my name. I was a hundred 100% standup guy. When he saw me, the first words out of his mouth were, “You idiot!” What did I do? I wondered. I was a standup guy. “You’re a moron, and you’ll always be a moron,” he went on,” that detective said that he talked himself blue in the face, trying to make a deal so he didn’t have to pinch you, but you never made an offer. You’re a moron.” At least I didn’t get hit.
It wasn’t too much later when I got into an argument with another driver on a busy street and left him in a bloody pool on the floor. I went on the lam while my pals tried to make a deal with the idiot who thought he could attack me and win. His wife turned down a substantial amount of money to have him drop the charges against me. The judge took half of that amount and dismissed the case.
Want to open a card or crap game? First, stop at the local precinct to make a financial deal. The same for any after-hour club or any ongoing operation. That was on top of the weekly payoff that the precinct guys got. Once a week, a black and white would pull up in front of the club where we hung out, in broad daylight. My friend would hand a brown paper bag of money to the cops through the car window. The precinct was our friend and protector. We were psychopaths? They weren’t? I once was cornered after a lengthy car chase that ended with me smashing the side of a warehouse building. Cops were all over me. Two guys were unconscious bloody messes in my accordion car. I spotted one cop from “our” precinct. I explained to him that I was from the club. He went to speak to the officer who had originally chased me. I stuffed money in my socks and underwear. When our precinct cop brought over the original officer, he nagged, telling me how bad things were and then asked how much money I had. I pulled out my pants pockets to show the few hundred I had not hidden. He snapped it up without counting. I didn’t get arrested. Was I a psychopath or did I just have license?
I could go on and on about the psychopaths who were our partners, who made many of us believe, as La Sorte says, “…that one can outwit the authorities, the law, the police and the average person. There is complete self-absorption and craving for pleasure. The self is motivated by the search for excitement with little regard to cost. That which motivates a mentally-adjusted person, such as productive labor, does not satisfy.” Are the corrupt authorities the only ones to blame? Of course not. I’ve done federal prison time to make up for some of my crimes. So have many of my friends. We got criminal records. The police never did. They just stopped taking our money and went on with their jobs; even got their pensions. Us? Hmmm, maybe studying to become brain surgeons or college professors?
In his article, La Sorte names examples and sources. One is “Tony the Greek” Frankos, a junkie who, whether he stopped taking drugs or not, used his junkie habits to convince outsiders that he was a mobster. That is an insult to mobsters. The second example is another drug pusher and probable user, David Carr. Psychopath? Maybe. Mobster? Definitely not. “Mad Dog” Sullivan, who would froth at the mouth while running down his victims? Why not call Charles Manson a mobster? The others are outsiders and law enforcement personnel, who classify anyone who is ill-tempered, like Sam Giancana, a psychopath. They seem to feel that the two words are interchangeable, and La Sorte buys the premise.
The others he quotes are law enforcement people, like Rudy Giuliani, psychobabble experts, or a woman bathed in the glory of the organized crime life and got burned at the end. The only one with any real understanding of what the wiseguy life is all about is Joe Pistone. As Donnie Brasco, he walked the walk, and his opinion is as valid as mine or anyone else who’s been on the inside.
Sicilian crime is well known, especially by La Sorte, who is an excellent historian. As conditions changed here for immigrants from Southern Italy and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, traditional crime would have disappeared, except for Prohibition, the money from which carried over for another few decades. But things changed. The traditions are gone and with them any sense of crime ethics. The older guys pass on and the young doomed pretenders, so full of the romantic portrayals of the mob do not have that culture that prepares them for prison or death.
For others, despite the violence and crimes, there was a beauty about belonging to a traditional crime family. There was respect, glamour in non-glamorous neighborhoods, discipline within the confines of the crime family, and camaraderie. There was a time I couldn’t go to a restaurant, car dealership or clothing store that I didn’t recognize a fellow mobster, even if I did not know him well. There was a handshake, a hug, maybe a drink sent over, maybe a joke among men; maybe the beginning of a deal. For us, it was a beautiful thing. There was beauty in casting an umbrella over family, friends, and the neighbors that I protected or helped. Funzi Mosca, may he rest in peace, once told me that someone in his family had to enter the mob life to protect everyone else. “In my family it was me,” he said, proud that his reputation and influence allowed his brother to build a large and successful business. I bailed my gambling father out of street debts and made sure no one would ever extend him credit, to avoid trouble. I was proud that I was able to help, without regarding the fact that I wouldn’t have had that influence without a criminal reputation. It was not psychopathic. It was business. It was the way things were in done our neighborhoods. On a larger scale, Meyer Lansky’s contribution to the development of South Florida is a fact largely ignored.
Of course, there were psychopaths, just like the one who blew away ten people in Alabama, and it was not the mob. Tommy DeVito was called a psychopathic killer and he was murdered. Pretty Amberg was a feared psycho killer and he was murdered. Carlo Lombardo was known as a psycho killer, even immortalized by the portrayal of his killing someone at a urinal in “Mean Streets,” and was murdered. Tony Spilotro, the model for “Casino,” was a psycho killer and was murdered. Fat Roy DeMeo, a dear pal of mine, was murdered. Roy really was not one; he lived for the pat on the head from higher ups. Some of the others were sane of mind. Others, in my opinion, were cowards who killed people rather than kicking them in the balls and setting hem straight. If they felt that a person was an enemy then he was wiped out.
I offer no excuse for organized crime. To me it is history; a combination of honor and criminality. Those two dimensions have become unraveled. The honor part was discarded, leaving pure crime. The Boys could have evolved into a fraternal organization. It was the lowest common denominator that sunk Mobdom. Yes, “This thing of ours” was wrong. But what do we have now? Chaotic crime…and we are all the worse off.
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Other Features by this author:
Hollywood vs The Mob
If audiences respond so well to mob material, why is it so hard to get mob projects made?
DAGO: The Joseph Petrosino Story
There is one lawman from long ago that I’ve come to greatly admire; so much so that I’ve recently completed a screenplay based on his life.
R.I.P. ~ Bill Bonanno
Bill Bonanno did not choose a mob life; his father chose it for him.
"When We Were Kings"
A contemplative look back at the good old days of mobdom, brought on by the half century anniversary of the infamous Appalachian Convention.
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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