I knew they would be coming as soon as I saw the trailer for the Sopranos movie “The Many Saints of Newark.”
“They” meaning questions about the Mafia.
As a Sicilian who grew up in a New York City suburb, now living in the Deep South, I’m a real-life My Cousin Vinny. I know there aren’t a lot of paisans around here. You’re not likely to run into a mob guy in Alabama either, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t curious about the “family” stuff.
This started when I was working in an Arkansas television station and episodes of the Sopranos ran on Sunday night. The show made for classic watercooler talk. Every Monday morning, someone in the newsroom would ask me if what they just watched in the show was true. Or what the Italian slang or hand signals mean. Is the “evil eye” curse a real thing? And (hushed tones) "do you actually know anyone in the Mob?"
By the way, I’m not offended when people ask. Sometimes stereotypes are based on fact. Or in my case, personal experience.
Yeah, I know people.
Growing up in a classic Italian neighborhood, I couldn’t help but rub elbows with some shady characters. But back then, it was no big deal. It was sort of a given that there were people who looked the other way, were always working some sort of “deal” or could take a bet for you on a football game. And yes, there were the classic nicknames. The local bookie was known as “Gentle Ben” because he was built like the bear in the TV show.
My first introduction to the care and feeding of the Mafia came when I was about eight. We were visiting one of my cousins and on the way out he handed me a few brand new shirts. “Here ya go, kid.” While he was talking to someone I noticed the labels were missing and pointed this out to my Dad. “Just say thank you and take 'em,” he said. When we got to the car, he told me they had “fallen off a truck,” code for “stolen.” My father was not in the Mob, but he knew it was best to be polite to those guys. We knew who was connected, and they knew that we knew, but it was simply an unwritten rule that you didn’t talk about it.
Mom didn’t have Mob ties either. Well, I didn't think so until one day she mentioned I never heard from my godfather. (Note: There are two kinds of godfathers. The Marlon Brando kind who makes offers you can’t refuse, and the kind that show up at a baptism and promise to make sure the kid stays on the straight and narrow. Mine was the latter.) While I knew who my own godfather was (a funeral director of all things), I wondered if my Mom’s was still around. She shook her head. “Oh. Poor thing. The Black Hand got him. He fooled around with the wrong goomah.” The Black Hand was what they called the Mafia back in the Great Depression. Turns out Mom’s godfather got whacked because his goomah (mistress) was the wife of an important mobster.
By the age of 10, Dad was taking me to the racetrack, where his buddy Frank owned a few horses. The stables were filled with shady characters right out of Guys and Dolls. That’s when I found out how easy it was to fix a race. Let’s say there are 10 horses running. The owner of the horse that is supposed to win simply buys winning tickets for the other nine jockeys, who then take their ponies out for a leisurely trot. This did backfire at one Pennsylvania racetrack when the fix was so blatantly obvious the patrons piled up the wooden benches and set them on fire.
Like all Italian Catholics, I was born with the gambling gene, so I was excited when I heard Connecticut was opening a dog track. At least I could legitimately try to handicap the race. My Dad shook his head. “Those races are fixed too.” I couldn’t imagine how you could fix a race that didn’t involve humans, but the Mob had an easy solution. “There are always eight dogs running,” said Dad. “They give seven of them a couple cans of Alpo right before the race. This makes them lazy and too full to run fast, so the hungry dog wins.” Ingenious stuff like that makes me think the national debt would be erased if the Mob ran Congress.
Betting a couple of bucks on football with Gentle Ben always made the games more interesting. But one day I saw an ad in a New York paper for a tip line: “Guaranteed NFL winners or your money back! Call now!” I showed the ad to my Dad, ready to pick up the phone. “Look! You’ll get your money back if the tip doesn’t pay off!” Then I thought a minute. “How are these people making a profit?”
My father had a PhD in Mob scams. “Let’s say their sure thing is the Giants-Cowboys game Sunday. They tell half the callers to bet the Giants, the other half to bet the Cowboys. Doesn’t matter who wins. So they refund half the money and keep the other half. The people who lost with their bookie and got the refund from the tip line figure they’re legit, so they might use them again. The people who won are happy, so they definitely bet again.”
But the most interesting guy I knew was a man who delivered American cheese to my father’s delicatessen. Most suppliers brought lots of items; one guy stocked the cooler with cold cuts, another took care of the dairy products, while another filled the shelves with snacks. (The guy who delivered Wise potato chips was simply Wise Guy John.) But every week this quiet Italian fellow named Paul would deliver one five-pound block of American cheese. That’s it. It was odd that he drove a long way just to drop off one item, but I never gave it much thought.
I really admired Paul because he often brought his special son with him on his route. The kid was about 10 and had some physical challenges; his arms would shake, he had trouble walking and didn’t talk. Paul would deliver the cheese, buy a popsicle, then unwrap it and hold it so his son could eat it. I was amazed at the patience and love he showed the boy, whose face lit up as he ate the popsicle.
One day my Dad and I were riding through a wealthy neighborhood and he pointed at a spectacular home. “That’s Paul’s house.”
“Paul the cheese man.”
I stared at the mansion, doing the math in my head. “You can make that much money just selling American cheese?”
“That’s just his front. He’s a hitman for one of the five families.”
(A “front” is a bogus business designed to cover your real job, like the pizza parlor that sells lousy food but is running numbers out of the kitchen.)
I never looked at Paul the same way after that and later wondered where the holes came from in the Swiss cheese. But years later, I realized Tony Soprano could have been based on him.
A true family man who loves his kids and just happens to kill people for a living. Talk about a paradox.
I’d meet Mob guys in the strangest places. I nearly got an early college graduation present … at a funeral. My father was introducing me to some relatives from New Jersey I’d never met who had come to pay respects to my uncle. “You need to meet your cousin.” He walked me over to a guy right out of Mob central casting: pencil moustache, slicked hair, dark pinstriped suit with peaked lapels, black shirt, white tie, pinky ring. He smiled as we shook hands. “Oh, you’re the kid who wants to be a writer.”
I nodded. “I do. I graduate this summer.”
“You come see me. I’ve got some nice brand new typewriters in my garage.” While the idea of owning an IBM Selectric was tempting, I never made the trip to Bayonne.
So, yeah, a lot of what you see on TV and in the movies is based on fact. As for how a Sicilian like me ended up in Alabama, all I can say is the guys at Witness Protection want to make sure you’re never found.
Randy Tatano lives in Brewton and is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.