Back when he was active in the gang, on the street every day, Danny Toro had a routine. Come home from school at 3:00, help his mom out with anything she needed help with, and then, before he went out with his boys, he would sit down and watch a movie. For a while, it was Scarface, the 1983 Al Pacino movie about a Cuban gangster who's so tough, he doesn't betray his friends even when a guy is about to hack him up with a chainsaw. He's fearless. He's lethal. And he wants it all.
That was like a motivation movie there. It got the blood pumping and the adrenaline going. I watch it right before I come out, so I'm already there. I'm in that point. I go pick up a couple of my friends.
Yeah. Go out like a gangster. If a movie was as good as I wanted it to be, I'll watch it once a day for months at a time. Scarface, I watched it over and over and over. And the times when I didn't have time to watch the whole movie, I'd just watch the first part or the second part, depending on how I felt, what kind of stage of mind I wanted to be in.
The movie The Godfather begins with the sentence, "I believe in America." And I think any gangster's life is a particularly mesmerizing parable of America, because it contains all the things that we're not supposed to want, easy money, drugs, alcohol, glamorous, feral sex, plus all those values that we think of as core American values, loyalty to friends and family, ambition, independence, self-motivation, not taking no for an answer. So it's easy to see why civilians like you and me go to gangster movies. But I was curious what gangsters actually get out of them.
For 10 years, Danny Toro was active in a Chicago street gang. He says that the old-school gangster films, like The Godfather movies, they just didn't do it for him.
I watched them once or twice. They were all right, but it wasn't what I was looking for. I was looking for how I live. The way I used to live while I was gang banging was very different. It wasn't so organized. It wasn't so where I kiss you on the cheek, and then you're dying. No, it wasn't like that. Things were more said up front.
So it was like I was looking to movies more to where I could relate the way my lifestyle was like. Scarface was right there in your face. He didn't care who you were, just like that one scene, he says, "Only thing as I got is my word and my balls. And I don't break 'em for nobody." And it's kind of true. Because out here, you don't got much. And if you break that, what do you got? Nothing.
Danny's favorite film was this movie about Lucky Luciano. His favorite scenes were the ones where guys backed each other up in a fight not because they thought they'd get anything out of backing each other up, but because it was the right thing to do.
That's what I wanted to see out here. Don't do something to get something back. Do it because you became a part of it, and that's part of you, so contribute to it.
He especially liked Lucky, because of all the movie gangsters, Lucky seemed to have the best judgment when it came to people.
He knew how to take care of things. He knew how to punish without overpunishing. He knew how to correct people in a polite way.
Danny even picked up a move or two from Lucky.
One time I had sat down with the guys kind of like he used to do, sit there and talk with each other. Like, when Lucky's wife got killed, they all got together. They were sympathizing, just like when I had two guys, and they were brothers, and one of the brothers died.
And I was there trying to comfort and whatnot. And I said, Don't worry about it. Things'll work out. And their people caught on, too, how it was that things would work out. And try to have that family base I guess you could say to show that I really loved them.
And you got that way of acting from the movie?
Yeah. Because when I first started learning about what a gang banger was or gang member, it was like your heart-- you're right there. You ain't got no fear. You have no compassion.
Right. You gotta be hard.
That's it. You're a gang banger, you're a gang banger. And you're some cruel criminal or whatever you want to call it.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, gangsters, the ones in movies and the ones in real life, and how the two intersect. Act One, The Freshman, why a college student in Montana would be watching The Godfather every single day, and what happens when she follows her obsession to Sicily.
Act Two, Mobster's Daughter. The true story of two different people born into the mob. Act Three, My Neighbor John Gotti, the true story of what it's like to live across the street from the place where the head of New York's Gambino crime family has his little parties, plus much, much more. Stay with us.
Act One: The Freshman
Act One, The Freshman. Sarah Vowell says that back in the days when she watched The Godfather every single day, she never really told anybody about it because she was afraid that her friends would interpret it as some sort of cry for help. She would watch The Godfather surreptitiously, when no roommates were around. She'd stop the videotape if the phone rang. Here then, the true story of one woman's cross-cultural immersion.
There comes a time in the middle of any halfway decent liberal arts major's college career when she no longer has any idea what she believes. She flies violently through air polluted by conflicting ideas and theories, never stopping at one system of thought long enough to feel at home. All those books, all that talk, and, oh, the self-reflection. Am I an existentialist? A Taoist? A transcendentalist? A modernist? A post-modernist? A relativist? Positivist? Historicist? Anarchist? Dadaist? Deconstructionist? Was I Apollonian or Dionysian? Which was right, and which was wrong? Impressionism or expressionism? And while we're at it, is there such a thing as right and wrong?
Until I figured out that the flight between questions is, itself, a workable system, I craved answers, rules, a code. And so I spent part of every week, sometimes every day, watching The Godfather on videotape. I wanted to cower in the dark brown rooms of Don Corleone, kiss his hand on his daughter's wedding day, explain what's wrong with me, and let him tell me he'll make everything all right.
Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.
Looking back, I wonder why a gangster movie kidnapped my life. The Godfather had nothing to do with me. I was a feminist, not Italian, and I lived in Montana. I had never set foot in New York, thought ravioli came only in a can, and wasn't blind to the fact that all the women in the movie were either virgins, mothers, whores, or Diane Keaton.
But I fell for those made-up, sexist, East Coast thugs anyway. Partly, it was the clothes, because fashion-wise, there is nothing less glamorous than snow-blown, backpacky college life in the Rocky Mountain states. But I think what really attracted me to the film was that it offered a three-hour peep into a world with clear and definable moral guidelines, where you know where you stand and you know who you love, where honor is everything and the greatest sin isn't murder, but betrayal.
The Godfather is a film crammed with rules for living. Don't bow down to big shots. It's good when people owe you. This drug businesses is dangerous. Is vengeance going to bring your son back to you or my boy to me? And the ever popular--
What's the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft. Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again.
My favorite scene in the film takes place on a deserted highway with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The Don's henchman, Clemenza, is on the road with two of his men, and he's under orders that only one of them's supposed to make the ride back.
[SOUND OF THREE GUNSHOTS]
The grizzly, back-of-the-head murder of a rat fink associate is all in a day's work. But Clemenza's overriding responsibility is to his family. And he takes a moment out of his routine madness to remember that he had promised his wife he'll bring desert home. His instruction to his partner in crime is an entire moral manifesto in six little words.
Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.
I'd been raised as a fundamentalist in a small town in Oklahoma. And by the time I got to college, I was a recent, and therefore shaky, atheist. Like a lot of once-devout people who have lost religion, I had holes the size of heaven and hell inside my head and my heart. I had had a God, commandments, faith, the promise of redemption, and a Bible, the Bible, which offered an explanation of everything from creation on through to the end of the world. And now God was dead, and I had whacked him. And when he was gone, what was left? Only question marks.
Don Corleone, the godfather, was not unlike God, the father, loving and indulgent one minute, wrathful and judgmental the next. But the only "Thou shalt" in the Don's dogma was to honor thy family. He dances with his wife, weeps over his son's corpse, and dies playing in the garden with his grandson.
You spend time with your family?
Sure, I do.
Good, because a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.
Don Corleone wouldn't have paid actual money to sit in fluorescent-lit rooms listening to frat boys from Spokane babble on about Descartes. Don Corleone had no time for mind games and conjecture. I, on the other hand, had nothing but time for such things, probably because I'm a frivolous female.
I spent my life trying not to be careless. Women and the children can be careless, but not men.
Christmas break. I sign up for a semester of art history in Holland and fly to Europe a few weeks early. I get on a train in Vienna, and another in Berlin, and another after that. And one thing leads to another. And not thinking I was heading there, suddenly, I find myself-- surprise-- in Italy. How did that happen? Oh well, as long as I'm in Florence, might as well pop down and give Sicily a look-see.
Have I mentioned how I love that part of The Godfather when Michael's hiding out there, traipsing around his ancestral hills, walking the streets of his father's birthplace, Corleone? I take a night train from Rome down the boot and wake up in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. I feel ridiculous. I thought of myself as a serious person, and it didn't seem like serious people traveled hundreds of miles out of their way to walk in the footsteps of Al Pacino.
Still, I feel silly being there, but not so silly that I'm above tracking down a bakery and buying, yes, a cannoli, my first. I walk down to the sea and eat it. It's sweeter than I thought it would be, more dense, and the filling's flecked with chocolate and candied orange. Clemenza was right, leave that gun. Take that cannoli.
The town of Corleone really exists and can be reached by bus. Believe me, I checked. Every morning, I'd go to the travel office in Palermo to buy a ticket to the Godfather's hometown. And every morning, when I stand before the ticket agent, I can never quite bring myself to say the word "Corleone" out loud to a real, live Sicilian, because you know they know. Idiot Americans and their idiot films. I have my dignity.
So each morning, when the ticket agent asks, "Where to?" one of two things happens. I say nothing, and just walk off, and spend the day in Palermo reading John Irving novels on a bench by the sea. Or I utter the name of a proper, art-historically significant town instead, as if the clerk will hear me say, "Agrigento," and say to himself, "Oh, she's going to see the Doric temple. Impressive. Wonder if she's free for a cannoli later?"
So on my final day in Sicily, my last chance at Corleone, I walk to the ticket counter, look in the clerk's eyes, and ask for a round-trip ticket to Corle-- Cefalu, yeah, Cefalu. That's it. To see a Byzantine mosaic I remember liking in one of my school books.
Cefalu might as well have been Corleone. It had the same steep, cobblestone streets and blanched, little buildings that I remembered from the movie. "Lovely," I thought, as I started walking up the hill to its tiny, 12th-century cathedral. "Freak," everyone in the town thought as I marched past them. An entire class of schoolchildren stopped cold to gawk at me. Six-year-old girls pointed at my shoes and laughed.
Hunched, old men glared as if the sight of me was a vicious insult. I felt like a living, breathing faux pas. At least no one was inside the church. The only eyes upon me there were those of the looming, sad-eyed Messiah.
The Jesus in this mosaic is huge, three times larger than any other figure in the church. And there's something menacing in the way he holds that tablet with the word of God on it. But his eyes are compassionate. And that contradictory mix of stern judgment and heart, he may as well have been wearing a tuxedo, and holding a cat, and saying something like--
What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?
I leave the church and go for lunch. I am the only patron at a tiny family restaurant operated by mama, poppa, son one, and son two. They glare at me as if I glow in the dark. Soon, they'll wish I glowed in the dark.
The power keeps going on and off because of a thunderstorm. And the sky outside is nearly black. The muzak version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is playing. And it flickers too, so that every few seconds, it's dark and silent, which is a relief considering that the rest of the time, it's loud and the entire family have seated themselves across from me and gape without smiling. The eggplant on my plate is wonderful, but such is my desire for escape that I've never chewed so fast in my life.
How had it never hit me before? The whole point of The Godfather film is not to trust anyone outside the family. And whatever I may have thought while sitting in front of my VCR, I am not actually Sicilian. You may be surprised to learn, I bear no resemblance to Clemenza, Tessio, or any of the heads of the five families.
If I were a character in the film at all, I'd be one of those pain-in-the-ass, innocent bystanders in the restaurant where Michael murders Solazzo. I'm the tuba player in Moe Greene's casino. I'm that kid who rides his bike past Michael and Kay on Kay's street in New Hampshire who yells, "Hello," and neither Michael nor Kay says hello back.
I got sucked in by The Godfather movies' moral certainty, never quite recognizing that the other side of moral certainty is close-mindedness. Given the choice, I prefer chaos and confusion. Why live by those old world rules? Why not tell people outside the family what you're thinking? Trust me on this. It's a living. And if you see Michael, tell him it's nothing personal. It's only business.
Sarah Vowell. Her story appears in her book Take the Cannoli. Her latest book is Assassination Vacation.
[MUSIC - "WHITER SHADE OF PALE" BY PROCOL HARUM]
Act Two: Gangster's Daughter
Act Two, Gangster's Daughter.
It was 1957, and I was 12. They said it was the largest funeral Las Vegas had ever seen. There were thousands of mourners. The pall bearers were men I had known, Gus Greenbaum, whose throat would later be slashed in Phoenix, Willie "Ice Pick" Alderman, who would die on Terminal Island, while serving time on a mob extortion rap, Joe Rosenberg, one of my father's partners, who was known as his mouthpiece, Nick the Greek, the famed odds maker. Squat Jewish men surrounded Uncle Chickie and me at the funeral, saying, "We don't expect trouble."
Susan Berman's father was Davie Berman, a Jewish gangster who was one of the founders of modern Las Vegas, trusted confidant of Meyer Lansky, Frank Constello, and Bugsy Siegel.
The son of a Russian-immigrant rabbinical student, he built his own gambling empire when he was just 16 and went on to become a bootlegger and bank robber, whose face appeared on dozens of "Wanted" posters. He was the brazen kid who engineered one of the first kidnaps for ransom, escaped death in a Central Park shoot-out, and was described by a detective on the front page of The New York Times as "the toughest Jew I ever met."
One of the most romantic and appealing notions about gangsters is the idea that they're cold-blooded tough guys while they're out in the world, but loving family men when they're at home. And while that's obviously not true for lots of real-life mobsters, it does actually seem to be true for Davie Berman. When his wife was ill and away from home for months, he was almost a new-age dad, 1990s-style dad, taking care of his daughter himself, spending time with her every day, helping her with her math homework in the casino's money counting room. Davie Berman was an owner of the Flamingo and Riviera hotels. And in those same rooms, they would skim the profits off for his mob bosses back east.
This is an excerpt from Susan Berman's memoir Easy Street. The book is filled with scenes of this odd collision of worlds. Her father's world, she writes, was dangerous and violent and severe. But he crafted a childhood that seemed to her at the time to be completely normal. She had no idea about his criminal ties.
I thought we had no house key because, as he said, "Somebody is always home." Mob members never carry keys, because if they're kidnapped, a rival could get to their families. My father was austere. He didn't gamble, drink, or smoke.
He told me he didn't like to stay in small rooms for a long time because he felt confined. I later learned that he had served seven years in Sing Sing, four in solitary confinement on a 12-year sentence. I thought we had no checking account because, as he said, "Everybody knows us here. We just use cash." Mob members prefer to keep cash boxes and few visible assets.
He told me our late night jaunts to Los Angeles were a vacation. He'd wake me and tell me to get dressed. We'd drive to McCarran Field and fly to LA. I'd be kept at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a few days with a couple of his men friends.
They took me to Uncle Bernie's toy store in Beverly Hills to drink lemonade from the lemonade tree. And we ordered coffee ice cream in our room from MFK's drug store in the hotel. Then my father would reappear magically after two days and take me to the Brown Derby for dinner. We'd sit under Ingrid Bergman's picture. And he'd order "lamb chops with pink skirts for Susie" and put me on a red, leather child seat, so I could join in the conversation. In fact, these "vacations" were flights to freedom when there was mob unrest, and I was in danger.
I knew my father's partners only from a child's perspective, the same way I knew my father. There was Willie Alderman, called "Ice Pick" Willie in his youth because he allegedly killed people with an ice pick. Willie was my favorite, a big, lumpy, silent man who greeted me every day with, "How you doing, Susie?" He was always at my father's side.
There was Gus Greenbaum, a junkie and alleged killer. Gus was an older, dark-skinned man who smoked cigars and growled. He never paid any attention to me and never smiled. Once I kicked him as hard as I could in the ankle just to prove I existed. He said, "Davie, the kid takes after you." I asked my father if he had kicked big, mean men too. But my father said, no, and not to kick Gus again.
My father's mother, Clara, or Bubby to me, would show up unannounced at our home in Las Vegas once a month for her "pay-as-you-eat Shabbes dinner." Around 2:00 PM on a Friday, Bubby would pound on the front door, yelling, "Davie, Lou, Susie, let me in. Hurry up." Of course, my father was never home from the hotel in the afternoon, but she'd act as if he should have been. She'd run all over the house looking for him, then go right into the kitchen and sneer, "So where's Davie? Working again?"
Without waiting for an answer, she'd throw down her shawl and start unpacking two huge needlepoint bags full of groceries. She was in a frenzy, her white hair standing up in wisps as it came out of her bun. She was short, and stout, and smelled like old rouge. As soon as she washed the carrots for the matzo-ball soup, she yelled at our bodyguard, Lou, to "Come and chop these carrots into little pieces." Lou dutifully went into the kitchen. She took an egg beater from her purse and started making matzo balls and washing the chicken.
After about an hour of intense preparation, during which she yelled at me to, "Stay out of my goddamn way," and said, "ach" several times, and "oy vay" if Lou wasn't fast enough on the chopping. Bubby hit the telephone and had all my father's friends paged in the casino. "Hello, Gus? Clara Berman. I'm making a Shabbes meal at Davie's tonight. Be here at sundown. You eat good," she'd say, as she rang up Willy, Joe, Mickey Cohen, and others, usually about eight men.
Around 6:00 PM, the sleek, dark Cadillacs would roll up. Gus, Joe, Mickey, Willie, and others arrived, and the hungry Jewish men took their places around our table. My father entered with an expression that said, "Oh, no, not again." But he kissed Bubby hello and sat down too. They ate with the gusto of men starved for a matzo ball. It was always a silent dinner except for slurping noises from the soup bowls.
Bubby lit the menorah on the mantle. She kept shoving food onto my father's plate, saying, "Davie, you're too thin." And Gus came in for chiding if he didn't finish every drop. "Whatsa matter? You got an ulcer from the hotel business? You can't finish the tsimmes?"
When the strudel was gone, Bubby would remove her apron and announce, "Fine, first you eat, then you pay. I need gelt for my City of Hope project." And she'd go to each man and hold out her fat hand.
My father looked embarrassed to death and said, "Momma, I'll give you the money. You promised you'd never do this again. Please?" But she knew her victims. $100 bills flowed out of their pockets while I watched in fascination. She put a rubber band around the take and threw it into her needlepoint bag.
Susan Berman's memories of Jewish gangsters and their gangster-style Jewish mothers will continue in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers, reporters, and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, The Mob. What we think we know about the mob, and what's actually true. We're in the middle of Act Two of our program, Mobster's Daughter.
So let's say that your father is a big-time gangster and, like the men in The Godfather movies, actually does try to protect you from ever knowing what exactly he does for a living. What happens when you find out? Well, Susan Berman's father died of natural causes when she was 12. Her mother died a year later. And the first time anyone directly told her about her father's underworld ties was when she was in college. Another student told her about this new book that talked about what her father really did in Las Vegas.
I rushed to Martindale's Book Store, which was in Beverly Hills, no longer existent, and quickly found this book The Green Felt Jungle. There was a huge display of them. And I quickly looked at the index, "Davie Berman." And it did. It had a whole chapter on the Flamingo Hotel and Ben Siegel's death.
And it said that after Ben Siegel was dead, that Davie Berman-- and then in parentheses, "Who could kill a man with one hand behind his back." And a little later in the chapter, it said that he had been "wounded in a shoot-out with an FBI man in Central Park and done 11 years in Sing Sing." And then it went on to talk about his other partners. Well, I started to throw up in the book store. I was so shocked.
You literally threw up in the bookstore?
Literally. How gross, right? It was just a visceral reaction. I couldn't believe it. And of course, I didn't think it was true.
As Susan Berman describes in her memoir Easy Street, she worked so hard at believing this wasn't true that eventually, she forgot the incident ever happened. Years later, she was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and interviewed Jimmy Hoffa just a month before he vanished. He and his men all knew her dad. One of them said he was, quote, "much smarter than the guys running the outfit now," end quote. And still, she did not want to believe that her dad was with the mob. Finally, when somebody showed her her father's FBI files, finally then, reluctantly, she believed.
Terri Dalessio had a similar rude awakening. Her uncles and father were gangsters on Staten Island from before World War II. They ran numbers, bootlegging, the longshoremen's union, the works. She has pictures of herself with Robert De Niro. Some of The Godfather locations, she says, were filmed at her real-life godfather's house on Staten Island.
She found out about her own family's business when she was 14, by accident. She was passing a candy store, and she saw photos of her family on the front page of a newspaper called The Mirror. She couldn't believe it.
And I said, no. My father? My uncles? My names? So I asked my mother. She said, "That's your father's business."
So I'm a Mafia daughter. Well, here I go. And I went. I started to rebel. I ran away. I went to Pocono Mountains to find my grandmother, and hitchhiked all the way with two friends of mine.
And I never made it to the house. I got tired, and the two fellows that were with me tired. And we broke into a farmhouse to get something to eat and rest. And I found a shotgun, and I found bullets, shells for the shotgun, and I just proceeded to shoot the house up.
So where it came from, I don't know, this fury. It was festing in me. We got away with it because my father paid $1,500 for repairs. In those days, that was a lot of money. And I didn't get spanked or anything. I just got, "You know, you shouldn't do things like that." But I did.
All this festered inside me. And I decided that I wasn't going to be called Johnny Dee's daughter anymore. I was gonna make my own reputation and be Terri Dee. I looked older than what I was. And I would be drinking in any bar I could get into with my friends.
My dad had every cop in that area on the payroll. They would get a $50 reward if they found me. So if I saw anything walk in the door with a suit on, I knew it was a detective, and I'd hide under the table or run out of the bar.
You have to understand, Staten Island was a very small area in those days. And my family ran Staten Island. In my early days, I could pick up the phone and say, "Mary, connect me with my aunt." And the operator would just connect me.
My father used to say to me, "Why don't you meet a nice man?" "Who am I gonna meet, dad? A lawyer? A judge? A cop? Who would you like me to go out with? I'm Johnny Dee's daughter. Who is gonna go out with me but somebody who wants to impress you?" Common sense.
My father-- I was the first born. I was a girl. He cried for two weeks because he wanted a boy. A year later came a boy. I have a brother one year younger than me. But he never let go of me as his son-daughter. So I went to all the fights in Greenwood Lake, Joe Lewis, all-- I was just a little bit of a thing. And everything he did, he dragged me with him. So I was like his son.
I have been on sit-downs, one of the very few women I know that ever were. And here I am, sitting there like, I'd think, "Who the hell I am?" But mentally, I have the mind of a man.
So my gambler husband owed a lot of money to two guys, who were like lower enchalant in the mob. And they came to my house, and they told my twins, 12 years old, "You tell your father--" and it wasn't their father-- "You tell your father that we're gonna burn the house down, burn his bar down, and burn his car down." Well, when I heard that, I went insane, because this man was on his way out anyway.
So I just simply went to the bar where they hung out with a shotgun. I walked in the bar, big as day with a shotgun, in broad daylight. I said, "Are you so-and-so? And are you so-and-so? Well, let me tell you something. You better not touch my house, my car, or my business, because they're mine. I don't owe you any money. They don't belong to the gambler. They're mine. So if I see your car pull up in my driveway, I will shoot you."
And one day, they pulled up to tell me everything was OK. And I did fire at the car. They just took off. [LAUGHING] I slept with a shotgun under my bed.
I loved the violence at the time. I caused my own violence. Anyone who wanted to kill my husband knew they should not do it with me around. So that's why wherever we went, we went together. I'd walk in front of him. They had no right to hurt me because of my family. That's one thing that was honored.
I'm going to find this picture sooner or later. I have an album here, "This is Your life." Here it is. This is the house my family has in the Pocono Mountains. It's a mansion.
Three-mile lake with an island in the middle. Marble imported from Italy. Bathtubs enough to fit three people, four people. Everything was imported marble from Italy. Had a five-car garage. Upstairs was a bathroom and four bedrooms for the servants. And this is what I was raised in.
I now live in one room. I have a table. I have an air filter, an air conditioner. I have a TV, telephone. I live in a room. And I am perfectly happy in this room.
Theresa lost all her money. Married four times. One of her husbands and one of her fiances were shot to death in front of her. Her life today barely resembles the life that she had as a girl. But even today, in her 60s, living in a hospice, Theresa still reverts to her gangster daughter ways sometimes.
Once in a while, if a situation pops up like it did one time when I lived in Greenwich Halfway House-- I was kitchen manager. This waiter who was one of the residents-- all the residents worked there-- served a dish to a woman. And this man sat in that seat and decided to pray. She started screaming, "Why are you praying over my food?" So he jumped up. This became a big scream.
I said, "You," I told him, "Go down to your room and stay there until I tell you you can eat. Don't you ever raise your hand to a woman again." And he did. So that control came out of me at that point. I try not to do it because I find it very easy to do that.
I have two windows. And in one window is a t-shirt that says, "Free Chin." I wrote it with laundry marker. And in very small square print, it says, "Mind your own [BLEEP] business." That's if anyone asks me, "Who's the Chin?" If they don't know, that's it. I'm finished.
Theresa [? Mirable ?] in New York. She spoke with Blue Chevigny and Joe Richman.
I'm 60 years old now. I've seen it all. And I want to tell about it. I want my book. I want my HBO special.
Before Theresa, we heard Susan Berman, author of the book Easy Street, who we taped years ago. Since then, Berman was found dead in her apartment on Christmas Eve in the year 2000, killed by a single gunshot to the back of the head. Police say the prime suspect in her murder is not affiliated with the mob. She was 55 years old at the time.
Act Three: Neighbors To The Mob
Act Three, Neighbors To The Mob. The mob, the traditional godfather, big city, Cosa Nostra, Robert De Niro-movie kind of mob has not been doing very well. Vincent "Chin" Gigante, for example, tried to evade prison by spending years dressing like somebody incompetent to dress himself, peeing in public in a bathrobe, seeking the insanity defense, and failing.
Mafia expert Jerry Capeci is a columnist for The New York Sun. He also writes for the authoritative ganglandnews.com website. He's the author of several books about the mob, most recently The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia. He says there are still 550 to 600 mobsters in New York. But times are tough for them, mostly due to effective law enforcement.
Oh, there's no question about it. The law enforcement efforts have gone a long way to remove the gangsters from the labor unions, from many industries where they ruled supreme. Another problem that they're facing is these federal murder and racketeering indictments are putting more and more gangsters in prison for life. And so that the Commission, the ruling body of the mob, has decreed a ban on sanctioned murders in the New York metropolitan area.
No more sanctioned killings for years now. The big guys don't want to do time for the murders, which raises the question, without killings, how will the mob stay the mob? Capeci also says the mob faces an odd recruiting problem right now. They don't want to bring in guys who will turn state evidence some day, as so many guys have. But gotta bring in someone for the mob to survive.
It's not around anymore, but there used to be this magazine called Double Take. Anyway, in the fall 1997 issue, there's this great black-and-white photo. It is here. It is a bunch of middle-aged white guys on the sidewalk outside this nondescript brick building. The guys on the left side of the photo are just standing around laughing and smiling. And then there's this empty space, kind of a no man's land.
And then right in the center of the photo, dressed in white pants, white shoes, white socks, and a striped, casual shirt, hair perfectly coiffed, looking smug, powerful, happy, is Mr. John Gotti, then head of the Gambino crime family. Then as we scan, continuing our scan from left to right across the picture, there's another empty space, another no man's land. And then nearly the entire right side of the photo, like 1/3 of this image, is this guy who is walking toward the camera in the most menacing possible way. He's so close that he's out of focus. He takes up like 1/3 of the page, looking pretty much exactly like an angry Joe Pesci. Reaching toward the camera, his finger is nearly on the lens of the camera.
The name of this tiny, unglamorous building in the photo?
It's called the Ravenite Social Group.
And it was on Mulberry Street?
It is still is on Mulberry Street at the corner of Prince Street.
That is, in little Italy, in New York City. Forget the gorgeous, brown-roomed house in The Godfather movie. This was John Gotti's clubhouse. Alec Wilkinson is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His wife took the picture. And he, himself, had a special connection to the club.
For seven years, beginning in 1979, I lived across the street from the club on the fifth floor of 250 Mulberry Street, a tenement. I looked down on the club and on the broad, flat roof of a garage next door. In a corner of the garage was a live poultry market. The name of the market was written in Chinese characters. Chinese women shopped there and old Italian women in black, who communicated by means of gestures with the Chinese men in white aprons covered with feathers and blood.
I always said hello to any of the Ravenites I passed on the sidewalk or saw standing in the doorway. But none of them ever said anything to me or even acted as if he had heard me. I was never invited into the club either. But from the street, when the doors were open, I could see a bar and an espresso machine. Across from the bar were tables, and chairs, and, beyond them, a back room with a television on a shelf. I lived in the apartment for nearly a year before I learned that the sullen and irritable-looking men, who came and went from the club and sat at the tables, playing cards with smudges of ash on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, were gangsters.
My building belonged to a Buddhist monk in Hong Kong. A woman named Susan held the lease on my apartment. She was a performance artist. The apartment had become available as a result of the response to a piece she had recently given in the living room, called "Why Don't You Come Up And See Me Sometime?" She had advertised the piece on posters she'd taped to walls and light poles around the neighborhood.
On the evening of the performance, the audience gathered on the sidewalk outside the building. A friend of Susan's brought them upstairs. When they walked in the apartment, they saw Susan, a pretty good-looking woman, lying on her side with her chin in one hand, buck naked on a slowly turning platform. She had dyed her brown hair jet black, and she had an absent look in her eyes. Several culture hounds from the social club attended.
And a few days after, the club extended to Susan an invitation to leave the neighborhood. The invitation was delivered by a functionary who crowbarred the door of her apartment off its hinges one afternoon while Susan was out and left the rest of the apartment undisturbed. It was not her first mistake. She lived alone and had friends come and go at all hours, some of them men, which had led members of the club to conclude that she was a prostitute.
I had been living in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Susan and I visited the Chinese agent who managed the building, and she told him that she was leaving the city and wanted to turn the apartment over to me, her cousin. I signed the lease and paid her $3,000, which was illegal. Then I went back to Cape Cod, and loaded my possessions into my car, and drove to New York, and parked in front of the social club.
A man came out as I was carrying a chair, and told me to move the car. I assumed I was parked illegally and that he was giving me some friendly, welcome-wagon-type advice. Then I read the parking sign on the light pole, and saw that I was legal, and said, "Thanks, it's OK." Another man came out of the club, and they started arguing. I heard the second man, say, "It's all right. It's all right. He's Susan's cousin." I don't know who he heard that from. The man who had told me to move said, "I don't give a damn who he is."
After I finished unloading my car, I drove over to the river, and drank some beers, and watched the sun go down over New Jersey. And when I came back, another car was parked in front of the club. The next morning, on my way to breakfast, I saw that the windshield, and windows, and headlights of the car had been shattered.
The Ravenites kept a doberman named Duke. During the day, Duke paced in front of the club and the garage. And at night, he slept in the club. A short, fat guy named Mike looked after him. The garage belonged to a trucking company that hauled bananas and pineapples from the Brooklyn docks.
Mike's job was to watch the door. This was not a complicated job. Trucks came and went from the garage at the rate of about one every other day. Mike's position with the club was obscure. The lowest level of association seemed to be occupied by men in their 20s, mean-looking types with wiry bodies and spiteful, ratty faces. The more prestigious Ravenites arrived at the club in fancy, black cars. They left the cars on the sidewalk.
And the young men ran out of the garage with sponges and buckets of water and washed the cars while the gangsters were visiting the club. Mike never washed the cars. He was clearly above that. But he never spent much time inside the club either. Now and then, taking pains to emphasize his importance, he would say things, such as, "Kind of friends I have, you need a job done, they do it. Then they go to Italy for a while." One day, the doberman was gone. After that, when the club closed at night, an old man stood in the passageway, smoking cigarettes.
In addition to Mike, I was acquainted with a dark-haired, round-faced, slightly fleshy, and sinister-looking young man of about 30 named Norman. I often saw Norman behind the bar, and I assumed he was the Ravenite's bartender. Norman and Mike had an interest in a flock of pigeons that were kept in a coup on the roof above my apartment. For a while after I first moved in, I would hear a knock on the door. And I would open it to find Norman holding a plastic bucket. "He needed water for the birds," he said.
While the bucket was filling in my bathtub, he would look around the apartment and ask what I did for a living. I had to have it explained to me by a neighbor, who lived down the hall, that Norman didn't need water. He was making sure on behalf of the Ravenites that I was not a cop.
During the first year that I lived in the apartment, people would tell me that the Ravenites were the Mafia, and I didn't believe them. I thought they looked like people who wished they were in the Mafia, but didn't have the nerve or the intelligence or know the right people. For one thing, they seemed easily frightened. Whenever one of them had a dispute with a bicycle messenger or a delivery guy, he ran into the club or the garage for a wrench, or a tire iron, or a piece of lead pipe. Then he came back with three or four friends.
The kids in the neighborhood had the same bullying streak. I often saw boys, wearing the blue sweaters and dark ties of the Catholic school around the corner, ambush drunks who wandered over from the Bowery. They set upon the frail, ragged figures like pack dogs. And when they had beaten the drunk to his knees, they ran away.
One morning after I had lived in the apartment for about a year, I learned what had happened to the doberman, and also why the windshield and the windows of the car had been shattered. A story on the front page of the New York Times said that the police had managed to hide microphones inside the club. The microphones had been in place only briefly before they were discovered and ripped out by the intended targets of the surveillance, the paper said. The conversations the police overheard had covered, quote, "numerous organized crime activities," unquote.
Among the Ravenites who were indicted as a result was Norman, who was identified as Norman Dupont of 32 Monroe Street. He and the others were offered immunity and then, of course, sent to jail for contempt since none of them would say anything. Norman was there for a year. He left the flock of pigeons in the care of some high school kids who showed up only occasionally, and most of the pigeons died.
The day the story was published, television reporters arrived to film dispatches in front of the club. A group of kids stood around them. Each time a reporter opened his mouth to speak into his microphone, the kids banged trash can lids together like cymbals. Eventually, the reporters got back into their cars and drove off except for one reporter who paid the kids to be quiet.
It turned out that I had parked in front of the social club on the day after the Ravenites had discovered that the police had been parking cars in the space where I had left mine. As a matter of routine, the Ravenites assumed that there were microphones in their clubhouse. So when they had something important to talk about, they went outside. Often, they leaned against the car, and, in the trunk of the car, was a cop who was listening to the gangsters' conversation. Sometimes, the gangsters leaned against the light pole which had a microphone in it. That the doberman never woke up from the tranquilizers the police have given him so that they could plant the microphones came out in the court records. The police misjudged the dose they gave the dog and said they felt bad about it.
I often give a copy of the photograph of the Ravenites social club to friends as a present. My wife, a photographer, took it one afternoon in the spring just after John Gotti had been acquitted in the last trial that he would win. By then, I no longer lived on Mulberry Street. My wife had a studio on the Bowery, and she was walking to the subway when she saw Gotti. Gotti had become commander in chief of the Gambino family, whose headquarters the Ravenites club was, by having the former commander killed.
She pretended to be a tourist and asked if she could take his picture. She took three. And the guy on the right is saying, "Enough." Without looking at her, Gotti said, "Don't sell them," something that had not occurred to her.
She went to a pay phone and called the New York Post and told them she had a picture of Gotti outside the Ravenite social club. The man who answered said, "You took it with a long lens, right?" She said, no, she had walked right up to him. There was a pause. The man told her to bring the picture right away. He said that the paper had a way of paying her so that no one would know her name. That was when she decided not to publish it.
On the Fourth of July, Norman, and Mike, and some other Ravenites would fill wheelbarrows with fireworks, and dump them in the intersection of Mulberry and Prince, outside my building, and pour gasoline on the pile, and the flames would shoot up and blister the paint on the stoplight. Bottle rockets would rise to my window and throw off sparks. And the air would smell like gunpowder. Meanwhile, other Ravenites would light cherry bombs and M-80s, and toss them into garbage cans, and throw the lids on the cans. The fireworks would rip the seams on the cans and throw the lids into the air. And the explosion would rattle the frames of my windows and make my ears ring.
One year, some friends were having dinner with me, and their young son was with us. And the sparks from the bottle rockets coming in the windows and the flashes of light upset him. "The nerves in my skin are hurting," he said. I called the police. "The Mafia guys at the Ravenite social club are setting off fireworks," I said. And the cops said, "There's no such thing as the Mafia."
Alec Wilkinson. His latest book is Mr. Apology and Other Essays.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Our senior editor for this show was Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Our staff includes Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Production help from Sam Hallgren and Chris Ladd.
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