My scintillating Friday night is none of your business, except that I watched two hours worth of shows about mobsters on whatever cable channel it was on. Damn, I love a good mobster story. What sucked me in was that the first episode featured a (highly truncated) version of the events that unfolded in Philadelphia between the ’70s and early ’90s. Being from there and having lived there during a lot of the really messy mayhem, I couldn’t help but indulge myself. It’s part of my cultural lore.
Have I ever told you that my dad kind of knew a guy? I mean not really. He was acquainted with a guy who was not in the mob, but rather was a business associate of a mob boss by the name of Angelo Bruno, aka “The Gentle Don.” Bruno only killed people if he really, really had to. Anyway, so my dad knew this associate guy very casually, but did once watch him peel $3,000 in cash out of a wad and hand it to a bar manager to get him to shut up already about a charity event they were having. Dad didn’t know what the deal was – he was a teenager at the time. And now said associate is dead. Courtesy of the mob. Naturally.
The show I was watching detailed all the connections between who had who whacked over what, including the associate my dad knew. It had all the old news footage of the crime scenes where the bodies were found… even the footage from right after Phil “the Chickenman” Testa got blown up, as referenced in the very beginning of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Oh, you ain’t know that was historical? It is, Jack. Springsteen is talking very pointedly about all the rigamarole surrounding the casinos in AC vis-a-vis the Local 54 and the Local 30 unions. Everything dies, baby. That’s a fact. (Take a look at Atlantic City these days if you want evidence. Sheesh, what a hole.)
Nobody was as bad as Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo. Nobody called him that to his face, either, if they wanted to keep their own. Little Nicky had a height problem and a problem with having the problem, know what I’m sayin’? And he had a lot of other problems, too. (The Riccobene War wasn’t set in Malta, folks.) He’d been in and out of prison a few times, still running the Philly operation from the inside. But the feds finally nailed Little Nicky for good in 1989 after an associate turned. Scarfo was convicted in the hits on seven other mobsters. This guy killed people if they looked at him funny, so his body count was a lot higher, but along with charges in racketeering, loan sharking, drugs and extortion, Scarfo will be in an Atlanta prison until at least 2033, at which time he’ll be 104.
After that episode came another that detailed the murderous career of a man known as Joe “Mad Dog” Sullivan, the only guy to ever escape from Attica. They actually interviewed this guy. Sat down and talked to him all casual-like. And let me say, he looks really good for a 70-year-old inmate, recovering drug addict and alcoholic who made his first kill at the age of 13 and was in and out of prison his whole life since. And he doesn’t look crazy or mean. He looks haunted. Which he apparently was. He says the anger that made him a mad dog started when he was 13 and his father died. I’m sure there was a screw or two loose before that, something that set up the dominoes, but he got mad and his mom got poor and abusive and drunk a lot, and he just never made good of his life. Mad Dog is the guy who eventually killed (among others) Antonio “Tony Bananas” Camponigro… the guy who’d had the Gentle Don whacked because he wanted to be Boss. That hit wasn’t sanctioned by the Big Bosses in New York, see. So a month later they set up Tony Bananas. When Mad Dog shot him who knows how many times, and he was good and dead, the bosses stuffed him with cash. A message. This is what happens when you get greedy.
Is that hilarious or what?
No, really. Think about it. The mafia is all about greed. Greed and power. That’s the whole idea. Everything else is circumstantial, a byproduct. So when a bunch of guys go after another guy because he got greedy? That’s just delicious, bloody irony right there.
If you think I’m sick for finding all of this so fascinating, ask yourself if you’ve ever seen any of the following movies on purpose:
The Godfather – I, II or III
On the Waterfront
The Boondock Saints – I or II
A Bronx Tale
The Departed (alternatively pronounced “Da Dee-pah-ded.”)
Once Upon A Time In America
…Or the hit HBO series The Sopranos.
The Mafia functions on greed, power and loyalty. Do someone a solid and they’ll have your back. Do something even a little wrong and they’ll shoot you in it. And not subtly, either. Deeze guys. Brazen. Broad daylight hits. Openly hostile shakedowns. Calling cards. Messages in crime scenes. Totally transparent stuff that practically screams The mob did it. And we eat it up.
Gangs these days are just the modern incarnations of mob families. Slightly different motives, maybe. More desperation. Less patience. Not hittin’ the big time like the Gambinos or the Genoveses. But still based on loyalty. Still based on turf. Still about the money.
Still with the crazy nicknames, only fewer guys whose middle name is “The.”
Why don’t we find them quite so charming?
As usually happens when I dig in to some good true crime mob fare, the whole thing left me a little depressed in the end. My hometown is an ugly place, and its history is gory. The development of Penn’s Landing? Mob deal. It’s everywhere. The Philly guys didn’t live in opulent houses. Their houses looked like mine. In the end, the charm is tarnished. The glamour fades. The promise becomes pathos. Loyal associates turn. The feds catch up.
Everything dies, baby. That’s a fact.