At the Risk of Offending the Mafia…

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
Carlito’s Way
The Departed (alternatively pronounced “Da Dee-pah-ded.”)
The Untouchables
Once Upon A Time In America

Or the hit HBO series The Sopranos.

Eh-heh. See?

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.


25 thoughts on “At the Risk of Offending the Mafia…

  1. When I was in middle school, I thought it would be great to grow up and marry into the mafia. I think I might need to rewatch “Married to the Mob” to see where that ambition came from.

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the Mob too. Probably because I’m half Sicilian and I grew up in Queens and because there was always hushed talk in my family about how “Uncle Nick was friends with So-and-So.” After I saw The Godfather I thought it would be awesome to be in the Mafia. Then I saw Goodfellas and changed my mind.

  3. I loved hearing the history, and not to disillusion you or anything, but I haven’t seen any of those movies. I’m not a big mafia fan. Wait, I lied. I might have seen On The Waterfront, but that was because it was in film class and I could only miss one movie. I choose to watch “Psycho” even thought I hate those kind of movies too, because I wanted to skip Goodfellas. :-0 See, not everyone loves the Mafia. But I do love Bruce Springsteen and I do love the song, Atlantic City.

    I did not know he was referring to true events though.

    • Dear WP: Jodi is not spam. Gah.

      Actually, I haven’t seen any of those movies, either. At least not all the way through. Except for “The Departed.” Which is funny, because that movie is so incredibly over-the-top violent and profane, you’d think THAT would be the one to be avoided. I just haven’t ever sat down to watch any of them, but I think I should see The Godfather Trilogy and Goodfellas before I die if only for their contributions to filmmaking. And yep! Now you know the story Bruce was telling!

  4. I have always been fascinated by the mob. I love those shows like the ones you watched. I could watch them all day, really. My favorite mob movie is Donnie Brasco, and then Once Upon a Time in America. Love it. Sadly.

    • It’s funny – I actually haven’t seen any of the movies I listed all the way through. Maybe I saw “The Untouchables” once. And I don’t have HBO, so I haven’t seen “The Sopranos,” either. They’re films I’ve seen in bits and pieces over the years.

  5. “Nice,” succinct rendering of the mob culture! I could never get into mob movies– never watched the Godfather series or The Sopranos; they were too disturbing. There was one I became addicted to though–Get Shorty. It was funny and had just enough of the mob stuff in it to feel realistic. It’s a shame that the unions got entwined with the mob. It happened in Michigan, too, where I grew up with The Teamsters Union. To exert power and get market share in interstate transport, the Teamsters effectively castrated the rail system in this country. What a shame. What we couldn’t do now for more good, cheap rail transportation.
    I spent two years in Philadelphia; those years (1968 – ’70) were the nadir of my life. Philadelphia encompassed the worst of both puritan and mob culture; everything was closed on Sunday, and you had to bribe someone to get a drivers license. Free-floating hostility seemed almost palpable wherever I went–on the sidewalks and in public transportation. Subsequently I wrote a short story that I believe captures my experience of the “City of Brotherly Love.”

    • Oh, yes, the Teamsters and the mob. Goodness, that’s another epic story. I come from a long line of railroad workers, so I’ve heard a few things about the Teamsters over the years through that lens. I look forward to reading your short story; I have a tendency to defend Philly from its out-of-town detractors in that way we defend our mothers from the jokes and criticisms other people make – only WE can say bad things about them – but having chosen a new “hometown” for myself, I’m sure I’ll understand your perspective.

  6. Are you reading Kathy McCullough’s blog, where she’s chronicling growing up in a mafia family? It’s really fascinating. Really, her take on how normal it all was to her is what’s so gripping about it for me.

  7. I don’t think the popularity of mob movies necessarily point to a fascination with the mob. The juiciest roles for actors are either good people with fatal flaws or bad people with redeeming qualities. Given the choice, I think the latter provide a better opportunity for an actor to shine. What is a better source of the latter than mob movies? The power of Al Pacino’s metamorphosis in The Godfather is that he went from one to the other.

    • I think you’re right about why actors choose to portray Mafia members or their wives. But why do we watch the movies? I don’t think it’s always because we want to see an actor in a metamorphic role (though maybe we like the idea of two sides of one person – an acknowledgment of our own natures, to some degree?). Knowing your love of theater and art, the actors’ portrayal may be your reason. But I think Americans tend to be intrigued by that which bothers us. At least, that’s what I’ve observed.

  8. That’s a good question – why do we think the murderous cut-throat ways of the mafia are picturesque, but not garden variety street gangs? It’s all about violence, money & power, mixed in with a warped concept of “family” loyalty. Sad.

  9. My dad was always watching a mob show or movie. He was fascinated by the Mafia.

    I think the difference between regular gangs and the Mafia is the organized part. Gangs are way more impulsive and loosely constructed while the Mafia seems to be tighter controlled. I could be wrong, but that’s the way I saw it in all the documentaries, movies, and tv shows I watched about the mob.

    Interesting post.

  10. Boy do I get sucked into those documentaries too. It’s interesting being on the east coast and around all the periphery, if you will. I work in Hell’s Kitchen, am a member of the stagehands union, also work with Teamsters, and everybody knows a guy who knows a guy. The usherettes at my old theater are true Westie broads (and that’s a book worth reading, Westies by TJ English) and when we opened Jersey Boys we had a long string of former family members coming to make sure certain characters were portrayed in a respectable manner. And truly, I never want to be any closer than that.

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