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Goodfellas, Wiseguys, and Godfathers: A Portrait of the Modern Mob

portraitModernMob_article.jpg“You can say it,” Frank says. “I look like Joe Pesci. My friends always tell me that. At least they say it behind my back. They know I’ll slit their throats.”

I’ve only known Frank for 15 seconds and he has already given me my first uncomfortable ultimatum. If I tell him he does indeed look like Joe Pesci, I’m the type of person whose throat he wants to slit. If I don’t, I’m immediately disagreeing with him and getting off to a bad start.

It’s a Tuesday evening in New York City’s Little Italy, and the enclave of old-school bars, souvenir shops, and tourist-driven restaurants is beginning to fill up, largely with British tourists who want to add a Sopranos safari to their vacation. As they walk past a sleepy restaurant on Mulberry Street, little do they know that the two men seated near the front door are high-ranking officers of an organized crime family.

Frank (not his real name) is small and barrel-chested, the kind of body you get from spending a good portion of your adult life in jail. Philly (also an alias) is a dapper, younger-looking version of Christopher Walken, who has been in “the life” for several decades as well. They’ve both agreed to sit with me because a friend of mine, Dan Pearson, is well-known in their world. Dan grew up in the house of one of the most notorious organized crime leaders in Mob history, but later gave it all up to settle down and start a family. Knowing I was curious about the modern-day Mafia, he persuaded some of his old friends to let me “bounce” with them as they tried to earn. Now I’m wondering if maybe it was a bad idea.

“You’re with Danny boy,” Frank says. “He vouches for you. You know what that means, right?”

Having seen Donnie Brasco, I’m familiar with the term, but a soldier I’ll meet later will put it more bluntly:
“This ain’t the fucking movies,” he’d tell me. “That’s all bullshit. If you fuck us on this, your body will visit all five boroughs at the same time, and so will Dan’s. Capisce?”
Si, capisce.

*  *  *

Famous Fictional Mob Bosses

Don Corleone, The Godfather


Tony Soprano, The Sopranos


Frank Costello, The Departed


Paul Cicero, Goodfellas
It turned out to be a propitious time To meet the mafia. Two days later, Frank, Philly, and dozens of other high-ranking organized crime figures would be hauled in by police in of one of the largest arrests
in city history. All told, federal prosecutors would hand out 80 indictments to 62 men, mostly members of the Gambino crime family, on charges ranging from murder of a court officer to extortion of union funds.

The indictments would reveal just how alive the government believes the Mafia is, and prosecutors would hail the busts as yet more nails in a coffin they’ve been steadily burying since the ’50s. But by then my tour guides would have me convinced the raids were just a pinprick on an organization that—contrary to rumors—is not only alive but thriving.

“We adapted to the times, and the wealth, of today’s world,” is how Frank put it.

 The Mafia, I’d learn, has long since adjusted to prevent any one raid from interfering with its business. Gone are the days when it maintained a stranglehold on everything illegal; the new Mob is all about using its traditional ferocity to break into legal enterprises, thereby limiting its exposure to prosecution. At the same time, it’s still struggling to maintain its self-proclaimed traditions of honor, loyalty, and justifiable violence even as its members increasingly see them as anachronistic.

*  *  *

Like many people, I had thought the Italian mafia was on the verge of extinction. My knowledge had come almost exclusively from The Godfather, GoodFellas, and The Sopranos. Its life cycle, at least according to pop culture, had gone something like this: At the turn of the 20th century, a feudal Sicilian and Italian organization called the Black Hand emigrated, along with millions of Italians to America where it got rich and powerful off bootlegging, extortion, and loan sharking. In New York City, factions engaged in wholesale slaughter over profits until 1931, when a 34-year-old rising crime star named Charles “Lucky” Luciano created the “five families” structure, in which territories and rackets were carved out to prevent intramural squabbling and unnecessary attention. It built a monopoly of vice and spread its enterprise across the country. Somewhere in there a lot of guys were shot in barber’s chairs, Al Capone became head of a sister organization in Chicago, and Michael Corleone testified to the Senate a crime family boss.

Over zuppe di pesce, Frank waxes nostalgic about the golden age. “In my mind what we did was honorable. We were the people immigrants could come to when they had a problem. In exchange for that, you could walk into their stores and they would give you the best of what they had.” He throws out tales of stickups and mistresses and friends who have disappeared. “I tell my daughter that when I die, they need to bury me with a .38. I know I’m going to hell, and there are some guys down there waiting for me that I’m gonna have to do a second time.”

Things changed in the ’80s, right about the time Sharon Stone’s Casino character was doing lots of drugs in Vegas, along came a U.S. attorney named Rudy Giuliani. He made it his mission to break up the Mafia in New York. In one of his cases, known as the “pizza connection,” 22 wise guys were arrested in conjunction with a billion-dollar heroin trade. In a second case, Giuliani helped indict the heads of all five families. “Our approach,” Giuliani said at the time, “is to wipe out the five families.”

The final death knell seemed to come when John Gotti was arrested. Known as the Teflon Don, the well-coiffed Gotti was a fixture on TV and in newspapers, almost flaunting his ability to conduct business outside the reach of the law. Eventually, the Feds busted him, and in 1992 Gotti was given a sentence of life without parole. After his incarceration, it was said that the Gambino crime family, of which he was the head, would never be the same. Philly informs me this is indeed true.
 
“When John Gotti and his crew got busted, it actually made the family stronger,” Philly explains. “The organization learned from its mistakes. There are now contingency plans for when arrests come.”

According to one member of the Gambino family, the organization currently has more than 2,000 made men across the United States. Each made man could have between 10 and 15 associates earning underneath him in businesses that encompass everything from construction to unions and entertainment to nightclubs. 
  
“The Luccheses always had the sanitation routes,” Philly explains. “The Genovese family had the gambling. The Bonannos had the heroin. But the Gambinos have been involved in everything from A to Z.  It’s been estimated that the Gambinos are a multibillion-dollar enterprise. If something happens, it can create a hiccup in the national economy.”

As an example, Philly throws out trucking companies, which have long been Gambino territory. “There’s maybe 28 major companies from here to Queens,” he says. “All legitimate businesses, but let’s say many of them have a ‘connection’ to the family.”

When you think about the number of items that are delivered by trucks daily, any hitch could stagger a local economy. “The soda you have with lunch, the food you eat at the restaurant, even the magazine this story will be in,” explains Philly. “It all gets delivered by a truck. That’s how involved we are in your everyday life.”

Even as the Mafia has maintained its interest in trucking, it has also expanded into new territory. “The game and its economics have changed,” Philly says. “The days of breaking legs over $500 are over. Now if you owe me money, you’ve got a way to get it and you don’t even have to break the law to do it. What’s your credit score? If you can get someone with a 700 credit score, I’ll hook them up with someone at a bank and they’ll get a $100,000 line of credit.”

“Shit,” Frank says, “With a 700 credit score, we can get them a $100,000 line of credit at four different banks.”
“Exactly,” says Philly. “You could have $400,000 in a week. Of course, as payment for our help, you’ll return the money you owe us and kick in another 10 percent. If you come back into good times, by all means pay it back. But we don’t care if you don’t pay it back. You can spend it all, declare bankruptcy, and tell the bank to go fuck themselves, for all we care. We made $40,000 off of you in a couple of hours, and it’s all legit.”

“Do you know anyone with a 700 credit score?” Frank asks. “We’ll get them set up, and I’m sure you would see a little of it.”

*  *  *

Two days later, as the sun rises over a cold February day in New York City, the Feds make their move. The prized catches were, Feds believe, the Gambino family’s acting boss, John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico; acting underboss, Domenico “Italian Dom” Cefalu; and consigliere, Joseph “Jo Jo” Corozzo, along with the brother and nephew of the late John Gotti, three other Gambino captains, and three acting captains.

At the press conference trumpeting the bust, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “This was a bad day for organized crime.” The indictments included charges of a 1976 assassination of a Brooklyn court officer, the 1977 murder of an associate of the Gambino family, and the 1990 slaying of an armored car driver during a Kennedy Airport theft. It also contained several charges of racketeering conspiracy and extortion.

“Today we serve notice that anyone who aspired to a position in organized crime will meet the same fate,” said Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell. “We will not rest until we rid our communities and businesses of the scourge of organized crime.” The indictments were allegedly helped along by a government informant named Joseph Vollaro, the owner of Andrews Trucking, a Staten Island–based firm that was believed to have earned $400,000 for the Gambino family. Though Vollaro was not recognized as a made man, it is believed the ranking Gambino officers violated their own protocol by speaking with him on a regular basis. They did this while Vollaro was wearing a government wire.

For three days after the bust, I hear nothing from my tour guides in the underworld. Finally, Philly reaches out and agrees to meet with me for dinner at La Mela, a Little Italy institution on Mulberry Street.

“Frank almost went on vacation for a while,” Philly says. “They didn’t have enough to keep him so they had to let him go. He’s laying low now. Everyone is. We’ve already been warned, be careful who you talk to.”

I ask about the affect the raid has on the organization. “What effect?” Philly says. “Nothing changes except for the names. Business goes on. You still have to kick upstairs. In a week, when the smoke settles, we’ll have a big sit-down and people will be reassigned.”

Philly is remarkably calm for a guy who just got picked up three days ago. “It’s part of the game,” he says. “They pick you up and then they let you go in front of your friends and say, ‘Thanks for the information.’ They try to fuck with you and cause some commotion inside the organization. I’ve already established that I’m not afraid to do the time, so it’s all bullshit.”

Philly is so relaxed, in fact, he talks about taking a trip out West. There’s a guy opening a club out there, and he needs an investor to sink a few million into it. “We’ve got a guy who can do that,” Philly says. “It’s legit, but we never would get the business without the connection. That’s why they call mobsters ‘connected.’¿”

But what’s the difference between people who know you and people who fear you? Where is the line between legitimate and criminal?

“There is no line,” Philly says. “That’s the idea. If you’re the government and you want to find the line, good luck. That’s why these raids only happen when there’s a rat. They draw the line for the Feds. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to find it with a fuckin’ map.” With this he shakes his head. “What could they possibly have had on that guy to get him to turn in 60 people? It’s a joke.”

According to Philly, the recent bust is just another attempt by elected officials to grandstand and show an apathetic public that they are doing their jobs. He points to the fact that all 62 guys were put under the same indictment. “You know how long it’s gonna take to sort all that shit out? By the time any of this gets to trial, maybe 15 percent of it will stick. Mark my words.”

After we lay waste to three family-style plates of pasta, Philly has to leave to head uptown. Business awaits.
“Mike,” he says. “If you’re gonna hang out, you need a nickname. There are a million Mikes in New York. Did you have a nickname growing up?”
“People just call me Mike D,” I say.
“That’s bullshit. How ’bout Mikey the Pen?
“Does that mean people will think that I kill with a pen?”
“Maybe you can say you kill people’s reputations.”

Famous Fictional Mob Bosses

Don Corleone, The Godfather


Tony Soprano, The Sopranos


Frank Costello, The Departed


Paul Cicero, Goodfellas
One a.m. that night: Conversation between Philly and Dan Pearson.
Dan: Hello
Philly: What are you doin’?
Dan: Sleeping.
Philly: Oh. Listen, is your friend a cop?
Dan: Who?
Philly: Your friend, the Pen.
Dan: Mike? Are you fucking kidding me? He’s a writer.
Philly: How sure are you?
Dan: C’mon, man. Do you really think I would bring a cop around you? I can’t believe you would even ask that.
Philly: You’re sure?
Dan: He may be Irish and a little out of shape, but he ain’t a cop. He’s a writer.
Philly: All right. You vouched for him. Don’t forget. [click]

*  *  *

Frank and Philly were officers, Operating largely above the Mafia’s daily grind. One of the aspects of the Mob I was interested in was the life of the soldiers, the guys who struggled to “make a nut” for their bosses, often with their fists. Had anything changed for them? To help me find out, Pearson arranged a ride-along with a couple of street guys we met in Brooklyn under the overhead tracks of the subway. Loud noise, Pearson explained, interferes with any potential microphones.

“I don’t have to pat you down, do I?” asks a soldier named “Jo Jo” (no relation to the “Jo Jo” arrested in the bust) when the meet goes down. Jo Jo stands 6'3" and weighs over 350 pounds. His head is shaved, and he wears a light leather jacket, blue jeans, and white sneakers. And one thing becomes very clear—if I piss him off enough, he will have no problem killing me, and it will not so much as affect his appetite.

“Don’t take it personally, pal,” he says. “Paranoia keeps you alive in this line of work. Even if it means the untimely demise of someone else.”

Teddy, another soldier, laughs. In this world premature death seems inevitable, but remains a steady source for humor. Teddy also has a nearly shaved head and a stocky build. His demeanor is calm and measured, like a man who feels like all his words are being recorded for posterity, thanks to the Feds. “No offense, buddy,” he says. “But that’s him talking. I ain’t saying shit today.”

With pleasantries exchanged, Pearson and I get into a white, sparkling clean Cadillac Escalade and head to an innocuous family-style Italian restaurant nearby for lunch. “In this life you don’t have an office,” Pearson explains. “You bounce around all day from one place to the next. Restaurants are one place where you get to spend a few hours off your feet talking. I think that’s why all Mob guys are huge. They eat all day.”

At lunch Jo Jo and Teddy explain how they got into the “family” business. “Most of my family was in the life,” Jo Jo says. “It’s no different than if your grandfather’s a cop, your father’s a cop, so you become a cop. They were gangsters. They used to send me into stores to start trouble. They’d say, ‘Here’s a hundred dollars. Go into this store and punch the guy behind the counter in the face.’ Then they’d go in and offer the guy protection for a couple hundred a month. So the store owner is paying
protection to the guy who’s causing him trouble in the first place.”

After a ridiculous amount of pastries and homemade grappa, the check arrives. The bill comes out to over $400, and it gets passed around to me. “You got this, right, pal?” Jo Jo asks. “Tell Maxim to pay for it. Listen, how do we get 20 percent of what Maxim earns?” That is the question every gangster asks himself: How do I get 20 percent of what you have, in perpetuity, until you’re dead?

“All right, pal,” Jo Jo says as we leave. “Let’s take a ride and do some business.” As we head for Manhattan, I imagine this is what it is like to be a hostage: sitting in the backseat with no mention of where you’re going, whom you’re seeing, or if danger might be forthcoming.  
               
“Don’t shit yourself,” Teddy says. “If it was going to be serious, we’d be carrying guns.”

Working for the Mob, Jo Jo explains, is like any other job, only a street guy doesn’t pay taxes to the government; he pays them to his family—in this case, the head of his crew. A good earner might kick as much as 50 percent of what he makes. The head of his crew takes a piece and kicks the rest up, and so on. For that tax, you receive the protection of the family. If you’ve got a problem, you’ve got the muscle to solve it.

The flipside of that equation is that there are no mitigating circumstances surrounding that 50 percent.

“When business gets bad,” Jo Jo adds, “you get laid off. We get killed. Some guys can’t take it and get out. Former street guys are everywhere—cops, firemen, Wall Street.”

After getting in the car, Jo Jo informs me of the next destination. They’re on their way to see someone who owes them a favor. The guy stopped returning calls, and the worst thing you can do to a Mob guy is try to ignore them.

While driving, Jo Jo daydreams about life after crime. “I won’t miss a bit about this—the ulcers you get when you need to make your nut. I’d like to get married and have kids like you have. But this isn’t a life for a father. I’ve put my sister and her kids through enough being in and out of jail. I’d like to kick back and relax. And with all the money being thrown around today, there has to be a better way.”

As we head into midtown, Teddy warns me, “Buddy, you better think twice before you go into this office with us. Whatever happens, happens. If it goes the wrong way and you’re standing there, you could get hit with a conspiracy charge.”

“See,” Jo Jo says. “You think we’ve been afraid of being identified, but we’ve been protecting you all along. If you knew who we were and what we were doing, the Feds would be knocking on your door.”

“So,” Teddy says, “you want to come over to the dark side?   
“No, thanks,” I say. Pearson and I get out of the car on Eighth Avenue.
“If you want to meet up with us later,” Jo Jo says, “I’ll give you a call around midnight. I’m sure your wife won’t have a problem with that. And bring that Maxim credit card, motherfucker.”

*  *  *

Three  weeks after the bust, prosecutors offered plea deals to 60 of the 62 defendants. “As a practical matter, it is highly unlikely that all 62 defendants will proceed to trial,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joey Lipton wrote in court papers. “Plea agreements will likely reduce the numbers.” Only the two defendants charged with murder—Charles Carneglia and Nicholas Corozzo —were not offered a plea.

A few days later, I meet up with Philly again in Little Italy. The restructuring is going according to plan. “No one is making any big new moves, but all the business from before the bust is still happening. A lot of the guys are out on bail already. I told you this was going to go away.”

Despite the relative calm in the organization, Philly is more nervous than ever before. He looks disheveled and almost prefers to talk about Mob life than his personal life.

“My ex-wife served me to get additional child support,” he says. “I have a week to come up with the money. If not, I violate my parole.”

In fact, the government has already started to seize some of his assets, including his current wife’s car. “They even took my kid’s car seat,” he laments.

Because he’s close to going back to jail, Philly has decided to stay away from anything that has his name on it—cars, the house, the office. “They’ve got to be following me,” he says. “I wasn’t even parked in front of my house when they took my car. How did they know where it was?” Philly compares his plight to that of the other 61 guys who were busted.

“It’s all about money,” he says. “If you’ve got it, you can get a good lawyer and stay out of jail. If not, you  do time. It’s part of the job.”

Some things never change. Early death, vast segments of a life swallowed by prison, betrayal at the hands of your closest friends. Why still do it? I ask Philly.

“I would never want to do anything else. The money, the girls, the action—what more could you ask for?”