"There is no such thing as the Mafia."
Many people think they know what the Italian-American Mafia is all about. They watched the “Godfather” saga, saw “Goodfellas” twice and cracked out to “The Sopranos”. Fine. These guidos shop at Tracksuits R Us and they do talk funny. They can be a bit prickly and they make a lot of money. Just know that is a very small part of what the Mafia used to be, and in some ways, still is all about. Sure, you will find some of the most brutal people on Earth in the mob, people with little compassion and even less patience, but you will also find some of the sharpest and most organized intellects in the world of business.
For that is what it is, a business. A little family business that reaches far and deep.
Take a look at that.
Before you can even pretend to understand anything about the Italian-American Mafia and its anatomy you have to understand what even brought it into being.
Italian immigrants helped build quite a huge chunk of New York City. The finest stone masons were Italians. They built the churches, cathedrals and other spectacular architectural masterpieces all over the City. And still they got treated like shit. Compared to the English, Dutch and Scottish immigrants the Italians were all a bunch of guinea savages in the end. Sicilian niggers.
When La Cosa Nostra (“This Thing of Ours”) was established in Sicily in the late 1800’s, the Italian immigrants in NYC saw the opportunity to finally make a difference in their broke ass lives. By working together to establish a state within the state - a state based on the closeness of their families, loyalty and respect - they started building for the future. See, the reason the Mafia started in the first place was so that poor Italians would give birth to successful Americans down the line. They wanted to build something better for their kids than what they themselves had, to give them a flying start in the Land of Opportunities.
Those early Italians immigrants focused on the things nobody else even thought of, or even wanted to deal with.
Think about it. What do people like to do? Drink, fuck and have a good time, right? Make money. We like that too. Maybe gamble a little, shoot some craps and place a few bets. That is the way of the Human Race. For some reason most governments do not like the thought of free-for-all drinking, fucking and money-making unless they make some money on it too, so strict laws and restrictions were placed on the where’s, when’s and what’s in order to prohibit people from cutting loose too much. Of course, people still did all those things, but on the dodgy side of the tracks or in the privacy of their homes. Everyday illegalities escalated and almost drowned the cities of America in a tidal wave of crime and violence.
The Mafia changed all that. They grabbed the Underworld by the scruff of its neck and whipped it into shape. You would be hard pressed to find a smoother running business anywhere on Wall Street today than what went on in New York and Chicago back when the Mafia was at its peak. It was a complex organization, with designated divisions for different aspects of society. The right hand knew what the left was doing at all times, which backs it rubbed and into whose pockets it reached. Hoover’s FBI had nothing on the infrastructure of the mob back in their heydays. Nothing happened unless it was OK’d from above, and if something went wrong the retaliation was as predictable as it was swift. You didn’t fuck around with the Mafia. They were your best friends and your worst enemies.
The cops were, of course, yappin’ early on at the Mafia’s heels. But with all their Superior Officers and Officials in the pockets of the people they were chasing, the race was lost before it started.
“There is no such thing as the Mafia” is something that was drilled into the heads of Italian kids as they grew up, and still is, to this day, the only reply you will get if you’re a cop asking a Mafioso who he knows in the Mafia. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. You read too many friggin’ newspapers. Who am I, Al Capone?”
The Italians actually never call it “the Mafia” anyway. It’s “the Family”, or “the Job”, or “the Thing”. Badabing. Badabom. Slang was invented to talk in circles about jobs that needed to be done and people who needed to be seen. “My friend”, “his friend”, “our friend”, “their friend”… All took on different meanings dependant on who said it to whom. “Go to the mattresses”, “sleep with the fishes”, “take a walk” meant everything but what they actually said.
Up high were the Mustache Petes - the old timers who headed their respective families, the Capo Criminis. You have heard of a few, I’m sure: Sam Giancana, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Henry Gigante and yes… John Gotti. They were the Dons. The Godfathers. The Underground Presidents of the United States of America.
Most people watch Pacino in The Godfather and they remember John Gotti from the news and think to themselves, “Those Godfathers are a snazzy bunch.” Fuck that. Very rarely do the real names behind the crime families ever surface. John Gotti was a ruthless vicious motherfucker with a sharp mind, and rightfully earned his position in the Gambino Family. It was only later that he succumbed to the lifestyle of the millionaire and went from being the Teflon Don to the Dapper Don, throwing lavish parties and being seen with all the right people, in all the right places. Exactly what got Sam Giancana killed in the 50’s. You don’t do this kind of business in the open. John Gotti was looked upon with dismay by the older Mafiosos, and some of them moved in higher circles than he did. The really big fish swim around slowly on the bottom of the pond, hiding in the murky waters. Google “John Gotti”. 378,000 hits. Google “Lucky Macronese” and you get one relevant hit. And it’s not even the name of the guy who’s really in charge these days. Chances are you’ll never know.
You’ll find the real Dons and Capos on Avenue X in the little café with the French name on a black awning, playing cards in clothes older even than the cars they drive.
The Mafia was of the people, and for the people, more so than any other business or political ideology has ever managed to achieve, and it was not started or run with criminal intent. It was an everyday business for the Little Guy.
“But the everyday people,” you cry, tears streaming down your cheek, “what about all the little mom and pop stores in Brooklyn that had to pay thugs so they wouldn’t get their windows smashed and their inventory burned? What of that God fearing little man in the death grip of these animals?”
Protection. You pay for it and everything goes well. If you don’t, your store will be gone tomorrow.
Isn’t that how we think of it?
What kind of business would that be? That’s not how it worked back then, and that is not how it works now.
First of all, you have to realize that the people in the Mafia lived, breathed, ate and died in these parts of the city as well. These people were family and friends to themselves and everybody else to one extent or another. Everybody knew everybody. It was only when territories expanded to include non-family parts of the city that more ruthless methods came in effect. But even then it was in the interest of business. And it wasn’t every single business on the block that was thus approached by the Mafia, like it’s portrayed in the famous Mob movies, only the most lucrative ones.
Business went something like this:
Mom and Pop’s Pork Store pays a $100 “loyalty contribution” every week to the Luccheses. This insures them of having a steady stream of customers from all Lucchese connected people on the block. Just as quickly as your store is packed, it could be empty next week if you don’t pay the fee. Easy as that. You get killer suppliers, lenient inspectors and muscles when you need them. Now, let’s say that Pops can’t afford the $100 every week because his poor mother is in the hospital. Aww! What can the Luccheses do for him? “Don’t worry, Pops. We will just chalk that up to the debt and you can pay later. We’ll just take out a small interest, you know. All right, pops? Our love to your mama!” Kisses all around.
Five months later Pops owes more than he can ever pay back, the interest has racked up a fantastic amount, and the Luccheses come to collect. Now, do they burn down his store? Smash his windows? What purpose would that serve? They would be even less likely to ever receive any money from Pops, and they would be shitting where they eat. Should they kill him? He’s an old Pork Store guy. C’mon! No, they generously use the debt owed to have Pops sign over half the ownership of the store to them, in some poor cousin’s wife’s name, of course. All of a sudden the place is packed to the rafters with customers, cheap products and with the Health Department Guy just waving and smiling as he passes by outside, not even bothering to come in anymore.
This is the way the mob got their feet in the doors of every successful small business in New York City and Chicago. These businesses were all in some way indebted to the Mafia, but also had most of their business thanks to the same people. It was a healthy, if yet somewhat controversial, cycle of enterprise. One hand washes the other.
The key here is something we can all learn for ourselves:
Don’t be greedy.
Just take a little.
An old Sicilian saying goes: “If you’re hot, don’t take a swim; just dip your beak often instead.”
Meaning that you can achieve a lot by taking a little here and a little there. While everyone makes out like bandits, you will eventually pile up what you need for your own comfort. And believe it or not, most Mafiosos are not greedy. They don’t score multi-million dollar deals. They get $100 here for protection, $400 there from vigs on a bet, and $200 there as interest on a loan between friends. It all adds up enough for them to hang out and play cards while the house is paid for and the meat is in the fridge.
The Mafia wasn’t begun to harass neighbors or to get insanely rich. It was established to re-build an Italian state in the outskirts of a city that treated Italians like dirt. To strengthen the bonds between the families that lived there. A symbiosis of family and business.
The hierarchy was as complex as it was necessary. Orders were passed down the ladder from the top; from the Capo di Tutti Capi, to the Capo Criminis, to the Capos, to the Lieutenants, to the Soldiers, to the guys, to the whatever... by only dealing with the guy directly above you or below you, you couldn’t incriminate the big cheese, even if you were caught with your dick in the milk maid.
The crime families soon grew bigger and bigger and specialized in different fields and operated in different parts of town, still mainly Chicago (the "Outfit") and New York (the "5"). From Chop Shops to vending machines, all owned and operated by different branches of the Crime Family Tree; the Gambinos ran JFK airport, the Genoveses controlled the labor unions, the Luccheses took care of the waste management, and so on.
“Waste management?” you ask with an incredulous look. “Why would anyone want to be interested in waste management?”
Yeah, I know. It’s the old Italian joke. “He’s not in the Mafia, he’s in waste management.” Even funnier then that it’s true for a lot of them.
Let’s say you own a brewery. You have a shit load of broken glass ready to go to the dump. Who’s gonna take it there? Right. The garbage guys. Only problem is that they won’t take it if you don’t give them $2,000. Otherwise you can just keep those smelly moldy glass shards until the end of time. So you pay, and so does everybody else. An airport has to contract somebody to mop those floors, right? A new fashionable club needs bouncers, right? Well, fortunately for them the Yellow Pages are totally superfluous in this part of the world. If you own a business in a certain field or in a certain part of the City, you will be paid a visit and you will be hooked up with the services you need. Whether you requested them or not.
The Mafia also keeps their neighborhoods in pristine condition. My wife always said to me that she could walk down Cross Bay Blvd at 3am, stark naked, and would still be safer than a baby, sleeping in its crib. Unless you don’t belong there of course. Then chances are you’d be encouraged to leave. Sometimes not in so very kind words either.
For the Mafia is brutal. You snitch, you’re dead. That is the number one rule. You can be late with your payments, you can whack the wrong guy (unless it’s THE WRONG guy), you can accidentally sleep with this guy’s cousin’s married sister... Whatever… Just don’t fucking rat somebody out. A friend of mine had her husband executed in the car. She and the baby were in the car with him. One of the bullets ricocheted off his skull and hit the baby in the face. Died instantly. She’s fucked up for life. His crime? He ran his mouth in all the wrong places.
Only made men (buttons, wise guys) can order a hit on somebody, and you can only be made once you’ve been approved by the Capo Crimini in your family. Then you’re brought before the other Capos in the family, your hand is cut and you smear your blood on a statue of a saint as you recite the oath. The statue of the saint is then shattered at your feet to remind you that you took a blood oath not to tell a living soul what goes on outside this circle. As a made man you’re pretty much set. You’re untouchable by mere mortals. You get a cut of all the activities going on in your area. You call the shots in your own little sub-gang. But you’re always responsible for your actions to the Man Upstairs, and you’re always answering to him for your idiocies and follies. Just because you’re a made man, it doesn’t mean that other made men can’t be given the word to take you the fuck out. If you run your mouth, for instance. A sit down between the two families is required in order to take out a guy from another family. The pros and cons are weighed and discussed. Sometimes the other family gives you the OK to take the fucker out. Sometimes they compensate you financially instead (and exercise their own measures of repercussion on their own guy).
It might seem barbaric to your tender ears, but everybody in these circles knows what they sign up for: You live by the sword, and you die by the sword. These people rarely kill anybody outside their operations, and if they do – it’s mostly scum anyway.
The Code of Honor was the glue that kept the Mafia in power, binding its members together by blood, and it is also the lack thereof that has watered down their power in these days. The Mafiosos who didn’t respect the code were called Turks. They were disowned when they went out of line. The problem is that you can only disown so many people before your whole empire comes crushing down around your ears.
That is what it all boils down to. That’s why the Westies (the Irish Mafia) never gained as much power as the Italians, even though they were as strong in numbers at one point. They didn’t respect the business end of it, got all carried away with their personal shit, and never really amounted to much outside Rockaway. Never mind the Russians and the Cubans. They don’t have the subtle finesse to operate in higher circles than their own shoddy little blocks.
Look at the Bloods and the Crips. In essence some sort of organized crime gang, right? The difference is that they work for their own petty gain, with absolutely no respect even for each other, and with no interest in furthering their own community towards a greater goal.
Loyalty and respect.
The Italian Way.
That is what gave birth to the Mafia, what kept it in power, and what ultimately brought it to its knees.
That, and the drugs. The Families always made a point of not selling drugs in their own communities, to their own people. Drugs were something the “moolies” and the “spicks” did, not something that the Italians wanted to introduce to their kids. It was only after the Old Guard disappeared, died, or withered away from the leading ranks of the Families that the drugs were let loose even on home turf. It dissolved the ties between the Families and opened up the business to outside prospectors.
To some old-timers the decline of the once so mighty Mafia is looked upon as something inevitable and almost welcome. It is the ultimate evidence that they actually succeeded at what they once set out to do: to make American citizens of the children of their poor Italian immigrant roots. An Americanized Italian doesn’t operate according to the old school Sicilian mind set, and, thus, the concept of the Mafia is doomed. The original thought with the Mafia was to make a new future for their kids. American kids. Today’s lightweight Mafiosos don’t get the old concepts. They have become too far removed from their heritage and old ideals. They are too busy living the Mob Dream to even bother to understand the underlying currents of loyalty and respect, of one hand washing the other, to be successful in their grandfather’s old game. This would be like Muhammed Ali’s grand kid deciding he wants to be a Heavy Weight boxer so he can wear the flashy robe, even though he only weighs 100 lbs, soaking wet. It just doesn’t work that way.
The old ideas may be dead and gone, but they succeeded in what they set out to do and gave life to a whole new breed of enterprising Americans.
After decades of almost absolute powers the Mafia is today a bleak shadow of its former glory. Gone are the days when every official in the City was in their pockets. Gone are the days when JFK made secret deals with the Capo di Tutti Capi to have Castro assassinated in exchange for turning the blind eye to certain underground activities. Gone are the days when the CIA was “just another side of the same coin” as Sam Giancana expressed it after having worked with them for years, exchanging intelligence and favors. Scratching each other’s backs like it was going out of style.
Sure, they still control the airports, the unions and many personal services, such as rent-a-bouncers and limo places. They control most of the strip clubs you go to and they make sure you can buy a Cuban cigar under the counter at your local smoke shop.
They are still in charge of most of the side-bets and gambling in the US, Las Vegas being more than half owned by the Mob, and they still call the shots in their own neighborhoods.
The Mafia might be decimated in strength but it still wields considerable power. All around all of us.
You, yourself, reap the benefits of the Mafia’s wheelings and dealings in your daily life, without ever knowing it. I promise.
I dare you to find ANY privately owned record store in New York City that does not buy most of their DVDs from guys late at night without a receipt. Usually they come in pairs, open up a trunk of insanely current material – DVDs, CD Box Sets etc., and then they offer them to you for sale. For a really good price too. The Sopranos – First Season on DVD? Retail value $99. How much? $15. Done deal. Then, next week he’s back again, this time with 20 of the same Sopranos DVD set. Same price. $15 each. You can see where this is heading, right? There is no way you’re gonna sell that many Sopranos Box Sets this year, or the next, so what do you do? You now have three options:
1.Buy it all, but suggest $10 per piece as you’re overstocked (the smart move); 2.Ask if he can get the Second Season for next week instead? (Dumb move unless you want to be more criminally involved in this fencing business than you already are. Now you’re actually requesting specific thefts. Could be a federal crime.); 3.Refuse to buy anymore whatsoever from them and kindly ask them to leave the store (Worst move. Make sure your fire insurance is up to date.)
Of course, now all you goody two shoes out there are crying like a bunch of enraged dried up PTA women, “That is illegal! That is a crime!”
Yeah, but it’s also the reason that Sopranos Box Set you bought your husband for Christmas was $49 on sale last week. You thought your store lowered the prices out of the goodness of their hearts? Welcome to the real world. The Mafioso made $10, the store owner made $39, and you saved $50.
Everybody benefits as long as everybody plays along. Everybody’s happy, as long as everybody’s happy. Why fuck with it?
Well somebody got screwed over somewhere, right? Target or Wal-Mart lost those DVDs off their trucks to begin with. Poor them? No, they are insured, and the truck driver is on Mafia pay roll anyway. Poor their insurance companies then? Please, get a grip. Wanna see a REAL criminal? Look to your nearest Allstate.
The Mafia helped build today’s America from the inside out, taking the route through the shadier walks of life, but still ending up with a system that benefits us all. They provided booze for a thirsty nation during the Depression. They steered the country’s politics in the 60’s. To this day they keep burglars out of your store if you’re endorsed by a certain family through your “loyalty contributions”.
“Organized crime” sure beats just “plain old crime”, right?
And hey, $49 for the Sopranos DVD Box Set? Can’t beat that shit.