By John Armstrong
I was still giving off steam from the shower when Joey hit the buzzer and when I pushed the intercom button on my end, that unmistakable Red Hook honk came over the speaker loud enough to push me into the far wall: “Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight – And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught the Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light. Get outta bed, you sleepyhead.”
Try that at 7 a.m. with a full-on dese, dem and dose Brooklyn accent, in a voice that sounded like he’d been gargling with broken lightbulbs and molasses. If Vanessa wanted to hear the real thing, here he was. Crazy Joe Gallo, the one and only. God didn’t dare make two of him.
They called him Crazy Joe because to almost everyone in the business, he had to be. This is a guy who not only does business with the moulinyans, he’s friends with them. And when he’s not up in Harlem listening to jazz and smoking reefer with the moolies, he’s in the Village at poetry readings and art exhibits, fuhgodsake, like some limp-wrist finocchio. Not that any of them would say it to his face. That would be most unwise, to a life-shortening degree. I loved the man with all my heart.
“Five minutes, Joe”, I shouted down the speaker and he answered back, “Snap it up – the day’s a-wastin, kid.’”
I dressed quickly in a formal, dark blue, double-breasted pinstripe with a plain white shirt and muted tie with pearl pin and topped it off with the grey Borsalino. I took a critical look in the mirror before I left, tugged at my collar to set the jacket right and resisted the first-date urge to try on several other ties; I had never met Meyer Lansky and for my own sake and Frank’s, I wanted to make a good impression. Being sent to greet and chauffer him was a little like being told, “God is arriving on the 3:19. Go pick him up.”
Downstairs Joey gave me a whistle and an admiring look when I came out to the stoop.
“Don’t you look dapper. You need a flower for that buttoneer, though. We’ll get something on the way.” He’d obviously not spent any extra time worrying about his wardrobe. He was wearing a leather car coat with wooden buttons, a lime-green gabardine sport shirt, brown slacks, loafers, and a pork-pie hat that looked as if it had spent at least as much time under him as on him. It didn’t matter. You could put Joey in a tux and within five minutes there would be ashes on the shirtfront and a dog-eared paperback book poking out of one of the pockets. I told Charley to take the praetorians and follow us in the Lincoln and walked with Joe across the sidewalk to his big Eldorado. He reached over the back of the seat and handed me a cardboard cup of coffee as I got in.
“Here you go – from the bodega by my place. Best coffee in the city.” He took a loud slurp through the lid of his own and made appreciative sounds.
“Meyer’s plane is suppose to be on time so we ought to be just there to meet him. Let’s go, Ciccio.” Cheech swung the big limousine out into the traffic and in the mirror I saw the Lincoln with Charley and the other guns pull out right behind.
I drank some of my own coffee. He was right – it was very good. Joe has a unique philosophy: About matters of life and death he’s genuinely unconcerned but the trivial gets his full attention. Which bakery and whose stand can be trusted for produce, which shop for cheeses and which to buy pasta and olives, the butcher who knows how to trim pork correctly, the only good place to buy Chinese dumplings … going out for “just a few things” with Joe can take up most of the day, interrupted by a dozen or more unscheduled but crucial stops: for coffee, a pick-me-up liqueur, grilled meat on a stick from a street vendor and jokes, reports and updates with the owner on the health of various mutual acquaintances, friends and family members, and all the while running dissertations on architecture and history and where this or that poet or artist lived a hundred years ago, commiseration where required at the injustices meted out by both fate and the ponies, and handshakes and backslaps with friends on every block. Without even campaigning Joe could be mayor of the city, if there were still such a thing.
I rolled the window down and slipped on a pair of dark glasses; it was that bright, one of those New York mornings where it rains just before dawn and only enough so that the streets look new and clean and the concrete seems polished, cars and windshields sparkling and diamonds scattered in the grass on the median strip. Joe turned sideways in the front seat again as we shot into the Midtown Tunnel.
“How’d you sleep, giovanotto, after all that excitement?” He was smiling at his pun – John is Giovanni in Italian, and giovanotto is an affectionate term for “young man.”
“Like uno tesoro.”
“Oh, so you woke up crying, with wet diapers?” He punched the driver in the arm. “My bambino got shot at yesterday. Now he’s blooded. Ciò che non uccide, ingrassa, eh? What doesn’t kill him fattens the bull.”
“Right – ask the bull how he feels about it sometime.” We drove a little further then I asked: “So, what’s Meyer like?”
He thought a minute, coaxed a cigarette out of his pack and lit it. He blew smoke out across the car and said, “You know how they say Jews are smarter than everybody else when it comes to business and money? Well, Meyer’s smarter than all the other Jews put together. Back in ’31 when the old guys divvied everything up Luciano and the others all got territories – Meyer got a kingdom.” He took another drag and considered the glowing end. “Sweetest real estate deal since someone bought Manhattan for a bag of marbles. But that’s not the whole thing – he got it, and he’s hung onto it. That’s the hard part. Having that much is like having a beautiful wife – someone is always trying to take her away from you. That’s how smart he is. He’s richer than God and he’s happy. How many can say that?”
“You were friends with him in the old days?”
“No – not friends. Meyer, your uncle, Charley, Albert – those guys were the founding fathers. To the rest of us, they had a light shining around them when you saw them. It was hard to believe they were real, you know?
“You had to be there to understand just what they did. They created the syndicate and then they saved America, so it was like George Washington asking you to run down the corner, get him cigarettes. And they’re all 20-30 years older than me, so I was just a kid. Also, I was with Profaci back then so I didn’t cross paths with Frank and Charley’s crew so much. But anyway, for whatever reason, Meyer knew about me and sent for me when he wanted to take Albert out.
“You know, your uncle loved him but everyone else shit their pants when Albert was around. A maniac.” He laughed and flipped the butt out the window, then pushed the fedora back off his forehead.
“I got to say this about Frank. When Albert had to go, he made his argument to the council, said he could keep him in line, and then took it like a man when they outvoted him. He never held it against me or my brothers that we were the ones paid Albert off.”
“He was really that dangerous?” There were so many stories about Anastasia it was hard think of them as anything more than mythology.
“Ha ha! Dangerous? When he was running the waterfront in the ‘20s he got in a beef with some longshoreman and strangled the guy, threw his body off the end of the pier. So he’s arrested and tried and sent to Death Row. Meyer goes to see him and says, ‘Well, Albert, you’re in a tough spot here.” Albert says, ‘Don’t worry. I’m gonna get a new trial, with new witnesses.’ And within the week all four eyewitnesses are dead, all except one who says, ‘Hey, I don’t know what’s wrong with my eyes. It was some other guy, not that nice Mr. Anastasia.’ And there’s a bunch more people who say, “Oh, yeah, now that I think, I was there too. Definitely wasn’t him.” Half a dozen people dead, civilians, to him it was like brushing lint off his jacket. That’s why they put him in charge of Murder. Inc.
“Albert didn’t bat an eye – the customer paid the fee, the order got filled, didn’t matter who. If Judas had come in with 30 pieces of silver and said he wanted to clip Jesus, Albert would have been waiting in the garden of Gethsemane with a length of piano wire.” He lit another Viceroy and said, “And the righteous would be wearing piano keys around their necks.” He shifted some more on the seat.
“I remember Charley saying ‘We charged enough that people didn’t start whacking each other willy-nilly, over nothing, but if he had his way, Albert would have been doing it as charity.
“So yeah, dangerous is a good word. It’ll do.”
We flew up the entry lane from the Grand Central Parkway to the Triboro Bridge, heading East with the sun rising to meet us, already burning bright halfway up the sky as we crossed the Harlem River. Down below the concrete guard stanchions I could see the Polo Grounds, crews already working on the turf in anticipation of the coming season. There are two kinds of people in New York: Giants fans and Yankees fans. I am not a Yankees fan. My family in Boston are, of course, Red Sox fans the way other people are Catholic, but I refuse to willingly endure that sort of misery.
Cheech wheeled the car up to the main doors at the arrivals deck and into the no-stopping zone. We got out and I saw one man check himself, just before he said something, when he saw the sticker on the windshield. Then Charley and the others swung in behind us and he quickly rolled his suitcase away down the pavement, a woman chasing behind him.
“There he is.” Joe raised a hand and I saw an older man in a flat white newsboy cap, yellow zipper jacket and white pants and shoes get up from one of the seats in the lounge. A younger man followed him across the floor carrying some bags. Joe met him halfway and shook his hand formally. No hugs or backslaps. Lansky was not quite what I’d expected. He seemed to be all ears and nose, all three a bit larger than strictly desired. Other than that he looked a bit like the guy that played the vampire in the old movies. So picture Dracula crossed with some kind of rodent, in golf clothes.
I heard him say, “You look well, Joseph. But you’re still not married?’ just as they reached us.
“No, not after Sina. I’m a confirmed bachelor now.” Joe had been married only three weeks when someone tried to whack him at a clamhouse in Brooklyn. Joe threw himself across her to shield her when he heard the shots but she was hit anyway and died right there. If Joe hadn’t tried to save her, they would have got him too. He says this is proof that God has a sense of humour.
“Meyer, this is Jack Kennedy, Frank’s underboss.
Lansky’s eyebrows twitched. “Old Joe’s boy? But I thought …” His voice tailed off just short of “but I thought you were dead?”
I stuck my hand out. “I was named for him, Mr. Lansky. We were cousins. I never met him, of course.” It would have been a nice trick if I had; that Jack Kennedy died in 1943, the year before I was born, in a boating accident. My father named me after the dead heir in the hopes it would predispose Big Joe to look more fondly on our branch of the Kennedy family. So far he has shown every indication of being able to keep his gratitude under control.
“No, of course not,” Lansky said. “He’d be much older, and you don’t look anything like them. Fucking bog-trotters, the whole bunch of them. You have Sicilian in you, no? The black hair, the eyes?”
“Yes sir – my father. My mother is Irish.”
He took an oversize pair of pinkish-tinted glasses from his breast pocket and perched them on his nose. It looked like two small TV screens on either side of a salami. “Half and half, eh? Well, you can convert to my faith and then you’ll have the whole package.
“Now, let’s get out of here. I can’t use public washrooms. I been holding it since Miami.”
The ride back was quiet. Joe and Meyer sat in the back with me and Ciccio up front. I punched the radio buttons and stopped when I found a Top 40 station.
“That was Dino Crocetti with ‘Houston’ and now here’s Jimmy Roselli, with ‘Malafemmena’ -” The familiar whirlwind of strings rushed up and that golden voice filled the car. One of my earliest memories is my mother and father dancing in the kitchen to Roselli on the radio, me at the table watching him spin her around, spoon in one hand, apron flying, laughing like a girl. Years later when I first came to New York Frank took me to see him at the Garden. They had to bring Roselli in and out of the building with an armed guard; the streets were filled with hysterical, sobbing women. You could barely hear him for the screams; the opening act, a very good crooner from Hoboken, gave up in the middle of a song and just walked off.
“How’s Vito doing,” Meyer asked when the song ended.
Joe said, “Not bad. He says he’ll be at the meeting.”
“Uh huh,” was all Meyer said. That was about it for conversation the rest of the way. It said volumes about what Meyer Lansky thought of Vito Genovese.
Mob Rule continues….