Meet the Goombah
Looking to impress his new lady friend, Jack takes her on a ride in his boss’s deep purple Packard before giving her a tour of the family business, where the faces of dead dons hang on the wall and a counting room the size of a school gym sloshes over with cash
By John Armstrong
I stood outside on the sidewalk smoking and double and triple-checking my reflection in the doors, compulsively smoothing the brim of my hat and adjusting the knot of my tie like a teenager. I was considering a quick polish of my spats on the back of my trousers when I heard the horn.
Horns, I should say. Somehow Frank had gotten instructions out for them to use his pride and joy to taxi Vanessa, his 1933 Packard Touring Sedan, a great 12-cylinder beast of a thing whose massive chrome prow makes it look more like an ocean liner than an automobile, as if one had sailed up to the docks and then just said, “the hell with it, what did you say the address was?”
If the size alone weren’t enough – and it barely leaves parking for anyone else on a city block – it’s finished in a deep purple lacquer so dark it looks like the sky at midnight and so shiny you could fall into it and never hit bottom. Inside, it’s all glove-soft cream leather and polished wood. It also has what are called ‘trumpet horns’, several of them with differing tones, and they work just fine. I only jumped a few feet.
Vanessa made the Packard look like a dumptruck. She was wearing a dark skirt and pale yellow sweater with a white and black scarf and black medium heels. There was nothing about the outfit or her makeup that would have been out of place behind the counter in a library or at a church bazaar. Just the same, while the horn had startled me, one look at her finished me off. I was glad we had an armed guard to protect her.
“Welcome to Luciano – Costello,” I said, unable to come up with anything better.
She gave me a big smile. “My roommates screamed when they saw that car. All the way here I wanted to wave at people on the street, like the Queen. I think it’s bigger than my parents house.”
“It’s bigger than what I grew up in,” I agreed. “Even though it doesn’t have hot water – but neither did our place.” She gave me a funny look.
“I thought you were the fair-haired heir?”
Ricco got the door and I took her arm as we went through. “Not quite. I was found on the doorstep. Left there by elves.”
Although I had the niggling fear I would spend the day with food stuck in my teeth or something equally embarrassing, my real concern was Joe. I had no idea what he might do and his idea of funny can be … unique, shall we say. I had nothing to worry about.
He appeared as soon as we entered and stopped directly in front of us, giving Vanessa a deep bow and sweeping the floor with his battered hat, then back up to take her hand and bend over it. He stopped short of actually kissing it but when he straightened up he fixed her with a line of blarney my mother would have been in awe of. It was all in Italian and whether you spoke the language or not, it was impossible to miss the meaning. She illuminated our poor building, the stars in the sky envied her beauty, goddesses wept with envy, her mere wish was our command and so on, with a side of ‘here, let me lay down in this puddle so you can cross without muddying your feet.’
She illuminated our poor building, the stars in the sky envied her beauty, goddesses wept with envy, her mere wish was our command and so on, with a side of ‘here, let me lay down in this puddle so you can cross without muddying your feet.’
She curtsied at its conclusion, both pleased and embarrassed.
“Now I leave you to enjoy your visit but please, do me the honor of accepting my invitation later today for refreshments, at my home.” He bowed again, in slightly less vertebrae-challenging fashion, and was gone.
“That,” I said, “was Joe Gallo. My goombah – which is a sort of mentor, best friend, advisor and confessor, rolled into one. He’s a special guy.”
She was still recovering from it. “He certainly is. Does he have a license for that charm? It was like the oxygen all went out of the room.”
“Italians are famous for it – it’s the national sport, that and soccer.” I led her across the room and looked up. “Okay, might as well start here. Do you know any of these guys?”
She looked up at the portraits, and shrugged beautifully.
“Him on the left, that’s Maranzano. He was the one who put the organization in organized crime – he set up the territories and ended all the feuding and wars. There’d been feuding and fighting up to then, people running around shooting off machine guns, throwing dynamite around. It was bad for business and the government was coming down on them.
“Maranzano sat them all down and said, look – this is stupid. There’s enough for everybody if we’re smart, and they all agreed. Well, most of them. The ones who didn’t agree were a minority opinion, as they say, and they got cut out.
“So that’s how we got organized. And it’s a good thing we did, because that was right at the beginning of the Depression, just before the troubles began. Unfortunately, Maranzano’s idol was Julius Casear and like Caesar, he also wanted to be emperor. So, he was assassinated – which makes the guy beside him Brutus in this analogy. Except Brutus was never emperor and Charley Lucciano was, for almost 30 years, and then my uncle became Boss. “ I pointed out the brass plaque screwed to the bottom of the picture frame. “What it says there, ‘Ntra greci e greci nun si vinni abbraciu’, means roughly, ‘there’s honour among thieves.’”
“Um hmmm”, she said, which I took to be the polite way of saying, “Sure there is.” “And who’s the gentleman on the right?”
“That’s the other of the three founders of our family, Albert Anastasia. There’s considerable … breadth of opinion about Albert, shall we say. But no denying his importance historically.
“The other founders are still alive – Frank’s one, Meyer Lansky is another. When they die their pictures will go up there, too.”
She started to say something but stopped and sat down on one of the guest couches instead.
“Are you okay,” I asked.
“Yes, fine,” she said. “I just needed a moment.” She looked like she’d bitten something and wasn’t quite sure what it was, or if she ought to be eating it at all. I reminded myself she was stranger here and all this was very different than it was in her own country, and likely a bit overwhelming. Maybe it was best to cut the tour short; and definitely leave out the counting rooms, which take up an entire floor of the sub-basement. (Even I went glassy-eyed my first time walking into a room the size of a college gymnasium filled with row upon row of tables covered in small mountains of bills being fed in handfuls to the counting machines. Ever used your thumb to flip the edges of a pack of playing cards, right up by your ear? Imagine that multiplied a hundred thousand times along with the high-pitched whirring of the mechanical sorters and bundlers. It’s so loud it’s physically oppressive and the room itself is heavily soundproofed; the people who work the tables wear protective ear muffs, as do the roller-skating accountants whizzing up and down the aisles with clipboards, keeping a running tab on the day’s earnings.)
So I gave her a quick walk-through of the offices and the different divisions: offices and bullpens filled with men and women hard at work behind their desks in Administration, Accounting, Payables and Receivables — with its great wallscreens recording all the betting action for the entire city — and Payroll. I didn’t show her the armory down in Loss Prevention, either.
On the way out we stopped so I could introduce her to Abby and I was surprised to sense a distinct standoffishness between them. They both acted nice as pie, complimenting each other’s clothes and hair, and none of us believed a word of it. I really thought they’d like each other, but then I’ve never come close to understanding women. Like cats, they defy analysis.
I’ll leave out the details of our trip to the Museum of American History. Everyone’s seen the wing devoted to the Big Takeover a thousand times anyway, either in person or onscreen. That said, I still get choked up when I stand before the towering statues of the Great Outlaws – Dillinger gleefully burning the mortgage records after emptying a bank vault, or Pretty Boy Floyd delivering Christmas dinner to a starving family on welfare – and then the massive 20-foot painting that summarizes the Second Revolution, starting with the Bank Crash and Depression and then the breadlines, the Hooverville riots, and the government troops firing into hungry, unemployed, desperate crowds.
I’m always drawn to one section that shows union busters clubbing men and women on a picket line while fat, cigar-smoking politicians watch, laughing. I’m not what you’d call a flag-waving type of patriot by any stretch, but it’s hard to look at that and not have the anger rise in you. Which is the point of that kind of painting, I suppose. It was a terrible time – a government at war against it’s own people. And they lost, thank god.
Further down the canvas are scenes showing the people rising up against them and then the Night of the Rope: lawyers, cops and politicians swinging from lampposts, lit by the orange glow of burning banks and government offices, and President Hoover’s execution. He got off easier than the other Hoover, the head of the FBI.
Finally, the painting shows the Commission taking control in the section called The Restoration of Justice, a group of strong, handsome men in the iconic double-breasted suits and big hats, some stripped to shirtsleeves, symbolically holding blueprints and gesturing as they direct the rebuilding of the nation. Or most of it; the south never really did come back into the fold.
Vanessa was fairly quiet as we wandered through it, asking a few questions but mostly silent. I thought perhaps she was as moved as I’d been by the displays. The only sound was our shoes echoing on the marble floor tiles. The praetorians had cleared everyone out ahead of us and stayed within range for safety but far enough away to give us some privacy.
When we got back to the car, I said, “It’s early yet. Let’s take Joe up on his invitation. He’d be hurt if we didn’t show up. I’m sure he went straight home and started cooking.”
“All right,” she said, without significant enthusiasm. I waited until we were moving before I asked what the matter was. She straightened her skirt and thought for a moment, then said, “Look, you all seem very nice and I don’t mean to insult anyone” – this is what people always say right before they insult you – “but these men are all criminals, murderers. How can you have their pictures up and statues of them like … statesmen?” I had to smile at that. It’s a common misconception and she had been holding it in until she was ready to burst, torn between trying to be a good guest, her sense of moral outrage and absolute frustration at trying to figure us out.
For us growing up here, of course, that’s all answered in our school citizenship classes and that’s what I drew on to answer her.
“Well, that all depends on what you mean by criminal. What laws did they break? If they were unjust laws, was it wrong to break them? Robin Hood broke the law – was he a criminal or a hero? Jesus broke the law.”
She looked at me as if I’d grown a spare head.
“They murdered people, Jack! God knows how many of them.”
“Benny Siegel used to say, ‘We’re not so bad, we only kill each other,’” I parried. “And how many of them would have been killed if the cops and government had left them alone to just do their business? How many did the cops and the G-Men kill?
“Wall Street and the bankers and politicians screwed everybody that played by the rules; people lost their jobs, their houses, kids 15, 16 years old in had to leave home and go ride the rails so there’d be enough food for their younger brothers and sisters, too. When they demonstrated, asked the government to do something, they did – they sent the army to bust up the meetings, and if a few heads and arms and legs got busted, too …” I guess I was a little bit worked up after looking at the exhibits.
“The politicians made sex, liquor and gambling illegal and everyone – working people! – who enjoyed them, criminals. The same politicians and cops who took payoffs and then turned around and ordered raids and smashed slot machines and barrels of booze. And when they busted a speakeasy, who did they arrest – their political pals who were drinking and gambling there, or just the poor saps who had the bad luck to not be anybody special? They were more crooked than any of our guys – well, most of our guys.
“It was corrupt from top to bottom and eventually people wouldn’t take it anymore. The ironic thing is, if the government hadn’t forced us to become organized in order to stay alive, there would have been no-one organized enough pick up the pieces and put the country back together again.”
Vanessa shook her head like a prizefighter after a punch. I’ll admit it was a bit of a speech, but she asked and I don’t like people running us down when they clearly don’t understand history.
After a minute Vanessa said, more quietly, “I have to say that when we studied your economic and political system in school, no-one could quite make sense of it. It sounds … impractical, to say the least. No laws? No police? No jails? No government or taxes? How on earth can you have a society like that?”
She stopped herself and looked embarrassed, and very cute. I liked it a lot. “I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to offend you. Obviously it works somehow …” She gestured out the window. “But if I were honest with you, it scares the living hell out of me. A country run by gangsters? What’s to stop anyone from just walking up and doing whatever they like to me? You wouldn’t believe the arguing I had to do before my parents would let me come here.”
“Well for one thing, I wouldn’t let them, “ I said, trying to sound brave, clean and reverent, like they taught us in the Junior Pinstripers. “But the truth is there’s not a much of what you’d call crime – break-ins and muggings and robberies and murders. Much, much less than before the Takeover.”
She shook her head again and said, “I’m afraid I just don’t get it. How could that be?”
“Simple,” I told her. I ticked it off on my hand. “First, no jail: you hurt or shoot someone and they die, or even miss work, you pay for what you cost the family in that person’s earnings over the years they should have had coming, plus the tax he would have paid to the Commission. Because everyone kicks 25 percent up to the next level, always. So we do have taxes.
“You kill someone driving drunk, same thing. You don’t want to pay it …” I made the finger and thumb sign: “Ka-pow.”
“Robbery? If you mean a bank or a store, same thing. The Commission owns all the banks, and you do not want to steal from us. As my uncle Frank would say, we take a very dim view. But housebreaking, car theft? Well, be very quiet about it, because even if the owner isn’t around you still want to be careful of the neighbors. People look out for each other. And a most of them go strapped – I mean, they have guns.
“What other kinds of crime – rape? You have to be out of your mind to do it in the first place, maybe that’s why it still happens. We catch them, we take care of them –“ She started to say something and I held my hand up. “Yeah, I know – they’re sick in the head. I agree – I said so myself. ‘U’Pazzu’ – crazy. We can’t make them better so we make sure they don’t do it twice. Court hears the details, they make a decision, it’s carried out, boom. Done. His property or estate, whatever, goes to pay compensation to the vic.”
She gave me a blank expression.
“The vi – the victim, the injured party. Only fair, but never close to enough. That’s about the only way to get whacked. That, and kill a made guy, a family member.”
“What do you mean, ‘court’ – how can you have a court without lawyers, judges, police …”
“Easy. The local caporegime, the district captain, hears disputes in his neighborhood. If it’s something he thinks needs attention from his superiors, he kicks it up. Otherwise, he hears the case and his decision is final. Lawyers? We took Shakespeare’s advice.”
I thought for a second and said, “Okay, here’s an example:
“I remember Frank hearing a case where one of our friends sold a civilian a big truck that was parked at the side of the road. Of course, it wasn’t his to sell and the buyer complained. Because it was a made guy, and someone in his crew, Frank heard the case and fined our guy half the purchase price, payable to the court. Then he ordered him to rebate 50 per-cent back to the customer. Which left him with nothing – he also hadn’t kicked up his percentage to Frank, so he got fined for that, too. A lot. Frank gives half of the money to the civilian, and then fines him the same amount for being a stugatz, an idiot, and buying the thing in the first place without checking out the ownership.”
“But they both ended up with nothing,” she said.
“Frank would say it was a very cheap and valuable lesson: don’t be a sucker and don’t be a greedy pig.” She didn’t look any more convinced.
“All right, here’s another one: Joe was drinking coffee someplace and he heard a bunch of yelling outside, so he goes to see what it is, and it’s a lady and a grocery store man arguing. He has a sign up, says ‘We Match Any Competitor’s Prices’. So she has a flyer from the paper, another store has pineapples for a buck sixty-nine. This guy’s store sells them for two-something and he’s telling her they’re a different kind of pineapples. She says, yeah – they’re a buck too much.
“Okay, Joe goes over, listens to this and says, ‘All right – you got a sign says we match prices, you’re going to match the price. You don’t like it, get a new sign that says what you mean. And here’s a smack in the head for making me leave my coffee to referee a dispute about pineapples.’”
She had been waiting impatiently to jump in and took her chance now: “But you cannot have a system of law that’s run on the arbitrary whim of whoever happens to be around. That’s … madness.” We were in front of Joe’s now, the argument heating up and the bodyguards carefully not hearing any of it. I thought I’d better defuse it a little.
“Okay then, we’re all crazy. So come on up and have some lunch with Crazy Joe and Crazy Jackie. Maybe we can even finish before the guys with the nets come to collect us.” I stepped out onto the pavement and offered my hand. She laughed and took it. I’m only about half as charming as Joey but then again, I’m only half as Italian.
Mob Rule continues in The Ex-Press…