Mob Rule: Part 8

MOB RULE by John Armstrong Image by Victor Bonderoff

MOB RULE by John Armstrong Image by Victor Bonderoff

Dinner at Number 4 Patchin Place

Voltaire said ‘the finest system would be democracy with the occasional assassination,’ and New York’s established mob families couldn’t agree more

By John Armstrong

Don’t ever get Joe started on his apartment, if you can still call it that.

Every time he buys a few more paintings or sculptures he ends up buying the next unit over and knocking out a few non-essential walls. It’s more art gallery and warehouse now than it is living space. It’s beautiful though, don’t get me wrong; just that I wouldn’t want to dust it.

Number 4 Patchin Place is in a gated cul de sac in the Village just off West 10th between Sixth and Greenwich, 10 or so three-story row houses in red brick and black wrought iron in close proximity to the coffee bars and galleries of the bohemian district. That would have been enough for Joey to buy it but it’s who lived there before him that sunk the hook. The poet e.e. cummings lived at No. 5, long absorbed into the Gallo residence, and Dylan Thomas was a frequent guest there. Joe will happily talk for hours about the other notables who’ve also hung their hat in Patchin Place but I’ll spare you. No such mercy was ever shown to me, and I now know far more about someone named Theodore Dreiser than I ever cared to, and none of it has sent me running to a bookstore for anything he wrote.

I tapped the big black iron knocker and pointed up at the overhead fixture.

“See that? The last gas lamp in New York City. It still had all its lines and fittings, although the city stopped supplying gas decades ago. Joe had a tank installed for it and every night the custodian opens the jet, pops the little door and lights it with a long taper.”

The door opened then and Joe stood there beaming, in a kimono and some sort of wooden slippers.  He’s honestly Chinatown’s best customer. I gave Vanessa the eyeball and she caught it, bending to remove shoes after Joe finished hugging her. Then it was my turn and we could enter properly.

It smelled wonderful. Garlic, ginger, other things underneath that I couldn’t identify but was anxious to meet. Joe is one of those bachelors – well, widower I suppose is more accurate – who’s an exceptional cook, with no one to cook for. Consequently whenever you visit you leave filled to the gunnels and carrying packages. He’s even fed me raw fish and I was as skeptical as you must be, but it was delicious.

We followed Joe in through the hall and out into the kitchen, where more walls had been sacrificed to the culinary gods. The perimeter walls are whitewashed brick covered with cupboards and shelves, countertops running below with drawers and bins underneath, pots and saucepans hanging down everywhere from ceiling hooks. In the middle of the black terrazzo floor is a huge oak table that does double duty as a butcher’s block – it’s not uncommon to be sitting there with a glass of wine while Joey chops chickens up with a cleaver inches from you, all the while explaining how to parboil tomatoes to get the skin off. On the back wall nearest the door to the garden are his stoves.

Yes: Three of them. One is a wood–fired model with a brick lined oven for pizza, one is a massive, steel restaurant-style thing with fryer baskets and a grill, and the last is a powder-blue enameled-iron box covered in lids, handles and latches that I wouldn’t even know how to turn on, much less cook with.

“You have an Aga cooker?” Vanessa was running her hands over the blue monster as if it were a beloved pet run to meet her. “Why on earth…?”

“I could tell you how it cooks soups and stews and how it does slow roasting,” Joe said, laying out glasses and wine on the table and turning to fetch a plate of antipasto. “But the truth is, it’s a beautiful piece of functional, industrial art. Honestly, I ‘d be happy just to look at it.” He wiped his hands on a towel and looked around.  “Jackie, would you get a couple trays down? I’ll be right back.”

He disappeared momentarily and then I heard the music start up, something I’d never heard before, delicate and lively, with something like a mandolin playing in pizzicato or bluegrass from the mountains of Mars. I fetched the serving trays and had them filled by the time he came back.

“Let’s sit outside,” he said, picking up two of them, waiter fashion. I took the last one and we followed him to the patio. The wisteria had flowered, massed purple clusters hanging down like bunches of grapes over the brick courtyard, petals littering the bricks, and the potted jasmine just beginning to give off its night scent.

Joe poured glasses for us and lifted his. ““Cento anni di salute e felicità! ‘May we live one hundred years healthy and happy.’ Now dig in.”

There were small plates of sliced sopprasseta di calabria sausage and spicy capicola, tiny grilled dumplings with accompanying sauces, melon and prosciutto on toothpicks and a dozen other things to nibble, dip and amuse oneself with between drinks. I bit into one of the dumplings and yelped as the steam escaped, then tasted spiced pork and onion. I took a big drink of the wine, a tart Portuguese white chilled almost to freezing.

There are times when I’m visiting Joe that I consider just moving in. One could easily forget about people shooting at each other and all the assorted and regrettable nastiness of the world outside. Of course, it would still be there when you left. The solution I came up with involved never leaving; I worked on pretending that was possible, for a while.

There are times when I’m visiting Joe that I consider just moving in. One could easily forget about people shooting at each other and all the assorted and regrettable nastiness of the world outside. Of course, it would still be there when you left. The solution I came up with involved never leaving; I worked on pretending that was possible, for a while.

“Grazie per la vostra ospitalità – lunga vita a voi e salute.” Vanessa got the reply out with only a few odd pronunciations.

“Brava!” Joe said, raising his glass again.

“I looked it up,” she said, clinking her glass against his. I ate another olive and considered the cheeses, settling on a chunk of provolone. This was very pleasant indeed

“Jack took me to the museum and tried to explain America to me,” Vanessa said.  Joe looked expectant.

“And …?”

“So far, I’m only slightly less baffled by it all.”

“So there’s some improvement, then? Enlightenment comes in stages – in the meantime, there’s good food and drink, and pleasant company. Why worry?”

She tore a piece of bread and mopped up olive oil and stray cheese crumbs off her plate. “Yes, everything runs smoothly – but everyone in my apartment building is talking about the gang war and people being shot at on the street. And with this wonderful system, why do we need armed guards to go to a museum?” She looked at me while asking it but Joe answered.

“The last time we had troubles, it was sorted out very quickly. One of the bosses went against the commission and became involved in the heroin trade. There was a brief war, minimal blood was spilled and his territory and borgato were given to new management. The former don was exiled, for life.” (I’m too young to remember this happening but I have heard Frank refer to Bonanno, the boss Joe was talking about, and his small ranch in Arizona. “Let him sit out there in the desert with his fucking cactuses and die from sunstroke.”)

Joe lit a cigarette. “Myself, I’ve always believed that people should be allowed to go to hell in their own way –  from this” – he held the cigarette up – “or eating too much, or drugs, booze, gambling, whatever. But the vote has always been against narcotics and I abide by it.

“But back to your question – we have another situation, the first like it in many years. We hope it will be resolved quickly, and without further bloodshed. What else can I tell you?

“Jefferson championed the ‘least amount of government’ as the best amount, and Voltaire said, ‘the finest system would be democracy with the occasional assassination.’  Both of them would be pleased because that’s pretty much what we have. If there are periodic upsets and adjustments, then so be it – fallible humans will create fallible systems. Men are not ants. They do not always work together.” He finished his wine and poured some more into all three glasses. “But mostly we do, for the most persuasive reason we’ve ever found: Because it’s profitable.

He raised his glass again. “To enlightened self-interest. I’ll bet on it over morality and religion any day.”


Mob Rule continues The Ex-Press… For past instalments, click here.



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