“I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” Marshall McLuhan
I attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania because my father was incarcerated at the prison located in the same town. My tuition subsidized to a large extent by G.I. Bill, still a significant means of financing an education for generations of emotionally wasted war veterans. “The United States Penitentiary (USP Lewisburg)” is a high-security federal prison for male inmates. An adjacent satellite prison camp houses minimum-security male offenders. My father was strictly high-security, convicted of various crimes against humanity, unindicted for sundry others. My father liked having me close by, someone on the outside he trusted, who also happened to be on his approved Visitor List. As instructed, I became his conduit for substances both illicit, like drugs, and the purely contraband, a variety of Italian cheeses, salamis, prepared baked casseroles of eggplant parmesan, cannoli, Baci chocolate from Perugia, in Tuscany, south of Florence, and numerous bottles of Italian wine, pungent aperitifs, Grappa, digestive stimulants and sweet liquors. I remained the good son until the day he died, the source of most of the mess I got myself into later on, and specifically the main caper at the heart of this story.
I must confess: my father scared the **** out of me. Particularly during those years when he was not in jail, those years he spent at home, years coinciding roughly with my early adolescence. These were my molding clay years, what the amateur psychologists write off with the term: “impressionable years hypothesis.” In his own twisted, grease-ball theory of child rearing, my father may have been applying the “guinea padrone hypothesis,” in his mind, nothing more certain would toughen me up for whatever he and/or Life had planned for me. Actually, his aspirations for me-given my peculiar pedigree--were non-existent as far as the family business went. He knew I’d never be either a Don or a Capo di Tutti Capi, or an Underboss or Sotto Capo.) A Caporegime—mid-management to be sure, with as many as ten crews of soldiers reporting to him-- was also, for me, out of the question. Dad was a soldier in and of the Lucchese Family, strictly a blue-collar, knock-around kind of guy. But even soldier status—which would have meant no rise in Mafioso caste for him—was completely out of the question, never going to happen for me.
A little background: the Lucchese Family originated in the early 1920s with Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, born in 1889 in Corleone, Sicily. You know the town and its environs well. Fran Coppola did an above average job cinematizing the place in his Godfather films. Coppola: I am a strict critic when it comes to my goombah, would-be French New Wave auteur Francis Ford Coppola. Ever since “One From the Heart, 1982”--one of the biggest Hollywood box office flops & financial disasters of all time--he’s been a bit thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. So, I like to zing him when I can. Actually, “One From the Heart” is worth seeing again, not just for Tom Waits soundtrack--the film’s one Academy Award nomination—but also Natasha Kinski’s ***: always Oscar-worthy in my book. My book? Interesting expression, and factually correct for once, given what you are reading right now.
Tommy Reina was the first Lucchese Capo di Tutti Capi, the first Boss of All the Bosses. By the 1930s the Luccheses pretty much controlled all criminal activity in the Bronx and East Harlem. And Reina begat Pinzolo who begat Gagliano who begat Tommy Three Finger Brown Lucchese (who I once believed, moonlighted as a knuckle ball relief pitcher for Yankees.)
Three Finger Brown gave the Lucchese Family its name. And Tommy begat Carmine Tramunti, who begat Anthony Tony Ducks Corallo. From there the succession gets a bit crazy. Tony Ducks, convicted of Rico charges, goes to prison, sentenced to life. From behind bars he presides through a pair of candidates most deserving the title of boss: enter Vittorio Little Vic Amuso and Anthony Gaspipe Casso. Although Little Vic becomes Boss after being nominated by Casso, it is Gaspipe really calling the shots, at least until he joins Little Vic behind bars.
Amuso-Casso begat Louis Louie Bagels Daidone, who begat the current official boss, Stephen Wonderboy Crea. According to legend, Boss Crea got his nickname from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, a certain part of his prodigious anatomy resembling the baseball bat hand-carved by Roy Hobbs. To me this sounds a bit too literary, given the family’s SRI Lexile/Reading Performance Scores, but who am I to mock my peoples’ lack of liberal arts education?
Begat begat Begato. (I goof on you, kind reader. Always liked the name Begato in the context of Bible-flavored genealogy. Mille grazie, King James.)
Lewisburg Penitentiary has many distinguished alumni: Whitey Bulger (1963-1965), Jimmy Hoffa (1967-1971) and John Gotti (1969-1972), for example. And fictionally, you can add Paulie Cicero played by Paul Scorvino in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, not to be confused with Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri played by Tony Sirico from the HBO TV series The Sopranos. Nor, do I refer to Paulie Gatto, the punk who ratted out Sonny Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather, you know: “You won’t see Paulie no more,” according to fat Clemenza, played by the late Richard “Leave the gun, take my career” Castellano, who insisted to the end that he wasn’t bitter about his underwhelming post-Godfather film career. I know this for a fact from one of my cousins in the Gambino Family. I also know that the one thing the actor Castellano would never comment on was a rumor that he had connections to organized crime, specifically that he was a nephew to Paulie Castellano, the Gambino crime family boss who was assassinated in 1985, outside Midtown New York’s Sparks Steak House, an abrupt corporate takeover commissioned by John Teflon Don Gotti. But I’m really starting to digress here, although I am reminded of another interesting historical personage, namely Joseph Crazy Joe Gallo, who was also terminated “with extreme prejudice” while eating dinner at a restaurant. Confused? And finally--not to be confused with Paul Muldoon, poetry gatekeeper at The New Yorker magazine, that Irish **** scumbag who consistently rejects publication of my work. About two years ago I started including the following comment in my on-line Contact Us, poetry submission: “Hey Paulie, Eat a Bag of ****!”
This may come as a surprise, Gentle Reader, but I am a poet, not a Wise Guy. For reasons to be explained, I never had access to the family business. I am also handicapped by the Liberal Arts education I received, infected by a deluge, a veritable Katrina ****** of classic literature. That stuff in books rubs off after awhile, and I suppose it was inevitable. I couldn’t help evolving for the most part into a warm-blooded creature, unlike the reptiles and frogs I grew up with.
Again, I am a poet not a wise guy. And, first and foremost, I am a human being. Cold-blooded, I am not. I generate my own heat, which is the best definition I know for how a poet operates. But what the hell do I know? Paulie “Eat a Bag of ****” Muldoon doesn’t think much of my work. And he’s the ******* troll guarding the New Yorker’s poetry gate. Nevertheless, I’m a Poet, not a Wise Guy. I repeat myself, I know, but it is important to establish this point right from the start of this narrative, because, if you don’t get that you’re never going to get my story.
Maybe the best way to explain my predicament—And I mean PREDICAMENT in the sense of George Santayana: "Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament." (www.brainyquote.com), not to be confused with George’s son Carlos, the Mexican-American rock star: Oye Como Va, Babaloo!
www.youtube.com/watch?v...YouTube Dec 20, 2011 - Uploaded by a106kirk1, The Best of Santana. This song is owned by Santana and Columbia Records.
Maybe the best way for me to explain my predicament is with a poem, one of my early works, unpublished, of course, by Paulie “Eat a Bag of ****” Muldoon:
“CRAZY JOE REVISITED”
by Benjamin Disraeli Sekaquaptewa-Buonaiuto
We WOPs respect criminality,
Particularly when it’s organized,
Which explains why any of us
Concerned with the purity of our bloodline
Have such a difficult time
Navigating the river of respectability.
To wit: JOEY GALLO.
WEB-BIO: (According to Bob Dylan)
“Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the year of who knows when,
Opened up his eyes to the tune of accordion.
“Joey” Lyrics/Send "Joey" Ringtone to your Cell
Joseph Gallo, AKA: "Joey the Blond."
He was a celebrated New York City gangster,
A made member of the Profaci crime family,
Later known as the Colombo crime family,
That’s right, CRAZY JOE!
One time toward the end of a 10-year stretch,
At three different state prisons,
Including Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York,
Joey was interviewed in his prison cell
By a famous NY Daily News reporter named Joe McGinnis.
The first thing the reporter sees?
One complete wall of the cell is lined with books, a
Green leather bound wall of Harvard Classics.
After a few hours mainly listening to Joey
Wax eloquently about his life,
A narrative spiced up with elegant summaries,
Of classic Greek theory, Roman history,
Nietzsche and other 19th Century German philosophers,
McGinnis is completely blown away by Inmate Gallo,
Both Joey’s erudition and the power of his intellect,
The reporter asks a question right outta
The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie:
“Mr. Gallo, I must say,
The power of your erudition and intellect
Is simply overwhelming.
You are a brilliant man.
You could have been anything,
Your heart or ambition desired:
A doctor, a lawyer, an architect . . .
Yet you became a criminal. Why?”
Joey Gallo: (turning his head sideways like Peter Falk or Vincent Donofrio, with a look on his face like Go Back to Nebraska, You ******* Momo!)
“Understand something, Sonny:
Those kids who grew up to be,
Doctors and lawyers and architects . . .
They couldn’t make it on the street.”
Gallo later initiated one of the bloodiest mob conflicts,
Since the 1931 Castellammare War,
And was murdered as a result of it,
While quietly enjoying,
A plate of linguini with clam sauce,
At a table--normally a serene table--
At Umberto’s Clam House.
Italian Restaurant Little Italy - Umberto's Clam House (www.umbertosclamhouse.com)
In Little Italy New York City 132 Mulberry Street, New York City | 212-431-7545.
Whose current manager --in response to all restaurant critics--
Has this to say:
“They keep coming back, don’t they?
The joint is a holy shrine, for chrissakes!
I never claimed it was the food or the service.
Gimme a ******* break, you momo!
I should ask my paisan, Joe Pesci
To put your ******* head in a vise.”
(Again, Martin Scorsese getting it exactly right, This time in . . . Casino (1995) - IMDb www.imdb.com/title/tt0112641/Internet Movie Database Rating: 8.2/10 - 241,478 votes Directed by Martin Scorsese. With Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods. Greed, deception, money, power, and ****** occur between two . . . Full Cast & Crew - Trivia - Awards - (1995) - IMDb)
Given my lifelong, serious exposure to and interest in German philosophy, I subscribe to the same weltanschauung--pronounced: veltˌänˌSHouəNG—that governed Joey Gallo’s behavior. My point and Mr. Gallo’s are exactly the same: a man’s ability to make it on the street is the true measure of his worth. This ethos was a prominent one in the Bronx where and when I grew up, where I came of age during the 1950s and 60s. Italian organized crime was always an option, actually one of the preferred options--like playing for the Yankees or being a movie star—until, that is, reality set in. And reality came in many forms. For 100% Italian kids it came in a moment of crystal adolescent clarity and self-evaluation: Am I tough enough to make it on the street? Am I ever going to be tough enough to make it on the street? Will I be eaten alive by more cunning, more violent predators on the street?
For me, the setting in of reality took an entirely different form. I knew I had what it takes, i.e., the requisite ferocity for street life. I had it in spades, as they say. In fact, I’d been blessed with the gift of hyper-volatility—traced back to my great-grandfather, Pietro of the village of Moschiano, in the province of Avellino, in the region of Campania, Italia Sud. Having visited Moschiano in my early 20s and again in my late 50s, I know the place well. The village square sits “down in the holler,” like in West Virginia; the Apennine terrain, like the Appalachians, rugged and thick. Rugged and thick like the people, at least in part my people. And volatile, I am, gifted with a primitive disposition when it comes to what our good friend Abraham Maslow would call lower order needs. And please, don’t ask me to explain myself now; just keep reading, *******. All your questions will be answered.
Great Grandfather Pietro once, at point blank range, blew a man’s head off with a lumpara, or sawed-off shotgun. It was during an argument over—get this--a penny’s worth of pumpkin seeds--one of many stories I never learned in childhood. He served 10 years in a Neapolitan penitentiary before being paroled and forced to immigrate to America. The government of the relatively new nation--The Kingdom of Italy (1861)--came up with a unique eugenic solution for the hunger and misery down south, south of Rome, the long shin bone, ankle, foot, toes & kickball that are the remote regions of the Mezzogiorno, Southern Italy: Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia & Sicilia. Northern politicians asked themselves: how do we flush these skeevy southerners, these crooks and assassins down South, how do we flush the skifosos down the toilet—the flush toilet, a Roman invention, I report proudly and accept the gratitude on behalf of my people. Immigration to America: Fidel Castro did the same thing in the 1980s, hosing out his jails and mental hospitals with that Marielista boatlift/Emma Lazarus Remix: “Give us your tired and poor, your lunatics, thieves and murderers.” But I digress. I’ll give you my entire take on the history of Italy including Berlusconi and the “Bunga Bunga” parties with 14-year old Moroccan pole dancers . . . go ahead, skip ahead.
Yes, genetically speaking, I was sufficiently ferocious to make it on the street, and it took very little spark to light my fuse. Moreover, I’ve always been good at figuring out the angles--call it street smarts--also learned early in life. Likewise, for knowing the territory: The Bronx was my habitat. I was rapacious and predacious by nature, and if there was a loose buck out there, and legs to be broken, I knew where to go.
Yet, alas, despite all my natural talents & acquired skills, I remained persona-non-grata for the Lucchese Family. To my great misfortune, I fell into a category of human being largely shunned by Italian organized crime: Mestizo-Italiano, a diluted form of full strength 100% Italian blood. It’s one of those voodoo blood-brotherhood things practiced by Southern European, Mediterranean tribal people, only in part my people. Growing up, my predicament was always tricky, always somewhat bizarre. Simply put: I was of a totally different tribe. Blame my exotic mother, a genuine Hopi Corn Maiden from Shungopavi, high up on Second Mesa of the Hopi Reservation, way out in northern Arizona. And if this is not sufficiently, ******* nuts enough for you, add to the child-rearing minestrone that she raised me Jewish in The Bronx. I **** you not. I took my Bar Mitzvah Hebrew instruction from the infamous Rabbi Meir Kahane, that’s right, Meir “Crazy Rebbe” Kahane himself--pronounced kɑː'hɑːna--if you grok the phonetics.
In light of the previously addressed “impressionable years hypothesis,” I wrote a poem about my early years. It follows in the next chapter. It is an epic tale, a biographical magnum opus, a veritable creation myth, conceived one night several years ago while squatting in a sweat lodge, tripping on peyote. I