The King of J. C. Politics
atholics have this
primitive ritual they put you through when you're seven years old. The age is
well considered, because any older and you'd probably ask too many questions.
Or die laughing your ass off at the answers.
dress you up in a nice new suit you'll never use again, herd you along with a
collection of 30 or 40 other scared shitless seven year olds into a church, ask
you a bunch of questions on things that have been drilled into you for weeks on
end beforehand then they feed you a small, round piece of bread. This now, you
are told, washes you square with God which came as a surprise because none of
us knew we were in Dutch with The Almighty but afterwards we all felt pretty
good about being back on his good side. After all this was the guy who had a
reputation for smiting people and turning them into pillars of salt. That’s
some serious shit!
don't of course tell you that being square with God is only temporary. You're
put through another song and dance when you turn twelve. Clever bastards.
the Catholic's somewhat detailed legislation system, you're still required to
confess once a week whether you did anything or not. Which in essence means you
have to make shit up or the priest won't believe you.
Which is a lie which of course is a sin. Perhaps in lieu of a crucifix the logo
for Catholicism should have been a gerbil running on a little wheel.
awkward to wear around the neck I suppose.
into this system, as he got older Butchie saw all this as a mandate to sin.
After all, when you've got a bunch of gullible adults who think this whole
plane of existence is nothing more than one big magic show, you feel somehow
obligated to take advantage.
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Or that guy in the tall wooden box.
course he had been cautioned by an older kid not to chew the little, round
piece of bread when they put it in his mouth. Nun Radar screens all over the
parish, he was warned, would light up and eerily garbed, sexually frustrated,
middle-aged females would be tripping over themselves to dish out whacks across
the back of the head with wooden paddles, 18 inch rulers or in the case of
Sister Mary Bull Dyke, the back of her ham hock-sized paw.
Clergy are your friend and getting punished is good.
hour after the ceremony, he was home surrounded by friends he’d never knew he
had and relatives he never wanted to know he had like the two hundred year old
mustached aunt. Everyone was handing him envelopes with dollar bills neatly tucked into cards of congratulation of
which he was only the temporary custodian as he knew they would become the
possession of his mom as soon as the food and booze ran out and everybody
high-tailed it out the door and went home.
relatives who would inevitably be held in highest esteem were the ones whose
envelopes contained something he might never have heard of or seen; a five dollar
whole thing was labelled "First Holy Communion", a reaffirmation of
his Catholic life and how he was going to live it as a pious and holy person
the rest of his days even though that meant as much to a seven year old as the
words Budget Deficit, Cold War and Military Intelligence or any other number of
was around this time that Butchie was unintentionally ushered into life in
America by a short, slightly built, fidgety, Italian guy named Vincenzo Ferro
whose friends called him Vinnie. He reminded Butchie of a dark haired, twitchy
Chihuahua that walked upright on its hind legs.
everyone knew Vinnie but Vinnie knew everyone. He was a Ward Boss in one of
Jersey City's political ward districts back in the late Fifties and early Sixties.
He showed up briefly at Butchie’s First Holy Communion party, First Holy
Communion 'reception' if you lived north of The Jersey City Heights, and handed
him the obligatory envelope, gave congratulations and vanished. Later when the
kid’s mom opened it she nearly cried. There was a twenty inside.
Groceries for a week.
time passed, Vinnie helped the family out by paying Butchie to run errands for
him. Usually funny little notes from older people around the neighborhood.
Mostly with no words written on them, just numbers.
was a direct appointee of the Mayor, Thomas Gangemi. They were pisanos to the
point that Vinnie could show up at the mayor’s office and, ahead of several
other visitors sitting in the hallway, be granted an audience with His Holiness
within a couple of minutes. This later would impress the hell out of young
Butchie. Particularly since his parents had never even seen the Mayor.
those days there was a temporary truce between the two most powerful factions
in the greater New York-New Jersey area, the Italians and the Irish. Things
were changing and unlike the days between Al Capone and Eddie O’Bannon in
Chicago, survival instincts dictated that deals had to be made. This worked out
well for the holy fathers of the Catholic Church, as all the Guidos as well as
the Paddys were 100% Catholic which is why they sent
beautifully flowered wreaths to the funerals when they’d kill each another.
was a shoe-in with the Italians and actively courted
the Irish ergo, he had powerful friends on both sides. Key to both parties was
the fact that Vinnie was in good with the Mayor.
mother, being of Sicilian origin, had no qualms about her boy hanging out with
the likes of an older male Italian politician, his fellow politicians and their
associates, Mafiosi and priests. She figured they were all more or less from
the same caste and could be trusted with kids.
times have changed. At least it's still okay for kids to hang out around
the fact he hadn't a clue what Ferro was talking about most of the time, to
Butchie Vinnie was like a second father. He took pains to teach Butchie the
rules of being a man. Rules like hold the door open for a lady and always look
a man in the eye when you’re talking to him or when you pass him on the street.
Despite the fact the kid was doing good just to look somebody in the crotch
when he passed them on the street much less the eye, the kid knew what he
rule was that you never called elders by their first name. The fact that he
insisted on Butchie calling him 'Vinnie' meant a lot.
him? Don't believe a word he says." Vinnie randomly advised as they walked
down Duncan Avenue one crisp Autumn day. "He's Corsican! French are
compulsive liars!" Vinnie spewed as they made their way through a dirty
Jersey City alley and out onto the wide open spaces of West Side Avenue.
he?" Butchie asked without a clue why he asked but wanting to keep the one
sided conversation going.
a Republican! They're gonna fuck this country up one day!"
a Republican?" Only five foot two and in spite of his grey, shin-length,
heavy woollen overcoat with the herring bone pattern, Ferro could still out
walk a champion jogger. Butchie’s days with him were a constant blend of
scurrying to keep pace through the city streets punctuated by short respites in
a bar, lounge or private ethnic club as they pin balled from place to place to
do the covert business of not so small time, Jersey City politics.
are only two kinds of people, Democrats and Republicans." Vinnie preached.
mean there's nobody else?!"
except the Commies, Hippies and left wing Liberals, but they're all the
one are you?"
a Democrat?" The kid’s words were pointed squarely up at Ferro's head
while his eyes were zeroed in on the steaming calzones being placed in the
window of Poluzzo's Pizzeria on the corner.
was only half past ten in the a.m. but there would be considerable foot traffic
for the next hour and a half and, as was usually the case, Butchie hadn't had
any breakfast. Unbeknownst to the kid, Vinnie knew this. Vinnie always knew
this. Vinnie always knew everything. He's where Butchie learned the word
Democrats are the guys who fight to keep this country the great social
experiment that it is. A place where everyone is equal no matter what."
what's a Republican?"
who when he talks you can always tell he's lying." This is a trick the kid
wanted to know!
can you tell that?"
mouth's moving." Vinnie smirked.
stopped about a block and a half up West Side Avenue and turned into a hundred
year old store front which looked like it could have, at one time, served as a
neighborhood grocer's, a dry goods store or a bar. Both windows, which
straddled the centrally located, recessed door, had been blocked out by dark
green, velvet curtains as was the door’s window. Small gold leaf lettering
outlined in black enamel at face height on the door read:
Italian American Club
Jersey City Branch
slivers of the crisp Autumn daylight leaked around the curtains to bathe the
row of round tables down the left hand wall. The door slowly swung closed
behind them and neutralized what little color there
was in the place while casting surrealistic shadows across the long bar
dominating the right hand side of the long, narrow room.
and the bar tender exchanged nods as he and the kid made their way straight
through the endless room to another dark green curtain in the back. Butchie
tried to stand as tall as possible as he traded nods with an old man sitting at
one of the round tables reading la Republica.
He scurried behind Ferro through the curtain and into the back room.
a table in the back of the back room there was some kind of game in progress
which was difficult to make out for the cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke.
Vinnie peddled past the players calling them by name and veered off to the
single booth in the left hand corner.
now, Butchie knew the routine. After dragging one of the bentwood chairs within
a few feet he drifted over to the gaming table to kill time, watch, learn and
he had been there many times before he always enjoyed hanging around the club.
Made him feel like one of the guys. A grown up, no longer a schoolboy. The riggottzi always treated him like a man, never like a kid.
They took him as serious as they took everyone else. Butchie didn’t realize it
at the time, but he had learned about the single most important attribute of
human relationship. He had learned about respect.
clueless as to what most of the men were talking about, he'd spend hours
studying their ways, mannerisms and speech patterns. Even when they
occasionally lapsed into English the vocabulary, much less the topics were
essentially incomprehensible, but the meanings were crystal clear.
and he liked the club because he always liked stepping back in time to the
Nineteenth Century. All around him lay the dark, pungent, smoky, bar
room. This was Man-Central! A gallon puddle of estrogen
in here would evaporate faster than if spilled on the surface of the sun. If
some careless rigottzo knocked over a drink there was
no scorn or derision heaped on him propagated by a misconception of the war of
the sexes. He might be the brunt of a manly joke as the bar man calmly pulled
another glass for him knowing the client would not only happily pay for another
but the barman would get a tip when the client was ready to leave.
was a refuge where men could vent about their women to the same degree that
women could bitch about their men in the kitchen, at a Tupperware party or over
cocktails with the girls.
perfect commune of the Yang to compliment the Ying.
half an hour or so, Butchie had no sense of time back then, a thick
envelope was pushed across the table where Vinnie sat. It would wait there
until the men stood, hugged, traded kisses on the cheeks, shook hands and
uttered what was his first exposure to a foreign language.
grazie, pisano! Cunsider it done!"
several hours of kibitzing about town, surreptitious meetings where Ferro would
collect manila envelopes of varying thicknesses and meetings where the men met
in dark places and spoke in hushed tones alternating between English and
Sicilian, came Butchie’s favorite time of day, lunch.
Which meant pizza! Pizza, the life blood of Western civilization.
out on the chilly streets the lesson continued.
I axe you a question?"
Kid, what is it?"
in all them vanilla envelopes?"
"Ma-nila envelopes. Just papers Kid. Important papers."
at his gold Rolex, Vinnie'd always ask; "What'a ya suppose we should do
for lunch, Kid?" Knowing the answer he'd ask anyway. Without waiting for
an answer he'd suddenly remember he had business at some undisclosed location
which required them to go past Joey's, Jersey City's pre-eminent pizzeria on
what the hell? We gotta go that way anyways!" Vinnie would reason.
Strange that Vinnie never ate pizza.
Capone, a first cousin of Al whose family was driven out of Chicago by the same
rival gang that got Al Capone, the Feds, was intended by God to be Bud Abbot's
partner in comedy Lou Costello. Physically he was a dead ringer for the comic
actor. There was no end to jokes to this effect and Joey never varied in his
comeback in response to such mockery.
Abbott!” Someone would yell as a greeting as they came in.
never fuckin' gets old. Know-what-I-fuckin'-mean?"
or more formally Joey's Pizza, was laid out according to the U.S. East
Coast Pizzeria's Universal Floor Plan Regulations. Two tiered pizza oven behind
a tall serving counter to the right as you walked in, a row of booths down the
left hand side, ending even with the far edge of the counter and from there
back to the toilets the remaining floor space sported four-top tables and
bentwood chairs. Each table had, arranged in perfect size order, one chrome
napkin dispenser, one salt shaker, one pepper shaker, one ovoid, glass Parmesano cheese dispenser, complete with six day old Parmesano cheese and one laminated, four sided menu with an
impressionistic two color print of Venetian gondolas
serenely paddling lovers through a canal towards you.
only other item was a Mateus wine bottle with a partially melted red candle
jammed in the top with just enough melted wax dribbled down the sides of the
bottle to add ambience.
corny red and white checkered table clothes or ketchup bottles on the tables
for Joey's place! His place was pure class.
was on one of their lunchtime forays that it occurred. The crime of the century
that, to this day, remains unsolved; The great Jersey City mozzarella heist.
place was half full and Butchie was at a table in the back of the place
attacking a hot slice of margarita with a second standing by to fill in as soon
as needed with a Nehi root beer for back-up. Vinnie was in a booth up front
talking to Joey when the commotion started.
was just after noon when the phone rang and Joey excused himself, left Vinnie
with his third espresso and went to answer it. What has to be the shortest
phone conversation on record then ensued after which Joey quickly hung up and
proceeded to quietly go table to table and ask the dozen or so customers to
leave the place. Naturally some objected but the promise of a full three course
dinner for two any night next week placated even the most obstinate protester.
nodded at Vinnie who signalled to the kid which he took to mean, 'Just keep
eating'. No fuckin’ argument there!
scurried after the last customers to leave, locked the doors and lowered the
window blinds. Minutes later, not knowing what was about to happen as Butchie
dug into his second slice to get it down quickly, just in case the shooting
started, there was a knock at the back door.
Joey ran to answer it he ripped open the walk-in cooler to his right in the
back which stood just inside the rear door. Three rough looking Pisos hurriedly entered, each carrying a four foot long
loaf of fresh mozzarella. It was obviously not their first time in the place
and they went straight for the walk-in and for the next five minutes, like a
mini-assembly line, loaves of fresh mozzarella were brought in and hung up
inside the fridge.
quickly as they had appeared they were gone and a minute later the shades were
up, the back door was locked, the front door was unlocked and Joey's was once
again open for trade while some poor bastard somewhere was filling out a police
report to take to an insurance company for his missing cheese.
you describe the cheese sir? When was the cheese last seen? Have you noticed
any unusually large rodents in the neighborhood recently? Is it possible you
could work with one of our police sketch artists so we can get a better picture
of the missing mozzarella?"
United Steel Workers
their usual lunch of pizza it was back to business.
the course of their zig-zagging across and through the city, the bars, the
halls and quite a few palatial, private homes which were for some reason all as
dark and smoky as a medieval Viking dwelling, they headed up a side street to a
local union hall. No matter how plain or elaborate, lighting seemed to be
subdued at best in all these places. In addition to which everyone over the age
of fifteen seemed to smoke.
the early afternoon hour the Steel Workers Union Hall, Local 871, on Jackson
Avenue was dark. Dark and smoky. Like the multitude of bars they had visited in
the months since Butchie had become Vinnie's surrogate offspring there was
considerable activity. This afternoon there was a Democratic Party fund raiser
underway and thanks largely to the free food and beer, the large, open hall was
followed Vinnie through the milling crowd and around back of the stage area
where he met and was greeted warmly by some very important looking people.
Whenever the really important looking guy, the eldest and most well-fed in the
group of about half a dozen moved, the two most pugnacious looking guys shadowed
him. As one reached out his hand to be introduced to Vinnie the .45 dangling in
the shoulder holster under his suit jacket became partially visible.
the elaborate Italian introductions went on Butchie’s attention was caught by
the ten foot tall, drunk bagpiper in full Highland regalia who, as he was
lacing up his Gilley brogues tipped slowly ever more backwards, each time
catching himself at the last minute until he finally challenged the gravity
barrier one too many times and slipped from the low bench crashing to the
one in the crowded back room but Butchie seemed to pay attention as the
Highlander climbed back to his feet, regained himself, wrestled his pipes into
position and moved to the back stage door leading out to the main room.
than a minute later he was marching out onto the hall's stage, driving the
crowd crazy with Scotland the Brave.
massive amounts of food over at the mile and a half long buffet were the next
distraction and Butchie’s radar soon related longitudes and latitudes to his
wheel house. He set course accordingly. It was once again, a blatant reminder
of why he took to spending so much time away from home with Vinnie. Food! For
some strange reason there was never any at home but everywhere he went with
Ferro . . .
planning ahead he went to work engineering a pair of sandwiches, which some say
would later serve as inspiration for the modification in the World Trade Center
design. There was originally only supposed to be one.
could not have cared less that someone somewhere in the room had had one drink
too many and words were being exchanged. Minutes later the shoving contest was
unsuccessfully intervened with and graduated to an exchange of fists. By the
time furniture started flying, Butchie, his Dagwoods stashed lovingly in a red
cloth napkin, braved the no man’s land back to where he left Vinnie and at the
sound of the first police siren Ferro hustled the two of them out the back door
of the hall and to sanctuary in the known, friendly environs of a Jackson
Brawl in the Hall” as it was billed in the local Press next day, quickly faded
from the headlines as a new, much more serious and wide spread issue
insidiously spread and suddenly exploded onto the social scene of Jersey City,
brawl between the races.
the cooperation of the Catholic Church, politicians and payoffs the Irish and
the Italians had learned to live together. There were after all certain
European cultural standards the two shared.
the most recent immigrants to this three hundred and fifty year old
neighbourhood along the expansive Hudson River however, the blacks, everybody
who wasn’t black was white. There were no Irish, Italians, Poles or Hungarians.
Not even Micks, Wops, Pollocks or Kikes. Just whitey. In a very short period of
time this quickly deteriorated into all whites being referred to by what was
originally the racially derogatory term for Hungarians, 'Honkies'.
lost their native cultures centuries prior the blacks never really understood
culturally based conflicts as they existed between the Irish and Italians for
example. Not able to fit into the existing social structure they choose to
currently inhabit, the blacks turned up the pressure in their own communities.
day as they turned the corner onto Pine Street, coming from lunch enroute to
the Italian American Club, Butchie and Vinnie spotted a common neighborhood
visitor. A pair of white, Cadillac ambulances, red roof lights flashing away,
were parked outside what used to be a Georgian house turned Brown Stone Walk-up
now converted into a low rent apartment house.
attendants were evacuating two casualties, both black men, while two police
officers were handcuffing two women also black.
of the blood soaked men, a large tag of flesh flapping from his face in rhythm
as he limped down the long set of granite steps outside the front entrance, was
being held up by one ambulance attendant, who was also saturated in blood from
the man's multiple stab and slash wounds. The second casualty was being carried
down the steps of the tall front porch on a stretcher, covered in a blood-soaked,
linen sheet. A fourth attendant dutifully trailed behind, carrying a severed
arm eloquently dressed in a formerly white cotton shirt with gold cufflink.
of the cops had a blood soaked butcher knife and a large cleaver taking both
out with the women, apparently as evidence.
fongulo!” Vinnie softly whispered.
A neighbor was relating to the other cop that the two men
were playing cards when an argument erupted, and it deteriorated into a punch
up, during which the two women faithfully armed their men.
they watched a fourth ambulance attendant place the blood dripping, severed arm
on the stretcher with the dying man, a by-stander casually commented.
bin playin' fo'
short time later, after the ambulances drove off and the cops and
rubber-neckers had gone about their business, the two silently stared down
as they circumvented the crusted over puddle of blood on the sidewalk. They
left the elderly Jewish landlady to her scrubbing of the front steps and
was a little ways down the street that for Butchie, everything came screaming
into focus. The logic and perspective of the blacks, as well as the basis for
all American society, was immediately crystal clear. No less than in any
African nation or Asian Third World country, violence in the U.S. was a way of
where money was involved.
was late September of 1963, about a week later and, as had been his habit
throughout his tenure, four or five nights a week Mayor Thomas Gangemi, an
Italian national, ‘held court’ in Il Vento’s Italian Restaurant on West Side
Avenue. In keeping with Italian tradition he used the high profile eatery as a
de facto, after hours office granting audiences to minor as well as major
suitors who would come to patronize the current Godfather. In between drinks,
cavorting over city business, drinks, dinner and drinks he would hear all
manner of petitions.
Ferro happened to be at Gangemi’s table.
former Godfather, retired mayor John V. Kenny, an Irishman, alias “The Little
Guy”, now at the advanced age of 70 was the man who had actually established
the current hierarchy just after the Second World War over which Gangemi now
unwritten but religiously adhered to tradition, the older Godfathers, even though
no longer in power, were universally respected and wielded considerable
Sunday evening the older Kenny showed up, unscheduled, in the middle of a court
session. Without so much as a greeting, Gangemi ignored him and carried on with
the bullshit session with the three me at his table.
approached and informed Gangemi that he had some documents he’d like Gangemi to
down, I’ll see you when I’m ready.”
said sit! I’m the Mayor now!”
prevailed over the small crowd at the overt breach of gangland protocol.
didn’t respond, only quietly stepped aside and took a seat in a corner booth,
on the edge of a seat facing out, one elbow on the table. The now
not-so-important papers in hand.
That’s right, you’re the Mayor now.
Kenny quietly mumbled to the floor.
at the Mayor’s table the tone of the conversation had noticeably altered,
become more subdued.
himself showed signs of nervousness as it slowly dawned on him that just maybe
he let his Italian temper get the better of him.
a short time Gangemi called over to Kenny and asked to see the documents.
Kenny, without a word, pushed up from the seat, crossed the floor and handed
him the folder.
thumbed through the papers, gave his approval and returned the folder along
with a half-hearted apology for making Kenny wait. Kenny nodded and without a
word, made for the door.
was no shortage of speculation the following day as the Jersey City rumor mill cranked into overtime with reports over the
days later, on Tuesday morning, a certified letter by private carrier arrived
at the Mayor’s office. The Mayor was made to sign for it.
Feds had somehow received information proving that Gangemi was born in Italy
and had never applied for or received U.S. citizenship. Gangemi was an
illegal alien. He was jailed and deported.
Wednesday morning, September 25th, Thomas Gangemi was forced to
resign as thirty-fifth head of one of the most lucrative, legally corrupt
branches of organized crime in the United States; Mayor of Jersey City, New
that point on the Feds were camped out in Jersey City.
About a month later Butchie
got to Vinnie's ground floor apartment one afternoon right after school. He
always got a laugh out of watching the little man wash up, shave and brush his
teeth with the same yellow bar of Dial soap.
he let himself in there were two men in suits sitting on the couch. Big men
with greying hair who apparently didn't know how to smile. Or perhaps had
forgotten how. They both wore fedoras and heavy overcoats. One of the overcoats
hung open and he could see a gun under one of the men's arm.
came out of the bathroom smiling as he dried his face.
can't visit today Butchie. I gotta go with these men."
had no clue what was happening but knew it wasn't good as he watched Vinnie put
on his long grey, overcoat, the one with the herring bone pattern. Vinnie left
with the two men and Butchie followed them outside and was shocked at what he
were a couple of black and white squad cars, lights flashing, a Paddy wagon and
a gaggle of press. Cameras were popping off all over the place and several
reporters shouting questions added to the feeding frenzy.
watched intently as the face of his surrogate father faded into the shadows as
the doors of the police Paddy wagon were closed over.
smiled and waved at Butchie through the barred doors as if he were going off on
a holiday and not off to prison for the rest of his life where he would die.
After the Italians had their shot with the illegally elected Gangemi
as mayor of Jersey City the Irish had their turn again. It was eight years
after Gangemi was out of the picture and the
renowned hero and WWII bomber pilot
Tommy Whelan was at the helm as mayor.
now Butchie was finishing up high school at William L. Dickinson and had been
offered an athletic scholarship to City University New York on the other side
of the Hudson River and Jersey City had turned a corner. Or so most thought.
the saying goes, ya can’t teach an old whore new
tricks and little had changed in Jersey City. Plus the Feds were still hovering
around. Who could blame them? J.C. had been rich hunting grounds.
month after Butchie graduated high school at Dickinson in June of 1971 The Feds
busted everyone in the Mayor’s office. Again.
that July the twice elected Whelan was indicted, convicted and given fifteen
years in a Federal penitentiary by the U.S. Attorney’s office as the senior
member of the famous “Hudson County Eight” in a massive conspiracy and
extortion case revolving around construction contract kickbacks worth millions.
former Mayor, John V. Kenny, “The Little Guy”, was also convicted in a separate
Federal trial but escaped prison a few years later by dying of a heart attack.
Kenny always had a good sense of timing.
following year the same Federal probe reached William L. Dickinson High and the
school was closed for investigation of widespread sexual relations and drug
sales between teachers and students.
City held numerous distinctions as a city not least of which was serving as the
primary operating grounds for most of The Mafia's trucking and shipping crimes
and, coincidentally the William L. Dickinson High School had the honor of being the first and only U.S. high school to be
investigated, taken over and closed by the Federal Department of Education, a
cabinet level office which came about by laws largely founded on the evolution
of what Dickinson had become and the numerous prosecutions which followed its
closure. The criminal charges? As they say in medical parlance, TNTC, Too
Numerous to Count.
topping the popularity chart of illicit activity was teachers buying drugs from
students, gang violence and teachers selling drugs to students. Teachers
engaging in frequent sexual activity with each other, cooperation with local
bookies for betting on high school football games and students engaging in
frequent sexual activity with teachers, (on and off school grounds). Teachers
helping students cheat on exams and the proverbial last straw, something involving
the football team and a mature sheep.
last one may sound worse than it actually was as the school's mascot was, after
all, a ram. Go Rams!
the week-long federal hearings in D.C. which ensued, the teachers to their
credit, vehemently denied ever helping students cheat on exams. Even teachers
have their limits.
Mom always said, “Due faccia della
stessa medaglia!” Crime and
politics, two sides of the same coin.
never saw Vinnie again, but I guess I got out of J.C. just in time.