"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Authority, Discipline, Code, And Enterprise–Lessons From History And A Mafia Capo

Petey Brogna, a longtime soldier in the Newark Mafia, had just been promoted to capo.  Now he had his own crew, his own territory, and his own piece of the business.  Petey had been a good soldier, took orders without complaint, knew when and how to use muscle but rarely had to. His tact and charm were legendary and everyone in the family knew that he would rise high and quickly.   He understood the art of ‘insistent compromise’ – that balance of favors which ensured loyalty and obedience.  Of course there were times when friendship, loyalty, and mutual understanding did not work, and he had to resort to ‘discipline’, but these cases were few and far between.  The fact that he was so fair in his promises, so just in exacting his due, and so agile in balancing the two, made him unofficially anointed, a princeling, and accorded far more respect than anyone of his age or position.

Petey was proud of his Roman and Catholic heritage and felt the he, his family, and his institutional profession were latter-day legatees of it.  Both the Church and the Empire had ruled for two millennia.  Power, compromise, codes of honor, discipline, faith, loyalty, and appropriate punishment were the principles of successful civilization incorporated within a body politic.  ‘Government’ – the collective institution of liberal democracy turned overseer of today – was not even considered.  While the Roman Senate may have had its time during periods of Republic, Rome was never just a country, a geopolitical entity, but a purpose.  Rome, through its legions, provinces, and administration was to bring wealth, prosperity, development, and knowledge to the world it conquered.  The righteousness of Rome was never questioned, nor its purpose.

The Catholic Church was an even more remarkable empire, one which conquered without an army and ruled Europe and its colonies with the force of divine retribution and the prospect of eternal salvation behind it. 

Both the Church and the Roman Empire managed their provinces with the same disciplined administrative hierarchy which enabled governance by the few.  Priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals knew their place, the limits of their authority and independence; and learned quickly how to prosper while satisfying similar needs from above.  A highly-organized provincial administration enabled Rome to control its many varied, culturally and socially distinct provinces.  

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This provincial administration was directly linked to Rome and the Emperor, but was internally subdivided to enable efficient, disciplined control through the use of both civil and military authori8ty.

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The point of all this, never to be lost on Petey Brogna, was that the Mafia was no different.  It established and maintained a hierarchal order managed with strict discipline – one which rewarded respect, obedience, and proper execution; and which punished indiscipline, personality, and independence.  It was, like the Church and the Roman Empire based on principle and purpose.  Whereas it had none of the civilizing mission of either, it was as unique in its assumption of righteous power – its obligation to serve the public from which it profited.  In the early days of the urban Republic, the Mafia became protector, governor, and defender and did so by an absolute adherence to moral principles that were no different from those of any other successful empire.  Respect, absolute loyalty, family honor, religion, and tradition were the hallmarks of the Mafia and overrode any civil enactments of justice or morality. 

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Civil government was a nuisance, an efficient, corrupt, and venal institution to be avoided, compromised, and neutered.  While such government had to exist in a constitutional democracy, there was no compelling reason to accept it.  The Mafia’s balance of offering and acceptance, favor offered and favor returned, power and consideration were more relevant to Italian newcomers than any foreign, inexplicable rules of American behavior.

Even more than governance, rule, authority, and social structure, the Mafia meant free enterprise – an enterprise without the artificial and impractical rules of economic engagement created and applied by Congress and legislature.  Mafia business was the business of human nature – opportunistic, amoral, aggressive, and ceaseless.  Since the days of the Pleistocene, human society was self-regulated, divided naturally into strong and weak, intelligent and slow, intuitive and dull; and economic and political enterprise were no different than any other kind of conflict with winners and losers, advantaged and disadvantaged.

Machiavelli and the Medicis were on the same page.  Government was in the business of social control.  The Italian families of the Renaissance – the new centers of concentrated wealth and financial and economic power – were early examples of the institutionalization of such power.  Pre-government, acting in accordance with natural human intelligence, and the territorialism of human nature. The Mafia was the child of Rome and Florence.

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The Mafia has, not unexpectedly, lost ground in recent decades.  Its methods, raison d’etre, European traditionalism, and questionable enterprises were Old World, increasingly outmoded and archaic.  Its clients long assimilated into a democratic civil society, its patrons scrutinized and jailed.

Yet the lessons are there to be had.  Civilizations and institutions come and go but not expunged from history books or forgotten.  The Roman, Persian, India, Chinese, and Japanese Empires may be no longer but their inspiration remains.  It is no surprise that President Putin recalls and evokes the greatness of the Russian Empire of the Tsars – an empire with the same organizational principles, same moral, ethical, and religious codes of behavior and purpose as those of both East and West.   Often criticized as authoritarian if not imperialist, Putin insists on the decadence and decline of Western liberal democracy and the reestablishment of a more centered, principled society.  In so doing he has simply reiterated the loud lessons of history – strong, determined, well-organized societies clear and unequivocal  about their principles and unafraid to recognize the imperatives of human nature and the natural ordering of society will always prevail.

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Petey Brogna made his way to the top of the Newark Mafia until his retirement – another tribute to his ability to negotiate a very harsh, suspicious, and punitive world.  Petey was never a hoodlum like many of the soldier working Down Neck for other capos from other families.  He did what he had to do, often reluctantly but never regretfully.  His life was more honest than those entrepreneurs of the outside world who were far more devious, exploitative, and manipulative than he or his family members ever were.  Operating according the laws of nature would always be more honest than society’s laws.

The Angola Federal Prison (Louisiana), a maximum security institution known for its savagery was an example of how raw human nature lies just beneath the surface.  Once the need for traditional civility and morality were gone – there could be no worse punishments for murder, rape, and brutality within the prison than already apportioned – Angola became an inverse world, one more expressive of the way human beings actually are than what they should be.  Codes of civility meant nothing; and only domination, territory, and personal power mattered.  Death was no threat, imprisonment no intimidation.

Ironically or expectedly, the most advanced and complex societies have understood the inevitability of Angola-like behavior without codes; but have also understood how to employ or harness primitive anti-social behavior.  Nietzsche was right that most men travel with the herd while only few ride above it.  There is no other validation of human existence in a meaningless world than the expression of personal will, he said – words anticipated by Machiavelli centuries before.  The Mafia was the institutionalization of this behavior – a micro-civilization based on human nature but also on the recognition of those social structures which have always constrained it.

Government is irrelevant, said Mafiosi, supernumerary, insignificant.  While it imposes similar authority and regulation, it refuses to acknowledge and allow the more natural, instinctive motivations human activity.

Petey Brogna was a political and philosophical conservative, although he never considered the distinction.  Conservativism was the natural and quite understandable bridge between the world he lived in and the old underground world he managed.  It was a movement which acknowledged human nature, the right and legitimacy of power and empire, the need for foundational principles, and the necessity of some minimal form of governance.  Although Petey might have been happier in the laissez-faire Robber Baron era of early 20th century America, he knew his life had been a good, satisfying, and well-realized one.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Other Side Of The Tracks–The Irresistible Allure Of Slatterns And Tramps

Marilyn Scalfano was not, as Harold’s mother insisted, a slattern and a tramp  She was simply from the other side of the tracks, the north side, the Italian side, the worker side.  No matter how much sweetness, love for Harold, or innocent claims, Marilyn  would always and irrevocably be an impossible, unforgiveable match for her son who was destined for greatness at best and social recognition at worst.  Marilyn had gotten her claws into him, dragged him to her disreputable side of the New York, New Haven & Hartford rails, tore into his innocent flesh like the harpy she was, and would leave his bones to bake, whitened and fleshless in the summer sun.

There was truth on both sides.  Margaret Hoskins Pennyfield, thanks to her tenth generation aristocratic lineage, her descendance from the court of Henry II and before, and the uninterrupted noblesse oblige of her family – a perennial concern for those who labored on Pennyfield farms, Pennyfield factories, and Pennyfield docks – had no burden of prejudice behind her.  There would always be the haves and the have nots; those who rose and those who stayed; those with promise and purpose, and those who worked in the vineyards for  those whose family, lineage, and character gave them authority, both moral and civil.

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Marilyn’s family had come to America from Italy in the great migration of the 1880s and had settled in New Haven which had become Sorrento West.  Her grandfather had been a laborer in a lock factory; her uncles shoemakers, barbers, and construction workers; and the women of the family guardians of the Italian hearth and shills for all of Anglo-Saxon American promise – ladies in buns and black dresses who never once disclaimed or turned their back on the American dream.  Despite hardship, discrimination, and disrespect, the Scalfanos not only survived but prospered.  Before long the Scalfanos were into construction and sanitation, had homes beyond the perimeter of the the North End and beyond the most fanciful dreams of the Petruccis, Garaffas, and DiLoretos whose families had come over on the same boat.

Yet, despite a similar storied and respectable history, the two families could never meet.  The tracks were a permanent, infrangible boundary  No Pennyfield, Hetherington, Lodge, or Porter had any business messing around over there; and no Scalfano, Petrucci, or Squillacote belonged over here.

So the illicit affair between Harold Pennyfield and Marilyn Scalfano was to be discouraged and dismembered before it was too late. 

It all made sense.  The Scalfanos understood that their time had not yet quite come; and the Pennyfields had not yet gotten used to the coming revolution of diversity.  ‘Stick to your own kind’, the marvelously romantic and true verse of West Side Story, was as right as rain for both communities; and both looked on the romance as troublesome, inopportune, and dangerous.

All this mattered little to Marilyn and Harold who loved each other but who delighted, more than anything, in the scandal they created.  If the truth be known Harold, despite his initial delight in his remove from Baccarat, Revere, and Townsend high boys, was uncomfortable with boiler shirts and dirty diapers; and Marilyn wondered how she could have possibly imagined a life within the scoured, wainscoted parlors and dining rooms of the West End.  Theirs was not a love affair ordained in heaven, but a gauntlet thrown down to the very idea of ordained, ordinary bliss.

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They persisted in the fantasy – and it was to the credit of them both that that they could for so long, with such opposition, continue in the obverse of star-crossed lovers.  They might have been, in the modern psycho-social parlance of marketing, early adopters; those who anticipated trends before they became current; diverse before diversity became the rule.  Or they were both Nietzschean Ubermensch, riding above the herd, dismissive of its claims, and triumphant.  Or they were simply children of the Sixties, the cusp generation between tradition and reform. Whatever.  Marilyn and Harold were items at the CafĂ© Wha? honorable outcasts from Shaded Meadows Country Club, New Brighton’s best and finest, and happy refugees from the expected and ‘the trifling’.

The relationship – their love affair – did not last beyond Harold’s Freshman Year at Yale.  Marilyn, who had gone way beyond transitional social romance to real opportunity and thought that a life in the West End was actually feasible if not possible, did everything she could to please her man.  She dressed like the debutantes from Bennett, Bennington, and Briarcliff – cute shirtwaists, circle pins, Tartans, and flips; imitated their indifference and casual allure – expunged  every last trace of Abruzzi and Naples (twice a week dry cleaning, return of the Virgin to the altar, gold, saintly jewelry to grandmother); and transformed her accent from deep Central Connecticut to not bad Locust Valley lockjaw…but to naught.  This dark haired, dark complexioned, short, slight, Greek and North African featured young woman could pass for nothing more than a guinea.

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At the very end of Harvard-Yale weekend – an Oscar weekend for a young woman anxious to get ahead in the world and meet even more promising and attractive men than Harold Pennyfield – Harold had finally had enough.  Marilyn had shown her true colors, been unfaithful to him in spirit and finally, once and for all, vindicated his long-suffering parents.  Marilyn, if not a tart, was a social grabber, an opportunist, and the epitome of scurrility – a description he refused until he saw her kissing Peter Morgan, Grand Duke of Skull and Bones, Lothario, and Nantucket sailor in front of Woolsey Hall.

In the many years following graduation, Harold Pennyfield thought little  of Marilyn Scalfano.  She never featured in his erotic daydreams and had been long-replaced by Usha Ismail a seductive, willing, and loving Pakistani he had met at the 0beroi Delhi ; Berthe Pedersen, a Danish animist; and Maria Pereira, an Israeli immigrant from Argentina. 

These women had all satisfied Harold’s erotic promise far more than Marilyn ever could have   Love in the tropics, in Palestine, or the pampas was far more satisfying than groping on the 4th hole of Stanley Quarter Golf Course. Yet on reflection she was sans pareil. Growing up in New Brighton she was an alien, a gypsy, removed from the Cotillions, the Holly Balls of the West End; and as such she was an unforgettable first love.

She was present in spirit at Harold’s first marriage to Maria DiLoreto, a Wellesley graduate, first of her family to attend college let alone an Ivy League one, a combination of Italian roots and American enterprise; and she was in attendance, also in spirit, at his second to Margaret Purcell-Jones,  tenth cousin to Henry VI, daughter of the Salem Putnams and Virginia Potters, scion of Washington society and Daughter of the American Revolution.

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Harold moved on but only thanks to Marilyn Scalfano  - 1) pussy changes not from class to class; 2) women want and men accommodate; 3) sexual politics trump any other; and better to have traversed the tracks then rather than now.  Class and breeding have a way of intruding no matter how promising love’s beginning; and it is always better, in the long run, to stick to your own kind.

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that
Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind

Looking For Answers? Fables, Storybooks, And Tall Tales Have Them All

“We’re coming to the end of the line”, said Pastor Phillips.  “Can you see the station?  There, in the distance, just around the bend.  A small country building, red wood painted like a barn, weathervane on the top.  It’s a whistle stop some days, too few passengers to get on or off; but not today.  It’s your stop, Harry.  Although it continues to Fairmont, Bellows, and Oakville – nice places, not so remote as here but familiar and ordinary just the same where people making a living, go to church, walk to school, cook dinner – you get off here.”

Pastor Phillips liked to weave his own parables.  He had found the stories of the Samaritan woman, the mustard seed, and the Pharisee and the tax collector too abstruse for his liking; and more to the point for the liking of his congregation.  His congregants needed something more relevant, more culturally syncopated; and in a word, more simple. He found that the more he span his homilies, the more came to mind.  From the pulpit or in the sacristy he could see that his stories resonated. 

He was of course much more at home with references of the past – the parable he was telling to Harry Loans, he admitted, took inspiration from Our Town,  Yet it was far from unacknowledged borrowing or plagiarism, for Phillips had grown up in the Midwest in an era which would be familiar to Wilder. His father had been a grocer, and his grandfather had owned the dry goods store.  There had been no preachers in the family, but young Harry Phillips had had the talent and the inspiration; and was asked by his own pastor to read from the Gospels and even to give his own, short, ‘Tales of Goodness’, homilies he had written himself.  Later, feeling a calling, left for seminary in the East, apprenticed at small churches in Easton and Lewisburg before being appointed pastor of his own congregation in Elkton.

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“Are you ready to get off the train, Harry”? asked Pastor Phillips, looking at the troubled man sitting across from him and taking his hand.  “Are you ready to meet Jesus? He’s waiting for you, sitting in the park by the fountain.”

The man fidgeted.  This was not what he expected when he had sought counsel from Pastor Phillips.  He should have known better, of course, after so many homely stories on Sunday morning; but he was nearing both the end of his life and the end of his rope. He had made no sense of anything let alone answer any existential questions; but there it was – the end of the tunnel, life soon to be extinguished, and only scary prospects ahead.  When he tried to make all this real,he was as predictable as Pastor Phillips; but whereas the preacher turned to Thornton Wilder’s Americana, Harry deliberately thought of Durer, Dore, and Blake, and conjured up their images of death, Hell, and the Apocalypse.  He needed a jump start to end his crisis, not a smooth carriage ride. 

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Yet, Phillips seemed to be a good man whose heart was in the right place, interested in counselling and compassion rather than hellfire, prayer, and brimstone; so Harry thought that he might find a way to move the pastor away from fable and parable and help him face facts.  The end of his life could only be years, not decades away, and the time for reckoning was now or never. For better or worse, the pastor was the best he could do.

No matter how bluntly Harry put his questions about meaning and the void, the pastor answered only by analogy, familiar reference, and fable.  “Remember Prentice Barker?”, the pastor asked.  Harry shook his head. “Of course you do”, Phillips went on, “he was a lawyer on Arch Street, defended the best and the worst.  Put New Brighton on the legal map.  A man of principle, rectitude, and honor.  One day, a client came into his office…”

The pastor continued and wove an interesting, familiar, but hopelessly oblique and elliptical story of crime and punishment, realization, and local epiphany.  He had gotten no nearer the point of Harry’s existential questions than the man in the moon.  He had told moral tales for so long that he could never get down to ecclesiastical brass tacks.   Of course Jesus never did either and taught by suggestion.  The closest he got to theological clarity was “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and “Man shall not live by bread alone”, leaving the listener to sort out meaning and purpose. 

Pastor Phillips had always been drawn to metaphor and ignored the black and white injunctions of the Old Testament which could have made his case more definitive.  Harry and not a few other fellow congregants, persuaded that Old rather than New were more relevant for today, would have far preferred a ‘Do This, Do That’ lesson in righteousness than one meandering through Wilder country.

To be fair, Wilder’s vision in Our Town was a very bleak and frightening one; and had Pastor Phillips  turned to the final act when all those who have died look down upon the people of Grover’s Corners and inconsolably regret their past lives – he would have given a brusque wake-up call to all the spiritually timid.  Wilder, of course, was more secular than spiritual,  and in fact was lamenting human ignorance and temporality more than faithlessness; but the message was there loud and clear.  The time for preparation is not at the moment before death, but well before.
“How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-string:in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls…” (Faulkner, As I Lay Dying)
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Nevertheless, Phillips insisted on rambling on, and Harry found no way of refocus from the pastor’s storybook; but on the other hand Wilder, Faulkner, and Phillips might be right.  Perhaps in questions of existential uncertainty for which there can never be answers, A Child’s Book Of Biblical Tales is precisely the proper text.  Perhaps the reason why Phillips was so loved and admired by his congregation was exactly because of his fairy tales, his lack of horrific accounts of fire and brimstone or warnings about eternal loss, regret, and  emptiness. 

In the whole exegetical affair it was Harry who was the malcontent, the outlier, and the unbeliever who insisted on reality when everyone else knew there was no such thing.  Life was indeed harsh and unrewarding; but the hopes of something sweet (“….just beyond the station, over there, see the Taylors’ rose trellises and peonies? There by the pasture…”) was good enough. There was no need for understanding the mystery of the Trinity or deciphering the parables.  Paradisaical myth was good enough.

Harry’s Jewish friends were less kind.   That kind of treacle had no more relevance to spiritual maturity and readiness than Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  The Law, the Book, and the lessons of Moses, Abraham, and Jacob – as hard as they might be to swallow – were the only ones to be consulted, not the librettos, fables, and friendly homilies of Pastor Phillips.   Wake up, pay attention, and get serious if you want to figure out what’s what, said Abe Feldman.

None of this was helpful; and if Harry learned anything from his sessions with Pastor Phillips, Abe Feldman, and ‘The Great American Experience’ it was that the answer to what’s what cannot be taught or even learned for that matter.  Better to find an modus operandi that kept bad thoughts away than struggle to find meaning, relevance, and purpose.  Tolstoy tried his whole life, to figure things out; but finally, exhausted and unsatisfied, gave up.  If billions of people had believed, he said, then there just might be something to it.

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