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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Larry Marchese, the Mafia, and Julius Caesar

Larry Marchese was born on the Ides of March, and ever since his retirement he had become fascinated with the Roman Empire and how the Mafia was so much like it. On his first trip to Rome, he saw the large bronze map on the Coliseum which showed the extent of the Empire at its height.  It covered most of the known world.  Of course the Mafia could make no such claims, but it had serious operations in every major city of the United States and Italy, had a controlling share in under-the-radar businesses all over Europe, and had negotiated profitable deals with all the major Latin American drug cartels, Middle Eastern human trafficking rings, Liberian and Congolese blood diamond dealers. 

In its heyday, the Mafia administered its empire just like the Romans – it provided the conquered citizens organization and stability through intimidation, violence, and an indirect takeover of all public institutions.  It could rule from afar, just like the Romans or the British many centuries later.  Local chieftains could rule and profit if they stayed in line, and the underworld city-state was an American reality.

No one officially retires from the Mafia. There are no IRAs, 401Ks, mutual funds, or pension plans.  If you worked for the Santangelo Family, where Larry Luchese had been the Chief Financial Officer, your money was safe, growing, and liquid.  Larry was the only Family member with a college degree – he majored in finance at Rutgers – and it turned out that not only did he understand investment portfolios better than anyone else, he was a genius at hiding money from the feds, but still turning significant profits.  Gone were the days of suitcases of cash carried to Cayman banks.  Luchese buried money in Bahamian hedge funds which were then securitized and wrapped in Aruban gold futures, reconverted into credit default swaps in Barbados, and finally scattered through the West Indies in small private banks from which he – or the small Family investor – could withdraw with no federal scrutiny. 

“I could have saved Lehman Bros.”, he said after they went under in the first days of the recent financial crisis, “and I could have cut a better deal with Wall Street than Paulson ever did”.  It was a pipe dream, however, for he was a phantom financial adviser.  The only books he could show were cooked, juggled, or false, and his resume would be one long blank.  Still, like any good cook who secretly fancied himself a restaurateur, Larry had occasional visions of himself in a plush office on Park Avenue, riding in a stretch limo, and coolly trading billions a day.

When Larry retired, he moved to Tucson, and built a large house at the foothills of the mountains outside of town.  He loved the cactuses, rattlers, bone-dry climate, and brilliant sky of the desert – a welcome and long-desired change from the oppressive heat and humidity of Newark.   He lived there with his wife of 50 years, ‘a saint’ his mother had called her because she quietly put up with his years of hound-dogging; but he was a good provider,managed to stay alive and out of prison, and loved her.

He had always read Roman history, especially the ancient sources – Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus – but especially Plutarch; but as he got older, he found that factual accounts seemed dry and remote.  More than anything else, he became less and less surprised at historical events. Every Republic or Empire was predictably self-protective, expansionist, and hungry for wealth, power, territory, and status.  Theatre might better provide insights into the nature of history, and what better playwright than Shakespeare?  He read Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus over and over again.  He was taken by the Romans’ sense of honor and nobility, qualities he recognized in his Family.  Brutus and Cassius fell on their swords instead of suffering a dishonorable life, just like Frankie Garaffa who was given a choice – to honorably slit his wrists, or to be dishonorably blasted, disfigured, and left in a dumpster.  He was only given a choice because he was married to the don’s niece.  Otherwise treason – like in Elizabethan times – was punished by torture, public humiliation, and disgrace.  It wasn’t enough for English kings to cut off the heads of traitors like other more common enemies.  They had to be disemboweled, eviscerated, and then burned alive.

The greatest dishonor of all was to mess up your own suicide.  Shakespeare understood this, and many of his characters, through cowardice or moral failing, don’t get it right.  Cassius relied on a lowly slave to help push the blade in; Antony, although proclaiming honor, couldn’t do the deed himself.  Frankie Garaffa died an honorable death – in warm water in a bathtub, properly dressed, veins opened with two swift cuts, honorably calm expression on his face.

Every Ides of March – March 15th – Larry read Julius Caesar and read one of the character’s lines out loud.  One year it was Brutus, the next Cassius, the next Antony and then Caesar.  He even liked to read Portia’s and Calphurnia’s lines because they reminded him of some of the Family wives.  They loved their husbands – unusual in Shakespeare – and did their duty to warn them without meddling in their business affairs. Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, is distraught because her husband ignores the evil omens that are everywhere, especially those in her dreams.  She almost convinces him not to go to the Senate, but to suck in his male ego, and stay home; but Cassius, a conspirator, plays to his vanity.  He goes, and is cut down. 

Portia, Brutus’ wife, attuned to his changes in mood, sees that there is something wrong – he, like Hamlet, cannot make up his mind to kill the King – and she insistently, but not intrusively asks what is wrong.  Later she commits suicide because she anticipates Brutus’ death and either out of love for him – a kind of Roman suttee – or more likely because she does not want to be humiliated and dragged through the streets by the victors.  She commits one of the more inventive and horrible suicides in literature – she swallows hot coals.

When he looked at his wife, nodding off in front of the TV, Larry often reflected on what a difficult life it must have been for her, always worried about him and the survival of their well-appointed life together.  It was one thing for wives of real investment bankers to be concerned about profits and losses, bank accounts, and portfolios that could be wiped out in a minute; entirely another to worry about whether the next time you saw your husband was behind bars or worse as a worm-eaten corpse dug up out of the Meadowlands. 

Larry loved the scene where the conspirators are plotting.  Who can they rely on?  Who is completely trustworthy?  Who will snitch?  Cassius knows that Brutus is essential to the assassination because he has status, trust, and standing in Rome.  The people will believe him when he speaks.  Cassius has a silver tongue and uses it masterfully, as he tempts and cajoles Brutus, appealing to his honor, his trust, and his reputation.  Cassius understands Brutus for the vacillating, and indecisive, but principled Roman he is, and knows just how to convince him. 

No different in family conspiracies.  How can one Family bring down another?.  Who within it wants the opposing don dead and deposed?  Who of one Family does the rival don trust as an honest interlocutor? Who is with us and who is against us? Although as time went on and the FBI made serious inroads into the Mafia, business became only power and money.  In the old days, there were matters of respect, honor, duty, and responsibility.  Although people remember him because of Mark Antony’s sarcastic speech, Brutus was indeed an honorable man.  He believed that Caesar had to be killed for the preservation of the Republic, and he would kill his friend for this higher good.

Larry also liked the scene where Brutus and Cassius are bitching at each other over little things.  These are good and close friends who whale away at each other with powder-puff gloves, threatening swords and death, but friends to the end.  It was not even a question of power or authority, just close friends under pressure, cracking at the slightest fissure.

Because of The Godfather movies people think that Family business was cut and dry – order given, passed along the line from capos to lieutenants to workers with efficiency and discipline, all within the context of onore, omerta, and Sicilian nobility. What people don’t understand is that it is hard to maintain both discipline and management and a moral order.  Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra were all about running an empire and managing intense emotions of desire, self-preservation, and greed.  Coriolanus did not understand that he needed the people to rule.  Guns and butter were necessary at the same time.  The Families understood that.  Although they made their money through protection schemes and intimidation, they knew that most people were for them.  They would always help out a family in need, get the brother-in-law a job, give money, or beat up an abusive husband.  There was a trust and quid-pro-quo arrangement between them and their plebeians, and it was a matter of honor to live up to them.

The Romans were able to maintain their empire for so long and with so few enforcers in place because of this model.  People do not mind being ruled or losing their say if they get something in return.  The pax romana existed for so long because of a system of administration, management, and honorable agreements.  Both systems – the Families' and the Romans – understood that the people are docile, malleable, and eminently swayed.

Life in the Family had been good to Larry Marchese.  He had been fortunate to have had a skill which kept him out of the front lines but which also made him invaluable.  As part of his deft manipulation of international financial markets, his hedges within hedges were very profitable.  He and his wife would never have to worry.  He had a convenient moral and psychological firewall which protected him from the reality of the blood and guts of the business. Hits, murders, assassinations, and the modern-day equivalent of burning at the stake were part and parcel of the job – no different from the Romans administering their far-flung North African provinces.  In another one of Shakespeare’s ‘governance plays’, Measure for Measure, Lord Angelo rules with an iron hand, but defends his unequivocally harsh policies as humane because, he says, a society with discipline and control will not become unruly and uncivil.  It is better to burn someone alive today to save many innocent lives tomorrow.

Life in the Mafia was all about order and honor, no matter what people say.  The rest was no different than the rest of American civilian life.  People from Wall Street to Podunk behave in the same predatory, immoral ways.  The difference was the Mafia had moral structure and authority. 

Larry lived a good and long retirement.  He expanded his study of Shakespeare well beyond the Roman plays, and found that the playwright’s insights into human nature and behavior were uncanny.  He was given a pass by his old Family buddies who stopped by to visit on their way to Las Vegas – Larry had always been a weirdo – but his financial advice was and had always been invaluable.  After a few years of this informal helping out friends, Larry started taking commissions on profits.  This fell well within the code of the the Families.  Giving Larry some money if he made you some was like giving an envelope of cash to the bride on her wedding day.  He didn’t need the money after all he made from the West Indies; but it was the principle of the thing, the right thing to do to maintain the respectful relationship between friends and former partners.

“More people should read Shakespeare”, said Larry.  “He knew a lot”. 

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