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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In Praise of Immigration–Angelo Parducci, The Mafia, And Colonial Cement

New Brighton had its own Teflon Don – Angelo Parducci, a man who was no where near as dapper or elusive as the much more famous John Gotti, the boss of the New York Gambino crime Family, but impressive nonetheless in our small town in Central Connecticut.

Angelo owned the gravel quarry in Plainville, the trucking company which had contracts with every town from Bristol to East Hartford, and the cement mixers which poured concrete for sidewalks as far south as New Haven. Other than a new Cadillac every year and handmade suits crafted by an Italian tailor from Mulberry Street who took the New York, New Haven & Hartford every November to New Brighton for a fitting, Angelo lived modestly. He built a brick split-level on Adams Street, and although it was far too Mediterranean-looking for the West End, it was far less obvious than it could have been. At his wife’s insistence Parducci commissioned a replica of the Rizzoli Palace in Sorrento, but realized when he saw the architect’s rendering (below)  and realized that it would be too unlike the simple white frame colonial houses in the neighborhood, he demurred, offered his wife an even bigger winter residence in Bay Biscayne, and stuck with an American classic.

Everyone in New Brighton knew Angelo’s real business, and that the gravel and cement companies were fronts for extortion, money laundering, and wire fraud, but he was such a conscientious member of the community that they turned a blind eye.  He knew his place and never made a ruckus like other Italians and Jews who had been blackballed at the Green Acres Country Club.  He gave to the Annual Fund at St. Mary’s, supported the Boys and Girls Club of New Brighton, and contributed to the Democratic Party; but always kept his donations within the limits of social propriety.  The town’s old guard was as flinty as they come, and Angelo, while far more generous, kept his largesse within range.

He played golf with Father Mullins at the public course in Wethersfield, and although he knew the Archbishop, he kept the friendship quiet and low-key. He was careful to meet the city’s union bosses in New Haven where in the largest Italian community in Connecticut, they would barely be noticed.  He loved Jai Alai and the dog track, vacationed on the Jersey Shore in the summer, and sent his children to public school; but all in all he was a remarkably well-integrated first generation Italian.

He was serious when he told his wife that he would go legit before he was 70 and turn over the Family business to others.  He spent as much time running his successful above-board enterprises as he did leaning on the unions, making backroom deals with the aldermen at city hall, and negotiating productive truces with his competitors in in Bridgeport and Providence.

Angelo Parducci kept his feet in both worlds but for him like every other immigrant before and after, he wanted acceptance, legitimacy, and a piece of the American pie.  He understood that when his father arrived from Sorrento in 1890, paths to traditional success were blocked.  Luigi Parducci never looked down on his brothers who never managed more than menial factory jobs, but knew that he wanted more.  Not a barber, cook, or truck driver; but the owner of a chain of barber shops, restaurants, and trucking firms.  The way up for Italians was not paved with bank loans, advanced degrees, or family privilege but muscle, balls, and hustle.

Luigi knew about the Mafia in Sorrento.  Everyone did.  It was ubiquitous, powerful, and had been solidly entrenched in Southern Italy for decades if not centuries. The Mezzogiorno was always so poor and underdeveloped that La Cosa Nostra had an easy time acquiring and keeping power.  Stories of the internecine battles between branches of the Giotto, Mirabella, and Palumbo Families  were legion; but these were more the classic blood feuds of the South than any high-octane wars over wealth and profitability.  The Mafia was as traditional, old-fashioned, and backward as the region itself.

When he arrived in America and saw how the dons of Mulberry Street, Brooklyn, and Queens ran large, highly profitable businesses, controlled the operations of dockworkers, truckers, and police; and bought off judges, aldermen, and state representatives, Luigi was impressed. “America”, he told his young son. “Land of opportunity”. Neither Luigi nor his son Angelo years later ever resented the prejudice and hostility of the majority community.  They knew that America was such a big country full of potential and possibility for all, that all one had to do was to figure out how take advantage of it. They believed that the ends justified the means, and that America would eventually be better off through their enterprise, however distasteful it might seem to others.  Their stay on the margins of society would only be temporary; and within a generation, their offspring would be golfing at Green Acres and summering on the Vineyard.

Luigi left New York for New Haven, thanks to a patron from his home town who said that the opportunities for a smart young man would be better there, and worked his way through the ranks of the Guidone Family. Like all ambitious young men at that time, he did his share of beatings and ‘disappearances’; and he had his own Family-sanctioned business on the side.  A lot of Italian families in North Haven bought cars they couldn’t afford and contracted Angelo to dump them in New Haven Harbor so they could collect the insurance.  It was easy money for Angelo and his partners.  The gates to the harbor were rarely locked, a few bucks to the night watchman gained them access to deep water Pier 40, and when the barnacled bumpers of dumped Buicks on the top of the underwater pile started to show they moved to Pier 41.  No one cared.  The piers were abandoned and awaiting repairs which would never come; the insurance companies had made plenty in premiums so looked the other way; and the police had other fish to fry.

When Angelo was 31, the boss of the Guidone Family asked him to take over operations in New Brighton, 30 miles to the north.  Over the years he acquired the gravel and cement mixer business, maintained a steady cash flow of protection money and government kickbacks, and thanks to a natural accounting ability, kept his expenses to a minimum.  What with his legitimated and Family businesses, he became a wealthy man.

Angelo Parducci was one of the most patriotic Americans in New Brighton if not the state of Connecticut.  He voted faithfully in every local, state, and federal election.  He championed every principle the Founding Fathers had ever espoused; and was deeply committed to family and community values.  Whereas other first generation immigrants turned their backs on newcomers, he was never hostile to the many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who had come to Central Connecticut.  He was never hesitant to employ them as laborers, and offered opportunities to the most responsible.  By the 80s it was as likely to find a Jose behind the wheel of a cement mixer as a Guido.

“Let ‘em in”, he told his son who, as Angelo had predicted, had become an IT entrepreneur in Boston and indeed summered on Nantucket and played golf with investment bankers.  As a matter of fact Angelo saw no difference at all between their bare-knuckled tactics of intimidation, legal shenanigans, and muscle and his. His ambition, drive, determination, and willingness to do whatever was necessary was as American as apple pie. So what if a few bodies ended up in the East River?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Deception–Without It Life Would Be A Bore

So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious (The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare, Brothers Karamazov)

Dostoevsky’s Devil is a vaudevillian, a comedian who serves to spice things up.  What would life be without me? he asks. “It would be holy, but tedious”.

Franchot Gunn had a silver tongue and an effusive charm, and no one could resist him. Professors, women, colleagues, supervisors, and competitors were all seduced by his grace, intimacy, and personal concern.  They had no interest in really knowing who he was, what motivated him, or from what compassionate or spiritual spring his sympathy and understanding came.  He was so good at his elegant ballet, that people were enticed, engaged, and finally hooked.

They needn’t have bothered.  There really was nothing of great interest beyond Franchot’s engaging smile and direct, warm gaze.  He was complex, deeply introspective, and rigorously disciplined. He knew that the only thing that mattered in life was figuring out What Was What, wrestling with the same angels as Jacob and Job, and taking the words of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes to heart – eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die.

“Charm and a silver tongue will get you everywhere”, he told his young son. “The only lesson you will ever need to know.”  This bit of wisdom is of course not new, and ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ was the the guiding principle of P.T. Barnum, the greatest huckster in American history.  Although there have been plenty of pretenders to his throne, none understood the absolute gullibility of the American consumer than Barnum.  No matter how exaggerated his claims or preposterous the creatures in his side shows, people packed his big tent and kept coming back for more.

The list of evangelical hucksters is long and storied.  Starting with Amy Semple McPherson, many followed in her footsteps - Billy Sunday, Elmer Gantry, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Rick Warren. Every Sunday these pastors and many more like them sold a bill of goods to the faithful who packed their revival tents and mega-churches, filled the offering baskets, and wrote generous checks.

Dostoevsky suggests that Christ was the original huckster, offering man the promise of redemption and salvation but guaranteeing him nothing and consigning him to a live of hunger and misery.  Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness and His crafting of a message of hope to billions who would follow him – “Man does not live by bread alone” – was no more than a bill of goods.

Everyone is on the snake oil circuit – salesmen, politicians, Hollywood moguls, evangelical preachers, and the Catholic Church.  Ivan, railing at Christ says that the Church never took Him seriously but were overjoyed at His words which provided the foundation for millennia of deception, manipulation, and venality.

Sissela Bok wrote Lying and in it explored the moral and ethical dimensions of lying and how the practice, although common, was never justified.  She quotes Charles Fried:

A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong. Yet many lies do little if any harm, and some lies do real good. How are we to account for this stringent judgment on lying, particularly in face of the possible trivial, if not positively beneficial, consequences of lying? (Right and Wrong, 1978)

Robert Fullinwider summarizes Bok’s “Theory of Veracity”, a very strong moral presumption against lying:

What, she asks you, would it be like to live in a world in which truth-telling was not the common practice? In such a world, you could never trust anything you were told or anything you read. You would have to find out everything for yourself, first-hand. You would have to invest enormous amounts of your time to find out the simplest matters. In fact, you probably couldn't even find out the simplest matters: in a world without trust, you could never acquire the education you need to find out anything for yourself, since such an education depends upon your taking the word of what you read in your lesson books.

However, there are so many shades of lying (white lies, tales of fantasy, half-truths, minor deceptions) and so many compelling cases for benign lies (withholding a diagnosis of terminal cancer, “Mommy will be back soon”, or “The weather will probably clear”) that most people lie without even thinking twice about it.  Yet, as Bok observes, such pervasive lying is corrosive, and ultimately destructive.

Franchot Gunn shared none of these concerns.  For him like Dostoevsky’s Devil life was a carnival complete with mountebanks, carnies, bearded ladies, babies with two heads, and sideshows.  People take life far too seriously says the Devil.  In Bok’s world there would be no carnivals, circuses, tearful public apologies, or great novels. Everyone is deceptive and deliberately so.  The fact that they get caught in their lies does nothing to alter the equation – lying is the rule, honesty a tedious ideal, and the conflict of the two the stuff of theatre.  If people were as good as Bok hoped, we – as Ivan’s Devil suggests – would be bored to tears.

Franchot Gunn’s deliberate deception worked like a dream. His silver tongue enabled him to lull even his harshest professional critics.  Hours of revisions of proposals, reports, and company white papers were avoided because of his ability to convince people of the irrefutable logic of his arguments and the rightness of his cause.  His ability to marginalize enemies and build almost universal support among the staff gave him carte blanche. His charm was so convincing that even his severest critics never knew that he had hung them out to dry. He set his own hours, worked at his own pace, produced responsibly if sometimes superficially, and had more time to himself and his personal ambitions than anyone else he knew.

Despite his repeated and continually sexual indiscretions, his wife never had a clue.  Or more correctly, suspended her disbelief at his stories because of his enchanting charm and simple, heartfelt expressions of love and consideration.  His deception was so artful and so complete that she was the last to know about Franchot’s lovers and paramours. 

When he eventually did get caught – no one said that his elegant deceptions were foolproof – he was able, thanks to his silver tongue, to blend apology, contrition, love, and forgiveness into such a reasonable and emotional package that his wife again ignored even the most obvious signs of his infidelities.

Was any harm done? Not in his mind.  His wife and colleagues were all adults with reason, sense, and will.  The free market did not only apply to the buying and selling of products, but to stories, ideas, and character. There was no right or wrong in human commerce, just transaction; and deception was always been a part of it.

“Look at it this way”, Franchot explained. “The ends justify the means” He knew that in the marketplace of human nature he might one day meet his match and be snookered, taken for a ride, or hung out to dry. “Equal opportunity”, he smiled.

As far as I know Franchot Gunn was never taken in, seduced, or entrapped by anyone else’s silver tongue and charm. He was too good and too smart.  The nice thing of it all was that no one wanted him to come a cropper.  He had fooled so many people into thinking of him as the ideal lover, colleague, and friend that no one resented his successes or the ease with which he accomplished them.

Franchot Gunn lived and died a hero to many even though he never paid them any mind.