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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween–The Oldest Extortion Racket In America

Halloween is a figment of its former self.  It has become a store-bought costume parade, a reason for a party, and a trick-or-treat night for children with more vigilance than Homeland Security.

It once was otherwise. Not that long ago Halloween was celebrated as a model for American capitalism – brass knuckled intimidation for personal gain. The homeowners in my leafy neighborhood took the ‘trick’ part of trick-or-treat seriously, because we punished those who threw a handful of candied corn or Hershey’s drops into our bags. We paraffined their windows, toilet papered their trees, and let the air out of their tires. We would remember the pikers on Jefferson Street next year; and if they didn’t up the ante with Mars Bars and Mr. Goodbar, they would pay.

This Mafia-style enforcement was given a generous bye by our parents because a) boys will be boys; b) no real harm was done; and most importantly, c) it taught us all a good lesson.

Enrico Palumbo was the downtown boss of the New Brighton Cosa Nostra. He had none of the dapper cachet of John Gotti; but was just as tough.  He controlled the construction industry throughout Central Connecticut and no cement mixer could pour sidewalks, no dump truck could pour gravel, and no foundations could be laid without the go-ahead from Don Palumbo.  He was a quiet, unassuming man who could often be found chatting with Jimmy Pantolino in Jimmy’s smoke shop on Main Street.  The two of them, friends from the old neighborhood in New Haven, smoked cigars and sipped anisette in the back room behind the girly magazines; and every so often the Don would go out to greet Jimmy’s customers.

Palumbo had no interest in shaking down the storeowners on Main Street – Katz the furrier, Axelrod the pharmacist, Fanucci the barber, or Cohen the jeweler.  He was their friend and would support them with or without a monthly payment. His real income was from the big boys – Ferraro, DeLoreto, and Pazzi – who owned the construction companies. DeLoreto alone was worth millions even in those days, and every time we passed his quarry on the way to Plainville and saw the caravan of trucks headed out to Bristol, Newington, and Wethersfield; or rode by his Italianate stone home on Reservoir Road, we knew he was rich.  So did Palumbo who leaned on him respectfully and politely and was greeted warmly at the Tiro a Segno Italian Club in Hartford for Thursday lunch.  It was no different than prosecutors and defense attorneys sharing a meal at the Yale Club in New York.

Of course the congeniality did not come easily nor at first.  Palumbo had to torch a few of DeLoreto’s trucks and break the legs of his drivers until he came around.  Palumbo was careful to raise the monthly tribute little more than the rate of inflation, and there was a certain camaraderie between the extortionists and those extorted.  But not for one minute did this show of respect and cordiality hide the fact that Palumbo would do anything to keep order, to maintain discipline, and to retain complete control of Mafia operations in Central Connecticut.  Just as many enemies were founding floating in the Connecticut and Farmington Rivers as in the Hudson or East River in New York.

“Enrico Palumbo”, said my father. “Now there’s an important man.  You could learn from him.” By that my father didn’t mean to apprentice myself to him or even hang around Jimmy’s when he was there; but to appreciate the theory behind the business. There was no difference between La Cosa Nostra and Wall Street, my father said.  They both know how to do what it takes to get rich. Both Wall Street and the Central Connecticut Mafia run by Enrico Palumbo had well-established hierarchies, kept company discipline, and insisted upon loyalty, secrecy, and respect. Both were canny investors who operated close to the line of the law – Wall Street just above it, Don Palumbo just below it, if you didn’t count the bodies in the river. 

Most importantly, they both knew how to lean on people to get things done. Threats and intimidation worked just as well with the banks and insurance companies down the line in Wall Street’s Ponzi schemes and shady derivatives as it did with Bristol construction companies.  My father wanted me to grow up to be successful in a legitimate business; but he wanted to be sure that I understood how the big boys got what they wanted.

Not all my friends had Mafia sympathizers like my father.  Most of them were old line WASPs whose grandparents were the captains of industry who had built New Brighton into the major industrial power that it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Most of my friends’ relatives had come of age in the era of the Robber Barons, the halcyon years of laissez-faire capitalism when government kept its hands off while John D. Rockefeller, Dupont, Carnegie, and Crane built railroads, oil refineries, and banking.  While their arena was smaller, these Connecticut proto-capitalists were no different in their take-no-prisoners approach to business. Destroy the competition, keep the workers chained to their machines, flaunt the government and its socialist laws, and make money.  Lots of money.

“See that house”, said my father, pointing to a large stone colonial house on Adams Street which was set on five carefully landscaped acres, flew the American flag from a tall flagpole on the front lawn, and from its perch on the highest promontory in the city, was indeed an impressive manor. “It belongs to William Graham, grandson of Hiram Graham who built Graham & Haverford Industries.  Old Hiram was one of a kind.  He had the brains of Rockefeller and the muscle of Don Palumbo. Without him, the city wouldn’t be what it is today. In fact, he and Enrico would have gotten along famously.”

So my father was a Robber Baron sympathizer as well, a rock-ribbed conservative for whom the Law of the Jungle and the principle of the Survival of the Fittest were as relevant now as they were back in the 20s. “The trouble all started with FDR”, he went on; but there I changed the subject.  I had heard his anti-socialist rants before.  I had gotten the picture, learned the lesson, and wanted to go play baseball on the Green.

I became the leader of our Halloween Gang. I was the oldest and indoctrinated them with my father’s muscular philosophy. We didn’t bother with the lame costumes of our classmates. We were just after the candy – the profits I called them – and wore only street clothes and ironic masks.  Pope Pius XII was my favorite.

We thanked neighbors politely when they, having learned from past experience, loaded our bags with Hershey Bars, Almond Joy, Reese’s Pieces, and Snickers. When a new neighbor or one who had misread our last year’s intentions gave us an apple or a home-wrapped, ribboned, mini-bag of worthless, dry cookies and pear slices, we politely demurred, said thank you and as menacingly as we could, “See you next year.”

Later that night, we snuck out of our rooms, met at the Vander School tool shed, and deployed in the neighborhood. We spared nothing. Offenders’ car windows were paraffined worse than a NYC subway car.  The air was let out of tires. “Do it creatively”, I said. “Front left and right rear, like that.” Rolls of toilet paper festooned privet hedges, dogwoods, azalea bushes, and low-hanging branches of oak trees. We were proud of our work; and unlike New York graffiti artists, didn’t have to sign our work.  Everybody knew who we were. Our parents covered our flanks, and in the months between Halloweens we went out of our way to be nice to those neighbors we had targeted.  We shoveled their driveways, raked their leaves, and walked their children home from school. Even if they suspected something, they never said.

My father appreciated this neighborly touch.  “Just like Enrico Palumbo”, he said.  “Iron fist in a velvet glove.  Besides”, my father went on, “the Don is always as nice as can be to DeLoreto and Pazzi and all the shopkeepers on Main Street. He just doesn’t like to be crossed.”

Ironically my father was a school teacher and in that modest profession had no chance to practice his Nietzschean theories.  From what I heard from my classmates, he was a good teacher – patient, even with the dummies, respectful, and supportive.  Ibsen believed that one can only achieve satisfaction when character and belief coincide; so my father must have champed at the bit, having to put up with school propriety and administration.  He never complained, however, and until the day he died remained an unreconstructed nihilist and radical conservative.

Our gang finally got hauled in by the police, and neither my father nor Don Palumbo could do any good. Given the small, tight community of New Brighton, we were let off with a warning, a note on the police blotter which would be erased when we reached 18, and a stern lecture by the Captain.

I turned out all right as did my fellow Halloween gang members. I ended up like my father – a committed Nietzschean, follower of Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Adam Smith; but a moderate professional.  I never broke anyone’s legs literally or figuratively, went about my intellectual business as a consultant and later teacher of philosophy; but always remembered the salad years of Halloween, paraffin, and neighborhood shakedowns in New Brighton.  My father had taught me well.

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