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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Search For Meaning - Patsy DiCecco,The Unlikely Philosopher From Down Neck

Patsy DiCecco was a gangster with a need for meaning. While his colleagues took their Catholic faith for granted, Patsy felt that after 7 years of catechism, religion, and the nuns at St. John’s parochial schools, and many years searching as a young adult, he had come no nearer the truth than when he started. 



He remembered the question-and-answer session led by Sister Mary Joseph perfectly well, but the older he got, the less he understood how an infinitely perfect being could have created this world and kept it in existence.

Who made you?

God made me.

Who is God?

God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence

Why did God make you?

God made me to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.



God was so unhappy with how the world he created turned out, that he destroyed it in The Flood.  Noah, whom he had chosen to repopulate the world with a hopefully better outcome, tried his best; but after many millennia – at least as far as Patsy could tell – the world had not improved one iota. 

Image result for image noah medieval paintings


Patsy was born in the wrong place – the Ironbound district of Newark, known to the locals as ‘Down Neck” because it was located on the curve of the Passaic River, and the heart of the Italian-American community and La Cosa Nostra – and to the wrong set of parents. Emilio DiCecco a laborer who rose through the union ranks on the docks to become Chief Crane Operator, then foreman of all operations on Piers 11 & 12, was, thanks to his loyalty, well-off. His basement was always well-stocked with Irish whiskey, and his wife was always elegantly-dressed in Dior and Chanel. 

Image result for images passaic river ironbound section newark

Emilio had a number of lucrative businesses on the side.  Many of his neighbors Down Neck found that after a year they could not keep up with the car payments on the new Buick.  For a fee or a favor, Emilio drove the LeSabres and Rivieras down to the docks and off into Newark Harbor.  The neighbors claimed theft insurance and shared the money with Emilio.  To initiate Patsy into the business, Emilio took him with him on a Buick run.

Everything went well until the end. Guido Fanucci, the ‘finishing man’ responsible for the final dump into the water, had positioned the Buick over the edge of the pier, it got caught on a winch cable and was hooked solid. While Emilio and his friends stood around thinking how to free the car from its moorings, dump it into the harbor, and go home, Fanucci went over to the warehouse behind the dock and climbed into a fork lift that was parked near some empty crates of whisky. In a few minutes, he got the engine started and in a cloud of black diesel smoke floated towards us.

Fanucci positioned the fork under the rear bumper, fiddled with the levers in the cab, and gunned the engine. Instead of lifting the rear of the car, the fork swung out from underneath. The lift whirled in a complete circle, the fork slicing towards Andy who jumped like a Cossack to avoid the prongs. Andy Pazzi went for Fanucci, who shut the door of the cab. “Try it out first, you asshole. Why do you think there’s different levers?”

Fanucci figured out the levers, moved the forklift back into position under the back of the Buick, and began to lift. As he did, the car began to slide forward and slowly tip farther over the edge of the pier. When the back wheels were about to go over, Fanucci stopped the lift and hollered, “I can’t go no more. I’ll go over with the fucking car”. The two huge prongs of the fork were too wide for the Buick, had gotten impaled on the fenders, and were sticking out like cow horns. The front wheels of the forklift were now off the ground; the front end of the Pontiac half-way down the wall of the pier and suspended over the water.

“Everybody move back”, Fanucci yelled. “I’m jumpin’ out”

The cab of the forklift, however, was perched high up over the engine, and to clear the door guards and the wheels, Fanucci would have to jump more than four feet sideways. Fanucci was even fatter than Charlie Broglio, who, after Larry’s uncle had gotten him a job with the Sanitation Department, found he couldn’t fit into the cab of the garbage truck. “He don’t even fit in the truck”, the supervisor said to Larry’s uncle. “Get him the fuck out of here”.

Fanucci revved up the engine, opened the cab door, and put the forklift in forward. The Buick groaned and whinged as it went over the side, pulling the forklift down on top of it. As both vehicles went down, the rotten guts of Port Newark came floating up – scummy tires, chunks of mattress, slimy, rotten shoes.

Just as Patsy was thinking how dumb Fanucci was and wondering how his father had gotten into the business, Emilio said to him, “So, how did you like it?”.  Patsy didn’t know what to say about the vaudeville show he had just witnessed, the grotesque circus clown Fanucci, or the shame of being in the same family as his father.

“You’re too smart for your own britches”, his mother warned him. “Nobody likes a smart aleck down here”; or “Mind your P’s and Q’s or you’ll run into real trouble someday”, a lesson that Emilio learned the hard way when he was a young teenager and had laughed at the wrong person at the wrong time.

Few people escaped the Ironbound in those days. Belonging to a tightly-knit community connected both to the Mafia and City Hall assured every family a decent living, a respectable, crime-free neighborhood, and a good home.  On the other hand, such social and cultural obedience, enforced by the mob, the Church, and the aldermen meant that no one left.  Patsy as smart as he was, would go to Catholic School, do odds and ends for the neighborhood bosses, get a no-show job at the Housing Authority, and move up the ranks in the organization but no further.

Image result for images piers port newark 60s

Surprisingly, he saw no incongruity between the life of a mobster and his philosophical pursuit of meaning.   “Sin is way overrated”, he said. If repentance and redemption meant anything, then the world would be a far better place than it was. Jesus had sold mankind a bill of goods when he defied the Devil’s temptations in the desert. Free will or no, people always committed the same mistakes over and over again, fight over them, and then concoct one scheme or another for personal – not divine retribution.

Image result for images christ's temptation in the desert

Duccio de Buoninsegna, www.thecosmiccathedral.wordpress.com

Had his family, neighbors, and friends known about his interest in Kant and Kierkegaard, they would have dumped him in the Passaic River, so absurdly irrelevant would they have found his obsession.  “What are you looking for?”, asked his closest friend and the only person in whom Patsy could confide.  “Everything’s right here Down Neck”.

Louie was right of course if he meant his comment as metaphor or the first verse of a parable. At the end of it all, was any one thing more relevant or important than any other? Was a life of routine, respectability, obedience, and faith in Newark any less meaningful than the CEO of Chase Manhattan? Every social grouping had its own code of ethics, moral precepts, and rules of conduct. No one was more moral than any other. Why, he thought, should omertà be any less of a standard than truthfulness or conventional honesty?

Some people like Einstein are simply smarter than others, born with God-given insight and an ability to draw general conclusions from very little.  Patsy DiCecco was one of those people. As he watched Fat Fanucci struggle with the forklift, he knew that this was as good as it gets.  No ambition would produce any greater results that the submerged pile of Buicks, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles in the Bay. No moral act would rank any higher than defending the honor of one’s family. No social architecture would be any more accommodating than St. Anselm’s Church, the Ironbound Fire Hall, Local #226, and St. Luke’s hospital.

Patsy never looked across the Hudson and wished he lived in Manhattan. He never envied the glitterati of Park Avenue, the intellectuals of the Upper West Side, or the off-Broadway crowd of the East Village. He was happy where he was. 

Image result for images Manhattan from New Jersey


He rose through the ranks and by the time he was fifty oversaw a large operation.  The docks, Central Ward prostitution, and the North End narcotics trade were all his. He survived in a violent, competitive world because of his brains, his savvy, and his values. Thanks to his Ironbound-nurtured sense of propriety, honor, and justice he was known as a fair and reasonable man.  He was sure that he was always as distant and distinct from the image of Fat Fanucci as he could be.  He felt he was an honorable man.

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