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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yale And The Mafia–The Story Of A Friendship

Larry Panto was a small-time Mafioso hood from Newark, made his living moving dope for the Petruccis and dumping cars Down Neck for the goombas who couldn’t meet their payments.  He got a cut from the insurance money and a lot of small favors from the neighborhood – a bottle of anisette, real Italian prosciutto off the Cristobal Colombo, and a few hundred here and there for his cousin’s wedding, baby clothes for his niece, and a nice cup of coffee in the afternoon when he was working the Port.

Larry’s ‘real’ job was at the City of Newark.  He didn’t have enough pull in the organization to get a no-show job, the plum of Down Neck political patronage, but a half-show job was nearly as good.  All he had to do was to show up at 10, shoot the shit at the water cooler until noon, and head down to the track at noon.  Every so often Joe Monti, the Section Chief, had him drive to the regional HUD offices in Philly, so Larry drove the hour-and-a-half smoking his best dope and listening to Frank Sinatra, talking football and pussy.

Bill Lacava was a good friend of Larry’s who got hired by the City not because he had a Yale degree and a Masters, but because he was Italian. He chose to work in Newark because of Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink Kenna two ward politicians from Chicago who symbolized for the young Lacava the romance of the last century and who had been reincarnated in 1960s New Jersey. Working in Newark would be a slice of life, la nostalgie de la boue, and a street-level view of the urban politics he had only read about at MIT.

Bathhouse John

It turned out of course that there was no romance whatsoever in a municipal office which fronted for every smarmy, back-alley deal that happened in the North Ward; which creamed thousands off ‘investments’ in Central Ward housing projects; and which was more than anything the downtown headquarters for the Democratic Party.

Bill had asked for a typewriter shortly after he joined the Authority.  He had a number of ideas about the proposed urban renewal of the North Ward and wanted to write a white paper outlining his thoughts.

“Billy”, said Paulie Domo, his supervisor. “Whaddya want with a typewriter? That’s what the girls are for”; and indeed every girl in the typing pool had a typewriter which she never had to use.  Although the girls never got any no-show jobs, they didn’t have to work.  Nor did they have to shuffle papers or look busy.  Everyone was in on the game, paychecks came regularly and every year there were raises and bonuses, so no one complained.

It didn’t take Bill long to realize that he too would not be expected to work, so he hung out with Larry Panto, got stoned with him on their trips to Philadelphia, and soon they became good friends.

Larry had no idea what to make of this Italian who spoke with a patrician New England accent, who had gone through the best prep schools of the Northeast, graduated with honors from Yale and an advanced degree in urban economics from the premier technical university in the country.  Larry’s Italians spoke goomba, barely finished high school, and began to work the streets by the age of ten.  The two friends were as different as night and day.

Larry, Harry, and Andy got whacked on Yellow Jackets and higher than a kite listened to Bill recite T.S. Eliot and The Sonnets.  Bill was happy to leave academia and his life of upper middle class propriety behind; and became as much a part of Newark low life as any outsider could.  He didn’t actually work the fork lift that dumped goomba Buicks into Newark Bay; nor did the drug deals with the schwarzes, nor got into street fights and brawls; but he was close.  He watched from a distance, rode to and from ‘engagements’ with Larry and his friends, and was a chronicler, an eye-painter, and a very interested observer.

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Larry never minded.  He didn’t expect Bill to make his bones. There was nothing to prove. Bill was not an apprentice or an intern in the business. He was just a strange Italian, not a goomba exactly, but with enough of the heritage to wear the colors at least for a few hours.

Although after he had left Newark Bill wondered if he had simply been a voyeur, an unequal partner with Larry, happy to tag along but run none of risks except maybe getting caught in a car with a trunk full of dope or cash; but he realized that he and Larry indeed had become friends.

Larry invited him to Mantoloking where his parents had a house, and Bill sat with Mr. and Mrs. Panto over coffee and cake, chatting about New England, Larry’s new bedroom set that the Pantos had bought as a wedding gift, the day-trippers who were clogging the beaches even as far down as Barnegat Light. He and Larry walked through the dunes, skipped stones over the waves, and talked pussy and life in general.

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Years later, after Bill had married and begun his professional career in Washington, he often thought of Larry Panto and wondered how two such different people could have become good friends.  In Washington his social circles were circumscribed and predictable.  His neighborhood was white, professional, and upper-middle class; talk was about politics, international affairs, and occasionally religion and philosophy.  The pasta fazool, bugnuts, anisette, and nougat candy of Down Neck were things of the past, not forgotten, but stored away and rarely considered.

Larry, he knew, had never left Down Neck – or at least carried it with him when he moved to Miami and Dallas. He still had mob connections, but only in conventional ways. Friends of friends helped him get a vendor’s license at Cowboy Stadium and saw to it that he jumped the line to get first choice at location.  He didn’t owe much in return out of respect for his father who continued to be a good lieutenant in Newark for years after Larry had left.  “Family is family”, they said to Larry. “Your father is a good man.”

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After almost forty years, Bill and Larry caught up on social media and then by email; and they eventually spoke of getting together, perhaps at Larry’s home on Key Biscayne. Yet Bill detected a reticence in Larry, even a reluctance. They never did meet, and soon Larry dropped out of sight, absent from Facebook and email. Eventually Bill found out that Larry had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Larry’s diffidence it turned out was not because he didn’t want to see Bill again; but because he hadn’t changed and Bill had.  Larry still lived Down Neck, and Bill had gone on to be a K Street lawyer, lobbyist, and political strategist. 

“But we’re friends”, Bill had told him when he first learned why Larry had been hesitant.

“In a way”, said Larry.

At first Bill was hurt by this.  For all these years Bill had been sure of their friendship, and more than anything he believed that friendship – ineffable, indefinable, and unique – had nothing to do with profession, family, or social grouping.  Very tactfully, indirectly, but clearly Larry explained that friendship might be as Bill described it; but only at 25, not nearing 70.  Larry knew that after their first embrace and the first hour of Down Neck memories, the two friends would look at each other with little to say.  They both had become case hardened without knowing it.

Bill was saddened by Larry’s early death.  He was convinced that Larry would come around and that they would eventually meet; and disappointed that it never happened.

A few years later he was going through his files he found a piece of a story which he had written about car-dumping in Newark Bay which captured the craziness of the Down Neck days and the curious nature of his friendship with Larry Panto.
While they all stood around thinking, 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 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 Pontiac, 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 Pontiac, 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 Pontiac 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.
Fanucci had been so fixated on setting up a car-dumping pyramid scheme where he would take a cut each time a goofball’s car went over the side and wouldn’t have to do it himself, he didn’t catch the innuendo, and wouldn’t have been impressed if he had. Fanucci had a reputation for dumping live bodies in the river. The cement shoes went on before the goofball was dead.
Besides, the dickhead who wanted in on the car dumping didn’t even have a driver’s license. He had gotten it pulled by the NYPD not only for causing three crashes on the B.Q.E but because his double dickhead uncle tried to fix the citations like they were parking tickets on Mulberry Street. Not that you needed a license to dump cars, Esta Drucker said; and you certainly didn’t need brains if Larry, Harry, and Andy could do it.
It was all bullshit. If it had been the day after bowling night, none of it would have ever come up.

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