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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

From Goomba To Nantucket In Short Measure–An American Success Story

Elliston  had its own Teflon Don – Angelo P _____, 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 a small town in the Northeast.

Angelo owned the gravel quarry, the trucking company which had contracts with every town from Francis to Bellingham, and the cement mixers which poured concrete for sidewalks as far south as New Haven. Other than a buying a new Cadillac every year and wearing handmade suits crafted by a Mulberry Street Italian tailor, 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 Angelo 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 Elliston knew Angelo’s real business, and that the gravel and cement companies were alleged 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, 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 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 Bradford where in one of the largest Italian communities in the Northeast, 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 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  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 G____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 G____family asked him to take over operations in Elliston.  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  was one of the most patriotic Americans in Elliston if not the state.  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?

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