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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Necessary Role Of The Fixer In An Over-Governed Society–Doing Whatever It Takes

John Garaffa ran ‘Johnnie’s Smoke Shop’, a not-so-pretty store on Main Street – cigars, candy, girlie magazines, newspapers, whoopie cushions, and lottery tickets.  Johnnie’s also was the depot for New England Flyer, a bus service run out of Brattleboro for workers still employed in those few factories still operating in Waterbury, Meriden, Wallingford and the old Massachusetts mill towns of Chicopee, Taunton, Worcester, and Lawrence.  Jackie’s had been in the Garaffa family for three generations, founded in 1928 by John’s grandfather who had finally put enough away to move out of the  Calabrese and Sorrentino neighborhoods of Wooster Square and become more American.  Johnnie’s had started off as news stand – papers from Boston and New York delivered daily by the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad – but had gradually diversified into magazines, tobacco, and chocolates.  John’s father added joke items, pornography, cheap candy, rolling papers and bus tickets.  The store went from high-end service to the town’s lawyers, bankers, and doctors, to a more transient and lower class trade.

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By the time John Garaffa  took over the store, it had become a fixture of downtown.  Shabbier, more rundown, and tackier than the still-respectable pharmacies, dress shops, and haberdasheries on Main and West Main Streets, it still did a good business. While professionals now had their papers home delivered, and bought flowers and chocolates from high-end stores in Farmington and West Hartford, the ‘less desirable element’ of New Brighton took up the slack.  Puerto Ricans from the North End, Poles from the East End, and regulars on their way from Springfield to Wallingford bought more than enough to keep Johnnie in business.

After three generations in New Brighton the Garaffas were well-known and well-placed.  They contributed generously to the Democratic party and especially to ward aldermen who oversaw downtown and could add or subtract the little favors that made a difference to doing business.  They were friends with the big Italian construction companies – cement, sand-and-gravel, sidewalks, and foundations – the Jewish furriers and jewelers, and the Silesian delicatessens on Broad Street, and they were on close terms with the Scuzzi family, the local branch of the Gambinos of New York.

Johnnie Garaffa saw opportunity in New Brighton, and like any good American entrepreneur saw his niche.  While the Italians controlled the unions, and the construction and shipping industries; while the West Enders owned and managed the town’s mills and factories and the Irish ran City Hall, there was no one looking after the little man – the one without connections but who needed something fixed, problems with the rent, the gas bill, the neighbors, or the police.   Johnnie, with his connections to the factories, the unions, and the Mob, was perfect as a fixer; someone who could facilitate, intercede, call for and give favors to help the ordinary, working class.  He secured generous donations to the Police Benevolent Association thanks to his friends on Broad Street who provided cheap, newly immigrant labor to work on additions and renovations for the homes in the West End in return for cash for the police.  He interceded with the Principal of New Brighton High for parents whose children were failing.  The principal had political ambitions – the mayoralty was not an impossible goal – and Johnnie knew the right people on the electoral commission and the Democratic party to give the principal a head start.  Soon after connections were made, the boy who had been dismissed for failing grades was reinstated, given special attention and honors.

John Garaffa never involved himself in dirty business – that was for the town’s heavy hitters. In his life he had certainly suggested or implied the use of muscle and other ‘extrajudicial’ means of coercion, but always kept many degrees of remove.  The worst he could ever be accused of was complicity, and even then there was always the possibility of benign compliance – the problem fixed without extraordinary measures.

John Garaffa lived in a far more permissive and less controlling age.  The age of sanctimony was still decades away, and life was managed more simply, more directly, and with fewer consequences than in years to come. Favors, gifts, back-scratching, and backdoor quid pro quos were still the lubrication of the in-between generations – those born after the laissez-faire, no-holds-barred era of the Robber Barons but before the progressive movements to purify and expunge any traces of inequality and unfairness.  The reason why John Garaffa was so successful is because he filled in the gaps, closed the cracks, provided the putty and grouting necessary in a necessarily imperfectly constructed world.

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Garaffa’s grandfather had come over on the boat from Naples in 1889, landing in New York and then making his way up to New Haven.  He had left Italy, his large family, and his small holdings behind for America.  He knew that he would never see them again, never return to Alife and the few but gentle comforts of the Mezzogiorno.

When he arrived in New Haven he was taken in by his fellow Sorrentinos and taken in hand by the Italian ‘infrastructure’ of the day.  Immigrant Italians could never assume or expect fair treatment, justice, economic advantage or opportunity at the hands of the Irish and native Americans; and turned to their own for favor, protection, and help.  The Mafia was the only municipal administration and police force that the Italians knew.  Rather than rely on a system of laws, they turned to a system of favors, an egalitarian one which did not measure favors by economic value but by degree of tribute, promise, or respect.

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While in spirit Grandfather Garaffa was an ideal American – enterprising, risk-taking, adventurous, and canny – he was an Italian in practice.  He knew that only by working this system of favors, quid pro quo, backscratching, and mutual respect could he get the permits, licenses, and security he needed to get ahead.   It was an efficient system, one far more direct and honest than the official one.  While City Hall bureaucrats delayed applications and certifications because of apathy, indifference, or ill-disguised lack of respect for Italian newcomers,  the process could be sped up by a combination of offers and threats which an individual alone could never manage.  The time between an initial, well-placed complaint to the local Italian bosses and public action was only a matter of days.  More serious matters such as criminal offense or assault and subsequent indifference or inactivity on the part of police and prosecutors had to be referred up through the hierarchy; but justice was always served.

The new Italian immigrants wanted nothing more than to be completely American.  One of the things they had fled, especially in Sicily was La Cosa Nostra, and it was ironic that here in free, liberal America, they were forced once again to turn to them.  Yet, that was the way of immigration – to keep the optimism and can-do American spirit alive and well while turning to old, tried and true practical means of enabling it.

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It was not surprising, then, that Johnnie Garaffa became a fixer.  He understood that nothing had changed between his grandfather’s day and his – one always did what it took to get ahead; and while the rules of the game had changed, gaming the system to find loopholes and thread through them, understanding balances of private and public power and above-ground and underground influences had not changed.  He was a master of working both sides of the street, currying favor and staying out of trouble, always maintaining a positive balance on his ledger, and counting more friends than enemies.

Edson Senna was an Angolan fixer.  A veteran of the long, bloody civil war between the government and southern rebels, Senna, because of his intelligence, fearlessness, and understanding that wars were for winning at any cost, quickly rose through the service to the rank of captain.  By the time he was decommissioned, Edson knew everyone who mattered on both sides of the conflict.  The years immediately after the truce in Angola were chaotic, anarchic ones.  There was no rule of law, no police, a crumbling physical infrastructure, and divided, hostile social one.  It was the ideal environment in which Edson could and did thrive. He was able to arrange anything.  The importation of cars from Namibia, quick Angolan registration and titling, no taxes, and no problems was simple.  He crossed the border, bought illegally imported cars for a song, drove them back to Angola, sold them to Angolans and foreigners for three times the price he paid, and paid only a small fraction of his revenues in bribes and payoffs.

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He was hired by foreigners, desperate to avoid the crowds, shakedowns, and intimidation at the airport, to simply get him on the plane.  He arranged for shipments of everything from German blenders to French small arms.  Visas, work permits, exit documents…all were easy to arrange.  Edson made thousands, lived well, and served his country.

Of course he had his critics.  Engaging Edson and circumventing the official system was to perpetuate government anarchy, the liability of lawlessness, and to postpone the establishment of civil order.  Yet even the most ardent believers in social reform and the reconstructing of the country, hired Edson for one thing or another.  In a chaotic social environment, why should an enterprising, savvy, and canny man be criticized?

Most American appreciate the rule of law in principle, but see how easily and how often it is abused.  Money, the enabler and corruptor of capitalism and liberal democracy, still defines politics, religions, and social mobility.  Government, which the Founding Fathers envisaged as being the people’s advocate, has become the people’s nemesis.  We feel trapped within a government system of restrictive laws, intrusive public behavior, and narrow political interests rather than liberated by it.  Jefferson envisaged individual enterprise having value only within a supportive and respected society.  Community and individual were two essential, indispensable parts of the same system.  He would be appalled today by what has been a supreme arrogation of government authority expressed in repressive rules, regulations, and stipulations; and by the inchoate and irrational public movements for identity and personal satisfaction.

Which is why many Americans want to bring back Johnnie Garaffa and Edson Senna and the rule of unofficial law – not to dark web operatives clandestine 007 assassins who have always existed and always will; but to ordinary fixers who take care of business when business is hard to come by.  A world without so many harnesses, reins, and traces; one in which the individual feels less manipulated and used than independent. 

It is no accident or surprise that the Wild West still holds an allure; or that it is still an icon of American individualism.  We may be happy that duels, renegades, and shootouts are things of the past; and that the rule of law prevails; but the more we are taken into what seems to be perpetual protective custody, the more we mistrust government as an institution.

Where are the Johnnie Garaffas and Edson Sennas when we really need them?

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