The Wise Guy Wannabes
Editor’s Note: Before last week’s racial killing in Bensonhurst, reporters Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum spent several months in the neighborhood. Here is their report. Some of the names and identifying characteristics in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the participants.
NICO AND FRANK sit on a bench, waiting for some of the assholes from 86th Street to drive by. This is 81st Street, an important neighborhood boundary in Italian Bensonhurst, and guarding it is the righteous thing to do. The pavement is already littered with freshly broken bottles from a nearby garbage can recently dumped over an offending Tans Am that dared to cruise the border without an invitation. “For some reason I’m up all the time,” says Frank, a lanky 20-year-old with black hair and brown eyes who seems immensely likable when he doesn’t have a bat in his hand. “I just like to abuse people. That’s all.”
“That’s it,” intones Nico, satisfied that Frank has provided the best explanation for their nightly presence in the lot on the corner of 81st Street and 18th Avenue in Brooklyn. What looks like a barren inner city park — a patch of asphalt dotted with a few trees and benches — is really a prized piece of real estate, an outpost on the edge of the largest Italian neighborhood in New York City. While Frank and Nico share their nightly communion of Bud tallboys in the park, their girlfriends play bingo at nearby St. Agnes.
Most of the guys on the comer spend their time pining after city jobs. But a few diehards like Frank strive for a position in “La Cosa Nostra,” one of New York’s oldest and most respected firms.
They are Bensonhurst’s hard-core. Some of them will eventually grow up to be wiseguys. Most of them won’t. None of them, however, will grow up untouched by the antiquated style and casual violence foisted on them by almost a century of Mafia tradition. Seldom discussed except in oblique references, the Mafia presence still pervades Bensonhurst, cloaking the neighborhood in ostentatious secrecy, like the tinted windows of the stretch limousines that line 18th Avenue.
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To ingratiate himself with the local wiseguys, Frank has worked protection in Chinatown. He has also twice broken into a local video store directly across the street from the park where he and his friends hang out; both times, he was caught in the act. Frank has a local wiseguy sponsor who looks out for his interests if Frank is arrested — or, worse, incurs the wrath of another wiseguy. (Frank divorced his previous sponsor, who had recruited him to hit up the video store but didn’t follow through for Frank when he was arrested.)
Tall, athletic, and aggressive, with dark eyes and a lean sculpted face, Frank is the undisputed leader of the corner pack. Whereas Nico has grown weary of “feeling like a punching bag,” Frank still enjoys piling into a car with friends and, as he puts it, “going over to the the Village to beat up some yuppies.” Oddly, Frank’s toughness comes across not as mean or hardened, but as unbridled animal energy. He is often sweetly charming and eager to make friends. He is also one of the first to fling a bag of garbage when a Hispanic passes by.
Thanks to an uncle in the union, Frank has worked part-time setting up props for soap operas. But he doesn’t like the idea of marking time nine to five. “A couple of years from now I’ll be in the Mafia,” he predicts, adding, “You know what I seriously figure: If I get shot in the head, I ain’t gonna’ feel it. That’s it. You’re dead.”
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IN SPITE OF THE VIOLENCE that lurks just beneath the surface, Bensonhurst exemplifies, in some ways, the stereotype of an urban Italian neighborhood popularized in such films as Saturday Night Fever. Up and down 18th Avenue, girls in tight skirts and pants strut along in small groups, their long, lush hair sprayed to baroque heights. They pass bakeries full of sweet Italian pastries and block after block of stores specializing in wedding regalia. Happy brides and grooms, resplendent in middle-class finery, beam from large gilt frames in photographers’ windows. Silver-haired men, speaking in the rhythmic cadences of their Southern Italian dialect, gather on the corners. Up and down the main drag, the kids cruise in big American-made cars, their windows tinted like real Mafiosi. In the distance, a car horn sounds; in short, flat tones, it plays out the first 12 notes from “The Godfather” theme. On the side streets, immaculate, miniature front yards boast plaster statues of the Virgin Mary.
The same pacific image of the Virgin also adorns the burly right forearm of one neighborhood tough known as “Hard Jaw.” Tatooed on his other arm is an ornate red and green cross. It reads simply IN MEMORY OF AUGIE, a friend who was killed in a police chase several years ago.
Sudden death from less than natural causes is not unusual in Bensonhurst. Early last fall, Robert Napolitano, 19, of 1659 West 10th Street, went for a drive with his girlfriend, Lisa Ciullo. While they were parked, an unidentified man fired five shots through their windshield. Napolitano died instantly. His girlfriend survived with a wound in her left leg. A few weeks earlier, one of Napolitano’s best friends, Marco De Fina, 19, was also killed in an execution-style shooting. His body was dumped on a dirt road in an isolated industrial park in Coney Island. Neither case has been solved. The two fallen teens, however, left behind a cadre of Bensonhurst toughs ready to take their places on the street.
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Most of the guys who hang out at 81st Street and 18th Avenue are young and unemployed. Although few of them know more than a curse or two in Italian, they can all name the old towns in southern Italy from which their families came and for which most of the social clubs in the neighborhood are named. A few blocks from their corner is the old bakery where the “Pizza Connection” heroin busts were made. At 74th Street and 18th Avenue is the Caffe Giardino, allegedly owned by Giuseppe Gambino, nephew of Carlo, who served as ”boss of bosses” in New York until his death in 1976. In December, Giuseppe and nine others were arrested at the cafe on suspicion of heroin and cocaine trafficking. Law enforcement agents appeared at the cafe, took the microphone from a newly imported Italian singer, and reportedly announced that some of the guests had danced their last dance.
The Mafia gave up its aversion to dealing in drugs decades ago, but drug use in Bensonhurst is still largely forbidden. Nico describes how he saw Sal, a young enforcer for the mob, put a sleeper hold — a tight lock around the neck that cuts off blood and oxygen to the brain — on a crackhead. “Sal grabbed him and just put him to sleep, dropped him on the ground. The kid was out,” Nico says. “They’re up to no good, these crackheads. We’re cleaning the neighborhood up.” The youth of Bensonhurst pride themselves on keeping out disorganized crime such as muggers and burglars. “This neighborhood is Top 10,” brags Joey, a corner regular. “I rate it nine out of 10 on safety. My mother could walk through here with a hundred dollars in her pocket.”
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Street crime is not the only thing locals fight to keep out. New immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean are now making their way into Bensonhurst. Their reception often includes having garbage bags and eggs thrown at them. As the young men who hang out on the corner see it, Little Italy has been almost wiped out by Chinatown and the surging waves of Asian arrivals. And the few remaining Italian neighborhoods in the Bronx get smaller every day.
“You have a siege mentality [in Bensonhurst] now,” says Bob Massi, a Brooklyn legal aid attorney who grew up in the neighborhood, hanging out on street corners and polishing his knuckles on other people’s faces. “The Italians who are there now have moved there from other parts of the city. It’s white flight — the last Italian neighborhood.”
In their own view, the armed legions of Bensonhurst are playing out their neighborhood’s final stand. Fortified by their faith in the Godfather myth and armed with baseball bats, beer bottles, and pamphlets calling for a boycott of local Chinese businesses, the youth of Bensonhurst have taken their battle to the streets. “This neighborhood has been Italian for 100 years and it’s not going to change,” vows Salis Reyna, a neighborhood loyalist.
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ALTHOUGH ONLY LOWER-LEVEL Mafiosi still live here, the big players do business in the small but exclusive cafes that line 18th Avenue. “These guys are heroes to [the neighborhood] kids,” says one detective familiar with Bensonhurst. Bensonburst is still a place where rules of long standing must be followed, and where stepping on the wrong toes can get you “clipped.” “We pretty much answer to certain people around here, wiseguy people,” explains Nico. ” ‘Cause they’ll shoot you in the head and not think about it the next day.”
Nico, 23, is a plumber who works off the books for people in the neighborhood. He has a wife, a girlfriend, a $600-a-month apartment, two cars, and a Pomeranian to support. He hasn’t worked for two and a half months, but that’s no problem. There’s always money to be made on his own scams or doing favors for local wiseguys.
As the oldest corner regular, Nico is treated with deference. He is trim and good-looking, with small regular features (the kind of face girls would call “cute”) and brown hair cut short on top and long in the back, like a neat rocker. Nico dresses in casual chic — jeans and a waist-length black leather jacket — and usually sports heavy gold jewelry. In a neighborhood where men have perfected the art of boisterous camaraderie, his manner is subdued. Nico gives the impression of being in control, although his brown eyes shine with wry humor.
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“They always said I was gifted,” Nico says. “And I was supposed to be admitted to a gifted school. But I didn’t really want to go. Fourth grade they pushed me ahead to fifth grade. Fifth grade they pushed me to junior high. Junior high pushed me to high school. And high school I dropped out” — dropped out and got married.
Almost before the conjugal sheets were dry, Nico’s teenage wife began an affair. Nico had a serious talk with his wife’s father and promised not to hurt the interloper if he agreed never, under any circumstances, to drive or walk down 18th Avenue or 81st Street. To help even the score, Nico took a girlfriend. Neither he nor his wife has sued for divorce. These days, Nico continues to see both his wife and his girlfriend. Tonight, he will go bowling with his wife.
As Nico relates his story, a middle-aged man with stooped shoulders slouches by. “Hey Pete,” he calls jovially. “How’s the wife and kids?” The man drops his head and limps on. “His wife left him two months ago and took the kids,” explains Nico with a wry grin. “It’s a big mental scar for him.”
It is Sal — who also happens to be Nico’s girlfriend’s brother — to whom Nico and Frank look to as their sponsor. Sal — who is also a low-level arms dealer — doesn’t have time to hang out. “He’s got connections,” says Nico. “He’s on the payroll. He takes care of things when they need to be taken care of — somebody’s got to be hurt, somebody’s got to be finished. You know, whatever.” In spite of the fact that Sal’s father works for a rival firm — the New York Police Department — Sal’s career and reputation are legendary.
Not long ago, Sal’s van was broken into, and suspicion fell on a trio of locals who used to hang out on the corner but got a bad reputation when they began using crack and stealing. “One crackhead robbed a van,” Nico begins the story, which he and Frank toss back and forth like a football. “They thought he robbed a van,” Frank corrects. “Sal found one of them. He got Miles.”
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“Sal hit him over the head with a bottle,” Frank says. “Then he grabbed him by the back of the head and stuck the end of the bottle in his face, right in the nose. Thirty-six stitches.”
“Still, he just wanted to get a word out of him,” amends Nico. “He just wanted to get names.”
“So the guy he stabbed in the eye gave up everyone else,” continues Frank.
“He said he had nothing to do with it,” prompts Nico.
Sal soon caught up with the next kid. “He stabbed him in the throat — slit him — 17 stitches,” Frank says. “The kid was layin’ on a bench, and he lifted his leg up. Sal was goin’ for his heart but he stabbed him in the leg, ripped and went through his leg. And he wanted to kill him. But the kid ran out on the highway. So he just watched. He figured it would be like the nigger that got killed on the highway” — a reference to the Howard Beach incident.
“But there was no cars comin’,” says Frank, throwing up his hands in a gesture of mock helplessness. “There’s no cars comin’,” echoes Nico, laughing.
“So he got away. Then he found out it wasn’t even those kids,” Frank says, concluding, with a laugh, “it was someone else! So they’re friends again. So you know what Sal says. He says, ‘I’m sorry!’ ”
“I’m sorry!” exclaims Nico, also laughing. “And the kid’s so petrified of Sal, he says, ‘Okay. Everything’s all right.’ And he’s got a scar from here to here.” Nico runs his finger from his ear to his Adam’s apple.
Nico later admits that one of the crackheads was Sal’s brother. “Sal was lookin’ to kill him. He was lookin’ for him for a long time. He finally got to him and put the gun to his head, but he couldn’t do it. Because he knows his mother would never forgive him. And he’d never forget it himself.”
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THE VIOLENCE THAT UNDERLIES the neighborhood’s calm surface is revealed in small as well as dramatic ways. Even when the guys on the corner are not doing anything that might attract police attention, they play at being wiseguys. Most of them own BB guns. And on a really slow night they meander down to Gravesend Bay and shoot at rats — “target practice” for more serious games.
Nico gestures at “Little Ralphie,” another corner regular, and says, “That cocksucker shot me in the ass,” a congratulatory tone in his voice. “That was a real professional hit.” Nico relates how Little Ralphie pulled up in his car and squeezed off several shots. “I said, ‘Okay. That’s all right. I’ll get him later.’ Meanwhile, it left a welt this big on my ass. So when I was ready to leave, I was sittin’ in the car. I loaded it up. I said, ‘Okay, Sal, I’ll see you later.’ I rolled down the window. Boom, boom, boom.”
In Bensonhurst, such games still have a counterpart in real life. Nico recalls how Sal warned a neighborhood local who had gone into debt to the wrong people. “He shot the kid six times. I mean point blank from here to the tree. The kid didn’t die. But Sal was using target practice bullets in a .32 and they were just bouncin’ off his leather jacket. Like gettin’ hit with a bat. They chipped his ribs. But they didn’t hurt him. Then his uncle came down and gave Sal $20,000 [not to kill him].”
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In addition to acting as muscle for the mob, Sal has a lucrative little side business, with which Nico occasionally helps him out. “The hand grenades are going like water,” says Nico. “Sold two dozen already.” At $100 a piece, Nico is thinking about buying one himself. He already owns a handgun that he purchased from Sal. It is part of a small, traveling arsenal in Nico’s trunk that includes two baseball bats, a lead sap, brass knuckles, a machete, and a tangle of wires Nico says is a phone tap.
Although Nico and the older guys on the corner always have plenty of cash for cocaine and custom windshields, most say that what they really want is a city or union job. Nico gestures toward a muscular young man with a round face who is holding court on the corner: Everyone wants to know what he thinks of the big name next week. His manner is low-key, like the strangely suburban Accord hatchback he drives, a practical purchase made with proceeds from his mob-sanctioned bookie job. “That’s Pino,” says Nico. “He’s afraid of guns. He’s the gambling part. They have nothing to do with violence. Nothing at all. But he knows the street laws. He’s a smart kid that way. He don’t make trouble. We’re both looking to get into Conrail. He wants the benefits, just like I do.”
Due to competition from Asian and Caribbean gangs, the Mafia has not expanded much over the last few years, but its potential labor pool has. Few opportunities remain in New York’s “last Italian neighborhood.” “A generation ago we were working in construction and the skilled trades,” says Bob Massi. “We were printers, bricklayers, longshoremen. Those jobs are not so well-paid now. Those industries are gone. The kids are up against an economic brick wall. The world is a computer that has no unions and all they have left is the neighborhood.”
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IT IS FRIDAY NIGHT. Frank and the rest of the guys are out in full force. A restless spirit has added a festive air to the evening’s activities. Eggs are being purchased in bulk. Before the night is over, several dozen will be thrown. As a likely looking car drives by, Frank winds up a long and powerful pitch that unleashes with athletic speed, slamming his fragile missile against the moving target.
But throwing eggs isn’t really satisfying. It’s much better to pick a fight. Fighting is, after all, a legitimate, even redeeming, pastime in a world marked by tribal divisions. According to Frank, Brooklyn Italians hate Long Island Italians, Long Island Italians hate Jersey Italians, and they all hate Staten Island Italians. Furthermore, Brooklyn Italians from different turfs are also obliged to knock heads. “If different Avenues are at a club, they always have to fight each other,” he explains.
If no more likely target is available, the guys may stoop to beating up a bum in another neighborhood. But most of the time they would rather fight. In fact, it is part of Frank’s purported frustration with some of the passing victims that they aren’t eager to take on the 81st Street crew. The few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians who wander into the neighborhood are rarely anxious to tackle 10 to 12 young men clustered on the corner. But the lopsided numbers don’t perturb Frank — the rule is, outnumber and catch the outsider. Frank would expect the same treatment if be ventured alone outside his boundaries.
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This group harassment is now being directed not only at passing pedestrians, but also at minorities who have recently moved to the neighborhood. These people cannot avoid Bensonhurst after dark. They live here.
“You know, you’re not white, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the neighborhood,” says Gi, a Trinidadian immigrant to Bensonhurst who says he has twice been beaten and robbed by the local kids. After returning from a recent trip to the Caribbean, Gi says, his landlord tried to evict him in favor of a white tenant.
Two young Hispanic men walk by the corner, both of them rather small. Frank cheers when Tim, an Irish-Italian corner regular, trots up behind them, an egg in one hand, and slams his fist into his victim’s face with a sickening crack. Yolk and shattered egg shell drip slowly down the young man’s chin onto the sidewalk. Frank applauds Tim’s efforts, but disparages the victim: “The Mexicans are no fun. They don’t fight back.” Across the street, two Asian youths round the corner and Frank charges them, flinging a garbage bag at their retreating backs. “They walk through here like they got America by the balls,” says Tim, crying, in a mocking tone: ” ‘I got the green card. I got the green card.’ ”
Nico recalls an evening a few weeks earlier when he chased a young black couple down the street for “making out at the bus stop.” He casually admits to feeling bad when he found out they were retarded.
Across the street, a skinny 16-year-old named Angelo Berkowitz watches the egg-throwing but doesn’t join in. Angelo, who pleads guilty to being Jewish somewhere back in his Italian lineage, stares out at the action from under a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. “You know,” he says, taking in the scene, “they think they’re right, but they’re really wrong.” On the other hand, he argues with himself, “It isn’t such a bad thing, really. What if this neighborhood was Mexican and black and Chinese?” Would that be such a bad thing? “Yeah …” he replies, his voice trailing off.
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The evening winds down when a police car stops and two angry officers slam the doors, kicking half empty egg cartons out of their way. “You’d better knock this shit off,” snaps the tall, fair-haired one with glasses. “Haven’t you guys got anything better to do at your age?” The police pull away and Frank waves goodbye by grabbing his crotch. “I hate cops,” he says. “My dad hates cops too. He told me if I ever became a cop not to bother to come home.”
Breaking the neighborhood rules is not tolerated, but breaking the law is, especially if it involves crime in a minority neighborhood. Nico freely admits to making money by working protection for a drug dealer in a nearby Puerto Rican neighborhood. A few weeks ago, he and a friend went to check out the drug dealer. “We figure we let him [the dealer] sit in the car for an hour and give him a little protection, a little whatever. Keep him warm. And he threw us some coke. The next thing we went back again and he gave us [some] again. He’s got this black guy who breaks heads for him. They’re all punks over there. It ain’t nothin’. I mean if we wanted to go over there and start takin’ over, it would be no problem.”
Like the real wiseguys, Nico also knows how to earn money the old-fashioned way: He extorts it. He says a woman friend of his is skimming money at a neighborhood grocery store. In return for not spilling the beans, Nico boasts, he pulls down several hundred dollars a week. In Bensonhurst, it’s called making a living.
From an early age, Bensonhurst kids are taught to look the other way when questionable business in progress involves their own. Dishonesty isn’t a crime, but giving up the wrong people is. Bob Massi recalls a childhood incident: “A guy my father knew walked out of his house. My father said, ‘Where’s Tony?’ I didn’t understand, so I said, ‘Right over there.’ He smacked me. ‘You don’t see nothin ‘,’ he said. ‘You never see Tony.’ ” ■