Photo by Howard Brier
All names in this story have been changed.
It is not every day that one visits an Ashram for yoga and encounters a “retired” Mafia soldier, adrift there because of illness and poverty. From my end, I envisioned a documentary film covering his faded world; however, for his own security – though the events occurred many years ago - he wished to limit his exposure to the following narrative.
If you travel on the Cross Bay Parkway, past what is called Howard Beach, you probably would not give it much of a glance. More likely you are traveling through the Ozone Park district to the Rockaways. But if you look to the right, you would notice a strip of non-descript stores and located behind them, ordinary, single-family homes. Howard Beach’s claim to fame was via its most famous resident - the now deceased, “Dapper Don” John Gotti. It was there that plans were made to develop, expand and make profitable various criminal enterprises that would make him infamous. This is the story of Johnny. He was only one of the minor minions but in speaking with him, he was quite open in his respect for Gotti and proud to describe his path to the mob.
Johnny is tall and gaunt with a wide, open face marked by a certain sensuality that shapes the contours of his mouth. His language is marked with “rough” talk, but a beguiling smile belies his claim to be a “stand up guy.” You cannot help noticing the shadow of a one time “tough guy,” but now a relic; ravished by time and cancer. He proudly defines himself as gangster; actually a Mafia foot soldier…
First, I want you to know that I was always a stand up guy. Personality doesn’t change. I was from a large family and we were all different in our ways. I respected my father, but he was distant like many men of his generation. A World War II veteran, he would never talk about his experiences. He was a hard, adventuresome man and in his youth even acted as a guide for hunters in Maine. Eventually he made his way to Long Island after marrying my mom and became a truck driver then later a fisherman. Myself, I didn’t like fishing. I didn’t like studying. I was always a person of action.
I would say my family was very straight but it wasn’t “Ozzie and Harriet”. Father was a driven guy and mother was overwhelmed with seven of us. They did their best but couldn’t do much with such a large brood. We were left on our own. In contrast to my brothers and sister who were into education, I liked the active, more physical world and hung around with older, hard guys. Since I was big and strong for a teenager, they accepted me. As for my own large family, I only ever had a connection with my brother John. He never made “judgments” but we still saw the world differently. He was interested in saving humanity and I, in making it in the world the best way possible. The family ignored me and with my negative attitude toward school, assumed I was “going to fall on my face”. For a while I worked in the family business and I learned early to play two types of lives; the “knock around life style”, where one lives for the excitement of the moment”; and the straight life, which I found to be mostly a pain with its predictable hills and valleys. But even with these two kinds of lives, I was a family man; the kids came first.
There were always challenges, but I was an optimist with a faith that ultimately life is run by the angels. I believed whatever the adversity, one should figure how to make it the best way possible . In my first marriage, our new born was lethargic and had difficulty breathing. They could not handle him at the local clinic and urged us to rush him to the hospital. But there is no hospital in Howard Beach. So there I was on Cross Bay Boulevard and my car broke down. Jumping out onto the road, I tried to flag down help but no one would stop. In desperation I scooped him up in my arms and ran and ran until finally some cop picked me and brought me to the hospital. Staggering into the emergency room I screamed for a doctor. They immediately attempted to revive him but it was too late. Only years later I learned about the diagnosis of “sudden infant death syndrome”. I didn’t feel anger; not at the drivers who passed me by or the failure of the doctors. I believe that when things happen, they are ordained to happen. In a way I am a religious person marked by a certain fatalism; “God chooses when to pick the flowers”.
Through a friend, I was recommended to join Gotti’s crew where I could make real money. I was invited, but not as a made man; more like a stand-in for different jobs. “When they called, I went.” I was a part time member of a crew and I knew where I stood in the pecking order. If I wanted to score in the territory of another family, I would send out feelers to learn how much it would cost to work a job on their turf. Meanwhile I was a craftsman and maintained a legitimate contracting business. I knew if I was picked up and did not have a “real job” the IRS or the cops would pounce.
Why did they let me join even though I was not Italian? Well in the straight world, you go for an interview. In that world, you need someone to vouch for you. They would tell the boss or maybe it would be a crew leader, “he can be relied on; a knock around guy, give him a shot”. We mostly functioned like a regular business. Profit was always the motive and we tried to bring in more each year. It was like a corporation with a pecking order from the top on down; and the bottom line was paramount. We were no different than the corporate raiders, except we were more likely to go to jail. We had meetings just like them. There were even family barbecues to keep us together. Anyhow it was more comfortable to socialize with the other gangsters and their families than with neighbors; we didn’t have to hide our line of work from each other since we all knew the score.
As for working for Gotti, a lieutenant vouched for me; “this guy can do the job”. I rarely interacted with him except on social occasions. He was a pleasant enough guy. Most of the time I was used as a collector or helped work the gambling weekends for high rollers. I am big and can look fierce so they used me as security, which meant keeping things peaceful and safe. The gambling crew would rent a floor in a shabby motel for the weekend and there we would set up the game tables and provide food and even women. The crew would rake in a 20% take from the gambling and, of course I would get a small piece - but it might amount to as much as two or three thousand cash for that weekend. I also had a collection route for the “numbers racket” but never prostitution or drugs. I identified with the “old timers” and they were not interested in going there.
Over the years I kept my head down and maybe I was just lucky, but I was never busted. Even if it would have happened, I was confident that someone would contact me with legal and financial support. My view was that it was important to get all my ducks in a row and if I would be hit, then I would look for the least amount of time for vacation (jail). When busted, a lawyer would probably be sent out who would suggest that should the “ducks fall” (which means convicted and go to jail), I should behave myself and keep my mouth shut. It was understood when I got out, money would be waiting for me. This made good, business sense.
For a while I served as a “bag man” but to the outside world I described myself as a “financial facilitator”. The mob trusted me to transfer their “bundles”. Piles of cash were tied into blocks, fitted into garbage bags and taped up nice and neat. Money came in from various ventures but I didn’t speculate about the source just so long as I was taken care of. How they distributed it or where it was invested, I have no idea. My job was just to transfer the cash and at that time it was usually to Las Vegas; my favorite city.
One trip stands out. I was taking the back roads through Tennessee at 2:00 AM, going about four thousand miles per hour. I’mrelaxed, listening to music, I notice lights flashing behind me. The cop pulls me over and asks why am I traveling so fast on his road? I try to be cool and friendly. I explain that I am off to Las Vegas and suggest we go for a beer. I’m casual with him, though I admit my heart is pumping away. On the floor of the backseat and in the trunk, I have a few “bundles”. He points to them but I explain, “no need to go there” and reach into my jacket. I say, “I have an envelope here that will convince you to go somewhere else. It is my intended gambling money of $15,000 and it is now yours”. This might sound cynical but wherever you are, the city or the sticks, all cops want to supplement their salary.
Finally I arrive in the City of Lights and make my way to our meeting place; not only me but “carriers” from all over. The bundles are emptied and then both are hand and machine counted. The other guys and I wait to be rewarded, but instead of sending us out to the Strip to enjoy ourselves, they drive us out to the desert. We all get out of the limo and these bruisers who are packing order us to kneel down. I am fatalistic -“what is gong to happen is going to happen”. After several minutes of agony, they tell me, “my cards are good” and I am sent back to Vegas. Some of the guys are made to stay because they were caught short bagging. I never saw them again and I assume they found their burial plots out there in the sand. Why they’d take such a chance, I have no idea; maybe just plain stupid. If we don’t have trust, even amongst gangsters, what do we have?
To be part of that life, you need a tough temperament. Charlie, who is now on “life vacation,” was my early mentor. I met him as a kid when I joined a motorcycle gang. He taught me how to handle myself in intense situations. I learned that in this business the key is to get results with the least amount of physicality. Before sponsoring me, he arranged for a test. I guess it was like trying to get into school, but this was Mafia college. He gave me information on a guy who owed him money and was “reluctant to pay up”. I was instructed to convince him that it would be in his best interest to meet his obligation. I was given a background story, included the fact that he is a “tough son of a bitch” and two previous attempts to retrieve the debt had failed. My job was to go in with as little fan fair as possible and collect.
When I arrived at the deadbeat’s deli, the first thing I did, without a word said, was to knock down the glass shelves. This was my wake-up message to remind him to meet his fiduciary responsibilities. Nobody likes to pay up to the shylock, but if you make the contract, you have to stick to the deal or there are consequences. My mentor watched my back and at the same time observed how I operated. I was successful and from then on when they needed a collector, I was the man.
It was not always so simple; sometimes there would be a fight and a few times, I got my teeth knocked out. I proved myself at the job though. In the regular world, you need to pass an exam. This was tougher. But once vouched for, there was no turning back. As a reward there was exciting, lucrative work. The word would be out, “he is a knock around guy and effective”; “give him a shot”. For example, if there was to be a truck hijacking and an additional crew member was needed, I was invited to join. They knew I would keep my head and could be counted on. Over time I became more trusted and was invited to more lucrative jobs. Like in the straight world; you do a good job and are promoted.
I am proud to say, I never needed to pack a gun because I was confident I could take care of every situation. My cue was a rage button. It was a felt sense of a rumbling fury. There would first be a “baby cry” in my voice that would build momentum until there was an explosion. The message is, “don’t be around me when I am this way.” It was a controlled anger and ended when I got my way. In many ways it was easy, I just needed to play the part of a scary gangster.
As for my family, my wife was not happy with the life. She loved the perks, but the fear of my being busted was too nerve-racking for her and it eventually broke up the marriage. My son looked at it differently.
When he finished high school he asked if he could join a crew. For him, it would be big money. I felt it was his decision to choose his life, but just as I was tested, he needed to pass and learn if there was a fit. He was big and brawny and could be physically imposing. Like how Charlie had sent me out when I was a kid, I put him to the test with a collection job - though it was actually a set-up. I instructed my pals to play act by muscling him when he arrived but not too badly as to do him harm. Well they gave him a black eye, kicked him out the door and that was the end of his career. He decided he didn’t have it in him and now has a real profession; a cop.
Do I or those “wise guys” have a conscience? I believe everyone has one. Look, I even went to Confession. The priest would tell me that he was shocked at my behavior and suggest that I do “hail Marys” and take the straight path. I knew where to draw a line. No problem for me to break someone’s thumb, but never to kill. There would be no amount of money that I would accept for that. We all have our own rules. Mine allowed me to crack some limbs but not murder.
How did I get out of this line of work? “Well, it is not like a job, where you just quit. You know too much. My cancer, which occurred a decade ago, was the “big casino” and that was my ticket out. First there was colon and then prostate cancer. The first time, I got fixed up and tried to stay healthy. The more recent bout was more difficult. First, since I had no health insurance, I went through almost two million dollars; essentially the medical costs brought me down. Once the private hospital had all of my money, it was “goodbye Charlie”. Who is the real gangster here?
Broke, it looked like the end of the rope, but I knew a lot of doctors. They taught me how to play the innocent and get medical service without paying. I kept my head straight and suffered it all; from the loss of my testicles to facing a life of homelessness. Look, all my plumbing is gone but I stay tough. Admittedly, I thought of giving up but at that time, my grandson was born and I made the decision to be around to see him grow up.
After the first bout, it was important to regain my strength but also my finances; so I returned to my favorite place, Las Vegas. I am a good gambler but I am also a guy who enjoys going to the edge. Teaming up with a friend, we decided to cheat the House. We used a number of tricks and were successful, but eventually we were caught flipping chips in a grade B casino. Four husky guys came up behind me and another four surrounded my partner. They quietly escorted us to the parking garage. There, we were given a choice; a one way trip to the desert or the cinder block routine. It was a no-brainier and I just asked them to get it over with. They placed my arm between the blocks, and broke it with a bat. For my friend, they chose to break his legs. They were gentlemen and dropped us off at the nearest emergency room. “I was not angry; to me, they were doing their job.”
I wondered to myself, why I took the risk since I could make money by legitimate gambling. For me it was the excitement of the score; the juice high. It was the same feeling when I did collections; it was not just about money but the “juice” flowing through the veins.
Now I make do in a totally different world; an Ashram, a million miles away from Howard Beach. Almost homeless and without resources, I came at my brother’s invitation. In contrast to the Mafia guys who have no illusions, here I think most of the people are full of shit and play holy. I openly tell them I used to be a gangster and that seems to be okay with them and ensures they don’t mess with me. Meanwhile I help out and my mechanical skills save the Ashram a shit load of money. In turn I found a temporary home.
In the end, the issue has never been one of conscience for the life I chose, but regrets. I failed to do more to help myself in this life. Meanwhile I am a survivor and wait to see what the angels will bring.