This is the town I grew up in.
What is it about a killer in the room? Really, what is it? Why are normal, loving, God- fearing people so intrigued by killers? If you had to run a case study, what would the results be?
Question One: Did you, yes… I said you! Have you ever wanted to kill anyone? Come on, I know you have. If you could get a pass from the law and a pass from God, would you do it?
Even though killers fascinated me, it was never something I wanted do myself. Well, killing humans, at least. For a long time it was my job to kill, but for the sake of creating delicious food. Almost every day, for over 20 years, I would take a live lobster, split its head down the middle, chop off its legs and antennae while the little bastard was still alive. Then he’d get a nice bath in white wine sauce or the best San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy, and be topped off with the finest extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, and red pepper flakes. That’s not to say I was a saint. There were times when all I wanted to do was whack a son of a bitch dead, then sit quietly and eat a ham sandwich (a nice ham sandwich with Prosciutto Cotto, Robiola, Lemon Mustarda, and fresh basked Tuscan bread), and be done with it. If I were ever going to kill, I won’t give a rat’s ass after I did it; I would sit down quietly and enjoy that sandwich.
After working three years behind hot stoves, I just turned twenty; I told my family and friends I was going to be one of the best Italian Chefs in the country. I had to learn to cook under Sonny D, a chef Sinatra was flying out to California to cook for his parties, but with that came consequences “There’s a killer in the dining room!”
As a young kid growing up in New Jersey, I lived next door to neighbors with names such as Tubby, the Luca Brasi (from The Godfather) of Cliffside Park. This guy would drive around in his brand new Cadillac wearing a wide-brimmed hat. He was real wise guy. He had hands twice the size of any normal guy’s hands. Tubby had all good-looking daughters. I talked with them once in a while, but never when Tubby was around. When I saw him coming down the street, I would climb a tree just to get away. Tubby also had a son, Ernie, who was in the “Hole in the Wall Gang” in Las Vegas (the same gang portrayed in the movie Casino.) This was serious shït!
This guy had the strength of 10 men. Once a local bartender bet him $200 that he couldn't lift the jukebox up and put it on top of the bar. Tubby graciously accepted – and actually did it. He lifted that huge jukebox onto the bar with almost no effort at all. The bartender paid him the $200 on the spot. As soon as Tubby got his money he started walking out, and the bartender shouted for him to take it down. Tubby just smiled and said that it would cost him another $200!
If you think Tubby was a character, wait till you hear about Joe Zicarelli, a good friend of Tubby’s who was based out of Bayonne. He lived in Cliffside. I used to deliver newspapers to his house. This guy became famous after successfully corrupting a U.S. Congressman. And not just any Congressman, but the Honorable Cornelius E. “Neil” Gallagher. Gallagher was a key member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House Government Operations Committee, and the Chairman of the U.S. and the Canadian Inter-Parliamentary Group. He was also a U.S. delegate to the Disarmament Conference. Gallagher, a man as prominent in the Democratic Party as he was in government, was one of a handful of men who were seriously considered by Lyndon B. Johnson as a possible running mate. He would have made an attractive candidate, having served as a Captain in both World War II and the Korean War, where he won eight decorations. But, behind all the prestige and respectability was another, Neil Gallagher – a man who time and again served as the tool and collaborator of the Cosa Nostra gang lord, Zicarelli.
Congressman Gallagher's time with the glowering Zicarelli spanned years and miles. They worked together in Bayonne, N.J., and in places as distant as Montreal and Santo Domingo. They had connections "fixes" with local New Jersey police, Caribbean politics, and a role in a gangster's weird tale about the disposal of a corpse.
For me, having neighbors like this was as normal as living next to any local family. The names got bigger and nationally known– like Albert Anastasia right in the next town of Fort Lee, who worked for Lucky Luciano or Tony Provenzano, and who was the odds-on favorite for killing Jimmy Hoffa, the most powerful union leader in the country. This was all going on in my neighborhood. Say what you want about New Jersey, but if you wanted to get close to some interesting characters, this was the place to be. It was a real-life episode of The Sopranos.
Yep, I was brought up in a tough town. A place where the mayor looked like Marlon Brando and had good friends like "Little Sammy Badalamenti”, a close associate of Joseph Profaci. It’s where Willie Moretti, an underboss of the Genovese crime family and close friend of Frank Sinatra’s, met his end. Moretti was willing to testify at the Kefauver hearings. To thank Moretti for his honesty, Vito Genovese “arranged” to have him killed. That happened on October 4, 1951, at Joe’s Elbow Room (what a great name for a restaurant!) in my hometown of Cliffside Park. There’s nothing like having a famous landmark in your town. Most towns had signs advertising the fact that they won a little league championship. Here in Cliffside Park, we had Willie. The picture of the aftermath actually was in The Godfather movie.
Nicknames were a big deal, but they weren’t just for wise guys. Just because you had a nickname didn’t mean you were a wise guy, although the likelihood was pretty high. I mean, even my history teacher had a nickname: “Sal Sweat.” The poor guy must have sweated at least a few gallons a day. Then you had the wannabes, who also had nicknames. The ones who talked like Jersey guys, wore black shirts and placed bets with the locals. In my view, wannabes get a bad rap, but really were the guys bright enough to not do anything stupid like join the mob, go to jail, or get whacked. And if the chicks liked wise guys, they could get the girl without getting arrested.
Not all the wise guys in my neighborhood were bad guys. They were more like lawyers placed on a perpetual retainer. If you had beef or a dispute in business, a wise guy would mediate the problem.
But the “good guys” weren’t angels, either. Before Governor Christie was elected as governor of New Jersey, his office convicted or won guilty pleas from 130 public officials, both Republican and Democratic, at the state, county and local levels. The most notable of these convictions included those of Democratic Hudson County Executive Robert C. Janiszewski bribery charges in 2002; Republican Essex County Executive James W. Treffinger in 2003 on corruption charges; former Democratic New Jersey Senate President John A. Lynch, Jr., in 2006 on charges of mail fraud and tax evasion; State Senator and former Newark Democratic mayor Sharpe James in 2008 on fraud charges; and Democratic State Senator Wayne R. Bryant in 2008 on charges of bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Don’t try and cross these guys, you might not be able to get over the George Washing Bridge.
It seemed like more politicians got arrested in Jersey than all the wise guys in all the 50 states put together. Maybe the wise guys were just more efficient in their business dealings. For example, if you made a deal with a wise guy and couldn’t pay your loan, he would threaten to kill you. But he wouldn’t. His “crime” was nothing compared to the interest rates that the credit card industry rakes in these days. When I was growing up, there were no credit cards, no short-term loans, no lottery machines, no sports gambling on the Internet, no Atlantic City, and no Indian casinos. Today the “good guys” are banks that charge 29% interest on credit cards. They’re the same crooks that foreclose on your home. How about payday loans? What a scam! There are different ways to calculate annual interest on a payday loan. The rate calculated may differ dramatically. The interest on a $100 loan could be anywhere from 391% to 3733%, even though it has been proven that these loans show no more long-term risk for the lender than any other forms of credit. If that’s not extortion, I don’t know what is.
Then there are the lottery machines, i.e. Wall Street hustlers like Bernie Madoff, who made wise guys look like candy storekeepers. And after all that, the biggest “good guy” – the federal government – chimes in and says they can’t pay out pensions. I think I’d rather take my chances with the wise guys of the world. At least you know the devil you’re dealing with.
There's plenty of room for all God's creatures. Right next to the mashed potatoes!