[Paleopsych] TLS: (Mafia): Great mobility

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Great mobility
The Times Literary Supplement, 5.1.30

    Federico Varese

    MAFIA WIFE. My story of love, murder, and madness. By Lynda Milito and
    Reg Potterton. 306pp. HarperCollins. £18.99. 0 0662 1261 8

    AMERICAN MAFIA. A history of its rise to power. By Thomas Reppetto.
    318pp. John MacRae. £14.99. 0 805 07210 1

    TAKEDOWN. The fall of the last Mafia empire. By Rick Cowan and Douglas
    Century. 384pp. Berkeley Publishing Group. Paperback, £4.99. 0 425
    19299 7

    In 1953, Daniel Bell, the Columbia University sociologist, wrote a
    sentence that resonates to this day in the field of mafiology.
    "Unfortunately for a good story - and the existence of the Mafia would
    be a whale of a story - neither the (1951 Kefauver) Senate Crime
    Committee, nor Kefauver in his book, presented any real evidence that
    the Mafia exists as a functioning organization." What the Committee
    revealed, Bell argued, is that gambling is a basic American
    institution. When and where gambling is legal, legitimate
    entrepreneurs rather than gangsters run it. Unsavoury characters do
    exist, he conceded, but what Senator Kefauver and his moral majority
    failed to see was that the "entire gangdom" was seeking to become
    quasi-respectable and establish a place for itself in American life.
    For mobsters, who by and large had immigrant roots, organized crime
    was nothing but a "queer ladder for social mobility". Bell concluded
    that the Mafia was a "legend" invented by the media, the main culprits
    at his time of writing being two pulp journalists, Jack Lait and Lee
    Mortimer, who penned a now largely forgotten 1950 book, Chicago

    Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, possibly the most influential
    depiction of the American Mafia, candidly admits in his memoirs that
    he never met a real honest-to-god gangster in his life. Though he knew
    the gambling world pretty well, he wrote The Godfather entirely from
    research, which included the likes of Lait and Mortimer. Though he
    never tried to fool anybody, Puzo managed to dupe the real thing:

    After the book became "famous", I was introduced to a few gentlemen
    who related to the material. They were flattering. They refused to
    believe that I had never been in the rackets. They refused to believe
    that I had never had the confidence of a Don. But all of them loved
    the book.

    The Godfather movies started appearing in 1972. Two years later, when
    VCRs were just beginning to enter American households, Louie Milito,
    husband of Lynda, the author of Mafia Wife, got a copy and watched it
    like six thousand times . . . . He could not pull himself away from
    the TV, he could not stop watching that stupid movie. A dozen times he
    told me "This movie is fantastic!" The guys who came to the house were
    all acting like Godfather actors, kissing and hugging . . . .

    There is additional proof that the Godfather trilogy influenced
    hoodlums: Robert Delaney, a detective who went undercover for two and
    a half years in Jersey City to collect evidence on the Bruno and
    Genovese families, testified to a 1981 Senate Committee that the
    mobsters he met saw the original movie as many as ten times. While
    dining at a restaurant, the son of Joe Adonis gave the waiter a
    pocketful of quarters and asked him to play continuously the theme
    music from the Godfather on the jukebox. "All through the dinner we
    listened to the same song, over and over." Startled, Senator Nunn
    wanted to make sure he understood: "Are you saying sometimes they go
    to the movie to see how they themselves are supposed to behave?".
    After answering in the affirmative, Officer Delaney added, "they had a
    lot of things taught to them through the movie.

    They try to live up to it. The movie was telling them how". (In The
    Sicilian Mafia, Diego Gambetta has first explained why mobsters take
    their cues from movies.) The most recent Mafia fiction, The Sopranos,
    is a self-consciously referential TV show which depicts the lives of a
    fictional group of New Jersey mafiosi running, among other things, a
    rubbish removal company. Allusions to classic Mafia movies abound in
    The Sopranos: in one episode a character mutters the line, "just when
    I thought I was out, they pulled me back in", while in another someone
    knows his destiny is "to sleep with the fishes". Mafia Wife is
    advertised by the publisher as "a true Sopranos-like portrait of a
    life most of us cannot imagine". Lynda Milito and Reg Potterton
    suggest that Milito's family provided a model for the fictional
    Sopranos and offer as proof the fact that Louie Milito, a member of
    the Gambino family, and his wife were portrayed by the Sopranos actors
    Michael Imperioli and Katherine Narducci in the best-forgotten Witness
    to the Mob (1988).

    In this postmodern whirlwind, Daniel Bell's claim about the fictive
    nature of the Mafia is arresting. Might it not be possible that the
    Mafia is an invention and that some lowlifes exploit our fascination
    with the mob by doubling as movie consultants and street-level
    entrepreneurs servicing the American consumer industry? One answer to
    this suggestion comes from Thomas Reppetto. His American Mafia starts
    and ends with the hearings of the Kefauver Committee, the first Senate
    hearings ever to be televised. In between, Reppetto presents a
    chronicle of the Mafia from the 1880s to the 1950s. He dispels the
    notion that the American Mafia is the product of a conspiracy
    originating in Sicily, an idea that was entertained by some members of
    the Senate Committee (and by nobody else since), and argues instead
    that it arose primarily out of socioeconomic conditions to be found in
    the US. Why have Italian gangsters been more successful than their
    Irish and Jewish counterparts? For Reppetto, their "business-like
    approach" - which he understands to be a feature of the culture of
    southern Italy - equipped Italian Americans for success in organized

    Despite their reputation for violence, they eschewed mayhem in favour
    of "rational methods", discipline and cooperation. "They parcelled out
    territories and adopted rules to provide for arbitration disputes,
    they established national associations to promote common interests and
    when they passed from the scene, their organizations remained, lasting
    to the present." The empire-builders and the peacemakers who used
    violence sparingly, including John Torrio, Frank Costello and Lucky
    Luciano, are applauded - the only feature setting them apart from John

    Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan being the illegal nature of their
    business. On the other hand, Reppetto has a disparaging assessment of
    Al Capone, the mastermind of the 1929 St Valentine's Day massacre of
    seven men in a Chicago garage and allegedly of some 500 other murders.

    American Mafia, mostly based on secondary material, contains some
    inaccuracies and does not fulfil the promise of revealing significant
    new facts. Reppetto is at his best when he explains the intricacies of
    US law enforcement - local, state and federal - and the impact of
    legal and police reforms on the fight against organized crime. Yet he
    fails to tell us whether there is something distinctive about the
    American Mafia. Although his general premiss is that Italians are good
    organizers (against character, I would add), he never spells out what
    they actually do in the markets that they organize. After fifteen
    chapters, we are still not clear whether there is a difference between
    the gambler, the bootlegger, the drug dealer and the mobster, or
    whether the Mafia has ever existed as a functioning organization.

    The first look at the inner workings of the American Mafia was
    provided in 1963 by Joe Valachi, a disgruntled soldier in the Genovese
    crime family. For the first time, the police, scholars and the public
    alike heard the words "Cosa Nostra" and were told that an internal
    hierarchy and specific rules of behaviour governed the lives of
    members of a distinctive secret organization. Soldier, capo-decina,
    captain, underboss, consigliere and boss became permanent additions to
    the technical vocabulary of mafiology. Most significantly, Valachi
    revealed the existence of an entry ritual that is shared by Mafia
    families across the country and strongly resembles the ritual of the
    Sicilian Mafia. By failing to appreciate Valachi's testimony,
    Reppetto's book reads like a long and unfocused catalogue of murders,
    mayhem and the occasional restraint observed by individuals with
    surnames ending in vowels.

    There is more to the Mafia than a secret organization. Takedown: The
    fall of the last Mafia empire is the captivating and enlightening
    story of Rick Cowan, a young NYPD policeman who penetrated the
    Mafia-run wastedisposal cartel in New York in the mid-1990s. He
    assumed the identity of "Danny Benedetto" and began passing as a
    manager of a legitimate company, Chamber Paper Fibres, owned for
    almost a century by the Benedetto family. His three-year penetration
    of the industry eventually led to a sweeping 114-count indictment.
    Seventeen individuals, four trade associations and twenty-three
    companies were charged with a list of crimes ranging from attempted
    murder to bribery, arson and anti-trust violations. Assets worth
    around $268 million were seized and all defendants either pleaded
    guilty or were found guilty after trial.

    Italian carters had been picking up the rubbish of New York since the
    nineteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth century, waste
    disposal had turned into a multi-million dollar business (in 1995 it
    was estimated at $1.5 billion per year). Garbage had become the
    Italians' ladder for social mobility, as Daniel Bell had argued in the
    case of gambling. One executive who features in the Cowan
    investigation owns more than forty buildings in lower Manhattan while
    another runs a fashionable restaurant in TriBeCa and has been honoured
    by the Catholic Church with the title of Knight of Malta. Behind such
    multimillionaires and their garbage empires stands the Mafia.

    In 1956, the City of New York closed a loophole that allowed
    commercial establishments in residential areas to have their garbage
    collected for free by the Department of Sanitation. Overnight, the
    rubbish collection of more than 50,000 businesses was up for grabs.
    The Mafia made an offer to existing carters to scare off new companies
    wishing to enter this lucrative market by the use of brute violence.
    From the point of view of industry insiders, this was a valuable
    service: it amounted to protection against "harmful" outside
    competition. But the Mafia did more - it developed a complex system of
    informal "property rights" over lucrative addresses in the five
    boroughs. In this twisted economy, a firm's value was not based on the
    trucks it owned and its reputation for good service but on the number
    of addresses that had been assigned to it by the cartel. Addresses
    could be bought and sold from cartel members. Behind the facade of
    respectable trade associations, a Mafia-run tribunal settled the
    manifold disputes, or "beefs".

    The Mafia cartel has allowed removal companies to amass a fortune.
    According to industry estimates, the presence of the mob has meant on
    average a 40 per cent increase in prices. It also gave the Mafia
    considerable political clout: by controlling the unions, Cosa Nostra
    could halt rubbish collection and bring the city to a standstill, as
    happened in 1981. During the seventeen-day strike, Mayor Ed Koch had
    to declare a city-wide health emergency.

    Through economic upturns and downturns, forty police investigations
    and at least two murders, this extensive cartel operated until 1991,
    when a new city regulation led to a turbulent reorganization. For
    almost a century, the paper recycling industry had been separate from
    the waste removal industry. From 1991, however, every business in New
    York had to separate paper, glass and plastic from putrescible waste.
    Carters who controlled the commercial garbage pickups realized that it
    made sense to pick up valuable paper and cardboard too, and turf wars
    broke out all over town. The Benedetto firm had operated undisturbed
    in the recycling industry for generations but began feeling the full
    heat of cartel members who wanted to take over its collection
    addresses. In retaliation, the Benedettos started "stealing"
    commercial waste addresses by offering a 40 per cent discount to
    establishments such as the New York Times, the Bank of New York and
    the United Nations.

    Contrary to what Milito claims in her book ("people like Louie did a
    lot of damage, no question, but mostly they did it to themselves, not
    to ordinary Americans"), workers for the Benedetto firms - including
    CEO Sal Benedetto - were threatened and assaulted, their trucks burned
    and stolen. One of the Benedetto drivers, a Puerto Rican immigrant who
    had taken his eight-year-old daughter to work with him in the Bronx
    that day, was left bleeding and in a coma, his skull cracked open and
    his spleen ruptured. To this day, he is unable to work.

    In an act of courage that Cowan and Douglas Century rightly
    underscore, Sal Benedetto, a jovial, overweight Lou Costello type in
    his mid-fifties, agreed to let Cowan pose as his cousin and negotiate
    entry of the Benedettos into the cartel. Because of his cooperation
    with authorities, "Sal Benedetto knows he's got a target on his head
    for the rest of his life".

    Cowan and Century take the reader into the world of New York carters,
    with their language, rituals, clubs, Christmas parties, Association
    meetings, as well as their duplicity, callousness and lack of moral
    scruples. The authors describe the sophisticated system used to
    resolve "beefs" and show how Danny's Mob protector deflected the more
    absurd claims of cartel members against the Benedettos. For instance,
    some carters wanted the Benedettos to compensate them for contracts
    obtained over a century. In a convergence of reality and fiction, one
    section of the book details the dispute "Danny" had with the firm who
    used to "own" the rubbish collection for the television company HBO,
    which produces The Sopranos.

    What Bell labelled a legend, Takedown portrays in full: made members
    of Mafia families, who call themselves "administrators", oversee the
    sharing of territories and the rudimentary yet effective system to
    settle disputes, try to minimize the recourse to violence but use it
    ruthlessly when they deem it necessary. Pace Reppetto, in this world,
    vicious violence goes hand-in-hand with "rational methods" and
    "business-like approach", and mafiosi are successful largely because
    they belong to the organization. Contrary to the Weberian vision of a
    rigid bureaucracy, the Mafia is a virtual organization with no single
    address and its rules can sometimes be broken with impunity by those
    who command more violent resources. It is far from perfect, but it is
    functioning. As the famous line in Goodfellas goes, "the organization
    offers protection for the kinds of guys who can't go to the cops.

    They're like the police department for wiseguys".

    At the height of a dispute with cartel members, "Dan Benedetto" was
    invited for a tuna fishing weekend off Long Island by a man who was in
    line for membership in the Genovese family. When he declined, the
    Mafioso mused: "Too bad. We put you at the front of the boat and have
    you sayin' the Hail Mary" - a not so subtle reference to Fredo's
    unfortunate end in The Godfather II. Although they take their cues
    from fiction, the gangdom is real enough. It might not be a whale of a
    story, but it is a story worth telling.

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