AutoBARography 9: Bohos Against The Mob

Part 1

FLASHBACK: One Million B.C. A tribe of starving Neanderthals is grunting in a cave, gnawing at whitened bones, fighting off shrieking pterodactyls. Suddenly, a herd of deer wanders by. It’s a new species, never saw them around here before. Bleating fawns wobble from nursing does to nibble the sweet grass by the water hole. Look at all this soft, yielding prey. The cave men blink at their good fortune, then attack with gleeful cries.

FLASH FORWARD: Soho,1974. Gray cast iron buildings, home to warehouses and small industry. In sweatshops  immigrant ladies hunch in clouds of dust, stitching piece work to the roar of sewing machines.  Skeletal Chinese, gasping in  metallic fumes, turn out miniature bronze Empire State Buildings for a bowl of noodles and a pellet of opium. 

A few blocks away In Little Italy minor mobsters grunt and squabble in their social clubs.  Soho is a place to extort from sweatshops, sell swag, run crap games and dump bodies. A risky living.

Suddenly,  the sweatshops are transformed into artist’s lofts. Guys from the midwest splatter paint or weld pieces of scrap metal into odd shapes. The novelty factories become galleries selling those splats and welds.

The neighborhood dives are hangouts for the midwestern guys and the art crowd that lives off them.  There’s a lot of drinking and bloodless brawling. New, glossy restaurants  offer brunch to the weekend art lovers. A theater group grows on Wooster Street. A jazz joint on Green Street. Famous galleries open Soho branches. Cool clothing stores, gourmet shops and real estate agents appear. Europeans with ski tans drink Chablis in the afternoon. 

Soho has gone from B&W to Disney color. Bambi Bohos wobble by on their way to the bank. They’re a new species. Soft, yielding prey. The mobsters blink at their good fortune, then attack.

Years later I will hear a wiseguy’s wistful reminiscence of the shakedown racket.

“You didn’t have to steal nothin’ or smack nobody around. You just sat in the club and the money came pourin’ in.”

It’s a Gigante operation. Very suave. An affable young man in a business suit offers a business card for “Sentry Security.” You pay a monthly fee plus a cash “surcharge” for extra services. For those who are slow to sign on  a scowling man appears in the salesman’s wake. He sits at the bar scaring the customers until the owners get the message. 

A Frenchman named Jean-Jacques, whose restaurant is a favorite with the fast-forming Soho elite, calls the police. When they are enigmatic he tries the FBI.  They descend in force, but the young salesman is gone and no one else in the neighborhood wants to talk.  A week later a carload of mice turn up in Jean-Jacques’ kitchen. A few nights after that an exiting patron is jostled and threatened on the sidewalk. Then, on a busy Saturday night the restaurant’s front window is blown out. Several people are injured by flying glass.  Soon afterward the FBI removes its mikes and cameras.

I’m working at the Spring Street Bar. The place is three deep, day and night, six days a week. (Tuesday is always slow.) They rush the bar like it’s the Fountain of Youth.  One of my bosses, B… is an architect with a red beard, a rock climber who has never been seen in public without a Heineken. The other, J… is  a former Woodrow Wilson scholar with a thick black beard who reads a book a day and does everything to avoid sleeping.  His wife paints pictures of cats with huge eyes. They sit at the bar, drinking pitchers of Commemorativo Margaritas with no apparent effect. 

The partners look down on the restaurant business with aristocratic disdain.  It’s fun to work for them because they hate the customers and are always cutting someone off, throwing someone out or tearing up a check with a “get out of my restaurant  and don’t come back.” 

The Mob controls every aspect  of restaurant supply. It sets prices and decides which family will service each restaurant. My bosses  bridle under its monopoly. They are dangerously snide to the seafood man whose company is in the Genovese-controlled Fulton Fish Market, snub  the table-cloth, cutlery, toilet paper guy who represents the notorious  Matty “The Horse” Ianello and insult Sam, the garbage man who works for the Gambino branch of the private carting cartel. 

“Garbage is a good metaphor for what you people are,” B… says to him one night. 

Sam is offended. “I’m a human being…”

“That’s stretching the definition.”

Sam takes a step toward B… “You pickin’ a fight ?”

“I don’t engage in physical violence,” says B…”I’m a Gandhian pacifist.”

Sam doesn’t get it. He looks at me. I shrug like I don’t get it either. “Sanitation Department won’t collect from businesses,” Sam says. “Somebody’s gotta get the garbage off the street…It’s a public service.”

“You could do a real public service by jumping into the landfill with the rest of the garbage,” B… says.

At 4 am Sam catches up to me in Dave’s Diner on Canal Street. “So who’s your boss with?” he asks.

“He’s not with anybody.”

“He’s tryin’ to get me to take a swing at him so he can get me off the route and go with his guy, right?”

“This is his first restaurant,” I say. “He doesn’t know that Soho is cut into territories.”

Sam still doesn’t buy it. “He wouldn’t talk that way to me if he didn’t have somebody behind him.”

I want to tell him that Mob logic doesn’t apply to my bosses. “There’s nobody behind him,” is all I can say.

Sam gets stubborn. “He wouldn’t let you in on it, anyway. It’s a power play.  Some big shot is backin’ him for sure…”

I’m not around when the amiable salesman from “Sentry Security” shows up, but I hear all about it when I come to work that night. The guy went into his spiel and J…cut him off. 

“We don’t need you. Our bartenders protect the place…So get out of my restaurant, I know who you are.” 

I am about to tender my resignation when a scowling man slides into a stool at the end of the bar. It’s a busy Thursday, people shoving and breathing down each other’s necks. But he puts up a force field and nobody intrudes on his space. He’s one of those little guys who doesn’t look like much at first glance. Lucky for me I’ve been decked by midgets; I’m not lulled. His ruby pinky ring glitters when he lights his Chesterfield with a gold Dunhill. He holds his outsized hands in front of him like paws. His knuckles are pounded smooth from the hundreds of jaws he’s broken–mine about to be next. I avoid eye contact, wary of the trick question “what are you lookin’ at?” for which there is no safe answer.

He orders a Dewars and milk, a throwback to Prohibition when steady drinkers took the antidote with the poison.  As the hours go by the customers recede like low tide. By midnight when it’s usually frantic  the joint is dead calm. Only a few regulars at the other end of the bar are watching with horrified fascination.

Finally, B… can stand it no longer. 

“Cut him off,” he says.

“He’s just here to intimidate people,” I say. “If you leave him alone he’ll go by himself…”

“You can blame it on me,” B…says. “Tell him I say he’s scaring the customers.”

The scowling man waggles his glass as I walk down to the end of the bar. “You run outta milk?”

“Boss says I can’t serve you,” I say.

He looks at me in puzzlement and I realize no one has ever said that to him before. “Whaddya mean?” 

My mouth goes dry. “He says you’re scaring the customers.”

He looks around. “I don’t see no customers.”

I have to lick my lips to get a word out.  “That’s ’cause you scared ‘em all away.”

He slides his glass to the edge of the bar. “Dewars and milk.”

He walks on the balls of his feet like a boxer.  B…looks down at him without flinching as he asks the trick question:

“What’s your problem?”

“You’re spoiling our fun,” says B…

The scowling man steps into punching range.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

B… stands his ground. “You have bad karma. You’re making everybody nervous.” 

“You want me to go?” The man shoves  him. “Throw me out…”

B… doesn’t stagger as far as expected. So the man shoves him harder against the bar. “C’mon tough guy, let’s see what you got.”

“I don’t use physical violence,” B… says.” I’m a Gandhian pacifist.”  

“Then how you gonna get me to leave?”

“I expect you to do the right thing.”

The scowling man turns and challenges me.

“You a pacifist?”

“I’m a punk,” I say.

“Then gimme a Dewars and milk.”

B…moves in front of him and warns me with a wink: “If you serve him you’re fired.”

The man kicks B…’s legs out from under him. B…falls forward,  his head thumping against the bar. He drops to his knees, blood pouring out of his nose.

“Now you’ve gone too far,” he says.. 

Once these gorillas get wound up there’s no stopping them. The next step is a hard kick to the ribs and then a few stomps to the head. Scared as I am, I can’t let that happen. 

“Wait a second,” I say. My arms buckle and I barely make it over the bar. 

“Wait for you to piss your pants?” the scowling man says.

B… searches through a puddle of blood for his glasses. “Don’t you know when you’re not wanted?” he says.

The scowling man stops and squints at me. “What the fuck are you guys up to, anyway?” He backs out of the door, as if he’s afraid we’re going to start shooting.  

B…feels along the bar for his Heineken.

“Well I guess we told him,” he says.

By closing B…has ingested every painkiller–legal and illegal–in the pharmacopeia. I’m heading down West Broadway toward Dave’s when the scowling man gets out of an El Dorado. “Hey you,  wait up, I wanna ask you something.” 

Every atom in my body is screaming: RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! Instead, I fold my arms and lean against a lamppost.

He is fooled by the casual pose.

“Tough guy, your boss. By not fightin’ back he puts  the onus on me.”

“He’s a Gandhian pacifist,” I say.

“He told me to do the right thing. What did he mean? What am I supposed to do?”

It’s a linguistic impasse. “Do the right thing” means something very different in Little Italy.

“Nothing,” I say. “Forget about it.”

“Forget about it “means something very different as well.

“Look, I don’t wanna step on nobody’s toes,” he says. “If somebody’s protectin’ the join then fine with me. I just work here, know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean.”

He moves in and drops his voice, getting positively collegial. “Somebody’s makin’  a move here, right? Who’s your boss with?”

I shake my head. Suddenly my voice is hoarse and confidential. “He’s not with nobody,” I say. “Forget about it. “

The scowling man nods with a knowing look. ” Yeah…That’s what I thought you’d say.”


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