Friday, July 22, 2011

Hoboken And The Presiding Spirits Of Sinatra And The Mob

Outside of Providence, the one town I lived in that had an intimate connection with the Cosa Nostra was Hoboken, New Jersey. The home also, coincidentally enough, of Frank Sinatra. As a matter of fact, I lived in a ground floor apartment in a brownstone that the Sinatra family used to own. I was comin' out of my hole one day, and some middle-aged guy from the hood told me as much. He was standing on the stoop of the next building over, and he caught my eye and said, "The Sinatras used to live where you're living now. Didja know that?" No, I did not, I thought, and ever after that day I'd sit in my living room, look up at the ceiling, and wonder if there were Sinatra ghosts jitterbugging around me. I also remember sitting in a bar down across from the PATH station, and there was this burly old Italian-American ex-jock type sittin' there telling the guy next to him, "I used to know Frank Sinatra. I went to school with Frank Sinatra. And, let me tell you, he was nothin'. Nothin'! He couldn't play ball, he didn't get good grades. He couldn't do shit." Then he reared back in his seat and laid out his kill-shot, "All he could do was sing!" Ta-dum...

Anyway, I could get loud myself in those bars, when I was in my cups. One night at another watering hole, there was this other Italian guy sitting a few barstools down. He sort of looked like Jerry Orbach from Law and Order, except that he was dressed in an outfit the same powder blue color that prom night tuxedos often tend to be, but he was an adult and this was his actual suit. He seemed kind of down in the dumps. "No offense, but you're with the mob, aren't ya?" I asked, trying to be friendly. In a voluble, asshole kind of way. "Ahhh..." he growled, clutching his drink. "Come on now, man. Aren't you with the Mafia?" I persisted. "I ain't no mobster!" he cried. "Fuck you!" Then he got up and left, staggering up the stairs out of our subterranean little boite. "I was only kidding," I confessed, lamely, to those barflies who remained. The bartender explained, "Joey owns a restaurant. The Mafia have been on his ass for years about paying protection. And the last thing he wants to talk about is the mob, even as a goof." I stood corrected. I had taunted not The Beast itself, but one of its victims.

I was maybe not in the right bar. Hoboken, at least twenty years ago, had 50,000 souls packed into a space of just 1.2 square miles. And not all of that area was residential. You had the Stevens Tech campus on one side, near the Hudson, the Maxwell House plant to the northeast, and an enormous automobile demolition yard to the far west of town, just beneath the Jersey City cliffs, which were pretty much the southern tail end of The Palisades. Sometimes I'd walk towards the demolition yard and see a bar, or social club or whatnot, stuck in the middle of a scuzzy-looking quasi-industrial nowhere. Inside I could see guys with slicked down noggins and fancy sports jackets, women crowned like 18th century queens with "big hair". Everybody inside looked Italian, and was dressed to the nines. I never even attempted to step inside. I was afraid to. It's still my own little mental dictionary illustration of the phrase "Mafia private club". A mysterious place off by itself, packed with a lethal, explosive elegance that was utterly closed to the rest of us.

Sometimes you live in a town where the criminal elite is notorious, but you never meet them or even see them. They remain rumors of themselves, their existence not yet proven. Like Bigfoot, but with nicer clothes. Maybe I was lucky that they eluded me.

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