SOME SPIT IN THE HANDSHAKE
“SOME SPIT IN THE HANDSHAKE”
The last hurrah for La Cosa Nostra
by Shaun Costello
“I’ll tell you who is going to be there. Just the who’s-who of organized crime in America, that’s who. Members from all of the five New York families, and not just them. Representatives from all over the country will be at this thing. Chicago, Las Vegas, California, everywhere, and you’re being asked to do this. Do you know what kind of an honor this is – to be asked to do this? How can you even think about it? This is not something you think about. He trusts you enough to ask you to do this. So you do this, and that’s all there is to it”. This was Cal Young in sales mode, trying to convince me to do something that any person in his right mind would reject out of hand. But he wasn’t talking to any person in his right mind, he was talking to me, and I didn’t need much convincing. It was close to midnight, and we were on the Van Wyck Expressway, in Cal’s car, heading back to Manhattan from a meeting with Dominick Cataldo, also known as ‘Lil Dom’, also known as ‘Double Decker Dom’, and I had made up my mind to agree to Cataldo’s proposition long before Cal ever started his pitch.
It was ten that morning when I got the call up in the country. I lived on a small horse farm in the tiny hamlet of Krumville, about ninety minutes north of the city, where I spent my time jumping Thoroughbreds over fences, tending my vegetable garden, and living the life of a make-believe country gentleman. At this point I should mention that my weathered barn jacket/muddy Wellington boot/Ralph Laurenesque existence, horses and all, was paid for by my day job, as one of America’s most active producers of pornographic movies. No one up in Krumville knew that, of course. To my neighbors, I was involved in the film business down in the city, which they found exotic. I had some connection to television, and produced films for corporate clients which, to the locals, seemed mysterious and fascinating. And all this was true, but the bulk of the money I made in those days came from producing porn, a fact that I managed to keep a secret from my friends and neighbors. A good thing too, since that kind of information would have been hot gossip down at the feed store. In the country I lived the part, and ninety miles away, down in the big city, I did the sometimes-questionable work that paid for it.
I had met Cal in the city a few times, and to be truthful, was not very impressed. He was an independent Motion Picture distributor, mostly porn, with some cheap Splatter Movies, and even cheaper Kung Fu imports thrown in. He was a seat-of-the-pants operator with an exaggerated view of his immediate possibilities. “I’ve got some backers lined up, and as soon as I can make the arrangements I’m going to call. Just be ready because I’m going to keep you busy for a while”. Guys like Cal were usually full of hot air, but I made it a point not to blow them off. You just never knew. So he called.
“You remember when I told you about a possible backer I’ve been working on?”. I did, or at least I said I did. “Well, I think this is going to work out. He’s getting his ducks in line, but there’s a catch”. There almost always is. “He wants to meet you first. He does everything on a handshake, and he’s got to meet you first.” Shit. I didn’t like the sound of this. And I really didn’t need the money, not from Cal anyway. I had two sources in the city who paid top dollar for my X-rated efforts, and kept me as busy as I needed to be, and neither of them needed to shake my hand. Cal obviously sensed my reluctance, and started a relentless barrage of reasons why it was in my best interest to come down to the city and meet his guy. I’m not sure why I caved, maybe because I was a wimp, and couldn’t take any more of Cal’s whining, or maybe because I thought it prudent to listen to his backer’s proposition. I’ll go with wimp for now.
Cal Young lived in a rent controlled apartment at 40 Sutton Place, one of Manhattan’s priciest streets, that he had inherited from his uncle, Max Youngstein, a major Hollywood producer who, a few years earlier, had accepted the Best Picture Oscar for The Deer Hunter. The walls were covered with photographs of his uncle, hobnobbing and canoodling with movie stars and professional athletes. The apartment, regardless of its elegant address, was furnished like a Holiday Inn, and Cal couldn’t seem to wait to begin giving me the ten-cent-tour of the pictures on his wall: Uncle Max with Robert DeNiro, Uncle Max with Elizabeth Taylor, Uncle Max with Arnold Palmer, Uncle Max standing on a chair shaking hands with Wilt Chamberlain. Cal gave this photo tour with the gusto of a man who was obviously proud of his family’s show business heritage.
We were to meet Cal’s guy in one of the big glitzy motels just across the Belt Parkway from JFK Airport, and did most of our talking on the drive through Queens. “Just keep an open mind and listen to what he has to say. He’s a very connected guy, if you know what I mean”. He’s turning up his sales pitch. “Very well thought of. This is a guy who is going places, and he can take us with him if we play our cards right”. Cal pulled the car into the parking lot of the Kennedy Motor Inn, and we entered the lobby, which was a maze of mirrors and shiny metal. “Iranians own this place, but to operate out here near the Airport, you’ve got to have permission, and my guy is the one who gives it, for a price”.
Past the front desk, and another hundred feet or so down a hallway was a set of double doors, upholstered in red leather, with brass handles. Above the doorway was a sign that read THE CASBAH. “Iranians”, said Cal as he opened one of the doors, revealing a strange sight indeed. It was an enormous room that probably doubled as banquet facility and nightclub. The surface of the walls seemed purposely uneven, like they were covered with a layer of rough concrete, and set in the concrete were thousands of tiny mirrors, differing in size and shape, none more than a few inches across. The effect was dazzling. Anything in the center of the room with enough light on it would be reflected, in many different directions and with varying intensity until the walls became alive with an infinite reflection of whatever entertainment was provided at the room’s center. And in that room’s center was a single round table, lit from above by one spot light, covered with a white table cloth, and surrounded by three chairs. Sitting in one of the chairs was a man wearing a dark suit with a coffee cup in front of him, turning the pages of a newspaper. As each page turned, the movement was infinitely reflected around the room, like a million fans doing the ‘wave’ at a psychedelic ball game. Orson Welles could not have done this any better.
The room swam in the reflections of the turning pages as we approached the table, and ourselves, became part of the show. Cal, ever the salesman, led the way, and I have to admit to being a bit intoxicated by the imagery. “Dom, great to see you. You’re looking good. Well, here he is Dom. This is the guy I’ve been telling you about. Shaun, I’d like you to meet my friend Dominick”. He stuck out his hand for me to shake, but didn’t get up. He swapped some small talk with Cal, mostly about traffic on the Van Wyck and, without asking us to sit, looked up at me. “You shoot both houses”, he said abruptly, leaving me to try and figure out what he was talking about. “Sit down, sit down, take a load off. Look, you shoot both houses – that’s very important – both houses. You start out with the groom’s house. He’s there with his buddies, probably hungover from the bachelor’s party the night before. A lot of joking around is going on. His pals are giving him the business, believe me. These are his last hours as a single guy. You gotta get this. Then over to the Bride’s house. It’s just around the corner. Same kind of thing. She’s getting dressed, and all her friends are going to be there. Lot’s of stories are being told here, if you know what I mean. These are priceless moments. Years from now, her grandchildren can see this. You gotta get this”.
A wedding? Cal Young has dragged me all the way out to JFK Airport to talk to some guy about shooting a wedding? I’m quietly enraged, but of course say nothing. Meanwhile Cal, who is sitting across the table from me, and next to Dominick, but just out of his field of vision, is grinning from ear to ear, and nodding his head up and down, like a ridiculous bobble head doll, the nodding reflected in thousands of tiny mirrors all around the room, like some kind of preposterous kaleidoscope. All I could think of was strangling him, but of course I just sat there and listened. Dominick wanted me to come out the following week and meet his family, see the houses, and maybe the church, get a feel for everything. Oddly, he was beginning to grow on me. He was an intense guy, probably in his late forties, with short-cropped, grayish brown hair and rapidly searching eyes, who nervously fiddled with his tie knot as he tried to anticipate my response to his proposition. He could probably be dangerous if provoked, but was surprisingly honest and vulnerable. “Look, this thing is costing me a fortune. Wait ‘til you see the place for the reception. Jesus, when I found out the price I nearly flipped. But I gotta do it. Spare no expense. It’s a matter of pride. Everybody is going to be there, and I mean everybody. It’s got to be first class all the way, even if it puts me in the poor house. Jesus Christ, I had to reach out to the street for part of it, to the shy’s. But I gotta do it, and you gotta help me here. Cal say’s you’re the best, and more important, you’re OK, if you know what I mean. Cal told me who you work for Downtown. Those guys are friends of mine. That’s very important. So what do you say? You wanna come out next week and meet my family?”
This seemed like a sincerely asked question, and I liked him all the more for having asked it. I was touched at this kind of intimate gesture toward someone he had only just met. Like meeting his family would make me one of them. Like it would seal the deal, put some spit in the handshake, finalize the proposition suggested here in The Casbah, reflected in ten thousand mirrors.
By the time we got back to the city I had forgiven Cal Young for his perfidy. Maybe it was the dazzling visuals in The Casbah. Maybe it was actually growing to like Dominick. Maybe it was Cal’s pathetic bobble head routine reflected ten thousand times over. Probably all of the above, but the idea of being invited to this grand an event, populated by the suggested cast of characters, to be allowed to walk freely, as though one of them, among the who’s-who of organized crime in America, was simply an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I’m going to take a moment here to explain why what Dominick had asked me to do was just about impossible to accomplish, something that, at the time, I was busy trying not to think about, because the wedding was six weeks off, and my plan, not that I really had one, was to put off dealing with the reality of the event until the last minute, and simply wing it which was, hard as it may be to accept, how I did everything. First of all, there was no money. Dominick had spent everything he had, even borrowed from shylocks, to cover the cost of the wedding, and the enormous reception that would follow. There was nothing left over to pay for a movie that, as Dominick suggested, I should do as a favor, favor being a word used so often by these guys that it had long since lost its intended meaning. “Look, just do me this favor”, meaning that it was an honor to do for free, something for which you would normally be paid. Favor as transaction. Favor as currency. I should feel honored to do this for free, as a favor for a friend. And then he will be in my debt, so that at any time in the future I can call upon him to repay that favor. But the problem became the Federal Witness Protection Program. By the time you got around to asking for repayment, your friend, whose name was Santini, had been renamed Smith, and relocated to a suburb of Billings Montana, where he would live out his days as a permanent guest of the Federal Government. A whore works for money, but a real man does what he does as a favor. I really couldn’t have cared less. Hanging out with gangsters was payment enough for me.
I couldn’t shoot Dominick’s movie on film because that would mean stock and lab costs, not to mention the equipment to do the job and the crew to make it happen. Video was the only answer, but this was 1978, and the available video equipment was, by today’s standards, extremely primitive. The camcorder had not yet been invented. Location footage for televised news shows was still shot on 16 MM film, which had to be developed in Motion Picture Laboratories, and rushed back to the studios to get it on the air. There were portable video units available, but they were awkward instruments; the camera connected to the recorder by a cable, clumsy to use, and the image they produced looked worse than your grandparent’s home movies. But I didn’t want to think about any of this. There was plenty of time yet. I had six weeks, and I could spend those weeks hanging out with my new friend, Dominick Cataldo, AKA ‘Lil Dom’, AKA ‘Double Decker Dom’, and his pals from the mob.
As the weeks went by, I was invited to dinner twice at Cataldo’s home, which was a simple but tidy and nicely landscaped ranch-style house, in Valley Stream, just over the border of Nassau County. Coached by Cal Young, I brought gifts of pastries, on each occasion, from Veniero’s Italian Bakery on the Lower East Side. Midge Cataldo, Dominick’s wife, who I had liked immediately, was a bleached blond housewife who smoked cigarettes while she stirred the sauce, sometimes dropping a bit of ash into the pot that no one seemed to notice. She made a big fuss over my pastries, and prepared delicious manicotti, and braggiole, and ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, and veal, and sautéed broccoli rabbe, and everybody ate everything in front of them, and no one there was the slightest bit overweight, which mystified me. Dominick’s son, the groom-incumbent, made appearances at different times during dinner not wearing a shirt, which made me uncomfortable for some reason. He would sit down, rudely reach across the table and grab a bowl of something, scrape it onto his plate, gobble it down, jump up claiming he had to make a phone call, and disappear, only to return again fifteen minutes later for a repeat performance. Each time he disappeared, Dominick would shake his head and, without looking up, grunt,”Kids”. He was a nasty street-punk, maybe twenty one or so, who was probably snorting coke up in his room between visits to the dinner table. He had totally ignored my presence in his house, and at the table. I couldn’t stand him.
Over some espresso with anisette, Dominick would gush about his family’s expectations for my wedding-movie assignment. “Cal say’s you’re an artist Shaun. I’ve told everybody about you, and what you’re going to do for us. Everybody, the future in-laws too. They can’t wait. They want to see it over and over. They talk about the movie more than they talk about the wedding. We’re going to make copies for everybody. Everybody wants to see it”. Suddenly, he gave me a serious look. “It’s gonna be good, right? I mean, it’s gotta be good. You’re not gonna fuck up on me are you? You fuck up on this, you put me in a serious bind here. You know what I’m saying? Because if this movie’s not good Shaun, you embarrass me in front of all my family, everybody I know”. He’s getting louder and I’m getting nervous. “I went way out on a limb, asking you to do this. You fuck up, and I’m the laughing stock of the entire universe, am I getting through to you? Do you read me? You fuck up on this, you leave me no choice. I’ll have to make a call. You get my drift?” I think I spilled my coffee. There was a long moment of silence before Dominick couldn’t hold it in any longer, and roared with laughter. “Hey I’m just kidding. You should see the look on your face. C’mon, I’m just messing with you a little. C’mon”. He’s rubbing the tears in his eyes now and laughing almost uncontrollably. Midge shook her head. “He always kids around like this, pay no attention”. Dominick got up and went to the kitchen where I could hear him blowing his nose. He returned to the dining room, his laughter ebbing a bit, blowing a few more times into a napkin. “But seriously, tell me – the movie – What’s it gonna be like?”
I had dined at the home of the Cataldo’s twice, and I had gotten away with evasive answers to any specific questions as to my cinematic approach to their project. A week before the wedding I was summoned to a meeting with Dominick and Cal, at the Villagio Italia, a restaurant in Ozone Park that Dominick owned a piece of. Until that night at the restaurant, I was still getting away with making it up as I went along. Dominick’s seemingly unbound confidence in my ability to make his movie had given me false courage.
After we ate, Dominick took me from table to table, introducing me to his associates. “C’mon kid, I want you to meet some people”. We approached a table where the occupants immediately stood up. Dominick obviously outranked them. “John, I want you to meet somebody. This is Shaun, my director. He’s gonna make the movie for Junior’s wedding. Shaun, this is my friend John Gotti. And Sammy, Sammy Gravano. Shaun this is Sammy”. They each shook my hand but made no eye contact with me, and gave me the pariah treatment, apparently wondering why Dominick was bringing a stranger in here, and introducing him to made guys who were not anxious to mingle with civilians. Gotti would become America’s favorite gangster years later, after his bloody takeover of the Gambino family, which would be engineered by his pal Gravano who himself, would seek asylum in the Federal Witness Protection Program, to escape the death sentence signed by his friend and tonight’s dinner companion, John Gotti. At the next table one man stood, but one remained seated, a sign of his rank. Dominick spoke to the seated man first. “Nino, I want you to meet somebody. You remember I told you I found a real film director to do Junior’s wedding movie, well this is the guy. Shaun, meet Nino Gaggi, a good friend of mine”. Nino, like the others, never even looked at me. He offered his hand like a Bishop expecting his ring to be kissed. The man standing was friendlier, but pretty frightening. “Roy, Shaun meet Roy DeMeo, me and Roy we go way back together”. At least DeMeo made eye contact, although I wished he hadn’t. Roy DeMeo, a Gambino associate, who owned some chop shops in the neighborhood, was out on bail, awaiting trial for several homicides. Five years later, in 1983 DeMeo, whose long string of grisly, and sometimes unnecessary murders would become an embarrassment to the Gambino’s, found himself expendable, and it would be Nino Gaggi, his friend and Capo, who would order the hit. They found him riddled with bullets in the trunk of his car.
Dominick was just getting warmed up, as we approached a table where all three men remained seated, obvious heavyweights. “Carmine, sorry to intrude, but you gotta meet this guy. Shaun, I’m introducing you to Mr. Galante”. He actually looked up at me and smiled, offering his hand, which I gladly shook. His sociable demeanor changed abruptly however, when Dominick let him know that I was the guy who was going to make the wedding movie, and he snapped his hand back like I had leprosy. The second seated gentleman was a bit friendlier. “Shaun, this is my good friend Sonny Black”. Sonny half stood for the handshake, and sat back down. “I’m telling you Sonny, it’s gonna be like a Hollywood production, the movie Shaun’s gonna make for me. I can’t wait for you to see it. Hey, you’ll probably be in it”. This news did not please Sonny Black, who looked at Dominick with unkind eyes. “And Joe, Shaun meet Joe Massino. It’s gonna be something Joe. Wait ‘til you see”. In less than a year, Carmine “Cigar” Galante, who had been whacking Gambino associates left and right, had his head half blown off by a shotgun blast at Joe and Mary’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, a lit cigar still dangling from his lips. Two years later, in 1981, Dominic ‘Sonny Black’ Napolitano would be held responsible for the ‘Donnie Brasco’ catastrophe. Brasco was the pseudonym for an FBI agent who would manage, befriended and encouraged by Sonny, to infiltrate the Bonanno family. It would be Joe Massino, by then an under-boss of the Bonanno’s, who would personally put five bullets in Sonny’s head. Massino would eventually disappear into Witness Protection, after ratting out his entire organization.
The handshakes continued, from table to table, as Dominick spread the word throughout the room that Shaun was the guy who would be responsible for the success of his only son’s wedding, placing more importance on the movie of the wedding than on the wedding itself. “You know Shaun, the wedding is over in no time. I mean, you blink your eyes and you missed it. But this movie you’re gonna make for us, this movie is forever”. Shaun was the guy who would create a permanent chronicle to the sacred sacrament of matrimony that would be entered into by his only son, and his only son’s blessed and virginal bride-to-be, that could be viewed for years to come. “Let’s just say, some time in the future, I have to go away. I mean, these things happen. I could pull a few strings, get a VHS machine for my cell. I could watch the movie of the wedding while I’m in the can”. Shaun was the guy, in whose hands he was placing, the awesome task of recording for posterity his family’s most treasured moment. A moment that could not be shared by his wife’s frail mother who, as we speak, lies dying of cancer in a lonely hospital room, lingering on life support and unable to leave her bed, even to attend her grandson’s wedding. “Shaun, all that’s keeping this poor woman alive is the hope that she will live long enough to see your movie. She prays to God every day to give her the strength to last until she sees it. The Doctors say it’s a miracle that she’s still alive, a miracle”. His name is Shaun everybody, and if he fucks up, well, I hope you’ll all share my disappointment. I was being introduced, as accountable for the happiness or the unhappiness of Dominick’s entire family, to a room filled with murderers. And now they all knew my name. My mojo was on a slippery slope, sliding backwards into a pot of red clam sauce. I remembered back to that first handshake in The Casbah, reflected in all those mirrors, when I had thought to myself, ‘What the hell. I could do this. I could do this like I did everything else. I’ll just wing it, bluff my way through, and be saved at the bell by the Gods of risk’. The dining room at the Villagio Italia was beginning to spin. I was face down in a whirlpool, spinning and spinning. If a flirtation with oblivion was what I was after, I was certainly getting my money’s worth.
Having shaken the hand of every murderer within shouting distance, and dazed from facing the reality of the trouble I had gotten myself into, I was led by Dominick back to our table, where Cal Young was talking to someone I didn’t recognize. Dominick approached the table with outstretched arms. “Heyyyyyyy, look at this. Look who’s here”. Dominick and the new guy engaged in lots of hugging and kissing on the mouth, and shoulder slapping. ‘You son of a bitch, how you been? Hey Joe, you gotta meet somebody. Shaun, c’mere, meet my friend Joe Dogs. Joe, this is the guy whose gonna make Junior’s wedding movie. Shaun, this is my oldest friend in the world, meet Joe Dogs”. Joe, unlike most of the others in the room, shook my hand like he was actually glad to meet me, and we all sat down. Dominick got back up to handle some problem in the next room, and took Cal with him, leaving me alone at the table with Mr. Dogs. This was Joseph ‘Joe Dogs’ Iannuzzi who, unknown to his oldest friend in the world, had already agreed to work as an FBI informant and, a week from now, would wear a ‘wire’ to the wedding reception. “So you’re gonna make Dom’s movie huh? Do yourself a favor. Don’t fuck up”.
With the wedding only a week away, it was time to figure out a way to do this thing, and fast. The problem was that I knew nothing about video. In those days nobody did. But I had a friend who had been fooling around with portable video for a while now. He would be a risky choice but, considering the situation, my options were limited. His name was Steve DeVita, and we had worked together on several film projects, mostly porn. He worked as an assistant cameraman, but also did some lighting and, on a film crew, was a jack-of-all-trades. Steve had a visionary’s insight into the future importance of video tape, and had been spending time interviewing odd characters around the city, using his then-primitive black and white video rig. So I made the call. He told me that we could rent, for a few hundred dollars, a small, portable color video system that would probably do the trick, but that we should shoot as much as possible outside in sunlight. These cameras were not terribly light sensitive, and anything shot indoors without proper lighting would be marginal at best. So far, so good. At least I now knew there was a way to do this, and that Steve would help, although I would have to pay him something. The problem with Steve was that he was always fiddling with the equipment. Gerry-rigging electronics, and adjusting the lights, sometimes when the camera was rolling. Of course we’d have to stop the shot. “Steve, what the hell are you doing?” “Making it better. Wait ‘til you see”. He just couldn’t help himself, but he was pretty low in the food-chain, and not really accountable for his erratic behavior. I was at the top, and if something went wrong, I was the one who would be devoured by the backer, the guy who put up the money. Steve only had to answer to me, and I was easy. I was very leery of involving a guy who couldn’t help himself on something like this, but I didn’t have much of a choice.
I needed someone dependable to offset Steve’s volatility, so I called Maryse Alberti. She worked as a still photographer, but was the savviest person on a film set that I had ever known. No matter how complicated the shot, or how big the crew, she always knew where everything and everyone was supposed to be, and could solve a problem before I knew it existed. She was French, and compact, and lively, and cute, and I had come to depend on having her around. She would say things to me in her thick but adorable accent like, “Eh boss, you pay me cash uh?” When I told her that the wedding reception would be attended by the Mafia Allstars, she squealed. I just loved Maryse.
So now I had a crew, and the equipment to do the job. I called Cal Young and told him that he would have to cover the cost of the video equipment rental, and a few hundred bucks each, for Steve and Maryse. If I was doing the ‘favor’ then he should pay the bills. He squirmed a little, but agreed. He also had a message from Dominick. “Dom called me last night. The guy is totally flipping out. He had to go back to the street, and borrow more from the shy’s. This thing is costing him double what he thought. He told me to talk to you. Remind you about what he said, you know, about being at the groom’s house, and the bride’s house, early, like eight in the morning. You’ve got to be there early”. It was the first thing Dominick ever said to me, back that night at the Casbah, reflected in all those mirrors. “You shoot both houses”. Cal was still on the line. “Oh, and one more thing. Dom say’s this is really important. As the Bride and Groom exit the Church, after the ceremony is over, outside on the steps, there will be a flock of doves”. This was the first I had heard about this. “Cal, what doves?” “How do I know what doves? Doves. Something to do with the virginity of the bride. Hey, I’m a Jew. I don’t know from this. You Goyim do some pretty weird shit, you know that?” This was not good news. “Look Cal, it’s one thing to say there will be doves, and another thing to photograph the fucking things in the same shot with the happy Bride and Groom. You’re going to need a bird wrangler. Who is going to do this? Who is going to release these things?” Cal was not being helpful. “ I don’t know. Maybe Fat Mike. I think it’s Fat Mike”. As though I didn’t have enough to worry about. “Cal, suppose the birds shit all over the happy couple, or just fly away. Then what do we do?” Like birds are going to cooperate. “You know something Shaun, you worry too much. So there will be some doves. So what”.
Despite this new wrinkle, I was feeling pretty confident now. It was all coming together somehow, doves or no doves. The houses at Eight, the Church at Noon, and the reception, which was in Brooklyn, at Six. No Problem.
The night before the big event I got to bed early since I had to be up at Five. I would meet Maryse at Steve’s apartment on the upper West Side at Six, where we would sort out the equipment, drink some coffee, and head out to Valley Stream. It was a leisurely, doable schedule. I called Steve before hitting the sack, and he was happy. He had picked up the equipment that afternoon, and tested everything. The batteries were all on charge, the camera and deck worked well, we were ready. “Yeah, it’s all OK. I’m just fooling with viewfinder a little bit. Making it better”. He just couldn’t help himself. “Steve, please. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Leave the camera alone and get some sleep”. I could hear him fidgeting with something on the other end. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, don’t worry. Everything’s OK”. Easy for him to say. He never shook hands with ‘Murderer’s Row’.
I had done it. Everything was ready. I had taken the ultimate risk and gotten away with it. I had pushed the envelope into a new shape – waited until the last minute to solve the unsolvable – went one-on-one with the Cosa Nostra and lived to tell the tale. I began to have fantasies of Frank Sinatra making a surprise visit to tomorrow’s reception, like Frankie Fontaine in “The Godfather”. It would make Dominick so happy. “Frank, I can’t believe you came. What a surprise. C’mon and say hello to the family. And Frank, this is Shaun, my director. He’s making my movie”. I was quite pleased with myself, as I drifted off to a happy sleep. Life was good.
I was five minutes early when an ashen-faced Maryse Alberti opened the door to Steve’s apartment. We stood there for a moment, just looking at each other, Steve’s voice jabbering incoherently somewhere off in the background. “You better come in Boss”. She led me down the hallway that opened into Steve’s living room. He was on his knees, surrounded by tools and pieces of what had once been a video camera, staring at the whole disassembled mess, attempting unsuccessfully to fit parts together, and squawking gibberish. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do it. I was fixing it. I took the screws out. It was the viewfinder – it didn’t work right. Just a small adjustment. I took the screws out. It’s not my fault. Everything went kerflouey. I just took the screws out. Oh God – I can fix it – I know I can fix it. I looked at the schematics. I checked first – before I did any thing – I checked first. It’s not my fault. You can’t blame me for this. It’s not my fault”. He was out of control – completely hysterical. He obviously had not slept. What little hair he had was all-askew, and his face was noticeably unshaven. He had been up all night trying to fix the mess he had made out of the camera. His eyes were wild, searching for some kind of solution that just wasn’t there. I looked up at Maryse, who slowly shook her head. “We’ve got to call somebody”, I pleaded. “Eh boss, it’s Six o’clock on Saturday morning, Who we gonna call?”
I needed to think this through. Steve was sleepless, and useless in his present state. Maryse, ever-able, just needed orders to follow, but I couldn’t provide any. I needed to think. “OK. Here’s what we’re going to do. Steve, Steve, listen to me”. He was reeling. “I need you to get cleaned up. Get in the shower. Shave your face. Eat something”. I wasn’t sure that I was getting through to him. “Just do it. Maryse, I’m going out. I need to think. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Just make sure Steve does what I told him”. “OK boss”.
I walked around the block twice, thinking this through, trying to come up with options, like I had any. It was 6:20. We had an hour and forty minutes to find another camera and get out to Valley Stream, where the Bride’s party, and the Groom’s party expected a video crew to tape their pre-nuptial frolics. Back up in Steve’s apartment I went into boss mode. “OK, here’s what we’re going to do. Get out your address books, and the yellow pages too. Let’s go through everyone we know who might either have, or who might know somebody whose got a video camera. Write down all the names and numbers, make lists. Forget that it’s early, we’re going to call everybody we know”. There was only one phone line at Steve’s so I woke up a bewildered Cal Young, and told him to expect a short French girl on his doorstep, and gave Maryse the cab fare. “OK boss”. Our chances were slim, but I had to do something. The clock was ticking.
7:15 and still no camera. We were half way through our list of possibilities. Video rental companies, who might or might not be open on a Saturday, would not pick up the phone until Nine or Nine Thirty. “You shoot both houses”. That’s what Dominick had said. Those were his first words to me, and it was not going to happen.
8:30 and still no camera. It’s now thirty minutes past “Both Houses”. Cal calls. He’s beside himself. “You’ve got to call Dominic. Let him know what’s going on”. Like that’s going to do any good. “Look Cal, the wedding is at Noon, and I don’t have a camera. That’s what we’re focused on now. The early stuff is over. It’s history. The wedding is all we can think about now. Just do what you planned to do, and somehow we’ll meet you out there”. I could hear him breathing on the other end. “Oh God”.
9:30 and still no camera. Cal had left Maryse still working the phone at his apartment, and was on his way out to Dominick’s house. Video rental companies were not answering the phone on a Saturday morning. We just kept calling, it was all we could do. At 10:20 Steve’s phone rang. It was Maryse. “Eh boss, I got it”.
It was 10:45 and the three of us were in my car racing down the East River Drive toward the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The camera she found belonged to some twerpy video buff, who lived on Eastern Parkway, out in Brooklyn. There had been a copy of Popular Photography on Cal’s coffee table and an ever-alert Maryse dove into the classifieds and found an ad that read: MISTER VIDEO can make your Bar Mitzvah live forever, call Zvi, and his phone number. It was a different brand than the camera that Steve had destroyed but was similar enough, and would do just fine. Maryse had told Mister Video to make sure he put the batteries on charge, and that we would be there, to pick everything up, in thirty minutes. His name was Zvi Herzog, and it was now 11:05 on Saturday morning.
As we followed the numbers along Eastern Parkway, looking for Zvi’s address, it was becoming obvious that we were now deep inside a seriously Jewish neighborhood. Not just Jewish, but very Jewish. Not just very Jewish, more than that, more than even orthodox Jewish. We were in the belly of the beast. A block from the Lubavicher Synagogue, the very center of the Hasidic Jewish community, and it was the Sabbath. Up and down Eastern Parkway, all the men who were not presently worshipping in the Temple could be seen on the side walks, dressed in black overcoats and prayer shawls, their dark ear locks bobbi-pinned to their yarmulke’s, reading their little prayer books and davening rhythmically as they prayed. Bending forward at the waist, and straightening, bending and straightening, over and over, moving their lips in prayer, bobbing up and down. Hundreds of them. It was hypnotic.
“There it is”, Maryse had seen Zvi’s address, and her voice brought me out of my momentary trance. It was a four story brick building, over an electronics store that was of course closed for the Sabbath. Steve waited in the double-parked car, while Maryse and I looked for the doorway, which we found to the left of the store. I pressed the button next to Herzog. Nothing. I pressed it again. Still nothing. Maryse looked at me. “It’s 11:15 boss”. We returned to the sidewalk, our backs to the street and looked up, and there he was, Zvi Herzog, sticking his head out a second story window, with his finger to his lips to shush us. He spoke in a stage whisper. “They won’t let me answer the door bell”. He was looking up and down the street, making sure this conversation went unnoticed by the hundreds of men in prayer shawls who were davening everywhere. He was a kid, maybe eighteen, his ear locks bobbi-pinned to his yamulke like the others. I needed him to focus. “Zvi, the camera, we need the camera. We’re in kind of a hurry. Why can’t you answer the door bell?” His finger was still at his lips. “Shhhhh, are you kidding? It’s Shabbis. My parents would kill me”. I could feel Maryse’s impatience next to me. “It’s 11:20 boss”. I was running out of time. “Look Zvi please, we need to rent your camera. We’re running really late. People are waiting for us. I have the money right here for you”. He shushed me again and turned to Maryse. “Hey, are you the one I spoke to on the phone? Are you Maryse?” She nodded. “Are you from France?” She nodded again and stage-whispered up to him, “Yes, I’m from France”. “Wow, this is so cool, I’ve never met a real French person before. I took two years of French in High School”. I’m dying here. “Hey, maybe some time, would you have a coffee with me? We could speak French to each other”. Maryse’s mouth was locked in a frozen smile, as she continued to nod up at Zvi, and without her lips moving I could hear, “It’s 11:30 boss”. And she pleaded with him. “Zvi please, we are so late. Tomorrow we can speak French, but today we need your camera. Please”. He shushed us again. “Ok”, he said and disappeared into his window, reappearing a moment later with an aluminum camera case. He had fastened a rope to the handle and lowered it down to us. Maryse quickly opened the case and looked up at me and nodded. “What about the Money?”, I whispered up to him. “It’s Ok. Pay me later. I can’t take money now, it’s Shabbis. I trust you”. I was stunned. “Zvi, You don’t even know us. Why do you trust us”. Zvi shushed me again, and looked at me like I had just asked the dumbest question he had ever heard, and then looked at Maryse. “Why wouldn’t I trust her. She’s from France”.
Steve sorted through the equipment, inserting batteries, and connecting cables into and out of Zvi Herzog’s camera, as I broke every traffic law on the books, speeding franticly toward Lynbrook, and Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where the wedding was to take place, and where a justifiably furious Dominick Cataldo was probably contemplating stuffing my battered remains in the trunk of a Chevy. And all I could think of was Joe Dogs saying, “So you’re gonna make Dom’s movie huh? Do yourself a favor. Don’t Fuck up”.
Having rehearsed our arrival at the Church, we jumped out of the car like we had been there all along. “Just don’t act like you’re anxious. Stay calm. Be casual, like we’ve been working for hours. I’m going to whisper camera direction to you Steve, and you’re going to get the shots. Slowly, calmly, like we’ve been here all day. Steve? Steve?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m good”. He was drifting, and I had to keep him focused. “Remember, like we’ve been here all along. Ready? Ok, let’s go”. Maryse took the car to find a place to park, and Steve and I, camera at the ready, casually slipped in the side door to the Church.
The smell inside the building, the frankincense and myrrh, it never changes, especially to recovering Catholics. And the sounds, bouncing off the stone walls, someone coughs and it’s a full second before the sound decays and disappears into the din of a hundred seated parishioners, fidgeting and shuffling in their pews, waiting for something to happen. It was ten minutes after Twelve. The wedding was getting a late start, thank God. It was important to make our presence noticed, but only just. Quietly, we worked our pre-rehearsed routine around the outside aisles, aiming the camera at wedding guests, walking slowly, communicating as we went, with the same stage whispers we had used in Brooklyn with Zvi Herzog. “Stay wide Steve. Just track past everyone. Nice and slow. Nice and slow. That’s it. How does it look?’ Steve was grimacing into the viewfinder. “Yeah, Yeah, looks good. This is nice”.
And so we went, whispering and shooting, quietly but there, up and down the aisles, getting everyone in our shots, being noticed, being involved, part of the family. I made eye contact with Midge Cataldo, who quickly looked away toward a statue of a bleeding Jesus, holding his heart in his hand. She couldn’t look at me, not a good sign. Hard to make eye contact with a condemned man. Steve’s spare eye, the one not glued to the viewfinder, kept finding me, and I knew what he was saying. It’s too dark. I’m not getting anything. To the naked eye, the inside of the Church looked as it should, but to the little video camera that Steve was pointing at everything, we might as well have been shooting in a cave. But we had to press on, like everything was fine. What choice did we have?
We wandered out through the front doors, shooting as we went, trying to be noticed, and a surprising number of men were standing around outside the church, dressed in dark suits, smoking cigarettes, and holding umbrellas, it had started to rain. Back inside everything seemed ready, but out here in the soft shower, there was a sense of nervous anticipation. The cast of characters was not yet complete. They were all waiting for the arrival of the father of the groom. Forty well-dressed, slightly soggy, umbrella wielding wiseguys stood ready to surge forward and protect the great man from the rain. And we were there to get it all on tape.
After a minute or two, the longest super-stretch Cadillac Limousine imaginable turned the corner, and slowly glided toward the curb. It was all white, and glistened in the rain shower. As the car came to a stop, a phalanx of dark suits, rushed forward, their umbrellas extended in a collective gesture of protective solidarity, forming a canopy over the door to the enormous car, and the door opened. Out slid a dapper Dominick Cataldo, wearing a beautifully tailored suit, a white carnation in his lapel, and adjusting his tie knot as he greeted his loyal cadre. The whole umbrella-wielding protectorate, a smiling Cataldo at its center, moved forward as one, propelled by the sotto voce undercurrent of congratulatory murmurs, from the gang to the boss, on this blessed day in his life. It was a performance Dominick was born for, gracefully accepting the adoration of his underlings, as he strutted toward the steps of the Church. The rain had stopped now, and the canopy of protection disappeared, as Dominick skipped up the steps alone, leaving his fans behind. As he reached the top, he slowly turned and, looking directly at me, with an unmistakable malevolence, raised his right hand to his mouth and bit the knuckle of his clenched index finger, then turned and entered the Church. There was a muted gasp from the crowd behind me.
Steve, who was bent down, attached to the camera’s view finder, and had just taped this moment, looked up at me. “Jesus Christ”. I looked around, and the small army of well-dressed, umbrella-wielding wiseguys had disappeared, some into the Church, and some to stand guard duty at various points around the block. Maryse was standing a few feet away just staring at me. “Eh boss, what are we gonna do?” There wasn’t really much of a choice. So we went back into the Church to video-tape the wedding. That’s why we came.
From the side aisle we were able to tape Dominick, as he slid into the pew next to his wife and, once he was seated, there was an anticipatory buzz from the congregation, knowing the ceremony was near. Suddenly there was a swarm of alter boys all over the church’s proscenium, like ball boys at Wimbledon, lighting candles and prepping the stage for the arrival of the priest. And it all happened quickly now; the entrance of the Bride and Groom, the chanted Latin of the Wedding Mass Ritual, the Priest placing the sacred wafers on the extended tongues of the congregation’s willing recipients – most noticeably the Bride and Groom – and the Bride’s Maids and Groom’s Party all finding their proper places down in front of the alter. “You got that Steve?” “Yeah, Yeah, it’s beautiful, really nice”. Just loud enough for the father of the groom to hear, in the hope that he might find it in his heart to forgive me for ruining his life. Fat Chance.
The Church’s organ provided background music, while Steve and I, traversing the ceremony in a united crouch, continued our routine, knowing all the while that, considering the amount of light inside that building, we had probably not recorded a single usable moment of video tape. And then it happened. As the Bride and Groom stood before God, awaiting the recitation of their vows, and Steve and I tried our best to be noticed recording it all, there was an small puff of smoke, and an odd smell, like burning rubber. Steve turned and looked at me with a crazed expression on his face, like a hyena on amphetamines. Between the thumb and fingers of his left hand he was holding what was left of the cable that had once connected the camera to the recording deck. It had shorted out and melted. It was over now. Our survival was the only issue.
The three of us squatted together on the floor behind the last pew, and we could clearly hear the Priest’s voice bouncing off the stone walls, “Do you Angela Molinari take this man….” We had to fake it. Pretend we were shooting. And we had to begin right now. I turned to Maryse. “You should get on the train and get out of here. Steve and I will stay”. “No boss, I stay with you”. I could have cried. So now we continued our whispering and shooting routine with no cable. Nothing was being recorded. Survival was the only objective. The show must go on.
And so Junior and Angela, with love in their eyes, kissed and were wed, in front of God, their adoring parents and friends, and three terrified people who were trying to somehow live out the day. As the now-married couple stood at the alter huddling with the Priest, the guests made a bee line for the front of the Church, where they would all congregate outside to participate in the ritual of rice throwing, which would insure good luck and healthy children to the newlyweds as they exited the building. Outside with the crowd, Steve and I looked for a spot to get the best ‘make believe’ shot of the happy couple. “Steve, what do you think? What about from here?” I wondered of we were fooling anybody. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is good, from right here”. Not that it mattered. We were dead meat, in any case.
Everyone was outside the Church now, including Dominick and Midge, holding bags of rice and waiting for Junior and Angela. Out to the left, peering around the corner of the building, I noticed a very short, and very fat little man, who seemed to be trying not to be noticed. He was maybe five foot five, but probably weighed three hundred pounds. His suit was shiny and black and looked to be two sizes too small. Either that or his fat body was just larger than any known suit size for someone his height. He was holding something I couldn’t make out. He would disappear and then reappear, peeking around the corner of the building. What was he up to?
The first chords of the Recessional from Mendelssohn’s Wedding March sounded as Angela and Junior appeared in the doorway, and the little fat guy in the black suit took a few steps forward. I could now make out a bag of some kind that he was holding. A burlap bag. The familiar music continued, and the happy couple began to walk toward the steps that led down to the crowd, who stood ready with rice in hand. The fat man was on the move now, picking up his pace, and holding the burlap bag in front of him. What was this guy doing? Then it hit me. ‘Good Christ, it’s Fat Mike and the doves’. I grabbed Steve. “Steve, you’ve got to get this. Don’t ask, just do it. Get the camera on the couple. Do it now. Just pretend, for Christ sake”. Everything now happened in slow motion. Fat Mike, a graceful mover for a man his size, had shifted his portly presence into third gear, and was almost there. Angela and Junior had reached the top of the steps, Angela extending her right foot to begin her descent, just as Fat Mike flew past the couple, while violently shaking his burlap bag, and emptying its contents directly in their path. Her momentum carried Angela forward, and her right foot downward, until it came to rest squarely in the center of something soft and wet. Fat Mike had dumped, directly at Angela’s feet, a dozen dead pigeons in an advanced state of decomposition, and Angela had stepped directly into one of them, squirting pigeon intestines riddled with maggots up her right leg. And she was suddenly very still, just standing there looking down, surrounded by dead, maggot-infested birds, as Fat Mike disappeared around the far corner of the building, and Angela began to scream. It had all happened so quickly that the crowd hadn’t quite grasped the horrible reality of the moment. But there they were, a dozen dead birds, right there on the Church steps, flies buzzing all around, and Angela standing above them, her right leg dripping with unspeakable, crushed pigeon bowel and wiggling maggots, as a hundred mouths now gasped in horror, and Angela just kept screaming, until finally Dominick threw a handful of rice over his hysterical daughter-in-law and shouted, “Hey let’s hear it for the happy couple. C’mon everybody, give it up”. And slowly but surely the crowd, those who were not attempting to revive Loretta Molinari, Angela’s grandmother, who had fainted dead-away at the sight of the maggots, began in ones and twos, to half-heartedly throw rice, until they gained some momentum, and genuine cheering began. The priest, who had come out of the Church in answer to the screaming Bride, put his arm around a bug-eyed, gasping Angela, who violently sobbed as he led her back into the building. And, at the bottom of the steps, stood Dominick Cataldo’s video crew, who had just convincingly pretended to capture the whole extraordinary event on tape, for the viewing pleasure of future generations of Cataldos.
You would think that this kind of carnage would take a long time to dissipate, but that was not to be the case. Within what seemed like only seconds, almost everyone had disappeared. Dominick and his family into the Church to comfort the sobbing Angela, and the rice throwing, gasping crowd into their cars and away from this sorry scene as quickly as they could go. A small group of maybe five or six nephews and cousins remained to help Angela’s still-moaning grandmother onto the gurney provided by a local hospital. And once the ambulance left the curb, they too, quickly disappeared.
This left me alone at the steps of the Church, along with Steve and Maryse. Alone with the decaying carcasses of Fat Mike’s dead pigeons, and the swarm of flies, buzzing all around us. What we had just witnessed was so far beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend that there was no point in discussing it. We got back in the car, and found a local Diner on Sunrise Highway. No one said anything, we just ate.
Regardless of the catastrophic events of the last hour, the day was not yet over, and some kind of strategy had to be developed. The enormous reception at ‘La Mer’, in Brooklyn, that Dominick had borrowed so heavily from the shylock’s to finance, would still take place. Guests had been invited from all over the Country, and more than that, it had all been paid for. Over two hundred members; Associates, Capo’s, and Bosses, as well as their families, would begin arriving around 6PM, and we had to either renew our commitment to this bizarre enterprise, or figure some way out of it. I’d be lying here if I didn’t admit to trying to think of a way out. Was there somewhere I could hide until the banks opened on Monday morning, and I could withdraw enough money to live out my days in some third world country, hoping to go undiscovered by Dominick’s relentless predators? Could I talk my way out of this? Maryse, as always, had the answer. “It’s OK boss. The fat guy with the birds. He’s in big trouble, but you’ll be OK”. Let’s hope.
La Mer was an enormous, glitzy catering facility on Ocean Parkway, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, a name that seemed appropriate, considering. Zvi Herzog had opened up his father’s Electronics store, and replaced the melted cable, at what he assured us was a wholesale price, and we were back in business. There was still a full hour before the guests would be arriving, and the lobby was a hubbub of last-minute primping, and polishing, and flower arranging, the whirring sound of vacuum cleaners, and clinking of glasses and dishes seemed everywhere. We found a bench off to the side, out of everyone’s way, dumped our equipment, and just waited, I’m not sure for what, but it didn’t take long. Out of a doorway, on the far side of the lobby, stepped a grim Joe Dogs Iannuzzi, who motioned to me. I told Steve and Maryse to stay put, and crossed the lobby.
He led me down a long, noisy, hallway, somewhere in the bowels of the building, where we ducked fast moving busboys carrying endless trays of glassware and dishes. “You just don’t listen do you?” I could hardly hear him through the din and clatter. “What did I tell you? Huh? What did I tell you?” He stopped and turned around. “I told you not to fuck up. And what did you do?” He was really pissed. “I fucked up”. He stuck his finger in my face. “Don’t you get smart with me”. “I’m not being smart Joe, I’m being honest. I fucked up”. He turned, and started walking again, and I struggled to keep up. “You’re in a bad spot, my friend. You watch your mouth. It was supposed to be a good day, and look what happened. Where the fuck were you this morning? Don’t open your mouth”. He stopped and turned to me, with his finger in my face again. “Don’t open your mouth. Do you hear me? Not one fucking word. You wanna live to see tomorrow? Not one fucking word”. We continued the march down the hallway. “I’ve never seen him this mad. Never. He likes you, but you’re in a bad spot kid”. He pushed a door open and started to climb a flight of stairs, still ducking between the trays of dishes that were going both up and down, and me right behind him. He stopped on the landing, and turned again. “Everything depends on you keeping your mouth shut. No matter what he say’s. He’ll try to provoke you. Don’t let him. Don’t say a fucking thing. At this point, anything will set him off. He likes you. At some point he’ll remember that he likes you. Just don’t say a word, no matter what. You got it?” I nodded.
We found Dominick in a storeroom, somewhere off the far side of the kitchen. He was pacing and smoking, and he was frantic. When he saw me his eyes focused and became smaller. Angry eyes. Hateful eyes. “You! You strunz. What did I tell you? What did I say? The first thing I said. Both houses. You shoot both houses. You stupid fuck. You don’t even show up. You don’t even call”. The veins in his neck were bulging, and pulsating with the blood that was rushing to his head. He was close to exploding. He was incendiary. “My wife is crying. The kids are going crazy. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ You fuck. You shoulda called me. You shoulda been a man. You fuck”. He lit another cigarette. “Did you see what happened? What that fat fuck did? Bird shit on her leg. Dead fucking bird shit. On her wedding day. On her leg, on her wedding day. It was supposed to be beautiful. White doves, symbolizing the innocence of the bride. Beautiful. And what do I get? Dead fucking pigeons, that’s what I get. I’m in hock up to my eyeballs on this thing, and I get dead fucking pigeons”. I was starting to fear for Fat Mike.
“Do you know what that fat jerk-off did? I gave him two hundred bucks. I said go to a pet store. Get some doves. He tells me, ‘Boss, I don’t know from birds’. I tell him to just get the doves, and bring them to the wedding. I don’t want any excuses. You know what that fat scumbag does? He takes the money and blows it at the track. My money. Blows it. So what does he do now? He goes to the park, and starts catching pigeons. Pigeons. I don’t know how he catches them, but he catches them. Throws them in a burlap bag. Disgusting, disease ridden pigeons. For my wedding. And when he’s got a dozen, he ties a string around the bag, and throws it in the trunk of his car. They were in the trunk of that fat fuck’s car for a week. A week. Dead and rotting for a week. Fucking moron. We got him locked up downstairs. That tub of guts is in deep shit. You saw what happened at the Church. It was supposed to be beautiful. And what do I get? You gotta help me here Shaun”. He was cooling down, Maybe Maryse was right. Maybe I would be OK. He wanted me to help him. All I could do was listen.
“The video from the Church, it’s got to go. This is an embarrassment I could never live down. The people who saw it, they’re family, they’re friends. They won’t say anything. But you got it all on video. The bird shit going up her leg. The poor girl screaming and all. On her Wedding day. This is terrible”. He was calming down now, almost pleading. “Look, I know how this works. I read up on it. The video of the dead birds is connected to the rest. There’s nothing we can do. You just get rid of it. All of it. No one can ever see it. Destroy the evidence. Everything from the Church. You do that for me and we’re square”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He didn’t understand about editing, and now he would never know the full extent of my crimes. Steve destroying the first camera. All the unusable footage from inside that dark Church. The melted cable. All the pretending. The Gods of risk-takers had somehow come to my rescue. All my sins forgiven. I had been saved by a burlap bag filled with Fat Mike’s dead pigeons. “You just video the party tonight. People dancing and having fun. That’s what the movie will be, a big party. That’s OK. That’s good. And nobody will ever know what happened”.
An hour later, as we were getting ready to video the reception line that was now forming in the lobby to greet the guests, Cal Young appeared. “It’s a wrap”. We just stared at him. “The shoot has been called off. The Snake found out and said no cameras”. The question needed to be asked. “The Snake?” My ignorance bewildered Cal. “Carmine Persico, they call him the ‘Snake’. He’s in prison, but he still heard about it, about the video. Dom got rapped on the knuckles. Important people will be here tonight, and the Snake say’s no cameras. Persico is the Boss of the Colombo family, in case you don’t know. Dom’s Boss. He got the call from Gerry Lang, he’s the Underboss who runs things while Carmine is in the can. Hey, why the sad faces? You guys aren’t workers anymore, you’re guests. You sit at the table with me and Joe Dogs. Dom say’s he wants you to stay and have fun.
And so the who’s-who of organized crime in America found its way through the reception line, shaking the hands, and kissing the lips of the Cataldos and the Molinaris, who greeted them with an eager appreciation of their presence at this unique gathering. First Dominick, who was in his glory, “Paul, I’m so honored you’re here. You know Midge. Honey, You remember Paul Castellano”. The Gambino’s were the first Family through the line. Paul Castellano, the recently annointed ‘Boss’, followed by Annielo DeLacroce, Robert ‘Dibi’ BiBernardo, John Gotti, Sammy ‘Bull’ Gravano, and several more, all greeted by Dominick, who passed them on to Midge, and then on down the line until they kissed the eager lips of Junior and Angela. The Genovese contingent was next with Big Mike Miranda leading the way, closely followed by Phil Lombardo, Vinnie ‘Chin’ Gigante, and the others. And then the Bonanno’s, and the Colombo’s, and finally the Lucchese’s new boss Anthony ‘Tony Ducks’ Corallo, and his lieutenants. Cal Young whispered the play by play to me, identifying the celebrated Mafiosi, as we stood off to the side of the lobby. “Enjoy it while you can kid. This has never happened before, not in my lifetime. Not like this. Jesus, everybody’s here”.
At the other end of the reception line was the entrance to La Mer’s Grand Ballroom, where the orchestra was playing a medley of Broadway Show tunes, with an occasional Tarantella thrown in for good measure. Our table seated eight, but there were only five of us; myself, Steve, Maryse, and Cal Young right next to an unusually quiet Joe Dogs. Years later I would find out that Joe, who had been caught red-handed with a kilo of heroin, and had made a deal with the FBI, was wearing a wire that night. Parked in a van, out on Ocean Parkway, were two Federal Agents, who were recording and listening to every word spoken to and by Joe Dogs Iannuzzi.
The dinner was typical catering fare; tough veal, thin steaks, chicken smothered in some kind of sauce, but nobody seemed to either notice or mind very much. Their family and friends had come to celebrate Junior and Angela’s marriage, and the businessmen, some two hundred strong, were there to participate in meetings and confabs between all of the Families attending; settling old disputes, redefining their territorial boundaries, discussing new opportunities, and plotting defensive measures against an aggressive Justice Department, and something new called the Rico Statute. And then there was Joe Dogs, perhaps having second thoughts about his betrayal, who stayed to himself, keeping a safe distance between the business being discussed and the microphone that no one knew he was wearing.
After the dinner, the orchestra seemed to kick into another gear and, among those here for Junior and Angela, dancing became the thing. Maryse, who could find fun on the dark side of the moon, grabbed me. “C’mon boss, dance with me”. But Joe Dogs interceded. “No, you go dance Miss. He needs to talk with me for a minute”. This left me alone with Joe. “No dancing tonight. It’s a thing. You’re going to meet some people tonight. It’s business. No dancing”. This was an odd development. “What do you mean Joe? What people?” Something was obviously bothering him. “I can’t talk about it. Not now anyway. Talk to Cal. Maybe he can fill you in”. Out on the dance floor, a wildly gyrating Maryse had become the hit of the evening.
I found Cal Young on a balcony that overlooked the whole Ballroom. “I still can’t get over it. They all came. If the FBI knew about this they would shit a brick. They’re all here”. Down on the floor, Familial contingents stuck together, either at one table, or a few tables that had been joined together, communicating with other Families through messengers, who would run from table to table, transmitting questions and answers. Initial rules of engagement were being defined. Paul Castellano would whisper into his man’s ear, and that message would be silently carried across the room and whispered into the ear of Carmine Galante, who would either shake his head or nod in agreement. Once the agenda had been set, members could speak directly with one another.
“So, who am I supposed to meet?” Cal shrugged. “Joe told me I’m supposed to meet people here tonight. What’s going on? Haven’t I met enough people already?” Cal laughed, “You mean back at the restaurant? All those handshakes? You were on display, my friend. Like a job interview”. I looked down, and they were all here. The people I had been introduced to at the Villagio Italia: Joe Massino, Sonny Black, Carmine Galante who treated me like a leper, John Gotti, Sammy Gravano, Roy DeMeo, Nino Gaggi, all sitting at tables down on the floor. “Yeah, I thought Dominick was trying to scare me a little. If he introduced me to enough tough-guys I would work harder on his wedding movie. Cal, was there ever really a wedding movie?” He smiled. “You mean, if you had shown up this morning, like you were supposed to, and if Fat Mike brought live doves instead of dead pigeons, and if the ‘Snake’ hadn’t put the kibosh on cameras here tonight? Sure, it would have been nice. It would have gotten Dom’s family off his back. They’re the ones who wanted the wedding movie, not Dom. He was pissed at you because you made him look bad. You told him you’d be there, and you let him down. That pissed him off.” I had to lean a little closer to Cal to hear him clearly. The orchestra seemed a bit louder now. “If you’re asking me if Dom cared one way or another about the movie thing, I’d have to say not really. At the restaurant, you were there to meet people. You were on display, just like tonight. All the talk that night about the wedding movie was just smoke. Dom’s way of not letting you know why you were really there. What you didn’t know couldn’t make you nervous”.
Down on the floor, Steve had returned to our table, carrying a plate of something from the kitchen. Up in the balcony, it was time for Cal to spill the beans. “Look, Dom has got something hanging over his head. I’m not saying what, but something. He might have to do some time. He needs to make some investments that will see his family through while he’s in the can. I told him about you. You’ve got a reputation kid. The movies you make for Dibi, and Star Distributors, they all make money. You’ve got the golden touch, my friend”. I could see Dominick down on the floor, like a master of ceremonies, moving from table to table, shaking hands, laughing, telling jokes, loving every moment. “Dom wants to invest in some movies, but he’s broke. He had to reach out to the shy’s for all of this. So he needed partners. And you met some of them that night at the restaurant. When he goes back to them for the money, and they ask him who is involved, he can say, ‘You met him. Shaun – at the restaurant that night. You shook his hand’. That’s important. For these guys, everything is done on a handshake”. Maryse was down there dancing with everybody, and people were applauding. Cal was still smiling, surveying the congregation below. “Right now, Dom is out there on the floor, looking for more partners. You’ll be introduced to them. There will be more handshakes. Dom is nobody’s fool. He puts the money together, you make the movies, and I distribute. Everybody makes money, the boys are all happy, and Dom’s family will have some income to see them through. What’s the matter, you don’t like happy endings?” I wanted to ask him what would happen to Fat Mike, but I was afraid to.
Busboys were removing desert plates, and waiters were busy delivering after dinner drinks to tables whose occupants had to speak-up in order to be heard over the orchestra, whose decibel level increased as the night wore on. Out on the dance floor, the alcohol consumption seemed to help the revelers to lose their inhibitions, and they danced with more abandon. The traffic between the tables of businessmen seemed heavier now, and the conversation more animated, mostly serious, but with an occasional outburst of laughter and slaps on the back. The evening was a success for all concerned; those who came to celebrate the marriage of Junior and Angela, and those come to negotiate alliances, in an effort to stop the bickering and in-fighting that had for years plagued this much romanticized fraternity of men, and caused it to drift far from the intentions of its founders. Cal had said that this kind of gathering was unprecedented. Not since the botched Apalachin conference, back in the fifties, had anything like tonight been attempted, much less achieved. And right in the middle of it all was Dominick Cataldo, whose invitations had been answered by all present. They owed it all to him. He was the star of the show. It was his night.
What Cal Young could not know, was that something like this would never happen again. This seemingly amicable amalgam of independent criminal enterprises would soon shatter. Those present would look back on tonight as the last chance for the survival of the brotherhood. The last hope to right the listing ship of this ‘thing of theirs’. The final possibility for peace and lasting prosperity, among men who had seldom know either. It was 1978 and, for La Cosa Nostra, tonight was the last hurrah.
They had come from all over the country. Joey Aiuppa from Chicago who, along with Tony Spilotro, had put one bullet into the back of Sam Giancana’s head, followed by five into his face, in the bloody coup that would see him ascend to power. Both Tony and Joey were sitting at a table, engaged in serious conversation with ‘Tony Ducks’ Corallo, the new boss of New York’s Lucchese Family, who would soon bury his friend and partner Jimmy Hoffa under the end-zone at Giant Stadium. Phil Lombardo was enjoying a joke with Bonanno Boss Carmine Galante, who just six months later would be blown away by his own lieutenants, his signature cigar left dangling from his lifeless lips. The personal representatives from Santo Trafficante in Tampa, and Carlos Marcello in New Orleans were trading jabs with ‘Gaspipe’ Casso, and ‘Little Nick’ Corozzo. A laughing Roy DeMeo sat with his arm around the shoulder of his old friend Nino Gaggi who, five years later, would issue the contract that would see Roy dead, found riddled with bullets in the trunk of his car. Gambino Boss, ‘Big Paul’ Castellano chatted with ‘Dibi’ DiBernardo, across the table from John Gotti who would kill them both in his bloody rise to power. Just a few years later, in 1981, ‘Sonny Black’ Napolitano would succumb to bullet wounds at the hands of his pal Nino Gaggi, but tonight they talked baseball. The ‘Bloody Eighties’ would soon take its toll, fewer than half the men in this room surviving to see 1990, but tonight you would never know it to look at them. They seemed so joyful at their combined possibilities, so hopeful for a peaceful and profitable future. Tonight all their problems seemed solvable. Tonight they celebrated La Cosa Nostra.
The orchestra, once again, increased the volume, and the five hundred guests seemed lost in the comradeship of noisy enjoyment. More people were dancing than talking now and, as the band played the first few notes of a new tune, most eyes in the room turned toward the bandstand. What they heard were the opening notes of a song familiar to them all. A song they would come to adopt as their own. A song that would become the anthem for every wiseguy in the city. And the orchestra’s vocalist stepped up to the microphone and began to sing:
“Start Spreading the news
I’m leaving today
A huge cheer engulfed the room, and those who had been dancing, and those who had been negotiating, all instinctively approached the bandstand, and some began to sing along.
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
More joined-in, and the song was louder now, the need to sing had become contagious. And right in the middle of it was Maryse, her arms linked between Junior and Angela, singing her heart out. The businessmen began singing, some finding each other’s arms and linking up, united in their commonality, lost in the moment. Joe Dogs sang with a purpose and, considering his situation, I wonder if the two Federal Agents outside in their van, heard his joyous noise and joined-in.
In ones and twos, deadly men began to find other deadly men, and arms found arms, and voices joined other voices, and everyone in the room was singing now, forgetting their differences, joined together in the spirit of the moment. The doors to the kitchen opened, and out peered cooks and dishwashers and helpers, all wanting to see what was happening. No one stood alone in this songful celebration. I saw Roy DeMeo grab the arm of the waiter who was standing next to him, which became an open invitation for everyone to join in. Joe Massino and Sonny Black grabbed a nearby bus boy, and stuck him between them with their arms linked to his. They were celebrating themselves, and celebrating their city. Rank melted away, as Capo linked up with Soldier, and Soldier with Lieutenant, and bus boy with Boss, and Bonanno with Colombo, and way off to one side of the room, almost lost in this frenzied celebration was a welcome sight indeed. Standing, linked between ‘Gaspipe’ Casso and a Greg Scarpa, still wearing his black suit, and singing with gusto, was Fat Mike, who had been forgiven by a now magnanimous Dominick Cataldo for sins far worse than mine, and who would now live to see tomorrow.
If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you New York, New York”
So this was how it ended, probably the strangest day I’ve known. Dominick Cataldo was now a hero. It would become widely known that he had been responsible for the greatest and most hopeful gathering in the history of this ‘thing of theirs’. His future was assured. His wedding movie had gone up in smoke, but so had many of his worries and, no one, outside of those who were there at the Church that day, would ever discover the awful truth about the pigeons. Cal Young would distribute the movies that I would make, the financing arranged by Dominick and his new network of partners, each of whose hands would find mine, in a gesture of friendship and good commerce. The Seventies would soon come to a close, and the bloody Eighties would begin the carnage that would reduce the rank and file of the Cosa Nostra by half. Some, like Dominick Cataldo and John Gotti, would die in prison, but most would suffer a gruesome demise at the hands of their closest friends and associates, leaving this once proud yet questionable brotherhood in shambles.
But, back on that October night in 1978, at La Mer on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, before the Rico Statute, the Witness Protection Program, an increasingly aggressive Justice Department, the Colombian Cartels, and the violent greed of its own membership took such an awful toll; back on that night, with hope for the future of a troubled fraternity that still had teeth in its bite and some spit in its handshake, the two hundred businessmen brought together on the occasion of Dominick Cataldo’s son’s wedding, regardless of their rank, linked arms together and, for the very last time, sang a song.
© 2008 Shaun Costello