Short stories and essays by Shaun Costello, as well as excerpts from manuscripts in progress.

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Showing it to Charlotte

SHOWING IT TO CHARLOTTE

A Christmas Odyssey

By Shaun Costello

 

My friend John has a comfort-level problem with the Holiday Season. A lifetime of frosty Christmas mornings in Boston seems a distant memory now since John, fulfilling his long-standing commitment to never touch another snow shovel, moved his family to Florida, just a few years ago. The sappy scent of a real tree, usually a Blue Spruce or a White Pine, standing in the corner of his New England living room, covered with holiday ornamentation, some of which were family heirlooms inherited from his grandparents, has been replaced by a plastic palm from Walmart with built-in flashing lights. His kids didn’t seem to mind, but for John, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t feel much like Christmas. But this isn’t the only reason John is uneasy this season. Each Yuletide he relives his ultimate horror. It was the day before Christmas, several years ago, when John traveled three thousand miles in an attempt to show his penis to an unsuspecting Charlotte Rampling.

For some time now John has harbored a dark secret, something not even his closest friends suspect. He suffers from a ZARDOZ fixation. Growing up a sexually repressed Catholic in a working class Irish neighborhood in Boston, John spent more than his share of time in the balconies of porno theaters, and found this degenerate atmosphere to be a comforting refuge from the daily drudgery of his blue-collar life. But all good things eventually come to an end and, with the advent of the video cassette, the days of the “Adult Theater” were numbered. So one day John, who had set aside several hours for some serious balcony time watching some of his fave smut flicks, was astonished to find that the theater had changed it’s policy. No more porn. Instead, the theater was showing Vintage Sci-fi Movies, starting off with a twin bill of, “This Island Earth” with Rex Reason and Faith Domergue, and “Zardoz” with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling. “Well”, thought a shattered John, his fiver still in his hand, “Better than nothing”. So he paid the five bucks, bought his popcorn, and settled in for an afternoon of ray guns and slippery logic.

As the plot of Zardoz began to reveal itself John liked what he saw. An Amazonian civilization where men were unknown and women ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. He began fantasizing about this little community as a vacation destination, where he might mingle with clusters of innocent, scantily clad, sexually curious maidens, who had never seen a man and were impossible to disappoint. Then came the scene where a naked Sean Connery stood before the Amazonian Senate. Curious about his anatomy, they showed him Charlotte Rampling’s naked breasts, just to see if they would have an effect on him. Not knowing how to react to Sean Connery’s now very erect penis, the nervous Senate chamber was filled with giggles and then laughter. But not from Charlotte Rampling, who knew a good thing when she saw one. She stared at Connery’s hard penis with the expectation of limitless possibilities.

John couldn’t sleep that night, not from nervousness over his Latin final the next day, but from that look on Charlotte Rampling’s face. The look that said, here was a woman who knew a good thing when she saw one. John had never seen that look on any woman’s face before. Certainly not on the face of Mary Alice Dowd, or any of the other girls at Our Lady of Perpetual Conception. He swore to himself that, one day, he would see that look in person. So he sat down and made a plan.

Through very thorough research, John found out that Charlotte Rampling lived in Dorset, on England’s southwest coast, in the village of Lyme Regis, about a three-hour train ride from London. He made up a story for his parents about going skiing in Vermont, packed his bags, and headed out to Logan Airport where he boarded British Airways flight 1181, and began the journey to England, and his date with destiny. It was cold and sleeting when he landed at Heathrow, but John was warmed by an inner fire and impervious to the weather. After sorting out the luggage/customs ritual, he took a cab for London. 

 At Charing Cross he boarded the Dover train, and got off at Waterloo Station, the first stop on the line. Within ten minutes he boarded the Weymouth train, which would take him to the coast. He sat in the club car, ordered a glass of Porter, and watched the towns and villages of southern England parading by his train window, all decked out in their Christmas finery, a spectacle to see. And he began to wonder, “What if she’s not home? What if she’s away on holiday?” But then he remembered having read an interview she had given to some movie magazine where she said, “There’s no place like Dorset for the Holidays”. He smiled, knowing that this year he would spend Christmas Eve like he had spent no other. This year he would spend Christmas Eve showing it to Charlotte.

Icy darkness descended on Weymouth, as John’s train reached its destination. He lugged his bags onto the Station platform, and wondered to himself why he had packed so much stuff? “Maybe”, he thought, “just maybe, once she had seen his goods, she would invite him to stay the night”. After all, that’s what happened with Sean Connery.

The cab ride from Weymouth to Lyme Regis took about thirty minutes. Not wanting to drag his luggage around with him he asked the driver to take him to the best Hotel. The desk clerk at The Royal Lion told him they were full up, and suggested The Mariner Hotel, just down the Street. The Mariner was booked solid for the Holidays, as was The Swallow’s Eaves, The Orchard Country, The Kersbrook, and The Dower House. The irony of “no room at the inn” on Christmas Eve did not escape our hero as he continued his search for a place to stay. Finally he gave the desk clerk at the totally booked Channel House a few pounds to watch his bags, sat down to a nice cup of tea and contemplated his next move.

He looked at the address on the crumpled piece of paper that he took from his pocket. Number 15 Blue Dolphin Way. This was the address. Her address. Charlotte Rampling’s address. He asked directions outside the Channel House and was told it was a short walk up the hill and to the right. John’s journey was nearly at its end, as he began the climb. The rain and sleet came down harder now, but our rain soaked hero was still warmed by that inner fire that made weather irrelevant. He passed a few sign posts on his climb. Tattersall Way, then Judith’s Close, and finally here it was, Blue Dolphin Way. And right there on the mailbox, just under the number ‘15’, were the initials C. R. He was home. Her Home. Charlotte Rampling’s Home. And home she was indeed. The house was adorned with hundreds of Christmas lights and decorations of all sorts. John could see movement through the first floor window, and there, to his overwhelming joy, was Charlotte Rampling, decorating her tree. He was unprepared as to what to do next. Should he remove his clothes and simply knock on her door? Should he expose himself to her through the window? He hadn’t really thought this through. When he first saw her mailbox he had noticed that the flag was up. She had not gone out to fetch her mail today. Maybe it was just raining too hard. Maybe she simply forgot. At any rate he felt certain that, sooner or later, she would make the trek to the mailbox, and that’s when he would confront her. That would be his moment of triumph.

As he watched through her window, she walked over to the front door and took a yellow slicker of its hook. This was it. The moment was here. She was going to fetch her mail, and our hero was up to the task at hand. He raced back out to the gate, tearing off articles of clothing as he ran and, naked as the day he was born, stood next to her mailbox, proud, and tall, and all hers. He could hear the front door to the house open and close, and the sound of a distant voice singing. She was singing. As the sound of her footsteps approached he could barely make out the words and melody. “Some day……my prince….will come”. She was singing “Someday My Prince Will Come”, from Snow White, and her prince he was indeed. Standing there in the driving rain and sleet, naked as a Jaybird was our John, the sexually repressed Irish Catholic kid from Boston who, once upon a time saw Sean Connery standing naked and tall in front of this very same Charlotte Rampling, the result of which was the beginning of a whole new civilization of little Seans and Charlottes to populate a brave new world filled with hope for the future, and Sean Connery’s endless erection. And here she was approaching her mailbox right next to her naked, soggy prince who traveled all these countless miles to fulfill a destiny that they both surely shared here in the driving English rain. And they stood there, together for that one endless moment, until she reached down, grabbed her mail, spun around and, still singing, walked back to the house.

It’s hard to tell just how long John stood there, naked in the driving winter rain, before he realized that she hadn’t noticed him. Or had she? He will never really know for sure. On the train heading back to London John wondered whether or not this was the dumbest thing he had ever done. No, it wasn’t. He had done much dumber things than this, without one tenth the satisfaction he got from standing there naked with Charlotte Rampling on that rainy Christmas Eve in Dorset, totally prepared to populate a brave new world with little Johns and Charlottes, if only she had noticed him standing there. John prefers to think that she did notice him. Maybe she really did notice him, but was just too polite to say anything. And if she had said something, what would it have been? As his plane began its final approach to Logan Airport, John realized exactly what she would have said. As he stood there, naked and cold, in the driving Dorset rain, she would have looked at him and smiled, and said, “Merry Christmas John”. The English are like that.

 *

 © 2006 Shaun Costello

 

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Waterpower

WATERPOWER

Remembered, forgotten, and remembered again.

by

Shaun Costello

 

 

 

In the fall of 1976, America’s bicentennial year, I was in the midst of moving from my rent controlled apartment in Manhattan’s East Twenties to a farm in the tiny hamlet of Krumville, about ninety minutes north of the city.  During the first week in September, my girlfriend Harriett, myself, my dog “Miss Coney Island”, and our three cats – Spiegel, Fatty, and Rose, all squeezed into the confines of a U-Hall truck, and made the trek to the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. I had made arrangements for our two horses to be shipped from the barn in New Jersey, where we boarded them, and delivered to the farm the following week. Before the unpacking even began, the phone rang. It was Sid Levine from Star Distributors. He needed to see me right away, very important, couldn’t wait. So I left the unpacking to Harriett, got in the car, and made the drive back down to the city.  

Star Distributors, my main source of income in those days, was the porno unit of the DeCavalcante crime family. In the beginning, I only dealt with Sid Levine, but after three years I had become Star’s largest single supplier of feature product and, one by one, the major players revealed themselves to me. Robert (Dibi) DiBernardo, a Capo in the DeCavalcante family, was the boss. Teddy Rothstein and Andrew (Andre) D’Apice worked under him, and each of them handled a different part of the business. I guess, for legal reasons, they were seldom seen together in public, and even had offices in different buildings. Two of these buildings, where Dibi and Andre rented space, were owned by the husband of Geraldine Ferarro, a fact made public when she ran for Vice President. By now, my presence was so familiar that, often when Sid called me down for a meeting, Andre, or even sometimes Dibi himself, would stop by to say hello. These guys were not cowboys. Dibi was a well dressed, soft spoken, polite businessman, and he ran Star that way. When I first found out that I was dealing with the Mafia, I have to admit to a few anxious moments, but my fears evaporated quickly. I was a rare commodity in their world, a completely dependable supplier. They needed me, and acted accordingly. They were not the violent end of the Cosa Nostra, they were businessmen. In all the years I dealt with them there was never a problem. They paid promptly for a product that was delivered on time and on budget. The danger of dealing with gangsters, which both scared me and thrilled me, never really materialized. At least not yet.

Sid was looking grim when I got to his office, and he didn’t waste any time. “Look, I’m a grandfather and I’m ashamed to have to ask you this, but they need an enema movie.” I didn’t want to break the mood so my inner chuckle never surfaced, but it was close. An enema movie????? Sid had been given an audio cassette recording of something called “The Enema Bandit”, which had a scene in which an effete Doctor, assisted by an evil nurse, gave an elaborately staged enema to a bound and gagged young girl. On the tape, he announced that he was going to use a device called the Bardex Inflatable Nozzle. So I’m thinking that this just might be the funniest single thing I’d ever heard, but of course I didn’t tell this to Sid. Evidently this idea came from a magazine article, alleged to be a true story, about an enema fetishist who went on a cleansing spree on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana, and forcibly administered enemas to coeds. He was convicted on felony assault charges and was presently serving out his sentence at their state penitentiary. Because no actual rape had been involved, only a cleansing procedure, a kind of celebrity status was claimed by the “Enema Bandit’s” victims. Hoping to be interviewed by the press, co-eds left their dorm room doors unlocked, in order to make the notorious “Bandit’s” enema spree easier for him. After all, it was only water.

“Look, it’s a true story”, claimed Sid.  “You’ve got to help me here. Dibi thinks a movie about this stuff will make a bundle”. Dibi was Sid’s boss, and what Dibi wanted, Dibi got. I told Sid not to worry – that I would go through all the material he had given me, and I would come up with something. So cassette and magazine in hand, I headed for the elevator. The door slid open and there stood Dibi, and the conversation went something like: “Hey Shaun, how’s it shakin? You speak to Sid?’ I nodded yes. “Look, I don’t want to know about this thing. You just do whatever Sid tells you. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want to talk about it. OK? Understand? I don’t want anybody to know I was involved in this thing. OK? Got it?” So Sid was ashamed of it, Dibi didn’t want to know about it, and I began pre-production on what, until this day, is still considered to be the most outrageous porno film ever made.

The answer print of “Waterpower” was never seen by Sid Levine, Dibi, or anyone else at Star Distributors. I simply described it over the phone to Sid, who whispered, “What do you think? Is it good? Don’t let me down now”. I told him it was fine. That he was getting what he asked for. So an embarrassed Sid Levine called the lab, and made the release print order, and a film that none of them had ever seen went into distribution.

“Waterpower” opened to empty houses wherever it played. Theater owners were scared of it, and audiences didn’t know what to make of it, and I was not   surprised by either. I had seen Scorscese’s “Taxi Driver” just before Sid asked me to make the picture, and thought that my friend Jamie Gillis would make a great Travis Bickle, only on foot, prowling Manhattan’s jungles, looking for evil bitches to cleanse. I used Taxi Driver’s diary voice-over narrative, and even some of Bernard Herrmann’s music score. Stealing music was one of my specialties, and I never got caught. Dibi had said to me, “Just make the thing”, and that’s exactly what I did. Since I would be making this movie without parental supervision, I was free to turn it into a parody of itself. I wrote a ludicrous script, hired my favorite actors; Jamie, Marlene Willoughby, and Rob Everett, and went about shooting what I still think is the funniest movie I ever made. Of course, there was always the chance that Dibi and the boys Downtown would catch on to what I was doing, and I would sleep with the fishes, but I didn’t think so. I had long-before made a friend of living with risk, and with “Waterpower” I was willing to go the distance.

The edited negative that I delivered to Guffanti Film Labs was 71 minutes long, 70 being the minimum length for a feature film in distribution on the Porn Circuit in those days. I shot the picture on 16MM film, in four days, for a total budget of $16,000. Post production took another six weeks. Delivering a watchable 71 minutes for only $16,000 was impossible, but I was satisfied if I could get away with a scene or two that somehow worked from beginning to end. I had written some deliciously absurd dialogue, and Jamie, Marlene, and Rob did wonders with it. Jamie’s reading of the “Bandit’s” diary narration may be the best piece of acting he ever did.

After two years in distribution, and not having even recouped its meager negative cost, Waterpower was shelved, until somebody at Star Distributors came up with the questionable idea of re-releasing the picture under a different director’s name. While Cosa Nostra families had their differences, sometimes violent, the enormous profits that they shared from organized crime’s huge involvement in pornography went smoothly. By 1978 the DeCavalcante family’s porn interests had been merged with the Gambino’s, creating an international empire of smut. The Colombo family’s profits from pictures like “Deep Thoat”, and “The Devil in Miss Jones”, both made by director Gerry Damiano, were gigantic. It was well-known that Damiano was wholly owned by the Colombo’s and did what he was told, and my old friend Dibi, now a Gambino Capo, was certainly aware of the huge profits that Gerry’s two movies had made for the Colombo family. This was the era of “Porn Chic” in New York City, and Damiano had made the television talk show circuit, and his name had become known to the public. Robert “Dibi” DiBernardo, representing DeCavalcante/Gambino interests, made the request to the Colombo family to borrow Damiano’s name, in order to insert it as the Director’s credit, on the re-release of the so-far unsuccessful “Waterpower”. Dibi now had a semi-famous director’s name for his enema epic, but he didn’t stop there. He ordered the people at Star Distributors to dip into the out takes and add 15 minutes to the length of the picture. This was a common practice in those days. If a picture didn’t work at 71 minutes, re-release it at 86 minutes, and hope that the increased length will make the difference at the box office. Of course, it didn’t. Waterpower was unwatchable at 71 minutes, and was now unthinkable at 86. Scenes that I had left on the editing room floor because the acting was so atrocious were now re-inserted to make the film longer. These guys were not rocket scientists. They thought that Damiano’s name, and the new, hideous length would do the trick. It didn’t.

After another unsuccessful year in distribution, Gerard Damiano’s 86 minute enema epic “Waterpower” was pulled and shelved. Dibi had a partner in many porn projects named Reuben Sturman who, along with associates in Europe, ruled a worldwide porn empire from his headquarters in Cleveland. Sturman took “Waterpower” off Dibi’s hands, re-titled it “Schpritz”, and opened it in the Netherlands and Germany. Bingo! It was an overnight sensation, and became a worldwide cult hit in Europe, and in Japan. I guess our European cousins must have kinkier tastes in movies. “Waterpower”, which had terrified theater owners, and puzzled movie-goers in America, was now the cinematic toast of the Continent, playing to sold-out art houses, and Champagne Openings all over Europe.

 Thirty-three years after I made it for Sixteen Thousand Dollars, “Waterpower” has developed a world-wide cult following. Robert “Dibi” Diberdardo was shot in the head in 1986 by Gambino hit man Sammy “Bull” Gravano, and died, as far as I know, never having seen his enema epic.  I saw a recent French DVD release of the picture, which was transferred from good source material. The picture quality was acceptable, considering its age and, while unwatchably long, it still had its moments.  Marlene Willoughby’s engaging habit of raising her left eye brow when making a conversational point was as hilarious as ever, and Rob Everett was as funny as I remembered. And Jamie – well I guess Jamie will always be either cursed, or blessed, as being forever remembered as Burt, the Enema Bandit. As for me, I have to admit to a chuckle or two, while watching some of the dialogue. After all – it’s still the funniest movie I ever made.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JK8GiGaF8k

(The above link is Randy Squalor’s “Waterpowered” video)

*

© 2009 Shaun Costello

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Mitzvah Mobile Madness

MAN TELLS OF MITZVAH MOBILE NIGHTMARE
Associated Press 09/27/2010
New York Man, missing for three months, tells horror story of abduction, and forced labor at the hands of crazed Lubavichers. Ashley Shuttleworth, an unemployed typesetter, and father of two, spoke to reporters this morning at One Police Plaza, revealing his alleged kidnapping at the hands of a crazed band of Hasidic Jews, who are an extremist fringe group, formerly associated with the Lubavitcher movement, centered in Crown Heights Brooklyn. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I just keep seeing those beards, those bushy beards”, revealed Mr. Shuttleworth, whose bizarre story began with his alleged abduction, on June 3rd, just outside Katz’s Delicatessen, on Houston Street, the hub of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “There were these two guys, bearded guys in black overcoats, standing by a big van, more like a truck, I guess, with strange writing all over it – Jewish writing”, said Shuttleworth. “The only thing in English were two words, MITZVAH TANK”. One of the bearded men approached Shuttleworth and asked, “Jewish?”. When Shuttleworth said he wasn’t, the bearded man shook his hand and told him that he represented an organization that offered exciting, high paying career opportunities for non-Jews, and asked him to step into the vehicle fore more information. “It was dark in the van, then there was this smell, an acrid smell, and that’s the last thing I remember”. Shuttleworth claims to have regained consciousness in the hold of a ship, somewhere at sea, handcuffed to another of the Mitzvah Mobile’s victims. “There must have been fifty of us, there in the hold of that ship, and every guy had the same story: the bearded guys, the big van with the funny writing, the job offer for non-Jews”. According to Shuttleworth, the ship anchored in the Port of Haifa, on Israel’s coast. The abductees were forced to remain on board, and put through a rigorous indoctrination, which included frequently being drugged. “They said escape was impossible, so don’t bother trying. The main guy, the one with the biggest beard told us we would be treated well as a reward for our cooperation, and we would be expected to work, but only one day a week. Then, one day he say’s to me, ‘Do the words Shabbos Goy mean anything to you?’” Shuttleworth was told that, when his indoctrination was completed, he would be assigned to a family, and expected to answer phones, turn on and off the lights, work the computers, anything mechanical, but only on Saturdays.” Other than the isolation, the food was the worst part of his incarceration, according to Shuttleworth. “Pork, nothing but pork. I mean, I like a pork chop as much as the next guy, but Jesus”. The alleged abductees were fed nothing but pork, and porcine byproducts, and told that there were thousands more, just like them, presently going through the same indoctrination, and in many countries. Shuttleworth claims that this extremist Hasidic fringe group was involved in a world-wide plot to create a race of enslaved Shabbos Goys. He escaped, when one of the Hasidic guards evidently forgot that he was in the bathroom. He made his way to the main deck, and jumped ship, right there in Haifa Harbor. “The Marine guards at the American Embassy wouldn’t let me in, at first. I mean, I was soaking wet from swimming to shore”. Shuttleworth was flown back to New York City, and the waiting arms of his distraught family. Police Captain Jack Hogan, who is heading the investigation, told reporters, “Kidnapping is a serious crime. Looks like we’ve got some kind of white slave ring at work here, and we’re going to put the kibosh on it, I’ll tell you that”. Police have begun the process of impounding the Mitzvah Tank vehicles in all five boroughs. At Lubavitcher Headquarters, on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Shnuer Zuckerman was quoted as saying, “Meshugenah! That’s what they are, these Mitzvah Mobile gonifs. Meshugenah. You want a Shabbos Goy – you pay a Shabbos Goy”. Mr Shuttleworth has evidently been approached by Argosy Magazine, to tell his tragic story of abduction, and Goyishe enslavement. Mayor Bloomberg’s office refused comment.

 *

© 2010 Shaun Costello

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Hooked on Sleaze

HOOKED ON SLEAZE

Making my bones in Pornography

By

Shaun Costello 

In the cold months of winter, Manhattan apartments back in the early Seventies, as I’m sure they do today, resonated with the clanky noises that accompanied the warmth provided by the hot-water radiators that were the common source of heat in most buildings. The clank, clank, click-click-click, clank as the hot water replaced the cold in the pipes leading to the radiating units, followed by the phsssssssssssssssssssssssssssst, as the steam safety valves on the those units went into action protecting the tenants from the danger and inconvenience of exploding pipes. The ability to sleep through this racket was the sign of a true New Yorker. While tourists probably got little sleep terrified that the radiators in their midtown hotel rooms were about to burst, scalding them to death, the hardened veterans of Gotham simply slept through the noise, waiting for their clock radios to start their day. My building was no different, maybe even louder than most, but the clanking never bothered me, and I didn’t need an alarm clock. Each morning between 6 and 7, I would feel the annoying, but reassuring sensation of little teeth gently biting down on the tip of my nose. This was my cat Spiegel, demanding breakfast, and there was no escaping him. So I got up, fed the cat, made coffee, and jumped in the shower, the beginning of just another day in the life of a sex addict.

It was a cold five-block walk to the Lexington Avenue subway station at 23rd Street, where I took the Number Four train to Grand Central Station. Then the long walk down sour-smelling corridors to the Times Square Shuttle, which deposited me underneath what some people have called the cross roads of the world. The Times Square subway station was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was. The Deuce.

Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Men’s clothing, Army/Navy, cheap electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks,  GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on “The Deuce”.

Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.

On the north side of the street, just about half way between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, squeezed between Modell’s Sporting Goods, and the Harem Adult Theater, was Sal’s book store. A small venue, about ten feet wide and twice again as deep, Sal’s adult retail emporium was divided into two worlds of trade – ‘over’, and ‘under’ the counter. Over the counter, Sal offered soft-core nudie magazines, erotic books, adult party favors, and 8MM adult-oriented movies, which mostly consisted of volleyball games in nudist parks. But if you knew the secret word, or could mention a name that might be familiar to the owner, or if Sal just happened to like your face, then the world of ‘under-the-counter’ would be made available to you. This included hard core pornographic magazines, movies, and party favors like decks of playing cards adorned with photos of teenage girls giving blowjobs, all of which were sold illegally. This establishment was what was known, in those days, as a Dirty Book Store. Sal lived just across the river, in Jersey City, and as a reward for being a good fella in his neighborhood, was given the store to run by the real owners, New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family, who would become the inspiration, three decades later, for the television series “The Sopranos”. But these were pre-Godfather days, and no one knew much about the Cosa-Nostra, so most people thought that Sal owned his own business. He had an assistant named Nick, who was a former New York City cop. The word was that Nick had been thrown off the Force for one thing or another but, whenever asked about it, he became surly and agitated, referring to New York’s finest as ungrateful scumbags.  To the world at large, Sal’s book store was what it appeared to be, but to the street people of Times Square it was something else again – a message center and networking conduit between the street, and the men in the shadows who owned the street. Pornographers, would-be pimps, wannabe wise guys, and out-of-work actors who made money having sex in front of cameras all checked in regularly with Sal. These were mostly transients who lived in SRO’s, and had no phone of their own, so Sal put them in touch with each other. Nick, who spent most of his off-hours lurking in the labyrinth of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, trolling for teenage runaways from the Midwest, was a source of acting talent for most of New York’s adult film impresarios. When a film maker with some adult footage to sell, approached a theater, he got no further than the box office. The men who ran the theaters lived in the shadows. In order to reach them, you had to speak to Sal. Sal could arrange a meeting. The route from the street into the shadows could only be traveled through Sal. Sal was the conduit. Sal was the man.

By the winter of 1970, I had been acting, on and off, for about two years, in porn loops, which were ten minute sex shorts that had been called stag films in earlier days. I had quit my job as a magazine editor in 1969, and found myself hanging out in the balconies of sleazy adult theaters looking at images of naked women. I’m not sure what a sex addiction is exactly, but my attraction to pornography had certainly become an obsession. I was a willing victim of my own carnality, gladly spending too much time staring at lurid images projected on the screens of the sleazy venues I frequented. An evening of balcony time in one of Times Square’s porno houses wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Sal’s book store to see what was happening. Sal or Nick would be sitting behind the counter in the front of the store, greeting customers, and intimidating would-be shoplifters with an always-ready baseball bat that hung above the counter, next to the door.

“Hey, look at this. Look who’s here. Shaunie boy, Hollywood’s finest. Lookin’ good”.

“Hi Sal. How’s business?”

“You don’t see me complaining. Hey, I saw you in something the other night. It starts out with you and some young brunette playing strip poker. Then when she gets naked, she goes down on you. What a piece-a-tail. I never saw her before”.

“Sounds like every loop I’ve been in Sal”.

“Hey kid, you know a guy named Smitty? Skinny Jamaican guy? Talks funny?”

I shrugged.

“Anyway, he’s looking for some people. I told him about you. He’ll be here around Ten. You should meet this guy”.

He was there around Ten, and so was I, and this is how I first met Smitty, an illiterate Jamaican street hustler who dabbled in the production of porn loops, and needed a hand putting it all together. Smitty had no known address. He had no phone. If you wanted to reach out to Smitty, you called Sal. No one knew how he came up with the money, but he did, and frequently – enough to pay four or five actors, a cameraman, and a shooting location for the day’s work. After a few of Smitty’s productions, it became obvious that he was involved in something beyond either his experience or his ability. So, seeing an opportunity, I volunteered to help him out. I told him that I would direct his loops, find the actors, hire the cameraman, and arrange for an apartment for the day, and that he would not have to pay me anything extra – just the hundred dollars he was already paying me as an actor. All he had to do was show up with the money to pay everyone. Smitty jumped at the chance, and we began an arrangement that lasted about six months, during which time I learned, on an admittedly primitive level, the basics of film making.

My phone would ring. “Hey Shun, we make films – you got girls?” So I would call my friends Herb (later known as Harry Reems), and Fred Lincoln, and then of course Nick, at Sal’s book store, to see if he had any recent luck at the Port Authority. There was always a cameraman available who, for one of Smitty’s crisp hundred dollar bills, would show up with a camera and some lights. An apartment was easily arranged, since the owner would get to watch the day’s activities, and might even offer to participate, if needed.

At the end of the day, Smitty would pay each participant a hundred bucks, and walk away with four loops, each one shot on a four hundred foot roll of 16 millimeter film. In order to guarantee that the footage was camera original, Smitty’s customer would buy the rolls of film unprocessed. This meant that all of the editing involved in creating a little story for each loop had to be done while shooting. A wide shot had to be followed by a close up. Reaction takes of faces, cutaway shots to keep the flow moving, all had to be done in a certain order. I would sit down and make shot lists for each loop. These shot lists, though primitive, were the precursors to the system I would create a few years later, when I was mass producing One-Day-Wonders. After about six months of making Smitty’s loops, I felt that I was ready to take the next step, but I wasn’t sure what that step would be.

I wanted to make a feature length film, but had no idea where to start. I had neither the experience nor the financing necessary to attempt such an improbable endeavor. Other than directing Smitty’s porn loops, my film experience was strictly limited to what I saw from my seat in the balcony. I had divided my movie-watching evenly, between the Elgin Cinema on Eighth Avenue, where I was mesmerized by the films of Welles, Bunuel, Godard, Hawkes, and Fellini – the decaying and cavernous movie palaces of 42nd Street, where you could see three action flicks for a buck – and the adult film houses of Times Square, where I soothed my sex addiction. I didn’t just watch movies, I devoured them, and the films I liked, I saw repeatedly – over and over; thinking them through, dissecting them, analyzing them, taking them apart and putting them back together again. Why did that scene end in a close-up? How did they make the blood seem so real? Why is the angle of the camera so low? What makes a director choose one lens over another? Why does the same shot look so different from the first row than it does from the back of the theater? How could I, with no experience and no money, make a movie? There must be a way.

The road from the improbable to the possible has many twists and turns, and depends, in order to reach a successful destination, on circumstance, and sometimes – just plain luck. I needed to create a movie that, because of its genre, would guarantee a safe return on its investment, and because of its careful construction, would cost almost nothing to make. Porn was cheap to produce, but theatrical distribution of feature length sex films was in its infancy, and the legal problems involved made it dangerous. Cheap Horror/Splatter movies might cost a bit more, but there was no guarantee that a buyer could be found for the finished product. I began to think about combining the two, sex and violence – it worked for James Bond. And I needed the money to make it happen.

In 1970 the courts, in an effort to clarify their position on obscenity, ruled that material that was found to contain redeeming social value could not be found to be legally obscene. This meant that, a film that contained hard core sex scenes, could be exhibited theatrically as long as that film also contained a story that could be construed as having redeeming social value. The Genie was out of the bottle.

The war in Vietnam had become an all-pervasive element in the American experience, but no one had yet released a movie that featured the war as central to its plot. Putting a series of sex scenes together would be relatively easy, even for a novice like me, but justifying those scenes with a story line that would give the film redeeming social value would be tricky. So I began an outline about a deranged Vietnam Vet, who brings his war home with him and goes on a rape and murder spree. There would be rape, so there would be sex, and our hero’s war-induced psychosis would legally justify that sex. Because he had raped and murdered, he would have to be sacrificed on the altar of morality, and blow his brains out in the final reel. I now felt that I had an idea for a sex film that could be safely distributed theatrically.

I had a childhood friend who had become fascinated by what I was doing. He was bored. His marriage was on the rocks, and he was susceptible to the distraction that my involvement in pornography provided for him. We had discussed my Vietnam Vet on a rape and murder spree idea, and he loved it. Then, quite unexpectedly, he got a check in the mail. If I could do this project for five thousand dollars, he would put up the money.

So I began the process of budgeting “Forced Entry”, my first feature. I knew the existing talent pool for porn films from my days directing loops for Smitty, so finding actors would not be a problem. Talent wise, a shooting day on a feature would probably cost the same as a day of shooting loops. The cast would be about the same size, maybe even smaller, since I planned to shoot the necessary footage in two days. The crew however, would need to be larger. I would need a cameraman, a sound recordist, and someone to help carry equipment from one shooting location to the next. Our helper wound up being the film’s backer. Location fees could be avoided by persuading friends and family to let me shoot scenes in their apartments for free. I would need to feed the cast and crew for the two shooting days, but that would be minimal.

I then called Eastman Kodak to find out the cost of 16 millimeter raw stock. Each 400 foot roll of 16MM stock ran approximately ten minutes, so a seventy minute movie that was shot at a ratio on two to one (How I came up with this ratio is still a mystery to me) would require the purchase of 14 rolls of film. I now had to figure out the cost of post-production, which was beyond my experience, but somehow I marched forward with an over-confidence that, even now, amazes me. I had met Frank and Vinnie at A-1 Film Labs through Simon Nuchtern at August Films, who pretended to be a legitimate film maker, but whose rent was paid from porn revenues. A-1 gave me a reasonable price on developing my 14 rolls of camera original and providing a matching work-print. This work print was needed in order to edit the picture, and would be matched back to the camera original once the editing process was completed. I would need stock footage of Vietnam, which was readily available for a price, and music which I intended to steal. When I put all of the numbers together I found that, if I was careful, I could complete the film within a budget of five thousand dollars.

There was never any doubt about casting the part of our deranged hero. My friend Harry Reams was involved in early discussions about the film’s plot, and gave me solid input about how the character should be played. He was excited about the opportunity, and his enthusiasm became contagious. Jutta David would play Harry’s first victim, and actually had the only non-violent sex scene in the film. Laura Cannon, who had been pounding the pavement, looking for acting opportunities, was perfect as Harry’s second victim. Laura’s scene, even now, 38 years later, is still talked about as being so realistic that it’s difficult to sit through. I now had the makings of a good cast, and began looking for a cameraman.

I had met Joel Shapiro through Simon Nuchtern at August Films. He had just graduated from NYU Film School, and was shooting loops for Simon to break-in his new French ‘Éclair’ NPR 16MM camera which, in those days, was the work horse of the documentary cameraman. Joel was an intense guy who was open to ideas, and unafraid to try almost anything. He was a walking encyclopedia on American and European cinema, and I was a good listener. Joel told me that he would provide a sound recordist, and they understood that there would be no overtime. They would work until they dropped which, with a budget this small, was unfortunate but necessary. We needed to shoot all of the footage in just two days, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and in Forest Hills, out in the borough of Queens.

It was now time to determine the weaponry with which our psychopathic hero would terrorize the unsuspecting women of Gotham. He would frighten with a gun, but kill with a knife. A 38 caliber revolver, with its barrel partially blocked so that it could only fire blanks, was readily available from Center Firearms, the main supplier of guns to movies that were shot in New York City. Although he would carry the revolver with him throughout his rape and murder spree, he would use it only once, on himself in the final reel. A cutaway knife, a theatrical device used on stages for centuries, was also available for rent from Center Firearms. When pressed forward, in a stabbing motion, the blade would retract into the handle, and when the knife was pulled back the blade, which worked on a spring inside the handle, would reappear. A simple device, but combined with the dramatic elements of a screaming victim, and gushing blood, the effect could be startlingly realistic. Our troubled hero would, for reasons of photographic theatricality, kill with both a slashing, and a stabbing motion, and each method of mayhem would require its own technical solution. I spent many hours going over the death scenes with Harry, and the solution seemed simple. From a local hardware store I bought a turkey baster, which had a rubber bulb that I detached. I ran some catheter through the hole in the bulb, and secured it with gaffers tape. The bulb would be filled with Stein’s color corrected stage blood. (yes, there really is such a thing) If Harry could hide the bulb in his hand, and gently squeeze as he ran the blade across the throat of his victim, the blood should appear to be gushing from that victim’s slashed throat. Because of the obvious mess the stage blood would make, we did not rehearse the blood rig. We went over the choreography involved in each death scene, but Harry waited for the first actual camera take to squeeze the bulb. And it worked on the very first take. So much for Jutta David. For Laura Cannon, I needed Harry to stab, in a forward motion. The blade in the cutaway knife would retract and reappear with the forward and backward motion, but the problem of gushing blood was quite different. It seemed to me that if, after stabbing forward, Harry would squeeze his trusty bulb hard as he pulled out the knife, then the stage blood would shoot forward and bounce back off Laura’s skin, appearing as though it was gushing from the stab wound. Again, it worked on the first take. The Gods of blood rigs, and of risk takers were smiling on me. None of this gimmickry would be have been believable however, without the amazing performance of Laura Cannon, who was so involved with realistically dying, that she remained motionless, in a pool of Stein’s Sage Blood, for five minutes after the scene was completed, scaring the daylights out of the crew. After two, very long, exhausting shooting days, all of the shots on my list were accomplished, without the sound of a single complaint from cast or crew about the impossible schedule. It was, as they say, a wrap.

Post production, an area at which I had no experience, proved much more difficult, and dragged on for many months. I had rented a 16MM stand-up Moviola editing machine, and sat in front of it looking at the footage I had created, but had no idea how to put it all together. For the sake of my friend, who put up the money, and didn’t know I was pretending, I pretended. My only experience had been directing Smitty’s loops, and now I had to deal with cutting scenes of sound and picture together, into an order that made some kind of sense. I became frustrated and distracted, and looked for any excuse to absent myself from the editing room, the cost of which was adding dollars to the budget every month that the process dragged on. My friend’s wife was nagging at him to somehow get his money back, and our life-long friendship was now in jeopardy. I had become involved in another project, a docucomedy called “LOOPS”, with Bill Markle, an experienced cameraman and editor. I learned enough about editing in a few months with Bill to complete Forced Entry. We screened it for an independent producer named Gerry Intrator, who offered us $6,500. This was three hundred dollars more than my friend had invested so, although we had made no profit, at least we had suffered no loss. We shook hands with Intrator, and I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was time to move on.

But I had done it. I had made my first movie. I had no idea what I was doing, but for $6,200 I had written, produced, and directed a movie that, 38 years later, is still freaking people out.

 *

© 2009 Shaun Costello

 

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CHRISTMAS ON EIGHTH AVENUE

 CHRISTMAS ON EIGHTH AVENUE
 

Squeezing the ‘Dickens’ out of Teddy and Tom

By Shaun Costello

In the cold months of winter, Manhattan apartments back in the early Seventies, as I’m sure they do today, resonated with the clanky noises that accompanied the warmth provided by the hot-water radiators that were the common source of heat in most buildings. The clank, clank, click-click-click, clank as the hot water replaced the cold in the pipes leading to the radiating units, followed by the phsssssssssssssssssssssssssssst, as the steam safety valves on the those units went into action protecting the tenants from the danger and inconvenience of exploding pipes. The ability to sleep through this racket was the sign of a true New Yorker. While tourists probably got little sleep terrified that the radiators in their midtown hotel rooms were about to burst, scalding them to death, the hardened veterans of Gotham simply slept through the noise, waiting for their clock radios to start their day. My building was no different, maybe even louder than most, but the clanking never bothered me, and I didn’t need an alarm clock. Each morning between 6 and 7, I would feel the annoying, but reassuring sensation of little teeth gently biting down on the tip of my nose. This was my cat Spiegel, demanding breakfast, and there was no escaping him. So I got up, fed the cat, made coffee, and jumped in the shower, the beginning of just another day in the life of a sex addict.
The 32 one-day-wonders that Bill Markle and I had made for Sid Levine at Star Distributors the year before were playing everywhere, and people were beginning to find out who was responsible for this sudden tidal wave of mass produced smut. I had gotten a call from someone with a medium-heavy European accent earlier in the week asking for a meeting. His name was Tom Gioulos who, along with a partner named Teddy Kariofilis, owned the Capri Theater on Eighth Avenue, where many of the pictures I had been making for Star played regularly. So, fortified with a few cups of coffee, I began the trek uptown to meet “The Greeks”.
It was a cold five-block walk to the Lexington Avenue subway station at 23rd Street, where I took the Number Four train to Grand Central Station. Then the long walk down sour-smelling corridors to the Times Square Shuttle, which deposited me underneath what some people have called the cross roads of the world. The Times Square subway station was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was. The Deuce.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Army/Navy, Discount Electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, El Cheapo Menswear, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on The Deuce.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family-friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.
When I got to the corner of Eighth Avenue I turned north and was surprised to see The Tycoon’s Daughter in big letters on the marquee of the Cameo Theater. It was one of the many little movies I had made for Sid Levine at Star the previous year, and here it was nine months later and people were still paying money to see it. After perusing the familiar promotional photographs outside the theater I headed toward the Capri, which was near the corner of 46th Street.
Teddy Kariofilis and Tom Gioulos were a couple of Greek immigrants who had taken advantage of the relaxation in the enforcement of the obscenity laws and opened the Capri Theater which played about half the little pictures that I made for Star. And up on the marquee was another one of my movies. Sexual Freedom in the Ozarks was a little picture that we shot at my partner Bill Markle’s house up in High Falls, which was about 90 miles north of the city. It wasn’t yet 10AM and people were already paying to get in.
The box office attendant was pretty gruff and kept repeating “four dollars, four dollars”, until I finally got his attention by telling him I was there to see Tom. After making a call he waved me through the turnstile, pointing up and shouting, “upstairs, upstairs’. There was a narrow stairway to the balcony, which was pretty crowded, even at this early hour, and as I climbed up toward the projection booth I heard a familiar voice, my own. I turned, and up there on the screen was a porn actress named Andrea True, bent over a few bales of hay that we had placed in Bill’s barn, and standing behind her was me, naked except for cowboy boots, and fucking Ms True for all the world to see. I laughed out loud which seemed to disturb some members of the audience whose concentration had been broken by my careless levity. A crack of light appeared in the back of the balcony as the door to the next level opened. My eyes had not yet fully adjusted to the darkness so I slowly climbed through, and as the door closed behind me a glad hand grabbed mine. “Shaun, how ya doin. Great to meetcha. C’mon up, Teddy’s dyin to see ya”. This was Tom, who had called me a few days earlier. He led me up the stairs and into their offices above the theater, where we walked through a private projection room and into a large, wood paneled office that faced east. Behind a desk that seemed much too large for its occupant sat a little round man with an enormous balding head, who jumped up when I entered the room and approached me with both arms outstretched. “Oh Shun, Shun, You make me so happy. You come to see Teddy huh? Oh, Shun, Shun”.
As he sat back down behind his desk all the features on his face suddenly rearranged themselves. I had never seen a face like this before. Each of his facial features seemed to have the ability to move about or change shape independently of the others. His eyebrows, and lips, and cheeks, and eyes, danced all over his face, apparently triggered by some change in mood, or the necessity to express joy or concern. He was now in serious mode so I just sat there and listened. His head was low and cocked to one side, and the musculature in his face was tight. “Oh, Shun, Shun. I got no money”. I wondered if he was going to ask me for a loan. Anything was possible under these preposterous circumstances. So I continued to listen. “Oh, Shun, Shun, what can I do uh? What can Teddy Do? Shun, I got no money”. I’m still listening. “Oh Shun, you help Teddy uh? You work cheap for Teddy uh. I got no money”. So Teddy obviously wants me to make movies for him, but doesn’t want to pay much. I suggest that his theater, even at ten o’clock in the morning was packed with paying customers, and his face changed shape again. He looked away for moment, then thoughtfully turned his slightly cocked head back to me, and nearly in tears replied, “Oh, Shun, Shun, it’s so cold outside. I let the people in for free to keep them warm. They got no money, but I keep them warm for free uh? Teddy keeps them warm”. At this point I reminded him that I was downstairs and watched the customers paying four dollars each for his warmth, and his face changed again. He appeared concerned, but behind his concern an invisible grin was revealing it self as he said, “Oh Shun, heat costs money uh?” And slowly all of his features turned upward, he threw his head back, and roared with laughter. Tom slapped me on the back, and Teddy seemed beside himself. “Oh, Shun, Shun, it never hurts to bargain a little uh? We make movies, you and me. We make movies.” His eyes had expanded to such a diameter that his eyebrows almost touched his hairline. “We make money, Uh?” Teddy could take this routine to the Catskills and make a living as a comedian.
Up until now, the Capri had been playing about half the movies I had made for Star, but Teddy was ambitious, and wanted to expand. Bigger budget movies like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and the Post Graduate were cleaning up at the box office and Teddy had a plan. If he made his own films, increased the budget to $12,000 each to give them a better look, and opened them at the Capri, they would only need to play two weeks to recoup his investment. He would then be free to distribute them all over the country and every dollar that came in would be profit. A smart plan. I told him that I would have to think it over. I was used to making sixty-minute quickies. The length of each movie would need to be increased to 70 minutes, and I would need to shoot an additional day, maybe two. My rule of thumb was that for each day of shooting I would need to make a profit of one thousand dollars. I told Teddy and Tom that I would need to think this through and I would get back to them.
During the eight months that followed, and under the name Oscar Tripe, I would deliver three features to Teddy and Tom. The first was “COME FLY WITH US”, a Stewardess buddy movie that did big box office at the Capri, and made Teddy Kariofilis a very happy Greek. The second was “LADY ON THE COUCH”, a lost identity – psychoanalytical pornodrama starring Andrea True. It did healthy, if not gangbuster box office, keeping Teddy Smiling. And the third was “THE LOVE BUS”, a cheaply made, silly sex farce that played to standing room only audiences at the Capri Cinema. By the first week in September 1974, flush from this series of box office successes, and receiving daily calls from Tom Gioulos begging for the next movie idea, I had pretty much run out of steam. I was also bored. The movies I was making were formulaic and unchallenging, but the formula was working because Teddy’s box office receipts were never higher. I needed to do something different, but what?
My reading habits were, as they still are, pretty cyclical. I was going through a Charles Dickens phase, starting a new Dickens book, the minute I finished the last. And half way through “A CHRISTMAS CAROL”, I started thinking. It was three and a half months before Christmas. Plenty of time to write a script, prep a production, get through the shooting, and complete the edit. Just in time for The Holidays. A Christmas porno movie – a preposterous idea. Could I actually convince Teddy Kariofilis to invest his hard-earned sheep money in something this ridiculous? It would certainly be fun to try. This was, after all, the time of Porn Chic, when Harry Reems could be found chatting with journalists at the bar at Elaine’s and Jackie Onassis had been seen sneaking out of a screening of DEEP THROAT. In New York, porn was all the rage, and with the right promotion, any movie idea with sex in it, particularly if it was different, even outrageous (the movie – not the sex) might just become a big hit. This was my pitch to a bewildered Teddy Kariofilis who, for once, sat expressionless across his oversized desk, looking at me like I had just delivered my thirty minute presentation on why a porn version of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL would be a blockbuster hit, not in English, or even Greek, but in Esperanto. He just stared at me.
Tom broke the silence with worried comments about the possibility of a backlash against the sacrilege of desecrating such a well known story, by turning it into smut, while every feature on Teddy’s normally active face remained frozen. I told them that my plan was to write a screenplay, closely following the Dickens book, shoot the entire picture on a sound stage which would require building cartoon-like sets, complete principal photography in four days, and bring the entire project in for fourteen thousand dollars, which was only two thousand dollars more than it cost to make any of the three box office bonanza’s I had produced for them that year. And, I reminded them of the popularity of the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. “We’ll dress up the Capri Cinema like one big Christmas tree, and have our own Christmas Show, right here on Eighth Avenue. People will love it”. And then, the clincher. “Look, this kind of light comedy needs a sensitive touch, a woman’s touch. And there’s never been a successful female director of Adult Films. Let’s hire one to direct this movie. You can use it in the marketing. ‘Finally, an Adult film with a woman’s point of view’. Amanda’s a good name. Let’s call her Amanda something. Amanda Barton. That’s it. Amanda Barton’s Passions of Carol. I’ll bet Al Goldstein will try to pry her phone number out of you”. Although Teddy’s death mask expression remained unchanged, Tom was now smiling, his head nodding ever so slightly. It had taken less than an hour to convince the Greeks to finance my little Yuletide adventure, a decision they would live to regret.
It was now the second week in September, and I had guaranteed a December tenth delivery date, which would allow enough time to properly advertise the grand opening of Teddy Kariofilis’ Eighth Avenue Christmas Spectacular. And I had made this guarantee without smoking anything stronger than a Marlboro Light. So far, my career in the adult film business had been so successful that walking on water was not beyond my reach, al least not in my overbloated, egocentric, self-aggrandized opinion of my own abilities. I could do no wrong – a situation that was about to change, drastically.
It took a week of eighteen hour days to complete the screenplay, closely following the structure of Dickens’ book, and even lifting a fair amount of dialogue directly from the original. I blocked out four shooting days during the second week in October, booked crew people, with some additional personnel necessary for the task at hand, and went looking for an affordable sound stage.
Most shooting stages in Manhattan, and there were many to choose from, were union houses, meaning that their use was restricted to members of the Motion Picture Industry’s film production union, IATSE. They were also quite expensive. So, I found a list on non-union stages, most of which were in a state of ill-repair, and made the appropriate calls. The owner of a sound stage down on East Fifth Street seemed enthusiastic, even excited to have me rent his building for my production, and when I toured the premises I realized why. No one had shot in this place for years. Everything was covered in layers of dust and grime, but it was big, and it was cheap. And it actually looked like a film studio, with big lights, 10K’s, 5K’s, 2K’s, and soft lights, sitting on stands, their barn doors shut, looking sleepy. And a wrap-around cyclorama, thirty feet high, and over a hundred feet long – more than enough to house my little production. The owner said he would flat-rate the place to me for three hundred dollars a day. And I could use any of the lighting equipment, as well as the two hydraulic dollies. He started asking me about build days and strike days and, not wanting to seem like the amateur I undoubtedly was, I simply told him four days total. Up until now, my experience in film production was limited to shooting in apartments, houses, or hotel suites, which came furnished. If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that an appropriate number of build days would have to be budgeted, so that a construction crew could complete the sets, which would then have to be wall papered, painted, and furnished by the set dressing crew under the supervision of the art director, followed by enough prep days for the Gaffer and his lighting crew to accomplish the task of setting the lights appropriate to the action involved. And, because you must return the space to its original, empty condition, a certain number of strike days would need to be budgeted to disassemble the sets, leaving the place as you found it. Oblivious to all of this, I had told the owner, “Four days total”, and had no idea what I was getting myself into. The idea that I was over-confidently marching head-long into a disaster was the furthest thing from my mind.
I lived in a rent controlled apartment on East Twenty First Street, in a building shared by neighbors who, for the most part, worked at home as illustrators, writers, and generic creative types, with whom I had become quite friendly, and by whom I was eagerly welcomed as the ‘Pornographer in Residence’. And, without quite knowing what they were getting themselves into, they were willingly conscripted into my Christmas fiasco as my very own little army of creatives, whose job it would be to turn that big, dirty, empty sound stage down on East Fifth Street, into a Dickensian wonderland, albeit a pornographic one.
Casting would be relatively easy. My first call was to Marc Stevens, who had worked for me many times, and who always managed to keep the cast and crew laughing, even on the longest of shooting days. I thought Marc would make a hilarious Lance Marley who, in keeping with the book, would be the first of Carol Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors. And my friend Jamie Gillis, who could exhibit his gentler side, as Bob Hatchett, who is forced to work late on Christmas Eve by an demanding, insensitive Scrooge. And Kim Pope, who I had never worked with, to play Mrs Hatchett, left alone on Christmas Eve with Tiny Kim, while hubby Bob burned the midnight oil at Carol Scrooge’s magazine. I even gave a small part to my pal and fellow degenerate Mal Worob who, under the nom-de-porn Carter Stevens, was a successful smut meister, in his own right. One by one, I cast the parts, mostly with people I knew and liked, but Teddy and Tom wanted a ‘name’ to play the female lead, important in selling the movie to the public. Teddy suggested Mary Stuart, who had starred in a recent film that was doing very well at the box office. Mary, a surprising choice, was someone I liked, so I agreed and the casting was complete. I, made up to be unrecognizable, would play two of the spirits.
As the weeks flew by, my wonderful, generous, gifted neighbors were hard at work, designing the sets, conjuring and sewing the costumes, and creating the props that would be required. David Wool, who illustrated children’s books, and moonlighted, creating authentic-looking Tom of Finland knock-off gay porn books for my friends at Star Publishing, would do the bulk of the set design and construction. Harriett Springer, another illustrator, who would become my long time live-in girlfriend, created the wall art for the sets. And Shelley Slater, Harriett’s former room mate at Carnegie Tech, who had followed her to New York, did the sewing. The furniture necessary to fill out the sets – beds, tables, chairs, rugs, wall art, etc, would come from all of our apartments, and would be moved by us in the production van down to the empty sound stage.
On the morning of October 18th, which was our first day in the studio, and had been erroneously scheduled by me as a shooting day, while staring into the vast, empty abyss that was our shooting space, I began to see the structure of the catastrophe I had created. I had a shooting crew and actors, standing around drinking coffee, and truckloads of props and furniture, waiting to be put in sets that had not yet been constructed. How could I not have seen this coming? The crew, made up mostly of friends, and the cast, also friends of mine, were understanding, and tolerant of my blunder. I sent everyone home, and put off the first shooting day for 48 hours. They could have stuck it to me, but they didn’t. And, without a single complaint. I had just bought us two build days, and my ridiculous pronouncement of shooting the whole film in four days, had now grown to six, and more likely, ten days in that studio. I was already subconsciously rehearsing my ‘we went over budget’ speech for Teddy Kariofilis.
Working, almost around the clock, with the help of caffeine, and a few Dexedrines, David, Harriett, Shelley, myself, and a few PA’s assembled the sets out of the available building flats, constructed the fake windows, began the dressing process, and the absurdist Dickensian rooms began to take shape. David had constructed the skyline of lower Manhattan in forced perspective, made entirely out of corrugated cardboard, complete with tiny lights in the windows, that would become the view from Carol Scrooge’s bedroom window, where Marley’s Ghost, in the person of Marc Stevens, would first appear.
Two days later, on the morning of October 20th, the exhausted, bedraggled set builders, myself included, greeted the cast and crew for a second try at a first shooting day. Peter Nevard and his lighting crew were tweaking the big 10K’s, Bill Markle and Alvar Stugard were putting the camera and sound recording equipment together, and all around us, actors were rehearsing their lines, while getting into costumes and make-up. I kept hearing lines of dialogue repeated from all over the stage floor, which was a new experience for me, because, for the very first time I was listening to dialogue that I had written being read aloud by the intended performers. Until today, I had handled dialogue scenes by giving the actors a situation, and turning them loose to improvise their own lines. These people, though they tried their best, were not professional actors, and it had seemed best to let them make up their own material. But, for this film, I had actually written a screenplay and, for better or for worse, the cast would have to learn their lines, and deliver them as believably as possible. This caused an unforeseen dilemma from an unexpected source.
Marc Stevens, in full make-up as Marley’s ghost, presented me with the first crisis of the day. “Shaun, I can’t do this. I just can’t do this”. Marc, truly one of the word’s nicest, and most cooperative people, had seen his lines and panicked. He had tears in his eyes when he told me he had never done dialogue before, and most of what I had written for him was lifted directly from the Dickens original. He didn’t want to disappoint me, but he told me that he just couldn’t do it. He didn’t know how. And he couldn’t remember all of his lines anyway, and that no one had ever asked him to do this before. I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I told him to study and rehearse his lines, and when it came time for the camera to roll, we would wing it. And, that’s exactly what we did. Marc, wearing his ridiculous costume, covered with paper mache chains and cardboard locks, did his best. It wasn’t what I had written, but Marc was a naturally funny person, and camped his way through the scene, leaving the crew doubled over laughing. I was disappointed, but it was a valuable lesson. My first confrontation with writing dialogue for performers who had no acting experience would certainly not be my last. With few exceptions, the vast majority of performers in Adult Films had no professional training, and struggled with delivering their lines in any believable way. So, I learned to be flexible, and to accept their best efforts, even though the results were sometimes embarrassing.
As the days went by, the constant building, dressing, and lighting of tomorrow’s set, while attempting to shoot in today’s, became an exhausting process, the ever-present sound of David Wool’s power tools doing battle with actors delivering barely believable lines of dialogue. The general exhaustion of the crew, working one 20 hour day after another, was becoming a factor in their performance. The four days total, that I had so idiotically predicted, became fourteen. In between scenes, I could usually be found on the phone with the studio owner, pleading my case for a negotiated settlement of the overage. I guess my groveling was effective, because he gave me the additional 10 studio days at half price, which certainly helped. But, sooner or later, I was going to have to tell Teddy Kariofilis that a movie he really didn’t want to begin with, was going to cost more than he expected.
Before the dust would settle, Teddy and I would face off in attorney Seymour Detsky’s office to hammer out a settlement that would see Teddy pay four thousand dollars in overages, and accede to my preposterous demand to open the film, not at the Capri Cinema, but instead at a straight, non-porn venue. Somehow, I thought I had created a crossover comedy with the potential to successfully play to a straight audience. What was I smoking? In March, 1975, missing my predicted Christmas Opening by four months, Passions of Carol opened simultaneously at the Capri Cinema, and The Quad Cinemas, a straight venue that had never before played a sex film. The box office was disappointing at the usually packed Capri, porn audiences bewildered by this odd presentation of sex and Christmas, and downright disastrous at the Quad, where the film played for two weeks to mostly empty seats.
We had entered the East Fifth Street Studio on October 18th, and finally struck the production on November 2nd. During our time in that building TWA Flight 841 was blown out of the air by a terrorist bomb over the Ionian Sea, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopea was deposed, Japanese Red Army members seized the French Embassy in The Hague, and in Kinshasa Zaire, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman to regain the heavy weight championship of the world. During those fourteen days Joaquin Phoenix, Jerry Stackhouse, and Leonardo DiCaprio were born, and Ed Sullivan, Vittorio Di Sica, and Oskar Schindler passed from this earth.
Within a few months, Teddy forgave me my sins, and Tom was once again on the phone asking for the next movie idea. I guess they had made so much money with my earlier pictures that they were willing to overlook my first financial flop. But, it would probably be difficult to ever again convince Teddy to put his hard-earned money into a project that seemed unusual. Just about then, I got a call from Doug Collins, an old friend who had taken a risk and made a totally unsellable movie three years earlier. A picture so ridiculous that no one in his right mind would distribute it. It was called:

AN AMERICAN IN BETHESDA
The world’s first Vaudeville-Porno-Musical

Doug had gotten himself into hot water over some kind of abuse of the commodities market, and was selling everything he owned to pay his lawyers. He had heard that I was making hit sex movies, one right after the other, and probably had good contacts in that market. He asked if I might have an interest in buying his still-unsold Vaudeville-Porno-Musical disaster, adding some sex scenes to it, and convincing a theater owner to open it as an unusual sex movie. Now, this was the most unsellable cinematic oddity I had ever seen, but the idea of attempting to convince someone into buying it was irresistible. And I knew just the guy. So, I made the call. “Tom, hey it’s Shaun. Listen, I have something – something wonderful. Tell Teddy I’ve got a great idea”.

*

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Teenage Nurses

CREATING MORAL ROT

One film at a time

By Shaun Costello

By the early Spring of 1971 I was still bogged down by the editing of Forced Entry, my first feature length film. I could successfully fake directing a movie, which is exactly what I had done, but dealing with the machinery of post production proved to be a difficult undertaking. The months were going by as I pretended to edit the film, terrified that, sooner or later, I would be discovered as the fraud I most certainly was. Meanwhile, there was no money coming in, so I had to resort back to porno-acting as a source of income.

 Sex films were now being made with theatrical distribution in mind, and some very different people began to test the waters. In mid April I showed up at a five story brownstone in Manhattan’s fashionable East Seventies, to act in a feature length sex film. The owner of the house was Richard De Combray, a semi-famous actor/photographer who did coffee table picture books of cities like Venice. Doug Collins and Avind Harum were the producers. Doug had been a film editor, and Avind, a six foot five, blond Norwegian, had been a lead dancer with the Harkness Ballet. This was a far cry from the sleazy atmosphere I had experienced just a few years earlier. These guys had a concept. Shoot a film in one day. Edit in under a week, and get it to the marketplace in under two. They had a story with a beginning, a middle, and a surprise ending. They also knew where the money was, market wise. Jerry Gross, who had a company called Cinemation, was raking in record profits on a film he picked up called “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, made by Melvin Van Peebles for almost nothing, and which was quickly becoming the biggest grosser in the history of independent films. Gross was looking to pick up a sex movie, and Doug Collins knew it. So Doug made his little movie for about five thousand dollars, and sold it to Gross two weeks later for Fifteen. These guys had a concept from day one. There was a lesson to be learned here.

In the Fall of that year, I got a call from Doug, who was flush from the success of having sold his first sex movie at a profit of 200%, and wanted to invest that money in a project so bizarre that he was convinced it would make him a fortune. He planned to produce a movie that would be called:

“AN AMERICAN IN BETHESDA”

The world’s first Vaudeville Porno Musical.

 

He asked me if I would play the part of an amputee, who had lost his leg in combat in Vietnam, and was recuperating at The Bethesda Naval Hospital, just outside Washington DC. Doug’s idea was to create a movie around the lives of Vietnam vets, who were under long term care at this facility, and the unusual entertainment provided for them by the Veteran’s Administration. He put casting notices in the trade papers for Vaudeville performers, and they responded in the hundreds: singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, fire eaters, ventriloquists, even an Adagio Dance Act called Patrick and Nadja who did a tasty Adam and Eve routine with a twelve foot python named Gladys. Doug and Avind’s idea was to create an absurd, grotesque comedy revealing the daily drudgery of the patients, intercut with the performances of the Vaudeville acts who had been brought in to entertain them. And, somewhere in the midst of this cinematic hocus-pocus the ever horny patients would chase their nurses around Ward “F”.

Now, this was 1971, when hallucinogenic pot sold for twenty dollars an once, and Doug certainly smoked more than his share, which was the only explanation I could come up with for how he could possibly think he could sell something like this. But, who was I to argue with a guy who made a 200% profit on his first movie, regardless of how insane this project seemed.

The entire film was shot at the old, abandoned AT&T soundstage in the Westbeth complex, on Bethune Street, on the extreme edge of Manhattan’s West Village. The Vaudeville acts, none of whom were told that Doug and Avind planned on putting sex scenes in this epic, were shot separately, one right after the other, which took an entire, very long shooting day. The actors who had been hired to play the patients, Doctors and Nurses; myself, Jamie Gillis (his first film), Fred Perna (later Lincoln), Laura Cannon, and many others whose names I have forgotten, showed up on the second shooting day which, as I recall, exceeded 24 hours. The shooting took so long, and Doug was so confident of turning cinematic absurdity into profits, that he only shot one sex scene, which involved me and Laura Cannon.

A few days later we shot the preposterous last scene, in which the amputee, played by myself and now nicely fitted with a new prosthetic leg, exits the Hospital using crutches, and is run over by a car while crossing the street. Doug and Avind hired an expensive Hollywood stunt man to do the scene, and shot it from many angles, over and over again, while I sat on a bench across the Street with my friend Harry Reems, both of us tripping on mescaline, watching me die again and again.

It took Doug a few months to cut this thing, and I went to a screening with Jamie Gillis and Bill Markle, who had been the cinematographer, and with whom I was now involved in another project. We could only shake our heads in disbelief. Doug had included all of the angles of the death scene in the final version, so that we see the amputee hit by the car about ten times, which is all scored to a song, written by Doug, the lyrics of which I remember as beginning with:

“A Man’s not supposed to cry,

I know.

But flowers grow,

Under the snow.”

 

While this movie was a hilarious adventure in absurd film making, I was absolutely convinced that it was unsellable which, unfortunately for Doug and Avind, turned out to be true. They spent about six months pounding the pavement, screening their cinematic oddity for distributor after distributor, until finally giving up, and shelving it.

Flash forward to mid 1974, when I got a call from Doug, whose name and latest misadventure were all over New York’s newspapers.  He told me his tale of woe over a few beers at Joe Allan’s, an actor’s hang-out in the Theater District. It seemed that Doug, who had become a partner in a Commodities Brokerage firm, had gotten himself into trouble selling something called commodities options. Buying futures on commodities like plywood, or cocoa, or soy beans was a common practice, but Doug took this to another level by selling options on these futures which, while not illegal at the time, was highly questionable. Evidently there was someone at the Commerce Department in Washington who set the price on chickens each week, and Doug had been told that this information could be bought for a price. So he borrowed from everyone he knew, and came up with ten thousand dollars which he stuffed into an envelope and passed to the appropriate person at Commerce, and bought a ton of options on chicken futures on behalf of all his customers. The shit hit the fan when the market opened, and the price of chickens that Doug had purchased for ten thousand dollars turned out to be bogus. He had done all the purchasing on margin, and when the call came he was caught short by a mile, his company lost their seat on the commodities exchange, and Doug was up on felony fraud charges, facing possible jail time. He was selling everything he owned to pay attorneys, and thought that maybe I might be interested in buying “An American in Bethesda”. Doug had heard that I had become quite successful producing ‘one-day-wonders’, which were cheaply made quickie sex features, and thought I might be able to add a few sex scenes, and convince my distributors to buy his fiasco as a sex film.

I told Doug that I would see what I could do, and convinced Teddy Kariofilis, the owner of Manhattan’s Capri Cinema, that this was a good idea which, of course, it wasn’t. Poor Doug. He was a nice guy who would forever be known as the man who was caught short on chickens.

Renaming the film “Teenage Nurses” was Teddy’s idea. So, I added some sex scenes, and even a laugh track, which I thought was funny at the time, and “Teenage Nurses”, formerly “An American in Bethesda”, opened at the Capri Cinema sometime in the Spring of 1975. Al Goldstein’s scorching review in Screw Magazine featured a production still under which read the caption:

 “Pornography loses its innocence, and succumbs to moral rot in this puker”.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven, being reviled by Goldstein, New York’s preposterous porno maven and morality huckster. Goldstein’s venom was my first worthwhile achievement in pornography.

Another flash-forward, this time to early 2010. After remaining in some unknown basement for 35 years, a tattered 16MM print of “Teenage Nurses” was found, and used as source material, from which a low quality DVD was struck. A friend in New York, who was aware of the story behind this bizarre project, sent me a copy. I think it’s important to include here my reaction to seeing this strange movie, 35 years after I talked Teddy Kariofilis into buying it. What follows, is a copy of the e-mail I sent to my friend in New York, describing my feelings, after watching it.

 Re: Teenage Nurses

Yes, that’s me as Arthur Boynton BSF News with the Groucho nose and glasses. I added these scenes to Doug Collins original, blissful catastrophe to give the film some chaotic structure. And yes that’s me as the amputee patient, filmed four years earlier. The last scene, where I was run over by the car, was done with a highly paid stunt man. I sat there, with my friend Harry Reems, watching take after take of myself dying, while I was high on Mescaline, tripping my brains out. Boy, those were the days.

OK, I guess enough time has passed since I saw Teenage Nurses, I think it was Friday. Ultimately I was disturbed by it. It was like being locked in an unruly child’s untidy room. The chaos was unrelenting. There was nowhere to hide. It broke every rule, and then some. There was a mesmerizing quality about its dysfunctionality. Watching it exhausted me. The sex scenes that I added to Doug Collins’ original potpourri were strangely unappealing, the actors unattractive, the dialogue topsy-turvy. It was a runaway train of sight gags, and one-liners, without much continuity or cohesion. What surprised me, was that I obviously attempted to keep the additional footage I created, in order to give it a legitimate sex-film release, consistent with the mischief and mayhem of the original. As a sex film it was just God-awful. I doubt that much masturbation went on in the balcony of the Capri Cinema during this film’s run there. Not really fair to the audience. Very self-indulgent behavior on my part, in keeping with my behavior in general back then. Talking Teddy Kariofilis into putting his money into something ridiculous was one of my favorite endeavors – see “Passions of Carol”. So I was insensitive and unfair to the film’s audience, and manipulative and dishonest with the film’s backer. Where does this leave us? Locked in a messy room with a pile of broken toys. The amount of energy I expended, back then, on self-indulgence and manipulation, simply for my own amusement, startles me. Teenage Nurses is like a cinematic thalidomide baby.

S

  Whether “Teenage Nurses” formerly “An American in Bethesda” is the strangest movie ever made is for someone else to decide. But, I have to admit that, while creating a little “moral rot” is deeply satisfying, being responsible for having produced this cinematic anomaly does make me a bit nervous.

 *

© 2010 Shaun Costello

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Creating and maintaining this BLOG is time
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please help me keep it going.
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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

 

 

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WW II Explained by Shaun Costello

WORLD WAR TWO EXPLAINED

By Shaun Costello

 

 

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

His skin was pale, his eye was odd.”

 

This lyric always reminds me of the young Adolph Hitler, growing up in his home town of Linz Austria, spending all his time painting pastoral watercolors of the surrounding Alpine splendor. At this point in his life he had no political aspirations, and seemed to suffer from no apparent “Struggle”. He was happy painting his watercolors, and hoped, one day to apply to the great Art Institute in Vienna, where he could study with the masters, and perfect his craft. Then they would accept him in his community as the great artist that he knew he surely was. He would have stature. All would know him and appreciate his talent. He would be looked upon as an equal by the great men of his land, and looked down upon by none. Then they would listen to him.

His mother took in laundry to help with the family finances, since young Adolph was too preoccupied with his painting to be of much help. She made him his favorite meal of tea and potato soup, and thought silently to herself, “Mein kleine Adolph, one day they will understand your worth”, as the little artist wolfed down his soup, and dashed off to a neighboring hillside to begin yet another example of his limitless vision.

And one day the postman brought a letter. Frau Schickelgruber held it in her trembling hand. It was from Vienna. From the Art Institute. Out the door she flew, and up the hillside she ran, the letter held in her clenched outstretched fist, to deliver the good news to her boy. Adolph tore open the envelope, anxious to read his acceptance to a better world. The answer to his artist’s prayers. The epistle of approval that would grant him entrance to all previously closed doors,

 

Not!

 

“My dear Herr Hitler,

After careful review of your lovely paintings, and with consideration for the limited space here at the Institute, it is with utmost regret that we must inform you that your application has been rejected. Considering your special talents, we are quite certain that you will make your mark in a world such as this, and have no doubt of your future success.”

The phrases kept turning over in his mind: “careful review………limited space…….utmost regret……..make your mark………world such as this…….future success.” He was speechless. He was crushed. All his hopes were dashed on the rocks of “careful review” and “utmost regret”. His mind began the process of assimilating the information in the letter. Who reviews? Who regrets? Who rejects? Just who are these people? Just who exactly was in charge at this Institute? He had heard stories of what goes on in the big cities, but he never paid heed because it never affected him. But now his whole life has been turned upside down by people he didn’t even know. What about his future? What about his watercolors?

 

In his mind he began to construct the identities of the members of the board of review at the Vienna Institute of Art. Jews. They must be Jews. No honest German would reject his paintings. Any honest, god fearing German would see the Wagnerian wonder in every stroke of his brush. They MUST be Jews. He began to see the room clearly now. Sitting at a great table were vulgar rodents wearing yamulkas and sporting huge noses, with beards and dark hair growing everywhere, pointing at his beautiful watercolors and laughing. LAUGHING! And speaking in guttural, unintelligible eastern European languages. JEWS. Jews sitting in judgment of Germans. Gott im himmel! And not only Jews, but Poles, and Czechs, and even Gypsies. Gypsies laughing at his paintings. UNGLAUBLISCH!

So young Adolph, his rejection letter clenched firmly in his hand, stood there with his mother on that Alpine hillside, and vowed to do something about this. To do something about a world where things like this could happen. To help create a world of order out of a world of chaos. A world where honest Germans could live their lives unafraid of judgment by, or contact with, the inferior races. A world that appreciated real art. A new world. A German world. A world where, despite the plots of the Bolshevik mongrels, the trains would run on time.

 

If only they had liked his watercolors.

 

 

 

*

 

 ©  2008 Shaun Costello

 

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The Last Time I Saw Jesus by Shaun Costello

 

The Last Time I Saw Jesus

Surviving puberty in the time of Mickey Mouse Club.

 

By Shaun Costello

 

 

Two months before my twelfth birthday I found myself overwhelmed by the physical and emotional chaos of puberty, while all around me everything else seemed to go on as usual. America’s obsession with the television screen was rewarded with Sunday night visits by Ed Sullivan and his variety show, not to mention after-school broadcasts of Mickey Mouse Club, and a weekly half hour spent with the country’s favorite family on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Elvis Presley had gyrated his way into the hearts of teenagers – much to the bewilderment of their parents, the Eisenhowers were America’s first family, and everybody seemed to be wondering ‘How much was that doggie in the window?”. The Fifties were in full swing, but to me, none of that mattered very much. It was the early Fall of 1955, and life as I knew it had suffered an unexpected interruption.

My new obsession seemed to replace all previous forms of amusement or interest. The daily war games that I had played with my friends, reenacting battles of World War II, pretending to be Audie Murphy charging up the hill against all odds, mowing down Jap or Kraut aggressors with my trusty sub-machine gun seemed silly now. My miniature Fort Apache, with its watch towers and little metal soldiers, had lost its luster.  There would be no more adventures with the Knights of the Round Table, righting the wrongs of medieval society. No more helping Flash Gordon and Doctor Zarkoff fend off Emperor Ming’s terrifying death ray. Even my bike had turned from adventure to simply transportation. All my energy and focus seemed centered on one thing, and one thing only – waking up in the middle of the night thinking about naked girls.

And then one morning it happened. I woke up with a strange sensation in my pajama bottoms. Something about my body was different. My penis, which until now had been an efficient instrument for urination, had taken on a life of its own.  I had a boner. So now I was confused, obsessed, and deformed. This was not fun. Girls, who I had previously tolerated as annoying, noisy creatures, who could never be quite as much fun as a Weegee water pistol, or a Duncan yo-yo, were now the center of my universe, and they were everywhere. In school in their knee socks, at Sutton Hall Pharmacy sipping their lemon cokes, at the Community House pool in their Speedo racing suits, there was just no avoiding them. I hated this whole phenomenon. The girl obsession, the boner business, none of it made me feel good, and all of it got in the way. There were Friday night dances at the Community House and, being eleven I was at the entry level age for parcipation, but there were two problems; first I had very little experience at dancing, and second (this is the important part) the idea of slow dancing with a pretty girl was exciting, but that excitement would surely translate itself into the growth of something in my pants that the girl would feel happening, and she would jump back pointing at me  screeching, “Pervert, pervert”, and run screaming from the hall, and an unruly crowd would form demanding my exit from the building. When the word got out angry townspeople, carrying torches, would chase me through the streets like “Bill Sikes” in Oliver Twist, or the unfortunate Frankenstein monster. They would recognize me for the degenerate that I was and demand my exclusion from their community.  And none of this was my fault. I was happy playing soldier. I wanted my childhood back. I wanted my bike to be my bike again.

Boys, being the sociable creatures that they are, began discussing their common affliction with the hope of some kind of solution. I suggested that we enlist the guidance of my neighbor Charles, who possessed the wisdom and knowledge that came with being twelve, a full year older than the rest of us.  So a sizable group of disgruntled, confused, boner-afflicted kids, sat around Charles’ room seeking his counsel, and awaiting a solution to their predicament. And Charles, as always, did not disappoint. His older brother, who went to High School and knew just about everything, had helped him when he suffered a similar fate, only a year before. His brother had told him that there was something called “jerking off” that provided temporary but real relief from the discomfort we suffered, and even yielded a pleasant sensation. I’m not going to go into the details here, but Charles explained this process to his bewildered audience, who were receptive to anything that might help.

So it was discovering the act of masturbation that enlightened me to the potential of the boner as an integral element in a new, and rewarding form of recreational activity, and as usual the Catholic Church got in the way. Why was it that every time I found something that was fun to do I was told it was a sin? The Church, knowing the age at which boys become horny, was prepared to fight the ‘Battle of Chastity’ with all the tools at its disposal. Sister Innocent, appropriately named for the task at hand, explained how Satan placed impure thoughts in the minds of children in order to lead them, like the Pied Piper, into the fires of hell, and any interaction with Satan not confessed, could produce only one result, spending eternity at the big barbecue. Confession was the answer.

One of the sacred sacraments of Catholicism, and an integral element in its Catechism, Confession was the conduit to forgiveness, and The Catholic Church was in the forgiveness business. Other than the Fifth Commandment, they really didn’t spend much time telling you not to murder anyone, but if you did, confessing this heinous act would erase it from your sin-sheet, and you could start over with a clean slate. They seemed to be saying, “Come one, come all, step right up and be forgiven, and when the collection basket comes your way remember to give generously. What’s that Herr Hitler, you incinerated six million Jews? No problem. God forgives you. And by the way, make that check out to His Holiness Pope Moneybags. Next…..”.

Heaven was a very exclusive destination, and only obtainable if you were both Catholic and good. Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus had no shot at salvation, regardless of their goodness, and would be forever excluded from God’s eternal benevolence, not to mention being cooked on Satan’s rotisserie until they were just the right temperature to experience eternal agony, which was the just fate of anyone who had not sought absolution in The Catholic Church’s forgiveness machine.

Confessing the simple sins like taking the name of Our Lord in vain (whatever that means), or using curse words in the playground, was easy, and we had practice in this area, but telling some priest that last night you jerked off three times while thinking about Grant Sommerville’s older sister Wendy, who was naked and kissing you all over, is another matter entirely, and would require consultation and rehearsal. In the days leading up to Saturday afternoon’s confrontation with absolution, the afflicted discussed strategy. It was a tradition among boys to gather outside the church about fifteen minutes before confession began, and go through the process together, after which penance’s would be compared to determine the greatest offender. The bigger the sin the bigger the penance, and the biggest penance would determine the biggest sinner, and the biggest sinner was the baddest boy, revered and envied by his peers. There was an honor code among sinners, no one lied about penance. You could lie about the size of the fish you caught, or how far you hit the ball in last week’s game, but when it came to your penance you always told the truth. Outside the church, nervously preparing to reveal this new and embarrassing offense were the usual suspects: Eddie Mann, Tommy Cook, Joe Arrico, Jim Freeny, Todd DeFronzo, Frank Kopecki, Tony Kausman, sinners all, and each one the beneficiary of my neighbor Charles’ wisdom.

So in we went, taking a pew next to the confessional in order to catch a glimpse of each kid’s face as he left the booth. The confessional itself was an ornately carved wooden structure, about eight feet wide and containing a door in the center, where Father Absolvo forgave everybody, and thick red velvet curtains on either side, where the offenders entered as sinners and exited as saints. Joe Arrico went first, as the rest of us poked each other with our elbows, nervously giggled, and began gazing at the huge, ornate, stained glass windows that adorned the walls of the building. The entire Catholic story book seemed revealed in the colorful glass. The Adoration of the Magi, the visitation of the Archangel to announce the mysterious pregnancy of the virgin mother, the ascension of Jesus into heaven three days after his crucifixion, the last supper, and out from behind the red curtain came a cowering and confused looking Joe Arrico. He skipped the usual giddy eye contact with his buddies and, looking morosely down at the floor, slowly walked out of the church. Tommy Cook was next, and made the same mournful exit, as did Jim Freeny, and Eddie Mann, and Todd DeFronzo. What was going on? Then it dawned on me that confessing this masturbation thing was serious business, with serious consequences.

As I pushed the velvet curtain aside, and knelt down in the sinner’s box, I could hear the mumbling from the sinner on the other side, the priest absolving him in Latin, and the screen between myself and Father suddenly slid open. I could see the silhouette of his head, tilted slightly forward, and I began:

“Father forgive me for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession”

“Yes, my son. Go on”

“I used curse words in the playground”

“Yes”

“I took the Lord’s name in vain”

“Yes”

“I stole an Esterbrook pen from Pinsky’s stationary store”

“That’s a very serious sin, my son”

“Yes Father. I’m very sorry that I did it”

“Go on”

“Well……I uh, what I mean is, I um……..had impure thoughts”

“And what were these thoughts about?”

(I’m dying here)

“Uh, well…..um, they were uh, they were thoughts about naked people, Father”

“I see. And were these people boys or girls?”

(The question is disorienting)

“Girls, Father”

“Never boys?”

“Never father, only girls”

“Of course. And when you have these thoughts is there any physical change that takes place?”

“Change Father?”

“Does any part of your body change form in any way?”

(I think I’m going to faint)

“Well, yes Father. Uh, my um, my………my penis gets big and swollen”

“How unusual. How big does it become?”

“I don’t know Father. I mean, I didn’t measure it or anything”

“And did you touch your swollen penis?”

“Yes Father”

“With your left hand or your right hand?”

(His questions are becoming almost unanswerable)

“I’m right handed, Father”

“Of course. The next time this happens I want you to take a ruler and measure your enlarged penis. The bigger it gets the bigger the sin. And next week you will tell me the size here in the confessional”

(I was really freaked out by these questions, and the silhouette of his head seemed to be shaking, and I could hear him breathing)

“Yes Father”

“And here’s the most important thing. When you touch yourself is there a secretion of a creamy substance that shoots from your penis?”

 I was too flipped out to answer, and I could hear his breathing, which was even louder now, and it had become obvious that this priest was jerking off in his little cubicle while listening to little boys describing their genitals. He was desecrating this sacred chamber with his outrageous, libidinous behavior, and perverting everything anyone had ever told me about the tenets of Catholicism. This twisted, perverted creature on the other side of the screen, with his trembling and heavy breathing had just stolen my childhood which, once gone, is gone forever, and with it any semblance of the blind faith demanded by the Pope’s minions. The blind faith that the church claimed was its due, a necessary ingredient in the obedience of the faithful. Believe what they tell you and heaven is in your future. Question their catechism, no matter how ridiculous it seems, and into the oven you go, to cook with the Buddhists and Hindus. The blessed sacraments of Catholicism were the highway to salvation. You must believe in them, trust in them. Well, this priestly pederast had just showed me exactly how blessed these sacraments really were, sitting in his allegedly sacred chamber, jerking off while listening to his adolescent flock revealing their innermost secrets. I was beyond devastated. As Father Pederasty began his absolution in Latin with, “Te absolvo a peccatis tuis…..”, I opened the velvet curtain and slipped out of the confessional. I found myself walking, head down out of the church, just like the others. He had done it to us all.

Outside the church the usual mirthful competition for “baddest boy” was not happening. No one said anything, and the group gradually, and silently dispersed. I stood there for a while, a fractured shadow of the boy who had entered that same church an hour earlier, and went back in to have a look at the charade I had so fervently believed in. I walked around the outside aisle, following the stations of the cross, which depicted the torture and execution of Christ by the Romans. I studied the magnificent stained glass windows, which told the Church’s story to the faithful. To the right of the altar stood a life sized plaster statue of Jesus, painted in the appropriate colors, and vacantly staring out into the empty interior of the enormous church. His right hand was raised, revealing the stigmata of the wound from the nails of his crucifixion. His left hand, equally traumatized, held his heart, upon which sat a crown. Here was the man who Christians believed to be the son of God, and who other religions believed to be a prophet, to be revered, even worshipped. Here was the man on whose life and deeds Christianity was based. Here was the man who started it all, the man whose martyrdom opened the gates of heaven to a frightened humanity looking for salvation. Here was the man whose combination of humanity and deity was the basis for the beliefs of Catholicism, the same Catholicism through which the exclusive road to heaven could be trod. The same Catholicism that spoke to a humanity who lived with fear of dying and said, “Come with us. We have the answer. The way to heaven is open for those who believe, for all who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, for the faithful”. And somehow along the way, this organization that was begun with the zeal of true believers became corrupted by its own success, and its power, and its wealth. The cloistered structure of its priesthood, which excluded active hetero-sexuality, became a haven for misfits and homosexuals, who could thrive in the secret societies of the monastic tradition. And here was Jesus, who started it all, waving to his flock and holding his heart, just a few feet from the sacred confessional, where Father Pederasty jerked off while listening to the sins of young boys.

 As I reached the doors of the building I turned and looked once more at the inside of the church, particularly at the statue of Jesus waving to his fans, and I turned and walked through the door. It would be the last time I experienced the sensory assault of Catholicism. The last time I breathed the frankincense and myrrh. The last time I heard the echo of my footsteps against the interior stone walls of the enormous building. The last time I saw the visual symbolism in the huge windows, and the statues, and the paintings. The last time I touched the cool, smoothness of the wooden pews. It was the last time I entered a Catholic Church. The last time I saw Jesus.

The walk home from the church that day was as dark and gloomy a journey as I had yet taken. I was still the same age in years, and months, and days as when I awoke that morning but somehow, in a way that’s difficult to explain, I felt a good deal older.  I had been betrayed by the now-obvious fallacy of my own beliefs, and was experiencing disappointment in a new and bitter way. Unprotected by my parents, or teachers, or any representative of adulthood, who had all conspired, one way or another, in the broken promise of the false myth, I began to understand the painful process of growing into a creature responsible for his own truths.  Like the disfigurement of the boner, this new revelation was part of what I assumed was  growing up. I was standing on the threshold of the next phase of my life, and not at all happy about my prospects.

I walked past the school playground where kids, who seemed a great deal younger than I was, were playing at the familiar games of childhood with a noisy energy that now seemed slightly annoying. Soaking each other in a battle of dueling Weegee water pistols; laughing, chasing, grabbing, escaping, tearing, catching, yelling, and finally collapsing into a pile of mirthful exhaustion. As I walked past the florist shop, Tommy Cook, who had been at the church that afternoon, came out holding a small white box containing what he said was a boutinier. He opened the box and revealed a single white carnation with a pin through its stem. “It goes on your jacket”, he said, “on the lapel. My mom say’s that girls like them. I’m wearing it to the party tonight”. Lost in the confusion of the day’s events, I had completely forgotten about Beth Neilsen’s birthday party.

Beth was the smartest and prettiest girl in school and, for a reason totally beyond my comprehension, treated me like I was human. During my pre-boner days, which was all of my little life until very recently, boys and girls rarely socialized, and paid little attention to each other, but Beth was different. She always said hello when our paths crossed, and made small talk that I never attempted to avoid. Her party had been the talk of the school for several weeks, and was the first of its kind for a bunch of boys who were about to unwittingly trade-in their slingshots for dancing shoes.

Beth’s mother was making her daughter’s twelfth birthday a major event. The entire class had been invited, and the invitation had mentioned that “Live Music” would be provided. This made me nervous, since the obvious reason for a live band was to provide the kids with music to dance to and, although I sort of knew basic dance steps, I had inherited my father’s awkward gracelessness, and was terrified of making a fool of myself.

I made the trek to Beth’s house in as well-scrubbed a condition as was possible for a boy of my age. I had taken extra time to make sure that my fingernails were clean,  and that my tie matched my jacket, not that I had much choice, having only one, and that my hair was plastered to my scalp with Wildroot “A little dab’ll do ya” hair tonic. I carried a small gift-wrapped box containing the present my mother had picked out and, as I took the five-minute walk to the Neilsen house,  was joined one-at-a-time, by other similarly dressed and coifed and present-carrying boys, all marching toward the sound of the music, which could now be heard off in the distance.

Mrs. Neilsen greeted us at the front door, shaking our outstretched hands, and addressing each of us by name.  I suppose that inviting everyone in the class was the democratic thing to do, but it also meant that you got stuck with that opinionated weasel Richard O’Leary, not to mention kids like Vincent Averna, who aspired to the priesthood and constantly labeled whatever fun activity the rest of us might be involved in as either venial or mortal sins. Or John Bovi, who lived with his finger up his nose and smelled awful. Or Paul Yamulkowski, who idolized police officers and ratted out kids who shop-lifted candy at the drug store. Paul would not be above walking right up to Beth’s mom and reporting some kid who took a third slice of birthday cake, reminding her that if that kid’s behavior went unchecked that he was destined for a life of crime.

The music was playing in Beth’s basement, which was the center of the party; the boys congregating on one side of the room, and the girls on the other, as the band played “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”, that only the bravest, usually girls, dared to dance to. There were three musicians; a trumpet player, a guitarist, and a drummer who struck his cow-bell a lot during Latin numbers, and they featured the rhythm of a new dance called the “Cha-Cha-Cha”.  Some of the girls knew the steps and were teaching the others, and even dragging unwilling boys to their side of the room for impromptu lessons, to the cat-calls from their peers, who remained triumphantly steadfast in their unwillingness to submit to such humiliation. But it was no use. The girls outnumbered the boys and, by sheer force of numbers, had their way with them chanting, “One two cha-cha-cha, one two cha-cha-cha”, and the boys tried their best to follow the girls’ lead, and the band kept playing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”, and the chanting of “one, two cha-cha-cha, one two cha-cha-cha” grew louder, and giggling boys tripped over awkward feet, and the whole room was engulfed in a cacophony of music and chanting and laughter and I discovered at that moment the skin on Betsy Ryan’s neck.

In my eleven years and ten months on earth I had never experienced such a day. I had been confronted by the inevitable betrayal of my most fervent beliefs, and Betsy Ryan’s epidermal epiphany.  My childhood ended in the soiled corruption of that confessional, and the rest of my life began in that joyous moment of discovery on the dance floor at Beth Neilsen’s twelfth birthday party.  I still think of that party now and again. Of Beth, and Betsy, and Tommy, and Eddie, and Dolphy, and Jimmy, and Billy Beggs, and the Bullock twins, and of endings and beginnings. The cycle of the endings and the beginnings that would sometimes roughly, sometimes gently transport me from one moment to the next for the rest of my life. And every once in a great while, when I least expect it, I can still hear the heavenly sounds of that awful band playing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”.

 

*

© 2008 Shaun Costello

 

 

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Toy Soldiers by Shaun Costello

 

 

 

TOY SOLDIERS

Surviving God, Elvis and Nazis in the time of Duck and Cover

by Shaun Costello

 

 

I grew up in the Forest Hills Gardens, a small, incestuous, semi-gated community in the New York borough of Queens, about a twenty five minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan. The community surrounded the West Side Tennis Club, which was for years the Mecca of country club tennis in America. The ancient and famous came to compete here, dressed in their “Tennis Whites” and blue blazers, and wielding their wooden racquets. Bill Tildon, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Fred Perry, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, all came and conquered here. Then the Aussies arrived in the fifties; Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Roy Emerson. Even the modern “Open” era began here with Chris Evert, Jimmy Conners, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe, all competing in the Great American Tennis Tournament right here at the West Side Tennis Club. But by then the sport, and consequently the tournament, had outgrown the venue, and moved to Flushing, just a few stops away on the Long Island Railroad, leaving the ghosts of a golden era to compete on the grass courts of a decaying facility.

By the Sixties “The Gardens” had become a tawdry shadow of its former self. Dutch Elm Disease had taken hundreds of magnificent trees, planted early in the century by the community’s designers, and slowly but surely, the Gardens Corporation was losing its hold on the local demographics, which, up until then, had been its trump card. The little hamlet had been created before the outbreak of WW I, based on the design of British suburban communities just outside London. A series of row houses, arranged in Lanes and Circles, where everyone knew their neighbors and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends, and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into undesirables like Jews, Negroes, or Communists. The Gardens, you see, was a deeded community, which meant that the Gardens Corporation held a kind of lien on each property, preventing resale to the aforementioned, or any other member of the wretched refuse who had accumulated enough money to buy into a community where they obviously did not belong.

The Gardens became a magnet for recently socially unacceptable socialites. Old money families with a scandal on their hands, or the nouveau riche, who the old money could not condone. These were the families that first populated the Gardens. If society didn’t want them, they would create their own society. If their darling debutantes were persona non grata at the Manhattan Cotillions, they would create their own Cotillion, right here in the Forest Hills Gardens.

The son of the Steel Baron who married the daughter of the Mafia Don lived right across the street from the Bank President whose career was cut short by the embezzling scandal. This is where they came to live, right here in the comfort and safety of the little Hamlet that existed under the threat of the race-lien, which prevented the horror of waking up one morning with a Jewish neighbor.

The best laid plans of mice and racists came crashing to its inevitable conclusion, a victim of its own self fulfilled destiny, when Ralph Bunche Jr. applied for membership at the West Side Tennis Club. Bunche, winner of the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize, and a career public servant and diplomat, who was an Undersecretary General at the United Nations, had been taking tennis lessons at the club. After a few weeks the club pro suggested that he apply for membership. After all, he was an educated, elegant man, not to mention a famous career diplomat, favored by Presidents, just the kind of man the club wanted. But appearances can be deceiving. Just before welcoming him to their bosom the club’s membership committee discovered, to their horror, that Ralph Bunche Jr. was something else again. Something they had been successful in avoiding since their charter, many years before. Ralph Bunche Jr. was black. His light skinned appearance and elegant demeanor had fooled the club pro, as well as members he had contact with. The unthinkable had happened. A colored man at the West Side. A world turned inside out. Of course, his membership was turned down.

When the news got out the scandal was global. Headlines around the world all said pretty much the same thing: NEGRO DIPLOMAT REJECTED BY RACIST AMERICAN CLUB. There were, of course, many variations of this headline, each one driving another nail into the coffin that housed the remains of a once perfect little community. A place where a man knew his neighbors. A place where a man could walk in safety. A place where a man could go to sleep at night without the fear of waking up with a next-door neighbor of questionable heritage.

This was the end of the Forest Hills Gardens as its inhabitants knew it to be, and the beginning of a new world of racial flux and forced cohabitation, where Addison Wainwright lived right across the street from Morris Weintraub, much to Mr. Wainwright’s chagrin, and there was nothing he could do about it, other than taking a stroll over to the West Side Tennis Club, ordering a dry martini in the Gentleman’s Lounge, and conversing with cronies about the good old days when things were as things should be, and how a little circling of the wagons can be a good thing, and raising his glass with his comrades to someone’s toast of, “Well, at least we kept that god damned nigger out of here.”

It was at this point that my family moved to the Gardens from Nassau County, Forest Hills being recommended to my father by a Jewish friend of his who worked with him in Manhattan’s garment center. Recommended as a nice place to live, and you could take the subway to work, something that appealed to my father who was tired of commuting by railroad from Long Island. So we moved right in and looked for the nearest Catholic school.

During the Fifties the citizens of the Gardens, like most Americans, were preoccupied with watching Mickey Mouse Club and Ed Sullivan, listening to Elvis, building bomb shelters, and staying alert to the possibility that their next door neighbor might be a Communist agent. Daily ‘Duck and Cover’ drills were all the rage in primary schools, kids prompted by the emergency bell, jumping under their desks, and covering their little faces with their hands, as though a wooden school desk could prevent them from being vaporized by thermo-nuclear holocaust. The idea was to remain alert. You just never knew when the Ruskies would drop the big one.

I guess it has always been the case that girls, driven by estrogen, have played with dolls, as some kind of subliminal rehearsal for their maternal futures, just as boys, driven by testosterone, have played at war; carefully honing their skills for their future roles as hunters, gatherers, warriors, conquerors, slaughterers, debauchers, soldiers, sailors, kings, and whatever other glorious, and sometimes dubious endeavors men have created for themselves. When I was a kid boys played at war with toy guns, sighting the enemy in their crosshairs, and making gunshot sounds with their mouths; while their victim, playing the part of the wounded Jap or Kraut soldier, made the most realistic “ooph” bullet-wound sound that he could muster, and fell to the ground, trembling in the throes of the of death-dance, until finally still, he was called to the bosom of the almighty.

The victorious GI might go through the personal belongings of his victim, finding out that his name was Klaus Dornhoffer, or Akira Sato, and that the dead soldier had a wife and three kids back home. He might even sit down and write them a letter.

 

Dear Mrs. Dornhoffer/Sato, This morning I had the dubious honor of shooting your husband, Klaus/Akira, and I regret having to tell you this, but war is war, and your husband died a hero’s death and did not suffer.

Your faithful enemy, Audie Murphy.

 

On a rainy day, when it was too wet for the ‘Battle of the Backyard’, boys created warfare in miniature. I had a wooden model of a frontier outpost, complete with watchtowers at the corners, and little metal soldiers to man them. It was called Fort Apache, and no firewater-gulping, scalp-snatching redskin would ever get past its walls alive. My friend Dolphy had a great model of Camelot, complete with jousting knights in armor, ready for swordplay, and the slaughter of evil-doers. The future was not ignored, as recreations of Flash Gordon’s struggle against the Planet Mongo’s Emperor Ming, and his terrifying “Death Ray”, were played out in basements and backyards across America. The imaginary carnage created by boys prepared them for the struggle ahead, as they were told, almost on a daily basis, that the Russians were planning to drop an atomic bomb right in their backyards, and they had better be ready. By the summer of 1956, the bellicose boys of the Forest Hills Gardens were ready for anything.

It was into this atmosphere of military playacting, where nine-year-old boys had secret identities as Lieutenants, Captains, Naval Commanders, Fighter Pilots, and Drill Sergeants that George Leggett, a lifetime Nazi, worshipper of Hitler, creator of The American Nazi Youth Bund, and holocaust enthusiast made his appearance. He was twenty three years old, and had sought out the most racist American community he could find, trolling for accomplices. Sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping coffee and chain-smoking Camels, he would expound on his fascist philosophies to mesmerized groups of ten-year-olds. He didn’t talk down to us, regardless of our age. Sometimes he spoke like a grown-up, and sometimes like a kid, but he always treated us as equals, an unusual experience for boys our age.

His grandiose plans included the creation of training camps in rural areas, where the youth of America, kids just like us, would receive the proper indoctrination and training that would prepare them for their military participation in something called “The America-First Brigade” that, when fully financed and armed, would take over the government of The United States, creating a new and stronger America, unhindered by the influence of the Jew-devils. An America to be proud of. An America for Americans. He told us not to worry, that we would all have a place in this new America, and he turned to me:

“Son?”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever ridden in a tank?”

“No”

“Would you like to?”

“Sure”

“Well, you will son, you will. You see boys, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This young man has “Tank Commander” written all over him. What’s your name son?”

“Shaun, sir”

“Well Shaun, when we’re ready I’m going to give you the command of the ‘First American SS Panzer Division’. What do you think of that?”

“Wow”

So I was to be a Tank Commander. I had never done that before. I had been a lonely infantry soldier, manning his foxhole out on the perimeter. I had flown fighters for the “Flying Tigers”, out gunned and out manned by the Zeroes, defending Nanking against the Jap hordes. I had even smoked a peace pipe with Cochese, in an attempt to put an end to the war on the frontier. And now I would lead the First American SS Panzer Division in the Battle of Washington. How cool is that? Leggett told my friend Jimmy, “I can tell a fighter jock when I see one son, and you’re it”. He was giving Jimmy a Messerschmidt 109, with instructions to, “Take on the enemy wherever you find him”. So this new guy, George Leggett, would create games for us to play. He would lead us in fun battles against a make believe enemy. We would each have a military rank that would befit our station in his imaginary new nation. We might even get to go to summer camp, where we would learn the military techniques that would help us defend our neighborhood against the inevitable Soviet invasion. George Leggett would lead us in the best war games we had ever played. At least, that’s what we thought.

We were to refer to him as Commandant, and after a short while he seemed to know us all by name. We were instructed to tell our older brothers and their friends about his plans. They would be given important jobs in The New American Reich, and when the time came, provided with uniforms, weapons, tanks, planes, ships, and all the training necessary to learn how to use them. Leggett seemed to be using the younger kids as a conduit to the teenagers, who seemed to be his main target. The younger kids thought he was a crazy guy who would create games for them to play, but the teenagers of the Gardens saw him for what he was; a nigger hating, Jew bating fanatic, who was bent on creating a Nazi society right here in the USA. Leggett had heard the Forest Hills Gardens described as one of the most racially restricted communities in America, and came here assuming that he could sow the seeds of Nazism in its fertile, racist soil, and reap a rich harvest of accomplices, and financial donations. He was so lost in his zealous Nazi rapture that he had forgotten that the appeal of the National Socialist Party in Germany, back in the 1920’s, was to the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the hungry masses of a crumbling society. Hardly an accurate description of the citizenry of the Gardens, who were financially comfortable, and in some cases downright wealthy. George Leggett had made a major miscalculation.

Most of the population of the Forest Hills Gardens, who were taught right-from-wrong by parents who had long since circled their wagons, hated Jews as much as he did, but racism in America took on another form entirely, the subtlety of which Leggett could not comprehend. They owned the neighborhood, and controlled its demographics. They owned its clubs and organizations, and controlled their membership. Their war against the Jews was not a war of violence, it was a war of exclusion. They had created a closed society, and had no intention of allowing admission to anyone they deemed to be racially inferior. The Nazis were crude, vulgar gangsters whose idea of dealing with their enemies was genocide. The citizens of the Gardens simply denied them membership in their clubs. So George Leggett’s two-month recruitment drive, which he expected would provide his cause with a Brigade of swastika-wearing, goose-stepping, sig-heiling teenage studs, not to mention the financial donations of their wealthy, racist parents, yielded instead a small squad of ten-year-olds, who couldn’t wait to play tank commander, and fighter pilot. Not quite the Nordic supermen he anticipated leading in the overthrow of America.

I hadn’t seen the Commandant for a week or so when he appeared one evening involved in animated conversation with a group more receptive to his message. These were the teenage loser-morons who spent most of their time leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and hoping to look tough. They were blue-collar kids, whose families lived in apartment buildings on the outer fringe of Forest Hills. Pissed off have-nots, who lived on the edge of an upscale community, whose kids enjoyed benefits they knew in their hearts they would never share. Angry kids from angry families, whose fathers probably beat their mothers and took their frustrations out on them, before  slipping into an alcoholic stupor, possibly the happiest moment of their day. There were always fights. They fought with each other constantly, and sometimes even picked fights with passers by. They were scary, angry kids, fascinating to watch, like a traffic accident happening right before your eyes. I was only nine, too little to bother with, so they paid no attention to me. Concealed by my age, I was able to get close enough to listen, and it never took long to hear that all the troubles with the world were caused by Niggers, Puerto Ricans, and Jews.  Leggett finally had an appropriate audience, who hung on his every hateful word, no matter how ridiculous. For the next few weeks the Commandant and his idiot teenage storm troopers could be seen marching around the neighborhood, spouting racial epithets, and promising the elimination of the Nigger and the Jew, not only from American society, but from existence on earth.

I was sitting in a booth with my friend Jimmy, sipping a coke at Sutton Hall when a few of Leggett’s teenage goons approached us. Jimmy’s family had moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn a few years earlier, and lived in a big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the community. His father was a famous photographer who took pictures of movie stars, and had emigrated from Austria before the Nazis took over in the Thirties. No one in the Gardens except me knew very much about his family, and I knew purely by accident. A year earlier I had learned his secret, and never said a word about it, even to him.

Jimmy spent as much time at my house as I did at his, and became well liked by both my parents. He was a funny, smart, engaging kid, with a total lack of pretension of any kind. He was smarter than I was, but I was more self-assured, so it was a workable trade-off. Beyond the chemistry, I’m not exactly sure what attracts one person to another, but Jimmy was more fun to be around than anyone I knew, and we spent endless hours engaged in the curiosity, exploration, and mischief that was the stuff of kids. On a Saturday afternoon, we were leaving my house for a bike adventure when we saw Irving Appleman, an old friend of my father’s, who had made the same journey as my dad, from the outer boroughs to the garment center, and lived across Queens Boulevard, in the Jewish section of Forest Hills, near the High School. He and my dad were sitting in the dining room having coffee and talking politics. Mr. Apppleman was a friendly, jovial man, who I had known all my life, and I was proud to show off my friend Jimmy to my father’s old pal. “Where you from Jimmy?”, asked Mr. Appleman. “Brooklyn. We moved here about a year ago.” “Yeah? Me Too. I like it better here though. You boys go have some fun.”

 A few hours later I returned home by myself, and was waylaid by my father and Mr. Appleman, who seemed still engaged in the same conversation about Stevenson’s chances against Eisenhower in the November election, but had moved their discussion to the living room. My father asked me to join them, a request so unusual that I knew something was up. “Your friend seems like a nice boy”, said Mr. Appleman. “What’s his family like?” “Oh, his dad’s a famous photographer. Takes pictures of movie stars. They live in a big house on Greenway South, and go to the Congregational Church. I went to a service there with him. Everybody was really friendly. They just sang a few songs, and the Pastor spoke about the importance of voting. Really different than Catholics.”

 “You know Shaun”, said Mr. Appleman, “I knew his family in Brooklyn. I knew his father pretty well. A talented man. A brilliant man. Did you know that your friend’s family was Jewish?”

“Oh no, Mr. Appleman, they’re Prostestants. I went to church with him.”

“You know son, a lot of Jews came to America before the war. They were scared stiff, believe me. Back in the Thirties Jews were rounded up in Europe and arrested, just for being Jews. Did you know that?” I shrugged it off. “Well, it’s true. They were arrested, and some of them were sent to camps, and some of them were murdered. Millions of people, murdered. So a lot of them escaped and came to America, but they didn’t know what to expect when they got here, so some of them changed their names to make them sound more American, and some of them even pretended they were Catholics or Protestants. They were scared that if people found out they were Jews that they would be sent to camps. They didn’t know that couldn’t happen here. These were frightened people, trying to protect their families. Would you like to know about Jimmy’s dad?”

 So Irving Appleman began the story of my friend’s father’s great odyssey; from Vienna, to Brooklyn, to the Forest Hills Gardens. In Vienna, back in the early thirties, Jimmy’s dad had made a name for himself as an up-and-coming photographer. He was a talented young man whose portraits were in demand. He wasn’t rich, but his career seemed promising, and life was good. By 1936 the mood in Vienna was changing. In Neighboring Germany Hitler had been made Chancellor, and Crystal Nacht was just around the corner. Nazi gangs roamed the streets of Vienna, breaking the windows of Jewish shops, and beating up the owners. The Nazis had gotten their fingers into the Austrian government, and Jews began disappearing in the night. As time went on the great fear among Austrian Jewry was their country being annexed by Germany. Should that happen not a Jew in Austria was safe from murder. Jimmy’s dad had lost friends and family to the camps, and was determined to get out of Austria while he still could. He had enough money saved to make the appropriate bribes, and in the Summer of 1938 he found himself safe at last, living in Brooklyn, and with a promising career as, “that talented young European photographer”.

He had added an extra “n” to his name to make it seem more Germanic than Jewish, and filled in “Lutheran” as his religion on the immigration form. His safety, and the safety of the family he planned to have, was more important than his Jewishness. He was determined that the horrors of Nazi Europe would never touch him again. When it came time to marry he chose the most goyishe looking woman he could find, an ivory skinned redhead, who belonged on the cover of a waspy magazine. During the War he managed to secure a position for himself as a middle-man merchant between the Army Signal Corps and the manufacturers of photographic chemicals. He made only a few cents on a gallon traded, but the volume was enormous, and this was how he made his fortune. By the early Fifties he was a rich man. He had become quite famous as a theatrical photographer, with an enormous studio on Times Square. He had a gorgeous wife, and three boys, and it was time to make the move from Brooklyn, but he had one last piece of slight-of-hand left to do in the charade he had created. One last brick to add to the wall so that no one would ever suspect his Jewish past. He would move his family to the most anti-semitic neighborhood he could find, and become a pillar of the community. He would not necessarily become an open Jew-hater, but he certainly wouldn’t let his children marry one. So he bought the big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the Forest Hills Gardens, joined the local Congregational Parish, and settled in to life in Fortress Goyim. He was finally safe. His family was finally safe. Safe from anti-Semitism. Safe from danger. Safe from hate. Right here in the nurturing little community that existed under the threat of the race lien, which prevented him from selling his house to a Jew.

No one said anything for a few minutes, before Irving Appleman added, “You know, he meant well. He was frightened. He wanted to protect his family from what he went through in Austria. But he did a bad thing. Your friend Jimmy is growing up in a Jew hating neighborhood. In order to make friends, to be accepted, he will start calling Jews kikes, and hebes, and Jew-boys, and how long will it be before he discovers that he himself is a kike, a hebe, a Jew-boy. That is, if he doesn’t already know, which is probably the case. Jimmy’s a smart boy. He has uncles in Brooklyn who go to Temple and observe the Holy Days. You think he doesn’t notice? He knows, believe me. And one day, probably soon this is all going to come to a terrible crisis, when he just can’t pretend anymore, and when that happens he’s going to need a friend. He’s going to need a friend just like you, Shaun. Are you going to be his friend?”

Leggett’s teenage goons were hovering over the table at Sutton Hall where Jimmy and I were sipping our cokes.

“Hey”(to Jimmy) I hear you’re gonna be a fighter pilot”

“Yeah, I guess”

“You Guess? You gonna be a fighter pilot, or what?”

“Sure”

“Your plane gonna have machine guns?”

“All fighter planes have machine guns”

“Your plane gonna have bombs?”

“What do you think?”

“You gonna bomb Jew-boys?”

(silence)

At this point I interrupted. “Look, we’ve got to head home. Lot’s of homework”.

“You shut up. I want any shit out of you I’ll squeeze your head. Hey, I asked you a question. You gonna fire-bomb hymie-town or what. You gonna burn those kike mother fuckers out? You gonna turn those hebes into charcoal or what? Hey, you’re starting to piss me off. I want an answer you little faggot. Do you hear me? Are you gonna kill Jews?” He was menacing now and Jimmy was frightened. “Answer me.”

“Yes” (almost a whisper)

“I can’t hear you.”

“Yes” (slightly louder)

“Speak like a man, you little homo.”

Jimmy looked up and screamed at him, “Yes. Yes. I’m going out and killing as many Jews as I can get my hands on. Does that make you happy?”

“Hey. That’s all I wanted to hear. Good boy.” And they turned and left.

Jimmy had tears in his eyes and his whole body was shaking. He put a quarter on the table and ran out. It was here. The moment Irving Appleman had predicted a year ago. Jimmy had taken all he was going to take. His father’s charade had caught up with him. He just couldn’t pretend anymore. I phoned him an hour later, but his mother said that he wasn’t feeling well, and hung up.

The greatest scandal the Gardens had ever seen, even greater than Ralph Bunche Jr’s denial of admission to the West Side Tennis Club, hit the papers the next morning. George Leggett, along with five of his loser-moron storm troopers had been arrested and remained in jail. They were charged with illegal weapons possession, attempted bank robbery, sedition, and the attempted overthrow of the government of the United States. Holy Moly, and right in my own neighborhood. The guy we thought wanted to play games with us had actually intended on committing violent crimes in order to finance his very real overthrow of America, and he had talked five of the loser-morons from the Sutton Hall Pharmacy into going along for the ride. He had promised them that they would take the proceeds from robbing several banks, and buy land upstate New York for a training camp, as well as weapons to train with. Nigger-splattering, Jew-killing weapons.  And now they were all in jail. Bill Schutz, Arnie Dietrich, kids I knew, and they were in jail, their names and photographs all over the newspapers. Reporters and photographers scoured the neighborhood, asking about Leggett’s conspiracy, hoping to find some dirt, and everybody had something to say; Lou the florist, Bill at the Sutton Hall soda fountain, Sal at the Pizza Prince, all spilling their guts to the reporters, hoping to get their names in the newspapers.

George Leggett, who had promised fighter planes to ten-year-olds, had actually meant it all along. He didn’t just want to play war with little kids, which is what we all thought. He wanted to declare war on America, and have our parents pay for it. And poor Jimmy, who had reached the limit of his make believe, playing out the farce created by his father’s fears, and had told morons that he intended on turning Jews into charcoal, was sitting at home in his room, not quite knowing how to maintain his sanity. It was time to have the conversation with my friend that I should have had a year ago. There had been a silent understanding between us. I’m certain that he had guessed that I knew his family’s past, but we never discussed it. He had recognized Irving Appleman that afternoon, a year ago, and surely knew that it was only a matter of time before I knew everything. It was time to tell him. To tell him that I’ve known all along. To tell him that I didn’t care that he was Jewish. To tell him that he meant more to me than anyone did. To tell him that he was my best friend, no matter what. To tell him that the truth behind his family’s great charade, born of his father’s paranoia, was a secret not worth keeping.

After a few weeks had passed, and the press coverage caused by George Leggett’s attempted overthrow of America began to fade, life in the Forest Hills Gardens seemed to return to normal. Lou at the florist shop was working overtime, pinning carnations on the lapels of the white dinner jackets worn by teenage boys, whose parents had rented them earlier in the day just for tonight’s festivities. All over the community, the formally attired young men of the Gardens, carrying little white boxes, each containing an orchid corsage, were knocking on the doors of the debutantes who were to be presented that evening at the first-ever Forest Hills Cotillion. Proud fathers, escorting their carefully gowned and coifed daughters, stood ready to present their little girls to local society. From the open windows of the ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, the syrupy sound of the Lester Lanin Orchestra drifted across the little community, fading as it floated over the cherry blossoms in Station Square, until finally dissolving into the hubbub of street traffic at the Gardens’ edge. Around the Ballroom, nervous boys, mingling in twos and threes, could be seen practicing dance steps, before working up the courage to join the debutantes out on the floor. At the bar, the parents toasted their good fortune, to live in such a place. A place where everyone knew their neighbors, and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into obvious undesirables – well, almost. And even though they no longer controlled the community’s demographics, on this night, here in the Ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, as their darling debutantes danced the night away, there was not a single face of questionable heritage to be seen. Their wagons remained circled, at least for now.

Just across the Hamlet’s border, well beyond the sound of the Cotillion’s orchestra, those of the teenage loser-morons who were not presently under interrogation by the FBI, maintained their usual position, leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and attempting to appear as menacing as possible. There was the usual pushing and shoving, threatening passers-by, and idiotic, hateful banter, until they became united by somebody’s cry of, “Hey, let’s go beat up some Jews.”

 

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© Shaun Costello 2014

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