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The menial, everyday reality of life in the mafia

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Alex Christian
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In the basement of a Manhattan bar, lurking in shadows and cigar smoke, sit the leaders of New York’s most notorious crime family. Whiskey is gulped down, cards are dealt and thousands of dollars change hands. A sudden screech of tyres can be heard over the din. Three besuited, fedora-wearing hitmen rush downstairs, laying waste to their rivals in a hail of machine-gun fire.

It’s something you’ve seen a bajillion times in mafia movies. But it’s far from an accurate depiction of the mob (apart from the suits, apparently). “There ain’t no bodies in the mafia,” says Frank DiMatteo, a former associate of the Gallo crew that controlled Brooklyn’s President Street for much of the last century. “In Hollywood that works, but in a small neighbourhood you can’t just kill everybody on the corner every day. The law is stupid, but they ain’t that stupid.”

Raised in a family of mob hitmen, DiMatteo, now 61, grew up during the Gallo-Profaci war in the ‘60s. But he says that it was business, not bloodshed, that ruled the streets. “Violence was rare. Being in the mafia doesn’t mean you’re a killer – it means you’re part of an organisation that happens to do something against the law. It may be run illegally, but it’s still a business.” Here, he explains the daily mob routine the Martin Scorsese films didn’t show you.

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Countless hours spent behind the wheel

“You often start in the mafia as a driver. From 1972 to 1976, if my father or godfather had to go anywhere, I’d have to take them. Meetings around Brooklyn, social clubs, restaurants and bars down President Street. It was local stuff for local boys. Whatever they were talking about, I wasn’t privy to – I was just the driver. Sometimes, I’d have to wait in the car until they were done.

“These were two-hour journeys max, a 20-mile radius around Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. But it’d be an all-day event. I’d go pick up my father at 10 o’clock in the morning, we’d drive to the club, I’d wait at the bar until one o’clock, he’d come in and say, ‘I wanna go to the Golden Chariot, Queens’. So I’d take him on a half-hour ride there, he’d sit a good three hours with somebody, and I’d have something to eat and wait some more. All day. Start at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, finish up at one o’clock in the morning. And then if someone wanted to go drinking, you were out all night.”

There’s zero overtime pay

“You’re on call round-the-clock. The phone rings in the dead of night, ‘Frank, get dressed. I need you to pick me up right now’. That happens a million times. Somebody gets arrested, somebody’s in a car accident, somebody gets in a bar fight and needs help, you get a call. There’s no on-and-off, you’re always available. When you get a call in the middle of the night, ‘Hey listen, Tony got arrested – bring the bail and a sandwich,’ you don’t get paid. You just get up and go.

“There’s no overtime pay. When you’re part of a crew or a family, you have to do things you just have to do. You get paid as and when. If you take numbers, you get percentage. If you open the club in the morning, you get paid when you leave at night. If you go rob a truck, you go sell the stuff and get your money. It’s not like a payroll where you wake up and suddenly the boss has paid money into your account. It’s all cash in hand as soon as you’ve done the job.”

Monotonous, back-breaking manual labour

“Some people get smacked, some people get kicked in the balls, but you can’t just go, ‘Hey, I don’t like you’ and waste someone. Any violence – if it does happen – is kept between hoodlums. You’re not killing everybody every day. In fact, my skipper killed two people in 20 years.

“So there’s no manual labour digging holes for bodies – it comes from lugging boxes around. We were in the music business. That meant carrying big jukeboxes and putting them in bars and restaurants for people to stick quarters in. That was a big income. Then there were the cigarette runs. The boss would say, ‘Go get cigarettes’, we’d go down to South Carolina, buy hundreds of boxes of smokes on the cheap, haul them in the car, drive them back up, unload them to the distributor, sell for a profit. Back and forth, back and forth. Nine hours going, nine hours back, $2,000 of cigarettes, two or three times a week. All that, for $100 a day.”

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There’s a ton of tax forms

“There’s loads of tax to pay in the mafia. It’s like any business. You go rob things, you get a score – a truck with $100,000 of furs on it – what do you do with the money? You can stick some cash here and there that no one knows about, but it’s hard. Even though we try to be on the low-low, some things you just have to show. That’s when you pay taxes.

“It happens often with money laundering. You always want to have shell places, mostly bars that don’t do well, because you can clean money through it. Say you have a bar that makes $10 a week. You stick bad money in it, say to the taxman, ‘So this place made $100,000 this year,’ you pay your taxes and boom – you’ve got your clean money. It doesn’t matter how you made it – they don’t check that – just as long as you pay it. So the government ends up getting a lot of money from the mob. It happens all the time. And you’d get a finder’s fee for it – clean up $10,000 and someone might give you $500.”

Tedious office admin

“If you’re running a business, you need somebody to take care of the books: sports betting, municipal contracts. Your bookkeeper would have their office, usually a backroom of a café or club, where they could work out interest, weekly payments and hide the paperwork if the law came.

“Bookmakers and loan sharks aren’t violent guys. In my neighbourhood you’d have 20 guys taking numbers who never hit nobody in their lives. They weren’t gangsters, they were usually smart family or friends. In fact, in a crew of 25, only three of them would be killers. The whole thing’s not about hitting people and going to jail. It’s about quietly making money and finding different angles.”

Networking and pitching for every contract

“Waste disposal and municipal contracts were big business for a lot of crews. It happens all the time – it’s who you know and who you call. You don’t just go knock on the door of a luxury apartment building and say, ‘I’m a plumber, I wanna do all the work’ – they’ll look at you and laugh. It’s someone who knows someone. If your friend’s a contractor and has a window company, you know someone with a building going up that he can put his goombas in; everybody gets kickbacks.

“You get your workmen on the job, you make the money, you set the rate. If you know the architect and they get you to submit the paperwork, they let you know the closest bids. It’s all about who you know and your connections. That’s why some families were closer with construction, windows and cement, because they had friends in the business already.”

Dull, rigid dress code

“There’s a dress code in the mafia. You wore a goomba suit every day. You always had to look good. Always. Because if you looked like a bum, no one’s gonna do business with you.

“There were two styles: shirt and tie, or button-down knit shirts and sweaters for when you were in the club in the daytime. You always had to wear shoes – not sneakers, we’d never heard of them. Sure, you could be crazy, but you had to dress proper.”

The President Street Boys: Growing Up Mafia is out now

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Alex Christian

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