Our California associate Bob Masullo was born and raised in the Bronx. Recently, he came to New York for a bit of a nostalgia tour.
It’s a good bet that most Boomers and pre-Boomers living today have roots in old Italian neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the American public only knows these neighborhoods from Hollywood’s perspective as breeding grounds for the “mafia” ̶ think Godfather II, A Bronx Tale, or GoodFellas.
The landmark study in 1965 by Glazer & Moynihan (Beyond the Melting Pot) set the tone for our cinematic mafia culture by characterizing our family structure as “amoral familism” ̶ an insular mindset with its own distorted values separate from general society, a breeding ground for what the FBI still labels [Italian] “crime families.” It would seem we were always this close to becoming professional thieves and murderers growing up in the old neighborhood – the premise of A Bronx Tale.
My childhood would never make it to the big screen. Born in Brooklyn but raised in the suburbs by a single mom, I had no racketeers in the family that I know of. But, I do recall the obsession my mom’s side had for the “Numbers” ̶ the last three digits of the racetrack’s gross receipts. All betting was handled by local bookies who probably reported to a racketeer. Only racetrack betting and the Irish Sweepstakes were legal then, so every ethnic group played the Numbers.
My life in suburbia did not totally separate me from the old neighborhood. Because my mom worked, I was shuttled off to my aunt’s apartment in Brooklyn for the summers of 1954 and 1955.
My aunt lived in the same three-story building I lived in as an infant/toddler. My great-grandfather, a greengrocer, had managed to acquire three buildings, one for each of his children. So, staying with my first cousins also brought me together with loads of cousins-once-removed. My grandfather bottled soda in one of the buildings, and my great uncle had a laundromat in another. Before my parents divorced, my family had a luncheonette there. So, I knew Italians as independent businessmen.
But I also saw them as stevedores on the nearby Brooklyn docks. Every night, I saw my older cousins standing on corners with hooks dangling from their belts, their tool-in-trade. The docks were corrupt, but not entirely Italian. New Jersey, Manhattan, and Brooklyn each had different ethnic control.
To a 7-year old boy, Brooklyn was all-Italian. My grandfather’s soda business, the deli where I bought myself a huge Italian hero, the pizzerias, the candy store where I got my lemon ice, even the vegetable man with his horse and wagon, were all Italian-owned. If there were mafia guys lurking in the shadows, or heists and hits taking place, I clearly missed them. I don’t even remember any cops around. No one was ever arrested on my watch, and everyone had a nickname.
I did all the things a Brooklyn boy would do: played stick ball and stoopball, built scooters with roller skates, jumped in and out of open fire hydrants on hot days, went to movie matinees for 25¢, made “carpet” guns (actually linoleum) with clothespins and rubber bands ̶ using them in fun “gang” battles. I was so “neighborhood” from those summers that my suburban school teacher sent me to remedial speech to rid me of Brooklynese.
Perhaps I focused on the wrong things in my little ethnic world. I knew that my extended family was close but I would never call them insular. Everyone spoke English and dealt with all groups. The men came home after work and ate with family. If there was a bar in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I have no idea where it was. Alcohol was a family matter, always accompanying food, even a little wine spritzer for the older kids.
My first awakening to organized crime came in 1963 with the Valachi Hearings. I was mesmerized watching the televised hearings after school. It was the first time that my heritage exploded in my face as a full-blown circus starring people with vowels and nicknames. I had no idea then, or later when The Godfather was published, how I had missed so much as a kid.
But, Hollywood missed more than I did. -JLM