TV Club

Why We Care About Mobsters

Dear Jerry,

Bensonhurst? How could I miss that? Are you sure Bensonhurst is in Brooklyn?

I want to get to the Italian question later, but first let me say that I think your sobering thought is useful: Mobsters make great entertainment unless they actually have something on you; then they’re terrorists. They make widows and orphans, they steal money from unions and taxpayers and other generally deserving people, and, most important, they hurt people physically in vile ways. That’s what makes them mobsters. Without getting too confessional or conflicted-sounding, I’ve asked myself every now and again why I’m attracted to mob stories. Let’s face it, mob journalism is meant to be entertainment, at least most of the time. We can investigate the plight of honest garbage haulers and explore the hidden mob taxes at the Javits Center (a caveat: I have no idea what is currently happening there; for all I know, it’s run by the blessed Missionaries of Charity now), but what is really interesting about mobsters, to me and I suspect to others, is that they get to live a fantasy life in which you can wake up at 1 in the afternoon, park wherever you want, wear track suits all day, eat heavily discounted food, and hurt people who annoy you. It’s that transgressive quality that makes them so appealing. Also, their nicknames. Ridiculous nicknames make mob reporting fun. (I believe that the introduction of the street names “Big Pussy” and “Little Pussy” in the first couple of episodes of The Sopranos is what actually signaled to curious HBO watchers that something unusual and clever was happening here.)

You raised an interesting question I was asking myself: Is Blundetto made? His actual family tie is clear enough, but it struck me that he wouldn’t be allowed to weasel out of performing mob-type duties (in this case, involving himself in the airbag rip-off scheme), if he were actually made. Isn’t that the actual content of the “making ceremony,” as one of the FBI agents put it last night? To make sure you understand that you have signed on to the gangster life—for life? Maybe it’s a cliché, but I remember interviewing several denizens of the federal Witness Security Program who made just this point to me: that there was no way out. Of course, it’s hard to know these days when actual mobsters are sharing original thoughts with you or are simply mouthing what they think Mario Puzo or Martin Scorsese would have them say.

Speaking of which, a few years ago I had dinner with Sammy Bull Gravano in Arizona, at a Ruth’s Chris’ Steak House. (You must have had your run-ins, yes? I mean with Sammy, not Ruth. Or Chris.) This was after Sammy had become a government witness, but before he was imprisoned for drug dealing. He drove me around in this enormous tub of an SUV, and I asked him how he made the money to afford it. He told me he was working as a swimming pool contractor. What he didn’t say was that he was also working as Arizona’s main dealer of Ecstasy. Anyway, Gravano told me that he would, in the course of advancing his business interests as John Gotti’s underboss, use, without irony, lines written by Mario Puzo for Sonny Corleone. I wonder if this is happening today, but with David Chase scripting mob-shakedowns instead?

You bring up Feech. Don’t you find this storyline repetitive? I mean, is he behaving just like Richie Aprile behaved? This could fast grow uninteresting.

And let me ask you, is there some rule against a New York mob boss taking a dump in a New Jersey strip club? Mobsters have needs. Mobsters are people, too, you know. Except when they’re not.