I came to know my friend Eric aka “Sleazy E” through his performances with a man known as Dirty Diamond, who sings raunchy parodies of Neil Diamond songs. Eric has since moved to Portland, Oregon after living in New Orleans and Philadelphia.
Eric was coming back East for the holidays and I agreed to pick him up from J.F.K. Airport at 5:30 in the morning because doing so was the kind of pre-dawn adventure I really didn’t need but would greatly regret not having. My friend needed to get from the airport to Penn Station very early on a weekend morning and that’s not a fun time even during normal waking hours, and it was rare to get an audience with the Sleazy One, since he’s on the West Coast now.
The roadways of J.F.K. Airport comprise a spaghetti bowl of shame and signage. I ran at least one red light I didn’t realize was there, and had to abandon my aided navigation for just reading signs, but I managed to get to the right passenger terminal and soon Eric and I were on our way to GoodFellas Diner.
GoodFellas Diner wasn’t always called that. It was named such because scenes from the movie ‘GoodFellas’ were filmed there. We drove through the quiet streets of Maspeth among warehouses, lumber yards, and loading docks. It’s a part of the city that still retains some of the industrial grit that made New York the engine of commerce that it is.
We were the only customers when we walked in, but not long after we sat down a young couple sat a few booths away and then a large, flatbed tow truck parked next to my van and the driver joined the small breakfast rush.
Catching up with Eric made it worth the early morning drive. He’s developed a biting yet healthy cynicism that informs his approach to enjoying life without excuses. Originally from Camden and raised in Philadelphia, he’s accustomed to more rough and tumble ways than are commonplace on the West Coast. He is constantly amazed by the soft-bellied practices of Portland denizens. His longtime dream is to open and run a pizza parlor; a slice of pizza is tattooed upon his arm among other things, and he apprenticed at one of Philadelphia’s most well-regarded pizza restaurants.
We discussed how the tourist traps of Philadelphia have promoted Cheese Whiz as an essential ingredient because tourists fall for it as “authentic” and it saves them the money they would have to spend on real cheese. The better, lesser-known cheese steak makers preferred by locals will use real cheese.
Our breakfast at GoodFellas was on-par diner fare and the atmosphere remained unpretentious and authentic. We made sure to take some photos before we left. We swung by a 7 Eleven so I could get more coffee and then made our way into Manhattan.
Our navigation took us through a midtown that was still waking up. Adorned for the holiday season, I was able to give Eric a quick rolling tour of some of the holiday season’s more notable city locales. Park Avenue offered a sweeping rear view of the Helmsley Building and many trees in midtown are lined with lights from trunk to bough. Going down Fifth Avenue, The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was bright and glowing in the early morning light, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a silent sentry over the layered holiday décor of Saks Fifth Avenue.
But true to our mission, we soon found ourselves at the entrance to Penn Station. Penn Station was once a place of grandeur and the city is trying to make that happen again by turning the old Farley Post Office into the new Penn Station. Until then though, Penn Station is a confusing and squalid place, and as I dropped Eric off for the second part of his journey to Philly, the life forms of the old New York were milling about as a form of disorganized welcoming committee; a near perfect assembly to begin a sojourn to Philadelphia.
I bid farewell to my friend there on 8th Avenue, wishing him a happy holidays and safe travels, and hoping he would bring his surly ways to New York soon again.
News from Long Island has come in that John A. Gotti son of the more famous Mafia boss and a one-time Mafia boss himself, was stabbed on Long Island. He survived the attack.
Gotti Jr. told the police he was stabbed while breaking up a fight between two strangers. Police find that about as believable as him being stabbed by a unicorn.
When I first moved back to New York, I worked at JFK airport and found a place in Ozone Park, on 101st Avenue near Woodhaven Boulevard. A few short blocks away was the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, which had served as John Gotti’s Queens headquarters before he became head of the Gambino Crime Family.
The fact that we were close to a place of Mafia lore was a selling point.
“You’ve heard of John Gotti?” the real estate agent asked.
“Yes,” I said. Who hadn’t?
“Well his club is right down the street. People know not to mess around here.”
Gotti had been in prison for years by then, but there were still plenty of wise-guy types around. There were still old men playing cards in the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club when I would walk by. It is long gone now.
Gotti’s headquarters for the time he was the big boss was in Little Italy, the Ravenite Social Club, is now a shoe store. Only the tiled floor remains. John Gotti died in prison, ravaged by cancer, a shadow of the feared “Teflon Don” he was in the 1980s.
For better or worse, New York loves its Mafia heritage. There are tours in Little Italy featuring famous assassination sites. I love it too, no doubt. I was glad to walk by the Bergin Hunt & Fish club and gladly bragged to friends that I was in John Gotti’s neighborhood.
But really, when you get right down to it, the Mafia is bullshit.
We like to imagine the Mafia through the lens of “The Godfather,” the quintessential mob film that popularized the genre and made mobsters look good. It’s a great film. Anyone who doesn’t love “The Godfather” deserves to sleep with the fishes. But “The Godfather” is an accurate portrayal of Mafia life as much as “Star Wars” is an accurate portrayal of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
The real Mafia is not a collection of earnest Vito Corleones living the American dream, it’s a gaggle of the worst grease ball Goombahs you can imagine but with guns and money. The real Mafia isn’t keeping your neighborhood safe, it’s stealing your car and shaking you down for protection money.
A few years ago I read the book Underboss by Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who was John Gotti’s lieutenant who eventually turned on him and testified against him. Gravano’s memoir, like anything else told by a career criminal, can’t be taken at face value, but it describes a life not of dapper dons but of sleazy thieves and thugs, always looking for new ways to make money, usually by stealing from others in some way. A piece of shit thief in a tailored silk suit is still a piece of shit thief.