Badfellas

One of the very great impediments to my own spiritual development is the delicious solace I take in believing that no matter what kind of sinner I am, there are far worse sinners out there. I would not be surprised to find that there is engraved on the stone threshold of Hell (where all the short sighted people can see it) the words YES, BUT AT LEAST I DIDNT.I was well aware of my tendency to feel this wicked pleasure (although I didnt think of it as an impediment at the time) when I was surrounded day in and day out by the outrageous rogues at the used car lot. I even used to fancy that I provided a ray of moral sunshine to the place; that perhaps the staff was less excessive and blatantly dishonest when I was around. Now I can see that my attitude probably contributed to the sincerity that the customers believed that I had that made me such a good Pencil Man capable of getting them to sign notes at 35 plus percent interest for 48 months.I know now that my co-workers were not so different from me in the way that they thought of themselves. They certainly took pride in the fact that compared to most of our customers, they led very responsible and disciplined lives. They also believed that they compared favorably to the squares that worked downtown in the straight jobs. The used car guys thought that they led lives of greater freedom and individuality, without necessarily even compromising their material standards. George, for example, the cocaine-blown ruined businessman maintained much the same lifestyle that he had when he had still been relatively sane. He would point out that his high personal standards still required him to send all of his laundry to the cleaners, including his t-shirts, and that he was still able to live up to his life long vow of never living outside of the square made by the Chicago River, Division Street, Michigan Avenue, and the lake.He considered himself a modern parent and a progressive in all things.How many other fathers do you know that would give their kids a good bump of blow? he proudly asked us once after he had had them over to his studio apartment for a very rare weekend visit. Fast Eddie would laugh about this. George is such a piece of work. Picking up his 17 year old son and saying Here kid, have a bump while they are still pulling away from his ex-wifes house. And Eddie would shake his head in disgust as only a man could who had only recently pulled a 500 pound coke monkey off his own back; a coke monkey that had always been well marinated in Jack Daniels (Black). Eddie had just managed to move back in with his family a few months earlier as a reward for being verifiably sober for 18 consecutive months, and his only little vice now was when he would take the sales guys out to a brothel in the suburb of Cicero when they had a good week. Fast Eddie considered himself a sort of latter day Ward Cleaver.But within this refined system of moral gradation, there was another group that cast its well organized and prosperous shadow over Cicero Avenue. This was the Chicago Mob, a member of which happened to be our landlord.

In Chicago working class neighborhoods, at least from the seventies through the nineties, organized crime was always part of the landscape, like fire hydrants. And like fire hydrants, most people would probably never witness them in action or even trip over them by accident; fewer still would find themselves getting drenched; and only rarely would anyone get themselves drowned. But the Mob was there. Part of the Organized crime business model (for like all successful capitalist enterprises they had a very good business model) was to cultivate sort of rational scariness so that people would be willing to do business with them without doing business against them.It is true that the Syndicate was capable of committing murder under certain circumstances. But unlike street thugs, gang bangers, and others in the dis-organized crime sector, they did not engage in the short term risky business of sticking guns in strangers faces and taking their money. They operate in the pink light (defined as the confluence of rules, their enforcement, and ones own personal trajectory; the place where rules bend but dont break) like any capitalist entrepreneur. Yes, they can get very close to the red end of the spectrum and sometimes they get caught crossing the line (emphasis on get caught). But they have been a going concern in America for over a century now. They never would have survived this long if they had not discovered how to fit into the system. They have their place in a continuum that moves from them, past people like Fast Eddie and George, to people like us. And this is not simply a continuum from bad to good. They operate on the same formal underlying logic of capitalism that we do.Fast Eddie used to tread lightly around the subject of organized crime, which frankly surprised me. In most working class taverns that I knew of, there was always one guy, a regular, who would boast that he knew a guy. People would be jealous of him for this. The guy could provide discounted goods (understood to be stolen) and sometimes things that were flat out illegal; like really good fireworks, pornography before it became common, and various kinds of gambling. There was always the implication that the guy could also have your legs broken, but this was not, in fact, true. The Syndicate saved this sort of thing for the maintenance of their market share against inside and outside competitors. But this belief was still an important part of the Syndicate brand image, because part of the product was the thrill of being able to deal with bad guys, which made the customer almost (but not quite) a bad guy himself.I think that because Fast Eddie was actually doing business with a mobster, we was more clear sighted and practical about the Mob. The first time that I met the landlord was when Fast Eddie took me over to the landlords liquor store/tavern down the street on what he called a reassurance visit.Were going to drop by and tell him that we will definitely have his rent check by the end of the day tomorrow, when it is due.Why do we need to do that? Why dont we just give him the check tomorrow? It wont be late.Because he sees everything that goes on Cicero Avenue. We havent been doing well for a couple of weeks and hell know that. I dont want him to be thinking that we will be late.Why not? Are you afraid that he might send someone by to break your legs?What? Why would he do something like that? No, Im afraid that hell want to give us an extension.I couldnt see at the time why this was a bad thing. Later, I could see why Eddie would probably have rather gotten his legs broken.The liquor store with its small bar attached was old and had a cozy feeling from the clutter that shelves full of pints and half pints make. It was purely a stop-and-go place that centered on the local merchants. It didnt have any of the amenities that a liquor store serving a population of resident working class drunks would have; like cases of cold cuts and white bread, Twinkies, and late hours. I was surprised to see that the liquor store had a cut-out bin. Places like this didnt usually bother. It was full of bottles of Madria Madria Sangria, still expensive at a buck and a half a bottle.Behind the bar were two men messing around with the cash register. There were no customers in the store. I thought I could tell who the guy was right off the bat. It had to be the suntanned gray haired man with the Sicilian nose. He was very wiry and looked like a Parodi cigar with a fist for a face. But it turned out that he was Sal the Bartender; a very discrete bartender whom I never heard utter a single word all the times I went there.The Wise Guy was the soft, pudgy, friendly one in his late thirties, dressed in slacks and a polo shirt.Hey Eddie, whats up? Hows business?Business is just fine, Bill. Just came by to tell you that Id have your check by end of day tomorrow.Oh, no hurry there, Eddie. I know things are a bit slow right now. Why dont you take a couple more weeks? Hell, how about if I just let you slide this month and you can catch up next month? Its no biggie.Nah, business is still all right. Ill have it.Well, okay. But if you need me to cut you some slack, just let me know.As Eddie and I walked back to the lot, I said Nice guy. And he seemed reasonable.Yeah, hes a nice guy. Lives in a split level ranch in Schaumburg. Couldnt find yourself a nicer guy.Eddie then explained to me the facts of life. There were two kinds of business done with the Syndicate. One could approach them as a consumer of whatever they were selling. Youd put a bet down on a football game or buy some cartons of hot cigarettes and as long as it was a straight cash transaction the deal was done. But if you ever got into any sort of debt with them, even a small debt, they considered you to now be in business with them. They were good capitalists and could calculate risk-reward ratios and what a market would bear as well as any Harvard MBA. They wouldnt let your rent slide a month and ask you to do them the favor of shooting Don Barzini dead on the steps of the Court House in broad daylight. The favor asked would be small. They might ask you to hold onto some boxes in the back room for a couple of days (and dont open them). Or maybe help them sell a couple of cars, maybe a pair of identical blue Toyotas, one with 40,000 miles on it but with an almost perfect body, and one with 7,000 miles on it that had been destroyed in a car crash. The retail value of the wreck would be $125. But what was wanted from the wreck were the three parts with the VIN (vehicle identification number) stamped on them that could be transferred along with the low mileage title to the beauty with the 40,000 on it. A man would come by with some tools to roll back the odometer, doing what was called on the street an adjust-ibration. Each turn of his adjustibration tool would add thousands of dollars to the value of the car. Fast Eddie would even get a good commission for running the sale through his lot. But in a week or two, there would be four Toyotas, then eight, then sixteen. What the Syndicate was looking for was distribution opportunities. Fast Eddie and his guys could even make a good living out of it. But the Mobs human resource policies were just too strict for someone like Fast Eddie to sign onto voluntarily.From the way he talked about them, I had a gut feeling that sooner or later he would take the extension. After the episode with the Chung brothers, we would sometimes unload cars at cost or even below to make the rent check. The rent check became a pre-occupation and in a sense, we were already working for the guy. A few days after I quit the place, I saw two blue Toyotas on the lot. One of them was a wreck.The thing that struck me about the Mob is how they used the same basic ideas of debt, contracts, obligations, compensation, and labor discipline as any other business did. People obtaining a juice loan would negotiate with a mobster if they could, but they almost never went to the police. They understood that they had borrowed the money freely and that they owed a debt whose terms were explicitly stated. Their customers and associates didnt look upon their transactions as evil in a world of otherwise good transactions. They looked at these transactions as simply being one type of transaction, perhaps in the pink light, but nonetheless within the wider realm of legitimate business.There are two things that I know from all of this. First, one should never gauge ones own goodness in terms of someone elses relative badness. In all my life, I have never met anyone not matter how dismal his circumstances, that didnt console themselves in this way to some degree. My late, hopelessly alcoholic father, who used to drink about half a gallon of sherry a day, used to like to say before he passed out In America, they call me a drunk. But in France, the would call me a Frenchman. He too consoled himself with comparisons, even though in France they would also have called him a drunk, only in French.The second thing that I know is that in capitalism, you can bend all the rules, exploit people shamelessly, lie to everyone, and it is still capitalism. In Christianity, you cant do any of these things in the name of Love and still claim to love. Anything whatsoever that relies on systems of rules can be bent. Love cant.Labor Day 2/4

unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

Also by this author
The Sublime Joys of Atonement

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