(From Chapter Seven of the unpublished novel...Copyright 2010 Donald Riggio)
Phil Gambetta walked out of Nick’s Sandwich Shop on Mulberry Street, clutching a paper bag containing six veal cutlet parmigiana hero sandwiches. He savored the aroma of homemade tomato sauce as it wafted from the bag.
One month shy of his nineteenth birthday, lean and tanned, Phil was like most young Italian males brought up in the lower east side Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Italy. What knowledge he neglected to learn in high school was supplemented by the education he got on the streets in the year since the Board of Education grudgingly issued him a diploma. He ran with a street gang called The Hester Street Cavaliers, where he earned the reputation of being a truly dangerous individual. He didn’t take any lip from anyone and often resorted to violence to settle a dispute.
When his talents brought him to the attention of one of the lieutenants of the local crime boss recruiting neighborhood muscle, Phil eagerly took the job. He was relegated to being a go-fer or a flunky, but he remained confident he’d someday move up in the organization. For now he accepted his role, kept quiet and followed orders.
Phil turned onto Broome Street, a cobblestone thoroughfare made narrow by cars parked on both sides. The neighborhood was alive with activity. Somewhere, a car horn blared.
“Hey you kids,” the driver shouted, “Get outta’ the way!”
“Up yours, mister!” A grimy urchin hollered back.
A woman leaning out from a fourth floor tenement window called in an Italian Neapolitan dialect, “Pasquale, go find your sister, she needs to come upstairs now.”
Further along, in front of a poultry market, an old woman and shopkeeper argued.
“This chicken is all feathers…too tough to eat.” She shook the freshly killed bird in the man’s face.
“Senora,” the shopkeeper pleaded, “What you want from me, eh? I already give you my best price.”
As he made his way through this landscape, Phil noticed some activity in front of his destination, The Carozza Social Club located up the block. He quickened his step, arriving in time to see one of the club members, a numbers runner named Fat Rudy Pasqua, shove a young man Phil’s age out the front door and down to the pavement. When Phil recognized the younger man he called out to Rudy, who moved forward to inflict further harm.
“Yo! Hey Rudy, ease up man! He’s cool.”
Fat Rudy, a short, barrel-bellied hood looked at Phil and ceased his charge.
“You know this asshole?” Rudy barked, breathless from the unwanted exercise.
“Yeah, that’s Richie Conforti, man. Me and him went to High School together.”
“Yeah? Well he came strolling into the club like he owned the place. Good way to get his friggin’ head broke. I thought you was supposed to be watchin’ the door?”
“Mister G sent me over to Nick’s to pick up lunch. I was only gone for five minutes.”
Rudy reached out and snatched the paper bag from Phil with one quick swipe. “High School huh? Well you better educate the creep a little more.” Rudy turned and walked back inside the Social Club.
Phil shifted his focus to Richie, now back on his feet, brushing sidewalk dust off his plaid jacket. Black chino pants, white shirt and socks and a pencil thin necktie completed his Ivy League look. He was shorter than Phil, slight of build, with a flattop style haircut.
“Damn, Richie, you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah…thanks Phil, I’m alright. Jesus, I thought that guy was gonna’ kill me.”
“He sure as shit might have if I didn’t come along. What the hell were you thinking to walk right in there like that?” He guided Richie over to the curb. They leaned against the front fender of a parked Oldsmobile sedan. From that vantage point, Phil could talk to his friend and keep an eye on the door of the social club at the same time.
“I’m selling magazine subscriptions door to door. I came by, looked in and seen a bunch of guys playing cards, so I went inside.”
“Magazine subscriptions? I thought you was going to City College?”
“Nah. I decided college was for chumps.”
Richie neglected to tell Phil that he’d indeed gone on to college for one semester before becoming too lazy to study and continue.
“So, how did you get into this magazine stuff?”
“I filled out a coupon on the back of a matchbook cover. You know, one of them: ‘be your own boss’ kinda’ things? Say, Phil, you work here?”
“Yeah. I’m in with the Viola mob,” he boasted.
“Shit! You work for Gugie Viola? This is his place?”
Don Gugliemo Viola ruled the lower east side. Even now, frail and in his seventies, the mobster was still feared and respected by everyone. Richie’s use of his boss’ derisive nickname annoyed Phil. He looked around to see if anyone else heard it.
“Cool it Richie. The guys inside don’t like civilians calling him that.”
“Civilians? Who do they think he is, Mussolini? And you, does he let you do anything more than be a doorman and pick up his lunch?”
Phil resented his tone. He remembered Richie as being one of those kiss ass, know it all kids in school. He always had his homework done and never got detention. He was also a finagler, always looking for an angle and ways to put things over on somebody. However, he came from the neighborhood and that made him okay.
“I do other things.” Phil said defensively.” I got high hopes…a lot of good ideas of my own. Someday I’ll approach Don Viola with them. Anyway, it beats selling magazine subscriptions door to door.”
“Don’t knock it. I got some ideas too. Lately I been thinking about that book we read in high school, Tom Sawyer. You remember it?”
“No, man, not really.” Phil gave an honest answer.
“Well, in this book, this kid Tom Sawyer is supposed to paint a picket fence around this house. But he’s lazy see and he wants to goof off. So instead of painting the fence himself, he talks all these younger kids into doing it for him.”
“Oh, I get it, he worked a con on ‘em?”
“I figure maybe I can do the same thing. If I find a bunch of kids to go around and sell subscriptions for me, all I’d need to do is pay the brats a couple of bucks and keep the rest of the commission for myself.”
“Sounds like a pretty good scam to me,” Phil agreed.
“The more I sell, the bigger the territory I get. They even give out prizes to the salesman who sells the most subscriptions every month.”
The wheels in Phil’s brain turned just fast enough to recognize an opportunity. “Ya’ know Richie, maybe I could help you out with this thing. I got a lot of connections in this neighborhood. I could scare up a whole bunch of kids to work for you, river to river.”
Richie, the finagler, was being finagled himself and he knew it.
“I… a… wasn’t thinking of taking on a partner, man.”
“But you really could use a guy like me. Most of these kids around here are just wiseass punks. I know how to keep them in line, make sure they don’t give you no shit…protect your interests…see what I’m saying?”
“I tell you what Phil, give me your telephone number and I’ll call you in a day or so”
“Yeah?” Phil became suspicious. He took Richie’s fake leather order book and used a pencil lodged in the binding to jot down his family’s telephone number on a blank form.
“You won’t give me the shaft on this, right, Richie?”
“No, man, I’ll definitely be in touch.”
Richie held out his hand and they shook on it. He then headed off toward the subway. Phil lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. He glanced inside the social club to see that the men were still busy with their lunch. Phil felt smug in the thought that he’d weaseled such a clever deal with Richie. All he had to do was be a bully. That was something he was very good at.
Richie Conforti stood on the subway platform waiting for the uptown local. He, too, preened over the arrangement with his former classmate. Though dim-witted and dangerous, an enforcer like Phil Gambetta might be a handy man to have working with him.
Rock and Roll quote of the day: "To sip a little glass of wine. I'll gaze into your eyes devine. To feel the warmth of your lips, pressing on mine." From: That's My Desire by - Dion & the Belmonts.