Why you should care
Because those who forget their history are sometimes doomed to sleep in shallow graves.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Dead gangsters — that’s how my day begins.
Metaphorical body bags filled with the imagery of shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, roped and lime-pit-buried corpses of mob history. I write about guys who kill people with icepicks, but it’s much more than that. Any would-be crime aficionado can spit out the gory details of the underworld’s most horrible moments. But I want to find out what makes these guys tick. I want to know all the seedy details: the sex, lies and “swim with the fishes” moments. Maybe mostly because I can’t help but wonder if there’s some element of humanity within all that inhumanity.
But my dad was a narcotics cop, and he loved talking shop and mob history. And I had a close friend whose estranged pops was a drug mule. Ironic, but I call it having the “best of both worlds” kind of influence. Granted, at the time, none of it screamed, “Hey, kid, you’re going to actually grow up to be an expert on this stuff!” It took me a few years, plus the magnetic draw of a dapper, cocky mob boss who graced every newspaper in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Being from Pittsburgh, I was immersed in the infamy of John Gotti. This first obsession was quickly followed by an infinitely more powerful tractor-beam pull of a fellow named Lucky Luciano.
Today, the mob bug that bit my skinny, painfully shy, late-blooming ass 20 years ago has finally climaxed into a real-life, holy-shit moment and the realization that I’m actually living out my childhood dream. I get to discover the intricacies of all things gangster and show the world just how ridiculously embedded mobsters were in the fabric of American culture, from economics to politics to entertainment. It makes me think how much I really despise how certain Industrial Revolutionaries are held to such high esteem. And people call my subjects criminals?
“We hear you’re the guy to talk to — can you locate some Mafioso willing to talk on camera?” Put that on your résumé.
But there’s nothing quite like the feeling that comes with opening a package containing an original press or police photograph of something like a 1923 opium bust, or a 1941 Bugsy Siegel photo, or the be-all-end-all epitome of mob-historian finds. I’m talking about dead gangster photos, the crime scene snapshots. Every picture tells a story — sometimes literally, on the back of the photo. I read all the press notes or police comments, then building from that, I discover the goodies and piece together the puzzle, putting old bullshit myths and misinformation into a shallow grave and exploring the relationships of all those hidden clues contained in a 4-by-5-inch negative.
And it’s pretty cool to discover and share details, like that Lucky Luciano had a naked-chick tattoo, but there’s also that email, phone call or text of all texts that validates my research: “Need you for a documentary,” or “Want to turn Lucky Luciano’s story into a graphic novel?” Or, the no-beating-around-the-bush request: “We hear you’re the guy to talk to — can you locate some Mafioso willing to talk on camera?” Put that on your résumé. These requests are like literary Viagra to me. I don’t do drugs, but it’s sufficient to say that my day is rarely dull.
I just did an appearance at the Mob Museum. It was the culmination of a year’s planning, creating and promotion come to life. First, a quick tour of the exhibits, then a live interview and finally a book signing. I’m a mob historian, and I get to shock and awe a crowd with tales of organized crime’s most decadent era, specifically the entity known as Murder, Inc. I don a mic, stand before an audience and hit the clicker that unleashes audio-visual mayhem on two large screens behind me.
I tell the stories that haven’t been told and dispel the incorrect ones that have, and I do it with words and images, but most of all … a passion that cannot be faked. You either live and breathe this stuff or you choose another vocation, period. The attendees started grilling me about my favorite historical subject, Lucky Luciano, and the comic book we just put out on his life. I obsess about this stuff, the ghosts of gangsters past front-and-center in my mind — and writing, speaking and researching the Mafia is just what I do to deal with it.