“If we have to go to war, that’s what we have to do”
I was nine years old when I began to suspect that my father was a gangster. It was Sunday and Dad had us all packed into the car for an afternoon of house hunting. He loved driving around different neighborhoods, pointing out houses he liked and sharing his renovation ideas. On this particular Sunday, we were cruising around Todt Hill, an upscale community on the southern end of Staten Island, filled with homes owned by doctors, lawyers, and “businessmen.”
Mom was in the front seat with Dad, and my younger brother, Gerard, and I were buckled in the back. My father had just finished the renovations on a three- bedroom house he’d bought for us in Bulls Head, a predominantly blue- collar neighborhood just over the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge and not far from the two- bedroom apartment we had been renting in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
My father was obsessed with construction and remodeling. He’d ripped apart and remodeled every place we’d ever lived in. He’d started tearing apart the new house the minute we had taken ownership, knocking down walls and putting in improvements, like nice European tiles.
My brother and I attended the local public school; P.S. 60.My mother would walk me to school every day. I had some good friends there, but Dad’s friend Louie Milito was forever suggesting that he transfer me to the private prep school on “The Hill.” His own daughter, Dina, went there. And so did Dori LaForte. Dori’s grandfather was a big player in the Gambino crime family. “The Hill” had large manicured homes dotting its steep streets and was about ten minutes from our three bedroom house on Leggett Place. Anybody who was anybody lived on “The Hill.”
One particular house in this fancy neighborhood belonged to Gambino family crime boss Paul Castellano. We were on one of our Sunday expeditions when Dad pointed it out to us.
It was an enormous monster of a house, unlike any other in the neighborhood. It was way fancier and more ornate. It looked more like an Italian villa or a museum, with its iron gates and a gigantic fountain spewing water in the middle of a large, circular brick driveway filled with expensive cars and incredibly manicured grounds. It must have cost a fortune. There was an elaborate security system with surveillance cameras monitoring the perimeter, which seemed to span an entire block.
“Wow,” I said. “What does Paul do that he has such a big house?”
“He’s in the construction business,” my father replied.
I remembered thinking how glad I was that my father worked in the same business as Paul, so that maybe one day we could get a mansion like that. Dad didn’t say Paul was his boss in one of New York’s biggest, most blood- letting, most feared crime families, or that the construction business wasn’t building somebody a little house, but more like construction racketeering, loan-sharking, and extortion. He didn’t mention being a businessman like Paul was putting your life on the line. I’d have to wait to learn this angle of the business.
By the fall, my father announced that I was going to be transferring to a new school. He wanted me to get a superior education and had me enrolled at the prestigious Staten Island Academy. I was furious about leaving my friends and worried that I wouldn’t fi t in with the kids at private school. I was there just a few weeks when a classmate invited me over to her house to play. She lived so close to school, we could see the playground from her yard. It was a beautiful day, and we were outside on her front lawn. Her mother had just gone inside to make us some lemonade when my new friend made a startling announcement.
“My mother and father say a big gangster lives in that house,” she said, pointing across the street to the Castellano estate.
I knew that Paul was Dad’s friend. I put two and two together and decided if Paul Castellano was a gangster; my father must be one, too. He just didn’t act like a gangster. My idea of a gangster was Vito Corleone, the fictional mob boss in The Godfather. The movie had even been filmed a few blocks from my school.
Still, I’d been confronted with the possibility that my father was “connected” before. When I was six, I found a gun in my parents’ bedroom in our apartment on Sixty-First Street in Bensonhurst. Mom was in the kitchen, and I was amusing myself by hiding some of my favorite books under their bed. That’s when I came upon the pistol Dad had stuffed beneath the mattress.
I knew my father had served in the army during the Vietnam War because I’d seen his dog tags. I wondered if this was a souvenir from the war. Racing to the kitchen, I went to ask my mother about my startling discovery.
“Mommy, does Daddy have a gun because he was in the army?”
“Yeah” was all she could muster. Read More…