I sat in a Trotteria in Vincenzia, Italy. I was waiting for my meeting with a local Don. Well I guess local was a bit of an understatement. He controlled all the crime in northern Italy.
We had some business to accomplish. It was not the type of business a person could discuss over the phone or write in a letter. One had to conduct this business face to face, in a public place, and in "neutral" territory.
The waitress had brought me a carafe of the local red wine. It was good. She has asked if I wanted something to eat. I looked around and spotted the wood fired pizza oven in the kitchen. I ordered a medium pizza with cheese and pepperoni.
She brought me a plate, and a knife and fork. In Italy, pizza was not eaten with one's fingers.
The restaurant smelled of the wood fired pizza ovens and the spices they used to prepare the pizzas they served. Since smoking was still allowed in Europe, I smelled cigarette smoke and smoke from those crooked little cigars the men live on. They served regular meals here also, but the pizza smell dominated.
As I watched her wait on other customers I suddenly realized that she spoke to me in almost perfect English. When I walked in and took a booth, I did not speak a word to anyone. She just walked up to me and started asking for my order in English.
"How did she know I spoke English? I was dressed like a native Italian, and I walked like a native Italian." I thought.
When my pizza arrived, I asked, "How did you know I wasn't Italian and needed to talk to me in English?"
"Don Vito's Capo described you to me yesterday. He requested that you get good treatment. I always do what Don Vito asks. He is a very powerful man" was the answer I got.
She left me to eat my pizza.
I was just starting on my second slice when "they" walked in the front door. You know that old expression, "It takes one to know one?" It got very quiet in the restaurant. Everybody eating or drinking suddenly made it their business to look elsewhere, anywhere but at the new arrivals.
The little place soon emptied out faster than if someone had yelled, "Fire."
My eyes locked on the two "button" men as they cased the joint. One checked the restrooms and the other the Kitchen. A third man entered after them. He was a hard case. He had that look of a professional killer. His eyed were cold and his face was frozen in a stern countenance. One hand was in his coat pocket. It was not cold enough outside to need a coat or to keep one hand in a pocket so I suspected he was holding a gun.
His eyes locked on me and never blinked.
I took another bite of my pizza. I was not going to show any weakness in our stare down.
The two men returned from casing the restaurant. They nodded to Mr. Hard Case and took up positions on either side of the door. Mr. Hard Case opened the door and stuck his free hand outside. I don't know what he did, but his eyes never left me the whole time.
I sat there eating my pizza, projecting a calm and unflustered countenance. These guys were not my enemies, but they weren't my friends either. One wrong move and I'd be sleeping "with the fish" as the saying goes.
It was my first meeting ever with their boss. We were like alpha dogs, each trying to establish a pecking order. If I blinked, I might as well catch the next plane home. I would do no business here.
Next entered a small man looking somewhere in his sixties, later I was to find out it was seventies ... He was impeccably dressed and had that air of command about him. While none of his men turned their heads toward him, it was as if they came to attention in his presence. His eyes locked on mine and he looked me over.
As I was being inspected, I slowly stood. I say slowly because I didn't want any of my moves to be considered threatening. People died because of the wrong moves and I didn't want to become fish food.
I motioned to the seat across from me and called to the waitress, "Please bring the Don a glass so we can share this excellent wine, and a table setting. Perchance he will help me with this pizza."
The Don's hard look softened slightly and he smiled. "Of course, I'll join you, Mr. Pergolizzi." But his eyes remained hard.
Well I guess I should have expected him to know my name. After all we did have a meeting set up.
As we sat down, the waitress rushed to serve him. She acted as if he was the Pope and this was a holy visit. At one point, I swear, I thought she was going to drop to her knees and kiss his ring or something.
I wondered if he demanded this devotion through fear, respect, or just loyalty. I might never know, but I was fascinated. Back in my home area of New York State, loyalty was usually earned through fear, intimidation, or large amounts of money. There was no such thing as "friendship", only family.
And these were blood relatives, most of whom could still not be trusted.
With that kind of history, you'll understand why I was watching Don Vito as he watched me.
We ate the pizza and drank the wine. He asked about my family. My uncle Bruno was the American equivalent of himself. They both had met. What surprised me was that he also asked on my cousins, my wife, and assorted family members.
I knew for a fact that he'd met no one but my uncle. But yet he was very well informed.
He signaled the waitress to clean up and bring us some coffee.
Ed note: Let me take a second to describe Italian coffee. It is STRONG!!!!!! It makes the espresso at Starbucks or some other coffee shop taste like weak tea.
I watched as he put at least a pound of sugar in his before tasting. He sipped it and said, "Bono."
I sipped mine and almost died. I choked and coughed and turned redder than red.
He looked at me and said, "Try a little sugar. It will help."
I tried about the same amount he used. It didn't help. I still coughed, choked, and turned red.
He laughed and pinched my cheek, "We'll make a real Italian out of you yet. But first we do little steps."
He looked at the waitress and ordered, "Cappuccino with extra cream."
When it arrived it was easier to drink, but still very strong.
As I sipped my drink, I looked around and noticed that there were only the two of us in the restaurant.
"Shall we talk about your request now?" was all he said.
As we sat there, my mind drifted back in time. Back to when my alternative lifestyle all began.
I was a kid about 14 years old when my Dad started taking me to work with him.
He worked for my mother's brother in construction. They built shopping centers. My Dad was in charge of taking a vacant lot and making it into a rough building. You know four walls and a roof. He also was responsible for grading and paving the parking lot. My Uncle Bruno had another foreman that did all the interior finish work. He divided the interior space up into individual stores and completed them to the tenant's specifications.
It worked well. My father, the other foreman and my uncle made a lot of money.
I went to work as a mason's helper after school and on summer vacation. It was fun and I made some spending money. Now let me tell you about being a "helper" I started out supplying one mason with bricks and "mud". That was easy. Pretty soon I was supplying two masons, then three, then four.
Now I was working, but I was also growing. Soon I was turning my baby fat into muscle. It took all summer but I was doing great until one day I was introduced to cement blocks. Those suckers were heavy!
With bricks I could always lighten my load by reducing by a couple of bricks the amount I was carrying. With cement blocks, I had one in each hand. After the first couple of weeks of carrying them I swear my arms had stretched so much that my knuckles were dragging on the ground.
But by the end of my second year in the business I was keeping up. By the third year I was a really fit 17 year old. I was fast enough that I could supply four masons and still have time to stack extra blocks and get ahead of the guys.
During my fourth summer the guys started complaining that they were missing some of their "stuff". Some time it was tools, another time it was stuff from their car or truck. We could never catch who was stealing it.
One day I was catching my breath on the scaffolding after rushing up a few blocks. I was bent over the side breathing hard when I noticed a shadow under the scaffolding we were on. I watched as the shadow opened one of the guy's tool boxes and took something.
He was right under me and I really don't know what came over me but suddenly I was pushing the stack of blocks. They tipped over and fell off the scaffolding. The majority of them fell on our thief. Since he wasn't wearing the bright yellow hard hat OSHA required, his head was split open like a ripe melon.
The EMTs said he was dead before he fell over.
A couple of the guys rushed me down the back side of the platform so no one would see me. I was told to keep my mouth shut and if anyone asked I was working on the other side of the building.
And that was how I killed my first man. There would be more over the years to come.
My father, my Uncle, and some of the guys treated me like a hero. I was blooded. Now I was one of the men. I began to notice that I was included in conversations I had no business hearing. Not that I was asked for my advise (that would come later), but I was hearing about family businesses that I never knew existed.
.... There is more of this story ...