December 19, 2009
On February 2, 2009, the sentencing of reputed Mob boss Joey “the Clown” Lombardo was all over the Internet. I read about it while in the final stages of finishing a draft of a new novel, and the sensationalism of the trial felt far away and fake . . . which may be less a reflection on the nature of Mob trials and more on the nature of what seems real vs. surreal to writers finishing projects. I was, it is clear in retrospect, in a full-blown state of mania last February: the third or fourth in my lifetime, but probably the worst, the most disruptive and acute. Which is to say, the best, the most intoxicating. But the mania was just beginning at this point; it had not yet hit its peak, though already I had not slept in days or maybe weeks, not more than a couple of hours in the deep middle of the night, and already I was starting to drop weight (one of the more pleasant side-effects of mania.) Joe Lombardo was sentenced to life in prison, but it would be fair to say I didn’t give a shit about this; it was not on my radar. The legendary Mafioso, even now reputed to still be either Consigliore or Boss of the Outfit from behind bars, was reported as 80 years old at the time of the sentencing, and I remember, as I read the news off a computer screen in my home office, that being the only part of the story that really made an impression on me: his age.
It seemed crazy, because my father has always referred to Joe Lombardo as a “good kid.”
For the first time in my life, I googled Joe Lombardo. I was sure they’d gotten his age wrong in the news, but no, he was born in 1929. My father was born in the final weeks of 1921. When you grow up around somebody, I guess that window of time makes a great deal of difference.
Prior to the “Family Secrets” trial, Joe Lombardo was supposedly on the lam. He eluded the police for quite a long period, which would be curious enough considering he was already an elderly man and in no condition for life on the run, but was all the stranger considering that—during the time he was supposedly “in hiding”—people I knew from my old neighborhood, including my father, saw him frequently cavorting in plain sight. He continued to dine at my father’s favorite Italian restaurant, for example, where he was widely known and where he commonly bought drinks for other customers, including my parents. He did not, it would be fair to say, seem like a man trying to exist under the radar or full of anxiety about being apprehended. My parents never seemed to think it was particularly strange when they ran into him.
This makes sense when viewed from a certain angle. Once, many years ago when I was still a girl living on Race Street, across the street from Joe Lombardo, my father told me a story about him. In the story, my father asks Joe why he doesn’t move out of the old neighborhood. “You’ve got more money than god,” my father says. “What are you sticking around here for?” And Joe says simply, “This is the only place on earth where I never have to look over my shoulder.”
It was true. In our neighborhood, Joe Lombardo had the status of a President or a King. Though any powerful man has powerful rivals, such rivals did not dwell in our one step-above-a-ghetto near the intersection of Grand and Western. The men in our neighborhood were either average blue collar guys like my father—bartenders, truck-drivers, cops—or they were such small-timers in the Outfit that Joe was like a father to them, not a competitor. It would probably be fair to say that most men in the hood would have been thrilled to take a bullet for him. It would have been like the equivalent of becoming a war hero.
For a week now, I have been thinking and writing about my father, who turned 88 on December 14. Though one of my dad’s brothers was a Mob bookie, for the most part ours was a “civilian” family. Well, perhaps that would be an overstatement. My family, over the years, has included street-gang-founders, drug dealers, murdered gangbangers, and several criminals of the more “private” variety, whose crimes may in fact have been more devastating—or were to me. But ours was not a family that attracted media attention for lawbreaking, and in the neighborhood where I was raised, some amount of lawbreaking was par for the course, so what I mean is that we were “typical” for the milieu in which we lived. My father had worked in a factory, and later he owned a bar, and later still—after his back and leg and ulcer all deteriorated; after the death of his elder brother propelled him into a nervous breakdown that ended in his institutionalization—he sold his bar and worked at a friend’s until retiring early, in poor health, in his mid-50s, when I was only ten years old. He was a man who had claimed for years that he would never live to see 40, and with sound reason: he had had two-thirds of his stomach removed from his bleeding ulcer before I was even born, and throughout my youth he tended to be hospitalized and to hover at near-death almost yearly. Yet now he is an old man living on the first floor of my home, and in most ways his life has been an unremarkable one.
He was devoted to jazz, but he was never a musician. He was an Anglophile, but rarely traveled due to a lack of money and rabid fear of planes—the last time my father was airborne was 1961. Once or twice, our phone was rumored to be tapped due to my father’s relationship with people who might have relationships with organized crime; once he and his nephew believed they had been tailed by an unmarked car while they were driving to buy some doughnuts . . . but my father was, at the end of the day, an average guy whose relationships with the Infamous and Glamorous were casual and loose, and whose own life was certainly of no interest to the media. He was the sort of Italian man who lives below the popular radar, while Don Corleone, Tony Soprano and Joe Lombardo become American Icons. He was invisible, as most people are, and that has always been absolutely fine with him.
I have been struggling now for a week to find a way to define my father on paper, but of course anyone could have told me from the get-go that such a task was impossible. Like everyone, my father is defined by a complicated and paradoxical web of what he is and is not—by where he fits and has always failed to fit. The great paradox of Giovanni (“John”) Mario Frangello’s life may be the sentimental attachment he held until he was nearly 80 for his old neighborhood, where he had been born with a midwife in the apartment where I was raised. He refused to leave the neighborhood even after marrying a non-Italian girl who didn’t fit in there; he refused to leave even when, in the late 1980s, a rash of murders killed several people in one summer, including a teenage boy with no gang ties and was shot in a case of mistaken identity right across the street from our house, and well as an actual gang leader along with his pregnant girlfriend, an old friend of mine from elementary school. He not only refused to leave, but on the night I went away to college he wept to my mother, not so much because he was going to miss me (though I hope that was part of it) but because he felt betrayed. The way I was raised, family didn’t leave. Blood was thicker than water. Higher education was synonymous with putting on airs. My departure symbolized that I thought I was “too good.” When he told my mother that he predicted I would fail or drop out of school within the year, oddly this was probably wishful thinking on his part.
Though he adores me in the way the parents of only-children often do, I suspect I am still a bit of a disappointment to him in small but myriad ways. He does not like how much I work. He does not like my son, age 3, being in full-day preschool. He thinks I get angry too easily, though he is the only person in my entire life who has ever accused me of this. He doesn’t like that I straighten my curly hair. For most of my life he has chided me for my eating habits, mocking me for not eating more meat and—whenever I’ve been ill, which is admittedly often—saying there’s nothing wrong with me that a good cheeseburger wouldn’t cure. He doesn’t like that I don’t wear tweed, even though I am confident he has never met a woman in his entire life who did wear tweed. Still, it is something he aspired to in his daughter, and I failed to live up to it. The day I left to study abroad in England, which might have sounded like his lifelong fantasy given his Anglophile nature, he was hospitalized with a severe ulcer attack. He did not like me getting on airplanes, but probably he also considered my living outside the country as a form of high treason.
If it ended there, of course, it would be simple. How many stories seem to end there—with the ways fathers are never “satisfied;” with the ways they find fault. Those stories hurt, but they are easy.
But the truth is, my father was also a role model in ways he never anticipated, simply by being himself. In a neighborhood where the heroes were Mobsters—reputed killers—as well as gang leaders and thieves who evaded capture and the occasional crooked politician who rose from our ranks, my father was a gentle man. Not a gentleman, perhaps, of the Cary Grant variety he aspired to just as he aspired to tweed for me, but a gentle man who rarely rose his voice. When I routinely watched the other kids around me get smacked around by their fathers—watched them come to school with bruises and heard their stories about “getting the belt,” my father never raised a hand to me, much less my mother. When I was in seventh and eighth grade and my friends were becoming prey to predatory older men—their divorced mothers’ pervy boyfriends or twenty year old guys who would give them coke in exchange for a blowjob—my father offered a silent protection by virtue of his status as a neighborhood patriarch: nobody fucked with me. When a former classmate of mine was gang-raped at fifteen by a group of neighborhood men who beat her with a coat hanger and threw her down a flight of stairs, and the men were never brought to trial because everyone—male, female, young and old—seemed to concur that the girl “deserved it” for being “a slut,” and many rushed to offer faux alibis for the rapists, I was forced to digest both the knowledge that this place, this neighborhood where such things happened under the radar everyday, was where my father had insisted on raising me, and yet also to digest in turn that my father was eons from those animals and would never hurt a woman. For that story—and for others much closer to home—I have often struggled with a kind of “survivor guilt” because I got out, relatively unscathed, of a place that, for young girls, could be a war zone, due in no small part to my father’s constant gentle protection. I had a safe haven, whereas most of my girlfriends did not.
And yet, when my best friend was raped by a man we’d gone to school with while she was asleep at his mother’s house, my father argued that it wasn’t “really rape” because she had gone there to sleep, and what did she expect?
This, the same friend of mine whom my father paid to bring on family vacations with us, whom he bought countless lunches and dinners and who practically lived at our apartment on the weekends when her mother, who was young and divorced, was out drinking and meeting men at bars. This girl he called his “second daughter.”
Can this be what he means when he says that I get angry so easily?
The truth is: the paradoxes of my father cannot be fit onto any page. They cannot be curtailed into one week of my mind. I will digest them, fight them, mull them over, contradict them, yearn for them, for the rest of my own life, in story and quietly, alone.
From my father, I learned or inherited a fear of planes. A propensity towards mental instability that, like him, I manage most of the time to keep at bay, occasionally succumbing to an undertow beyond my control. A cynical humor, a religious skepticism, a strange obsession with all things English even though as a kid I often said “I hate England!” just to spite him. A penchant for Valium and narcotic painkillers and old Woody Allen films and dark wood beams on ceilings and old dilapidated barns. A loyalty to family that borders—in the WASPy, middle-class America in which I now dwell—on the unseemly. And an abiding belief that “blood is thicker than water,” but—unlike the Italian blood lineage of which my father’s family spoke—a belief that I, with my Chinese daughters and surrogate gay, Latino “brother,” am the one who chooses what falls within the definition of “blood.”
This is longer than I planned.
I could go on.
Instead, one final story. Once upon a time, when I was maybe ten years old, I was given a bunch of M&Ms to sell for school. Whoever sold the most got some crummy satin jacket that nobody wanted anyway, even though we all wanted to win. I brought home my sales sheet from school, prepared to start humping it door to door like every kid who has ever had to sell some meaningless shit for some cause we can’t even remember anymore. My dad, however, said to me, “You know what, Flower, I was just at the club earlier today, and Joe Lombardo was saying he had a taste for chocolate. You should go over to his house first.”
“The club.” Yeah, that’s one for another post someday, not now.
Joe lived across the playground. Back then, the world in which I lived was so small that I remember being put out by the fact that my father wanted me to walk all the way across the playground instead of just going next door to troll my candy. But I did it. I was aware that Joey the Clown was “famous” and although his daughter babysat me sometimes, I don’t think I had ever been to his house before.
His wife came to the door. But when she saw it was John Frangello’s daughter, she fetched Joe.
I showed him my forms and told him about the M&Ms.
And he said, “I was just telling your dad I had a taste for chocolate.”
He bought every M&M I had. Though I may be embellishing this in my memory, I think he actually insisted on signing his name to every line, even though I explained it was unnecessary, and that under “quantity” I could just write “all.” Maybe things like this are what earned him his nickname.
I got the satin jacket. I never wore it, but for years this was a story I traded on in school, and the other kids liked the story, just as they enjoyed hearing about my mother’s grandfather who died by falling into a volcano while on vacation in Hawaii.
I realize now that Joe probably never told my father he had a “taste for chocolate.” I realize now that there was simply a kind of “Adult Group Think” going on that had to do with coming from the same place and having a similar sense of humor and code, and that it was somehow imperative to both men that I believe I was doing Joe a favor, instead of realizing that Joe was doing my dad one.
In defining my father, then, one small point on the scale–along with him not being a gang-rapist or abuser; along with him not being the kind of father who could help me with my homework or who was proud of me when I was accepted to college but who has come, over the years, to be proud of me for not dropping out after all, and for growing into the kind of mother who will be able to help my kids with the kinds of papers he didn’t understand–along with all of these things is this: my father is neither a criminal nor a glamorous public figure like Joe Lombardo.
He is an old man who refers to Joe Lombardo as “a good kid.”