i paid little attention when i first saw him. as winter 1985–86 wound down, i’d driven past him once or twice. it wasn’t until springtime did i cross paths with him, literally. it was april and scrap bar was about to open. the changing season was offering sunny days and this was one of them. he looked a little older than middle-age as he crossed in front of me as i walked north on sullivan street in the direction of washington square park. he shuffled slowly in a faded bathrobe and house slippers, moving from my right toward the the curb on the left, about halfway up the block from bleecker street. as i approached, his gaze was downward. i was past him a second later. nothing to see. crazy old guy. yup.
a few days earlier, allen ginsberg appeared through the opened-basement door of the bar while i was sitting on the tile floor, spray-painting six-foot florescent light tubes and excitedly told me the history of the space we were opening. “this was the original village gaslight,” he said, but that’s another story (you can look it up. 116 macdougal street). i can still see the krylon-day-glo-cerise spray-paint marks left on the tile from that day. i mention this to underscore the casualness of greenwich village history as it existed, but had yet to understand the importance of the “bathrobed” one.
a day or so later, over lunch with a bunch of the people involved in opening the bar, i mentioned crossing paths with him and learned that it was vincent “the chin” gigante and that he was an old wiseguy who was out of his head and wandered around the neighborhood like that. i let it go. after all, we were opening a bar where the village gaslight once stood.
over the next few months, the bar opened and was quickly gaining a following. seeing “the bathrobed-one” was fairly commonplace and one time our eyes met for a fraction of a second, but this meant nothing.
then, the guy from little italy appeared – a cologne scented harbinger of things to come. he was a round-faced, big eyed individual in a black tailored sport jacket and slacks, white shirt, with dark hair, combed and parted close to the scalp and groomed to the shiniest of fingernails. he was clear-voiced and aggressive in a menacingly-friendly way. he introduced himself (a name i forget) and said he was from little italy. he made a point of telling me this and proceeded to explain what would be happening starting next week. this involved giving him money without the word being said. it was all very simple. like the alphabet. “this-is-how-it’s-gonna-be…,” or “a-b-c-d-e-f-g…”
i knew gangsters. i grew up around them, but that’s another story.
he gently pushed me around verbally, before reaching across and pressing two fingers to my chest, maybe implying, “these are just my fingers,” with a starkness of veiled threat; extortion, up-front and personal without mentioning it in words is an art. while this was happening, i thought, “he looks younger than me. i’m thirty-three. he’s, like, maybe twenty-nine.” this line of thinking kept me out of the moment. i had no business in that moment. i regarded him calmly, my brain now asking, “what the fuck do i do with this,” while playing the “respect” game. (i learned the respect game participating in “sit-downs” when i managed a discotheque in the 1970s that was crawling with wise-guys and their sons and daughters from little italy, brooklyn, queens and new jersey.) i remained non-committal regarding his demand, telling him that i could not make that decision without talking to my partners and hinted that we might “know someone,” too.
by the way; every italian, “knows someone,” and if you involve the wiseguy you know, you end up paying two wiseguys instead of one.
that’s how it works, but that’s another story from another lesson about other gangsters.
the “cologned and polished-one” said, “i’ll be back in a week,” and firmly slapped my shoulder saying, “think about what i said,” adding a quick pinch to the back of my neck with his thumb and forefinger. he had a degree in casual intimidation. most extortionists do.
i brought this incident up to my partners. we discussed it and resolved that there was nothing that could be done until he came back the next week, adding this terrific anxiety to the current mix of cocaine, weed, vodka and campari that was my daily diet. wow. what a rush.
he returned three days earlier than expected. i didn’t know what to think. it was early evening. he didn’t have that crisp, coiffed-and-polished look to him like the first time. he looked furious, scared or both. i was afraid he was going to start wailing on me, but asked if we could have a talk. seated at a booth across from the bar, he began, “listen,” he said, “i didn’t know.” i was speechless. he was stumbling over his words. i remember phrases like, “i meant no disrespect,” and “why didn’t you say something,” and “i have to go now,” then he quickly rose, bowed his head as in nodding goodbye and left. i sat, thoroughly confused and eventually, relieved. i never saw him again.
with that weight off the bar’s shoulders, life went on, though in my mind, i wondered about that day. on closer examination in my walks around the neighborhood, i noticed this storefront on sullivan street;
not until a few years later, when “the teflon don,” john gotti, was arrested and going to trial, would i learn that this was, “the triangle club,” an italian social club where members of organized crime frequented and stories began to surface about the next head of the new york crime syndicate, this guy —
— and that he successfully masqueraded as insane for a few decades.
it would later come to light that, some years earlier, he became the head of the Genovese crime family. FBI surveillance photos like this belied the popular narrative that “he was just a retired boxer who took one-too-many-to-the-head,” and was actually one of the most powerful mobsters in new york.
i stopped wondering if the “bathrobed-one” stopped the “cologned-and-polished one,” after learning that the only thing that separated scrap bar from the triangle club was six feet of cyclone fence. you see, scrap bar and the triangle club shared the same back yard, and for years, no one noticed.
we were neighbors.
…and he was being a good neighbor. right?
it’s the best answer i could come up with regarding that guy and our problem.