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Home » Culture and Criticism

Blood and Honor: Listening to the Crow

Submitted by on December 17, 2012 – 12:42 PM15 Comments

Nicodemo-Little-Nicky-Scarfo-crew

"Bruno was the consummate racketeer. Scarfo, on the other hand, was a gangster."

The crime

It's about the self-destruction the Philly mob, so: pick your felony. But implied also is a metaphorical crime, an affront to the old-time Mafia code that kept the bullets in the drawer, and mouths and wallets closed. Angelo Bruno, head of Philadelphia's Mob presence, kept it tight; he was a businessman. His "successor" — if we can use that term for the man who sped up his own succession by murdering the boss — was notorious short fuse Nicodemo Scarfo. Scarfo, now in his eighties, remains in the federal pen at this writing, and wound up there because everyone he hadn't already had killed knew the paranoid little psycho would get around to it eventually if they didn't turn state's witnesses.

The story

George Anastasia's chronicle of the Philly mob's '80s implosion is seeming proof that a physical crime-book template does in fact exist. It's a black paperback, lettered in white and reflective red; its title 1) contains two of the several dozen standard-issue true-crime-title nouns and adjectives (here, Blood and Honor; see also "mortal," "fate," "mystery," "cruel," e.g.) while 2) telling prospective readers next to nothing about the particular or criminals under discussion. That information is customarily the purview of the subtitle, and Anastasia's is accurate, to a point — "Inside the Scarfo Mob — the Mafia's Most Violent Family" — but it fails to describe the unique retro texture of the narrative. "One Man's Napoleon Complex Devolved Into Paranoid Psychosis and Destroyed an Underworld Institution: An Oral History by Protected Witness Nick 'The Crow' Caramandi" comes closer.

What the book gets called isn't up to Anastasia, but how it's structured is, and it's smart to let the Crow do a lot of the talking, more or less uncut. I love the oral-history format, vintage-Interview-magazine transcripts that leave in every "uh" and "you know"; nothing against glossy standardized usage, of course, but part of the point of getting a quote is to get a sense of the person giving it, and if it's too shined up, the reader's mind can just slide right over it and not catch on anything. Anastasia no doubt sanded off a few edges, but he lets you hear Caramandi:

So I'm waitin' for the guy. All of a sudden I see a guy turn the corner and this guy's got a jacket on. Hey, it's a hot summer day. It musta been a hundred degrees that day. No way, I thought. So I said, 'Shorty, there's something wrong. Get that bag and put it under that car.' I walk to the corner and I see a bunch of guys coming up one way. I look down the street and I see like the whole area is surrounded. They're zeroing in on me. All of a sudden, here comes a fuckin' helicopter. They got a fuckin' helicopter. (79-80)

It can get confusing when Caramandi takes a sidebar about some jabroni who's over at his sister's, his sister who dated one of the seventeen Johnnies in the book, but the dark fact is, you needn't bother keeping the players straight…because within a few pages of when you've finally figured out who's on which crew or is that guy with Salvie Testa or getting stalked by him or what, whoever it is gets killed or goes into witness protection. Everyone's always switching sides, killing each other so Scarfo doesn't decide to have them killed, on and on. Everyone's named Phil. On occasion, the timing of a hit, or Caramandi's comments on it, recall an episode or demise on The Sopranos.

Other times, it puts me in mind of my grandmother — not because she ran with the Scarfo crew, and even typing that gives me a giggle. Louise didn't go over to a friend's house for sherbet of a summer afternoon without white gloves on. But she did allegedly have a relative who allegedly did a few sub-Donnie-Brasco-level errands for alleged Scarfo associates to pay his alleged gambling debts; more to the point, she grew up in South Philly, and when Caramandi is talking, I can hear her accent. A Philadelphia accent is difficult to reproduce — "hurry" is "herry," "merry" is "murry," "way" is "wey" and no it's not quite the same diff. Anastasia has a few locutions of his own that capture the way that part of the country speaks, or used to, himself — "$80 slacks" on page 277. "It was time, at the end of each month, to send the 'elbow' money down the shore" on page 302.

Grandma is surely clawing her way aboveground as we speak to chastise me for associating her with That Thing Of Not Hers, so I'd better wrap it up here. Blood and Honor isn't just for folks whose ancestors met on the Sea Isle City boardwalk, or fans of The Sopranos, though those people might get more out of it. It's a briskly paced snapshot of a turning point for the Cosa Nostra, in Philly and elsewhere, in the late '70s and early '80s, and nestled in it is a nifty oral history of honor among thieves. Anastasia is a respected reporter on the Mob beat who turns up regularly as an expert on shows like Mobsters, and he uses the word "flimflam" about a dozen times, which isn't something you can say about too many books. The pictures seem a bit sparse — if you show $80 slacks in the first act, they'd better etc. — but of course these guys make a business practice of invisibility.

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15 Comments »

  • Holly H. says:

    I had no idea that "slacks" was a Philly-ism? I mean, I'm from there, so it sounds perfectly natural to me, as does "down the shore", but at least with the latter I knew that was a regionalism. The things you learn!

    I always enjoy these posts; you keep introducing me to such interesting, train-wrecky true-crime narratives. Things I'd heard of before, on the periphery, but didn't really know anything about, until you write about them here and even though I wouldn't have said that true-crime was my genre, I always feel tempted to get sucked in.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    It's so nice to hear that! The point of The Blotter is to critique true crime with some seriousness and not just lump it all together into one monolith of voyeurism and poor taste. I mean, a lot of it is exactly that (op. cit. "Wives With Knives" on the ID channel), but a lot of it is affecting and evocative and helps us make sense of the world. I feel like none of it really gets analyzed on a level with other genres, because it's a guilty pleasure that people find themselves apologizing for engaging with.

    Anyway, thanks for reading.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    PS Not TOO much seriousness. Some of these vintage miniserieseseses are so so deliriously bad. Farrah Fawcett seems to think "Small Sacrifices" is a silent movie. About St. Vitus's Dance.

  • attica says:

    Re: Small Sacrifices

    I think Farrah's silence in that movie is a directoral choice, in order to mask her wretched acting. It worked for The Burning Bed, for which her performance was award-nominated (?!?), which also was a piece in which her dialogue was kept to a minimum. Silent acting is easier to edit, I think.

    Too bad, because I liked that book, and she was charmless for a character that should have been off the charts.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Oh, she's not silent. She's just flailing all over the place, way over-acting. She has several monologues that seem to go on for four days. I do think it works here, because Diane Downs's lack of/inappropriate affect is a key to the whole thing, but it's still annoying.

  • Bo says:

    In a little cross pollination of your worlds, Anastasia also cowrote "The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies" with my friend Glen Macnow.

    I remember when "Little Nicky" Scarfo (Nicodemo's son) was murdered that one of my coworkers at the time (a South Philly native who'd grown up with, but had not gone into business with, the deceased) was offended that he was filmed in line for the viewing. He hated that just acknowledging the passing of a childhood friend made him investigation worthy.

  • Katherine says:

    That accent is just so specific. It puts me back where I grew up INSTANTLY. At my grandma's kitchen table, with a glass of "wooder".

  • anotherkate says:

    I've mostly lost my Philly accent, but down the shore and wooder ice still pop up, also ahr when I mean our. I remember my Ohio-raised mom practically seizing when I started saying Iuhnno instead of I don't know. We moved there in '87, so I missed most of the Scarfo stuff, especially because we lived in Germantown, not the heavily Italian south Philly. But the city was a pretty rough place in general back then.

  • c8h10n4o2 says:

    I have to get this. My Irish step-grandfather was captain of vice on the Philly PD through at least part of this period and had some great stories. Then he married into the Sicilians. That was a wedding reception for the ages.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @c8h, did he ever mention Diamond Lil Reis? Because if so, he may be mentioned herein.

  • Holly H. says:

    Yes! "Wooder", and "korder" (for the piece of money), and I have to cop to "I'unno", still. I remember reading an article once that also pointed out that the Philadelphia accent liked to elide middle hard consonants into a sort of glottal stop, which I suppose is visible in "dunno" — their examples were things like "fountain" and "mountain" ("fow'nn", I suppose?).

    However — I admit, I went and looked it up — "slacks" isn't purely regional to Philly, as far as I can tell. Perhaps it's just an archaism that has persisted there, or at least, persisted there into the period covered? For reference: "Slacks and Calluses: Our Summer in a Bomber Factory" is a book by two women who worked in a bomber factory in San Diego during WWII. Reid, the author, appears never to have come from Philly at all (born in Missouri, raised in Arizona and San Diego). This sort of matches with my sense that the word "slacks" dates from about that period, or a bit earlier (I might have guessed it to date from the 30s at most; off to the OED?). Come to think of it, it's such a specific term for a specific type of trousers (jeans can't be slacks, nor would you wear slacks with a tuxedo). So it just strikes me as a term that persisted in that community, inherited from the generation above for whom it was current slang. (It was certainly in the vocabulary of my parents.)

    (As a book recommendation: I remember really enjoying "Slacks and Calluses" when I first read it, going on 20 years ago.)

    Now I wonder if any of the other old-time Philadelphians ran into the slang term "sweeper" for vacuum cleaner; that I got from my grandmother, and whenever I slip and use it ("I have to run the sweeper"), I get looked at as if I have two heads.

    Becoming more and more tempted to pick up this book for some holiday reading; that was exactly the period of my high school years, and I do remember the headlines, at least!

  • Bo says:

    Shtreet (for street) is my favorite Philly regionalism (but then, why when you sit on the stoop isn't it a shtoop?). And the careful enunciation distinctions for Mary, merry, marry, all of which my Midwestern self had always pronounced not quite like any of them are rightly (now I see it!) pronounced.

  • Sarah says:

    In Philadelphia, the last Democratic president was Clih'in. You could buy a biography of him at the mall in B. Dawl'in's.

    (The long "o" is also special and quite distinctive, but defies transliteration.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Sarah, YES, and so does the Bawlmor version. And the tiny "(e)" gully in words that end in "y." My grandmother did it; her sons all do it; I do it when I am talking about them.

    Masters candidates in linguistics used to give us tests outside the dining hall when I wqs in college. One's answer to "What breed of dog is Snoopy?" either ended the interview or led to an excited flurry of follow-ups. Then I'd jam them up by pronouncing it "Flarrida."

  • LisaJo885 says:

    @Holly: My roommate moved from Philly to CA probably around 1989, and she threw "sweeper" at me a couple of months ago, which floored (hee!) both of us. She's only 40, too, so I don't know if "old time" would properly describe her.

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