I looked forward to him coming by every night in his big black limo, handing me a fiver for a three-cent Daily News and asking me the same question. And every night I had a different answer. It was like writing poetry, coming up with a different answer for Frank Costello.
He was a notorious gangster, but he always looked to me like a harried shopkeeper who had just run out in his beat-up gray fedora to grab a sandwich. I liked his face. It had the lovely sadness of his fellow Sicilian, the actor Richard Conte.
I stood behind a newspaper stand made of two saw horses and two planks of wood. Every night I sold 360 copies of the Daily News, 340 copies of the Daily Mirror, the two major tabloids in the 1950s, 50 copies of The New York Times, 40 copies of its morning competitor, The Herald Tribune, and many fewer copies of The Journal-American and World-Telegram and Sun.
What I saw was plenty. The corner of 46th Street and Eighth Avenue was the nexus of the theater district and Hell’s Kitchen where the Westies, an Irish mob, still held sway. And Mr. Costello wasn’t passing the time of day. He wanted to know anything unusual going on because that’s how the Mafia got wind of something to horn in on.
I would dash from around my stand to the curb and hand him his paper and he would address me as he might a businessman. This was much more respect than I got from professors at Columbia or family or damned near anyone else. So I made sure I had something to tell him.
—Two plainclothesmen always go into the bar over there at 10:30, exactly at 10:30.
—The Daily News driver always takes ten from a bundle of 50 and reties the wire with pliers.
—Cab number…. leaves brown bags at the restaurant on 45th.
—Mike Todd buys a $5 cigar in a glass tube every night and distracts showgirls so he can bend their sundae straws and laugh when they suck on them.
What a creep, the doleful mobster said. He didn’t need to know about this peccadillo. He knew a lot about Mike Todd and was probably shaking down his big Broadway shows. Guys and Dolls was the rage of the moment. But he was amused that I told him. When I mentioned showgirls he elevated his hand palm-down as if to suggest a great height and we both laughed—the Guys and Dolls showgirls were notoriously tall.
Chatting with Frank Costello gave me a certain cachet in the neighborhood. Punks thought twice before ripping off my papers. The cops wanted to know if my last name ended with a vowel. Mr. Costello—I never thought of him as Frank—had been a confidante of Charlie Luciano. He had known Dutch Schultz and Meyer Lansky. He rubbed shoulders with Vito Genovese. If you talked to him you weren’t a punk anymore.
He didn’t need to know we watered down the orangeade at the Zeigfeld Theater, but maybe he did need to know which hatcheck girls on 52nd Street were hooking and, better yet, who they were hooking for.
It never occurred to me that someday I’d write a book about… well, not Mr. Costello but the culture over which he presided looking as sad as Lorenzo di Credi in his self-portrait.
I was clinging to my classes at Columbia, breaking down without knowing it, listening to the poetry of Hell’s Kitchen, the lilting Irish argot of Hell’s Kitchen, the slapstick Yiddish of lower Second Avenue, and the grand ominousness of Sicilian-American gangster talk. I was on the verge of physical and emotional collapse, but enraptured.
And years later in my old age it all came back to me as theater, a theater that had swirled around me, filled me with incomprehensible wonders. What could I make of it? What song could I sing? And slowly I began to sing of friendship, loyalty and redemption in the heart of the Mafia. I knew that I remembered those voices, those faces and gestures. And I knew they had something to tell me.
Saraceno emerged, the story of a Hell’s Kitchen thug, half Irish, half Sicilian, violent as men come and yet a nobleman. Against all odds he becomes a magus. I thought of him the other night watching the hired help in Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey–we don’t know who the true aristocrats are, as John Fowles pointed out in his neglected book, The Aristos. I needed to tell Billy Pucini’s story because he had been haunting the corridors of my mind.
The single word that moved me to sing of gangsters had only two letters: so. To begin a sentence, an overture, as Mr. Costello did, with the word so implied an ongoing story, a prior relationship, a body of accepted knowledge. He was inviting me to continue my story. It was a Noo Yawk expression of speech that bore an immense cargo. I was not a stranger. We were involved in a project. He could have said, So, kid, whuddya say, what’s up, whuddya got fer me? He expected something from me. “We” had a story.
So—you should forgive the expression—I kept this little word in mind each time I returned to Saraceno. So, Billy, whuddya say? So, Hettie, whaddya got fer me? So, Connie, what’s wichu? And that’s how the book got written. But I doubt that little word appears very often, because it was my own little thing. Cosa Nostra, our thing, is a reference to the Mafia. The word so is my thing. It means there is a story to be told.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Djelloul Marbrook’s book of poems, Far From Algiers, is the 2007 winner of Kent State University’s Stan and Tom Wick First Book Prize in poetry. He is the author of the short story, Artists Hill,which won the Literal Latté K. Margaret Grossman Fiction Award in the spring of 2008, and the novella Alice Miller’s Room. His poetry has appeared in Solstice (UK), Beyond Baroque (California), American Poetry Review, Oberon,The Ledge (New York), Perpetuum Mobile, Attic (Maryland), The Country and Abroad (New York), Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (Algeria), and Istanbul Literary Review. His fiction has also been published byPrima Materia (New York), Breakfast All Day (UK), and Potomac Review (DC). His career as a newspaper reporter and editor has spanned all the major transitions in modern journalism—from typewriters and teletypes to computers, from hot lead typography to photo-offset and then to the Internet. He writes frequently about Internet journalism and produces a daily blog about literary and cultural affairs. He retired in 1987 to write poetry and fiction and now lives in the mid-Hudson Valley and Manhattan with his wife, Marilyn.