“And Damon the white hillbilly dude you put on forklift when you saw his NASCAR tattoo, he killed a guy during an armed robbery in Atlantic City with a shotgun. He’s a killer, too.”
José went down the line. All of his so called friends were killers who had served long hard time in maximum-security prisons.
Oddly, of all things, I wished I had a hot cup of coffee to hold and sip, something to wrap my hands around and hold near my face. I didn’t trust my own face. Where is the roach-coach when you need one? Maybe the catering truck’s horn would blow.
“We’re all out on parole and stay in a halfway house in Bed-Sty.”
“So this is where you know all your friends from? I get it now.”
“Yeah, my friends, that’s right. You asked me, boss, and we all need jobs as conditions of our parole requirements so this place means a lot to us, but I shoulda told you sooner. I’m really sorry, Man.”
“And you, José?”
“Yeah, me too.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“No boss, I got to. “
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“I grown up in East New York and I was in a gang and did some bad shit, you see, and another gang was looking for me so I was hiding out in an abandoned building. These dudes kept coming to my Mom’s place looking for me, and because of all the threats they were making to my Mom, who had a bad heart, she took a heart attack and died because of them thugs threatening her and stuff, you know.”
“I’m sorry to hear … .”
“Yeah. So I came out of hiding and found the punk leader of that gang and I stabbed him in the heart. I killed that boy. I was 18, he was 19. I served 12 years for that, Boss.”
I could see tears begin to well up. Tears of a heavy burden lifted by confession.
Killers surround me.
“José, you didn’t have to tell me this, you know that? Do the other guys know that you are doing this?”
“Boss, we talked it over last night at the halfway house and we decided it was for the best. We was afraid you might find out on your own anyway and this way is better, and we just wanted to be straight with you ’cause you been straight with us and stuff.”
“José we can just forget ...”
“Boss if you want to fire us all you don’t have to worry, nobody here is gonna hurt you or nuthin’. I promise you. We would never, ever do nuthin’ ….”
“As far as I’m concerned José, what you told me changes nothing. Everybody just keeps coming to work and we don’t ever need to talk about this again. Okay? Is that understood?”
“No shit boss?”
“No shit José!”
Over the course of the next year, all the men made parole one by one, leaving this dirty and dangerous job and part of the city for other places. And after José went back to East New York, there were no more friends to replace his friends to satiate the incessant appetite of the ravenous Hogs.
I tried replenishing the convicted killers’ jobs with the same-old run-of-the-mill and unreliable workers I had become so accustomed to scraping off the bottom of the city’s desperate-for-any-job populace. Same as all the years past, they worked for a few days and then started calling in sick or showing up drunk. They didn’t pay attention to metal contamination in the lumps the way José and his friends did, and I found myself regularly diving for cover from shrapnel. Once again I was on the front line every single day, and many nights too. I was suddenly tired of the dirt and the danger, both inside the factory and outside, on the streets of Red Hook.
I was never again able to get Hogs #1, #2, and #3 running as efficiently and safely as they did under the careful attention of José and his killers. I made a dream team, and now they were gone. I lost the heart to build a new crew from scratch, and in fact came to the realization that those men were irreplaceable. Their desire for freedom combined with prison discipline had created a rare breed of worker that was tailor-made for my vision of the perfect Hog Farm plastic recycling company. The big Hogs were useless without the right men to control them, so I sold the Hog Farm a few months later, quickly and to the highest bidder at auction. I was glad to be rid of it.
They might have been killers, but they were my killers, and without them the Hog Farm would have killed me before too long.
The P.I. Tag-Along
Does suspicion tear at your heart?
Do you think your husband or wife is cheating on you, and you want proof? Maybe pictures snapped in some Queens Boulevard motel after you’ve been told time and time again by your spouse that he or she will be home late due to weekly business meetings?
That’s right, call my good buddy for over 40 years – colorful, in-demand, Private “Eye” Lenny!
You own a restaurant and the cash keeps coming up short. Even so your maître d’ just bought a new Mercedes and you think he’s got his hands in the till.
You got locked up? Or you’re being harassed by a nasty landlord? Or you just got hit with a frivolous lawsuit, your neighbor’s dog just won’t stop yapping? Whatever your problem is and you want it taken care of, legally and clean, in New York City…
Yup, call Lenny!
Lenny is a good friend of mine. I’ve known him for forty years. We grew up on the streets together. He's a private investigator, a “P.I.,” and one of the city’s best. Everybody knows Lenny in Manhattan, including top tier criminal lawyers, reporters, politicians, cops, good guys and even some bad guys. Lenny has street cred. The pulse of all five boroughs beat within Lenny’s body. He and the city are inseparable entities. Lenny gets front-page work, but you’ll never read his name in any articles. He works in the shadows.
Lenny is a gentle giant of a man – six foot six, 260 pounds, and soft spoken and caring. He gets his suits from Big and Tall men's shops. He never wears ties. His suits and shirts are always Johnny Cash dark and forever rumpled from the office, his car, a silver Jeep SUV with 250,000 hard city miles on it. Potholes make it go BANG! It creaks when he drives and cell phones slide all over the slippery worn leather seats as he weaves in and around all things on wheels with ease. He has different phones for different reasons in his roving office. People don’t fuck around with "Big" Lenny despite his easygoing demeanor. Anyone who understands the streets will tell you that it isn’t the big muscle guys that are the most threatening; the blade or the bullet often comes from 130 pounders with monster egos, beastly attitudes and things to prove – fearless, crazy, one-man armies against the world.
Lenny keeps his retired NYPD service revolver strapped to his ankle at all times! PI’s don’t punch clocks – they are always on duty, watching. They are the hawks of the city’s jungle of justice. P.I.s work alone, eat alone and mostly sleep alone. It’s solitary work – dirty, thankless and dangerous. They go where no lawyer wants to go.
Sometimes I go with Lenny, just to tag along. He is always up for some company, and I need an occasional adventure. It’s a good fit, unlike Lenny’s suits. Here’s how it works. Anytime of the day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. my cell phone might display “Call from Lenny.” I answer, “Hey buddy, How ya doin?”
The response is usually about the same. “Not bad, not bad – you know same ol’ same ol’.” Then “Hey, buddy, if you’re not doing anything important, would you like to go for a little ride?”
Now when two guys have been friends for over forty years, language boils down to its basic ingredients, and the meaning behind just a few words is intuitively understood. It’s not a lot that has to be explained in detail.
For example, I know that Lenny’s offer to “go for a little ride” means that he is inviting me to tag along with him on a P.I. investigation. Also, we both call each other “buddy.” If an outsider were to listen to our conversation, they would get the impression that both of us have the same name, Buddy, which can be confusing.
My response to Lenny’s offer is gauged not so much by time constraints but more by whether or not I feel I can handle descending into the dark side of humanity and the city at a particular point in time. It’s more about taking my personal inventory. Can I handle it emotionally? Am I feeling up to it? If I say no, I don’t have to make any excuses; I just say “No, buddy, not today,” and that’s the end of that. We move on with small talk for a while or Lenny takes another one of his barrage of phone calls coming into any of the three cell phones in his car-office.
However, if I say, “Sure, that would be great, buddy,” then we plan a meet-up. Lenny tells me where he is and how long he thinks it will take to get to such and such a corner near my midtown east apartment. Usually, he is calling from Harlem, Washington Heights (The Heights) if he is working Northern Manhattan, or he’s on his way back to the city from Brooklyn, The Bronx or out in Queens. If he’s on a case in Staten Island, it usually takes him about 40 minutes to get to our meet-up spot, but anyplace else, normally, he is incredibly fast getting to midtown.”
“Okay, I’m on the FDR now. I’ll pick you up at the usual meet-up spot on Third Avenue in front of the Clover Deli. See ya, buddy”
“Okay, buddy. Thanks – I’ll be down there waiting.”
You might find this imprudent on my part, but I never ask Lenny where we are going in advance or if the investigation could be dangerous or is just something routine such as process serving a court summons. Remember, Lenny carries a gun at all times and it’s not because he has “Dirty Harry” fantasies. Any of those delusions he may still have had dissipated over a 20-year career as a cop, detective and ten years as a P.I. The loaded revolver is for protection, pure and simple. Lenny will also intervene, and has, if he sees a crime in progress, such as a stick-up or assault. There is also the specter of that happening in a split second while traveling with Lenny throughout the city streets – especially at night.
Just a few nights ago, Lenny pulled his gun on the Upper East Side when he came upon a man garroting a woman with a piano wire as she took money from a corner ATM machine. The assailant got away with the cash, but, thanks to Lenny, the young woman has her life. Lenny cares about people and feels honor bound to protect the weak from the predators. All other things aside, that’s his true nature. He was always that way, even as a boy.
I don’t ask because I either don’t want to know in advance, or maybe I really have the “Dirty Harry” fantasy. I justify my actions by telling myself that if I don’t want to tag along, I can just wait in the car when we get there, hang around a coffee shop, or walk the streets looking for hidden cameras in order to be useful. By the way, I’m an excellent surveillance camera spotter – even better than Lenny. Video cameras, like cell phone records, solve a lot of crimes these days! Criminals are idiots for talking on cell phones or doing anything on the street, all calls and texts can be traced to exact locations and at any given moment they are being filmed from somewhere. Nowadays, the eye in the sky is watching the streets at all times.
As usual, Lenny is there waiting for me and not the other way around. I tend to dawdle getting out of my apartment, or need to jump in the shower. I might have still been writing in my underwear at noon if I was on a hot streak at the keyboard. Lenny is usually on the phone and never seems to get annoyed by my tardiness. He uses the parked time to make calls.
We give a secret handshake from back in the day and exchange smiles as I settle into his office and buckle up while Lenny finishes his call. The adventure can begin right then and there, depending on what GPS coordinates I glean from his call. I can also get a sense about the depth of the crime world we might be venturing into as well. I listen for key words and places. Brooklyn or Staten Island often means organized crime. Queens: burglary or assault. Manhattan (below 96th street): white-collar crime or surveillance, contentious divorce or love triangle. The Bronx: violent crime, drugs, or domestic dispute.
In general, except for Manhattan, most cases in the five boroughs seem to revolve around people who don’t have enough money and have done something to themselves or others to try and get some. In Manhattan, it’s the opposite. People get involved in all sorts of mischief due to an excess of greed or sex, and all types of dramas that the average street criminal could not even begin to comprehend. Mostly they just want the cash to survive.
“We’re going over to Brooklyn today for a sit-down in a nice little restaurant. I’ve been there before--great food. We’re gonna see a guy who just got out of the can and is now in the witness protection program.”
“What did he do?”
“I’ll explain as we drive, but he turned ‘rat’.”
A rat! And in Brooklyn! I knew what underworld we were about to sink into. Rat is the absolute worst word in their vocabulary on both sides of the street. Being within striking range of a rat in Brooklyn is not a safe place to be. This much even I knew for certain. If rats in the city get caught, they get exterminated. No questions asked.
Once Lenny got back onto the FDR, he started to give me the details. I listened intently, all the while trying to decide whether or not I should stay in the car when we get there.
“Welcome to Brooklyn, the fourth largest city in America” a highway sign read.
We were on our way to interview a gangster known on the streets of Brooklyn as “Eddie Dogs.” According to Brooklyn gangland intel, “Dogs” got his apropos moniker from his bad habits and personality. Eddie used to run a popular and very profitable pit bull dog-fighting ring from the basement of a Brooklyn apartment building. As he was the ringleader of the operation, he served two years in prison on animal fighting and cruelty charges.
“It’s pretty horrific inside – horrible conditions. I couldn’t even describe it,” NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Carnavalle told newspaper and TV reporters at the time of the bust. “The dogs appear to be in various stages of abuse and injury.”
Eddie’s connection to the handle “Dogs,” pit-bulls especially, ran even deeper, as he physically resembles the steely breed. Pit bulls are dogs of power, passion and undying willingness. They have brick-like heads, which are especially broad between the cheeks, to house their powerful jaws, which are carried upon a thickly muscled, well-defined neck. The neck runs into a deep, thick, well-sprung chest. Pit bulls are muscular, stocky yet agile dogs that are extremely strong for their size.
Personality-wise, Eddie also fit the bill.
Pit bulls are extremely courageous and intelligent guard dogs. They are full of vitality and are highly protective of their owners and their property. If challenged or threatened, however, they will fight an enemy to its death. They are usually very friendly, but have an uncanny ability to know when everything is okay or there is danger looming. They are generally sociable with other pets if trained well or raised with them from puppyhood. Even though they are friendly, they are not recommended for most people because most people do not understand how to treat them properly. Problems arise when one does not understand natural pit bull behavior and attributes human emotions onto the dog, which usually results in fighting. (A better resume for a racketeering foot soldier could not be written.)
The case files in the back seat of Lenny's car flipped over, then scattered, mixing in with empty coffee cups, coke cans, daily newspapers and plastic water bottles as he over-steered the sharply curved entrance ramp, exiting Manhattan’s FDR and driving onto the Williamsburg Bridge. With the sight of gritty riverfront wharves and factories of Brooklyn before me, I felt the moat-like protection security sensation of my Manhattan Island fortress begin to slip away.
Lenny’s cell phone rang and he answered. Although Lenny was speaking in a sort of half-code street language, I was able to understand some words, like someone who had taken Spanish 101 in high school and is able to get the gist of what a Spanish speaking person is trying to communicate.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re still on. The place – you know – The Place. Yeah, right, I got the thing. Listen, I understand if you don’t want to bring up that guy – you know the one from ‘upstate’ – you know who I mean right? Yeah, yeah. I’m on my way. I won’t be late. Don’t worry, sit tight.”
I had a frightful sensation – the type that soldiers must experience as they cross into enemy territory. In reality, Lenny and "Dogs" are warriors of the streets, and combat could ignite all of a sudden just like on any other battlefield. My fear was real.
The call on the bridge gave me time to ponder if I was going to go into or not go into the prearranged sit-down. As Lenny spoke to "Eddie Dogs” in code, I turned my head away from the Brooklyn-bound vista before me and directly toward my lifelong brother friend Lenny, and studied him.
With his pant leg hiked up on the accelerator pedal, I could see the blue-gray sheen of the barrel of Lenny’s service revolver. It was bound to his leg with a black leather holster strap just above his ankle, almost to calf height. He exuded confidence in his movements. Lenny made it all seem so routine – even fun. I pondered his past as a highly decorated gold shield cop. I knew that he had been assigned to the worst neighborhood, The Heights, during the Crack Wars of the 1980’s and survived it all. After that, he was transferred to Undercover Narcotics: Buy and Bust Operations in Harlem and then finished off his career as a decorated homicide detective in Brooklyn where he now careened about the streets, bobbing and weaving with ease near his former precinct in Bensonhurst, seemingly without worry. At that moment I felt that I was heading into enemy territory with platoon strength (i.e. Lenny and all his police experience) and that all would be okay. No more indecision. I would join Lenny and "Dogs" in the sit-down. I would Tag Along all the way on this one!
Unwinding, I began to take in the sights of Brooklyn, which appeared refreshingly un-Manhattan-like, more neighborhood-ish and homey. Not such a bad place after all, I thought.
“Buddy,” I asked, “why would a guy in the witness protection program who turned rat dare to risk showing his face in the old neighborhood? There must be plenty of people who would love to see him, you know, gone, whacked?”
“Good question, buddy. But you got to understand, these guys don't think like that. They’re a different breed altogether. They feel invincible. Most of them are adrenaline junkies and actually get off on the danger. The life is all they really know. Most of them go stir crazy in witness protection and a lot return to the old neighborhoods and take their chances.”
It seemed to me the risk Dogs was taking was stupid and crazy, but what did I know? I was just tagging along.
We pulled up in front of a pizza parlor that looked like a thousand other pie joints in the city. Lenny leaned across my seat and popped open his glove compartment. Papers fell out as he rummaged through until he grabbed hold of a plastic laminated “Law Enforcement” parking permit, which he tossed onto the dusty dash. I never ask questions about that permit. It’s nice to just park in front of anyplace you want in the city and not have to worry about getting a ticket.
“This is it?” I asked, motioning to the unimpressive corner eatery.
“Yeah, why?” asked Lenny.
“I thought you said we were going to have lunch in a nice little place.”
“Calm down, buddy. They serve pizza in the front, but the back is where we’ll be eating. You’re going to love it. It’s like a throwback to old Brooklyn – statues, paintings, and classical music. You’re going to think we’re back in the 1940s. Trust me, you’ll love it.”
I did trust Lenny. Nevertheless, I surveyed the street – up and down the block. I waited for Lenny to lock up the SUV, and then I filed in behind his large frame. I walked into the place wondering which of the faces I was passing might be Eddie “Dogs”- the gangster, killer and rat.
“Listen, buddy, I know you like to ask questions but try and let me do all of the talking on this one, okay?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Lenny was right. The back room was old school Brooklyn and empty as a mid-afternoon church basement except for one man, hunched over a glass of red wine and a basket of bread in a back corner, white linen covered table, who had his back to the wall and eyes on the door. The edgy man had a white baseball cap with the brim tilted down, shadowing his face from the sun streaming from the street side windows. Dark sunglasses rested on the table before him. I noticed he was also nervously tapping a finger. Gym-pumped muscles strained his V-neck short sleeve shirt. He had no neck, just a big muscular jaw affixed to ripped and powerful shoulders. Just like a pit bull.
Lenny extended his large hand to greet Eddie, aka “Dogs.”
Eddie didn't stand. Instead, he diverted his handshake to an open palmed gesture at me. “Who the fuck is this guy?”
“Don’t worry, Eddie, he's with me. He’s a friend of mine.”
“Oh, okay, he’s a friend of yours. Got it. All right, all right. Take a seat. What are you guys drinking? Here, have some bread. It’s fresh – good crust. You can only get bread like this in Brooklyn,” he said pridefully.
As I reached for the breadbasket I knew that I had passed the point of no return.
In 1991, the third and bloodiest Brooklyn war erupted when an underboss tried to seize power from the imprisoned Big Boss. The family split into factions and two years of mayhem ensued. In 1993, with 12 family members dead and the Big Boss imprisoned, the underboss was the winner more or less by default. He was left with a family decimated by war. In the 2000s, the organization was crippled by multiple convictions in federal racketeering cases, and numerous members became government witnesses.
Dogs started the conversation. “You know I ain't supposed to be here, right?”
“Yeah, Eddie, I was shocked as shit when I got the call. What’s going on with you? Last I heard was that about five years ago you weren’t upstate anymore?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll explain more later, as much as I can. Let’s order I’m fucking starving – you guys hungry? I need some decent food in me. Where’d that fucking waiter go?”
Lenny sat directly across from Dogs at the table. The menus were stacked in front of Dogs. I reached over and grabbed one without asking and began thumbing through it.
“I know what I’m getting,” said Dogs. “Linguini with red clam sauce – you can’t find any decent clam sauce where they got me!”
I wondered where they had him – I desperately wanted to ask but Lenny’s caution to keep my mouth shut was as fresh as the chopped clams probably were.
“I’ve eaten here before” Lenny announced. “I’m getting the Veal Marsala. It’s the best – even better than you can get in Manhattan.”
I felt clumsy and out of place being the only one holding a menu. It’s manlier to know what you want – like these guys. I put the menu down. “I’m gonna get the clam sauce too – that sounds great.” I got a nod of approval from Dogs and a wink. I felt better.
After we ordered, we tore into the bread with our bare hands. Dogs ordered another glass of red wine. Lenny and I asked for cokes.
Lenny, very skillfully, made small talk with Dogs about stories from old days, cops and robbers stuff, until the steaming plates of delicious smelling food arrived. It was clear that Dogs’ first order of business was to eat.
“Hey – can you bring us some more bread?” he barked at the server.
After a round of oohs and aahs about how delicious the food was, Lenny chimed in. “So Dogs, what’s up? What can I do for you?”
“All right, you know that after ‘The Wars’ I caught a bullshit charge of two counts of ahh – murder, right!”