MY FAMILY MAFIA STORY
In September of 1983, Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo, the reputed head of the Boston Mafia, was arrested after a long FBI investigation, and was paraded outside for the traditional handcuffed “perp walk” for the media. I sat watching the local television news with my grandfather, and as Angiulo’s face came on the television screen, he exclaimed, “Hey, I know that guy!”
“How do you know him?” I asked incredulously. My grandfather, the straight arrow estate attorney who never had so much as a speeding ticket, knew a Mafia capo? It was a stereotypical association most Italian-Americans tried to avoid. I had heard the jokes many times – as soon as some people heard my last name, out would come a bit of Godfather dialogue, or a chuckling aside that they’d better be careful what they said, because who knew who I might know in the Mob that might come looking for them.
But mafiosi were not the kind of people my family knew. We were central and northern Italian, number one, and Italian-American mobsters tended to be from the south, the Naples area, or Sicily, not Rome and Florence. And we were solidly middle class and tended to associate with other squeaky clean families that did their best to live down the stereotypes of Italian-American criminals, and assimilate as much as possible. They gave their kids American names like Robert and James instead of Luigi or Mario. They bought their appliances and TVs with charge accounts at Sears Roebuck, not with a fistful of bills from someone’s brother-in-law’s friend who had great deals on stuff that “fell off a truck”.
A few friends of mine growing up in the city of Quincy, on Boston’s southern border, some Italian but some not, flirted with the edges of the underworld, doing minor stuff like selling parlay cards for bets on sporting events for some unnamed, shadowy guy who would dole out the winnings. A couple claimed to have uncles or an older cousins in Boston or on the North Shore who were “connected” – a belief fueled by things like sharp clothes and Lincoln Continentals yet seemingly no regular job other than spending a lot of time hanging around with the guys at a local bar or outside the corner store.
But for the most part, the Mafia was the stuff of newspaper headlines, lurid movies, and Mario Puzo novels.
The closest I came to the Boston Mafia growing up was when I was thirteen. My friends and I took the subway into Boston and stood in line in an alley off Salem Street in the North End, the Italian neighborhood, to buy fireworks from a couple of guys in their twenties who ran a thriving business from the loading dock of a brick warehouse. You placed your order and handed over your money to one guy, stepped aside and waited until your order was delivered in a paper grocery bag from inside the warehouse by another guy. I didn’t know who Jerry Angiulo was at the time, but since I later learned nothing illegal happened in the North End without his blessing, and probably not without him getting a cut, it was likely that the fireworks business was part of his domain.
Some kind of Mafia mystique, real or imagined, surrounding my family might have been useful in my formative years. Maybe it would have saved me from some of the bullying I endured in elementary school and junior high. I had no older brothers who might have given pause to the variety of low-IQ goons who tormented me with attempted wedgies and taunts about my good grades and lack of athletic ability. Not that Mafia-connected families tended to interfere in schoolboy scuffles anyway. But the fantasy of being from a family that was feared would have brought at least some theoretical relief to my psyche. The only tool I had in my box was a grandfather who knew how to file a lawsuit, which wasn’t very useful for dealing with the immediate problem of muscled knuckleheads who wanted your lunch money.
“I sold him his father’s headstone, back in the fifties,” my grandfather explained. I remembered then that he had continued to do occasional monument sales for years after the family sold their granite business. In those days the paisani tried to do as much business as possible with each other, which wasn’t too difficult when it came to stone monuments, an industry with plenty of Italians. Many of them, including my family, had originally settled in Quincy to labor in the city’s granite quarries or the numerous stone sheds located nearby, where the granite was refined into building materials and monuments.
“He got my name from somebody, and called and asked me to meet him at this social club in the North End,” my grandfather continued. On the TV, the news reporter said that Angiulo’s RICO indictment was partially based on information gathered from a wiretap the FBI placed in a social club Angiulo frequented. Footage of the club’s exterior came on the screen and my grandfather lifted his chin toward the TV, and said, “That looks like the place I met him.”
I was shocked. The guy who led such a quiet life, tapping out wills two fingers at a time on a manual typewriter in his home office for black-clad Italian widows, who other than his weekly church league bowling night, spent most of his evenings doing crossword puzzles in his armchair, had gone to meet Boston’s alleged Mafia kingpin?
“I got there a little early, I’m lugging my heavy briefcase full of granite samples and monument designs, and I go inside this place. It’s just one room with a bar, and a few tables. And there’s no one there, it’s completely empty.”
“I’m thinking maybe someone’s out back, so say, ‘Hello, anybody here?’ No reply.”
“Then I see there’s a door at the back of the room, and it’s open a little bit, and I think, maybe he’s back there and he didn’t hear me, so I knock on the door and then open it and walk in. In the middle of the room there’s a round table, with a big pile of loose cash about a foot high, and on top of it, a pistol, holding all the bills down like a paperweight. I’m thinking now this is not a good place to be and I turn around to leave.”
“Jerry Angiulo is standing there with his face right up close to mine.”
“’Who are you?’ he said to me. ‘Tony Peruzzi, I’m here to talk about your father’s headstone,’ I tell him.”
“’Mr. Peruzzi, what’s in this room?’ he asks me, staring straight into my eyes. ‘This room is completely empty, Mr. Angiulo,’ I tell him.”
“’Good,’ he says, putting his hand on my shoulder. ‘Now let’s go out front and talk about my father’s headstone.’”
“And that’s the last time I saw him, until just now,” my grandfather told me, nodding again towards the television, which had by now moved on to another news story.
Finally, years after I needed one, I had a family Mafia story to tell.
Brett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Sahara, Pine Island Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, and other publications. His family came to Quincy, Massachusetts, near Boston, at the beginning of the twentieth century from the Rome area and the province of Lucca in Tuscany. Both branches of the family worked in Quincy’s granite industry, eventually owning their own businesses, which specialized in cemetery headstones and other monuments.