What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?

It’s been at least six years since anyone has been killed by the Philadelphia Mafia. Is it the passing of a way of life, or an eerie calm before an ­approaching storm? Our writer takes to the streets of South Philly — and sips wine with the current Godfather — to find out

ABRUPTLY, THE REPUTED Godfather of the Philadelphia mob snatches the glass of wine from my hand, a disgusted expression on his face.

Joe Ligambi is a compact little man, five-foot-seven and lean, with thin graying hair combed back over his head, a long, hawkish nose, and small eyes with little white showing, like the eyes of a bird. He wears a black short-sleeved dress shirt, the top couple of buttons undone so some graying chest hair spills out over the top. He wears charcoal gray slacks and simple black dress shoes — a middle-class, older Italian man, out for an evening’s entertainment.

We’ve agreed to meet here at Spasso, on South Front Street, and I’ve agreed to keep the conversation light — family, sports, nothing sensitive about his past or future, nothing about him being the reputed head of the Philadelphia mob or the rumored federal indictment with his name on it. Our time together will not in any respect be a traditional interview. The 69-year-old Ligambi never does interviews. This encounter at Spasso is just a chance to shake his hand and say hello, to be in his presence and write about whatever happens in this informal setting. I’ve been under the impression our meeting might last no more than a few seconds, so when I walk into the Old City eatery, I buy myself a glass of wine as an excuse to linger. When I introduce myself, Ligambi shakes my hand and says: “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Would you like something to eat, some cheese?”

With a wave of his hand, he indicates the array of food in front of him on the bar — roasted peppers, pizza, cheese, eggplant marinated in Italian spices. I take a piece of the cheese, and he says, “Would you like some pizza?”

Ligambi doesn’t know it, but I have, at this point, already been to his house in South Philly. I’ve lingered at the edge of his lawn. “No, no,” I say, “I don’t want to take your pizza.”

Ligambi looks a little surprised by my refusal, wrinkling his eyebrows and turning to glance at the television. Seconds later, he snatches my wine — quick and deft, without spilling a drop. “Here,” he says to the bartender, “take this.”

Ligambi puts my glass of cheap Hardy’s shiraz on the bar and exchanges it for a glass of his $200-a-bottle Opus One. “Drink this,” he says, jamming the new glass into my hand. “It’s the best.”

I take a sip.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“It’s great,” I say. “I love it.”

“This is the only wine I drink,” he says.

He asks again if I would like some pizza. And this time, I accept. “Would you like some red pepper on that?” he asks.

I never use red pepper on my pizza. But — yeah, I say, bring on the red pepper. “Red pepper,” Ligambi calls out to the bartender.

Next thing I know, the Godfather rises up out of his chair: “Sit down,” he says, giving me his seat before I can object.

Ligambi grabs another stool and sits down beside me. And there we are, just a couple of fellas, talking over a glass of wine.
This is not your usual mob story. Because the mob we got used to — Joey Merlino’s youthful, murderous, Clockwork Orange-style mob, the mob that did the ultra-violence — is 10 years gone now.  Imagine ever sitting down for a simple glass of wine with Skinny Joey. Ligambi’s outfit is quieter, more disciplined and smaller, perhaps even tourist-friendly. If a body falls in a darkened room, and only the gunman is there to hear it, does it make a sound? What if no bodies fall at all? The Philadelphia mob hasn’t killed anyone in at least six years — the longest peaceful streak this city has seen since the days of Angelo Bruno, the so-called “Gentle Don,” who was shot to death in 1980. If the mob doesn’t kill anyone, is it still the mob?

Joe Ligambi’s mob, and his behavior, raise that question. And for an answer, I need to go to South Philadelphia.

AT ITS HEIGHT in the late ’60s, the Philly mob had roughly 60 official members and controlled numerous legitimate businesses. Members committed small crimes, like sports gambling. And big things, like homicide, especially after Bruno’s death. In the 19 years immediately following Bruno’s murder, there were 35 mob-related killings in Philadelphia, culminating in the nightclubbing reign of Joey Merlino. Skinny Joey is in jail now, finishing a racketeering sentence. (He was also accused and acquitted of two attempted murders and three homicides.)

Pulitzer-nominated Inquirer crime reporter George Anastasia puts the total number of currently active mobsters at just 20 guys. To put that in perspective, the Blind Bowlers Association of Delaware numbers 24.

Over the past couple of months, I went looking for signs of the mob in South Philadelphia, in restaurants, bars, private clubs, and places without any name whatsoever. Mostly, I gained weight. But after showing my face in several spots around town, I started receiving invitations to no-limit poker games. Talk about tourist-friendly! And in Malone’s Backroom Cafe, a restaurant at the corner of 18th and Ritner, I saw a business trying to strike a truce with its past.

Sixteen years ago, during the city’s last major mob war, a gunman planned to kill gangster Steve Mazzone inside Malone’s; eight years ago, during Philadelphia’s last major mob trial, federal prosecutors portrayed the place as a Mafia hangout; and three years ago, the admission policy was more exclusive than Studio 54’s. “If we didn’t recognize you,” says Johnny, the bartender, “you didn’t get in.”

Today, the door to Malone’s Backroom Cafe is wide open. The flooring is unadorned tile. The tables are bare wood, the kind families carry up from the basement for holiday parties. And the vibe is friendly. This is the restaurant as an extension of your house, serving food that tastes home-cooked, and encouraging cross-table conversations that sometimes swell to include the entire dining room. Malone’s is an Italian restaurant with an Irish name and a Mexican chef. It’s a BYOB, with a bar.   
Once, as I sat eating dinner at the bar, I overheard one of the men nearby mock me: “He’s here to look at the mobsters,” he told his friend. 

I took his point. After a few visits to the place, I’d seen no mobsters. But I kept coming, just to enjoy the Mexican ravioli for its own sake. Malone’s is presided over by Joe Malone, a friendly, hulking Irishman. Malone is the father-in-law of Steve Mazzone, who never did show up on that not-so-fateful night to get killed.

Instead, Mazzone was convicted in 2001 of racketeering charges and acquitted of murder. Upon his release in 2007, he returned to his wife and kids, who live just around the corner. What his future holds is an open question. But it’s a safe bet that men paid by the federal government are watching to find out.

Malone’s still plays host to the mob’s annual Christmas party, during which the criminals revel indoors while the police watch from the street. But Joe Malone recently cut the bar down in size, to accommodate more tables for a growing clientele from outside the neighborhood. And anyone who comes here “looking for mobsters” will probably have to settle for the afterglow of recent history, not the real thing.  

Understanding the state of our current mob requires an understanding of Joey Merlino. For one thing, Merlino symbolizes the mob’s ultimate degradation: its fall from a syndicate with at least some rules about its conduct, to a group of thugs from the neighborhood who got involved in everything from baby-formula heists to cocaine sales, extortion and murder. It’s also Merlino who may return to his post as boss.

The feds are said to be preparing an indictment for Ligambi, who took over the mob in 1999, after Merlino was arrested. In a reversal of fortune, Ligambi’s arrest could set the stage for Merlino’s return, in 2011, to a city in which his two most trusted associates — Steve Mazzone and John Ciancaglini — are already free. Merlino will still be young, at 49 years old. And photos of him in prison show Skinny Joey used his abundant free time to get ripped — his body heavily muscled and perhaps ready for war.

As one criminal defense attorney in town puts it: “Everyone knows, Joey wanted a piece of everything. It’s hard to imagine him coming out and being satisfied with whatever comes his way.”

Throughout my journey, talk of the current mob drew shrugs. The only time I tasted real, bitter fear was at the mention of Merlino’s name. On Passyunk Avenue, where Merlino once ran a small cafe, I ventured into Colombo’s sandwich shop, where the proprietor threw up his hands like two big stop signs at the syllables “Mer-lin-o” and repeated “I got nothin’ to say” until I walked out the door. In a cheese shop down the street, a manager came barreling to the counter: “We don’t know anything,” he repeated, until I went for the exit. In an after-hours club, a woman told me, as if speaking for all of South Philadelphia, “We don’t want Joey back. I hope he never gets out of prison. A lot of good people lost their lives, for no good reason.”
That Something wicked this way comes vibe just hasn’t attached itself to Ligambi, who didn’t undergo a formal induction ceremony into the mob until he was 45 years old. (Before that, he was a low-level mob associate who tended bar down the Shore.) He ultimately gained the top spot without any internal war, after years of mob-related homicides and arrests left him the last candidate standing. Since his unlikely ascent, he has been credited by the feds who are chasing him with bringing “stability” to an organization worn down to the nub.

Prevalent opinion holds that Joe Ligambi’s crew is all about the things Joey Merlino never demonstrated: Restraint. Stealth. Discretion. Merlino allegedly did it all — theft, cocaine, murder — then hit the nightclubs on Delaware Avenue on weekends, where he partied the night away and extorted money from the owners. As one undercover mob cop put it to me: “These guys aren’t like Joey’s old crew. They’re homebodies. I drive out to someone’s house to see what they’re up to, and there’s their car, sitting in front of the house. I sit there, for hours, and nothing happens.”

Merlino blazed through the streets in designer clothing. Ligambi is low-key, holding walk-and-talk meetings so he’s less likely to face a wiretap, and dressing in dungarees, sweatshirts and Phillies caps, because that’s how he’s comfortable. Ligambi’s mob also focuses on the rumpled clothing of mob crimes — the not-so-scary practices of loan-sharking and gambling. One undercover narcotics cop I spoke to said Ligambi’s mob will occasionally finance some budding drug dealer’s entry into the business. But after they get a kickback, the association ends. “It isn’t like they have guys out dealing for them,” says the cop.

Ligambi is no stranger to murder charges. He was convicted in 1989 of the killing of mob associate Frankie “Flowers” D’Alfonso. But that conviction was overturned, and a 1997 retrial ended in acquittal. Three mob-related killings took place in the early days of his reign. But it was unclear at the time if the mob had sanctioned all of these murders. Now it’s been six years since any body dropped at all. And the hits just keep on not coming. During a long interview with city police in the organized crime intelligence unit, neither Captain Dennis Cullen nor an undercover cop could cite an instance, in the past five years, in which a civilian was a victim of extortion or got smacked around at the hands of a Philly wiseguy. This fits with one of the narratives that have taken hold in the city’s streets — that this new mob doesn’t beat up those who owe them gambling debts; instead, it just stops taking their bets.
This isn’t to say there is nothing going on, or that this crew completely lacks criminal ambition. Two recent gambling-ring busts in Delaware County and at the Borgata in Atlantic City suggest the Philly mob still has some reach. There is also a spot that contrasts significantly with Malone’s, which I find when an undercover cop tells me about a place called the Broadway Theatrical Club. “That’s where they hang out,” the cop said, “but it’s a private club. You’ll never get in.”

So, when is a mob bar not a mob bar? Apparently, when it’s the Broadway Theatrical Club, because I walk right in the entrance at 13th and Moyamensing, past the “Private” sign, past the two older men having a meeting under the front window, and order a $2.50 Yuengling. It’s a sunny day, and with the front door propped open, the place is brightly lit. The furnishings are humble, with tile floors, a ’70s-era stand-up bowling machine in the corner, and a big, weathered horseshoe-shaped bar. When I arrive, three guys are already sitting there, nursing beers. Two of them are holding a loud conversation as the bartender sets my Yuengling in front of me:

Guy One: They chased him all the way down the street with a baseball bat!

Guy Two: Fastest guy you’d ever seen!

Guy One: Fastest man in the world!

Guy Two: It was so funny! Who was that other guy? Chris? The kidnapping? They grabbed him and shaved his head?

Guy One: Don’t know that story.

Guy Two: It was sooo funny!

I would describe them, except that I keep my head turned squarely toward one of the bar’s televisions, not wanting to betray interest in what they’re saying. They walk out a moment later — because of me? I don’t know — and I never do get a good look at them. But what strikes me about their conversation is that they sounded like they were telling stories — describing events of long ago, that happened to other men. This isn’t unusual; legendary defense attorney Eddie Jacobs told me of an annual dinner he attends at which the conversation often turns to stories about the local mob. The participants aren’t mobsters, and they aren’t exactly nostalgic for the days when the mob seemed to run this town. But they like to talk about the times their lives intersected with those of this city’s gangsters, when they essentially walked on-set and played minor roles in Philadelphia’s longest ongoing movie.
At Broadway, I’m not sure if I’m entirely welcome onstage or not. After I finish a second beer, the bartender looks at my empty bottle, looks at me, then begins reading the newspaper. When I’m ready to leave, I ask where the bathroom is, and he points me to the back of the bar. I stand up, then reach down beneath my bar stool for the big black bag I use to carry my laptop. By now, the bar has gained another four customers, who pay me little mind. When I pick up this bag, however, their heads swivel suddenly in my direction. Maybe they just find it odd to see a dude carry his bag to the bathroom, like a girl with her purse. Maybe, in some places, bags are used less to carry than to conceal. But at this point, it’s too late for me to put the bag down. So I take it with me to the bathroom, thank the bartender on my way back out, and exit to the sidewalk. There, standing by the door, smoking the same cigar he was smoking inside, one of my fellow customers eyes me and says, “You look like a salesman or somethin’ with that bag.”

I say, “Or somethin’.”

He lets out a brief, low, laugh: “Or somethin’.” He takes a heavy drag on his cigar. I walk away. But I walk right back in a second time, a week later, with a  friend. This time the bartender is a woman, whose eyes dart back and forth to the men surrounding the bar. When no one raises any objections, she serves us a pair of Yuenglings. We sit down. All the televisions are turned to horse-­racing. One man at the bar sure acts like a bookie: He scribbles on the papers in front of him after every race and accepts dozens of fast cell-phone calls, during which he mostly listens and takes notes. A big stack of $20 bills sits on the bar in front of him.

Throughout South Philadelphia, gambling is a part of life. Horse-racing beats ESPN all to hell as the daytime choice for barroom TV viewing. And as the Daily Number nears, bar patrons all over the neighborhood quiet down while speaker volumes are turned up. Old women who miss the drawing lean their heads into corner bars and holler, “What’s the numbers, hon?” to bartenders who are expected to know.

Near as I can figure it, there are some customers in the Broadway Theatrical Club who think gambling laws are made for breaking. But the establishment strikes me mostly as a bar. We drink a few beers. The bartender loosens up somewhat. The owner buys everyone at the bar, including us, a round of shots, and we even order a burger, which arrives char-grilled and delicious. And yeah, this is what we’ve come to — a city with mob bars that aren’t really Mob Bars, that undercover cops can’t get into but civilians can, a mob that is tourist-friendly, and clearly not what it used to be.
THE LEADER OF the Philadelphia field division of the FBI’s organized crime unit, Pete Kowenhoven, wouldn’t confirm or deny the rumored pending indictment of Joe Ligambi. But he positions the organization as being more powerful than it might seem. He says that when mob associates are included, meaning criminals who earn money for the enterprise without being official members, the Philly mob’s ranks swell to 150 men. And he (dis)credits the Italian mob with gambling, loan-sharking and extortion. “Real people do get hurt,” he says. “They’ve been good at keeping quiet, and they aren’t as big a deal as some of the other things we’re investigating, but they’re still bad guys.”

My talk with Kowenhoven makes me think of the old cartoon where the guard dog and the wolf punch in at the same time clock, and spend their days trying to outwit each other. Like the wolf and the dog, the feds and the mob have been at this for years. And some criminologists think it’s time to move on. “In comparison to the Latino drug organizations, pretty much everything is a small operation,” says Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “The old mobsters just aren’t in the same league, especially when you consider reports that these Latin cartels are aligning themselves with terrorists.”

High-level crime, it seems, has truly become an international phenomenon. The National Drug Enforcement Agency’s Philadelphia division lists more than 20 most-wanted fugitives online. Right now, that list consists of people born in Russia, Jamaica, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Cambodia, all of whom apparently came to Philly to do bad things, on behalf of organizations that reach across national borders. These are the people filling our streets with the drugs that lead to turf wars and homicides.

By way of comparison, the Philly mob is most active in all the things our country seems most conflicted about. Loan-sharking is bad, but between punitive late fees and sudden rate hikes, credit card companies also seem to be engaged in usury. Our government once treated gambling as a true social evil. Now we hold daily lotteries, the Pennsylvania state legislature rammed casinos down our collective throat, and Delaware just legalized sports-betting. Even prostitution — and I got conflicting information about whether the Philly mob is sponsoring prostitution — is legal in two states, Nevada and Rhode Island.

A former interim U.S. attorney for this district, Laurie Magid, wanted to reshape the Philadelphia office, wedging the force dedicated to organized crime into the drug-trafficking division. But a parade of ex-law enforcement officials denounced the idea, and she tabled the plan. Kenney says he understands, from a purely psychological perspective, why the proposed change sparked so much opposition. “It’s hard to let go,” he says. “You get a synergistic relationship that develops between bad guys and good guys, and the passage to another time isn’t easy for either of them. ”
Of course, when we talk about criminals, we’re talking about gradations of evil. And it could be that gangsters like Ligambi and Bruno are simply more devious than their publicly violent counterparts. The Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist. But what we have right now is a mob so small and low-key, it barely r­egisters — a mob that looms larger in our history than it does in our present-day lives.

romance associated with mob movies, they also left an indelible stain on an entire ethnicity and, in Philadelphia, a neighborhood. So perhaps the greatest gift provided by our current, tourist-friendly mob is that it’s easier than ever for the rest of Philadelphia to see South Philly clearly.

Take 10th and Wolf streets, an infamous address in local mob lore. The Merlinos grew up around here. (Joey was born into the mob). So did current boss Joe Ligambi. The address also served as the name of a mediocre mob movie, dubbed 10th and Wolf, as if that address somehow resonated, nationwide, as being synonymous with gangsters. But the only thing to see at 10th and Wolf these days is the modern outpost of that long mob history — the Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill.

Longtime owner Frank Barbato bequeathed the restaurant to his son and namesake. But at 86, he still hangs around the place — a neighborhood bar up front, dining room in the back — doing a little work and constantly smiling. His son, by contrast, is still in the act of making his life. And he sees the history associated with the neighborhood, and his restaurant, as a mixed blessing. 

“I get that the history of this place is interesting, and it’s part of why people come here,” he says. “I respect that. But I have to tell you, my wife and I live in South Jersey now, and when someone finds out we own a restaurant in South Philly, at 10th and Wolf, and we’re Italian, they think we’re mobsters. As an Italian-American, it’s upsetting. Because we work for a living.”

Barbato Sr. purchased the restaurant in 1951, naming it “Bomb Bomb” because of a pair of mob-related explosions that had occurred on-site some 15 years earlier. “There was already a bar here,” explains the senior Frank. “But nobody called it by its name. They would say ‘Let’s go to the bomb bomb,’ so I thought, ‘I’ll call it that.’”

The twin explosions are memorialized in some newspaper articles hanging on the restaurant’s front wall: February 17, 1936; New Taproom Bombed, South Phila. Area Shaken; Windows Shattered Over Entire Wolf Street Neighborhood. Police blamed “the rackets” for the pair of bomb blasts, which happened just seven weeks apart. And the article’s accompanying photograph shows a couple of young, pretty girls smiling in the frame of an exploded window — clearly happy to have their few minutes onstage with the Philadelphia mob. 
The bar’s logo remains as Frank Sr. designed it: a pair of black bombs stacked one on top of the other, fuses lit. But here, more than anywhere, the present is performing a complicated dance with the past. Regular afternoon customers from the neighborhood purse their lips in distaste when I come in and start taking notes from the articles hanging on the wall, and when Frank Sr. begins telling me stories about the mobsters who once dined here, his son and daughter-in-law make sure I understand that these are old stories. The junior Barbato and his wife have long since made the place their own, even traveling to Virginia to learn barbecue techniques; the results win local cooking awards. But traditional Italian dishes like veal parmesan still comprise half of Bomb Bomb’s food sales, largely because Michael Corleone was never seen on-screen eating a plate of barbecued ribs.

I spend a few hours knocking on doors in the neighborhood, and when I bring up the area’s mobbed-up reputation, residents react with a kind of weary shrug and some derisive humor. “I’ve lived here for 60 years,” one old woman tells me, “and there used to be all kinds of bookies running around.”

She smiles mischievously, leans outside, and looks up and down an empty Wolf Street. “I don’t know,” she says, smiling. “You see any bookmakers out there today?” 

She has a point. The odds of seeing a real live goodfella favor the house. Just do the math: As of the 2000 census, 162,683 people lived in South Philadelphia, putting the average civilian’s chances of running across one of this city’s 20 made mobsters (and not all of them are in South Philly) at 8,134 to one. For mob aficionados, a trip here is only marginally different from a trip to the Betsy Ross House. They can soak up the history, but the chances of seeing anything mob-related are about the same as running across an 18th-century seamstress sewing an American flag.

There’s still a nagging sense that South Philadelphia stands apart from the rest of the city. The locals say it’s not an ethnic thing, but a matter of geography and architecture. With all those rowhomes side by side, neighbors are bound to overhear intimate moments and heated arguments. The custom they follow is to pretend they never heard anything at all. In South Philly, they call it minding your own business. And while that might be an environment in which a secret society can form and grow, a neighborhood built on respect for privacy doesn’t necessarily beget a criminal organization.

The people here have nothing to do with the mob, except that the mob has happened, for the better part of a century now, all around them, and people like me sometimes come stumbling into their neighborhoods, looking for goodfellas. What I found on this months-long trip is that the most exciting stories of explosions and bloodshed are just that — stories hanging around from the past, the stuff of lectures, fit for busloads of tourists. At least for now.
ONCE JOE LIGAMBI and I are seated over pizza and wine at Spasso, we fall into a rhythm of mostly inane conversation. Ligambi has a reputation for being polite with the media, but as far as I know, a sit-down like this with a reporter is unprecedented. Over the years, he’s rarely been quoted — and then usually by indirect means. During the long Merlino trial, for instance, he was overheard talking about how foolish this younger generation of mobsters had been in making such a show of themselves. They had violated one of the oldest rules of the Organization, to melt into the dark.

During that trial, Ligambi also struck up a friendly relationship with a U.S. marshal stationed outside the courtroom. The marshal was big, heavily muscled, a former Navy Seal. He was also a born-again Christian, and used his post at the entrance to talk to all who entered about his faith. Most people blew right by him. But Ligambi often stopped and chatted. Toward the end of the trial, Ligambi even asked the marshal for a favor: “Pray for me,” he said.

Such intimate details aren’t the sort of story Ligambi provides. So I’d gone everywhere I could to learn about him, including his house. Ligambi lives on 17th Street, just south of Packer Avenue, near the sports stadiums, in a house registered under his wife’s name. The neighborhood is best described as leafy, more suburb than city. I walked the intersecting streets to see if I could spot any surveillance vans or some fed openly watching from his car. But nothing leaped out at me as law enforcement. Just lawn-care companies trimming back the first good growth of spring, any one of which could have included a government agent in disguise.

Ligambi’s house was the thing to see — a middle-class home with a carport and spacious back deck, with a black Caddy parked out front. A dark funeral-home-style awning, with an ornate “L” at its center, sticks out over his front door. And I found myself lingering there, at the edge of his lawn, listening as eddies of wind occasionally brought the sound of an operatic soprano out of his window. I wish I could say I heard the music clearly, and that the voice was mournful. But it remained just out of reach.

On another visit, I saw graduation signs in the windows — two caps with tassels, and a big black sign reading “Congratulations!” Ligambi is the father of three sons, including two college graduates. The signs were a clue to how brazenly he juggles his identities as gangster and family man. And I think it is this facility to promote what he’s proud of, and keep his sins mostly in the dark, that fuels our culture’s continuing fascination with the mob. The truth is, we don’t want to be mobsters. We don’t want to kill. And we don’t want to spend our lives looking over our shoulders. But we would all like to wear our rationalizations so lightly, with such get-lost panache.

Ligambi, up close, doesn’t seem troubled by his dual lives, not in the least. As I munch his pizza, I ask how long he’s been married. He says 36 years.

“What’s the secret to a long marriage?” I ask him.

He looks momentarily embarrassed by the question, then answers: “Take her out dancing on Saturdays in the summer.”

He recommends a store on Grays Ferry Avenue for high-quality steaks and veal chops. He talks about his old favorite roast beef shop, which he says isn’t so good anymore. Then he asks me where I live. I tell him my block and cross street. “They say it’s the Grad Hospital area,” I tell him, “so they can charge $50,000 more for the house.”

“Good area, though,” he says. “Getting better.”

“The neighborhood’s getting better,” I tell him, “but we hope this is the first summer we don’t hear any gunshots.”

He grimaces. “This city,” he says. “The same thing that happened to the roast beef happened to this city.”

Once, we edge up to the line we’re not supposed to cross. Perhaps he catches sight of an American Indian on the television at the bar, because he looks over my shoulder, in the direction of the screen, and suddenly says, “Them Indians got all the gambling.”

He looks almost sheepish for a second after he mentions this, as if he’s been caught complaining about the competition.

“We owed those people something,” I say, smiling, “after what we did.”

He laughs: “We stole everything from them people.”   

“Did you ever hear Chris Rock, the comedian, do the bit about Indians?” I ask him.

“No,” he says.

So I tell him: “Rock says, ‘You ain’t never seen two Indians. You’ll see two polar bears before you see two Indians.’”

Ligambi smiles at this, but I’m not sure he gets it. I can’t remember Rock’s next line, so I panic and improvise. “We killed so many of those people,” I say, still supposedly imitating Rock, “they can’t even find each other anymore!”

Ligambi laughs like hell, shaking in his bar stool.

We talk a little more, about his son Stephen, who lives in New York now and is in hot pursuit of an acting career. Ligambi says he goes to New York to see his son’s “every production, every event.”

When he says this, I think about how a conviction now would likely doom him to spend the rest of his life in prison. And more than at any other time during our interview, I want to drop all the pretenses and ask him a straight question about who he really is, and what he’s done with his life. But that wasn’t the agreement, and I know I won’t get a straight answer, so I just finish my slice of pizza. And maybe that should be all we need to know about Joe Ligambi. That he has lived a life that precludes straight answers, and in this crucial respect, Bruno, Scarfo, Merlino, Ligambi — who cares? They’re all the same.
Later, I’ll hear that Ligambi has some regrets about having met with me. He doesn’t give interviews, and now he wonders if I’m planning on publishing every little thing he said. He had hoped, it seems, that I would simply write down that I saw him as he sees himself — as a regular, down-to-earth man. A nice man. But of course, I’ve printed it all. Because isn’t this the point of the story — that Joe Ligambi’s mob, though evidently passing from this Earth, isn’t like the mobs that immediately preceded it? And that Ligambi’s mob has been something other than ruthless and stupid, and with Joey Merlino on his way out of prison, some fear we’re about to have a ruthless, stupid mob again? Isn’t the point of this story that Ligambi, as these things go, has run a quiet little mob — one we all know is there, but aren’t afraid of?

Lifting himself off his bar stool, Ligambi reaches out and shakes my hand again.

“Thanks,” I tell him.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” he says.

He walks away, shoulders stooped, with an old man’s hip-rolling gait, to the sidewalk, and disappears into the evening sunlight — a nondescript old man unless you know he is a marked man; a man who lived a life that maybe his son can render on film someday; a man who will go on drinking his expensive wine until the day the cuffs are slipped around his thin old wrists, with a click.

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