The Mafia is the dark glory of the immigrant, urban Italian-American imagination — meaning, who else could have dreamed it up? The Irish? They dabbled at organized crime, as did others, but no one excelled at it like Italians. Italians did for crime what the popes did for prayer. The impulse that created "La Cosa Nostra" ("this thing of ours," an almost poetic turn sanitized by law-enforcement bureaucrats into the acronym LCN) is energetic, disciplined, cynical, pragmatic — a potent combination. It is arrogantly masculine, sublimely barocco, ornate, voluptuous, warm-blooded. It is cunning and resourceful. It esteems sociability and loyalty (within reason) to comrades. But it is also provincial, insecure, fatalistic, vainglorious — small-time, as befits its peasant origin. In the end, it’s even bad for your health.
But an impulse is an impulse — you don’t get to choose. You make the most of it. You build monuments to it, temples, cultures, empires. Mighty nations do it all the time. (Essentially, that’s all they do.) So why shouldn’t we, respect-crazed members of a certain career-offender cartel might fairly be expected to ask.
Next thing you know: Ba-boom!
NICHOLAS "THE CROW" Caramandi was himself no empire builder, but he sure helped. By his mid-50s he was certainly close to the emperor, close enough to serve as a compelling witness for a celebrated series of trials as well as for Blood and Honor: Inside the Scarfo Mob, the Mafia’s Most Violent Family, a new book by George Anastasia, a reporter for the Inquirer, that is to be published this month by William Morrow and Company, Inc. Caramandi grew up in South Philadelphia, dropped out of high school (aha!) at 15, worked in a tailor shop, drove a cab, struggled to earn enough to support his child and its mother, and blew money he didn’t have at the track. He began his criminal career in desperation, swiping checks from an unattended office at the cab company. When he attempted to graduate to armed robbery, he used his kid’s toy gun to stick up an elderly man at a check-cashing shop, and was so scared he forgot to take the cigar box that held the money.
Not exactly AI Capone, right? Soon, though, he discovered he had some talent as a swindler. Not that his scams required any particularly clever maneuvering. Here’s a typical one: He humped a truckload of black-and-white TVs all over South Jersey, having scattered among the cargo some brochures — he called them "beaujours" — for color sets. He’d say the sets were worth $400, ask for $250, but settle for $200. (He’d actually paid $100 each for them, legit.) He’d sell them a few at a time, to gas station owners and other small businessmen with larceny in their hearts and not much in their heads. He didn’t have to be brilliant, not so long as he could count on people being eager to get something for almost nothing.