“It Was So Fascinating! Here They Were, in My Little House in the Suburbs, Trying to Plan a Murder!”
Luckily for Brenda, the art of conspicuous pleasantness has never been very much required by her previous circumstances. What has been required is a vast tolerance for unsettledness. Even now, the first thing she said to me this morning was, "I don’t know who I am, technically speaking" — and she wasn’t having an existential crisis. It’s just that she mayor may not be legally divorced (she thought she was, until relatives of her estranged husband called to say he never received the papers, and it’s a little hard for Brenda to check, seeing as how he’s hidden in protective custody), so her name is or isn’t Colletti, and either way, over the past four years, since she entered (then exited, and was finally banned from) the federal Witness Protection Program, she’s lived under several different aliases and identities.
One could argue, of course, that she made this unhappy bed she sleeps in, made it mainly thanks to her most enduring characteristic, the trait that has defined her personality more than any other: her inability (or is it unwillingness?) to keep her mouth shut when she’s got something to say. And owing to the spectacularly eventful life she’s led thus far, she’s always got something to say, some tale to tell, some confidence to reveal, some intrigue to expose. Or, on a slow day like this, some complaint to register.
"You know what else I miss?"
"Yeah — every time I see Jersey tags, I wave to the car. I go crazy."
"What about Jersey do you miss?"
"The ocean. The food. The normal people."
HERE’S HOW SHE first took the stage, in the Opening sentence of an Inquirer article from May of 1994: She was a former go-go dancer who had worked in an adult bookstore closed for promoting prostitution. "See, now, I hate the way the reporters always described me," she says. "They could never just say that Brenda was an exotic dancer — which I was, I’ll always admit it. But no, they have to say, ‘Brenda was a gun-totin’ go-go girl.’ Everything had to sound nasty."
The second line of the article wasn’t much nicer:
He was an unemployed plumber who became a hit man for the mob.
He, of course, was Brenda’s husband, Philip Colletti, and though the article was but the first of many devoted to the Collettis, by the time it appeared, their career as a rising young mob couple was already over, derailed after Philip killed a rival and then, facing probable death himself, became a rat. As a matter of fact, both he and Brenda turned witness for the federal government, testifying in the 1995 trial that sent John Stanfa and seven others away on long vacations.
That Brenda actually had a crime to plead guilty to and testimony to offer is proof of her unique position in the annals of mob life here or anywhere, seeing how the wives in these melodramas are typically uninformed of what their husbands are doing until the indictments come down. These women understand their part in the script without being told, since they are mostly from the same, shall we say, milieu as their men. But Brenda was an out-of-towner, a tourist even then — the tourist who went native with a vengeance. Our first post-feminist mobster.
Long before she met Philip Colletti, indeed, long before she ever set foot in New Jersey, Brenda was already having a weird and unhappy life. She was born in Connecticut in September of 1966, given over to an aunt and uncle in rural Massachusetts at age two, taken from them by authorities at age 14, and then returned to the care of her alcoholic mother, who would enlist young Brenda to join her at the kitchen table so they could roll reefers together. Brenda bolted from that nightmare as soon as she could; at 15, she met a Navy man a few years her senior, and they decamped to his suburban Philadelphia hometown, where they married and settled into domestic non-bliss.