“If we have to go to war, that’s what we have to do.”
I was nine years old when I began to suspect that my father was a gangster. It was Sunday and Dad had us all packed into the car for an afternoon of house hunting. He loved driving around different neighborhoods, pointing out houses he liked and sharing his renovation ideas. On this particular Sunday, we were cruising around Todt Hill, an upscale community on the southern end of Staten Island, filled with homes owned by doctors, lawyers, and “businessmen.”
Mom was in the front seat with Dad, and my younger brother, Gerard, and I were buckled in the back. My father had just finished the renovations on a three-bedroom house he’d bought for us in Bulls Head, a predominantly blue-collar neighborhood just over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and not far from the two-bedroom apartment we had been renting in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
My father was obsessed with construction and remodeling. He’d ripped apart and remodeled every place we’d ever lived in. He’d started tearing apart the new house the minute we had taken ownership, knocking down walls and putting in improvements, like nice European tiles.
My brother and I attended the local public school, P.S. 60. My mother would walk me to school every day. I had some good friends there, but Dad’s friend Louie Milito was forever suggesting that he transfer me to the private prep school on “The Hill.” His own daughter, Dina, went there. And so did Dori LaForte. Dori’s grandfather was a big player in the Gambino crime family. “The Hill” had large manicured homes dotting its steep streets and was about ten minutes from our three-bedroom house on Leggett Place. Anybody who was anybody lived on “The Hill.”
One particular house in this fancy neighborhood belonged to Gambino family crime boss Paul Castellano. We were on one of our Sunday expeditions when Dad pointed it out to us. It was an enormous monster of a house, unlike any other in the neighborhood. It was way fancier and more ornate. It looked more like an Italian villa or a museum, with its iron gates and a gigantic fountain spewing water in the middle of a large, circular brick driveway filled with expensive cars and incredibly manicured grounds. It must have cost a fortune. There was an elaborate security system with surveillance cameras monitoring the perimeter, which seemed to span an entire block.
“Wow,” I said. “What does Paul do that he has such a big house?”
“He’s in the construction business,” my father replied.
I remembered thinking how glad I was that my father worked in the same business as Paul, so that maybe one day we could get a mansion like that. Dad didn’t say Paul was his boss in one of New York’s biggest, most blood-letting, most feared crime families, or that the construction business wasn’t building somebody a little house, but more like construction racketeering, loan-sharking, and extortion. He didn’t mention being a businessman like Paul was putting your life on the line. I’d have to wait to learn this angle of the business.
By the fall, my father announced that I was going to be transferring to a new school. He wanted me to get a superior education and had me enrolled at the prestigious Staten Island Academy. I was furious about leaving my friends and worried that I wouldn’t fit in with the kids at private school. I was there just a few weeks when a classmate invited me over to her house to play. She lived so close to school, we could see the playground from her yard. It was a beautiful day, and we were outside on her front lawn. Her mother had just gone inside to make us some lemonade when my new friend made a startling announcement.
“My mother and father say a big gangster lives in that house,” she said, pointing across the street to the Castellano estate.
I knew that Paul was Dad’s friend. I put two and two together and decided if Paul Castellano was a gangster, my father must be one, too. He just didn’t act like a gangster. My idea of a gangster was Vito Corleone, the fictional mob boss in The Godfather. The movie had even been filmed a few blocks from my school.
Still, I’d been confronted with the possibility that my father was “connected” before. When I was six, I found a gun in my parents’ bedroom in our apartment on Sixty-first Street in Bensonhurst. Mom was in the kitchen, and I was amusing myself by hiding some of my favorite books under their bed. That’s when I came upon the pistol Dad had stuffed beneath the mattress. I knew my father had served in the army during the Vietnam War because I’d seen his dog tags. I wondered if this was a souvenir from the war. Racing to the kitchen, I went to ask my mother about my startling discovery.
“Mommy, does Daddy have a gun because he was in the army?”
“Yeah” was all she could muster.
The next day, I bragged to my friends at school, telling them my father had a gun under the bed because he was in the army. My teacher overheard me and went directly to my mother. When Dad found out, he wasn’t upset. He just told me not to talk about it anymore.
My father had this “coolness” about him. He was hipper than the other kids’ dads. He wore sweats and gold chains, and he had tattoos, Jesus on one arm and a rose on the other. He also had a small diamond in the middle of his chest. He owned nightclubs and always stayed out late. Some of his friends were bouncers. They spoke and dressed differently from the dads of the other kids at school. They had wads of cash in their pockets and always came bearing gifts, even if it was just a box of pastries on Sunday.
On weekends, my father would sometimes take me with him to “the club” in Bensonhurst. I didn’t know it then, but it was a local mobster hangout, also known as a men’s “social club.” Dad would first get the car washed and then we’d stop in. Guys would be playing cards and drinking coffee. The club looked like a big kitchen, with tables and chairs set out around the room and a few pictures, mostly scenes of Italy, hanging on the walls. There were no women around, ever. An older man named “Toddo” was usually at one of the tables in the back. He was always nicely dressed in slacks and a sweater, sporting a big, fancy watch and a pinky ring.
“Hey Bo, what’s up?” my father would say. It’s how he addressed everyone, even me. I didn’t know why he addressed people as Bo, not Bro.
“Go say hello to Uncle Toddo,” he’d instruct, pushing me in the old man’s direction.
I’d have to go over and hug and kiss him. “How you doing, kiddo?” he’d ask. The old man would pat me on the head and then stick a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket.
I thought it was weird the way the men all kissed each other on one cheek and then exchanged a firm handshake. No one just walked into a room and said hello; it was always a handshake, and there always seemed to be an order of whose hand should be shaken first. Obviously, I didn’t know that Toddo was Salvatore “Toddo” Aurello, a capo in the Gambino crime family, and my father’s boss and mentor in the mob. I just thought Dad respected him more because he was older.
It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that I knew for certain that my father was a gangster. Even then, I knew not to ask any questions.
* * *
When I was in middle school, I overheard my parents talking about some guy who wanted to buy one of my father’s nightclubs. It was late afternoon and we were all over at my aunt Fran’s for Sunday dinner. Fran was one of my father’s older sisters. She and her husband, Eddie, lived across the street from us in a two-family house. Dad’s mother also lived there, in an apartment downstairs.
Aunt Fran was closer to my father than his sister Jean. Dad and Fran were closer in age and seemed to have more in common. Fran was always warm and loving. She played the piano, and she taught Gerard and me how to play. She’d sit us down and tell us stories about my grandparents, and how they had come over from Italy. My father’s mother, Kay, wrote children’s stories that were published here in the United States. Aunt Fran would read us those stories, and she’d add to them with her own fanciful fabrications. One of Grandma Kay’s stories was about a little girl named Karen and a rabbit. Another one was about my cousins and how they flew through the city on the wings of an eagle. My Aunt Jean, or Jeannie, who was Dad’s eldest sister, kept the books at her house, but they were all lost in a fire after Grandma Gravano died. Jeannie was married to my uncle Angelo. He wasn’t involved in “the life.” He was an engineer.
Jeannie was much older than Dad. We would go over to their house a lot. Uncle Angelo was into golf and tennis, and he had a fish tank in his basement. We weren’t allowed to touch any of his things. Dad loved Angelo. He was more like a father figure to Sammy. Uncle Angelo was a hard man, but he was very generous. He had a lot of morals, and he stood behind his morals. When two of his kids got in trouble for smoking marijuana, he threw them out of the house. Dad couldn’t relate to that type of discipline; no matter what I did, he would never disown me.
On the nights that Dad worked late in Brooklyn, we’d usually go over to Aunt Fran’s for dinner. Dad would meet us there when he got home. He had this thing about eating together as a family every night, and made it a point to be home at five sharp.
I remember sitting around the long white table in Aunt Fran’s dining room when Dad started telling everybody about this Czechoslovakian guy named Frank Fiala. He said the guy was “nuts.” I wasn’t sure what this guy was doing that made Dad think he was out of his mind, but whatever it was, it was beginning to piss off my father. I knew that Frank Fiala wanted to buy The Plaza Suite on Sixty-eighth Street in Gravesend, Brooklyn. It was my father’s most successful nightclub. Dad owned the entire building and operated The Plaza Suite out of the second floor. His construction company headquarters and a showroom for his carpet and wood flooring company were on the ground floor. The discotheque was enormous. It spanned the entire five thousand square feet of the building and had a bar, a dance floor, and a private VIP lounge. People lined up outside for hours hoping to get in. For a time, Dad was there practically every night, but with his construction business demanding more of his time, he was looking to unload the place.
Frank offered my father a million dollars for the club. Dad had accepted his offer, but I think he was starting to have second thoughts. A few days after we first heard about Frank Fiala, my father didn’t show up for dinner. I’d been waiting for him to get home so I could ask him if my best friend, Toniann, could sleep over. Mom said I needed Dad’s permission. He almost always said yes.
Six o’clock rolled around and he still wasn’t home.
“Where’s Daddy?” I asked my mother.
She looked up from her pot of tomato sauce. “Your father is busy. He won’t be joining us for dinner.”
“Well, can Toniann sleep over?”
“Let’s wait until your father gets home and see what he says.”
“But you just said he’s not coming home for dinner. When will he be back?”
“I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t know if this is a good night for Toniann to be here anyhow. Maybe she should go home now.” She packed up the sauce in plastic containers. “We’re going across the street to eat with your grandmother, Aunt Fran, and the kids. Get your brother, put on some clean clothes, and let’s get going.”
There was a strange vibe in Aunt Fran’s house that evening. Uncle Eddie wasn’t around, which was also odd. None of the adults said anything while they set out the food, a sure sign something was wrong because my family members were big talkers. Even though I wanted to, I didn’t ask Mom any more questions.
After dinner, I asked her if I could go across the street to Toniann’s to play until my father came home. “You can play, but only for half an hour.”
“What about the sleepover?” I pressed.
She sighed. “Ask your father when he gets home. If he doesn’t come home, it’ll have to be another night.”
We were out playing in Toniann’s front yard when Uncle Eddie’s car roared around the corner and screeched into our driveway. Dad jumped out and ran into our house, and I ran in after him. He wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen, so I wandered upstairs. The door to the bedroom was shut. The moment I cracked it opened, Dad turned and looked at me with a serious face.
“Don’t you knock?” He quickly turned his back to me, but not before I saw him jam a revolver into the waistband of his jeans. I tried to figure out if something was wrong, but his body language revealed nothing. He was calm and together. I stared at him and struggled to convince myself that I hadn’t seen the gun. After a long pause, I finally said, “I was just going to ask if I could have a sleepover with…”
He interrupted, “No, you can’t!” He untucked his T-shirt and turned around to face me.
“Why not?” I whined. “What’s the big deal?”
“Not tonight. You can have one over the weekend. And I can’t talk about this right now. I gotta go.” His eyes were cold; I felt as if he was looking through me. He spoke really quickly, his mind clearly somewhere else. He grabbed a pair of black leather gloves off the top of his dresser and brushed by me.
I followed him into the hallway, watched him stomp down the stairs, and called after him, “Why do you need the gloves? It’s the middle of the summer.” I knew in my heart that something bad was about to happen, and I was terrified.
He stopped, stared, and said, “Why do you ask so many questions?”
“I don’t know. I was just asking.”
“One day, you’re gonna make a good lawyer.” He slowly came back up the stairs, bent down, and kissed me on the forehead. “I promise you can have a sleepover before we leave for the farm next week.” The farm was Dad’s pride and joy, a thirty-acre working horse farm he’d purchased and renovated in rural New Jersey. We’d spent every summer there since Dad bought the place.
“Trust me, tonight’s not a good night,” my father told me. “Now I want you to be a good girl. You’re the oldest. You’re in charge and you have to take care of your brother. And don’t drive your mother nuts.” He kissed me again, stood up, and headed out the door.
My father had an uncanny ability to make me feel that everything was okay no matter what the circumstances. Even seeing him leave the house with a gun tucked in his pants that night seemed fine.
My mother was in the kitchen and missed the whole conversation. I didn’t bother to tell her what I’d seen.
* * *
The following morning, the headline in the newspaper on our kitchen table said: MURDER OUTSIDE THE PLAZA SUITE. Dad was in the kitchen acting normal. I didn’t even know if he saw me reading the article. I didn’t have time to read it all, but I noticed that the victim was Frank Fiala.
I knew the guy had been doing some things to annoy my father. But murder? I stopped reading the minute my father sat down at the breakfast table. Neither of us said a word.
Later that week, Dad ordered my mother to pack up my brother and me and head to the farm in Cream Ridge. When Dad had bought the place, it was pretty dilapidated. But he said it had potential and a lot of property. My father fell in love with it immediately. As soon as we took ownership, he was knocking down walls and doing his elaborate renovations. Soon, the run-down old farmhouse with a couple of barns and some rusty farm equipment became a spectacular estate with an in-ground pool. It had a state-of-the-art facility for training and boarding horses and a professional racetrack in the front yard. The track was an exact replica of the Freehold Raceway in New Jersey. My father hired a trainer from the barn in Staten Island where my brother and I took lessons and built a small house for him on the property. Most of the horses the trainer worked with were trotters that competed at Meadowlands Racetrack. My father even restored the old horse-drawn carriage that was left behind by a previous owner.
It bothered me that we were leaving for the farm so suddenly and without Dad. We weren’t even supposed to be going for another few days. The farm was a place where my family would always have fun. There was always something to do there. It was about an hour and forty-five minutes south of Staten Island in the historic town of Cream Ridge. The area was so rural compared to Staten Island. It had hills covered in trees, narrow two-lane roads, and lots of large horse farms. It took five minutes just to get down the bumpy dirt road that dead-ended in our driveway.
The main house was enormous and had breathtaking views of our thirty acres of grassy land. The exterior had been white when we bought it, but was now gray. It was surrounded by a beautiful stone porch that had a big table and lots of outdoor chairs. I adored that house. My bedroom was upstairs with a view of the track, which I loved. I was into horseback riding and spent hours with Snowflake, my beautiful white pony. In Staten Island, I rode on an English saddle, but it was Western at the farm.
We spent most of the summer in Cream Ridge. Mom liked to putter around in the garden and my brother, Gerard, kept himself busy dirt biking around the vast property. During the summer, Dad commuted back and forth. He’d leave the farm on a Tuesday and come back on Thursday. My father was a different person when he was at the farm. He’d sit out on the front porch in the mornings, sipping coffee and watching the trainers on the track. He always seemed relaxed, as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
He’d bring friends and their families from New York. I didn’t know it at the time, but all the friends were involved in the Mafia. My father had one rule. There was to be no shoptalk at the farm. “If you come up, you need to bring your coveralls because everyone is pitching in,” he’d say. We shared lots of laughs. There were always people around and construction going on.
But the day Dad sent us to the farm early, things didn’t go according to the rule. First, he arrived unexpectedly. It was just before dinner when I heard the crunch of gravel on the driveway. Sprinting to the window, I saw Dad’s maroon Lincoln pulling up, and several other cars arriving behind his. My father had told us he wouldn’t be coming for several more days. And yet here he was. Not only that, he had “Stymie” with him in the car. Stymie was Joe D’Angelo, my father’s closest friend.
Dad said he had met him on the “street.” The two men were so simpatico they even looked alike with their dark brown hair and short stocky builds, although at five feet eight inches tall Stymie had a good three inches on my father. They dressed the same, too, in similar sweat suits and sneakers. Stymie owned a bar in Brooklyn called Docks. Dad referred to him as his right-hand man.
My father was in his white T-shirt and sweatpants when he stepped out of the car. Stymie was wearing a sweatshirt over his shirt. He didn’t have his wife with him, which was very unusual. When Dad’s friends came up, they always brought their families. Uncle Eddie and several other members of Dad’s work crew got out of the other vehicles. None of them had their wives and kids along.
I ran around to the kitchen to say hello to my father. He was talking to my mother in a hushed voice. I saw her shaking her head.
“Okay,” she whispered, before following my dad outside.
That night, Mom served dinner out on the back porch, which was completely screened in. There was a low wall around the base of the porch supporting the screens. When I wanted to eavesdrop on my parents’ conversations I could hide behind it, out of view. I’d often use the spot to overhear discussions about requests of mine, like when I would ask my parents if we could go to Great Adventure Amusement Park. After I had asked, I’d disappear from the room and then sneak around back and listen from the outside to hear them weighing their decision.
That evening, however, I sensed my father was not himself. His mood was scaring me. I could always tell when something was on his mind. He’d get quiet and stare off into space. I was sure something was wrong and was convinced it had to do with the gun and the murder outside his nightclub. I didn’t want to think that he might be involved.
“Go help your mom clean up,” my father told me at the end of dinner. I cleared the table, and then asked my father if he wanted to watch me ride Snowflake.
“No, I’ll come out later,” he said. “I’m just talking to the boys.”
Mom was in the kitchen when I snuck around to the outside of the porch and crawled into my hiding spot. My back was against the wall and I was sitting, “Indian-style,” listening. I’d never done that before, listening in on one of my father’s conversations with his friends. But I wanted to know what was going on.
“Paul’s hot over this,” I heard one of the guy’s say. I knew they were probably talking about Paul Castellano. He was Dad’s boss in the construction business, or so I thought.
“Well I had to do what I had to do,” I heard my father say. “Fuck Paul. If we have to go to war, that’s what we have to do.”
War? What was my father talking about?
I heard Uncle Eddie interrupt. “I told you we shouldn’t have done this.”
“All right, Eddie, stop with your whining,” Dad snapped.
Something was definitely wrong. My father could be in trouble. I was sure it had to do with what had happened the night I’d seen him with the revolver. I was starting to put the pieces together. After I had seen him with the gun, I found out that the guy who was buying his nightclub had been murdered, and now my father was saying that he “did what he had to do.” I started thinking of all the things I’d seen and heard over the years that hadn’t made sense, like the time when I was six and found the gun under his mattress and him being out late and hanging out with people who looked different from my friends’ fathers. I wanted to stay and listen some more, but I was worried about being seen. I was also feeling guilty about hearing stuff that was clearly not meant for me to hear. I crawled away and went back into the house through the front door.
At that moment, my father walked back into the kitchen.
“I thought you were going riding,” he said.
“I’m not in the mood.” I could feel my father staring at me like he knew I had been listening.
“Are you okay?” He was looking at me weird.
“Let’s cut up some fruit and we’ll bring it out to the guys,” he smiled.
I watched him at the kitchen counter, carefully slicing the skin from the watermelon. Following him out to the porch, I continued to study him, observing how he was interacting with the guys. My father was at ease, talking and enjoying his dessert. He seemed back to his normal self. I was confused. Maybe I was just misreading him.
Later that evening, Dad and I walked out to the barn to turn out the lights. Snowflake was kicking at her stall, happy to see us. “You guys are going to go back to Staten Island for a couple of days,” he said.
“Why, I thought we were going to stay up here for the whole summer?”
“You are,” he smiled. “But you’re just gonna go back to Staten Island for a couple of days.”
I was back to thinking that something wasn’t right. What I’d just overheard, the gun, the man who just got shot outside Dad’s nightclub.
“Daddy, if you ever die, would we live up here on the farm?” I was beginning to feel a little frightened.
My father stood still. Turning to look at me, he asked, “Why would you ask that?”
“I don’t know. I just want to know if we’d live in Staten Island or come up to the farm to live.”
“Well, I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about that ’cause you’re stuck with me for a long time.”
I didn’t know there was a hit out on his life.
* * *
The next morning, Gerard and I came downstairs. We went out to the chicken coop to look for eggs for our breakfast. The hens laid brown eggs, which had taken me a while to get used to, but I grew to love them. We found two eggs, but broke one in the fight over who was carrying them. Mom said we’d have to use one from the refrigerator, but she wasn’t going to tell us who was getting which. Gerard and I loved our eggs sunny-side up, which we called “dunky” eggs because of the nice puddle of yolk to dunk our toast in.
By the time we got the egg issue straightened out, Dad was at the breakfast table acting normal. I was looking at him, not sure what to think. The night before something was definitely wrong, but he always just made everything seem like it was okay. I was too scared to ask any questions. My mom seemed a little preoccupied. When we left for Staten Island, she told my father, “I love you,” then hugged him in a way that was different. Because he was so calm, I wasn’t as nervous as I might have been otherwise. We went to the barn to feed my horse and say good-bye. I found Dad still in the kitchen and kissed him goodbye. “I’ll see you guys soon,” he said. Mom had a big, white percolator pot going on the stove, and Dad’s friends were outside on the back porch drinking coffee.
When we got back to Staten Island, a bunch of our friends were playing outside. Gerard and I jumped out of the car to join them, forgetting all about the disturbing situation back at the farm. I was so excited to see my friends. It was like nothing ever happened. Dad came back from Cream Ridge a couple of days later. I was so happy to see him, and I hugged him for an extra long time. I looked at him like nothing could ever happen to us, not with him to protect us. He seemed like his normal self again. He even called Gerard and me “kiddo.” After dinner, he told me that I needed to rub his head. One of our favorite routines when I wanted to stay up late was to rub his head, face, and shoulders. Normally, he pretended he had to bribe me to rub his head, pay me. But this time I did it willingly, I was just so happy to see him. I was just so relieved.
I didn’t think about Frank Fiala at all. I was too young to grasp that murder was part of Dad’s job description. I didn’t even know that Fiala’s murder was against the rules of the Mafia because it hadn’t been authorized by the boss, Paul Castellano. In that world, before you could commit murder, you had to make a case to the family capo. An unsanctioned murder usually cost you your life. Dad was in deep shit, but I didn’t know it. There was so much more I had yet to learn.
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Gravano with Lisa Pulitzer