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Abe Reles had nothing to do but skulk on the corner with other fifteen-year-old dropouts. In Brooklyn of the 1920s, the street corner was a tutorial, a tribal gathering, a stage for posturing, a bully pulpit, a marketplace, and a Darwinian proving ground. Boys cadged cigarettes, ate knishes smeared with spicy mustard, drank egg creams, and rolled dice for nickel bets. They filched apples from pushcart vendors, threw rocks at laundry wagons pulled by swaybacked horses, and traded punches with boys from neighboring corners. The street rang with Yiddish insults. Pisher! Schlemiel! Momzer! Chozzer!
Even at age fifteen, Reles ruled his own street corner like an underage general. He stood only five foot two, but he had thickset-man strength, with Popeye arms that dangled unnaturally almost to his knees and fists that a prosecutor later called “a set of hammers.” He stared down all comers with the fat face of a Pixar villain. His rubbery lips rested in a sneer. He spoke with a baritone rasp, already roughened by daily packs of Lucky Strikes, and deformed by a lisp.
Add to his unhandsome appearance the grating “dese” and “dems” of a Brooklyn patois so thick and constant that he sounded like a parody of the New York street punk. “He spoke,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote years later, “with an impediment suggesting a mouthful of marbles.”
However witless he might seem, Reles had a gift for mean manipulation and bully tactics. He had an eye for weakness and the muscle to exploit it. The term “street smart” might have been coined with him in mind. He scared even his friends.
As a teen Reles could already see criminal possibilities beyond the street corner. He gravitated to a pasticceria in the East New York neighborhood where grizzled Italian men with bad teeth, Brooklyn padrones, read neatly folded racing forms and the Italian-language newspaper Il Progresso with solemn concentration. They drank cup after cup of tar-thick espresso and fattened up on riccios, buttery Italian croissants.
The proprietor, Louis Capone (no relation to Al Capone), was a well-groomed Neapolitan with a gentle manner and watery blue eyes. His broken nose lent his swarthy face a cockeyed aspect as he hovered about the café tables, formally shaking hands and patting forearms. He spoke of the old country and neighborhood gossip.
The padrones understood that Capone’s real job was racketeering: The pasticceria was only a front and recruiting tool. He lured useful young toughs like Reles with free coffee and pastries. He engaged them with his avuncular singsong accent and riccios warm from the oven, then asked if they wanted to earn pocket money running a few hoodlum errands in their spare time. He could offer them more work, he said, if things went well.
Things did go well for Reles—so well that he became Capone’s full-time enforcer, bagman, and lookout. He spent his days shaking down whorehouses and collecting extortion payments from defenseless bakers and grocers. Reles was Brooklyn’s toughest teenage runt, an undersized street punk with a hair-trigger temper. He stopped to commiserate with butchers and tobacconists after a brick thrown from the street shattered their shop window, and a second brick broke it again after a pricey repair. How unfortunate, Reles said, that a good-for-nothing kid was breaking their window and they could do nothing about it. What you need, he suggested, is a watchman to protect your shop. Reles could arrange it for thirty dollars up front and five dollars a week thereafter.
If they failed to pay promptly Reles barged in, all bulging arms and menace. He ripped goods from shelves and threw his oversized fists. He put his face close and, through sprays of spittle, issued threats in his odd baritone lisp. I give you a nice deal and this is how you repay me, you schmuck? If you want to be my fucking friend, you’ll have the fucking money ready next time. He might throw them to the floor and press his foot to their neck. His anger was real and dialed to a piercing pitch.
Copyright © 2020 by Michael Cannell