Maybe I should hop a jet to Vegas for a weekend at the dice tables or hang out in Beverly Hills for a while. Maybe I should bang a couple of hookers or sniff some cocaine—you know, something recreational to change my mood. I went in the library again and it didn’t do me any good.
Call me crazy, call me a dreamer, but I think that James Madison and Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano and the other founding fathers of our country wanted me to have whatever I want whenever I want it. And let me tell you something: the way the market is going, everybody can afford it. Is this a great country or what? But you’ll never know how great it is until you get out of that library. The stacks are a real drag.
I can’t even remember when it was I started to lose it. All I wanted to read about was some simple hits and exciting stuff like that, like you see all the time on the cable, when I made the mistake of picking up Jonathan Kwitny’s Vicious Circles: The Mafia’s Control of the American Marketplace (1979). This book really brought me down. It was all about the Mob in the meat business, unions, cheese, trucking, banking and finance, the docks, clothing, booze, and corporations. I didn’t want to hear about that stuff—too complicated, too many facts. And I must admit Kwitny really grossed me out when he declared that the Mafia was “the largest American criminal conspiracy since the secession of the Confederacy.” You see? Organized crime and American history really are the same thing. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Tommy “Stonewall” Giacsonni, James “Warhorse” Longostrada, you remember those guys.
Well, Clinard and Yeager’s Corporate Crime (1980) was also dull. It was more about white collar stuff. Am I missing something, or aren’t those guys, the white collar criminals I mean, just yuppies trying to get along and make a buck? If it wasn’t for them, the stock market wouldn’t be so high. Clinard and Yeager are some kind of low-rent party-poopers if you ask me, and if you didn’t, I’m telling you anyway.
Next case. Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust by Russell Mokhiber (1988) was a real root-canal. Mokhiber never met a scam he liked. He dumps on Love Canal, thalidomide, Bhopal, Agent Orange, the Corvair, you name it. He sounds like Ralph Nader. I wonder if he is a real American. He doesn’t seem to have any appreciation of moxie.
By now I was feeling like Huey Lewis and the News. I needed a new drug. I figured I also needed a suppressor for my Sig Saner because I was going to blast the next guy who rained on my parade, you know what I mean? But Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street (1982) by David McClintick was more about routine lying and stealing than anything else and I didn’t even get annoyed with it though by now my back was starting in on me. I needed a steam bath and not a bath house, if you get my drift.
I kept plugging, looking for some action. Then I hit pay dirt. The Mafia Mystique by Dwight C. Smith, Jr. (1974) was a lot more mv style. As far as I’m concerned. Professor Smith proved that the Mafia doesn’t exist but is only a bunch of cliches that haven’t changed since New Orleans in 1890. And he is a professor, not some goombah trying to organize a civil rights league like Joe Columbo. And you remember what happened to Joe. I was starting to cheer up.
Maybe this whole thing was going to work out, because Crime, Crusades, and Corruption: Prohibitions in the United States 1900-1987 by Michael Woodiwiss (1988) blamed everything on the cops and the feds. My thoughts exactly! Residual puritanism and resentment of victimless crimes had led to a spiral of corruption mostly to be blamed on old fogeys and the police. Woodiwiss was my favorite so far. I wondered why it took a Limey to understand how this country’ really works. I mean, if a guy wants to roll the bones, get laid, and get high (in whatever order), that’s his business. And the judges and the old ladies should butt out.
But then I crashed. Stephen Fox really brought me down with Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth-Century America (1989). I hate to admit that his was the best book I looked at, because he was real tough on the wise guys. I think that Fox has his values screwed up, but otherwise I have to admit he knows a lot about what’s been happening. The trouble is that he thinks all the good things (the booze, the broads, the numbers, the drugs, above all the millions) are bad things. He’s a real head ease and I have just one question for Mr. Foxy. If gambling is so corrupt, then how come the states are sponsoring lotteries and all the people are flocking to the casinos? Answer me that one, Mr. Smarty Pants!
Jill Jonnes’ Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of I America’s Romance With Illegal Drugs (1996) sounded like a stone groove but was another bad trip. Jonnes knows all about drugs, but would you believe she’s against them? And not only the drugs but the money and crime and corruption. Women. Can’t live with ’em.
Well, by now I was desperate. I headed over to the periodicals. There had to be something good for my head in this library somewhere. And no old bat librarian had better cross me, either. Yeah, I was carrying. I never met a librarian yet who wanted to get whacked, but you never know what yon might run into. I did run into a librarian one time, actually, but that was on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Anyway, it was a real boost to read (in the New York Times of July 12) that “A lobbying blitz by some of the biggest names in corporate America has succeeded in maintaining a corporate tax break for multinational corporations—one that allows them to avoid United States taxes and reduce their foreign tax bill, too.” The loophole involving “hybrid structures” was pushed by Philip Morris, General Motors, Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, Xerox, Exxon, Hallmark Cards, and Coca-Cola. “This measure signaled that Congress can’t stand up to industry,” declared Michael McIntyre, a tax law professor at Wayne State University. “It’s outrageous, and as tax policy, it is indefensible. This is so far beyond the pale of what is considered legitimate tax avoidance.” What does he know? Give me a break.
Senator William V. Roth, Republican of Delaware and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was instrumental in the negotiations with the Clinton administration, standing up on principle for the interests of the people of Delaware in the matter, not to mention the people of the United States. I chugalugged one of those little bottles of vodka that this obliging stewardess slipped me the last time I flew into Vegas. That made me feel good. I could rest easier knowing how attentive to detail and to the higher responsibilities of his office Senator Roth has shown himself to be. He manned the ramparts for the multinationals while the Democrats were taking money from China. No wonder this country is in such great shape, with statesmanship like that. I was feeling better already, maybe two amphetamines worth. The books had me going both ways, like speedballs.
Now I wouldn’t want to say that anything is criminal because I am a stand-up guy and nobody ever called me a rat or a squealer. But how could anything be anything but legit when these so-called “crimes” are committed by so many lawyers and legislators, the people responsible for defining what crime is? I mean you got to follow the money and see where the money is because that is the market and the market is what’s legit, capish? That’s capitalism, pal. You got a problem with that? But then the whole thing, the res publica, is fogged by some kind of residual confusion. Maybe it should be called not the Republic but the Cosa Nostra. It is, after all, whatever it is. Our Thing. Of course it is. And if we keep reading the New York Times of July 12, we can find out all about it. Our Thing is good, it’s American and it works. It’s even yummy. And the price is right. I was starting to get the munchies even without any dope when I read this great thing in the paper about what a piece of work Las Vegas is.
The front page human interest story, “For Las Vegas Locals, Heavy Action Is at the Buffet,” tells all about how to pig out at the cheap spreads that the Las Vegas casinos present to lure the suckers—make that, happy consumers. Frank Bruni really laid it on in his account of the consumer troughs. Only the walls stopped the ethnic sub-buffets (food tables, not gaming tables) from going on forever. They keep the locals waddling, not to mention the millions of visitors. But I kind of missed in Bruni’s cute account anything about the real background of Las Vegas, what they call the context, and that was not beside the point. That was the point. Could there possibly be a connection between the cozy formation of national tax policy and the rollover for the public relations of the corporations that now own the casinos of Las Vegas? You better believe it.
Gee whiz, even I rather missed in Bruni’s picture of America’s dream place something of the surrounding aspect, the history, and I am no puff pastry. You know what I mean—the local color. The illustrated directories of prostitutes—the ones they hawk on the streets—kind of got left out. What about the losers, the suicides, the alcoholics, the addicts? What about the environmental distortions, the jerry-rigged electricity, the stolen water? What about the murders, the car-bombings, the Mafia and Teamster money, the racketeering, the crooked wheels, the shaved dice, the marked cards? All those Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesei-type stories? Las Vegas gives you what you want when you want it, the air-conditioning and the ice cubes and swimming pools and golf courses in the desert, and, above all, gambling of every kind. Las Vegas is Our Thing, just like Washington, D.C. Robert Venturi has made the argument about the buildings and lights. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have made the argument with songs. Millions of Americans have made the argument into a moral and social thing by showing up.
And others have made different arguments. The drug-induced vision of James Toback’s screenplay for the glitzy Warren Beatty/Annette Bening vehicle, Bugsy (1992), began to roll in my head like a video. In the flick, when Bugsy Siegel gets his Big Idea about how to organize Las Vegas and build the Flamingo, the joy of the moment is conveyed as though that hard case was a bighearted kid like Mickey Rooney playing Andy Hardy, Bugsy wanted to give the people what they wanted—he is a founding father, a visionary benefactor. In the movie, his clip of Big Greenie Greenbaum is a mercy killing consented to by the hapless victim—a favor to a pal who gets put out of his misery, whereas actually it was a Mob hit coordinated from New York. Bugsy practices his elocution and works on his tan as a latter-day Jay Gatsby or Benjamin Franklin, a self-inventor. He did indeed want to be a movie star and hung out in Hollywood. But the movie doesn’t show anything about the influence of the Mob in Hollywood, or the big studios’ deals with the mobster who later got whacked, Willie Bioff. Bugsy was wired with every dirty deal in Los Angeles all the way to the District Attorney’s office, and with the corporations as well. The movie Bugsy has to remind you that Hollywood has always had a thing about crooks. Siegel’s sense of public relations and his great clothes made him real Hollywood. Racketeering is cool-if you have a nice haircut. Now anyone can walk into Las Vegas and pretend to live in the fast lane until the bill comes due. That’s what the Mob did for this country and we love it. We are a made country, living in a gangster movie. Hey, Lucky Luciano was in the Hotel Arkansas in Hot Springs on the lam from Dewey back in the 1930’s. Hot Springs was connected. You ever heard of anybody from Hot Springs?
A couple more small vodkas and I realized that Bugsy is important, all right, though perhaps not exactly as James Toback and Barry Levinson and Warren Beatty presented him. They didn’t go far enough. He stands for several notable American impulses besides self-transformation, which was in his case as in most others a form of lying. He stands for the principle of complete unscrupulousness in all aspects of existence; for the triumph of image over reality; and for pandering to people’s worst instincts as a form of liberation. For Bugsy, desire was reason. That and his style was what made him such a great guy. No wonder Hollywood loved him, and still does. The satanic Bugsy Siegel is the saint of a view of life which we recognize as contemporary America. And not only that. Because there is a legend that Siegel wanted to bump off Mussolini (in one version) or even prominent Nazis (in another), he has been presented as a hero of Jewish strength as well. Would I kid you? After all, what is exempted today from revision according to identity group politics? But perhaps we can turn to another example. With my head so clogged by drugs and booze and trying to remember what the vig is on my gambling debts and also to call my broker and the guy who cooks my taxes, it was hard for me to sort out all the stuff in my head but I gave it a try.
I always liked The Godfather and I’ll never forget those movies but I was sorry they had such an unhappy ending. Because for the country there was nothing but a happy ending. I mean they gave the country Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe and they agreed to distribute drugs and they did the numbers and the gambling and everything else that was what the people wanted or they would have been out of business. They shot the guy in the eye who was Bugsy Siegel under another name in the movie and everything turned out great except for their enemies and Michael Corleone who was miserable because he was married to Diane Keaton and also he had to kill his brother. Sometimes you might have to clip somebody because business is business, but the way I look at it, nobody has to marry Diane Keaton and that was the part that really tore me up.
But the greatest thing about The Godfather was what I call the patriotic or the national part. Like when the old man told Michael that they would have to wait a generation until one of them became a senator, and by God I think some of them have. Then later there was the crooked senator and Michael had his number all right. Michael had said they would go legit but by the time they did, they found that the legit stuff was crooked too. Because with the senator at his place, Michael had it made except for Diane Keaton and had more or less taken over the country. And the country was more like him, crowding into Las Vegas for the buffet and everybody having a great time except for Michael. Maybe it wasn’t only Diane Keaton. Maybe it was Al Pacino because he always looks like he swallowed a bad olive.
But there are so many other movies like that, with the sad ending. Men of Respect is one of them. I recognized the plot from the tenth grade because back then you had to read in high school. The whole thing was Macbeth, but I think it was a mistake. Shakespeare didn’t know as much about business as he thought he did. I mean, he has this guy clipping his boss because of a gypsy fortune teller. Now it’s been known to happen, but never because of a fortune teller. The other thing I didn’t like was that the Macbeth guy was all the time naked in his bedroom, but the woman, a tough guy until she freaked out at the end, never was even once. Somebody got their priorities backwards, but you know those artistic types.
Anyway, we don’t have a Godfather now. What we have is “Godfather Pizza,” which everybody likes. The guys in The Godfather were mostly Italian-Americans. They knew how to make good tomato sauce, and after a hit, they didn’t forget the cannoli. But remember what Joseph Valachi said, even when he was squealing to the feds: “I’m not talking about Italians. I’m talking about criminals.” He got that right.
I was starting to get clear again. I wished somebody had told Rich Cohen about how criminals aren’t ethnic groups nor vice versa because I found his new book, Tough jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, in the new acquisitions section of the library and wished I hadn’t. Mr. Cohen’s view of America is a bit weird though published by the establishment (Simon & Schuster). But nothing has damped his sales or kept Mario Cuomo and Larry [Zieger] King from endorsing his book, even though King is cited numerous times in the book he touts. I guess business is business.
I was real let down that Rich Cohen would write even one sentence in Tough Jews which would mislead anyone into thinking that it is not a love letter to dead thugs: “I don’t want to glamorize what these men did.” Why doesn’t he? He did, anyway. He really smarms over those hitmen but let me tell you. Murder, Inc., wasn’t any Hadassah meeting. Anyway, he writes like he was there when he wasn’t even born then, he tells us what the hard cases “must have” felt, and he keeps making with the poetry. He’s got all the hits and all the deals mixed up with the holocaust and the raid on Entebbe. Yeah, with Rich Cohen like in the movies, you get violins with your violence. But back in the old days, the guys didn’t have any violins in those violin cases, you know what I’m saying? Ice-picking a guy 60 times isn’t exactly planting trees in Israel. I wondered why Rich Cohen never figured out that Nazi goons had a lot in common with his Jewish gangsters, but not for long. Like I say, there are a lot of confused people in this world. I mean, there it was right in the library for all to see but he wouldn’t look it up. Paul Johnson drew us the picture in Modem Times of Ribbentrop in the Kremlin, setting the stage for World War II—and the holocaust: “As the tipsy killers lurched about the room, fumblingly hugging each other, they resembled nothing so much as a congregation of rival gangsters, who had fought each other before, and might do so again, but were essentially in the same racket”
So I decided to blow that dump of a library because I needed to get my shirts and my money laundered. I figured I had learned two things. One was that vodka corrupts, but Absolut vodka corrupts Absolutly. The other was that you could find a Gideon Bible even in a Las Vegas suite. By the time I got off the red-eye and adjusted my attitude, I would be ready to read about the golden calf before I hit the tables, looking for some action.
I racked the slide on my Sig in the parking lot, just like in an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s unregistered, chambered for 9 mil, and loaded with hollow-points. If any one of those old broads from the circulation desk had been there to mess with me, I would have cleaned her clock for her. As it was, there was nothing wrong with me that a Diet Pepsi couldn’t fix. To hell with the library. Forget about it. Books are just another racket, only with no buffet, no chicks, and no payoff.