It was a thing. Every Tuesday night at around 7 or 8, the black Cadillac Sedan would pull up in front of Tali’s bar, and the driver would hustle around to the other side of the car, open the door, and out would step the esteemed passenger. John Gotti.
In the 90s John Gotti was king in our neighborhood. Most of the boys wanted to grow up to be like him. The expensive cars, the three-piece suits, the swagger and moxie, the awe and reverence he inspired. We felt lesser than and we wanted to feel better than and John Gotti was a symbolic bench-mark for high esteem.
On Tuesday nights Gotti would come collect money from Tali’s, a bar in which he was invested. Tali’s was located right up the block from where I lived. I never went in, and you couldn’t see inside because the front door was solid and the windows were darkened. Actually, I did go inside once, I don’t remember why, maybe my father or one of my uncles was in there, and I remember seeing a bunch of old men smoking and playing cards at tables directly across from the bar.
Outside Tali’s you’d often see Italian men, of all ages, loitering, smoking, bullshitting. The front of Tali’s was a Little Italy unto itself.
I could never tell which men were real gangsters and which were wanna-be gangsters. They all looked and acted like gangsters, conducted themselves with a belligerent sense of self-importance and bombastic speech, but I knew, from my father, that many were playing at being a gangster, or hoped to be regarded as such through their shoulder-brush association with the real gangsters.
I have no idea where my father stood in the gangster scheme of things. I knew that he received Teamster magazines, and that he had worked private sanitation for a while (which everyone knew was a mafia-run operation), and he definitely knew a lot of people, but I was never certain if he was on the periphery, on the outside looking in, or close to the center.
Once when I asked him about mafia, he snapped—John, when are you gonna grow up, there’s no such thing as mafia.
Mafia, it seemed, was a fiction on par with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, an illusion that required puncturing as a rite of passage.
Regular people went to Tali’s too. I knew because my uncle Anthony, who was definitely not a gangster, would sometimes go there to hang out. When I asked him what it was like inside there, what went on, he said—Nothing really goes on. The usual bar stuff. People drink, hang out, play cards, shoot darts, that kind of thing.
His banal description of Tali’s dulled the luster of the mystique I had built up in my mind. I imagined there was a back-room where people were sometimes killed. And that the ghosts of those people continued to haunt Tali’s. That big and important deals, determining the fates of various lives, were brokered in a hush-hush manner.
Maybe these things happened, maybe not. By time I was old enough to legally drink Tali’s had closed down and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Which, as it turned out, was a place where I waited tables for a summer when I was in my thirties. If the ghosts of the brutally slain were still milling about, I never heard a thing.