Researching street-level mob activity isn’t easy, in fact it’s damn frustrating. My new novel, Cold City, is set in 1990 and sports a motley crew of characters, some of whom are low-level members of the Gambino crime family. The ’Net is loaded with info on Carlo Gambino, Paul Castellano, and the latter’s successor (via assassination), John Gotti. But what was it like down on the streets in 1990? No one was talking.
I was uncomfortable writing in a milieu I knew nothing about except for what I’d seen in films like GoodFellas. Because, frankly, I don’t trust Hollywood.
While visiting Las Vegas, I toured the Mob Museum in hope of some enlightenment. What’d I come away with? Stugots. But as I’m exiting through the museum store (like I had a choice), I spot this trade paperback: Surviving the Mob – a Street Soldier’s Life inside the Gambino Crime Family. I snatch it up to check the table of contents and I see that the first fifteen chapters cover 1984 to 1995.
Are you freakin’ kidding me?
I clutch it to my chest and devour it on the plane ride back to Sopranoland.
Surviving the Mob is an eye opener in the truest sense. I’d been under the impression that New York’s Five Families were extremely clannish, almost like exclusive rival clubs who’d be at each other’s throats were it not for the Commission Lucky Luciano created to mediate disputes. That’s true to a certain extent in the upper echelons, where factions vie for control and heads of families plot against each other.
But down on the street it’s different. Sure, each family has its army of street soldiers divided into crews overseen by caporegimes or capos; those capos answer to the underboss who answers to the capo famiglia—the head of the family. At the time of Cold City, the Gambino capo famiglia was the Teflon Don himself, John Gotti.
Surviving the Mob tells Andrew DiDonato’s story, running from when he was a teenage tough stealing car parts in the early ’80s, through his many years as a street soldier involved in every aspect of the Gambino family businesses, to the time he became a state’s witness against he mob in the late ’90s. He shows how street soldiers from different families often cooperated on robberies, gambling, theft rings, and extortion. The capos didn’t mind as long as long as it was profitable and they got to wet their beaks (i.e., received a piece of the action).
He goes into great detail about the mob’s gambling operations—like the floating crap games that moved to a different venue every night to escape detection. I was surprised to learn that the mob’s games were mostly honest. They made enormous profits playing it straight and didn’t want to risk losing their high-rolling regulars who would bolt if they got the idea they were being cheated. But tourists, who would most likely never be seen again, were another matter. They had no qualms about taking them to the cleaners.
DiDonato joined Nicky Corozzo’s crew as a teen. Corozzo started off as a godfather figure, but as time went on DiDonato learned that his mentor had feet of clay. The code of omerta? Loyalty and support within the family? All bullshit. He ends with a message for wannabe wise guys:
When I got into this life… I thought I was part of something—a family that took care of its own. Everybody looked out for each other… I was wrong.
When I was a kid, I thought the bosses walked on water. But… when it came to winning their cases, they were willing to throw anybody and everybody under the bus to beat the rap. Some standup guys.
In today’s mob, money and loyalty go from the bottom up. If you get pinched and have to do some time, don’t count on your crime family to take care of your real family.
Andrew DiDonato’s arc from loyal street soldier to broke, disillusioned informer is a tale that’s as informative as it is fascinating.
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F. Paul Wilson, the New York Times bestselling author of the Repairman Jack novels, lives in Wall, New Jersey. In 2008, he won the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement.