Breslin Finds Star 'Rat' in a New York Mafia Tale
Breslin Finds Star 'Rat' in a New York Mafia Tale
Jimmy Breslin found his "good rat" on a witness stand a few years ago.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, who has spent a career covering New York's mafia, found the star of his new book, The Good Rat, in Burt Kaplan, a witness in a trial against two New York detectives indicted for acting as mafia hit men.
Kaplan spent part of his life as a legitimate guy, raising a daughter and running a garment business. But on the side, he also trafficked drugs and set up hits for the mob. While he was serving a jail sentence in 2004, Kaplan turned state's evidence against detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa.
Breslin discovered Kaplan while covering the cops' trial, where he hoped to find enough meat for a new book. But rather than focusing his pen on the crooked cops, Breslin sees a true story in Kaplan's life. In The Good Rat, Breslin uses Kaplan's story to create a portrait of the New York mob as it functioned every day. Breslin goes inside mob watering holes, describes famous body dumping grounds and captures legendary mafia moments.
Jacki Lyden spoke to Breslin about covering his city's notorious gangsters.
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Excerpt: 'The Good Rat'
Excerpted from the Prologue
What I'm doing, I'm kissing the mirror, and I'm doing it so I can see myself kissing and get it exactly right. ... This way I can go into the club house and kiss them on the cheeks the way I'm supposed to. That's the Mafia. We kiss hello. We don't shake hands. We kiss.
I am at the mirror because I'm afraid of lousing up on kissing. ... This is real Mafia. For years cops and newspaper reporters glorified the swearing- in ceremony with the needle and the holy picture in flames and the old guy asking the new guy questions, like they all knew so much. The whole thing added up to zero. The kissing is different. It comes from strength and meaning. If you kiss, it is a real sign that you're in the outfit. You see a man at the bar, you kiss him. You meet people anyplace, you kiss them. Like a man. It doesn't matter who sees you. They're supposed to see.
It all started when John "Sonny" Franzese and Joey Brancato, both big guys in the Colombo outfit, bumped into each other one day on the corner of Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue in Greenpoint, which is in Brooklyn, and they kissed each other on the cheeks. The only thing anybody on Metropolitan Avenue knew was that they had never seen it done before. The moment the men kissed, it became a street rule. This was at least fi fty years ago. Immediately they were doing it on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park and Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach. Soon even legitimate citizens were doing it.
Sonny Franzese was born in Italy, brought here by his family when he was two. The family settled on Lorimer Street, which is made of two- story frame houses, home built, and a bakery and restaurant. At a young age, Sonny failed to behave. In school he also fell short. Even in the army for a brief time, he received a poor report card. He sparkled on local police reports and his name got stars on FBI sheets.
The feds soon realized all they had to do was follow guys who kiss each other and they'd know the whole Mafia. Still nobody stopped.
Some guys said that Sonny Franzese had nothing to do with it. "Italian men always kiss," they claimed. But my friend Anthony — Tony Cafe — who is the boss of Metropolitan Avenue, says that when Sonny Franzese and Joey Brancato kissed it was the start of a great way for tough guys to know each other. It's like a password, only it's more personal.
The only thing anybody can agree on is the clout the old Black Hand had for a while. It came from the smallest villages in Sicily, where people in need of a favor or a goat went to the village priest for help. They would kiss his hand. Over the centuries Sicily was raided and raped by many other countries. They raided and raped and afterward went into blacksmith shops and stuck their hands into cans of black paint, then slapped the walls outside to frighten anybody who passed. The Sicilians soon took over and began sending extortion notes decorated with black hands and demands for money from the immigrants crowding into downtown New York. Pay or Die. Many paid.
The thing worked for a long time. Maybe we are talking about 1960, when I was in the village of Lercara Friddi, in the hills outside of Palermo, on a day of frigid rain. I was in the vestibule of the local church, large and leaky and falling down. I asked a man for the name of the church and he said, "Church? This is a cathedral."
Outside in the narrow alley was a cow. The street of low stone houses ended at a fi eld where narrow- gauge rail tracks led into a deserted sulfur mine. Kids in short pants and bare legs huddled in doorways and played cards.
The next morning, on the way to the airport, I found an Italian-English dictionary that I used to buy a stamp pad. I got a handful of postcards and stood off to the side of the ticket counter and smacked my hand on the ink pad and then on one of the postcards. I did this several times. The ticket clerk, pretty and bright as you want, walked over frowning.
"I need you," I said. "I want to write a thing in Italian."
"Put down 'Pay or Die' in Italian."
She sighed. "Do you really want such silliness?"
I told her sure, that's what I want, and she made a face and told me again how silly it was. Then she told me to put down "Paghi o Mori."
She said, "That is the Sicilian."
I took those cards and put stamps on them and mailed them to several people I knew back home in New York. The postcards fell on Queens in an attack so sudden and surprising that people's legs gave out as they read. Dr. Philip Lambert, a dentist who ran a fi xed dice game in his waiting room on Jamaica Avenue, was shaking as he showed the card to the veteran cheat Nicky the Snake.
"Look at this," the Snake said, "it's from Palermo. Doc, it's real. What did you do to them? Nobody here is heavy enough to make them go away."
The doc tried. He took the postcard to Joe Massino of the Bonanno mob. Joe looked at it and frowned.
"One guy can help you," he said. "God."
From then on, Doc Lambert lived a life of noisy desperation. He went to the Queens travel agency favored by Sicilians and got people to carry notes to Palermo and give them to taxi drivers. The notes begged the Black Hand to let him live. This made him different from the others who received postcards and writhed in silent fear. When a mobster from the neighborhood was killed, the postcard holders believed the Black Hand had struck. Doc Lambert took nervous breaths as he drilled teeth and hoped that he didn't slip and go through the guy's tongue. He also hoped to go on living. As far as I know he died of natural causes.
From The Good Rat by permission of HarperCollins Publishers / Ecco