Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Question of Honor: An Italian-American Reviews Manhattan Mafia Guide

My beautiful bride Linda read an interesting book recently, and I wanted to share her thoughts....

Italian pride is a fierce and inscrutable thing. It drives a man of said heritage through six years of active research to document the history of the powerful New York Mafia. It also causes a second-generation Italian-American woman to devour his findings with morbid fascination. My eighty-four year old father read Eric Ferrara's Manhattan Mafia Guide, and passed it along to me. The subsequent discussion was an exercise in self-definition for which I was not entirely prepared.

I learned that in 1938 a young Italian boy sat red-faced in an American history class while the teacher decried the immigrant influx of “undesirables” from Southern and Eastern Europe. In Manhattan Mafia Guide, Ferrara cites an August 1931 Time magazine article describing the scene of a murder in an East Harlem Italian neighborhood which corroborates with my father's humiliating school experience:

[After the dinner hour,] fat, oily women, some without shoes, rattle dirty dishes. Their men sit smoking [...] their litters of children play and quarrel shrilly all through the street. Into this babble and filth and smell one evening last week came Terror.

According to my father, the Mafia arose when some vilified and unscrupulous Italians organized to gain social strength, and most especially, protect their honor. While not entirely disenfranchising this view, Ferrara chooses to emphasize the flagrant Machiavellian opportunism through which innumerable widows were made and untold thousands were held in a grip of fear and blind loyalty for generations. His work is a careful delineation of the facts of this woeful notoriety, peppered with sketches of colorful characters such as Vincent “Chin” Gigante, who wandered the streets in ratty pajamas, feigning mental illness for the benefit of police surveillance, but was also regularly seen navigating high society handsomely decked, meticulously coiffured, and fully in his right mind.

At first glance, Manhattan Mafia Guide seems to aspire to nothing more than an interesting assortment of names, dates, locations and events. But dig deeper and you find a portrait of pride in the way these infamous men threw off the dehumanizing wretchedness of the slums to gain power, wealth, and prestige. Dig deeper still and you catch a glimpse of those Italian immigrants whose honor caused them to resist the extortion and intimidation of the Mafia at great personal cost.

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