Sunday, April 22, 2012

This Is the Way They Operate

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“You! I’m gonna kill you!” Estelle’s finger jabbed in the direction of a middle-aged woman walking past our bench outside Espresso 77 in Jackson Heights. Rain was trailing down halfheartedly, shunted away from us by a skimpy awning, but Estelle kept her umbrella at attention anyway.

The passing woman looked startled and almost instinctively guilty, clutching the cottony evidence of a dry-cleaned shirt. Estelle glared and gibbered. I thought I was in the presence of an octogenarian lunatic—until I realized she was ranting about dry-cleaning receipts. Then I was sure of it.

“She owes me her life,” Estelle told me, while the woman lingered within earshot. “She came to me and said ‘Let me clean your house.’ I said ‘Are you a cleaner?’ She said ‘No, but I need money.’ So I paid her. Hell of a cleaning job. But thanks to me she went back to school. She’s a teacher now.”

Estelle was about halfway through her hour-long rest stop on my bench and had already threatened to kill two people—the other was her own daughter, who was already dead—so I was minding my words carefully. Not that she needed much of a response from me: her stories unrolled without any provocation on my part. She’d started in with anecdotes about her husband, who had died of cancer after a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

“His nurses told me he had been hiding cigarettes in the room. I said ‘He’s not hiding them—I’m bringing them.’ They told me he had a week to live—you think I’m gonna withhold them now?” He’d had one tall nurse and one short—Big One and Small One to Estelle. “I’d say, ‘Small One, clean him up, get him ready.’ I never used their names.”

One day she walked into the hospital and an orderly informed her, regretfully, that her husband had died. She went in to see his body and he was sitting in his room, reading the newspaper. The nurse had confused two parties.

The kicker came at his funeral. Estelle didn’t want a big to-do—“I wanted a gravesite and that’s all. So I got this guy to say a few words at the gravesite, and I said I’d give him $400. He said ‘Okay, that’s fine.’” She just wanted a few kind words—“’Wonderful husband and father, and we’ll miss him.’

“So he comes and this kid comes over to me and he says to me, ‘I’ll be getting the check?’ I said ‘Yeah, I’ll get you the check for $400.’ He says ‘No—$700.’”

“I know he knows who owned the cemeteries. The mafia. They controlled them. I think they still do. So he says to me, ‘I was told to get $700 or not to let him get buried.’ So what would you do? I gave him the $700.”

Luckily, during her law-practice years, Estelle had done a favor for some mob boys—straight-arrow stuff, she assured me, not a whiff of trouble; just making sure they had some farmland to retire on—and Peter Savino, a local mafia man (and informant later in life), had promised to do “anything in the world” for her.

She got her $300 refunded.

To hear Estelle talk, the history of the mafia was the history of New York, and she herself had frequently taken advantage of their largesse. “I said to Peter, ‘You know anybody that makes those Venetian blinds?’ The next morning around nine o'clock the bell rings and I go to the door. There's a man there, he's in his car, and he says ‘Peter Savino sent me over to measure for the blinds.’” She cackled. Her daughter, she let me know, got the pretty pink blinds.

She certainly knew a lot about the organization’s crooked deals. “Seven cents each” she claimed the mob collected for New York’s replacement windows. “All these buildings in Manhattan—I mean, come on. You can't even measure.”

Estelle had been operating somewhat in the shadows even before her mafia connections developed. After the war, her husband had been tasked—by whom never became clear—with securing prostitutes for some visitors to New York. He was too innocent for the job. “He didn’t even know what hookers looked like,” she told me, tapping my shoulder and smirking knowingly, as if to say: What kind of man doesn’t know that?

I shrugged my shoulders.

She had gotten the girls—of whose stunning beauty she assured me, the implication being that today’s prostitutes just didn’t measure up—but shot me a nasty look when I asked if she had ever done such a thing again. She only did it to help her husband, she insisted. She didn’t get into that kind of stuff. Never. Nope.

Maybe not. But throughout her lecture Peter Savino popped up with such regularity, promising her everything from Venetian blinds to free wedding catering from the finest restaurant in Manhattan, that her disclaimers seemed slightly disingenuous. She might have been on the fringes, but the benefits apparently spiraled out that far.

“There you go,” I said. “Anything you need.”

Anything you need,” Estelle marveled. “They don’t even hesitate. This is the way they operate.”

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