Family Secrets


I liked being the rich kid, whose father may or may not have been in the mafia

La famiglia

Growing up in our otherwise middle-class New Jersey suburb in the late 1960s and early '70s, I believed we were rich. We were, in a way. Rich—at that time, in that place—meant we had what nearly everyone else could not afford: first-class flights, custom-made clothing, horses, restaurant meals three nights a week, more than one vacation a year and new Cadillacs every two years.

My father made money—a lot of it. Scrap metal and newspaper recycling money. Trucking money. Real estate money. But mostly, polyester money. He operated one of the first polyester finishing factories in the New York metropolitan area, taking in millions of raw yards of the newest wonder fabric (No wrinkles! Easy to wash! Affordable! Stretchy!), and shipping it out again to clothing manufacturers and fabric stores, folded, rolled or bolted.

Even as the money flowed in, my father refused to move from our small split-level house to the tony suburb next door, Montclair, where mansions whispered my mother's name. They fought about it. All the things and trips, OR the bigger house, he always said. But not both. We stayed put in the house, but traveled so much that the nuns at my elementary school (and later, the teachers in the public high school I insisted on attending) knew I'd be gone about a week every month or so.

I liked being the rich kid, the kid whose father may or may not be in the mafia.

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Of course, my father was not in the mafia. I always knew this. But it was fun, and often useful, to pretend, or to feign innocence or sworn silence. To talk about uncles and second cousins and goombahs with names like Carmine, Johnny the Jet, Fredo and Fat Frankie. All real people, but not mafioso, my father said.

On a three week trip to California when I was 10 (the summer after the one when we'd spent seven weeks in Europe), my father hired a stretch limousine and driver to thread us along the coastal highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We outnumbered him—my mother, me, my sister (now one year past college graduation) and her roommate Donna—and Dad wanted us to see every little thing that might make the ladies he loved happy. He'd told the limousine company as much.

"Take your time—the women want to see the scenery," my father told the driver. "We want to be on the coast road the whole way, and make some side trips, too. Don't worry, I'll take care of you," he told Carl, who I recall thinking was cute, but old. Probably 30. Sometimes I pretended he was my boyfriend, other times I had vivid daydreams of him marrying my sister.

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When we ate in nice restaurants, even for breakfast, my father invited Carl to join us; mostly, he said he'd sit at another table, but my father always paid. Sometimes he ate out in his hot car. At every overpriced hotel we slept at—it took us six days to make the 350-mile trip, stopping at anything and everything of interest (Huge trees! A museum! Great stores! An outdoor theater! A rocky beach! A sandy beach!)—I remember my father saying things to Carl like, "Call home from the room if you want" (this when most people feared long-distance call charges); "Go to the barber shop, get a shave if you want, sign it to the room"; "We're going to the pool in the morning before we leave, so sleep late if you want."

Mostly Carl grunted at him, and shook his head. Probably, he hated us. He didn't even flirt with my sister, and everyone flirted with my gorgeous sister who looked like a cross between Marlo Thomas in "That Girl" and Mary Tyler Moore in "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Once, he complained that the trip was taking so long. That was the only time I heard my father raise his voice.

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"The deal with your company was: Anywhere we want to go, any route, however long it takes," he said.

When, finally, we arrived at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, "the women" waited just inside the glass lobby door, while Carl opened the trunk, readying to unload suitcases, shopping bags and my mother's wig case. But first, he handed my father a small yellow piece of paper, the bill I supposed. My father reached into his pocket, extracted his money, a thick wad of it, held with a discreet gold clip and began reeling off bills. He folded them into Carl's hand, put away his bank roll and was just reaching for his wallet when the bellman asked him something. For a moment he stepped away, but held up a finger to Carl: Wait.

Instead, Carl slammed the car trunk, narrowly missing my father's wrist, grazing his hand just enough to make it bleed, then hurled a string of vulgarities his way. He jumped in the car and drove off so fast he left skid marks.

Later, I'd learn the cash was intended to be Carl's tip, in the exact amount of the bill—a 100 percent tip—while the check to pay the limousine company was in my father's wallet, which he didn't get the chance to pull out.

Poor Carl, thinking he was getting stiffed. Poor Carl—he didn't know that sometimes, only once in a while, and precisely when it suited his purposes, my father liked to pretend he was in the mafia.

In minutes, we were up in our huge suite, and my father was on the phone to the limousine company.

"Your bastard drove off with our suitcases, and almost cut my hand off. I'll say this once. If he doesn't get back here in 20 minutes flat, I'm going to make a phone call to my family back on the East Coast. I'm going to talk to my brother Silvio, and then Silvio is going to make a phone call to another family here on the West Coast, and by dinnertime, your driver is never going to be able to drive again. Understand? Now get my stuff back here. The women need their bloomers."

In 20 minutes, the bell captain called up to say our driver was back. By the time my father got to the front drive, the suitcases, shopping bags and wig case were neatly lined up. Carl was gone.

There was rarely anything fake about my father. He took a lot of pride in his ability to help people, to make people feel at home, to feel important.

For many years after, I would overhear him laughing with Silvio over a cup of espresso, about how scared that limo company owner had sounded on the phone, how that driver must have soiled himself, how the women had no bloomers.

Once, when he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's (though we didn't know it yet), I asked my father about the story, not really about the story itself, because I was there, but about the kidding around references to the mafia. He just grinned from ear to ear.

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