Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Neighborhood Social Club

Back in the days when John Gotti was in the headlines, he frequented two social clubs that were known hangouts for the Gambino crime family in New York. The Ravenite Social Club was located at 247 Mulberry St. in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. The Ravenite was home to Gotti and the rest of his crew in the late 1970s and '80s. Before that he held court at The Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, another Gambino crime family mob hangout and headquarters that was located at 98-04 101st Avenue in Ozone ParkQueens. Undoubtedly, these clubs were unsavory places where murder and mayhem were planned. FBI wire taps at the clubs allowed the Feds to recruit mob turncoat Sammy (The Bull) Gravano whose testimony contributed to the eventual downfall of Gotti and the rest of his crew.

Because of these clubs being connected to John Gotti, one might be tempted to tag all neighborhood social clubs with the "mob hangout" label. While it can't be denied that some of them shielded criminals and mob activities, the vast majority of them were harmless havens where men could gather, play cards and enjoy a glass of wine free from the intrusions of the outside world. Every Brooklyn neighborhood had a Democrat or Republican Club that not only offered opportunities to socialize, but bases for political operations where candidates could be evaluated, campaigned for, and hopefully, elected. Local politicos courted these organizations and counted on their support to get into office. The clubs represented nothing more than people looking out for themselves by helping to elect representatives who had their interests at heart.

We had at least two such clubs in the neighborhood...one on Fulton Street and another on Pitkin Avenue. Typically they were storefronts with tables and chairs (rescued from the garbage) set up outside for the members to sit at and enjoy their espresso laced with Anisette. Except for the coldest days, the doors were always open and sometimes music, usually Sinatra or opera, could be heard coming from inside. Many of the men lounging around were Italian, reflecting the population of the area. Some looked dapper in double-breasted suits and Boston Blackie pencil moustaches. Others were more casual in worn trousers and "pizza man" undershirts. They all had one thing in common: they looked slightly sinister and were highly suspicious of outsiders.

Despite this unsavory image, Italian men are really highly social and the atmosphere in these clubs was always gregarious. There was usually a game of Brisk (an Italian card game played in deadly earnest) in progress. Overheard snatches of conversations might include references to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the pros and cons of 'Napalitan' vs.Sicilian  pizza, what horse looked good in the third at Belmont, how Angelo caught his wife with the grocery boy, "that bastard Kennedy", and a hundred other topics from the ridiculous to the sublime. Each club had at least one bookie who would take bets on the daily number, horse races, ball games, or even the color of the next car coming down the street.

Kids were usually chased away unless there was an errand to be run. "Hey kid, go get me a slice and an orange soda" or "...go ring my bell and ask my wife if she needs me to pick up anything on the way home." There was usually a nickel or dime in it for us to carry out these assignments, and we did so gladly. We would sometimes go to the club on Sunday mornings with our shoe shine boxes knowing the guys liked to dress up. Polished, "french toe" shoes were a must with pegged pants. On rare occasions we were invited inside for a cold drink or to settle an argument. "Hey kid, tell this moron the capital of New Jersey ain't Newark." The movie "A Bronx Tale" was so compelling because it captured perfectly these strange connections between neighborhood kids and grown men of respect in Italian-American neighborhoods.

The thought of 10-year-old boys going into clubs with grown men would strike terror into the hearts of today's parents. Nobody gave it much thought back then. Your mother would say: "I don't want you hanging around that club. Those men are a bad influence." We would nod 'yes' and head straight for the club; how could they stop us. It's not that we didn't love our mothers and listen to a lot of the advice they gave, it's just that we knew there was no other honest way to make two dollars or more on a Sunday morning. I realized some of these guys were not role models, but they weren't The Sopranos either. I never heard any murders or kidnappings plotted; the worst you might get is yelled at for getting shoe polish on some guy's white sock. I sometimes even heard: "Hey, watch your mouth, there's a kid here."

Let's face it...neighborhood social clubs are the poor man's version of the universally accepted, even admired, private clubs on Wall Street. Although the incomes of the members might vary widely, the aims of these clubs are the same: to have a place where a guy can go to have a drink in peace, kid around with his friends, and work to elect the politicians who will be the most sympathetic to his community's needs.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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