The criminal’s guide to upward mobility.
In 1964, more about the anthropologist Francis Ianni was introduced to a man in a congressional waiting room. His name was Philip Alcamo. People called him Uncle Phil, and he was, in the words of the person who made the introduction, “a business leader from New York City and an outstanding Italian-American.” Uncle Phil was in his early sixties, twenty years older than Ianni. He was wealthy and charming and told Runyonesque stories about the many characters he knew from the old neighborhood, in Brooklyn. The two became friends. “He spoke the lobbyist’s language, but with a genial disdain for Washington manners and morals,” Ianni later wrote. “He was always very good in those peculiar Washington conversations in which people try to convince each other how much they really know about what is going on in the government, because he generally did know.”
Ianni was by nature an adventurous man. He had two pet wolves, called Remus and Romulus. He once drove his young family from Addis Ababa to Nairobi in a Volkswagen microbus. (“I cannot tell you how many times we broke down,” his son Juan recalls. “I remember my father fixing the generator by moonlight, and the nuts and bolts falling into the sand.”) Uncle Phil fascinated him. At dinners and social functions, Ianni met the other families in the business syndicate whose interests Uncle Phil represented in Washington—the Tuccis, the Salemis, and, at the heart of the organization, the Lupollos. When Ianni moved to New York to take a position at Columbia University, he asked Uncle Phil if he could write about the Lupollo clan. Phil was “neither surprised nor distressed,” Ianni recounted, but advised him that he should “tell each member of the family what I was about only when it was necessary to ask questions or seek specific pieces of information.” And for the next three years he watched and learned—all of which he memorably described in his 1972 book, “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime.”
The Lupollos were not really called the Lupollos, of course; nor was Uncle Phil really named Philip Alcamo. Ianni changed names and identifying details in his published work. The patriarch of the Lupollo clan he called Giuseppe. Giuseppe was born in the eighteen-seventies in the Corleone district of western Sicily. He came to New York in 1902, with his wife and their two young sons, and settled in Little Italy. He imported olive oil and ran an “Italian bank,” which was used for loan-sharking operations. When a loan could not be repaid, he would take an equity stake in his debtor’s business. He started a gambling operation, and moved into bootlegging; during Prohibition, the business branched out into trucking, garbage collection, food products, and real estate. He recruited close relatives to help him build his businesses—first, his wife’s cousin Cosimo Salemi, then his son, Joe, then his daughter-in-law’s brother, Phil Alcamo, and then the husband of his granddaughter, Pete Tucci. “From all accounts, he was a patriarch, at once kindly and domineering,” Ianni wrote of Giuseppe. “Within the family, all important decisions were reserved for him. . . . Outside of the family, he was feared and respected.” The family moved from Little Italy to a row house in Brooklyn, and from there—one by one—to Queens and Long Island, as its enterprise grew to encompass eleven businesses totalling tens of millions of dollars in assets.
“A Family Business” was the real-life version of “The Godfather,” the movie adaptation of which was released the same year. But Ianni’s portrait was markedly different from the romanticized accounts of Mafia life that have subsequently dominated popular culture. There were no blood oaths in Ianni’s account, or national commissions or dark conspiracies. There was no splashy gunplay. No one downed sambuca shots at Jilly’s, on West Fifty-second Street, with Frank Sinatra. The Lupollos lived modestly. Ianni gives little evidence, in fact, that the four families had any grand criminal ambitions beyond the illicit operations they ran out of storefronts in Brooklyn. Instead, from Giuseppe’s earliest days in Little Italy, the Lupollo clan was engaged in a quiet and determined push toward respectability.
By 1970, Ianni calculated, there were forty-two fourth-generation members of the Lupollo-Salemi-Alcamo-Tucci family—of which only four were involved in the family’s crime businesses. The rest were firmly planted in the American upper middle class. A handful of the younger members of that generation were in private schools or in college. One was married to a judge’s son, another to a dentist. One was completing a master’s degree in psychology; another was a member of the English department at a liberal-arts college. There were several lawyers, a physician, and a stockbroker. Uncle Phil’s son Basil was an accountant, who lived on an estate in the posh Old Westbury section of Long Island’s North Shore. “His daughter rides and shows her own horses,” Ianni wrote, “and his son has some reputation as an up-and-coming young yachtsman.” Uncle Phil, meanwhile, lived in Manhattan, collected art, and frequented the opera. “The Lupollos love to tell of old Giuseppe’s wife Annunziata visiting Phil’s apartment,” Ianni wrote. “Her comment on the lavish collection of paintings was ‘manga nu Santa’ (‘not even one saint’s picture’).”
The moral of the “Godfather” movies was that the Corleone family, conceived in crime, could never escape it. “Just when I thought I was out,” Michael Corleone says, “they pull me back in.” The moral of “A Family Business” was the opposite: that for the Lupollos and the Tuccis and the Salemis and the Alcamos—and, by extension, many other families just like them—crime was the means by which a group of immigrants could transcend their humble origins. It was, as the sociologist James O’Kane put it, the “crooked ladder” of social mobility.
Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their society placed on getting ahead. The most common was “conformity”: accept the social goal (the American dream) and also accept the means by which it should be pursued (work hard and obey the law). The second strategy was “ritualism”: accept the means (work hard and obey the law) but reject the goal. That’s the approach of the Quakers or the Amish or of any other religious group that substitutes its own moral agenda for that of the broader society. There was also “retreatism” and “rebellion”—rejecting both the goal and the means. It was the fourth adaptation, however, that Merton found most interesting: “innovation.” Many Americans—particularly those at the bottom of the heap—believed passionately in the promise of the American dream. They didn’t want to bury themselves in ritualism or retreatism. But they couldn’t conform: the kinds of institutions that would reward hard work and promote advancement were closed to them. So what did they do? They innovated: they found alternative ways of pursuing the American dream. They climbed the crooked ladder.
All three of the great waves of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European immigrants to America innovated. Irish gangsters dominated organized crime in the urban Northeast in the mid to late nineteenth century, followed by the Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Dutch Schultz, among others. Then it was the Italians’ turn. They were among the poorest and the least skilled of the immigrants of that era. Crime was one of the few options available for advancement. The point of the crooked-ladder argument and “A Family Business” was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn’t a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.
When Ianni’s book came out, there was widespread speculation among Mafia experts about who the Lupollos really were. One guess was that they were descendants of the crime family originally founded by Giuseppe Morello and Ignazio (Lupo) Saietta in the early nineteen-hundreds. (Lupo plus Morello equals Lupollo.) If that is the case, then the origins of the Lupollos were distinctly unsavory. Morello and Saietta were members of the Black Hand, the name given to bands of Southern Italian immigrants who engaged in crude acts of extortion—threatening merchants with bodily injury if protection money wasn’t paid. Saietta was thought to be responsible for ordering as many as sixty murders; people in Little Italy, it was said, would cross themselves at the mention of his name.
During Prohibition, the Lupollo gang moved into bootlegging. The vehicles that were used in the liquor trade became the basis for a trucking business. Gambling money went to family bankers, who directed the funds to Brooklyn Eagle Realty and other legal investments. “After the money from gambling is ‘cleansed’ by reinvestment in legal activities,” Ianni wrote, “the profit is then reinvested in loan-sharking.”
Ianni didn’t romanticize what he saw. He didn’t pretend that the crooked ladder was the principal means of economic mobility in America, or the most efficient. It was simply a fact of American life. He saw the pattern being repeated in New York City during the nineteen-seventies, as the city’s demographics changed. The Lupollos’ gambling operations in Harlem had been taken over by African-Americans. In Brooklyn, the family had been forced to enter into a franchise arrangement with blacks and Puerto Ricans, limiting themselves to providing capital and arranging for police protection. “Things here in Brooklyn aren’t good for us now,” Uncle Phil told Ianni. “We’re moving out, and they’re moving in. I guess it’s their turn now.” In the early seventies, Ianni recruited eight black and Puerto Rican ex-cons—all of whom had gone to prison for organized-crime activities—to be his field assistants, and they came back with a picture of organized crime in Harlem that looked a lot like what had been going on in Little Italy seventy years earlier, only with drugs, rather than bootleg alcohol, as the currency of innovation. The newcomers, he predicted, would climb the ladder to respectability just as their predecessors had done. “It was toward the end of the Lupollo study that I became convinced that organized crime was a functional part of the American social system and should be viewed as one end of a continuum of business enterprises with legitimate business at the other end,” Ianni wrote. Fast-forward two generations and, with any luck, the grandchildren of the loan sharks and the street thugs would be riding horses in Old Westbury. It had happened before. Wouldn’t it happen again?
This is one of the questions at the heart of the sociologist Alice Goffman’s extraordinary new book, “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.” The story she tells, however, is very different.
When Goffman was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, she began tutoring an African-American high-school student named Aisha, who lived in a low-income neighborhood that she calls 6th Street, not far from campus. (Goffman, like Ianni, altered names and details.) Through Aisha, she met a group of part-time crack dealers and was soon drawn into their world. She asked them if she could follow them around and write about their lives. They agreed. She had taken an apartment close by and lived in the neighborhood for the next six years, profiling the lives of people who, in many ways, were the modern-day equivalents of old Giuseppe Lupollo, in his earliest days on the streets of Little Italy.
At the center of Goffman’s story are two close friends: Mike and Chuck. Mike’s mother worked two and sometimes three jobs, which meant that he was well off by the standards of the neighborhood. His mother’s house was immaculate. Chuck was a senior in high school when he and Goffman met. He had two younger brothers, Reggie and Tim, both of whom were devoted to him. Chuck had a harder time of it; he lived in the basement of his family’s derelict row house, where, Goffman writes, “sometimes the rats bit him, but at least he had his own space.”
Goffman immersed herself in the 6th Street community. Her school friends dropped away. Chuck and Mike—and occasionally another friend of theirs, Steven—eventually moved in with her, sleeping on two couches in the living room. She lived through a war between her friends on 6th Street and the “4th Street Boys.” One day, Mike came home with seven bullet holes in the side of his car. (“We hid it in a shed so the cops wouldn’t see,” she writes.) Goffman, Mike, and Chuck would text one another every half hour, to make sure each was still alive:
Chuck did not survive the gang war. At the end of the book, Goffman attaches a fifty-page “Methodological Note,” in which she describes the night that he was shot in the head outside a Chinese restaurant. The passages are devastating. She came running to the hospital room where his body lay. “I cried to him and told him that I loved him,” she writes. Then Chuck’s girlfriend, Tanesha, and his friend Alex arrived. “Tanesha was talking to him and telling Alex and me what she saw: how he moved his arm because he was fighting, he always was a fighter; how she had followed the ambulance here. How could he leave her and leave his girls? She noticed that his body was beginning to grow stiff.” Tanesha began to cry softly. “You are my baby,” she said. “Why did you leave me?” Finally, gathered around Chuck’s bed, Goffman writes,
we talked about bringing Reggie home from county jail on a funeral furlough. I said that if Reggie came home, all he was gonna do was go shoot someone, and Alex said, “Please—somebody gon’ die regardless,” and Mike nodded his head in agreement, and Tanesha too. Alex counted one, two, three, four with his fingers. The number of people who would die.
Chuck and Mike were criminals: they were complicit in the barbarism of the drug trade. But, in the Mertonian sense, they were also innovators. Goffman describes how they craved success in mainstream society. They tried to get an education and legitimate jobs, only to find themselves thwarted. Selling crack was a business they entered into only because they believed that all other doors were closed to them. In Chuck’s case, his mother had a serious crack habit. He began dealing at thirteen in order to buy food for the family and to “regulate” his mother’s addiction; if he was her supplier, he figured, she wouldn’t have to turn tricks or sell household possessions to pay for drugs. Chuck’s criminal activities were an attempt to bring some degree of normalcy to his family.
The problem was that on 6th Street crime didn’t pay. Often, Chuck and Mike had no drugs to sell: “their supplier had gotten arrested or was simply unavailable, or the money they owed this ‘connect’ had been seized from their pockets by the police during a stop and search.” And, if they did have drugs, the odds of evading arrest were small. The police saturated 6th Street. Each day, Goffman saw the officers stop young men on the streets, search cars, and make arrests. In her first eighteen months of following Mike and Chuck, she writes:
I watched the police break down doors, search houses and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence . . . seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.
Years later, when Chuck went through his high-school yearbook with Goffman, he identified almost half the boys in his freshman class as currently in jail or prison. Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-seven, Mike had spent three and a half years behind bars. He was on probation or parole for eighty-seven weeks of the hundred and thirty-nine weeks that he was out of prison, and made fifty-one court appearances.
The police buried the local male population under a blizzard of arrest warrants: some were “body” warrants for suspected crimes, but most were bench and technical warrants for failure to appear in court or to pay court fees, or for violations of probation or parole. Getting out from under the weight of warrants was so difficult that many young men in the neighborhood lived their lives as fugitives. Mike spent a total of thirty-five weeks on the run, steering clear of friends and loved ones, moving around by night. The young men of the neighborhood avoided hospitals, because police officers congregate there, running checks on those seeking treatment for injuries. Instead, they turned to a haphazard black market for their medical care. The police would set up a tripod camera outside funerals, to record the associates of young men murdered on the streets. The local police, the A.T.F., the F.B.I., and the U.S. Marshals Service all had special warrant units, using computer-mapping software, cell-phone tracking, and intelligence from every conceivable database: Social Security records, court records, hospital-admission records, electricity and gas bills, and employment records. “You hear them coming, that’s it, you gone,” Chuck tells his little brother. “Period. ’Cause whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of ten they’ll probably book you.” Goffman sometimes saw young children playing the age-old game of cops and robbers in the street, only the child acting the part of the robber wouldn’t even bother to run away:
I saw children give up running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuffs; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie flat on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled, “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”
When read alongside Ianni, what is striking about Goffman’s book is not the cultural difference between being an Italian thug in the early part of the twentieth century and being an African-American thug today. It’s the role of law enforcement in each era. Chuck’s high-school education ended prematurely after he was convicted of aggravated assault in a schoolyard fight. Another boy called Chuck’s mother a crack whore, and he pushed his antagonist’s face into the snow. In a previous generation, this dispute would not have ended up in the legal system. Until the nineteen-seventies, outstanding warrants in the city of Philadelphia were handled by a two-man team, who would sit in an office during the evening hours and make telephone calls to the homes of people on their list. Anyone stopped by the police could show a fake I.D. Today, there are computers and sometimes even fingerprint machines in squad cars. Between 1960 and 2000, the ratio of police officers to Philadelphia residents rose by almost seventy per cent.
In the previous era, according to Goffman, the police “turned a fairly blind eye” to prostitution, drug dealing, and gambling in poor black neighborhoods. But in the late nineteen-eighties, she writes, “corruption seems to have been largely eliminated as a general practice, at least in the sense of people working at the lower levels of the drug trade paying the police to leave them in peace.”
The Lupollos, of course, routinely paid the police to leave them in peace, as did the other crime families of their day. They got the benefit of law enforcement’s “blind eye.” Ianni observed that, in Giuseppe’s lifetime, “no immediate member of the Lupollo clan had ever been arrested.” Uncle Phil hung out in Washington, in a blue suit. “I have met judges, commissioners, members of federal regulatory bodies, and congressmen socially when I have been with Phil Alcamo,” Ianni wrote. At such meetings, “Phil openly discusses the needs of the family where government is concerned and often asks for advice or favors. He also suggests favorable business investments or land-purchase opportunities and will ‘put someone in touch with someone who can do something for them.’ ” Apparently, no one in Washington during that period found anything unusual about a Mafia capo openly discussing “the needs of the family where government is concerned” and suggesting “favorable business investments” for the politicians and regulators whom he was lobbying.
The Federal Witness Protection Program did not yet exist; federal wiretaps weren’t admissible in court. Only the F.B.I. was properly equipped to tackle organized crime, and under J. Edgar Hoover the bureau saw targeting Communism and political subversion as its primary mandate. “As late as 1959, the FBI’s New York field office had only 10 agents assigned to organized crime compared to over one hundred and forty agents pursuing a dwindling population of Communists,” the attorney C. Alexander Hortis writes, in “The Mob and the City.” In the unlikely event that a mobster was arrested, Hortis points out, he could expect to walk. Between 1960 and 1970, forty-four per cent of indictments of organized-crime figures in courts around New York City were dismissed before trial. In that same ten-year period, five hundred and thirty-six mobsters were arrested on felony charges, but only thirty-seven ended up in prison.
Hortis retells the story of the famous Apalachin incident, in 1957, when several dozen mobsters from around the country gathered at the upstate New York property of Joseph Barbara, Sr., for a weekend retreat. The get-together was broken up by the police. Some of the mobsters ran into the surrounding woods—and the resulting arrests led to congressional hearings and headlines. How did this happen? By chance, a detective ran into Barbara’s son at a local motel and eavesdropped on his conversation. He drove by the Barbara estate, saw lots of fancy cars, ran their plates, and called in reinforcements. The subsequent grand-jury investigation, Hortis says, was a “farce.” One mobster claimed that he had dropped in while on an olive-oil sales trip. Another said that he had had car trouble. A third said that he had heard there was free food. Twenty mobsters were convicted on conspiracy charges, and all twenty convictions were reversed on appeal.
That’s why the crooked ladder worked as well as it did. The granddaughter could end up riding horses because the law—whether from indifference, incompetence, or corruption—left her gangster grandfather alone.
The idea that, in the course of a few generations, the gangster can give way to an equestrian is perhaps the hardest part of the innovation argument to accept. We have become convinced of the opposite trajectory: the benign low-level drug dealer becomes the malignant distributor and then the brutal drug lord. The blanket policing imposed on 6th Street is justified by the idea that, left unchecked, Mike and Chuck will get worse. Their delinquency will metastasize. The crooked-ladder theorists looked at the Mafia’s evolution during the course of the twentieth century, however, and reached the opposite conclusion: that, over time, the criminal vocation was inevitably domesticated.
One of the dominant organized-crime figures on Long Island during the nineteen-seventies and eighties was a former garment manufacturer named Salvatore Avellino, and Avellino’s story is an example of the crooked ladder in action. It is a good bet that Ianni’s Lupollos dealt with Avellino, because they were in the garbage business and Avellino was the king of “carting” (as it was known). He was the de-facto head of a trade association called the Private Sanitation Industry Association; it represented a cluster of small, family-owned carting companies that picked up commercial and residential garbage in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Each carter paid membership dues to the P.S.I., a portion of which Avellino dutifully passed on to the Lucchese and Gambino crime families.
Avellino was a gangster. He would burn the trucks of those who crossed him. He eventually went to prison for his role in assassinating two carters who refused to play along with the P.S.I. But, in other ways, Avellino didn’t behave like a thug at all. He worked largely by persuasion and charisma. As the economist Peter Reuter observes in his history of the Long Island carting wars, Avellino’s mission was to rationalize the industry, to enforce what was called a “property rights” system among the carters. Individual firms were allowed to compete for new customers. But, once a carter won a customer, he “owned” that business; the function of Avellino’s P.S.I. was to make sure that no one else poached that customer. Avellino was, essentially, acting as an agent for the garbage collectors of Long Island, inserting himself between his membership and the marketplace the way a Hollywood agent inserts himself between the pool of actors and the studios.
Ordinary thieves act covertly. They hide their identity from the person whose money they are taking. Avellino did the opposite. He ran a public organization. The ordinary thief is outside the legitimate economy. Avellino was integrated into the legitimate economy. When it came to his P.S.I. members, Avellino acted not as a predator but as a benefactor. By Reuter’s estimates, Avellino’s cartel enabled P.S.I. members to charge their commercial customers fifty per cent more than would otherwise have been possible.
On one federal wiretap, Avellino was recorded speaking about a P.S.I. carter named Freddy, who, Avellino says, drove up to his house in a brand-new Mercedes, “the fifty-thousand-dollar one.” Avellino goes on, “So I walked out. It was a Sunday morning and I said, ‘Congratulations, beautiful, beautiful.’ He says, ‘I just wanted you to see it, ’cause this is thanks to you and to P.S.I. that I bought this car.’ ”
In his economic analysis, Reuter marvels at how scrupulously Avellino defended the interests of his carters. Avellino allowed the bulk of that fifty-per-cent margin to go to the carters and the unions—not to the Luccheses and the Gambinos. Reuter reports, with similar incredulity, about Avellino’s personal business dealings. He ran a carting company of his own, but as he expanded his business—buying up routes from other companies—he never demanded discounts. Here was the representative of a major crime family, and he paid retail. “Ya see, out here, Frank, in Nassau, Suffolk County . . . we don’t shake anybody down, we don’t steal anybody’s work, we don’t steal it to sell it back to them,” Avellino says, in another of the wiretaps. “Whenever I got a spot back for a guy because somebody took it, never was a price put on it, because if it was his to begin with and he was part of the club and he was payin’ every three months, then he got it back for nothin’, because that was supposed to be the idea.”
This restraint was, in fact, characteristic of the late-stage mobster. James Jacobs, a New York University law professor who was involved in anti-Mafia efforts in New York during the nineteen-eighties, points out that the Mafia had every opportunity to take over the entire carting industry in the New York region—just as they could easily have monopolized any of the other industries in which they played a role. Instead, they stayed in the background, content to be the middlemen. At New York’s Fulton Fish Market, one of the largest such markets in the country, the Mob policed the cartel and controlled parking—a crucial amenity in a business where time is of the essence and prompt delivery of fresh fish translates to higher profits. What did they charge for a full day’s parking? Twelve dollars. And when the Mob-controlled cartel was finally rooted out, how much did fish prices decline at the Fulton Fish Market? Two per cent.
In the mid-eighties, when Jacobs worked for the Organized Crime Task Force in New York, trying to rid the construction industry of racketeering, he said that the task force’s efforts “had no interest from the builders and the employers.” Those immediately involved in the business rather liked having the Mafia around as a referee, because it proved to be such a reasonable business partner. “This was a system that worked for everybody, except maybe the New York Times,” Jacobs said dryly.
“This is one of the most interesting things about the Mafia,” Jacobs went on. “They did business and cooperated. They weren’t trying to smash everybody. They created these alliances and maintained these equilibriums. . . . You’d think that they would keep expanding their reach.”
They didn’t, though, because they didn’t think of themselves as ordinary criminals. That was for their fathers and grandfathers, who murderously roamed the streets of New York. Avellino wanted to be in the open, not in the shadows. He wanted to be integrated into the real world, not isolated from it. The P.S.I. was a sloppy, occasionally lethal but nonetheless purposeful dress rehearsal for legitimacy. That was Merton’s and Ianni’s point. The gangster, left to his own devices, grows up and goes away. A generation ago, we permitted that evolution. We don’t anymore. Old Giuseppe Lupollo was given that opportunity; Mike and Chuck were not.
“The pioneers of American capitalism were not graduated from Harvard’s School of Business Administration,” the sociologist Daniel Bell wrote, fifty years ago, in a passage that could easily serve as Goffman’s epilogue:
The early settlers and founding fathers, as well as those who “won the West” and built up cattle, mining and other fortunes, often did so by shady speculations and a not inconsiderable amount of violence. They ignored, circumvented, or stretched the law when it stood in the way of America’s destiny and their own—or were themselves the law when it served their purposes. This has not prevented them and their descendants from feeling proper moral outrage when, under the changed circumstances of the crowded urban environments, latecomers pursued equally ruthless tactics.