“My cousin Eli’s into some real pazzo crap.”
“Where’s that fuckin’ asshole Eli?”
“I don’t know, Mick. He’s supposed to be here by now.”
Mick Forte is my cousin. His father and my father are brothers. Eli Ativa is Mick’s cousin too, but through their mothers who are sisters. While Eli and I are not related, we may as well be, given the deep connections between Mick’s family and mine.
Back in the day, we all grew up near each other on the so-called mean streets of what was referred to then as South Brooklyn, in a close-knit blue-collar neighborhood. Today, our particular part of that neighborhood is called Carroll Gardens. Then, it was solidly working-class Italian with a smattering of some well-to-do folks, consisting of upper middle-class professionals, successful business people, and high-ranking mobsters. Now, it’s gentrified, and the newer folks are upwardly mobile and more affluent. The remnants of the past, like Mick’s and my parents, are seniors getting by on pensions and social security, but doing all right because they are homeowners and frugal folks, who eat out only on special occasions. The same was true of Eli’s parents, all their lives, until they died a few years back.
“That cocksucker had better get his ass here real quick or he’s cruisin’ for a real nice bruisin’. We gotta figure out how to fix this shit. Don’t that sfaccim know the kinds a problems he’s made for you?”
“This shit” and “the kinds a problems” refer to something that happened a little over a week before this conversation.
“And doncha think I ain’t alla sudden not no longer pissed at you, you fuckin’ idiot, for not listenin’ to what I done friggin’ told you I can’t not remember how many damn times already about my asshole, good-for-u’ cazz cousin. This budell never ever wudda happened if you weren’t such a friggin’ jerkoff and stupid nice guy.”
Mick had told me, “My cousin Eli’s into some real pazzo crap and who knows what’s squirmin’ around in that fat crazy head of his. Stay away from that strunz. You see him, say hi, and goodbye. Just walk away, even if he tries to tell you somethin’. You gotta know he’s up to nuttin’ but no fuckin’ good. He comes to your office or house, don’t open the door; don’t let him in. He gets in, get rid of him; throw him out if you hafta. He calls you on the phone, just hang the fuck up as fast as you can.
“I’m tellin’ you the problem with my stinkin’ cousin Eli goes back to when he was a kid. His folks spoiled the crap outa him. He could do whatever the fuck he wants, and both his mom and dad never yelled at him for nuttin’ no matter what bullshit he’s up to.
“Me, my folks knew I’m gonna follow my dad and be a hood, but they had rules and would bust my chops if I ain’t obeyed ’em. They also knew I hadda get some schoolin’. I hadda be good with numbers, hadda be able to talk to all kinds a folks, and hadda read good—you know, to keep up with the news and so wisenheimers like you ain’t think they could take advantage of me withcha hundred dollar words and the other sly, sneaky shit your smarty-ass kind like to put over on those of us you think ain’t got no smarts.
“I skipped school whenever I felt like it, and so did that twerp Eli, but when my folks found out, I’d be slammed. But that strunz Eli would go untouched, ain’t even got yelled at any. He’d bring home the note from the principal and’d write a letter with some nutso excuse for why he ain’t went to school and his folks’d sign it. His mom’s only worry was that it was wrote neat. That whacko got away with lots of shit that not even I ain’t could.”
Mick knows Eli is smart but says he’s irresponsible and lazy. I have a different take. Eli is extremely bright, almost genius-like. What many, like Mick, perceive as laziness, is in my estimation boredom. If something interests, excites, him, he's inspired, immerses himself in it and it consumes him. However, if something bores him, he barely lifts a finger regardless how important it may otherwise be.
Regarding the matter that had Mick so worked up, Eli had come by my office to ask that I do him a “solid.” I was in the midst of a wild scramble to rush out the door for a major closing for which I was already running late. Without any time to give the request much thought, I said okay. I did not even consider Mick’s prior warnings. I don’t always pay attention to his threats. Mick overreacts at times—and besides, I am an adult, an experienced attorney, and can make my own decisions, even though my wife Theresa constantly implores me to listen carefully to whatever Mick says and to heed his warnings.
Until recently I was extremely reluctant to take any of Mick’s advice. As a lawyer, I am bound to adhere to a code of legal ethics. My ability to practice law, my license, depends on my not violating any of its ethical precepts. And, first and foremost, we attorneys are to exercise our independent judgment, based on our knowledge of the law and the code of ethics.
My previous reluctance as to Mick was primarily due to his known affiliation with the Mob, the Mafia, whatever you want to call it. As far as I understood, his law was the law of the streets, not the duly enacted laws of the State of New York or of the U.S. of A.
I was aware that Mick was transitioning more and more to legitimate businesses. Mick’s dad, my Uncle Nicola, or Nick as everyone called him, was a loan shark and a bookie. At some point I learned that many of my uncle’s generation went into businesses that weren’t legitimate by the State’s standards, not because of lack of ability, but due to lack of formal education. Poverty prevented many Italian immigrants and their children from getting a good education. Plenty had to drop out of school to work menial jobs to help support their families. While many had innate business sense, they could not obtain the credentials to get into finance and similar fields. Those who knew how to work with money would improvise and, in some cases, become what the law would call loan sharks. These sharks, in truth, would provide funds to fellow immigrants, because they did not have access to the standard lenders, banks and similarly chartered financial institutions.
So, Uncle Nick would make loans to those who the regulated lenders would not serve. While some of the unregulated lenders considered themselves to be, and acted like, outlaws and dealt with those who failed to make timely repayments by resorting to threats and even physical violence, Mick’s dad refused to treat his borrowers in that manner. Luckily, Mick’s mom, my Aunt Tessie, had a brother who was an attorney, Mick’s Uncle Luigi, and Luigi assisted my Uncle Nick to run his loan business similar to the regulated lenders, by taking back collateral, so that upon a default, rather than breaking knee caps or worse, Uncle Nick would foreclose and get repaid either at the foreclosure sale or by taking over the collateral.
Now, this is not to suggest that Uncle Nick’s borrowers’ loans were only for regular business or personal purposes, to establish businesses or buy properties, including homes. He also made loans to gamblers and to bookies and other members of the criminal class to finance their illicit activities. But without exception, collateral was demanded and upon default duly exercised upon.
Over time, Uncle Nick made out quite well from his loan collections, but also from exercising his rights against the collateral that secured defaulted loans. He would find himself in the property management business, and he would then expand it into his own real estate development business. Mick would follow in his dad’s footsteps and eventually take over the businesses Uncle Nick established, and Mick would further grow and expand those businesses and start new ones. Little by little, but initially unbeknownst to me, Mick transitioned to being more a legitimate businessman and less an outlaw.
I also viewed Mick as a loose cannon, as someone who would dive head-on into things without thinking them through. One of the times he tried to help me, he was accused of bribery and threatened with jail, and I faced a potential disciplinary proceeding that could have resulted in the suspension of my law license or even disbarment. Luckily, once the facts were known, it became clear that Mick was simply calling in a favor that was owed to him, and the city official Mick was alleged to have bribed handled it in a way that did not show favoritism toward the client of mine whom Mick was trying to help, and Mick and I were exonerated.
Then, there was this child support proceeding that a former colleague, Mary Woodley, asked me to bring for her against our former boss, Gordon Gilbert, a powerful, devious bully. Gilbert was the head of the law firm Mary and I worked for, a firm from which I was fired. Mary came to me and told me that Gilbert had raped her and fathered a child. Mary was desperate and said I was her last resort in her attempt to get Gilbert, a First Deputy Mayor at the time, to support that child. Gilbert was known to resort to “dirty tricks” to retaliate against those whom he felt did him dirt or those who brought him problems. Mick was well aware of Gilbert’s history, learned of the case I was bringing on Mary’s behalf, and insisted that I needed his help to handle the “street” aspect of the fight ahead. I initially rejected Mick’s offer, but later relented when I found myself in jail for reasons I attributed to Gilbert and due to pressure from Mick and my wife, who was emphatic about my need to augment my “book smarts” with Mick’s “street smarts.”
In the end, Mary achieved justice largely due to Mick’s efforts, which significantly helped me to prevail in the court proceedings I brought on Mary’s behalf.
I would eventually realize that Mick is a valuable resource, trustworthy and reliable, and I became much less reluctant to listen to and follow his advice.
Now, as I discover all my bank accounts, including my attorney escrow accounts, have been cleaned out, without a blessed penny left behind, I profoundly regret my failure to adhere to Mick’s advice about his cousin Eli.