When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
The last time Chicago street gang the Almighty Gaylords hit in the media was back in August 2011. Early morning police raids scooped up nine gang members for illegal gun possession and sales. The tv news helicopters broadcast footage of stocky middle-aged men sitting around suburban gardens in their underwear while cops searched houses.
The days when the Gaylords were local boys defending a shrinking island of white inner city Chicago against multiculturalism were long gone. Now the gang was an amputated limb of its former self, a group of fortysomethings with prison records who’d made their peace with rival Hispanic and black gangs to sell drugs and guns in suburban places like Addison and Elmhurst and Villa Park.
The 2011 raid took out the Gaylord’s main faces, including James Grace aka Mega, the 40-year-old leader of the gang’s Addison faction. And he’d been turned in by one of his own.
Crazy Joe Gallo got a bullet in the head in April of 1972. I wrote a post about it here. He was celebrating his birthday in the early hours at Umberto’s Clam House when gunmen came in through the back door and started blasting.
Joe overturned the table and made it outside but died in the street. It was the end of the Gallo brother’s dream of forming their own Mafia family.
But back in the 1950s that dream was still alive. Joe, elder brother Larry (the brains of the outfit), and younger bother Albert (‘Kid Blast’) were up and coming foot soldiers in the Colombo crime family. They ran their own corner of Brooklyn for the family, collecting debts and protection money, and hustling any opportunities that came their way.
The three brothers were the Mafia warlords of their block. They had money, guns … and a real life lion in the basement. And a little person club-owning friend to walk him through the Brooklyn streets.
If you get lost in the woods, leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Don’t stay out after dark. Don’t talk to strangers.
The schoolboy is walking along Warsaw’s ulica Naruszewicza with two friends. It is the afternoon of 22 January 1957. Snow is on the ground.
The three boys are on their way home from St Augustine High School for their dinners. St Augustine is a good private school, one of the very few in Communist Poland. Its students are the sons of important men.
The schoolboy is fifteen-years-old. His dark hair is combed back from his forehead in a pomaded shell. He carries his school books in a brown leather briefcase. He wears a herringbone overcoat and winter boots with white laces.
It is 13:50. At the intersection of Naruszewicza with ulica Wejnerta a tall man with a briefcase approaches the boys.
“Which one of you is Piasecki?”
The schoolboy steps forward. The man takes a piece of paper from his case and shows it to him. The schoolboy silently accompanies the man to a nearby taxi rank on Wejnerta. He does not look back at his friends.
Sitting comfortably? Then put a new cigarette in its ivory holder and refresh your whisky and soda. Get the servants to stoke the fire because these old houses can get so cold at night. And make sure your service revolver in the desk drawer is loaded. Captain Grimes is coming round tonight to discuss the accounts.
The little matter of those post-dated cheques in the mess tin. You might be forced to take the gentleman’s way out. Or you might be forced to shoot Captain Grimes.
The wealthiest stratum of British society has always prided itself on loyalty and devotion to duty. But too many of the aristocrats, trust fund beneficiaries and members of the officer class who sit at the apex of Britain’s social triangle have a moral backbone like a bit of wet spaghetti. From Rupert Bellville to Simon Raven, the Earl of Erroll to John Aspinall, the most respectable part of the country has churned out black sheep on a production line scale.
So put away that portfolio of artistic French photographs and leave answering the love note from your brother’s wife until later. Let’s take a stroll through the last one hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Books and the odd flick will be our signposts.
We’ll start gently, with some flawed heroes. Let’s go back to the days when we still had an Empire … .
The gunmen came in through the back door of Umberto’s Clam House at 4:30 in the morning. Mafia legend Crazy Joe Gallo had his back to them when they started shooting.
Umberto’s was supposed to be neutral ground, a freshly opened restaurant in New York’s Little Italy district owned by Matty “the Horse” Ianniello. It was one of the few places Crazy Joe felt safe enough to sit with his back to a door.
Joe had been at the Copacaba club all night celebrating his 43rd birthday. Comic Don Rickles was on stage, insulting everyone. When the show was over Crazy Joe, his wife, her daughter, Joe’s bodyguard Pete the Greek, and Pete’s girl headed for Umberto’s for seafood.
When they walked in, a guy sitting at the bar gave them a long look, got up, and walked two blocks to see some friends. Crazy Joe didn’t even notice.
On the morning of Monday 19 July 1976 two employees of the Société Générale’s Nice branch trotted down the stairs to the steel door of the bank’s underground vault. The pair of keys required to open the vault door had to be turned simultaneously in locks too far apart to be operated by the same man. Société Générale prided itself on its security measures.
Each man inserted his key in the lock and turned it, expecting the door to swing open. Nothing happened. They tried again. Same result. It would be three and a half hours before anyone discovered the vault door had been sealed shut from the inside with a welding arc.