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Episode 10: The New York Garment District and Textile Scam
So one day I get a call from Tommy, one of my industrious new partners. He says he’s on his way with Vince to pick me up—to do some “mining.” I have no idea what the hell that is, but I don’t bother asking, figuring it’s just some New York term I wasn’t familiar with.
We ended up meeting a guy named Carlo, an older guy who reminded me of the Fonz from the 1970’s sitcom, “Happy Days.” With Carlo is a guy named Angelo, a zip from the Old Country who only speaks Italian. Right away I don’t like Angelo because he looks dirty and unkempt, like a druggie, which I’d been programmed by my Uncle Pete Tocco to never trust or do business with. I’d later learn Angelo was indeed a full-blown heroin addict, confirming my initial suspicions. But on this day, Angelo worked as our manpower on a strange scam that was popular in New York at the time, and has since become rampant in my hometown of Detroit: “Mining” abandoned buildings for semi-precious metals like copper, nickel, brass, and stainless steel.
Of course, my initial response to this hustle was that it was a ridiculous waste of time. I wasn’t into hard labor or getting dirty. But when they told me how much money there was to be made, I quickly changed my mind. Carlo had a van, and we drove it several miles to an industrial section of Brooklyn, somewhere between the Belt Parkway and the Upper Bay. There was a HUGE abandoned building called “Cherry Hill Textiles.” I mean, this place was enormous! Easily the size of a football field, and looked to have been defunct for several years. I’d later learn that the owners, some Jewish businessmen, had gotten deep in debt with a couple of heavyweight Lucchese loan sharks, who eventually squeezed them right out of business. I’d also later learn that the Jewish owners had been involved in some bank scams to help the get their loans paid off. I think one of them even went to prison for a while.
Anyhow, with flashlights in hand we snuck through a hole Angelo had busted in a back wall a few weeks earlier. Once inside, I was immediately shocked by what I saw. I’m not exaggerating when I say the place was filled with literally tens of thousands of rolls of various fabrics. The building had four floors. The first was mostly old looms and factory equipment. But the top three floors were stacked with rolls of every imaginable roll of textile. A lot of it was ruined from mold and mildew, but about half of it was still good. I was shocked when Tommy and Vince simply ignored it all, passing it up in search of copper cables, brass fixtures, and stainless steel gondolas (big steel bins on wheels). When I asked why we weren’t we stealing rolls of all those beautiful fabrics, they said they had already saturated the local textile merchants in their Brooklyn neighborhood.
We ended up spending a few hours ripping thick copper cables out of the ceiling and walls. Hundreds of feet of the stuff. Probably 500 lbs of it. When we took it to a local scrap yard, we were paid about $600 bucks. Not bad for a few hours’ work. I think we gave Angelo like $75 for doing most of the work, and then we split the rest. But I never forgot all those rolls of textiles. I knew they had to have value to someone. And in a few months, I’d find him.
The Lucchese Family had (and I imagine it still has) a major presence in Manhattan’s Garment District. Most of the textile merchants and fashion designers were paying a protection tax. And on a few occasions, I was used to collect late payments, as I had the attitude and look that usually prompted people to pay up. One day I was sent to find a guy who was a few payments behind. The guy owned a large NYC “jobber,” a company that purchased and then resold overstock from major fashion designers. I ended up meeting him at a fashion expo in the Jacob Javits Center, as he also had a fledgling clothing line of his own. Funny thing is, he turned out to be a nice guy and paid up immediately. We actually became friends, believe it or not.
But while I was at the Javits, the strangest thing happened. I’ll never forget it. I can still picture it in my mind like it was yesterday. I was in a rest room, passing by a row of stalls, when some guy hits me with the old “psssst!” When I turn and look, he nods me over and whispers, “Hey, wanna do a line?” That’s when I see he has a big pile of coke chopped up on the back of the commode. Now, I’d never been a fan of coke, but figured what the hell, when in Rome. After sniffing a couple quick lines with this guy, he invited me over to his booth. Turns out, he’s a bigshot designer for a major clothing company in NYC, which for legal reasons I can’t divulge. He wasn’t gay or anything like that (he had a beautiful girlfriend with him), but for some strange reason he ended up taking a liking to me. Next thing I know, he’s telling me all kinds of stories, the ins and outs of the fashion industry. At some point, he also mentions that he’s working on his own line and just secured a round of angel investors to back him. Eventually, we end up walking around the Javits together, with him sort of acting as my guide. I was kind of awed by it all, because the place was enormous, and every major fashion designer in the world had beautiful models walking around everywhere.
At some point, a lightbulb went off in my head and I asked him if he might be interested in buying some textiles. I made up some BS story about my family back in Detroit having a textile company that recently went out of business, and is now dumping its inventory for pennies on the dollar. His face lit right up. Of course he’s interested. He wants them for his own clothing line. But he says he needs to see samples, so he gives me his number. The next day, I call Tommy and Vince and tell them my angle. A few hours later, we sneak back into the abandoned Cherry Hill Textile factory and cut a few dozen sample “swatches,” I end up bringing the designer. He likes a few of them so we go back and package the rolls fabrics up for him. This became our daily routine.
The factory still had rolls and rolls of plastic bags used for packaging, so all we had to do is bag them up and drop them down a defunct elevator shaft to the first floor. We’d then just back the van up to the hole in the wall, load up, and deliver the load to the guy’s sweatshop in Manhattan, where his clothes were made. He would always pay me in cash, because I’m pretty sure he soon realized that the goods were priced so low that they had “fallen off the truck.” Not that he cared. He was loving us.
Next thing I know, we are selling fabrics to half of the garment district. We are going door to door, showing samples, basically letting people name their price. Literally every day we were bringing a van stuffed with 30-40 rolls of fabrics to Manhattan’s garment district. We were making $2,000-$3,000 a day. Each! But it didn’t last long. The factory across the street from Cherry Hill had an overzealous security guard who started calling the cops on us. Several times the cops pulled up just as we were leaving, literally passing us en route to the place. Once they caught us inside but we hid—we were always smart enough to park the van around the block until the last minute, when we were ready to load up. Then one day we showed up and the cops were standing around with the owner as some guys bolted a giant metal plate over the hole in the wall we were using as our access point. Game over.
I remember my sister freaking out when she stumbled across the $12,000 in cash I has stashed under our bathroom sink. I don’t think she’d ever seen that much money in her life. It was basically what I made from the textile racket over two weeks before we got shut down. But the story isn’t completely over. The fashion designer, who in hindsight I feel bad for, was a total mark. Worldly and talented, but not an ounce of street smarts. When he needed money to continue funding his struggling clothing line, I connected him to a couple of heavy hitting mob loan sharks I worked with. And, of course he quickly became deep in debt with them. I collected like $6,000 a week in just juice from the guy for the next two years. Every time I’d go to his place (I’ll never forget it because it was like a $10K a month apartment with Zebra print carpet), he was super depressed and miserable. Poor guy had a beautiful Manhattan apartment, beautiful girlfriend, and his own designer clothing line, including a street-level store in the city’s prestigious fashion district. Yet there he was, paying the mob all his money. At one point, he was on the books for over $700,000! Poor guy is probably still paying, twenty years later. But such is life when you climb into bed with the mob. People have choices, and he made his.