Episode 5: Enforcement Muscle
Like I mentioned before, I’ve always been an intrinsic fighter. In fact, growing up, I got kicked out of pretty much every school I was ever in for fighting. I only lasted 6 weeks in high school. Although, to be honest, I got expelled from high school for possession of stolen property, which is another story in itself. But I’d also been suspended several times for fighting, so the stolen property racket (we had guys breaking into school lockers for coats and other valuables) was just the proverbial straw that broke the principal’s back.
I’m not sure why I was so apt to fight as a kid. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was always moving to new schools and had to constantly prove myself. Plus I’ve always had an ingrained dislike for bullies. I hated seeing kids pick on other kids who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, defend themselves. Even as far back as kindergarten, I remember sticking up for kids who were being picked on. One particular incident stands out. When my parents got divorced halfway through the school year, we ended up living with my Grandma and Grandpa Tocco for a few months until my mother found us a place in the city. I started kindergarten at a new grade school named “Trombley.” There were lots of rich kids. Most of them spoiled brats. I definitely did not fit in. I remember seeing this big oaf of a kid bullying some other boys out of their building blocks. I mean, real wood building blocks. Like 2x4s and 4x4s. I doubt schools have such a thing in kindergarten classes anymore. Too dangerous. But this was back in the ‘70s.
So I saw this kid bullying some other kids and I just blacked out. That’s the only way I know how to describe it: “blackout anger.” When these blackout episodes happened, I wouldn’t even remember what I did until afterward, when people would recount what happened—usually to my mother or the principal. Now, this kid was twice the size of everyone in our class. Which was no surprise—he was two years older than everyone else because he’d been held back a couple times for some kind of learning disability. He was like a 7-year-old Luca Brasi. Just a big dumb oaf who liked to bully the other kids. But I was new to the school and he had no idea how I felt about bullies. Before I knew it, I grabbed a building block, which was basically a 2×4 piece of wood, and cracked him over the head. When he collapsed to the floor, I gave him a couple more good whacks across his back for good measure. It was like the third or fourth time I got suspended for fighting in kindergarten. There would be more. I think the only reason they didn’t kick me out was because they knew who my grandfather was.
It’s not that I had a natural mean streak in me. I didn’t. I just didn’t like bullies. Anyone who knows me can attest to that. I only acted violently when it was called for. And in my late teens, it began getting called for more and more frequently. It seemed someone was always needing backup for this beef or that beef. Friends, cousins, whoever. Someone always wanted me to get their back. But eventually it began carrying over into Family business. I’ll never forget the first time I was called upon as an enforcer for the Family.
For obvious reasons, I can’t use real names, but I have an uncle… really, he’s my mother’s first cousin but I always called him “Uncle.” One might say he was, and still is, someone “significant” in the Family, the Borgata. His wife, my aunt, is the daughter of someone who is also very significant. Their son, my cousin Jimmy, is two years younger than me. Real nice guy. Grew up to be super handsome and is now a very successful businessman. But he was a skinny and timid kid who sometimes got picked on at school. Unlike me, he was more of a bookworm than a tough guy or athlete. But I really liked him. Loved him, actually. He was one of my favorite cousins. And one day I was called to his defense. I remember the day very distinctly. I was about 18, and I was at the beach with some friends when my aunt called. She was sobbing and almost hysterical.
“Alan, please get over here! They beat up Jimmy! I think his nose is broken!”
Well, that was it. I saw stars, the first signs of an impending blackout. Jimmy was a good kid. He didn’t bother anyone, and I knew he would never start a fight. Which meant that whoever had beaten him up had done it for nothing.
Enraged, I jumped on my Ninja motorcycle and raced across town at breakneck speeds. I mean, I was ripping through traffic lights and weaving in and out of cars with no regard for the law. Honestly, I don’t even remember the ride there. I just remember pulling up, skidding to a stop out front of their Grosse Pointe home, and running inside. I found my aunt and uncle with Jimmy in the kitchen. He had an ice pack on his nose. I could tell he’d been crying.
“Who the fuck did this?” I demanded. “Where are they?”
“They live down the street,” my aunt answered, looking out the front window. “Two brothers. The corner house. They’re in the backyard now.”
My uncle and I locked eyes and he gave me a barely perceptible nod. I knew what it meant. He didn’t have to say a word. The message was clear: Go handle it. And I did.
I stormed down the street to the corner house. As I was walking up the driveway, I saw several guys in the backyard playing basketball. I had no idea who they were, but some of them looked vaguely familiar. I lived in a completely different neighborhood, so I figured I must have seen them around here or there. Not that it mattered. In the state of mind I was in, I was ready to take them all on.
“Which one of you motherfuckers put your hands on my cousin Jimmy?” I yelled, my eyes bulging with rage.
For a second, all of them just froze, not saying a word. Then, to my surprise, one said, “What’s up, Al? Jimmy’s your cousin?”
“You know me?” I asked, turning my glare on him.
“Yeah, you go to Lake Shore. My sister’s boyfriend goes to Lake Shore. His name’s Mike Frantz (name has been changed). Isn’t he one of your boys?”
That told me all I needed to know. They knew who I was, which meant they also knew my reputation. I was already a stocky kid from lifting weights, and I was wearing a tank top. I’m sure I looked pretty menacing. I could see the fear in their eyes, and it made me inwardly grin. These guys thought they were tough guys until they came face to face with a real tough guy.
I jumped right up in his face. “You don’t know me, motherfucker!” I barked. “Because if you did, you would’ve known better than to put your hands on my cousin.”
“Hey, man,” his brother spoke up. “Listen, we don’t want any trouble with you, Al. We didn’t know Jimmy was your cousin. He’s cool with us. It was just a misunderstanding. We were playing basketball. Things got heated. Him and Matt got into a pushing match. We broke it up as soon as they started fighting.”
I shot each one of them a look. “Let me tell you something,” I said calmly, which I’d found through experience could be even more intimidating than yelling. “Jimmy is like my brother. If any one of you ever put your hands on him again, I’ll come back here and smash every one of you bitches! Got it?”
They just nodded passively and said nothing, so I shot each of them another look and then walked out of the backyard. In the ensuing weeks, my cousin called me several times to relay how those guys were all very nice to him now, and that nobody bothered him at school anymore. When he was in his early twenties, I’d again save him from getting his ass kicked a couple times in nightclubs, because he was so handsome that girls flocked to him like a magnet, which always riled up haters.
But this event sparked things into motion that I was completely unaware of. My uncle, Jimmy’s father, who I’ll refer to here simply as “Tony,” was very impressed how I handled those bullies. So impressed, in fact, that he referred me to his brother, Nicky, one day when he needed a “situation” handled.
Now I need to preface this story with quick background on my Uncle Nicky. He was a thoroughbred Mafioso through and through. He looked it and he acted it. My earliest memory of him was around three years old, when he handed me a $5 bill. After that, every time he saw me he would hand me money without fail. Usually just a single crisp bill off his roll of bills. As I got bigger, so did the size of the bill. By the time I was in my teens, he was handing me $50s. He was also the man who taught me how to play poker. Or rather, how to house poker games. But that’s another story for another day. Uncle Nicky was a great guy and he had one of the biggest sports books in Detroit. He’d eventually get murdered by someone we believe owed him money that they lost to him on a Super Bowl game, as he was found shot in a Vegas hotel the day after the Super Bowl.
So one day my phone rang and it was Uncle Nicky. He had a “situation” he needed handled right away. Apparently his “goomar’s,” (girlfriend’s), ex-boyfriend showed up drunk at her house the previous night and smacked her around. And not just her, but their young son, too. When the asshole passed out in her bed, she considered calling the cops but instead called my Uncle Nicky, who then called me. I remember it was real early and he woke me up. Maybe 7:30 in the morning. He said the guy was still there and he wanted me to go handle it right away. He didn’t have to say what he wanted me to do. I knew. So I put a couple of big nugget rings on and called my workout partner, a big Italian dude named Dario.
“Put your gloves on! My uncle needs us to handle something. I’m coming to get you right now!”
“Do I need my pistol?” Dario asked.
“No. Just bring a pool stick or somethin’.”
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up at the girl’s house, which was right on 12 Mile Road in St. Clair Shores. She quietly opened the door and let us in. When I saw the bruises on her face, I instantly felt my blood begin to boil. The blackout was almost upon me.
“Where is he?” I whispered, adjusting the huge nugget ring I had on my middle finger.
She pointed down the hall. “He’s still passed out in there.”
I nodded towards Dario and together we quietly snuck down the hall. When I pushed the bedroom door open, I saw the guy lying face down in her bed, wearing nothing but his underwear.
I didn’t hesitate. I snatched him by his greasy hair and yanked him out of the bed with all my force. I was already a big kid and I wanted him to feel my strength. At first he tried to resist and fight back, but I grabbed him by the throat and smashed him against the wall.
“So you like beating on women and little kids?” I growled, right in his face.
“Who the fuck are—“ he began, trying to shove me back, but I smashed my fist into his nose, splattering blood all over his face. His head bounced off the wall and he went straight down. He never got back up.
Dario cracked him a few times with the fat end of a pool stick as I dragged him out of the house by his hair, leaving a blood trail from the bedroom to the back door. The whole time he was yelling and screaming, asking who we were. I just told him,
“We’re the guys who show up when you beat on women and children.”
Outside, we tossed him his pants and he climbed in his van. But when I saw him reaching for something under the front seat, I smashed my fist into his face again, nearly knocking him out. I thought he had been reaching for a gun, but it was just a crowbar. Which of course I grabbed and threatened to split his head with. When he regained himself, he looked at his face bleeding in the mirror and said, “Look what you did to my face!” I told him next time he puts his hands on a woman, he’d need a surgeon to put his face back together.
Funny, I later looked at my ring and saw a chunk of the dude’s face stuck to it. Just a big chunk of meat stuck between the nuggets. My boys thought it was hilarious so I left it there. It ended up drying and it was there for months. It was gross but it always evoked a few laughs when my boys saw it. They still bring it up sometimes.
I never even knew the girl’s name, but over the years I saw her from time to time—at a grocery store, or a nightclub, or wherever. She’d always come over to whisper a thank-you in my ear. I’d tell her it was no big deal. At the time I thought nothing of it. I figured it was the right thing to do. But from that day on my Uncle Nicky began calling me “Lupara,” Italian for shotgun or cannon, a play on my middle name, “Gunner.” And soon I began getting calls from other uncles and cousins when someone needed a little “tune-up” or to be “straightened out,” as they liked to say. But I’ll save that for next time, when I share a few stories about the collections racket.
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