Episode 18: Flashback Hustles – Jerry’s Kids and BMX Bikes
For the most part, I’ve tried to keep these Chronicles, well, chronological. But since there are so many stories that I skipped over, I’ve decided to do a few flashbacks. What sparked the idea of flashbacks was a story I recently told my wife, about how I came to love motor sports. More on that later. For now, I’m going to share with you a few stories from my earliest days as a hustler.
For the record, as I’ve stated before, I’m not proud of some of these stories. I’m certainly not trying to glorify or justify my behavior. Nor am I trying to encourage anyone to live this type of lifestyle. In fact, I hope this series does the exact opposite. Because at the end of the day, though these stories may be interesting to you, they are part of an evolution that eventually landed me in prison for 13 years. They are simply humorous anecdotes that will help you understand the progression of which led me into a life of crime, and eventually cost me 13 years of my life.
So, thinking back to my childhood, there are a few distinct memories that opened the door to a criminal way of thinking. One of them was the fake perch scam I wrote about in my very first Chronicle. But there were instances even before that, all of which I can attribute to my Uncle Peter Tocco. I’m not making excuses, or blaming him, but rather stating that he was the devil on my shoulder, so to speak. He painted a picture in my impressionable young mind that it was okay to break the rules, bend the law, and operate in the grey area. I looked up to him because he was a big tough guy with all the girls, pockets bursting with money, and lots of nice new toys. Naturally, I wanted to be like him.
Allow me to explain. My mother used to take us to my grandparents’ house every Sunday for dinner. It was a long 20-mile drive, and one day, when I was probably 10, I saw a minibike for sale on the side of the road. I was instantly smitten by it. I wanted it. No, I had to have it! For the rest of the day it was all I could think about. But my parents had recently divorced and neither of them had much money, so asking them to buy me the $90 minibike was out of the question.
At some point in the day, I mentioned it to my uncle Pete Tocco, who was only 22-years-old. The dude was already heavy into the streets, selling drugs, running dice games, collecting, and only God knows what else. He was a tough guy and wiseguy through and through. Took the street game seriously. One of my cousins just recently saw me at the Detroit Italian Festival and said of my Uncle Pete, “Man, that guy was wild. The shit he got me into. The stories I could tell…” Yeah, that was my Uncle Pete, a wild child and a guy who saw the working man as a sucker. Which is exactly what he instilled in me as far back as I can remember.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the minibike. So, I asked my Uncle Pete to buy it for me. I mean, he always had new toys and a knot of money in his pocket. But he wasn’t going to just give me the money to buy the minibike. No, that would be too easy. He wanted to teach me a lesson on “hard work” and the value of making a buck.
“Listen, this is what you do…” he began, in his usual conspiratorial tone. “You know those Jerry Lewis cans you get at 7-Eleven? Go get one. Stand out front of the 7-Eleven and collect money. Then just keep the money for your minibike. Boom, problem solved.”
Okay, so for those that don’t know, back in the early 1980’s, the comedian and actor, Jerry Lewis, was the face of a huge fund-raising campaign for children affected by Muscular Dystrophy.
Convenience stores around the country would pass out little cardboard canisters that were covered with the face of Jerry Lewis and “Jerry’s Kids.” People could take these canisters and collect money for Jerry’s charity. But the mistake they made was that the lids were removable. Which meant that you could take the money right out, if so you were such a scumbag. I guess I was. I felt no conscious guilt when I kept most of the proceeds I raised. Although, in my defense, I can honestly say I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know who Jerry Lewis was, let alone his handicapped kids.
For a few days, I stood out in front of the local 7-Eleven, jingling the canister of change, asking people, “Would you like to donate to Jerry’s kids?” But there wasn’t enough foot traffic.
That’s when my little hustler’s mind went into overdrive. My mother, Grace Tocco, always took us to a large K-Mart not far from where my father lived, about 6-7 miles away. There was always a ton of foot traffic there, so that’s where I decided to take my Jerry’s Kids hustle to the next level. Now keep in mind, 6-7 miles is a LOOOONG way for a 10-yr-old kid to drive his bike. Normally I never left the neighborhood. But I was an ambitious little sucker, and I was determined to get that damn minibike!
After a grueling, scary 6 or 7 mile-long ride along some of Detroit’s most major thoroughfares, I set up shop in front of K-Mart. I just looked like some cute little kid, doing my best to raise money for a charity. People ate it up.
“Excuse me ma’am, would you like to donate to Jerry’s kids?”
Bingo, they would drop their spare change or a few bills through the slot on top of the can. Within a couple hours, the can was stuffed to capacity. But I wasn’t done. Hell no, not after I drove all that way. But what to do? Well, apparently, I was a quick thinker. Because I went inside, asked for a bag, and in an alley behind the place I dumped all the money in the bag. Then it was back out front. “Hi, sir, would you like to donate to Jerry’s kids?” They all had to have thought I was some sweet young kid with a heart of gold. Nope, I just wanted that freakin’ minibike.
I repeated this cycle 2-3 times, filling the can and then dumping the money in the bag. I must have been out there 6-8 hours. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Wasn’t my mother worried about where I was all day? Well, she was mentally ill and rarely kept track of me. In fact, when I got home, she hadn’t even noticed I’d been gone all day.
On the ride home, I had to triple bag my score so it wouldn’t rip through. I had no idea how much money I had raked in, but it was heavy and hard to drive with that huge bag of change and cash tied to the handle bars of my little Schwinn Thrasher. I was starving and exhausted when I got home, but I quickly dumped the money on my bedroom floor and began counting. I was always good with numbers, and it only took me a few minutes to tally up my score. Just over $140. I kept $130 and put the remaining $10 back in the can, then turned it in the next day. Although, I’m not sure why I turned it in so quickly. In hindsight, I should have kept it and kept hustling. I suppose, even at that young age, I still felt a subconscious level of guilt for what I did.
That weekend, when my dad picked me up, I asked him to take me to buy the minibike. I was elated when he took me and it was still there. He even bargained the seller down to $80. For the next couple years, I drove the neighbors (and neighborhood cops) nuts zipping up and down the streets on that minibike. I even ended up buying a racing motor for it. That little minibike instilled in me my love for motorsports. To this day, I love driving my mechanized toys!
A few years later, my criminal exploits eventually led to my first official organized racket. At the time, the sport of BMX bike freestyling was really taking off. A kid in my neighborhood was always at the park doing these crazy tricks that really fascinated me. I mean, I thought he was the coolest guy in the world. I wanted to be just like him, so I asked my mom to buy me a new freestyle bike. Unfortunately, we were on welfare and those bikes were expensive. The one I wanted, a “Haro Master,” was almost $500, which was a LOT of money back in the early 80’s. There was no way my mom could afford that. She told me I could get a $100 bike for my birthday. And my dad was so much of a tight wad that I didn’t even bother to ask him. So, again, I turned to my Uncle Pete. I asked him if he would buy me the bike. Of course, he laughed. But he gave me his wise counsel:
“Use the $100 your mom is giving you for a bike and pay someone to steal you the bike you want. Have them hit Grosse Pointe North while school is in session. Boom, you’ll get your bike.”
So, for those who don’t know, Grosse Pointe is one of the wealthiest enclaves in North America. Many of its homes sell for millions, with some reaching into the tens of millions. The owners of everything from the Ford Motor Company to the Detroit Tigers live there. And the children of these wealthy millionaires are incredibly spoiled. It’s where my grandparents Tocco lived, but after my parents divorced, we lived in a tiny little house in the ghetto, because my mother refused to ask her parents for help.
My uncle ended up referring me to my cousin, whose name also happens to be Alanso like mine. He was a bike thief who lived in St. Clair Shores, a suburb outside of Detroit, where my dad lived and I would eventually spend the next 20 years growing up. I laid down the play for my cousin Al. There wasn’t much to it. I’d give him a $100 for a Haro Master if he could steal me one. A few days later, he called me and said I could pick up my new bike. It wasn’t the Haro Master I wanted, but a tricked out Haro sport, which was close enough. I would eventually become a competitive BMX freestyle champion on that bike, ranking as high as #3 in Michigan at age 13.
Around age 16 I began selling weed and living with my father. So, one day when my cousin Al called and asked me to bring him a dime bag, I decided to just walk the half mile to his house. For some reason, I always liked to walk around the neighborhood when I was high. Normally I didn’t sell dime bags, but Al was family so of course I agreed to hook him up. When I got to his house, however, he wasn’t home. Nor was my aunt. So, I figured I’d just wait around for a few until he got back from wherever he was. His garage was open so I went in there to smoke a joint. High, I slowly took in my surroundings. Bikes. Everywhere. His whole garage was filled with stolen bikes and bike parts. There is a scene in my novel, To Be A King, where the character Vonni is walking down an alley and sees King, the main character, playing dice with his boys in a garage full of stolen bikes. That scene was inspired by what I saw in my cousin’s garage on this day. Bikes. Stolen bikes and parts scattered willy-nilly everywhere. At the time, I didn’t think anything of Al’s bike chop-shop, but a subconscious seed had been planted.
I was still into the whole BMX freestyle scene, so before I knew it I began building a bike from all the parts. And not just any bike. I took all the best parts and built a super bike. I was doing tricks on in the street when Al finally pulled up with his mother.
He took one look at the bike I was riding and said, “Yo, whose bike is that?”
I grinned and replied, “Mine.”
When we went into his garage so I could give him his dime bag, we smoked a joint and he continued to study my new bike. At one point, he blurted out, “Hey, those are my mags!!!” He then realized that the whole bike was his, that I had slapped it together using parts from his garage. He wanted me to pay him for it, so I told him I’d give him an eighth-ounce bag of weed. He wanted more but I pretty much told him that was what I was paying him, take it or leave it. In the end, it was free weed for him. And he was a pot head, so he began selling me $300-$500 bikes in exchange for bags of weed that cost me about $5 wholesale.
Soon I was running a bike chop shop out of my cousin’s garage. And I was a salesman, a hustler. Come Christmas or birthdays, I’d convince kids to have their parents give them money to buy bikes from me. I mean, I would sell them $300-$500 dollar bikes for between $100-$150. I’d tell parents that the bikes were my personal bikes, and that I upgraded to a new one. And we were smart about how we did it. We never just sold a straight stolen bike. Not when the local cops had a list of recently stolen bikes they were looking for. No, we would break a bike down to its rawest form, and then rebuild it with parts from any of a dozen other bikes. That way, some kid wouldn’t be driving down the street with his mom, see some other kid driving his bike, and call the cops. Although, we did have a few close calls.
A funny side story is that I once had MY bike stolen! Yeah, I left it in front of my buddy Jimmy’s house all night. The next day it was gone. Really pissed me off because it was a nice bike, with all the best of the best parts. Easily a $1,000 bike. But it was essentially free for me so I wasn’t tripping. I just went in Al’s garage and built another bike, which I paid him a nickel bag of weed for. I figured my stolen bike was long gone, but a few days after it disappeared from Jimmy’s house, I saw some kid drive by on what looked like my bike. The color of the frame was different—it was now white instead of blue—but everything else looked the same. I knew it was my bike. The kid must have painted the frame. Without hesitation, I broke into chase, determined to catch the punk and give him a good beating for having the audacity to jack my bike. I mean, this kid had balls. I was only about 16 but already had a reputation. And he was about to find out why.
The dumb ass kid, who was maybe 14 or 15, took off down the street like a bat out of hell. But I was fast on my feet and kept up. After about a block, he dumped the bike on the front lawn of a house and ducked inside. I was livid, posturing and barking about how I was going to beat this punk’s ass for stealing my bike. But he wouldn’t come back outside. He started taunting me from a window, on the other side of the screen. By now my boys had caught up and they were chuckling at the balls of this kid, who was mocking and taunting me. The kid ended up grabbing a shotgun, presumably from his father’s closet, and acted like he was going to shoot me. He was holding it all wrong and I could tell he was just bluffing. I played into it calmed down, talking to him through the window, listening to him tell a lie that he bought my bike from some “black kid” at the liquor store. At some point, his face was mere inches from the screen, so without warning I smashed my fist through the screen and into the kid’s face. The kid just stood there shell-shocked, a rivulet of blood leaking from his busted nose. So I lunged inside, grabbed him by his shirt, and yanked him right out of the window. My boys were dying with laughter as I smacked him around on his own front lawn, while he begged for me to stop and screamed for help. A neighbor came out and tried to intervene, but my boys stepped up held him at bay. It was a real scene. People started stepping out of houses to see what all the yelling was about. But everyone in the neighborhood knew me and my crew, so nobody said anything. I was determined to teach this kid a life lesson. And I’m sure I did.
A few days later, I heard that the kid’s older brother was running around the neighborhood looking for me. Supposedly he was a tough guy. About a year later, late at night when I was all by myself, coming from a nightclub (yeah, I was hitting nightclubs by age 17), the brother and a car-full of his boys followed me and cornered me right in my own driveway. They thought they had me for sure. But I jumped out of my car wielding the crowbar I always kept under the seat. Ironically, I had taken it from some idiot who made the mistake of trying to road rage on me. But that’s a story for a different day. On this night, the brother and his boys were all balls and bravado until they saw me charging at them with a crowbar, eyes bulging out like a raging bull. Cowards they were, they quickly dove back in their car and took off. The funny thing was, it was the middle of winter and the street was slick with ice. When the driver stomped on the gas, his tires just spun, giving me several seconds to unleash a salvo from my crowbar. I smashed out the windshield, the side windows, and the back window before they were able to speed off. Then, expecting them to come and retaliate on my car, I stood on the side of my house with an SKS assault rifle I’d retrieved from my dad’s gun collection. And sure enough, not ten minutes later, they slowly rolled up on my house, surely hoping to smash the windows out of my car with something. You can imagine their shock when I appeared from the shadows with an assault rifle aimed at them. As expected, they stomped on the gas and were never seen again.
Ah, the life. I’d say, “never a dull moment,” but the truth is that in the life of a professional criminal, there are more dull moments than not. It’s just that nobody ever writes about them. Lucky for you, I have many more fun stories to share. Stay tuned, and next time I’ll tell you about fencing stolen merchandise for big profits. It started for me in 10th grade, and was something I continued to dabble in until the very day I was arrested and sent to prison.
If you would like to sample more of Gunner’s work, checkout his novels, “To Be A King,” and see for yourself why it is being called “the next Godfather…