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Episode 9: Hiding In New York
“Appropriating” that guy’s gun collection stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble for me, because the ATF and Feds got involved after a few of the guns popped up in raids and arrests. Now I had the Feds, ATF, and some State cop with a hard-on for me hot on my tail. When my grandfather, Peter Paul Tocco, learned that the Feds were building a case against me, he and my uncles decided it would be safer for me to just disappear until they could find a way to “clean it up”.
My grandfather had friends in New York, guys who were part of the Lucchese Family. Actually, one of their capodecina had a sister who married my great uncle in Detroit, so our families were connected via marriage. In fact, several of my aunts and uncles from Detroit had married men and women from the New York Families, which is how Detroit has always maintained a close and personal relationship with New York. So, my grandfather contacted some of his friends in Brooklyn and asked them to look after me while I was on the run. And they did.
My sister, Ann Marie, also came with me to New York. It was a pretty tough time for the both of us. She had just graduated college and neither of us had any money. Because the Feds were looking for me, I’d been living in a small house in Detroit, unable to hustle or make any moves for a few months. Between my sister and me, we had less than $2,000. But we were bound and determined. We actually took a Greyhound bus to NYC because it was cheaper and low profile. Plus I had a cat. It was funny, because I literally, no joke, put my cat in a duffle bag and then stuck the bag in the overhead carry-on shelf above our seats on the bus. Unbelievably, the cat never made a sound during the 14-hour ride from Detroit to NYC.
We ended up in a small apartment in Bayridge Brooklyn, on 86th and Bayridge Boulevard. Thankfully, the superintendent was a friend of a friend so we got a break on rent and deposit. But we had nothing and no money, so my sister went to work at a temp agency and I immediately got to hustling. My contact was a guy I’ll call “Vito” for the purpose of this piece, because for all I know he could still be active. I never learned his last name, and to this day I still have no idea what his rank was in the Lucchese Family. I’ll never forget the day I met him for the first time. I called the number my Uncle Sal Tocco gave me. He said Vito was a “friend of the family.” On the phone, Vito was very curt and sterile. I’m sure he didn’t like meeting an outsider. That’s how we were back in Detroit. If you weren’t part of the Family by blood, you were under suspicion and almost never made privy to the Family operations. This is the way the Boss wanted it. No outsiders. Ever. And it’s still this way today under the new Boss.
So, I ended up meeting this guy, Vito, at a small Irish pub in Manhattan. Place was called McMantis. It’s possible the place might still be there. But when I walked in, it was almost empty. Just a few guys sitting around sipping beer and watching a college football game on a TV hanging from the ceiling. Vito told me on the phone that he’d be sitting at the bar, and there was only one guy sitting at the bar so naturally I assumed it was him. I can’t help but chuckle as I write this, because it was all so cloak-and-dagger. No joke, it was exactly like something out of a movie. I sat on a stool a couple stools down from him and ordered an ice water, as I wasn’t a drinker and just kicked a pretty bad pain pill habit. I can picture the guy so clearly in my mind. He was wearing a beige trench coat and a black brim hat. He looked more like a private detective than a Mafioso. He was just leaning on the bar, sipping his drink. The guy was cold as ice—never even turned to look at me when I sat down a couple feet away.
“You Vito?” I asked, glancing at him as I took a sip of my ice water.
“You Al?” he asked, not bothering to answer my question.
“Yeah,” I answered. “For a minute I thought I might be at the wrong place.”
For the first time, he turned and looked at me. I could see he was older. Maybe late forties. Hawkish face. Not very handsome, but well-kempt. To me he didn’t look like a wiseguy. He looked like a civilian, someone’s middle-aged uncle. But I’d later learn that he was a heavyweight who reported directly to Victor Amuso, Boss of the Lucchese Family, who I’d actually met a couple years previously in a nightclub while in New York for New Years’, but had since been sentenced to life in prison.
“What do you do?” he asked, studying my face.
“Anything,” I replied, trying to sound and look tough.
“Anything?” he asked, looking me dead in the eye.
“Yeah, anything,” I answered, meeting his stare.
“Okay,” he shrugged, and then wrote a number on a napkin. “Call this number tomorrow. I’ll have some work for you.”
Of course, from the way he had looked at me, I thought he was talking about having me doing some real heavy stuff, like hits or shakedowns. But it didn’t turn out that way at all. The next day, I called the number and a guy named Tommy told me to meet him at a little Greek restaurant on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn, not far from my house. When I got there, Tommy and his partner, Vince, were waiting for me. And to my surprise, both of them were very young, no older than my age, which was 22. But they were a quite sight to behold. Tommy was heavyset but still very handsome. And Vince looked like a male model, one of those stereotypical super handsome Italian kids with the great smile, great hair, great build, and natural charm.
Both of them were dressed in button-up shirts, vests, and ties, clearly playing the role of young wiseguys to the fullest. Right away the three of us hit it off. It was funny, because they had obviously been hustling a long time and had no intentions of ever being anything but wiseguys. All they thought about was hustles and scams and ways to make money from the streets. Which was exactly like me, so we were very kindred spirits. Over lunch, we got to know a little about each other, although they really didn’t share much about their own backgrounds. Naturally so, I was an outsider. I was the one who had to prove my credentials, not them. But they eventually shared with me some of the scams they were working on. Things like selling fake designer clothes, imposter high end jewelry and watches, and selling “black boxes” that allowed people to have free cable, including all pay-per-view channels. The also had a Ma Bell phone worker on the hook—a guy who could hack into phone lines and give people free long distance, including international calls, for only a $100 a month. They even had a great plug for steroids, which was obviously my forte. I’d eventually send dozens packages of ‘roids back to my boys in Detroit.
But the thing that I remember most from that lunch with Vince and Tommy was a funny pay-phone scam they had going. You might remember those small electronic devices that you could record messages to yourself with. Like, “Stop and get milk after work.” Or, “Need oil change for the car.” Whatever. Just a little reminder device. Goofy little things that never took off. But Tommy and Vince had a guy who could program these devices to mimic the sounds of coins dropping into pay phones. Each denomination of a coin made a different series of clicks that the phone company’s computer recognized as money. So, if you wanted to make a call, all you had to do is dial the number and have the device ready. When the operated asked you to deposit “X” amount, you just held the thing to the receiver and started hitting the button. I remember the first time I tried it. They told me to call my girlfriend back in Detroit. When I dialed her number, the operator asked me to deposit $14.75. I thought there was NO WAY it was going to work. But I just hit the “quarters” button till I got to $14.75. Low and behold, the call went through no problem. It was an ingenious scam. Didn’t seem like much, but it was a hustler’s dream, because back then we all used payphones to handle business. And it could get expensive, especially if you were calling long distance.
Those little devices only cost us about $50 to have made, and I began selling them for $200. I mean I must have sold a thousand of them between there in NYC and my people back home in Detroit. At one point, everyone I knew had one. People couldn’t get enough of them. I mean, I had far more orders than I could ever fill. The devices only lasted a few months, until the batteries died, but people loved them. I did, too. What a funny little racket. Those things alone made me enough to pay my bills and have me living decent. But I didn’t want to live just decent. I wanted to live good. So, it wasn’t long before I soon offered my professional assistance in some more lucrative rackets that Vito was involved in. Things like shaking down local drug dealers who were working the garment district in Manhattan. But those are stories for next time.