|L to R: Michael Franzese and Sal Polisi from Inside the American Mob|
On Sunday, July 28, The National Geographic Channel debuts its newest series, Inside The American Mob. That title immediately keys you into what happens throughout the six week series, focusing on New York City’s Mafia families, and their turf, as told through those who lived it. Newly declassified FBI files and first-person accounts by the good guys and the bad guys (a line often blurred) makes this a must-see documentary. On July 24, several of the series’ participants – former Colombo and Gambino associate Salvatore Polisi and one-time Colombo capo Michael Franzese – invited members of the press to Philadelphia’s Dante & Luigi’s (762 South 10th Street) for dinner, wine and conversation. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
With the ongoing trial of Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and the popularity of television shows, good (HBO's The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) and dumb (VH1's Mob Wives), there is plenty to ponder when it comes to organized crime. Still, there is not enough known about its peak years – the latter 60s, 70s and 80s – before it began disintegrating in a haze of drugs, a sea of random violence, and courtrooms full of “rats”.
This is what Polisi and Franzese hit Dante & Luigi’s to discuss. As soon as we were seated with the pair, it was obvious we were in the company of storytellers, rather than just ex-mob guys looking to cash in on their tales of youthful avarice.
Each with books to their name (Polisi with The Sinatra Club: My Life Inside the New York Mafia; Franzese with four books and another on its way), they engaged the intimate crowd with stories of using violence as a necessity, a last resort, rather than an easy out.
With his ready smile and fast patter, Polisi was a little more relaxed than the smolderingly intense Franzese. From Polisi’s easy manner and funny tales, you got the impression that he was the joker of the crew, as he told a story of when he and Mafia general John Gotti’s kids were on the same high school football team and how its coach (“a lousy one at that”) happened to be a probation officer that neither mob guy liked. “John put his arm around the guy and walked him off the field,” says Polisi. “Next thing, the guy comes back and announces to everyone that I’m going to be the coach. I asked John what he said to this guy and John tells me that he told the guy, “You’re a bad f-----g coach. Sometimes a bad coach can get himself killed.”
The most poignant thing that Polisi said all night was how he had to learn to be a normal person after he got out of the life, to not be a bigot or a homophobe. “Growing up, we’re told to hate cops, hate blacks, hate Jews and hate gays – everyone that isn’t Italian, mainly.”
Franzese may have become a born-again Christian after he left the life, but he made one thing humorously clear: “I became a Christian. I didn’t get a lobotomy.” A businessman who constructed elaborate schemes against the government (the gasoline tax racket of the 1980s) and all major league sports (“it’s all about the spread,” he said, about getting sports figures to underachieve for his gain), Franzese publicly renounced organized crime, paid restitution, did time and provided the FBI with information as to how he scored and scored big. Then, he used that same information to become a motivational speaker, a youth group organizer, and a best-selling author.
Quick to say that everyone has three questions for him when they find out his former occupation – who did he kill; where did he stash his money; where is Hoffa buried – he talked about how the current mob lacks the dignity it had in his day. “You know, when I left, I didn’t give up names or rat anyone out,” he says. “I don’t see that now. These guys kill each other just for looking at each other the wrong way.”
With that, each man shook his head, disgusted at what the Mafia has become, pleased that they got out when they did, and happy they can continue to share their stories with television shows such as Inside The American Mob.
Inside The American Mob premieres on Sunday, July 28, 2013 on the National Geographic Channel with two episodes at 9 PM and 10 PM, then airs further episodes on Sundays at 9e/p
Photos ©David Smoler courtesy of The National Geographic Channel
Posted on Saturday, July 27, 2013