This page contains stories that have been published:
The Carting Business and From Prague to Vienna
The Carting Business is an excerpt from the novel, The Iceman, Vincenzo Castella, the man who made the mob. It was printed in The East Hampton Star on July 3, 2003.
The Carting Business
"But Vincenzo, you gotta help us with this problem..."
It was at a ProSo council meeting in April of 1922. In 1918 Vincenzo Castella had organized the ice men in Brooklyn and then, when Prohibition came, he negotiated with the mob to have his men deliver the mob's liquor to the speakeasies along with the ice. The fifteen main ice men in Brooklyn were there, at the meeting, representing their own ice & coal businesses and, by their election, the hundreds of other icemen in the expanded territories. Castella would not usually meet with this many men, but this was an exception, they had asked him to be there.
Vito Trippi was talking. "You see Vincenzo, this is becoming a serious problem for us..." Trippi looked around for support. Others nodded and mumbled in agreement.
"OK, Vito, explain this to me again."
"Well, you see, when our guys deliver the liquor it comes in these wooden cases. Now all these here saloons, they operate as though they ain't saloons, you know?"
"Si. Go on."
"So, even though they got the cops watching out for them, they're always worried that the government agents are gonna be snoopin around, you know, during the daytime, when they're closed." Vito paused and looked around again, wanting to be sure that he continued to have support. After all, he was challenging Castella. This was not always a good idea. They all knew about Castella's friend, Gamboni. The other men continued nodding. Vito went on.
"Plus, their regular garbage men won't take the empty liquor cases. They're afraid of getting caught too. So, they're asking our guys to take back the empty crates, filled up with the empty bottles. Every time we make a delivery, we gotta take back the empty wooden crates and glass bottles!"
"Oh! I see. So, what do you do with these empty crates?" Castella took out a cigar and lit up.
"Well, that's the problem. First of all, we gotta pay the men extra. They're doing extra work...more time. You know?"
"Uh huh." Castella answered, puffing on his cigar, sitting at one of the three tables. Vito was standing up, talking to Castella and pivoting around so he could see all the others at the same time. Castella thought, I gotta watch this guy. He's young, aggressive and a good politician.
"Then the other problem is we gotta take this stuff to the dump."
"Uh huh. Go on."
"Well, we got no garbage carting license from the city, so we gotta pay off the men at the dump so's they'll let us dump the garbage. Hell! Even if we had a license..." Trippi leaned back and threw his arms up in the air. "We'd have to pay them off anyway. After all, this junk is illegal to begin with!"
They all laughed. Castella laughed, and he stood up. He had to posture himself to face Vito's challenge.
"So, what do you think I should do for you?"
"I dunno Vincenzo. These guys all say you're the boss. You gotta think of something." Vito turned, arms outstretched, seeking consensus. He was putting Castella on the spot. Castella took another puff on his cigar and turned his face up as he exhaled.
"OK boys. I need to think about this. Lets talk about it again, next month. In the meantime, just keep doing what the customers ask for. We'll work it out."
"What do you mean, well work it out Vincenzo?" Tomaso Sante was speaking. He sounded angry. "I'm the one who's getting hurt. Me and the guys who elected me...who elected us," he said, looking around at the others. "It's costing us money. It ain't costing you a nickel. I'm just supposed to sit here, with the money draining outta my pockets, while you smoke your stinkin cigar and think about this? How's that helping me?"
"Listen, Tomaso," Castella answered, "let me ask you a question. Are you making more money now than you did before I organized you?"
"Wait a minute. And are the guys who elected you making more money too? And are you and them making more money delivering the booze than you do delivering the ice?"
"Well, yes, but"
"Wait, just wait." Castella stomped out his cigar and rushed over to Sante. He started jabbing his finger into Sante's chest.
"Tell me Tomaso, are you making more money than ever, even after the extra cost of taking away the empty crates?"
The others started chuckling. Sante sputtered. "Well, that's not the point Vincenzo"
"I never did anything to hurt you..." Castella said, interrupting him. He looked around for confirmation and saw that he had it. "And I never will. All I ask for is that you be patient, for just a month. I promise you that when I come back next month I'll have a plan that will make you more money than today. Your patience will be rewarded, my friends."
With that Castella smiled, raised his arms, palms up, in the air and pivoted around towards all the men, seeking affirmation.
They all rose from their chairs and applauded Castella. He won their confidence again. He saw that this was a job that needed renewal all the time. He couldn't stay hidden away, behind his bodyguards. He had to see them...at least this group...regularly. He worked hard. He had power. He made a lot of money. But they, his icemen, were the source of that power and wealth, and they weren't going to allow him to continue making his money based on what he did for them yesterday. He had to prove himself worthy of their allegiance over and over again, month after month.
They adjourned and went home to their families and their businesses. Castella went back to his office and smoked and drank some wine and thought.
The next morning Castella called Sam Goldberg, his lawyer.
"We have to meet for lunch today."
Goldberg looked at his watch and thumbed over his page of appointments for the day, knowing he would have to tell Estelle to cancel his agenda.
"OK. Meet me at the Montauk Club. Noon."
The Montauk Club was an exclusive club occupying its own impressive building at the north end of Prospect Park in Park Slope. It was about a mile or so away from their offices, but Goldberg knew it would be private and he sensed from Castella's tone of voice that they would be having a serious and confidential conversation.
They arrived separately and were escorted to Goldberg's usual table. After the meal they had coffee. Castella leaned in and spoke.
"What do you know about the garbage business and the licenses?"
"Please, Sam. Im serious."
Goldberg took a sip of water and looked up at the ceiling. "Hmm. OK. Let's see. Well, the city provides for all residential garbage removal. Private carters are licensed to pick up commercial and industrial waste. Whats the point?"
"Maybe I want to go into that business."
"OH. I see. Another side line for your men Vincenzo?"
"Hmm. OK. I think I gotta do a little research. What about the guys already in it? In that business?"
"This is America, right?"
"So, in America its a free country. Anybody can go into any business. To compete. Right? Let the best man win. Right?"
"Maybe..." Goldberg said, exhaling a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling. He continued, "Lets say America is a FEE country, not a free country, Vincenzo. It's gonna cost."
"I understand. How much?"
"I dunno Vincenzo. I need to make a few calls. Youre talking about Brooklyn, right? I mean Brooklyn only."
"Of course!" Vincenzo insisted. "For now."
"Oh. Well, maybe I better understand about later Vincenzo. If youre thinking about the whole city it's gonna be a different story. What do you want?"
Castella paused and sipped his coffee.
"OK Sam. Lets see about Brooklyn and Queens. What do you know about Long Island?"
"Long Island is different. It'll be easier there Vincenzo. Let's check out Brooklyn and Queens first."
Goldberg signed the check and they left.
"Vincenzo, it's Sam. Let's meet, for lunch, today, at the hotel. I don't have enough time for the club. Just a quick lunch. I got some things to talk to you about. Better in person rather than on the telephone. OK?"
It was two weeks since they met at the Montauk Club. They sat at a large booth in the rear of the coffee shop at The St. George Hotel. Goldberg had no papers with him. Castella took no notes. Elsa, the waitress had just taken their order, two tunas on rye, and left them with coffee. Goldberg looked around, then leaned in, closer to Castella, and spoke in a low voice.
"I can get you the permits from City Hall. The official fee is fifteen dollars each. They need to be renewed every year. We can get as many as we want"
"Thats great Sam. That sounds fantastic"
"Wait, Vincenzo, that's not all of it." Goldberg was shaking his hands above the tabletop. "You see, there will be an unofficial fee too."
"Because, Vincenzo, theres a waiting list for the permits, and they're only supposed to issue one at a time."
"Oh. I see. How much Sam?"
"Go on," Castella said, picking up his glass and taking a sip of water.
"Fifteen thousand dollars."
"WHAT?" Castella said, choking on his water.
"Shhh, Vincenzo, quiet." Goldberg patted his hands in the air and looked around the restaurant. Castella's voice drew some attention. In a minute everything calmed down.
"You see, Vincenzo, it didn't take them very long to figure it out."
"Figure what out?"
"Well, first of all, a request like that, coming from me, for Brooklyn and Queens, it could only be you."
"So, the boys downtown, in New York, they know you can afford it. Plus, even though they issue the permits at City Hall, they gotta share the fees with their friends in Brooklyn and Queens. Plus, they figure, if you're in it then you must have a way of making a lot more than fifteen thousand dollars, so, they figure, it's just a good investment on your part. To tell you the truth, Vincenzo, they asked for twenty"
"TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS?"
"Yeah. I got them down to fifteen," Goldberg said, shrugging and sipping his coffee.
Castella sat there, still and quiet, and thought. Elsa brought the sandwiches. They ate in silence. After the sandwiches they ordered more coffee. When Elsa brought the coffee she left the check. Castella signed it. He moved to leave. Goldberg grabbed his sleeve.
"What do you want me to do Vincenzo?"
"I gotta think about it. Thats a lot of money."
"It may be even more than you think."
"What do you mean Sam?"
Goldberg looked around, leaned in and continued.
"Listen, Vincenzo, I dont want to know the details of your plan. But I gotta tell you, if youre thinking of carting something other than garbage, we have to plan to spread some money around here. In Brooklyn and Queens. Then there's the men at the dumps. Its going to cost fifteen thousand one time, downtown, but you better plan that its going to cost you more, maybe a grand a month, right here, in Brooklyn and another grand a month maybe in Queens. See?"
They went back to their offices.
Over the next week Castella thought about the situation, calculated the costs, and developed his plan. He called Goldberg.
"Tell them well have an answer in ten days."
The next ProSo Council meeting was scheduled for the following Wednesday.
After the regular business of the Council meeting Castella got up to address the men. The room was foggy with the haze of cigar and cigarette smoke. The glasses tinkled as the men continued to drink their wine. Castella raised his arms.
"Quiet. OK. Quiet now." After a few seconds he got their attention.
"You guys all remember that I promised you I would think about your problem? With the empty crates?"
They nodded and mumbled in agreement.
"How would you all like to make more money, not less, for carting the crates?"
There was laughter and a loud chorus of positive remarks. Vito Trippi got up.
"How we gonna do that Vincenzo?"
Castella turned and faced Trippi.
"We are gonna go in the garbage carting business Franco. We are gonna tell our customers that since their regular garbage men wont take the empty crates, we will, as long as they give us all of their other garbage business. And we charge them for the service."
"What you talking about Vincenzo? We got no trucks to do this. We got no license to do this. We got nothing to do this with. What you talking about?" Dino Bortolli was speaking. He threw his arms up and spoke with cynicism in his voice.
"You see Dino..." this was the opening Castella was hoping for. He walked over to Bortolli and put his right arm around Bortollis shoulders, taking him like an old friend, lost in a storm, and guiding him to safety. Castella raised his left arm up to the ceiling and looked up there, past his arm, at the ceiling, as though there was a vision there, in the air, and he was helping Bortolli to see his vision, to share his vision. They all looked up, at that vision, at the battered old tin ceiling that Castella was pointing to.
"You see my friend; this is why you need ProSo. We are gonna do everything for you. We are gonna get the licenses and show you how to use your trucks in this new business."
At that time, in 1922, the rear-loading compactor garbage trucks had not yet been invented. Garbage men used high-walled open bed trucks to pile the garbage in and then took it all to the dumps and incinerators for disposal. The garbage trucks were basically the same style they used for coal. Castella continued.
"You are gonna pay ProSo one monthly fee and it will cover everything you need. Now you have a brand new business to go into, and you don't have to worry about anything. ProSo will organize the whole thing. Your territories will be protected"
"OUR territories? But what about the guys already in the business? I know some of these guys," Bortolli said, shocked by Castellas statement.
"Well, thats your decision Dino..."
The other men were listening carefully, swinging their heads back-and-forth, between Castella and Bortolli. Castella continued.
"If you dont want to go into this business, nobodys gonna make you. But if you want to make more money, here it is...a brand new business for you. As for the other guys in the business now, this is America! Were ready to compete. They dont want to take the bottles and the crates? We will. Dont go threatening them to take their other business. At least not yet..."
Castella smiled and the others smirked. Then he continued.
"We gonna take the business they dont want and we gonna charge the customers for it. Thats good business. Thats the American Way!"
They all stood up and cheered Castella. Even Bortolli and Trippi cheered. Castella smiled and waved. The first organized garbage operation was born that day.
"Sam? Its me. Go ahead with the plan."
"I understand. What about the grease?"
"Come to see me, tonight, about 8:00. I'll have the package for you."
"OK. Ill see you then."
From Prague To Vienna
Originally published in The East Hampton Star May 9, 2002
The elderly conductor struggled with his English as he peered over his glasses, pinching the tip of his round, red nose. His uniform was old and worn; the cuffs on his sleeves were frayed and the epaulets on his shoulders were torn and ragged. He was trying to decipher my ticket and passport. Finally he gave up, shrugged and waved me aboard. I looked up at the massive gray rail car of the Czech National Railroad. The steps were steep so I grasped the rusty handrail, lifting myself and my bag up to the platform. The narrow corridor led me to the open door of my compartment. Someone was already sitting inside.
“Good morning,” I said, reaching up to place my bag on the shelf. The train whistle blew and the cars lurched forward; I grabbed onto the baggage rack and let myself down onto the seat opposite her. She looked up from her magazine and nodded, then resumed leafing through the pages of Le Monde.
I looked at my watch; it was 10:45.
We rode in silence for a while; the attractive young woman read her magazine as I looked out the window.
About an hour later the train stopped at the little town of Kutna Hora.
It was after noon when we arrived at Benesov.
The seats in the wood-paneled compartment were upholstered in leather. There were velvet café curtains tied up at the sides of the windows. Nothing had been cleaned or cared for in years, so the small room looked neglected, drab and dreary…and it smelled of stale tobacco smoke.
“Tickets please.” Our tranquility was broken by a conductor speaking English (probably for my benefit, and to show off a little too). He was younger than the conductor who had greeted me in Prague—he was about my age—but dressed in the same type of shabby uniform as the older man had worn.
My fellow passenger looked up at him and spoke Czech. The conductor took her ticket and responded. Then he turned to me.
“Yes?” I said, handing him my ticket.
“Welcome aboard,” he said punching my ticket. Then, apparently having exhausted his entire English repertoire, he left.
The woman and I looked at each other, eye-to-eye, for the first time.
“American?” she asked.
She raised her arms, stretching and yawning, and then she rustled in her bag and withdrew a pack of Gitanes.
“My name is Claudia.”
Claudia extended the pack to me. I took one and reached for my matches, lighting both hers and mine. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips, her cigarette hanging from her lips, as she bent her torso backwards, stretching again. I watched in admiration. She was slim with short dark hair, a funny little nose (so thin I wondered if she could get enough oxygen through her nostrils) and dressed nicely in a long, snug black dress.
Maybe thirty-three or thirty-five, I thought, just a few years younger than me.
Claudia sat down, looked at me and smiled.
“Have you been to Wien before, Mr. Grainger?”
“Vienna? Yes. I travel there on business regularly. And please, call me George.”
“George. That’s nice. And what business is that George?”
Claudia was leaning back in her seat now, relaxed and chatting. She spoke English with a French accent.
“The chemical business. There are producers of specialty chemicals here. I import these products into North America.”
“Oh. I see.”
“And what do you do Claudia?”
Claudia looked away, out the window, in silence. The train whistle blew and the train slowed down. She turned and looked back at me.
“Who in Prague makes such chemicals?” She asked.
The door of our compartment slid open and the young conductor came in. He spoke to Claudia. She nodded in understanding and he left. Claudia turned to me.
“He said to tell you that we are making an unscheduled stop—”
“Why? Where?” I interrupted her. I looked at my watch; it was 2:00.
She shrugged her shoulders and raised her eyebrows—so very French, I thought.
“I don’t know George. It is nothing. All very routine.”
The train came to a full stop. I looked out the window but saw nothing—no station platform, no town, not even a road. Almost as quickly as it stopped the train resumed chugging along.
“So, tell me George, which company in Prague is manufacturing specialty chemicals?”
“You speak as though you know something of the business Claudia.”
The door slid open again. This time the conductor came in with another man; he was dressed in a military uniform.
“Your papers please,” the soldier said, in perfect English.
“What is this about? Who are you?” I asked.
“I am Captain Petazy Mr. Grainger. The National Security Force. I am sorry to inconvenience you. Please come with me.”
“What? What is this about. Here. Look at my passport. I am an American businessman. What do you want?”
Petazy was shaking his head and holding the papers.
“Please come along. It will only be a few minutes. Then you may return...here…to your friend…Mademoiselle Louchard,” he said, looking at Claudia’s papers as he spoke. Claudia nodded at me.
“Go ahead George. I’ll stay here. Then when you come back perhaps we can have a drink together in the dining car.”
We went out the door and walked down the corridor into the next car. Petazy nudged me into another compartment. This one was furnished with a desk and three chairs. Petazy closed the door and motioned for me to sit. We were alone. Petazy went behind the desk and sat down.
“So! What is this about Mr. Grainger?”
“What? What is what about Captain Petazy?”
“First Budapest, then Prague, now Vienna?”
“You’ve been following me?”
“I didn’t say that Mr. Grainger. It’s all here…in your passport.” Petazy tossed the documents across the desk to me. I gathered the papers up and stuffed them into my jacket pocket. Then I reached for my handkerchief and wiped my brow.
“Cigarette?” Petazy offered me his pack. I shook my head and drummed my fingertips on the edge of his desk. Petazy lit up and gazed at the ceiling as the train sped along, rocking back-and-forth on the rails, coming closer and closer to Vienna.
“How much longer until we reach Vienna?”
“Why are you so concerned about reaching Vienna Mr. Grainger? Don’t you like it here in The Czech Republic?”
The train whistle blew and the bells from the railroad crossing rang out. The train rushed past the Jihlava station. I knew we were now less than one hundred kilometers from the Austrian border. I looked at my watch.
“I like it here. Yes. But I have a schedule. Business you know,” I said, wiping my palms across my pants.
“Umm hmm,” Petazy said. “Tell me Mr. Grainger, does the name Herr Grunthler mean anything to you?”
“No. Why? Should it?”
“I don’t know Mr. Grainger. Just asking.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. Then Petazy took a book from a drawer in the desk. He opened the book and traced his right index finger down the page. When he reached the point he was looking for he arched his eyebrows and studied the entry.
I sat there, silently tapping my right foot and looking around the small compartment. I looked out the window. We passed the Trebic station, the whistle blowing and the bells clanging. I looked at my watch again. Less than two hours to Vienna, I thought.
“Can I return to my seat while you study whatever it is that you are reading Captain?”
“No. Just sit there for a few more minutes Mr. Grainger.”
The door slid open and another solider walked in. He spoke to Petazy and handed him a paper. Petazy read it, obviously agitated by its contents. I looked out the window again, trying to ignore them, trying to count the kilometers going by.
I turned to look back at Petazy; he was glaring at me.
“Did you know Mr. Grainger that an escape from a prison took place in Prague yesterday?”
“No. Why should I?”
“And did you know that the escapee was a political prisoner. An assassin. A certain Herr Grunthler?”
“No. Why should I?”
Petazy shrugged his shoulders and let out a low groan.
“It seems now that perhaps you shouldn’t know Mr. Grainger. You may go. Your papers are in order. We have just received confirmation of your identification.”
“Thank you very much Captain,” I said sarcastically. I picked up my papers and rushed back to my compartment, hoping that Claudia was still there.
As I approached the open door the emergency whistle blew and the train came to a stop. I nearly fell to the floor from the force of the deceleration. The compartment was empty except for my undisturbed bag.
It was Captain Petazy.
There were other soldiers on the train now. They were running up and down the corridor, yelling in Czech. I wanted to leave, to go to the dining car to see if Claudia was there.
“Mr. Grainger, do you remember the conductor who took your ticket at the station in Prague?”
“Why, yes, Captain.”
“Was he the same conductor who punched your ticket once you were aboard? The conductor who went with us to the official compartment?”
“No. The one on the train was much younger than the conductor at the station.”
“Please Mr. Grainger, come with me. I need you to identify a body.”
“A body. Me? Identify a body? Who? Why?”
“It will just take a minute.”
Petazy grabbed my wrist and pulled me down the corridor to another compartment. A soldier was standing outside the closed door. Petazy nodded and the soldier slid the door open. There, on the floor, in his underwear, was the older conductor. His straggly white hair, his large nose, his moustache. It was certainly him. His skin was pale and his eyes were open, staring up, at the ceiling. There was a rough red mark around his throat and his mouth was frozen in a twisted expression of horror.
“Yes. That’s him,” I said as I turned away. I wanted to get back to my compartment and sit down, drink a glass of water…or something stronger.
“You may leave now Mr. Grainger.”
“When will you start the train up again Captain?” I said, looking at my watch.
“Go back to your compartment. I will come there in a few minutes Mr. Grainger.”
I walked back to my room, sat down and opened my bag. There was a flask of Bourbon. I took a swig just as Petazy entered. He smiled.
“You see, Mr. Grainger, you bear a resemblance to Mr. Grunthler. And we received a tip. Around noon today. After the train left Prague. It said Grunthler was on the train, disguised as an American Businessman. And you acted suspiciously…you know, in such a rush to get to Vienna.
“But it turns out that Grunthler garroted the conductor, took his uniform and threw us off his track by leading us to you. Then when we were getting closer to the border, Grunthler and his accomplish, the girl…”
Oh my God! I thought, Claudia. She was in on it.
“They stopped the train using the emergency cord, and jumped off. They probably had somebody waiting nearby with a car. So. Now we have to alert the authorities in Austria. So, tell me, Mr. Grainger, what was your hurry to get to Vienna?”
I looked at my watch. It was after 4:00. We were still an hour outside of Vienna. I chuckled.
“I have a date. For tea. With a lovely young lady named Elsa. I had hoped…well, now it’s too late. I’ll never make it and she will think I have forgotten and I will never be forgiven.”
I shrugged my shoulders.