I grew up in the same neighborhood as Carmine Imbriale, the subject of my latest book, “Carmine & the 13th Avenue Boys: Surviving the Bloody South Brooklyn Colombo Mob.” So one of the things I enjoyed most while writing this book was revisiting that time and place, but with a deeper dive into the dark side of Brooklyn in the 1980s.
While Carmine was hustling down on 13th Avenue, I was growing up on the corner of 77th Street and 16th Avenue in the heart of Italian Bensonhurst. We lived with my grandparents, Dominick and Carmella.
I remember, when I was about 12, my grandfather summoned me upstairs to the porch hanging off the side of our two-story corner brick-face. He’d sit out on that porch in his 70s-style aluminum beach chair, listen to the Mets games on a tiny transistor, a bucket of potatoes next to him to chuck at strays that dared disturb his small garden patch below.
That day, the old man’s varicose veins were acting up, so he couldn’t go down to the local social club to play cards with his boys. This was the second social club I remember my grandfather frequenting. The first club used to be on the second floor of the old bakery on New Utrecht Avenue a few doors off 77th Street, after the Chinese Fruit Stand and the Salumeria, owned by my friend Joey D.’s family, when Tina and Freddy still ran the shop and they still hung fresh cheeses and salamis from the ceiling.
My grandfather no longer played cards in that club.
That’s because they firebombed the joint one night.
Too bad. The bakery on the first floor had the best semolina loaves this side of New Utrecht Avenue and the focaccia they sold out before noon was like butter. Ask anybody.
You see, as far back as I can remember, my grandfather never wanted to be a gangster. He was an honest union guy who carved out a respectable middle-class living for his family, owned his own home, and was respected by friends and family alike as a stand-up guy.
But like just about anybody and everybody who grew up in South Brooklyn back then, he knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, in “The Life.” He just happened to play cards with some of them when his varicose veins weren’t acting up.
He handed me a small brown-paper bag, said to go to the new club around the block on New Utrecht Avenue, off 76th Street, knock on the front door, ask for Red, and hand Red, and only Red, that small brown-paper bag.
I booked down 77th, hung a left under the el, dodged Old Lady Logatti as the B Train screamed overhead in its endless run out to Coney, and came upon this new club, across from the old ice factory and the Palm Tree candy store. This club looked anything but social. In fact, from the outside, it looked like a cold showroom for an aluminum siding company, complete with an extensive window display and neon lights.
Inside? Nothing but card tables.
My knock was answered by a massive slab of meat, a giant goomba guarding the inner sanctum who looked like he had just crash-landed from PLANET GANGSTER. No smiles, no curves, no joke, chomping a toothpick, shaped like a fridge, turtle-necked in black stretch cotton. He looked at me mean. Not school-teacher mean. More like, smile-while-he-slides-the-knife-sideways-into-your-neck-to-watch-the-light-dim mean.
Know what I mean?
“Madone, fuck this kid want?” he third-personed me.
I politely stu-stu-stuttered asking for Red, and he non-politely, but not meanly, grabbed me by the back of my neck and drew me inside.
Back then these backrooms were all over the neighborhood. Linoleum joints with a foot of smoke hanging from the drop-ceiling, jammed with card tables cluttered with yellow old guys chewing nasty black little Di Noblis and chain-smoking Camels or Luckys, leaning in, faces pinched, hacking phlegm, hollering at each other in horse voices as they banged each other out of pots playing pinochle and scopa.
They guzzled wine and espresso, gobbled carbs and salted meats, never exercised, except for trowing beatings, hung their newsies caps on green oxygen tanks, washed down meds with double shots, biding time in that slow steady parade into the showing rooms at Torregrossa’s on 13th or Scarpaci’s on 86th.
You could sort the old-timers from the up-and-comer wannabees by how they dressed. Grizzled gangsters wore the cotton polyester blends and knits, orthopedic shoes, the occasional turtleneck. The young Turks rocked Jordache velours and Oleg Tachini tracksuits.
I handed Red that small brown bag. He asked after my grandfather, chucked me a few beans, threw the bag to one of his boys, and FAT NECK showed me the door. Red knew he didn’t need to check that bag. Just as I knew not to look at what was in the bag. We all knew what this was about.
My grandfather not only played the Numbers, the Italian American underground street lottery, but he’d collect for friends, family, neighbors, and play for them when he went down to the club to play cards.
Here’s an excerpt from “Carmine & the 13th Avenue Boys” that explains how that infamous racket really worked:
Back then, the backrooms of Brooklyn’s bakeries and cafes were not just card rooms and dice pits, but number houses. It was the Italian street lottery, dating all the way back to the 1920s.
You pick three numbers, either straight or combo (combo means you get paid when those number come out in random order, just pays less than if you play them straight). Because no one trusted gang bosses like Scarpa to not rig the numbers, the Mafia used impartial sources. Some crews used the last three digits of the pari-mutuel handle at the Big A (basically, the total combined take of the betting pool at Aqueduct Racetrack for that day). Another crew would use the closing Dow, another number they couldn’t rig.
“Everybody and their mother played the numbers,” Carmine says. “Not kidding, even the grandmothers. Even the priests.” They saw numbers in everything, everywhere. Stepped on a scale, play your weight. Visit someone in the hospital, play the room number. Grocery bill, play the total. And everyone had some creepy story of how so-and-so’s aunt had a premonition, or such-and-such’s grandmother dreamt a number.
Of course those numbers hit.
Started out as nickels, but those nickels, and later quarters and dollars, added up. By 1980, the New York numbers’ rackets generated between $800 million to $1.5 billion a year.
Greg Scarpa Sr. raked in thousands every week and the wise guys made nice money on those numbers in general … until, in 1967, New York State started muscling in on the action, launching a legal Lottery. At first, it was still a six-number game. So, it wasn’t until 1980 that lawmakers in Albany created a daily pick-three lottery, and that doomed Scarpa Sr.’s illicit business.
Want to laugh?
The gangsters in Brooklyn took 20 or 30 points off the top when you won.
The Albany shysters? Fifty percent.
To learn more about the South Brooklyn rackets from a street-level operative who spent two decades inside the Colombo Family, pick up your copy of “Carmine & the 13th Avenue Boys: Surviving the Bloody South Brooklyn Colombo Mob” today.