Setting is a critical element to a writer when considering taking on a non-fiction book project.
That’s why, when I received a call from famous NYPD Detective Thomas Dades offering to introduce me to a former 13th Avenue Colombo gangster interested in a book project, I jumped at the opportunity.
Of course, Carmine Imbriale was a complex, remarkable, even relatable character. Not only was Carmine once deeply involved in organized crime in South Brooklyn and played a small, but impactful, role in ending the Third Colombo War, he had dozens of quirky slice-of-The-Life stories readers tend to find so compelling.
However, perhaps most intriguing to me was that Carmine grew up on 79th Street and 13th Avenue, just blocks away from my own 77th Street childhood home.
Sure, I didn’t know the rackets, but I knew these streets. Even though Carmine is about 15 years older than me, his Bensonhurst was very much the same neighborhood where I was raised, especially during the period when he was most active in the Mafia.
Not much of this era or area of South Brooklyn has really been explored in popular culture, beyond William DeMeo’s outstanding TV drama “Gravesend.”
You see, Carmine’s story is not set in the Brooklyn you think you know. Not the “Moonstruck” Brooklyn. Not the “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” Brooklyn. And definitely not “The Honeymooners” Brooklyn. By the 1980s on 13th Avenue, the vibe was closer to “Requiem for a Dream” Brooklyn, more “The Warriors” Brooklyn.
This is a much darker and grittier version of Brooklyn than Woody Allen captured on film, but also endearing as the end of an era, as I describe in this excerpt from “Carmine & the 13th Avenue Boys”:
This is the South Brooklyn of the Sunday sauce, just don’t call it gravy. They play stickball in the streets and sit on stoops until late in the evening. Stray cats shriek in alleyways strung with laundry. Dead-eyed statues of Saint Anthony guard concrete gardens beneath banners of the green, white, and red snapping alongside the red, white, and blue.
In the mornings, street sweepers kick up dust as men in white deliver glass bottles down blocks hung with sneakers sagging power lines like rubber hives. High above broken asphalt, chalk-scarred with skelly boards, a tar beach tapestry unfolds, of rooftops, ancient water towers, church steeples, rusted fire-escapes. And always, always, off in the distance, the Verrazano broods and the mighty, mighty B train rumbles out to Coney.
This the real Brooklyn. Ain’t nobody got no pool, no sprinkler, no slip and slide water ride. Young bucks in white tanks on street corners sweat it out on busted beach chairs and milk crates. Ginas and Dinas and Minas in Berta 66 cut-offs recline on car hoods preening, braiding. Someone crooks a monkey wrench out Old Man Dinardi’s shed, cracks open the johnny pump to scream out the sun … until a patrol car from the 6-8 rolls ‘round to shut it down. And soon … the sun slips and dusk trips the street lights, reminding the mothers along 13th Avenue to put down their Pall Malls and holler their kids home for dinner.
That’s just one folded slice of the Brooklyn I can still see when I close my eyes.
Working with Carmine allowed me to dig deeper into the other side, or should I say underside, of South Brooklyn during that time. After all, as I wrote in this excerpt, everyone raised there has at least some passing connection to guys like Carmine:
Everyone in that era of South Brooklyn knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, in “The Life.”
You knew “a guy” who’d give you a break on something that just fell off a truck. Feeling lucky? You go to that other guy to play the numbers. Bank turned you down and need a loan fast? You’re in luck. That’s the other guy, the shy. And if you wanted to gamble, that guy had another guy for you, the one with the book. And all these guys were not hard to find. They were outside the club on your corner, in your local barber shops, down by the OTB a couple blocks over, or in the smoky backroom of the Fortunata bakery throwing the cards around.
We all did. But what we all didn’t know was what an epicenter 13th Avenue was in the grand drama of the imploding American Mafia, as Tommy Dades wrote for the foreword of this book:
This book depicts an important time and a place in the annals of organized crime, the likes of which we’ll never see again. South Brooklyn, specifically Bensonhurst’s 13th Avenue in the 1980s, was like the Five Points of Lower Manhattan in the 19th Century and Chicago’s South Side during Prohibition. Imagine an insider’s view into Murder Inc.’s Brownsville in the Depression, Hell’s Kitchen with the Westies, East Harlem’s Pleasant Avenue, or Knickerbocker Village in the Two Bridges. In these ganglands, the right conditions came together to create truly brutal environments.
I patrolled those streets. I worked those cases. I made those arrests. Along that long 13th Avenue strip, in those bars, in those social clubs, on those corners, at any given time, you had upwards of a hundred gangsters running scams. All five families of the Mafia operated there, though this was a Colombo stronghold. You had Carmine Sessa and Bobby Zam in one club, across the street there was Greg Scarpa Sr., who at the time was not only a serial killer for the mob, a major narcotics trafficker, and bank robber, but an FBI informant.
Right on 13th Avenue, there was Neddy’s Bar, The Wimpy Boys Club, The Flip Side – straight-up gangster clubs. Within a mile radius, you had the Gambino’s Veteran’s & Friends Club, Sammy the Bull’s 2020, Carmine Sessa’s Occasions, Christi Tick’s 19th Hole, Anthony Spero’s Bath Beach Social Club, Wild Bill’s Friendly Bocce Club, and dozens of cafes crawling with hundreds of gangsters. More captains, consiglieres, and bosses either grew up there, or still lived there, than anywhere else in the city.
Carmine is the idea character for this time, in this place.
I like how Tommy put it: “Carmine was an actor in a grand play, set in this wild place during a time of madness and chaos, the likes of which we will never see again.”
Yes, setting is very important to a writer when taking on a non-fiction book project.
BONUS CUT: For those new to the neighborhood to longtime residents, I indulge us all in a bittersweet walk down memory lane, looking at life through Carmine’s eyes when he returned to South Brooklyn after decades in the federal witness protection program and then in hiding.
Sorry, no excerpts. You’ll just have to buy the book for that final tour.