Given the return to HBO this Sunday of Tony, Carmela, the kids, and everyone not already murdered, here’s my own Sopranos moment: the time in 1994 when I was on assignment for Vanity Fair to write a profile of the son also rises: John A. “Junior” Gotti, who’s now on trial for racketeering in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. I found myself with a cup of coffee, a kiss and a few clues from the new reputed head of the Gambino family. (This is an unpublished excerpt.)
I can’t believe my luck: John A. Gotti, aka “Junior”, is coming after me.
I have been waiting in my car for seemingly forever, parked in the middle of what is Mafia Central exactly one block from the Gambino gangland haunt known as the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. Certainly time enough for every black leather jacketed, blue-jeaned and Reebok-ed wiseguy in Ozone Park, Queens, to stroll by and give me the once over. Two lookouts carrying walkie-talkies come to an abrupt stop outside my vehicle, stare into the darkly tinted windows, then pantomime to one another–fingers imitating a camera going click, click–that I’m probably no more harmless than a photographer. Just to be certain, one of their colleagues with his ubiquitous beeper has taken up permanent residence at the outdoor pay phone a few feet from my auto. He doesn’t talk–just cradles the receiver against his chin and glares my way every so often. By 4 p.m., the sporadic traffic of beat-up junkers around the blue-collar neighborhood of 98th street and 101st Avenue comes alive with late-model cars. Finally, the one I’m anxiously awaiting, a gleaming silver Toyota Camry, squeals up to the curb and lets out a young group of goodfellas. Immediately, they assemble in a circle outside the E & N Coffee Shop directly across from the Bergin club; at their center is a short-legged, thick-necked, top-heavy kid capo hiding behind sunglasses and a Dallas Cowboys hat. Such camouflage is understandable, even necessary these days. Because that simian-featured face (“Go to the Museum of Natural History,” quipped one organized crime investigator to me. “Second floor. Left-hand case. You’ll find it in the ‘Missing Link’ display.’”) is rapidly becoming as famous as his last name, thanks to the phalanx of TV reporters who catch him on the run during sweeps weeks, stick microphones near his mouth and ask inanely incriminating questions like, “Are you the new boss of the Gambino crime family?” only to have him parrot his father, the Dapper Don, who always answered with the sound bite, “I’m only the boss of my wife and my children.” No wonder the Baby Don has never uttered more than six words to any journalist before today.
I figure what the hell, it’s now or never, so I leave my car and walk slowly towards the white boys ‘n the hood who are hanging out. At the last minute, just when I’m expected to interrupt them, I flash Junior a friendly smile, then I duck into the E&N to order a regular coffee and check his response. To my surprise, he is watching me, the only customer, watch him through the restaurant’s front window. The next thing I know, Junior has left his entourage and followed me into the coffee shop–but not before stationing one member of his beefy entourage in the doorway to block the entrance with his bulk. This is it, only him and me in the back of the eatery, so we curiously eye one another until I realize he is waiting for me to approach first. That is the etiquette, apparently. I thrust out my hand and grab his. “Hi, I’m Nikki Finke. I’m a writer with Vanity Fair Magazine. Can we talk?” We do.
And what I get from young Gotti over the next half hour is a cup of coffee, a kiss and a few clues about this 30-year-old man-boy whom law enforcement officials say has officially replaced his imprisoned father as the tutti di capo of the country’s most notorious organized crime family and set in motion the most significant generational change in Cosa Nostra history as well. Around Ozone Park are the vestiges of the Mafia’s Old World: it’s like going to Rome and seeing the ruins. There is a banner strung over a help-wanted sign on an overpass in green and red referring to Junior’s father, now in prison, “John is missed–(drawing of a red heart)–but never forgotten.” Outside the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club, silver-haired and slightly stooped Peter Gotti, John’s brother and Junior’s uncle, is standing outside the club, meeting and greeting the people who are hurrying in and out.
For months now, I had been interviewing law enforcement investigators and getting a portrait of Junior as drawn from their own surveillance. They had been late to focus on him because they thought so little of his abilities. “He’s not capable of being head of a kindergarten class,” Joe Coffey, the head of intelligence for the New York State Organized Crime Task force explains to me. “He’s only the head of the family as long as he is able to keep in line the old school guys. And they’re not going for it. I bet you by Christmas, he’s dead.” To hear the government tell it, Junior is an arrogant oaf whose life has been handed to him on a silver pasta dish. But, as I’m researching this story, I am coming to the conclusion that investigators may be seriously underestimating Junior. The Baby Don is cut from a more sophisticated bolt of cloth than his infamous father. For one thing, Junior graduated high school, overcame a remedial reading problem and can quote Shakespeare. I discover his favorite passage is the “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice.
Back at the E & N Coffee Shop in Ozone Park, Queens, Junior and I start talking. “I just came from Robert H. Goddard JHS 202, and I know that you were voted ‘handsomest’ and ‘boy athlete’ of your class when you graduated in June 1978,” I burble like a moron. But Junior seems genuinely taken aback. “Yeah, thank you,” he says. “How do you know that?” I tell him I’m a good reporter. We are in full banter now. Eugenia, an older woman at the coffee shop, comes over. “This is my second mother,” he says, giving her a bear hug around the shoulders. We make more small talk. Are you a Cowboys fan? I ask, boldly fingering the navy blue cap emblazoned with the white Dallas Cowboys logo. “No, I’m a diehard Jets fan,” he answers. We talk about his wife Kim expecting her fourth child. I congratulate him on it. “Yeah, thank you, he replies beaming. “How do you know that?
I ask about published reports that he had been too “squeamish” to watch his children being born in the delivery room. He makes a face. “No, I believe that my place is in the waiting room,” he says, serious now. “That’s women’s business in there. That’s for the lady. It’s not for me.” I ask if he knows if the baby’s a boy or a girl. “No, I don’t want to know. “ “Oh, you like being surprised, I inquire. “Oh yeah, it’s the only way to be,” he states.
More chatter, and finally, Junior looks out the window. “Here, I’ll buy you coffee. But I’ve got to go,” he tells me. He leans over and pecks me on the cheek. Then comes an awkward moment: not because he kissed me, but because I turn and greet by name the Robin to his Batman, an Irish Catholic guy named Mike McLaughlin who’s Junior’s aide de camp. It stops both men cold. With that, Junior walks out, but not before motioning his thumb towards Mike McLaughlin and saying, “he’ll tell you anything you want to know,” Hearing that, McLaughlin blushes.
With Junior’s departure, I realize instantly that he played me far better than I played him. I smile at the very idea that, if I didn’t know better, I’d find him to be, in a word, nice. Then I remind myself what’s in my briefcase: a cassette tape given me by two New York State Organized Crime Task Force detectives who had tailed and wiretapped Junior’s father for years. And on it was a conversation between Junior and Kim when she was just his girlfriend, and he’s screaming at her at the top of his lungs in a jealous rage over a photo someone had told him about; it showed her and another boy from high school days. “Oh motherfucker, motherfucker, listen to me. Listen to me, fuck face. Because in another minute, I’ll kill you, you motherfucker. You hear me? You hear? I’ll kill you and your mother right now. That picture better be by your fucking house by the time I get there. If it ain’t there, you’re getting a beating. How does that sound? I’m sending somebody to get it right now. You even pick up the phone to call, I’ll put you in the fucking hospital. One more fucking time, Kim, I’ll kill you. I’m killing you, you understand me?”
As I leave the coffee shop, I put down a crisp $1 bill to pay for the coffee. The cook looks at it uneasily. “No, no, no, John picks it up. No,” he says in broken English, rushing over to stuff the bill back into my hands. I tell him as firmly as I can that I always pay my own way, that he could give the dollar to charity for all I cared, but that I have to leave it. With that, he begins to plead. “No, you don’t understand. John will get very angry, very angry. I can’t do that.” And then he looks into my eyes. “Please don’t do this to me.” I walk back to my car, and a few lines from Junior’s favorite speech in The Merchant of Venice echo in my head: “We do pray for mercy. And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” Back in Manhattan, I tell one of the detectives who’d tapped the father that I’d just talked to Junior. “Oh, the old man’s going to go nuts,” the investgator predicts. “You know who else is going to go nuts? All the old-time wiseguys. `That’s all we need now, a guy who talks to reporters. next thing he’ll be talking to the FBI. Stupid kid.’ Oh, I can hear them now, the oldtimers cursing these kids out. You’re going to get them in a lot of trouble. You’re going to get them killed.”
Nah. Junior is still very much alive, and now in court. The NYT reported that, in a show of support from his family, his wife Kim attended the trial, prompting a wave and a smile from her husband during a break. Sunday, and The Sopranos, can’t come fast enough.