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The Mob Delusion: A Life According to 'Goodfellas'

I spent my high school years working at an Italian market that I thought was something out of "Goodfellas." And then I realized the mob life was never really for me.
December 4, 2014, 10:45pm
Photo via Flickr user newskin0

​I was in the back room of an Italian market, spending an inordinate amount of time looking for a big fucking metal spoon. No, not a ladle—those are for serving soup or gravy. And no, not the spoon with holes in it, whatever they're called—those are for serving meat you want wading in a bed of juice up until the moment you serve it, like roast pork on a sesame roll, unless you like the sandwich soggy and don't mind juice dripping down your forearm each time you take a bite.

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It was a Friday in December, the busiest time of the year at Luigi & Giovanni's, the Italian market where I worked in suburban Philadelphia. I was 16 years old, a month into the job, and getting paid overtime to prep holiday orders. I could have been at some party drinking warm Budweiser, or at home watching TGIF, but no—I wanted to be at the market, looking for a big fucking metal spoon.

I couldn't find it, so I called out to my co-workers to see if they could help.

That's when I was blindfolded from behind and dragged out the door.

I saw Goodfellas for the first time a month before I started working at Luigi & Giovanni's. I borrowed the DVD from this kid Mark, whose locker was next to mine at school. When Mark revealed the DVD in his backpack, I recognized the cover; my cousin Jason had had the Goodfellas poster on his bedroom wall in his frat house when I visited him at Penn State. I'd learn later this was a required decoration for every male living space in college.

I watched Goodfellas that night and it left me exhausted. The movie opened with a flash-forward, then flashed back, and used a voiceover to explain the action from the perspective of the protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). The timeline was fractured and jumbled, interrupted by additional voiceover from Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and occasionally stopped completely with the use of freeze frames. The musical cues were perfect, almost too perfect, better coordinated than any video on MTV at the time. The pacing was manic, like you were riding a freight train, except someone was holding you off the back of it.

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After the movie finished, I did something my dad told me he did the first time he saw the first Star Wars: I watched it again.

What attracted me to Goodfellas was the structure of the mob. Here was a self-sustaining operation outside the confines of society that did what it wanted, when it wanted to do it, and, for the majority of the film, got away with it. Now, anyone who's seen the film knows that by the end, every major character is dead, in jail, or in witness protection. I was naive enough to ignore that, only concerned with the rise, not the fall. It was a version of the American dream they didn't teach us about in English class, and as far as I could tell, only me, Mark, and my cousin Jason knew about it.

I was picking up dinner at Luigi & Giovanni's with my mom the same week I watched Goodfellas. I had been there before but now saw the place through new eyes: aisles of products with unfamiliar labels, all imported from Italy. Wheels of gourmet cheeses stacked alongside bottles of golden olive oil. Refrigerated display cases running the length of the store with fresh meats and handmade pastas. There was an entire section dedicated to just lobster ravioli.

Behind the counter, everyone wore the same outfit—not wiseguy suits, but white aprons covered in red, yellow, and brown stains. They had accents and specific phrases that came from somewhere between Sicily and Philly: "you's guys" and "how's ya doin'" and "get outta here." There was an appreciation and generosity for the food, every container filled to the brim. The guys had slicked hair and mustaches. They cursed, even in front of customers. A metal spoon was not just a metal spoon—it was a big fucking metal spoon.

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I asked the woman who brought out our food out if they were hiring. She called over someone named Rocco. He walked out from the back: thick mustache, paunchy, messiest apron of all. He asked if I went to the local high school. I did. He looked me up and down, checked with my mom, and told me I could start that night. I followed him into the back.

The most famous scene in Goodfellas is when Henry Hill enters the Copacabana nightclub with his girlfriend Karen. A Steadicam follows Henry and Karen as they make their way through corridors, hallways, and the kitchen, eventually settling in the main room. They're escorted to the front of the line and are seated at a table in front of the stage. Henry tips everyone $20 along the way.​

Paul Thomas Anderson honored this shot in the opening of Boogie Nights, as did Doug Liman in Swingers, and Derek Cianfrance in The Place Beyond the Pines. I did the same walking through the back of Luigi & Giovanni's.

I followed Rocco through a set of swinging metal doors into the kitchen. He pointed at a doorway and told me to get an apron. I walked through the kitchen, passing boiling pots of red sauce, bulky metal refrigerators, stovetops frying sausages. I exited the kitchen and entered the butcher room, where two guys named Gus—"Fat Gus" and "Skinny Gus"—stood over roasts, sawing them with knives so big they could be considered swords. I entered an office where two men, Luigi and Giovanni, sat at desks. Luigi was on the phone, arguing about the price of olive oil, while Giovanni, whom we called John, counted bills and smoked a fat cigar. I entered the pastry room, where an old woman, Luigi's mother, stacked sheets of cannoli shells in the oven. I spotted the aprons and put one on. It was starch-white. Too white. As I walked back through the butcher room, Fat Gus tossed a carcass into the trash, spraying my face and apron with brown juice.

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I looked down at my apron, then at Gus. He went, "You look good, kid."

At the end of the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, Karen asks Henry, "What do you do?"

I thought about this question as I wiped the juice off my face, and for the first time in my life I felt like I had an answer.

I worked at Luigi & Giovanni's for the rest of high school, and I saw the entire experience through the lens of Goodfellas. The market was structured like the mob, or so I liked to think. Under Luigi and Giovanni, the bosses, was the underboss, Rocco, who ran the kitchen. Under Rocco were the capos: George, Pepe, Ant. Under the capos were the soldiers, like the guys in the deli and Fat and Skinny Gus. At the bottom were the associates: Zelky, Billy, me. Henry started as an associate in Goodfellas.

Zelky and Billy were the ones who blindfolded me when I was looking for the big fucking metal spoon. I'd learn it was part of my initiation. After walking me down the street in my blindfold, they took me to the storage room, where I had to complete an obstacle course: maneuver around cardboard boxes, jump over a pile of glass from a broken juice bottle, take a shot of olive oil, and dodge a falling broom, all while escaping before the garage door closed. "You gotta roll out like Indiana Jones," Billy told me.

I never asked why I had to do the obstacle course. They'd had to do it, so I did too.

We had our own language at Luigi & Giovanni's. "Down the street" meant two things. It was a direction—"Go down the street"—but it was also a place—"Go get a case of olive oil from down the street." There were others. "Great" meant you fucked up. "All right" meant you did good.

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I remember my dad picked me up after work one night. He asked how my day had been.

"All right," I told him.

"Just all right?"

He'd never understand.

One day after class, a teacher pulled me aside.

"You work at Luigi & Giovanni's, right?"

"Yeah."

He look at me and nodded. I think he respected the fact that I had a job—he was Italian and a regular at the market. But I also sensed fear. We controlled the thing most important to him: food.

I decided to put my power to the test and didn't study for one of his exams, just to see if he'd still give me an A. I got a D.

When a teenage Henry goes to court for the first time and is asked to testify against the mob, he does what he considers the right thing and says nothing. Jimmy, played by Robert De Niro, congratulates Henry, reminding him that he learned the two greatest things in life: "Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut."

One night I was working late, cleaning up the kitchen with a hefty, mustached guy named George. Nearby, in the deli, two of my buddies were closing up. On their way out, they stole a few filet mignons and threw them in the trunks of their cars. They didn't think George and I saw them. We did.

The next day, George ratted to Rocco. My buddies were fired.

Did George do the right thing? Maybe. But no one treated him the same after that, including me. If he asked for help moving a pan of chicken parms, he ended up moving it himself. When he needed his greasy pots cleaned, they were left dirty in the sink. George ratted because he thought it was the right thing to do, but it's never that simple.

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What would have happened if George weren't there? Would I have kept my mouth shut like Jimmy told Henry, or would I have ratted for the benefit of the market? What if Luigi and Giovanni, the bosses, found out I had corroborated with the guys in the deli by not ratting? They had a business to run and probably couldn't have cared less about my "code." My buddies in the deli would have been fired, and I would have been too.

Even in a low-stakes dilemma—to rat or not to rat—I'm not sure I would have been able to keep up with my mob delusion. How could I? Goodfellas was a movie, a series of moving pictures on a screen. Luigi & Giovanni's was a real, physical place. I could see the aisles of imported food, smell the boiling pots of red gravy, feel that big fucking metal spoon in the palm of my hand. Zelky and Billy were my friends and associates. Rocco was my manager and mentor. Luigi and Giovanni were my bosses—I feared them but learned to appreciate the fear because it was real.

The chance of losing all that—not ratting on the steak thieves because a character in a movie said I shouldn't—would have been to turn my back on the place that meant everything to me. My loyalty to the market was greater than my loyalty to Goodfellas.

That's one way to look at it. The other is I didn't have the balls to be in the mob, even my version of it.

Follow Alex J. Mann on ​Twitter.