What It's Like to Grow Up in the Mafia

We sat down with Frank DiMatteo, author of new book 'The President Street Boys: Growing up Mafia,' to talk about what it was like being a part of the Gallo crime family.

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Jul 26 2016, 7:20pm

DiMatteo (far left) and the gang circa 1970. Images courtesy of Frank DiMatteo.

The mythos and underworld infamy of the Mafia has long been romanticized on the silver screen. These pop-culture depictions glorify the gangster lifestyle and its man-of-honor ethos. But oftentimes, reality is nothing likeGoodfellas or The Godfather. In the mean streets of Brooklyn, life is rough and sometimes becoming an associate of the Mafia is the only option.

Frank DiMatteo was born on Cross Street in Red Hook and raised in a family of mob hitmen. When you grow up with Crazy Joey Gallo pinching your cheeks until you cry like DiMatteo did, childhood can be nothing if not adventuresome. In his new book, The President Street Boys: Growing Up Mafia, out July 26, DiMatteo tells what it was like to grow up with mob royalty.

His father and godfather were both enforcers for the infamous Gallo brothers. DiMatteo's uncle was a bodyguard for Frank Costello and a capo in the Genovese crime family. DiMatteo dropped out of school at an early age and started hanging around with the President Street Boys, also known as the Gallo crime family, a faction of the Colombo family. Growing up, he had a front row seat as the Gallo's waged a war for control of the Colombo family.

DiMatteo calls himself a Mafia "survivor." When many of his peers ended up in the trunk of a car or thrown into Sheepshead Bay to "swim with the fishes," DiMatteo, at 58, is still kicking. And unlike many Mafia guys who've told their story, DiMatteo isn't a rat. He walked away from the mob in the early 2000s with his integrity intact and still lives in his hometown of Brooklyn. We spoke with him to find out what it was like working for the mob in its heyday, how 60s culture changed the game, what he thinks about the modern Mafia, and why he started Mob Candy, a Mafia-culture magazine.

VICE: What was it like growing up in a Mafia household in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s?
Frank DiMatteo: Eight, nine I didn't give a fuck. I was busy being a little kid. I didn't comprehend the real Mafia stuff, because it wasn't really spoken about, and there were no books and newspapers in our face every second like now. By ten you notice your uncles are a lot different from other people. They're whispering and then there are people coming around and they dress differently than other families. By 12 or 13, I knew who everybody was. By 13, I was driving, and I started learning about the life. By then, I knew exactly what was going on, so I was privy to a few things, but not much. I didn't go kill nobody at 13, but I was going to the clubs with them. Driving them here and there because I was tall. I looked like I do now, just a lot younger. I was six foot at 13. These guys went to a lot of restaurants, a lot of clubs, topless joints. Driving is basically how I learned what was going on.

My godfather is Bobby B. Bobby was one of the shooters for the G crew. He wanted to be my godfather, and I was very close to him. I drove him around for a couple of years in the early 70s. Bobby was a character, a stone killer, but you would think he was a jokester, like real schizoid. I mean, the guy was for real, but he was a funny-type guy as far as you could make him out. If you didn't know him, you really couldn't make him out at all. These characters are a very strange breed of men.

DiMatteo in the striped jacket at the San Susan nightclub, circa 1977

Was it like a regular job? You just clocked in? Did you know your job detail?
No one turned around and said, "Hey, Frankie, let me tell you what we're doing today in detail." You're not supposed to tell every little thing you're doing to everybody. People that look for too much information scare me, because that's not what we're there for. I wasn't supposed to know shit. If I wasn't involved in it, I really wasn't suppose to know about it. But I'd hear other people tell me all sorts of stories and stuff, and I'd go, "How do you know that shit, man? You're not supposed to know that."

What was life like in a Mafia crew back then?
Everybody was busy doing their thing. Who's robbing? Who's stealing? And who's trying to eat? You know what I mean. It was the early 70s. Money wasn't flowing. We weren't big time hoods. Every fucking day they were trying to do something—shake somebody down. So you didn't know what was going on. We were doing cigarette runs to make some money. We were hoods, man. And they all had different personalities. Who was a grumpy fuck? Who was funny? Who was a drunk? Who was a pot head? We had Puerto Ricans with us. We had Syrian guys with us. We had a Jew guy with us. It was like a fucking circus. Who had five dollars in their pocket?

What was Crazy Joey Gallo like?
Joey left when I was like five or six. He went to jail. He got out when I was like 16, 17, so I saw Joey for one year. I think 71 to 72. Joey was Joey. Joey was a scary guy. His eyes gleamed. He smiled. He wasn't the guy to joke with. But on the other side, if you're with him, there's nothing to fear. But Joey sowed his oats when he came home. Don't forget he was gone for ten years, so he was going out drinking. He was conducting business, but he stayed in the city a lot. The rest of us guys those days stayed in Brooklyn. We didn't leave far from the neighborhood.

Joey was staying in the city with my godfather and Pete the Greek. We'd see him once a week if were lucky. He would come down to the club. He was a nutty guy. Functional, but legitimately nuts. He had no fear. He was like the throwback of the 1920s gangsters. He thought he could move around and do what he wanted, say what he wanted. He didn't think nobody was going to shoot him, nobody had the balls to do it, so that's how he functioned. But we know he was wrong. He was only out a year when they killed him.

How did the 1960s impact the younger generation of mobsters coming up who filled in the ranks?
The 60s impacted the mob guys coming up. The new hoods were a little different than the old street guys from the 20s. The street guys from the 20s came up out of poverty. These guys, late 60s early 70s, they weren't starving as much. They were just bad guys. What the 60s did was just open the doors to different crimes, stocks and bonds, and these guys just had a different mindset. Then there was the pot. In the 20s, 30s, and 40s, I don't think they were walking around fucking zoning out all of the time. These guys would smoke a joint in the street and laugh like it was a joke. They were half crazy. It all changed. It changed them. The respect or the mindset. They didn't listen to all the rules and regulations like the old-timers did. They laughed at that shit.


DiMatteo and his wife, Emily, around 1970

How did you leave the mob and avoid prison?
I was lucky. Had some foresight on a few things. Beat a lot of cases. I was very, very lucky to walk away, especially with all this rat shit. But we just walked away like it was the end of the day. The boss flipped, so no one came back and said, "No, you can't do this, you can't leave the Mafia." Everybody was ratting. Everybody was gone. We walked out the door like nobody was watching the door, like the door wasn't locked anymore. Nobody even called us. We were just lucky all the way around.

What do you think of the Mafia today?
They have no idea what they're doing. They're young. They've got guys who don't know shit because a lot of guys are dead, a lot of guys are in jail. A lot of guys are rats. A lot guys with a lot of time in have flipped. These guys coming up, no one is teaching them. They're just reading books and saying the word Omerta, you know?

Half the guys in charge, you can't even call them by their nickname anymore. They can't kiss in public because they're afraid. They're afraid of everything. It's like a fucking joke now. You've got no respect. Every other crew is laughing at you. You've got the Albanians laughing, the Russians laughing, you know? There's no respect. They're not scamming nobody no more. The other thing is you've got 200 rats, and no one is dead. Not one rat is dead, and they're walking around in the open.

The President Street Boys: Growing Up Mafia will be released on July 26.

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