Autobiography of an Italian Yogi

Chapter 2

Running with the Wolf

In a world where you start out with nothing and have nothing to aspire to, pragmatism trumps virtue ethics. Growing up in the Italian ghetto you learn to move in many different circles. That sequence in The Godfather sums it up: in one scene, Michael is in church, baptizing his nephew, in the next, he’s having people murdered. Somehow, those two worlds co-existed without it feeling anomalous, we accepted that you could be a devout person who lived according to most of the Ten Commandments. You could be at church in the morning, singing of contrition and piety. And in the evening, you could be rubbing shoulders with hitmen… 

As a teen, I was a good weightlifter and a keen boxer. I caught the attention of a guy called Lobo – we called him ‘the Wolf’. He looked very much like Sammy the Bull Gravano, except that Lobo had jet black hair. Lobo took me under his wing. He’d watch me box and advised me on my technique. He was about 20-years older than me, and he was a tough guy who came from a tough family. I felt as if he must have emerged fully formed and ready for the streets. Some of those hard men in Little Italy used to play at being tough, they revelled in putting on a bit of a tough guy act, and throwing their weight around. Not Lobo. He just had a quiet aura of innate toughness about him. A presence. He had a particular command of his environment that I’ve never seen else anyone possess; a way of owning the space he was in. 

I knew Lobo was a boxer, and he’d fought professionally, but I didn’t know the rest. As our bond grew, he confided in me. He told me how he’d had to kill three guys in one afternoon. My mentor was a Mafia guy. A hitman. 

It may sound strange, but when Lobo opened up to me about some of the things he’d done, it was actually a very tender moment. That may sound strange to you. But that’s because it’s hard to impose a conventional ethical framework on a world where the rules are so different, where everyone you meet understands the particular laws of the street. I was never going to condemn Lobo. You could almost say that he was simply following his dharma, his path. And his guilt at what he’d had to do, and what he continued to do when called upon, was palpable. I could see how much it cut him up inside. He didn’t relish what he did, or glory in it.

You can see it in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna advises Arjuna, the warrior, saying, ‘You have to go to war, but if you go without vengeance or violence in your heart, then you won’t incur bad karma by killing someone.’ That kind of thinking resonated strongly with the people I was mixing with; guys with names like Joe Gorilla, and Vinny the Animal. They each had their own kind of Samurai code. It was almost an instinctual thing, a way of inuring them against the violence of what they were doing, and from the moral consequences of killing people.

As my friendship with Lobo grew, other men associated with the mob came into my orbit. They all had their own demons to face, and came to me in search of some deeper spiritual conversation about the things they’d done. There I was, a teenager, fraternizing with some of the most violent men in our society. But it didn’t seem strange to me. They were always there, as much a part of our community as the pastor or the policeman. And those guys may have been tough on the outside, but underneath it all, so many of them were hurting. Some of them were stuck in their lives, they felt there was something different out there, something better. Many of them gravitated toward me and told me their stories, and cried openly. When no one else was looking, they’d speak to me of other religions and other ways of thinking. They were open to all sorts of revelatory ideas, they just couldn’t open up in front of any of their peers, little knowing that most of their peers had come to see me too. You couldn’t help but feel affection for them. In spite of everything they’d seen and done, their empathy and their humanity still shone though.

A guy called Sal used to come up to my little garret, and coyly, ask his questions. I was learning more about Hinduism and Buddhism then, and he knew it didn’t fit the stereotype for him to express an interest in Eastern teaching. After all, he was a good hitman and a good Catholic! But still he came to talk and felt comfortable enough to be unflinchingly honest, and open up his heart to the possibilities of a different life. It was a beautiful thing. 

I was like the ‘Wiseguy Whisperer’. Because I was accessing other ways of thinking, I could impart some kind of peace to those guys. But I always felt torn, inauthentic… On the one hand, I was fasting and spending hours in meditation, thinking about the parallelism of Hinduism and Christianity and how it all worked… And on the other hand, I was just as mired in the violence of the streets as they were. Underneath, I wasn’t so very different. I spent years fighting my craziness and my madness, instead of learning to accept it as an unavoidable part of me. 

I had done my time in the gangs too; one was called the Invaders and had a reputation for violence. It was well deserved. We had pitched battles in the street with other gangs; we could have been ripped from the pages of William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society; the corner boys and college boys at the opposite ends of our world. 

I’ll draw a veil over some of our more extreme activities, but we were on the radar of all the local police forces. Once, we set forth with the zest of our young years to go and ‘act the maggot’ in the Irish neighbourhood. Armed with cherry bombs, we rained down our mischief, and were soon being chased out of town by the Charlestown Police. They caught up to us on the bridge. Their paddy wagon rumbled one way and we ran the other. Back and forth we went, keeping out of their way, just prolonging the agony. 

I’d barely stopped running, but when I saw the police catch the first of my friends, I gave up and walked back towards them. I wasn’t about to let them go down without me. And that’s when he pounced: a monstrous giant of a policeman grabbed me. He evidently thought that because I’d been so eager to keep running, I must be the weak link. He was big enough to lift me wholesale, and he carried me over to the parapet and then hauled me over the parapet. 

That’s how I ended up being held over Charlestown bridge, knowing that, with a twitch of his fingers, or a lapse in concentration, I’d be plummeting towards the water. But I wasn’t remotely scared. The wind was whistling in my ears, and he was roaring – even louder – “If you don’t tell me which one of you had the explosives, I’m dropping you.”

I wasn’t swayed. I knew he wasn’t going to let go, and I calmly said, “I’m not telling you.” With some regret, he put me back down on the ground, and we were all put into the back of the paddy wagon and taken to the police station.

They bundled us out at the station, everyone was led out, except me. Thinking he’d have another crack at me, the same cop took me round to the back of the station. He cornered me between a couple of lockers and pushed me up against the masonry wall. Very deliberately, he took off his jacket and slowly rolled up his sleeves, and says, “I’m going to beat the fucking shit out of you if you don’t tell me which one had the bombs.” Calm as you like, I said, “I’m not going to tell you.” Eventually, he rolled his sleeves back down, put on his jacket and took me back to the others. He said, “You’ve got a good friend here.” They knew I wouldn’t have betrayed them. We were brothers. 

There were some real tough guys in our gang. Two of them – Carlino and Volpe – ended up being surrounded by guys from a Boston gang. They were hopelessly outnumbered, and the kicks and punches were raining down on them. Our guys just put themselves back-to-back, and took ‘em all on. The pile of unconscious bodies just grew at their feet until they’d wiped them all out. 

The scope and scale of the violence didn’t change much, even if our clothes did. By my mid-teens, we cut a more stylish look in our sports coats – more Droog than Sharks. We looked like gentleman, even if we didn’t act like the sort of gentlemen a young lady might want to take home to meet her mother.

Inevitably, I was accompanied home by cops on a few occasions, and with my father gone, my brother often took on the role of disciplinarian. He would slap me around just enough to prove to the watching police that I’d be taught an appropriate lesson. It would have taken a lot of effort to slap the violence out of our community. Still today, people tell me how Little Italy’s reputation for violence was legendary. One of our mechanics once told me how back in the day, Vietnamese criminals had tried to infiltrate the States, but the Italian mafia cut them to pieces and sent their body parts back to their families in Vietnam. That’s how brutal it was.

It is one thing to accept that there was a seam of violence running through us; it was another thing trying to break the cycle and not give in to the violence. It was Sal who said it best: “You know, Peter, I hate violence. But whenever I see it, I have to jump in.” I knew exactly what he meant…

I was about 17 years old when I stopped a murder in progress. They say, ‘no good deed goes unpunished…’ and sure enough, about a week later, the would-be killer came after me. 

There was a small park up a hill in the Hull Street area in the North End. We called it Slide Park. You could see all of Charlestown from up there on the hill. It was a historic site, an old colonial base called Cops Hill Terrace. It looked like a granite fortress. 

I could hear them before I could see them: a circle of guys, baying for blood, and in the center of the circle was Mendez. Mendez had a big reputation. He was known for his outrageous, unpredictable violence. But above all, Mendez was a bully, and would more than likely pick on the easiest targets.

He had this poor Irish kid, Michael, upside down, and he was pounding his head into the pavement. I knew Michael, he was a waiter in a restaurant belonging to my sister and brother-in-law. I’d done a bit of work in there myself and I’d seen Michael around. He didn’t have any gang affiliations, maybe he’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe he’d caught Mendez’s eye and not given due deference, or he’d blanked him altogether. Who knew? In any case, the punishment was the same. And poor Michael was the very definition of an easy target.

Even if I hadn’t known Michael, I’d still have done what I did. In my innocence, I just responded to an obvious injustice. Without even thinking, I broke through the crowd, and got nose to nose with Mendez – which was just patently stupid, because the guy was scary – and I simply said, “Stop.” I already knew I was a dead man. 

In that moment, the cacophony died away. Mendez let Michael fall to the ground, where he hunched, fetal, Mendez looked at me. The surprise on his face that anyone as insignificant as me would have the balls to tell him what to do was quickly overtaken by rage, and then annoyance; we could all hear the sound of police sirens heading up the hill, getting closer. It was a beautiful sound. The moment felt as if it had been perfectly choreographed. Everybody ran. Even Mendez. I stayed with the kid, hunched and silent, but he knew I was there, and he knew he was safe. 

I didn’t think much more about it, but I knew Mendez wasn’t likely to forget it.

About a week later I was at the corner of Salem and Charter Street, and there he was again, Mendez with his gang, looking for all the world like they’d been waiting for me to show up. I could see him mouthing “You fucking asshole,” and he sprang for me. It was as if he’d been on-hold all week, just wating to pick up where he left off with the job of disconnecting my head from my body. 

The cops weren’t coming to my assistance this time, but I had something even better… My friend, Lobo. Everyone knew, you don’t mess with Lobo! Everyone knew he was an amateur boxer, they probably didn’t know he was a hired killer. He was half the size of Mendez, but his hands were enormous. In boxing gloves, they looked superhuman. And Lobo got between us and calm as you like, said, “You don’t touch him. Ever.” That was all it took. 

It didn’t matter if I didn’t see Lobo for weeks, months, or years. There was a bond between us that couldn’t be broken. When I was dating Christy, who became my wife, we walked down to Little Italy, and it was Christy who spotted him further up the street. She could tell there was something about him, just by his aura; just by the way he moved through time and space. She said, “Is that a hitman?” I hissed back, “Yes, but don’t say it too loud!” Then, the next thing she knew, he quickened his pace towards us, took me in his giant hands, and we were hugging and kissing like two gay guys. That’s the way the Italians do it. We kiss each other. 

Decades later, after my sister had died, we held a service, which Lobo’s sister attended. I told her, “You know your brother saved my life?” She said, “You have no idea how many more people have told me that!”