Washington — I have refrained from writing about “The Sopranos” for fear of getting killed. Well, maybe only for fear of having my hubcaps stolen. You see I grew up in Chicago, and spent much of my adolescence in the homes of Mafia families. I played ball with Mafia guys and even dated a Mafia girl. That was not unusual, if you were growing up in Oak Park and River Forest, two suburbs on Chicago’s west side. In the 1950s and 1960s some famous Mafia big wigs lived there and had for years. They were the “old money.” Yet younger Mafia men were then moving in from the “old neighborhood” and bringing their families along. So I could hang out with the kids of the “old money” and the new. I was as close to them as the Kennedys were to my fellow Oak Park resident, Sam Giancana, though unlike either Bob or John Kennedy my association with the Mafia was never professional.
In this column I shall not mention any of my young friends’ real names. Who knows what line of work they might be in today? Some might have gone straight, taking up careers, say, at Arthur Andersen or Enron. Yet others may have remained in the family business, running such enterprises as bowling alleys and liquor stores that apparently were uncommonly lucrative. I would rather not attract their attention.
A point I hasten to make is that the Mafia families I knew were of a suaver sort than the slobs who appear on “The Sopranos.” When I was hanging out with Mr. — let us say —Smith’s son I never saw Mr. Smith in his undershirt. Nor did I hear him take the Lord’s name in vain, nor use the F-word as a punctuation mark. When I dated, Mr. — let us say –Jones’s daughter, there was no danger of pregnancy or sexually communicable diseases. The children of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones and of Mr. “Big Tuna” Doe and of Mr. “The Waiter” White, and so forth, were as well behaved as their parents seemed to be.
Unlike Tony Soprano, Mr. Smith had no therapist. He had a barber. He also had his own barber chair. It was in the basement of his capacious home, and Mr. Jones conducted much of his business from it. The barber was always there. Occasionally we teen-agers would shoot pool in the basement. If our hair was becoming exuberant, Mr. Smith would ask his barber to give us a trim. My parents were of the opinion that Mr. Smith’s “barber” could also have given us what Tony Soprano would now call a “wack.” It was understood that the barber was also a body guard, possibly an experienced killer — in earlier Mafia vernacular, “a torpedo.”
From my experience The Godfather and its first sequel got the Mafia right — the last sequel was from outer space. There was a dignity to the members of the Mafia whom I knew, though the terrible crimes committed by Mafiosi make them villains not heroes. To be sure, some were only engaged in minor crimes, and I am pretty certain that some went into retirement to be haunted by conscience, the law, and the enfeeblement of old age — Mr. Smith’s Florida doctor was a classmate of mine. He now takes calls from the aged Mr. Smith at all hours regarding the old fellow’s oxidizing plumbing. Many Mafiosi, however, have been moral monsters.
Are the slobs of “The Sopranos” accurate renderings of today’s organized crime families? I have no idea. I do know that a little-known accomplishment of the Reagan Administration was the severe repression of organized crime. It is possible that they have all fallen on hard times and no longer live in mansions. Still, for me, an on-going puzzle is why such large audiences of law-abiding Americans flock to movies about the Mafia. Growing up in Oak Park and River Forest, I know my family and the majority of my friends had little fascination with the Mafia. The Smiths and Jones had polite children. The children’s parents never got in any trouble with the law (oh perhaps an occasional brush with the IRS) or any of the lurid scandals that befall polite society today, particularly political society. Yet, my parents did not encourage my friendship with young Smith, and when he quietly began spending more time at the family liquor store by high school graduation, my family was relieved.
Incidentally, most of the Mafia kids drifted away from us by late high school. Now maybe those that stayed in the family business are in the same mess as Tony Soprano. His life strikes me as ghastly. So why do so Americans remain hooked on the Mafiosi as entertainment? I have heard the stuff about their family values and metaphorical significance. That is not the heart of it. My guess is that the viewers, who in “record-breaking” numbers showed up for “The Sopranos” the other night, were suffering a mild case of voyeurism, hoping to observe things on television that they are not supposed to see. The gaudy television series is not much more than that.