Between her wedding in 1924 and 1945, Anthony’s mother gave forth twelve children. The first were girl and boy twins that died soon after birth. The twins were followed by the birth of seven boys and three girls averaging two years apart. His mother had told him that his birth in the1945 summer was simultaneously a family first and last: he was the first to have been born in a hospital, and the last of the siblings. On his birthday, Anthony’s father and mother were forty-six and forty respectively, old enough to be his grandparents whom, as a consequence, he never got to know.
His father‘s parents, Giovanni and Maria Giellomino immigrated to Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century from Avellino in Italy’s Campania region. His father had been born Giovanni Giuseppi (John Joseph) in Fort Greene Brooklyn in 1899, and was raised in the Gowanus section of the borough. He had an older brother named Nicola (Uncle Nick), who became a New York City cop, and a younger brother named Pasquale (Uncle Patty) whom Anthony never got to know.
His mother’s parents Giovanni and Rosa Martino came from Naples, also in Campania. They arrived in the Bronx around the same time the Giellominos got to Brooklyn. Giovanni was born in Italy in 1873. Born in Italy in 1878, Rosa died in 1915 in the Bronx from influenza. After she died, Giovanni took his two oldest female children out of school so that one could go to work and the other could keep house: Philomena (Aunt Fannie) born in 1900 and Maria, (Anthony’s mother) born February 2, 1905. His mother was forced to leave school after the fifth grade to perform housewife duties, but that was only half of her misery. For the rest of her life, a bubble wrap-like scar that ran down her left arm reminded her of the day her father disciplined her in the kitchen with a pot of boiling water.
In September 1928 his grandfather, Giovanni Martino died in the Bronx from bullets he took in front of 231 East 150th Street—the newspaper reported Giovanni had taken it in the liver. One of the three killers was caught but the official motive remained vague. The New York Times reported the motive had to do with someone having lost his job as a waiter; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the killing was over the ownership of some wine, a possibility that, considering the way Anthony’s life had turned out in the wine business, he found fascinating, if not stimulating.
Whenever she spoke of him, Anthony’s mother referred to her father as “the miserable sonovabitch.” To her, the wine story was likely the real one. She was convinced the “miserable sonovabitch” was killed for stealing from or cheating the wrong person on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
The rest of his mother’s siblings were Tomasso, Michelina, Domenico, Concetta, and Pietro (Uncle Pete). Anthony knew only the oldest, Aunt Fannie and Uncle Pete, the youngest.
At the time of his grandfather’s murder, Anthony’s father had already spirited his mother away to his South Brooklyn home base, which was also home base to Lucky Luciano and his Brooklyn mob. In fact, Al Capone and the Giellomino family crossed paths in Brooklyn. Capone and Anthony’s father had been born the same year and in the same Fort Greene neighborhood where, as a teen, Capone led a gang of thieves and ruffians (Anthony was later born in the Cumberland Hospital, a couple of blocks from Capone’s birthplace). Capone and his father each wound up living on Union Street, not far from the Gowanus Canal. Neighborhood lore had it that Capone had gotten his scar in South Brooklyn, followed by a one-way ticket to Chicago financed by Lucky Luciano. That is not true. Capone was set up in Chicago by a gangster named Frankie Yale, who controlled the ice delivery business, which was big before electric refrigeration came along. Before going to Chicago, Capone got his signature facial scar in a scuffle over a woman at a Coney Island bar, which happens to be farther south in the borough than South Brooklyn.
The southern border of the original Village of Brooklyn, Fulton Street, began at Fulton’s Ferry at the harbor and ended not too far east. Later, when Brooklyn incorporated sections from outside and around the original village, its southern border extended a couple of miles south, from Fulton Street to approximately Seventeenth Street, which was officially named South Brooklyn. The area between Fulton and Seventeenth became a largely Italian working class enclave; the harbor and docks were its western border; Sixth Avenue was its eastern border. As Brooklyn grew farther east and south, Fulton to Seventeenth Street continued to be known as South Brooklyn.
Anthony’s parents raised their family one block north of Union Street, on Sackett Street. Almost in the dead center of South Brooklyn, Sackett Street was a perfect example of the Italian immigrant community of the desperate, deprived, violent, hopeless, and a minority smattering of hopefuls. But what kind of neighborhood was it really?
Brooklyn humidity in summer made sleep difficult. July Fourth celebrations made sleep impossible. The blasts came from Fifth Avenue, where mobsters gleefully lobbed firecrackers at one another. They tossed mats—ten packs of twenty firecrackers per pack. When the fuse was lit, 200 firecrackers went off in rapid succession, like a machine gun. The men threw individual firecrackers too, the loudest of which were called “cherry bombs” and “ash cans”: the first issued a blast like a concussion bomb; the second gave off a tinny, echoing blast, as if it had exploded inside a steel barrel. The day after the mobsters’ mock war, Anthony and his friends scavenged Sackett Street seeking duds, which they could “fix” either by inserting makeshift fuses or lighting the ones that had fizzled for whatever reason and had left a short fuse behind. It was a dangerous pastime that led to some boys gaining the nickname “Three Fingers” or “Lefty,” but they were fearless, like the mobsters, whose holiday war was manifestation of their wanton nature.
Mobsters referred to their crew as family, but family relationship was of little use to someone who crossed a bookmaker or loan shark. These people played hard, drank hard, fought hard, and were hard to love. When someone crossed a mobster there was blood, in pools that dried maroon on the sidewalk.
On one steamy summer night in the early 1950s, Cosmo, a local mobster fleeing the police, climbed through the Giellomino’s open kitchen window from the backyard, made big muddy footprints as he ran straight through the apartment from room to room, stepped over Anthony in bed in the last room, and then jumped out a window onto Sackett Street’s pavement. It was an easy trip for Cosmo, since they lived on the ground floor of a five-story tenement in a four-room “railroad” apartment—the rooms joined in a row like boxcars. The tenement housed ten such railroad apartments stacked five on each side, filled mostly with first and second generation Italians; its hallway was laced in olive oil residue, the smell of garlic permeated.
The only thing for Anthony to do after Cosmo woke him up was to retrace the muddy steps back to the kitchen. There, he built a sandwich of olive oil on bread while the family, and then the rest of the building’s tenants who had found out, excitedly discussed what had just transpired over some bread and wine that a few of them had brought with them onto the front stoop. When the police asked the group on the stoop if they had seen the man, no one knew what the cops were talking about. If you wanted a job on the docks or just wanted to live in peace, it was best not to rat on mobsters, even if a member of your family was on the police force. After the police, the bread and the wine were gone, everyone went back to bed.
It was that kind of neighborhood.