Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mum's the Word

Aheavy-set, gray-haired fellow stepped outside the Old Neighborhood Italian-American Club Monday afternoon, sat down at a picnic table and started trimming his fingernails with a set of pocket clippers just as I walked up.

I told him who I was and what I was doing, which was looking for reaction to Monday's across-the-board guilty verdicts in the big Family Secrets mob trial.

He glanced up without actually lifting his chin, shook his head, grunted and shook his head again.

I took it for a no comment.

The next guy out the door was friendlier. 5% Off any Purchase. Code: KGB5He laid his cane on the picnic table as he sat down, smiled when I made my introduction and said he reads the Sun-Times regularly. He even said he likes my column and mentioned another columnist here he doesn't like. I told him the other columnist was great.

"I'm just telling you the truth," he said. I told him that's all we can ask.

While this was going on, a big guy came to the door and asked the guy with the fingernail clippers if he could come inside a minute, which was just about the time I was asking the friendly guy about the verdict in the mob trial.

The friendly guy suddenly grew hard of hearing, a blank faraway expression crossing his face. I repeated my question. His look grew more pained. Words seemed to fail him.

Then the guy with fingernail clippers opened the door and told the friendly guy (he might have called him John) that he had a phone call. John asked me what the other guy had said, his mind having tried so hard not to hear me that it seemed to have blocked out all other sound as well. I told him he had a phone call -- and that he should assure them he hadn't told me anything.

By then, of course, the word was spread to everybody else inside the modern brick and stone structure at 30th Place and Shields that there was a reporter out front.

After that, most of them either slipped out the side door to get to the ONIAC members only parking lot surrounded by one of those black wrought iron fences favored by the mayor -- who after all grew up just down this very street -- or they marched past me without so much as a sideways glance as I tried to talk to them.

The reaction to my presence was only slightly different for those entering the club. They at least paused to hear me out before scurrying off.

"I no speak English. I no speak English," said one, not too convincingly.

It reminded me a little of the way defendants flee the Dirksen Federal Building, which was unfortunate, because I considered the Old Neighborhood Italian-American Club a good place to look for the opinion of older Italians, not older mobsters, and I do not consider one to be synonymous with the other. But the club also played a cameo role in the trial. Its founder was said to be Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra, the onetime boss of the mob's 26th Street crew. Defendant Frank Calabrese Sr., a LaPietra lieutenant, was a club member. The current club president, Dominic "Captain D" DiFazio, was a prosecution witness who testified about being the go-between for extortion payments to Calabrese from the owner of Connie's Pizza.

This gave me time to contemplate the significance of the silent treatment, which obviously hadn't come as a complete surprise. Whether you call this Bridgeport or Armour Square, this is not a neighborhood known to be welcoming to outsiders. It's also an area where there historically has been a nexus between the mob and Chicago politics. And what struck me is that, as important and valuable as this prosecution was, it doesn't really change the fundamentals. This is still a town where in certain places they know you don't talk about certain people because they still have power and influence.

A young man across the street in a city General Services Department T-shirt was walking a basset hound puppy. Between the puppy, his job and working on a double major at DePaul, he said he didn't have time to think -- about the mob trial or anything else. But he said, "It's everywhere."

He wouldn't give his name, but said the dog's name was Dolce.

"That's sweet in Italian," he explained.

Finally, a guy arrived who was happy to talk. I told him about the verdicts.

"That's life," he said, mentioning that he knew Frank "The German" Schweihs, one of the original co-defendants.

"What disappointed me is that they were hurting legitimate people, their own people, Italians," he said of the accused.

Just then, the door opened and the big guy stuck out his head again.

"Larry!" he shouted. "You got a phone call."

Dolce.

Thanks to Mark Brown

Stinky Cheeses

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