The Chicago Syndicate: Joey Lombardro - A tricky clown leaves a cold trail on Grand Avenue

Friday, April 29, 2005

Joey Lombardro - A tricky clown leaves a cold trail on Grand Avenue

Mistakes have been made by news organizations covering the secretive Chicago Outfit, and my newspaper has made two in recent days, misidentifying civilians as mobsters.

I'm not trying to minimize what happened. Folks in this newsroom feel terrible about the mistakes. But it also reminds me of another mistake I almost made, trying to identify the Outfit boss Joe "The Clown" Lombardo.

I figured I couldn't miss him, since he was sitting only three cattle-prod lengths away from me, in a Grand Avenue restaurant. There he was, hunched over his food, wearing a St. Christopher medal around his neck. Then he turned into a Jewish gentleman named Goldman and disappeared. That's the Clown for you. He's tricky and devious.

"Clown? What clown?" deadpanned the restaurant manager. "Clown? What are you talking about, clown?"

The manager had worked on Grand Avenue for years, so naturally he knew he'd never heard of Lombardo. He insisted the fellow's name was Goldman.

Here's what happened:

I had ordered the cavatelli and cold rapini. My colleague, the legendary Slim the Legman, had pasta with peas and a cream sauce. Slim didn't talk much, as he was still upset with me over his last Outfit-related assignment.

I'd politely ordered him to report on the gay mobster lifestyle. It was a tough job that had to be done, but happily not by me. That's what legmen are for.

Besides, it wasn't even my idea. The gay Outfit angle was the pride of the Chicago Sun-Times. The tabloid--which loudly insists it's the unofficial paper of City Hall, perhaps overcompensating--ran a story a few years ago on the terrifying mob killer "Fifi" Buccieri.

He used cattle prods, meat hooks, you name it. But that wasn't news. The news--blared by the Sun-Times--was that Fifi was gay and had a lover named Vic. The newspaper reported that the information came from a burglar who hated Vic. And Vic was dead, as was Fifi, so there wasn't much of a chance of a defamation lawsuit, or a cattle prod session.

If Buccieri were alive, the Sun-Times would have had to find gay hit men to confirm Fifi's orientation. That may have proved difficult.

"If that reporter who called Feef a gay was around when Feef was Feef, that reporter wouldn't be too happy," a guy told me on Thursday. He can't be identified, so we'll call him Dat Guy. "Feef used blowtorches and cattle prods," Dat Guy said, "but he wasn't gay."

I'm not picking sides in the gay-or-not-gay mobster thing. That's the Sun-Times' business. Besides, a cattle prod in the hands of a psychopathic killer is still a cattle prod, no matter which way it swings.

So years ago, when the Sun-Times outed Feef and Vic, I asked Slim the Legman to go into the bars, restaurants and clubs on Grand Avenue to report on the gay mobster lifestyle.

Slim refused, and rather rudely too, for a Harvard man. "Can't I just work the phone?" he yelled. "Next, you'll be sending me to Bosnia to dig up land mines with a Popsicle stick."

He was rather standoffish for a long time, so when I got a tip that Lombardo was at a restaurant, I took Slim with me to make amends and serve as a witness if I turned into a carpet stain.

I wasn't planning to ask Lombardo about Fifi. We were going to inquire about Chicago politics.

As we walked in, Slim asked if I knew the place, and I said it was perfect for our purposes, a small family establishment where everyone minds his business.

"How's the food?" asked Slim.

It's good, I said. Try the veal--it's the best in the city. But Slim was still angry and stubborn, so he ordered the pasta and peas instead of the veal.

That's when I saw the fellow who looked like a picture of the Clown, but older, and not the one with two eyes poking through the newspaper.

So I removed the notepad, recorder and pen from my jacket (slowly) and placed them on the table, so he wouldn't be startled when I walked over.

He looked at me. If you've ever watched a National Geographic special on Komodo dragons, you'd know the look. He didn't flick his tongue, but he snapped his fingers. Instantly, a hive of busboys materialized, scraping his food into takeout containers, and he was gone.

AfterwardSaint Christopher Medal, the manager insisted he didn't know any Clown, then checked a fistful of credit card receipts before insisting the fellow was "Irwin Goldman."

What about the St. Christopher medal? The manager shrugged.

So whether the Outfit has gay bosses or bisexual hitmen is for the other paper to investigate.

I'm still trying to find the Jewish guy wearing a St. Christopher medal on Grand Avenue.

Thanks to John Kass

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