The Chicago Syndicate: Donnie Brasco on The Sopranos

Friday, June 26, 2015

Donnie Brasco on The Sopranos

The best way to know if a show about the mob is authentic is to ask a mobster. But that's scary. So we did the next best thing. We invited former FBI agent-turned-mob-infiltrator-turned-mob informer Joseph Pistone (the real Donnie Brasco) to watch "The Sopranos" and give us his thoughts.

An expert on organized crime, Pistone served six years undercover in the notorious Bonanno crime family in New York City. His testimony helped lead to the arrest of more than 175 criminals.

Pistone is sharing his Mafia knowledge with his book Way Of The Wiseguy, a funny and frightening look at how one becomes a wiseguy. It's like a FAQ on the world of Cosa Nostra, showing a typical day in the life of a gangster: the dos and don'ts of the Mafia code; interactions with their families and other thugs, and their unique and creative use of language.
"People are fascinated because they think they would like to live like a wiseguy," Pistone explains. In the movies, the guys are tough, always have cash and lead exciting lives. But Pistone warns, "What they don't see is the treachery involved."

Here's what Pistone had to say about "The Sopranos":

Tony looks for buried money in the backyard.

"That would happen," Pistone said. "They bury it and then go look for it later." Pistone said he knew guys who would wrap money in leather bags and then stick them in the drainage system of a sink in an unused bathroom, for example. Seems Chase Bank just isn't an option.

The criminal's usual dapper attire.

That is pretty accurate, Pistone said. There is no such thing as a casual Friday in the mob. "You don't see guys wearing jeans," he said. "When they were grooming me, they said they wanted me to dress neat. Most of these guys have slacks or something. One of the things they didn't want to see was a pair of Levis. "They wanted to portray an image."

The jargon.
Pistone said most of the dialogue in the show is accurate -- he thinks there may be someone on "the inside" who is helping out the writers -- but he did find one particular thing jarring: the foul language used in front of the women. "I have been to many dinners at wiseguys' houses where their wives were there or their mothers, and I never heard those guys use vulgarity around the kitchen table," he said. "I was around these guys for six years and I never heard any vulgar language around women."

A meeting in Tony's office.
Pistone said he is disappointed by some mob movies where the boss' office is a palatial pad with fancy furniture and paintings. It looks like the office of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. "Tony's office is the way most of the offices looked like, in the back of a club," Pistone said about Soprano's office in the back of the Bada Bing club. "There was nothing fancy about it."

Tony and his wife go to a sushi restaurant.
Pistone laughs. "That would never happen," he said. "I never knew a mob guy who would go eat sushi." According to Pistone, the wiseguy diet consists pretty much of two types of cuisines -- (obviously) Italian and (surprisingly) Chinese. "That was the two main dinners," he said. "Why they love Chinese food, I don't know."

Tony kids around with lawmen he knows are investigating him.
"That's a good scene," Pistone said. He said that it wasn't unusual to see mobsters talking to the cops who were tailing them. He said the cops would sometimes hang out at the mob joints just to let the wiseguys know that they were onto them. And the wiseguys, in turn, would let them know they knew they were being watched. He said many times there was good natured ribbing. "It's done with mutual respect," he said. "You can bust the agents' balls, but you can't go too far. You can't make it too personal."

Tony gets an envelope of money at a funeral parlor.
That may be the best place to do business, Pistone said. "That is a great place to hand off money because you know the place isn't going to be bugged," he said. And any undercover cop would be spotted easily because he'd be recognized in a place where it was only family and friends, he said.

Tony and Paulie walk outside to talk.

"That's called a walk and talk," Pistone said. "You walk out of the back of a building so you can talk without being recorded or listened to." Pistone said the ambient noise of the outside -- traffic, birds, people -- make it hard for police to record conversations.

One of Tony's guys walks into a hot dog stand and kills a customer.
That's the way it's done, Piston said. Walk in, shoot the guy, drop the gun, walk out. Nothing is ever said to the man who is shot. "It's nothing personal about it," he said. "It's business."

*Paulie "Walnuts," Johnny "Sack," Bobby "Bacala" ...
"Everybody has a nickname. It might be something you get as a kid or later on. And once you get a nickname, you can't get rid of it," he said. Piston said he knew guys with colorful nicknames. Bobby "Badheart" who was called that because he had a pacemaker. Charlie "Chains" wore a lot of jewelry. "You can know a guy for 10 years and you'd never know his last name," Pistone said. "Nobody would ever introduce someone with their last name and nobody would ever ask."

Tony sees a therapist.
"Would never happen," he said. Pistone said any Mafioso who went to a therapist probably would end up dead. Too many secrets could be revealed. And, Pistone said, there's a little thing called ego that could keep a wiseguy off the couch. "They are called 'wiseguys' for a reason. They think they are wise and know everything," Pistone said. "They aren't going to go to someone else for answers."

Thanks to Lucio Guerrero

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