WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I have refrained from writing about "The
Sopranos" for fear of getting killed. Well, maybe only for fear of having my
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 bigwigs 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'
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 bodyguard, 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 ongoing 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.