21 August 2007

Eating Corned Beef With the Mob

I lived in Boston for a while.

Boston has a long and colorful history of organized crime thanks to generations of ethnic segregation and insider politics. Not that I know all that much about it -- after all I'm just some dumb musician -- but the fact that up until a generation ago, you could easily procure which neighborhood any resident of the city lived in based on what cuisine their mother did -- or didn't -- cook for dinner firmly secures it's place as a steaming cauldron of ethnic and racial ghetto-ization. Even those few years back when I was there, 'diversity' was only a word spoken in terms of investment strategy. Sure, the city looks good on the surface -- lots of smart people and the best colleges money can buy, a great baseball tradition and top-flight entertainment, a relatively low rate of violent crime, and plenty of nice public institutions. In fact, I really love the place in many ways. But I just don't think it's a city that presents itself as what it is, because underneath all that fuss and glitter there's still the neighborhoods. And the city remains one of the most segregated in the country.

To a lesser -- or perhaps just to a different degree -- there's still the gangs and the mobs.

The most well-known of these was / is of course the Irish Mafia -- in all its fractured and sectarian forms. According to the FBI, what was once a relatively fluid -- if riotous -- organization is now but a shambles of its former self. It's most notorious contemporary leader has been on the run for two decades and informants and insiders have all but routed the foundation of what had been a prosperous -- though occasionally lethal -- business. But the mob is still the mob. Or at least mobsters are still mobsters.

And to think I ate Thanksgiving dinner with a whole family of them.

Now, I'm not really the mobster sort. I've never liked how I look in a double-breasted suit and I'd take a Toyota over a Cadillac any day.

I'm too practical to be in the mob.

I can hear MJ guffawing as I type that.

Maybe 'practical' isn't the right word.

I sat there at the table with 'Golden' Eddie. He'd double-parked his El Dorado out front and was settling in for a big plate of hash and cabbage. He smiled as he chewed. He smiled as he talked. He smiled as he told me all about his God-given talent. As a hairdresser.

'Golden Eddie' was about 75 years old and had skin that looked like it was three sizes too small. He wore his doo slicked back and sported Gucci shades indoors. He was introduced to me by a guy named 'Lamb' whose neck was thicker than my waist.

"I'm an artist," said Eddie. "Hair is my canvas."

Early that evening I'd overheard Eddie and some of the boys on the backporch reminiscing about some jobs they'd done in the old days -- apparently before Eddie found his calling with the scissors.

Now, let me explain how I wound up here on this unusually pleasant November day just outside of Boston.

It was my mother-in-law's fault.

Turns out she was catching up with an old friend from college who happened to live near Boston and thought it would be a great idea if all of us had Thanksgiving dinner together. So she makes the trip north and meets us at our place. We drive out to her friend's place in a well-manicured little neighborhood in a town whose name I shall not disclose in the interest of self-preservation.

My mother-in-law wasn't quite sure what it was that her friend's husband did, but we were soon told that he was in 'business' and sometimes worked for 'politicians'. This would prove to be a dinner where everyone's occupation would be wrapped in quotation marks.

Now I won't get into the details of what happened that night. I won't tell you about the several Caddies parked on the lawn or the seemingly endless line of Italian men with Irish names who revolved in and out of the dining room over the course of the evening to give their formal hellos and wishes of a Happy Thanksgiving. I won't mention the number of times grown men in sunglasses men gathered in hushed voices out in the backyard -- away from a kitchen that had a different sort of bug problem than what I battled back at the apartment in Allston, I presume. I won't mention the strange occurrence of a young man -- white as a ghost and with a posture like a lamp-pole -- entering the room only to whisper in the ear of an old balding guy. After he left, one of the other men commented on what a 'good kid' he was. I say 'one of the other men' on purpose, because to my recollection the only women present were MJ, my mother-in-law, and my mother-in-law's friend.

I won't get into all that.

What I want to talk about is fear and what a man living in fear is able to do.

I want to talk about 'Golden' Eddie offering me the corned beef.

History lesson: I swore off all cow and pig parts around the time I turned seventeen. It wasn't a moral or political decision. No. I was dating a girl who was a vegetarian and I just couldn't put up with her nagging me anymore about hamburgers. So, there goes the beef.

Until Eddie.

There he is. Seventy-five year old arms beginning to tremble as he steadies the glass plate of meat in front of me. What am I supposed to do? I don't want to be the one to offend the man and end up on a midnight trip to the barber's for a shave.

So I take the corned beef. I take it and I eat it.

And I realize just how good life is as a vegetarian.

I fill my wine glass several times over the course of dinner both to be more social and to rid the taste of corned flesh from the roof of my mouth. Eddie sees that I've a clean plate and promptly fills it for me with a new heaping helping of dried beast.

This goes on all night. In the end, I've probably eaten six full plates of corned beef.

I am sick for days.

The whole thing gets me wondering. With meals like that, it's amazing the Irish Mafia lasted as long as it did.

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