The Organization

I had an uncle who was “connected” with a New York crime family, and at one time, my world was so desperate that I sought advice from him on how to handle a violent situation, not of my making. No sooner had I explained the threat to my life and how dire my problem was that he stopped me and said, “Louis, think carefully about what you might ask from the people I am associated with. In most situations, you pay a debt once; you repay a thousand times with these people.” So after reflecting on his words, I decided to solve my problem alone.

I thought little about it until many years later when I casually asked a favor from an acquaintance in politics. He gave me essentially the same advice as my uncle.

It took a while to register, but I began reflecting on the manifest similarities between political and criminal organizations. Most have defined territories, and membership is characterized by an allegiance to the organization’s goals – political or criminal. Moreover, the membership defers to a rather strict structural leadership and answers to a boss, chairman, capo, candidate, or office holder. Finally, loyalty is rewarded through favors or patronage, and disobedience is punished through loss of support, patronage, or other forms of punishment ( fill in the blanks for yourself). 

You might say, OK, there is a qualified resemblance, but political organizations have lofty goals and objectives, not criminal enrichment. To which, as a proper New Yorker, I would add, “Hey! I have this bridge in Brooklyn, only one previous owner, lightly used, and has great views of downtown! Unfortunately, real estate is getting iffy. I can offer you a great deal.”

So please reflect on this…spooky isn’t it. Maybe there is less of a difference between some politicians and a mob capo. Or, in some cases, none.

Town Meeting

I thought it was some archaic ritual, but they said it was the purest form of democracy. It was a Annual Town Meeting. No, it wasn’t the civilized sort of obscured politics of boroughs, mayors, and city councils I’d seen in New York or even Boston, where things happened in smokey rooms and offices. This was the vigorous, sharp-clawed, rip and tear, raw politics of small-town New England. The sweetest people in daily life, Grannies, got up and said awful things about the selectman. The moderator banged the gavel down hard three times and ordered the chief of police to remove a disorderly man pulled from the Meeting. I thought I knew something about the small town I was living in, but that first Town Meeting was a revelation.

First of all, everything seemed to be up for discussion. Parliamentary rules guided the Meeting, but in between the rules, there was ample space for innuendo, disputation, and the playing out of old grievances. It was a town of fewer than six hundred people, and about ninety percent were crammed into the meeting house, and they all had issues.

The Cap’n had tried to warn me. He’d pointed out that many of the Board of Selectmen were people “from away.” they’d moved into town over the past decades. As a result, they had few family ties to the local families and the town. Being naive about government, I asked why that was a plus. The Cap’n gave me that look he reserved for when he thought I was behaving like an ass. “Wes, there are about six hundred of us. Many families have been here since before the Mayflower was a silly idea of the Pilgrims. That’s a lot of history for nursing aggravation and dispute. Newcomers have no ties; they’re bound to be fairer.”

I was trained as an anthropologist, a surgical technician, a woodworker, and a folksinger. I had traveled widely. I could tell you what a dermatome was, why the size of a kerf on a saw was important, and parse the circle of fifths in music. I had met all sorts of people in my travels and seen many interesting things, but the Town Meeting was a unique nonpareil sort of thing. It had formal ritualized aspects mixed with just a touch of blood sport.
Critical documents were involved; the annual Town Report and the Warrant. The Town Report chronicled the activities of Town Committees, expenses, and government happenings throughout the year. You coud find rows of past Town Reports in homes.
The Warrant was another sort of beast. It outlined all the Articles that needed to be voted for. This was where the blood sport entered the picture. Individual articles got discussed in detail before balloting. This was where personality, family vendetta, and personal belief intersected and clashed. A two hundred dollar item for the library could be a half-hour of vicious back and forth.

At the end of the Meeting, I noticed many residents tearing up the Warrant, walking out, and talking amiably with those they had been in a violent dispute with an hour ago. Turning to the Cap’n, I asked how this could be so? Why didn’t they elect a mayor and a council to get the work done? Why this annual brawl. The Cap’n quickly told me to shut up before I was overheard. The Town Meeting was the primary underlying civic structure of small-town New England. ” We wouldn’t be who we are without it.”

I rapidly wrote my notes on the Meeting and started thinking about how I could describe it to my professors and in my thesis. What I found most amazing was that so much agreement and unity had come out of such vigorous dispute.
All these years after, and many Town Meetings later, I am still amazed by the process but convinced that the Cap’n was right. It is an underlying civic structure in New England, and its shadow extends even over the larger towns and cities that have moved beyond it.

Same Advice, Different Sources

I have not always been the font of wily wisdom that I now am ( snicker). I found myself in a bind and needed some nonconventional advice following grad school. 

My father had died years previously. With truly vast life experience, he had been my go-to source for guidance- which I did not automatically follow but to which I listened. With my dad out of the picture, I sought out uncle Lenny. But because the nature of the problem involved some potential violence, I was referred to my other “uncle.” 

My other “uncle” was a first cousin to my father and uncle Lenny. They had been so close growing up that they had considered themselves to be brothers. So he was, he was my uncle. I called him up, unsure why Uncle Lenny was telling me to call him. 

Briefly, a neighbor of mine was making physical threats, and the situation would soon pass the boiling point. I’m not afraid of a fight one-on-one. But, this person threatened to get some organized crime folks after me.

I soon found out that my uncle was “connected” with an equivalent organization in Queens ( New York City). On finding out, I responded nervously, ” So that’s why you went away for three years!” His reply- “Hmmm.” 

I told him what was happening, and he offered to make some calls. The next day he called back to say that “certain people had been called,” and the neighbor was a nobody with no connections. Breathing a sigh of relief, I went ahead and rhetorically asked what would be involved in giving my neighbor some serious grief. It was then that my uncle gave me this advice. He said: ” When you ask for something like that, you ask for one favor. But, you repay it a thousand times.” 

About a decade later, I worked as an anthropologist in an urban community near Boston. I was having a problem with a cantankerous city Alderman who kept threatening my job. I went to a sympathetic alderman with whom I was friendly. I asked him if he could talk to his colleague on my behalf. He said:” When you ask for something like that from a politician, you ask for one favor. But, you repay it a thousand times.”

After hearing the same advice from oddly different sources, I now know that favors often come with prices attached that you can’t repay. You never are free of obligation. They are a sort of equivalent to “be careful what you ask for; you might get it.” 

The answers pose a thought experiment. How come the responses from a politician and a person who was “connected” were identical.

John’s Art Of The Con

In my early adult years, I moved around, plying the trade of a Pious Itinerant. To wit, I was a folksinger. I first performed in coffeehouses in New York’s Greenwich Village, but moved on to Boston, New Hampshire, Philadelphia, D.C., Maine, and importantly for this story, Baltimore.
Baltimore was an essential stop in my periodic ramblings not because the coffeehouse scene was so good for me, but because some of my best friends lived there. Bob and Chris had a house open to all wanderers. Life at their home in the ’60s was exciting. There were political radicals of all stripes, folkies like me, artists, and lots of people who just wandered in. Chris was the emotional den mother of this band of unlikely cohabitors. Almost anything could happen during a night of round-robin folksinging, political discussion, and sometimes body ( and bawdy) art.
An occasional visitor was John, no known last name, no known previous residence. John was a self-declared “artiste of the con.” He claimed to be so good that he had run a successful rent scam on several of the disreputable fortune-telling parlors downtown. He convinced them, in his tale, to pay their rent to him after convincing them that he had purchased the properties. He’d go to city records to get some official-looking public documents for their specific addresses and convince the fortuneteller to fork over their rents. The con was a onetime only scam, but lucrative. It was also dangerous; some of those folks played rough when they discovered they’d been conned. I believe that was what led to John’s sudden departure from Baltimore.
Before John split town, he decided during one night of alcoholic fug to impart to me what he humbly called “John’s Art of the Con.”

1.) A good con artist enrolls the fish in the scam. The fish becomes a collaborator. If and when the swindle collapses, the fish is too embarrassed to turn in the artiste.

2.) Be honest in all the little things; this lowers the level of suspicion when you tell a whopper. A corollary to this is that a half-truth is much more effective than a whole lie.

3.) Be generous. Gifts to charity help establish your bone fides as a pillar of the community and place you above suspicion.

4.) Don’t be greedy. Most scams artists get caught because they don’t know when to stop.

5.) Don’t involve family or close friends; you need them for protective cover when things go south.

There were others, but considering the amount of beer consumed that evening I am surprised that I remember these.
The one rule that truly stuck with me was number one because it was later confirmed by people who had worked in the intelligence field.
Conversations with a colleague working in criminal justice and a friend in corrections suggested that few career criminals have the discipline needed to apply the rules coherently or consistently. This explains why so many “smart” criminals are in prison, as my C.O. friend points out.

That’s where it pretty much rested until the mid-’90s. I was traveling into the Mid-Atlantic for an in-water boat show. After setting up the afternoon before the show started, I retreated to my hotel room for a shower and a nap before dinner. I rarely watch T.V., but when I travel, I’ll turn on the hotel set to see if I’m missing anything. That afternoon I was surprised. The spokesperson for a Congressman was making an announcement about the Congressman’s upcoming reelection bid. It had been thirty years, but there was something about the guy that seemed familiar. The hair was thinner, there were jowls and about twenty excess pounds around the waist. But, the diction, the facial expressions, the choice of words, and the hand gestures were all John.
John was one of the smart ones. He had latched onto a long-running scam with a low conviction rate.
It was really our fault. We had thought John was a petty scam artist. In fact, he had higher aspirations.

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