Jimmy Hoffa stories are floating in the air again, 40 years after his death. New and contradictory rumors seem to be seeping out like methane from every crack in the cap that’s supposed to cover the landfill where he might be buried. Some of this heightened interest could be the result of promotion for a fresh movie on his life and disappearance expected to hit theaters in 2018.
This resurgence of attention sent me back to my Harry Stories series, eight pieces I wrote about a decade ago based loosely on my father’s father’s life. I published the first three here, and as a result of the resounding yawn they received, decided not to bother with the rest. But this morning, I reread the sixth, enjoying it all over again, and decided to publish it out of sequence, given the timeliness of the subject.
Recently, when the FBI again failed to find Jimmy Hoffa’s long-sought body, this time not buried under a barn in Michigan, I was reminded of one of my last conversations with Harry. He was getting pretty far gone, what with Alzheimer’s and all, and he had started to tell stories out of school, something he would never have done were he in full possession of his faculties. So, I learned some things about his business that I would not otherwise have known.
Given that the Mafia is an ex-officio organization — that is, strict in structure and rules, but not formal in the sense that the U.S. Constitution is a set of formal guidelines for running a democracy — the Mob’s members don’t get much in the way of proper benefits. There is no health plan, 401(k), ESOP, or tuition reimbursement. However, the organization does have ways of taking care of its own, on both the positive and negative sides of the ledger.
After a lifetime of loyal and deferential service getting pimps, petty drug dealers, and prostitutes out of jail, and handling small domestic and estate matters for his clients, Harry had earned the right to what passes for a pension in Mafia terms: an exclusive and lucrative contract as lead council for the Solid Waste Industrial Council or “SWIC,” as proudly proclaimed by the sticker on the rear bumper of his Cadillac. I’m absolutely sure of it: that bumper sticker was a code understood by all police, for Harry never got a ticket of any kind and had only the most polite conversations with enforcement officers.
Now, SWIC, despite its name, was not an environmental organization. It was founded in the 1950s and enjoyed its heyday into the 1960s, tailing off into obscurity in the 1970s. Aside from Harry, who was a founding member, other players on the council consisted of various Italian union bosses and owners of hauling companies and landfills, public and private. Following the example of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, participants in the garbage business in New Jersey had finally realized that fighting among themselves benefited only the citizenry in the form of competitive pricing. They would do better to band together and form a monopoly, dividing up the territory in a civilized manner. That way, everybody would make money, and no blood would be shed needlessly.
Thus, the business of the council was to set up what amounted to garbage franchises, with routes, defined borders, and dumps. It decided who would get what contracts to do waste removal, carving up the territory of New Jersey among various haulers and processors, so that they wouldn’t kill each other.
As long as everybody cooperated, the system worked wonderfully, and it was Harry’s job to persuade everybody to cooperate. He was a neutral third party with a good vocabulary and a reasonable manner. And, although he could speak harshly and directly, he never truly lost his temper. In other words, he was perfectly suited for the job.
Initially, Harry spent a lot of time on the road, traveling the state to negotiate various aspects of the garbage deals that were on the table at that moment. Arriving by car from Massachusetts in time for dinner, the grandkids would ask, “Nanny! Where’s Kay?”
And Ciel would likely respond, “He’s at one of his garbage meetings.” And he would be in Trenton or Union or Perth Amboy for the evening, back long after we were in bed.
What distinguished Harry from his confreres in the garbage business was a basic middle class propriety. Where they were self indulgent, he was abstemious. Where they were boastful, he was understated. Where they were loud, he was reserved. Where they were gluttonous, he was skinny (his ulcers kept him on a modest diet). Where they were showy, he was unpretentious (well, except for his Cadillac, his one arrivist symbol). Where they were wise guys, he was courteous. He survived by discretion. In a business in which people got fitted with a pair of concrete overshoes just for showing disrespect to some underboss, Harry managed not to present a target to any potential enemies. He was, as my older brother, Josh, described it once, “in contact with it, but he was not of it.” He was a calm eye in the center of the storm. All that turmoil went on around him without his being affected by it, at least outwardly.
He enjoyed such work and did it well for many years, but toward the end he began to show signs of forgetfulness that even the duller of his associates began to notice. They began to ask, discreetly at first, whether he was interested in training a young lawyer to take over for him, “you know, Kay, for when you get tired or somethin’,” one of them said. But he wouldn’t heed them. Part of the devil of Alzheimer’s is that you don’t know what you’re losing, and he thought everything was fine. He expressed annoyance at their suggestions that he was over the hill.
So, eventually, the Italians forced him to retire. By then, he was an object of pity to them, and no one even thought of taking the easy way out. They just hired another lawyer and told him that they weren’t renewing his contract.
Now, he was sitting on my dad’s couch quietly minding his own business, taking up as little room as possible, both physically and psychically. I just looked at him for a while, thinking about how to poke him. I was full of sass. At 17, I was just about at my peak of wise-guy-ness. I was strong and good looking, and was just beginning to feel my way into an adult pair of britches. Which is why it may have been nothing more than squirting hormones that prompted me to ask him, “So, Kay, is Jimmy Hoffa buried in one of your dumps?”
He looked away and didn’t say anything. But there was a little smile playing across his lips. You could say that being transported across the country from Michigan to New Jersey for burial would have represented an honor of sorts, a sign of respect. After all, they could have just dumped him in any hole out there in the Midwest.