It was 1921 and Vincenzo Castella wanted to expand his bootlegging business into Queens. In order to do that he needed to get the approval of the local Don. He had the support of the bosses in Brooklyn, his base.
“Yes, I know,” said Signora Taranno, who had just told Castella that she was born Mary Margaret O’Brien. “You thought I was Italian. Let me explain. You see, back then there weren’t as many Italians here as there are now. They came mostly later. When I was 17 I thought I was heading straight for the convent — you know, Sister Mary — then I met Ugo Taranno. He was 22. He came to Mass one Sunday and all the girls swooned over him. He was tall, dark, and very handsome. Unusual for us, all Irish and used to seeing the pasty white and ruddy red faces of our own boys.”
“So Ugo was a big hit. He was different. I was the lucky one. Nine months later I was married to him, five months pregnant, living in his father’s house, and learning how to cook, dress, and speak Italian from his mother.”
She paused, looked down with a sad expression on her face, and shook her head. She let out a deep breath, looked up at Castella, smiled, and continued.
“Ugo was very popular. He started out running numbers in the neighborhood. Soon his friends formed a gang, around him. He was sort of the leader. The gang grew and grew and they starting calling him ‘the Don,’ you know, for respect. Our son, little Ugo, was growing up as well. After little Ugo I had two daughters, Claudia and Casey. . . .” She nodded in the direction of the kitchen.
“Casey?” Castella asked, surprised.
“Yes,” she said, chuckling. “Claudia was Ugo’s grandmother’s name. Casey was my grandmother’s name. Casey Taranno. You want to meet her?” she asked, brightening up at the thought and looking toward the kitchen.
“No. No thank you. Not now. Maybe some other time.”
“Oh. O.K.” She shrugged with disappointment. “Anyway, along the way Ugo decided to make his move to get a bigger territory for his gang. He tried to move into Woodside. . . .” She nodded her head in the direction of the side of the house, presumably toward the Woodside neighborhood. “But the Taglios weren’t having it. So Ugo disappeared and his gang retreated back here, to Astoria.”
She paused again, bowed her head, and made the sign of the cross, whispering, “May he rest in peace.” She took another sip of her espresso and continued.
“By this time little Ugo was 19 and Ugo’s gang wanted him to take over his father’s job. He agreed. Unfortunately, little Ugo wasn’t as smart as his father — not that his father was a genius or anything — and every time little Ugo was asked a question he would say, ‘Let me see what my momma says.’ Now, you gotta understand, that didn’t inspire fear and respect in his men, or his enemies. Then the Taglios took a precautionary strike and little Ugo disappeared as well.”
She paused again, made the sign of the cross, muttered to herself, and continued.
“My husband’s nephew, Vittorio, was the next in line to become the Don. He was scared. After seeing what happened to his uncle and his cousin, he wasn’t anxious to take over the gang. So he says to his boys, ‘Listen, we know little Ugo was really letting Zia Maria’ — that’s what they call me here, in the Italian family. They changed me from the Irish Mary to the Italian Maria. Anyway, Vittorio says, ‘Zia Maria was really running the gang for little Ugo. She was probably behind big Ugo too. I think I remember hearing that. So why don’t we just let her run the gang anyway?’ This was Vittorio’s way of escaping his destiny. So, for five years now, I’m the Don here, in Astoria. And, oh yeah, in Woodside too. And Sunnyside. We expanded. I had to rough up a few people in the beginning . . . you know, show them who was boss right away, then it calmed down and everything turned out all right. You know what I mean?”
Maria Taranno patted her palms down into her lap and lifted her chin high in the air and covered her face with a smug, sly smile. She winked at Castella.
Castella sat there, leaning forward, his hands on his knees, his eyes and his mouth wide open, staring in disbelief.
“Well, young man, what do you want?”
“Oh yes. . . .” Castella straightened himself up, regained his composure, cleared his throat, and spoke. “Yes, signora. I am here to respectfully request, umm, your permission to . . . umm . . . do business in your neighborhood. But first, signora, tell me something — I am very impressed with you, with what you have done here. Tell me, how do you run your organization? How do you manage to keep them . . . organized?”
“The same way, I’m sure, that you run your organization, Signore Castella. The same way the pope runs the church. The same way the generals run the army. The same way the emperors ran Rome. Fear and intimidation. Reward and punishment. I’m sure you know all about these things.”
“In the beginning it was tough. I had to . . . you know, be very tough. I had to do some unpleasant things, but once that was over and done with then they all got the message.”
“And where, my dear lady . . .” Castella was more comfortable now and loosened up a little, “. . . would you have learned these things?”
“Signore Castella, I understand that you are a student of history. . . .”
He wondered how she knew this, then he realized that she must have asked his friends all about him so she could prepare for this meeting.
“But you must realize, my dear young man,” that phrase was laden with sarcasm, “you are not the only intelligent person in this . . . this group. There are others, you know, who read. Even history. Even Roman history. There is much to be learned from the study of history.”
“But I understand that you are already doing business here, in my neighborhood. I understand that your people . . . the name?”
“Yes, signora, the Lagitano family, they are the family who have the ice and coal business here in Astoria.”
“Yes, that’s it, the Lagitanos, they are delivering the ice and the coal in the neighborhood, and I also understand that they are honoring us with a modest fee for our counsel in helping them do business here, in the neighborhood.” She was making this hard for Castella.
“Si, that is correct, signora. But now, we intend to expand our business, here, in your neighborhood. And it is for this . . . expansion . . . that we seek your permission.”
“Ahh. Yes. Now I see. I understand. Your friends . . . over there,” now she nodded her head in the direction of Brooklyn, “they think that you,” she tilted her head in Castella’s direction now, “that you can do this new business better than perhaps we could do it ourselves, here, in Astoria. Is that it?”
Although she was still smiling, Castella sensed hostility in her speech. He was unprepared for this. He was told this was simply a courtesy call, a “pay-your-respects” call. The deal was supposed to have already been done and this was to be a formality. He thought about doing away with this facade of diplomacy, civility, and just telling her what had been done and what would be done. On the other hand, he felt that an alliance with her might have some value in the future, so he decided to play along as the serf seeking the lord’s permission to sow his field.
“No, that’s not it, signora. Our friends know very well how important you are and how good your organization is at running operations.”
“Signora. We are in this . . . distribution business already. We are doing the work for our friends in other neighborhoods. I understand that they have already negotiated the fees with you. It is only my job to be here, before you, in respect for your position, and to seek your good wishes for our work.”
Signora Taranno had grown impatient by now. She waved her hands at Castella.
“Okay. Yes. You are right. We have already negotiated the terms with our friends. You can engage in this business. You may go now.” She turned her head away from him as she spoke. “But once you begin this work, don’t be a stranger. Come to visit your old zia once in a while.”
By this time Castella was already up, out of his chair, and halfway across the room to Harry.
“Oh, yes, of course, signora. We will visit you again.”
Castella hustled into his car and barked at O’Bannion, “Let’s get out of here. Step on it!”
“Okay. Sure boss. Where to?”
“Back to the office.”
Lewis Barton is a businessman and writer living in Wainscott. His work has been previously published in The Star. “The Astoria Don” is an excerpt from his unpublished novel, “The Iceman.”