C-SPAN Airs “Tightrope” Reading December 3, 2017, from Coast-to-Coast

So there it was: On C-SPAN’s “Book TV” schedule for this week:
BOOK TV SCHEDULE: FOR THE WEEK OF NOVEMBER 27-DECEMBER 3…on there with the same listings with HBO, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and with the new books of Matt Tiabbi and Katy Tur.

 

We were at my son’s home, with my granddaughters looking on, and their father logging on to C-SPAN to see if my book reading was listed in C-SPAN’s upcoming schedule for Sunday, December 3, so my son could DVR it. No sooner did he get it on the screen, when my oldest granddaughter, Age 8, shouts, “There’s Grampy’s name,” and we all froze.

 

We knew it was coming, but seeing it on my son’s big video screen just kind of stopped us all in our tracks. Now we knew that C-SPAN’s airing of my reading of “Tightrope: Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo & My Brother was real.  No longer was it a speech I delivered that was taped by C-SPAN at the 50th Annual Italian American Studies Association Conference in Washington, DC.  There it was, up on the big screen, in living color.   Now, thanks to C-SPAN’s Book TV, you can watch my reading, wherever  you live in the country.  The times to watch or record are this Sunday, December 3: On the East Coast: 8:10 am and 11:30 am; On the West Coast, 8:30 pm. Tune in to hear me read from the opening chapter of Tightrope.

 

If you like what you hear and want to order a copy of Tightrope: Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo & My Brother (Heliotrope Books, NY, NY, 2017) you can do so on the homepage of my website at www.socialvisionproductions.com, or by going directly to amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

 

But, don’t just take my word for it.  Read what The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta had to say about Tightrope:  

“What an amazing book you’ve written. Mario Cuomo would have cheered. As impressive as your writing style, what blew me away was the honesty, your willingness to dig deep and share with readers your love and distain for the mob choice your brother made, your unabashed admiration for Mario Cuomo,and your inner turmoil throughout. To weave all this into a book, plus the stereotyping of Italian-Americans, is quite a feat. Congratulations!” — Ken Auletta

 

 

 

 

The President & The Puttana

 

Vito Genovese’s puttana came on to me during my senior year of high school, while the mob boss was still alive.

 

It was Springtime, 1967, and my mother and I arrived at my Aunt Josephine’s small Woodside, Queens, apartment when it happened. Genovese’s girlfriend, a fiftyish French woman named Charlotte, batted her long lashes at me, spoke a few words in her sexy French accent and I was smitten. She was visiting my mother’s oldest sister, having accompanied our cousin, Jean Eboli, married to the brother of Tommy Eboli, who would—in just two years—succeed Don Vito as head of the Genovese Crime Family. I studied French for four years in high school, and Vito’s sultry puttana was verbally seducing me right before my mother’s incredulous eyes.

 

I was polite and respectful, of course. My Aunt Josephine, a brilliant and scheming peasant woman, born in Italy in 1899, who admired money and was mobster neutral, had taught us how to act around these folks. Having cooked for members of both the Genovese and Gambino crime organizations, who married into our own family, Aunt Josephine’s kitchen was a little like Gertrude Stein’s salon for street toughs who loved superb tomato sauce, the way Stein’s patron’s loved good art. The lesson from Aunt Josephine was clear: the host always showed respect, even if your guest was a puttana.

 

It’s too bad Donald Trump didn’t have an Aunt Josephine to teach him life’s lessons. If he did, he might have known how to act toward the reputed puttana of convicted racketeer, mobster and NY Teamster Local Boss John Cody. Donald’s dealings with Vernia Hixon, who bought several of the best apartments in Trump Tower in 1982, revealed Trump’s inherent “pussyness” in the face of real power.

 

“Trump was a guy who would talk tough, but as soon as you confronted him, he would cry like a little girl,” Cody’s son, Michael, told The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey and Michael Daly in an October 13, 2016, article entitled “The Swiss Connection: The Party Girl Who Brought Trump to His Knees.   “He was all talk, no action.”

 

Cody was not just any casual observer. His father controlled the construction trades industry throughout the New York Metropolitan Area for a number of key years in the 1970’s and ‘80s, as head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 282.   No trucks carrying any building materials, especially cement, could move to a construction site without Cody’s approval. The flow of cement was controlled by the S & A Concrete Company, a mob-front business co-owned by the Gambino & Genovese Crime families. If building developers didn’t pay what Cody or S & A Concrete demanded, their jobs—like Trump Tower—could be halted.

 

“My father walked all over Trump.” Michael Cody told The Daily Beast. “ Anytime Trump didn’t do what he was told, my father would shut down his job for the day. No deliveries. 400 guys sittin’ around.” To John Cody and his colleagues, Donald Trump was just another puffed-up, pasty patsy.

 

One of the things Cody told Trump was to make sure he took very good care of his special friend Verina Hixon, who purchased three prime units in Trump Tower, just beneath Trump’s Penthouse. Hixon’s units, included the only swimming pool in the entire Trump Tower complex. The strikingly-beautiful, Austrian-born divorcee, according to Wayne Barrett, in Trump: The Art of the Deal, “had no visible income…and by the end of 1982 had signed contracts to purchase the units for a total cost of around $10 million.”

 

Cody made sure Trump took good care of Hixon, even funneling some $500,000 to her for renovations on her apartments while he was in jail for racketeering and income tax evasion. When Trump balked at fulfilling some of his promises to Hixon, according to Barrett “Cody & Hixon cornered him in a nearby bar and got his agreement. “Anything for you, John, “ was Hixon’s recollection of Trump’s cowering comment.

 

Trump was so terrified of crossing Cody that at one point, when Cody called Trump from prison to complain about construction problems on Hixon’s apartments, Barrett reported that “Trump greeted him nervously on the phone. ‘Where are you? Trump asked. Downstairs?”

 

“Trump ended conversations with my father by saying, “Whatever you say, John,” Michael Cody told The Daily Beast.

 

However, as soon is Cody was stripped of his union leadership and his jail term dragged on, Trump got brave. He sued Hixson for $250,000 on the apartments’ alterations, but Cody’s tough, no-bullshit consort was not so easily bullied. According to Barrett, she counter-sued The Donald for $20 million, and her attorneys threatened to bring in the Attorney-General to look into the possibility of Trump paying himself ‘kickbacks.’

 

Trump quickly caved and Cody’s reputed puttana with the seductive accent stayed in her tower on Fifth Avenue through the end of the decade, until her money finally ran out. Perhaps Aunt Josephine could have ended things more amicably for everyone over a good meal in her kitchen, but considering the two parties involved, it’s unlikely.

 

Hixson, now in her early 70’s and living in Europe, refers to Trump as “that awful man,” and Trump who thinks a fine meal is a Trump Tower taco, is busy bending over for mobsters from Russia. Whatever they want, Vlad. Anything.

 

 

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A Good Man Who Liked His Beer…

 

(Me, My Aunt Josephine, My brother Michael, and my father (wearing fedora) at my college graduation, 1971).

 

(In honor of the 102nd Anniversary of my father’s birth, I am excerpting a short section from  my upcoming book, Tightrope, which will be published this spring.)

 

My father and I stopped at the newspaper kiosk at the Babylon train station’s lower level on the morning of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral in June, 1968, and picked up a copy of the New York Daily News for him, and the New York Times for me.

 

We boarded his regular early morning train that was already waiting at the station. Both newspapers predicted huge crowds of mourners would jam Manhattan that day. I pored over every word of every story I could read about RFK’s death, devouring each detail in the Times and leaning over my father’s arm to look at the pictures in the Daily News and read the giant headlines, until he flipped the paper over to the sports section to check what the horseracing handle was from the day before. The last three digits of that total would tell him if he “hit” the number with his bookie.

 

The contrast of our lives struck me. My father was doing the same thing he had done for 15 years of life on Long Island, catching an early morning train, looking at the horseracing results in the same section of the same newspaper each day, hoping that maybe, this time, this day “our ship would come in,” as he chanted each time he looked. Each day he got up before everyone else, went to the same job, taking care of tempermental steam boilers that belched hot water and hot air through the pipes running like elevated roadways in the basement of the office building where he worked in Manhattan. He barely made enough money to support our family, and only because he worked on Saturdays, too, earning overtime pay.

 

I watched the train conductor punch my ticket and thought of how my father must have watched countless conductors perform the same ritual, ticket after ticket, trip after trip, until he no longer knew it was happening. I sat and stared out the train window and watched Woodside whiz by, hearing my mother’s refrain repeating itself to the cadence of the train car’s wheels whispering over the tracks: “We live in hopes and die in despair; live in hopes, die in despair; live in hopes, live in hopes…” I looked over at my father, asleep, the Daily News folded in his lap.

 

No, I insisted to myself, I am the third son of a third son, and I must live a life like no one in my family has ever dreamed; my father told me so. I would learn about the mysterious “they” that my family fussed about whenever something happened out of their control, which was frequently. What I had to guard against, was becoming one of “them,” an unspoken fear between my family and me. We knew I would be different, but how different? Would I become unrecognizable to my mother and father? Go on, take, take, take; but don’t take too much…don’t change too much.

 

I looked at my father again, his dapper grey fedora resting gently on his head. I could not imagine him going to a politician’s funeral, to pay his respects to one of “them. To Al Villano, it was all distant, part of another “woild,” as he would say.   He had all he could do to survive and feed his family in his world.

 

“Will you have to give la busta?,” he kidded me, when I first told him I was going to RFK’s funeral, referring to the Italian custom of putting a little money in an envelope and giving it to the family of the deceased to help pay funeral expenses. His humor got me to smile.

 

“I don’t think the Kennedys need it, Dad, “ I said, winking back at him.

 

We got off the train at Grand Central Station.

 

“Be careful and watch your wallet, Rock,” he said to me, heading down to the basement of the building where he worked, putting on his brown maintenance man’s uniform as soon as he got there, and wearing it all day, the way the wealthy lawyers and accountants on the floors above wore their designer label suits and ties, while he made certain they were comfortable all day long.

 

Mario Cuomo: The Anti-Trump

(Mario Cuomo, standing high above Donald Trump in term of human values, dignity, respect for the law, and holding the lamp of freedom high for Immigrants and Refugees the world over.  The Albany Times Union of Sunday, January 29, 2017, published my commentary on Mario Cuomo: The Anti-Trump, accompanied by a terrific graphic, pictured above.  To more easily read the full commentary, I’ve included full text and a link to the digital piece below:

 

It was always right there: Mario Cuomo as the anti-Trump.

Sure, they were raised just a few miles from each other in Queens, but worlds apart: Cuomo atop his father’s modest little grocery store in South Jamaica, where he didn’t learn to speak English until he was 8; Donald Trump in his father’s opulent, 23-room mansion high on a hill in exclusive Jamaica Estates where working-class Italians were not welcome.

 

That was years before the Trumps would do all they could, including violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws, to keep working-class families of a different color out of Trump-built working-class housing in Brooklyn. Unlike Cuomo, who lived among struggling immigrant families from diverse backgrounds, Trump lived a gilded life, a sheltered, elite existence where he was chauffeured to his privileged private school in his mother’s rose-colored Rolls-Royce.

 

Each family had far different views of their own histories: the German Drumpfs Americanized their name for business reasons; the Italian-born Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo, proud of their lineage, language and land of origin, were interested in what other immigrant families wanted: putting bread on the table for their children. They had nothing to hide.

 

Any examination of Mario Cuomo’s words and actions during his years as New York’s governor, and as a national advocate for human and immigrant rights, makes his views clear. In an address to NYU’s Urban Research Center on Immigration, 25 years ago this June, Cuomo’s prescience about growing American nationalistic “Know-Nothingism” was ominous:

 

“…some candidates tried to resurrect the perennial anti-immigrant specter by talking about the ‘unraveling of America’ and about ‘taking America back.’ It’s the same nativist sloganeering and parochial fear-mongering that’s been aimed at every group of new immigrants throughout our history.”

 

Then, in eerie anticipation of the virulent xenophobia that the son of a reluctant German looking down from a cloistered castle in Queens unleashed upon America in 2016, Cuomo spoke of his own family’s experience:

 

“I thank God the country didn’t say to them, ‘we can’t afford you; you might take someone else’s job, or cost us too much. I’m glad they didn’t ask my father if he could speak English, because he couldn’t; I’m glad they didn’t ask my mother if she could count, because she couldn’t…I’m glad they didn’t ask my father what special skills he brought to this great and dynamic nation, because there was no special expertise to the way he handled a shovel when he dug trenches for sewer pipe. I’m glad they let him in anyway.”

 

The differences between Mario Cuomo and Donald Trump went far beyond the separate universes into which each was born. Vast chasms of values, beliefs, character and respect for all people and cultures separated the two. Trump’s opening slime against Mexicans when he consciously slammed an entire culture to kick off his hate-filled 2016 presidential campaign smelled like the slurs hurled about Italian-Americans, when Cuomo’s name was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.

 

Unlike Trump, Cuomo led a life of great integrity, with zero tolerance for injustice, and profound reverence for the law, for all faiths, families, and human dignity. Addressing an NAACP conference at the New York Hilton, on December 11, 1991 — just one week before declining to run for the presidency in 1992 — Cuomo’s voice quaked with emotion when he came to the subject of racism:

 

“The truth is that the ugly and dangerous instinct still lives among us … the instinct to stigmatize, to stereotype, to scapegoat, to malign people because of the tint of their skin, the God they pray to, or the place their parents came from …”

 

Cuomo knew, from personal experience, of the damage done by stigma and negative stereotyping, fighting the ugly lies of “mob connections” for years. “My whole life has been a statement against that crap,” he argued passionately when questioned why he refused to deliver a JFK-style “Houston Ministers” speech to squash the rumors.

 

Trump’s life made exactly the opposite statement. His “incestuous intertwining with organized crime,” had been documented for decades, according to Wayne Barrett in his book “Trump: The Deals & the Downfall.” Trump took his counsel from sycophants of the mob like Roy Cohn, and, for years, did business with the New York and Philadelphia crime families. Writing in Politico last year, author David Cay Johnston put it bluntly: “No other candidate for the White House… has anything close to Trump’s record of repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and crooks.”

 

Trump was an amoral actor doing business with amoral peers. “Garbage pails, ” as John A. Gotti, Jr., described the type in his autobiography “Shadow of My Father,” when he wrote of his desire to quit the Mob. No souls, no hearts, no nothing — the complete antithesis of Mario Cuomo, whom the mob guys knew was “unreachable,” and respected him for it. Even they could see that Cuomo — the anti-thug — pointed the way toward a better life for their children.

 

Steve Villano, a former Albany resident now living in Napa, Calif., was a director of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s New York City press office, and is the author of “Tightrope: Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother,” to be published in May by Heliotrope Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/Mario-the-anti-Donald-10891540.php?cmpid=twitter-desktop

My Brother, Not Make Believe

My brother Michael would have been 75 years old this week, and he has been on my mind a lot lately.

Somehow, I think my 6-year old granddaughter must have known that. At dinner on the night before my brother’s birthday, I was telling a make-believe story about “Peter, Peter Pasta Eater,” and another boy. My granddaughters, ages 6 & 4 love hearing my made-on-the spot stories the way my brother’s oldest daughter and son did, when they were the same ages. And, I love telling them, vamping along the way, watching their eyes grow as big as pizza pies, suspense building.

I was searching for the name of the other boy in the story, when my granddaughter asked me for it, and “Michael” was the first name that popped into my mind, and came from my mouth.

“Wait,” my oldest granddaughter said, stopping the story cold. “Is this real or is it a make-believe story?”

“It’s a make-believe story,” I said, surprised by her question. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” she said, looking at me with her saucer-sized eyes, “isn’t Michael one of your brothers’ names?

I was stunned. Was she reading my mind? My face? Were my emotions that evident to this sweet, sensitive child?

“Why, yes—yes it is,” I said. And, before I could correct myself and say, “yes, it was,” the story moved on, and my granddaughters wanted to know how it ended. On the eve of what would have been my brother’s 75th birthday, his name found it’s way into a story I was creating for the two human beings who are everything to me.

It got me thinking of how my brother would have smiled warmly, quietly at my granddaughters, the way he glowed softly as I watched him observe each one of his four children when they were babies, and the world was still fresh and innocent.

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My brother Michael was my first hero, a calm gentle presence in my chaotic early life, the opposite of my father whose temper could explode as quickly as the steam boilers he worked on all his life.   Gifted with patience, my brother would assemble all of my toys that my father had no patience for putting together.

My first real visual memory of my brother was through the split front seat of a 1958 Ford Fairlane, when I was 10 or 11 years old. He had taken me to a drive-in movie one night, along with his girl friend, who later became his wife.   They sat in the back seat; I sat in the front.   I was curious about what my brother was doing back there. But, fatigue conquered my curiosity, and I fell asleep while I tried to sneak a peak of a show that I was convinced was more fascinating than the movie on the big screen in front of me. My brother, nine-years older than I, carried me back into my parents house and up to my bedroom that night, and, for years, laughed gently at my invasion of his privacy.

I always saw my brother through my mother’s eyes, and that view was rose-colored, gentle and perfect, even when my brother’s life took on a far different, more tumultuous tone in later years.

To my mother, to me, my brother was always there, ready to help, to calm the waters. He could build anything—a four-poster bed, a bicycle, a house. I once watched him cook a meal from scratch for two dozen people, each ingredient carefully chosen, each choice delicately considered, each course, better than the one before. I was mesmerized by his short, stubby fingers and how much they looked like our mother’s.

My brother’s life and mine, diverged sharply over the years, and my idolization of him turned into sadness, anger, sorrow and then, in the end, love again. Whatever he did, and he did plenty, he was always my mother’s son, and early in his life, the very model of how I believed a man, and father, should behave.

To my granddaughter, who never met him, Michael was my brother. He was real, not make believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fireworks Fizzle, Books Burn

10151968_10152562835512959_4131345589573164865_nI never understood the fascination with fireworks, even though I illegally sold them as a kid growing up in the working class enclave on North Babylon, Long Island.   My brother brought home “mats” of firecrackers, loose cherry bombs, bottle rockets, and exploding “ashcans” that could blow off your hand.  I was his underage “dealer”, selling the stuff to any of my friends who would buy them.

For a poor kid who sold my toys and comic books for pennies to spend in the summertime, I was mesmerized by the money I could make by marketing this madness.   As July 4th approached in the Year I Lived Dangerously, sales were so outrageously brisk that my schoolmates were swamping our stoop, waving $20 bills in their fists for any scrap of fireworks I had left.   The clamoring crowd grew so noisy out front, that our next door neighbor threatened to call the cops and report us. I went to sleep with several gross of firecrackers under my bed, worried that either the police were going to raid us, or our house would catch fire, and light up like a rocket in the night.   “Controlled” fireworks displays—or controlled anything for that matter– were not part of our consciousness. Our lives were completely out of control. Chaos reigned. We wanted to create something out of our own explosive imaginations. Fireworks were an easy, accessible art form.

Fast forward to today, more than 50 years later, in the posh wine country town of St. Helena, CA, in the heart of the Napa Valley. The entire State of California is as dry as tinder. We are in the fourth year of a drought that has raised the fire danger to extreme levels. Water rationing is mandatory.  Statewide, individual water users have cut their use of water by nearly 30%, except for the very rich of Beverly Hills or San Diego County or Tiburon, Marin County, who insist that if they can afford to pay for water they should be able to use as much as they god-damned want . The rich, enamored with controlling everything, LOVE controlled fireworks displays.

In swanky St. Helena, some wealthy benefactor was willing to bankroll the entire $50,000 cost of a “controlled” fireworks display to make sure that July 4th was celebrated with a bang.   Leveraging that gift, even more money was raised for a fifteen-minute fireworks festival where the money quickly goes up in smoke, and awed on-lookers argue whether this year’s fireworks show was better than last.  Like it matters.

At virtually the very same moment that wealthy fireworks fans forked over private funds, St. Helena City leaders cut nearly $250,000 of public funds from the budget of a terrific local library, which also serves as a community center for this small City of 5,000 people. The City Manager fired the full-time Library Director, who built the small library into one of the best in the country. The City Council caved in by reducing the hours the Library is open to the public, including a complete shutdown on Sundays. No one thought to ask the wealthy fireworks donor to put the $50,000 gift to better more lasting use, to keep the library doors open, and provide access to books which last a lifetime, rather than fireworks which fizzle in a few minutes.

People say that public funds are one thing, but wealthy donors have the right to put their  private money anywhere. I disagree. Municipal, state or national leaders ought to step up with a list of vital community services that are in dire need of funding: rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, water recovery, libraries, schools, fire-fighting equipment, police services, teachers, nurses, eldercare, affordable housing, food, sustainable living.

Wealthy donors attention needs to be directed to the necessities of community life, not narcissistic nostalgia.   Scarce funds are fungible. Money spent on fireworks won’t be spent on books . I know. I saw it in the eyes of my schoolmates throwing money at me for fireworks 50 years ago. If books could have given them the same kind of buzz, they’d have burned them too.