29 May 2015

The Old Kansas City Mafia

by R.T. Lawton

When people think of the mafia, they usually have a mental picture of Italian gangsters operating in Chicago or some major East Coast city, but in fact, the mafia sprang up wherever they thought they could make a dollar. In popular media, movies such as The Untouchables focused on the old Chicago mob, The Godfather on New York and Las Vegas, and the TV series The Sopranos on New Jersey. But, there was also a deeply entrenched branch of the mafia based in Kansas City.

In 1921, the DiGiovanni brothers, Joseph and Peter fled their homeland of Sicily. Finally settling in the north end of Kansas City, they set up their criminal enterprises which would later make them the founding fathers of the Kansas City mafia. Other criminal entrepreneurs in the north end at the time were Big Jim Balestrere (who would go on to oppose the rise to power of one Nick Civella) and Joe Lusco. With the advent of Prohibition, the competitive factions in the north end decided to work together. They termed their coalition as The Outfit. Peter DiGiovanni became known on the street as Sugarhouse Pete. His brother, Joseph DiGiovanni, a leader of the old Black Hand, acquired the nickname of Scarface after his face became disfigured when he tried to burn down a warehouse during the Prohibition years. Joe denied this event, instead claiming that it was due to a lamp accident in his home. Either way, his face was scarred for life.

When the organization expanded, John Lanzia, AKA Brother John, took over leadership and was given free rein by Tom Pendergrast, head of The Pendergrast Machine. At the time, The Machine controlled the local government and made Kansas City an "open" town. No alcohol arrests were allowed or made inside the city limits.

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the gangsters continued with their other rackets, but also began shaking down bars for protection money. John Lanzia got assassinated in July 1934 and the game of musical chairs began for succession. Charles "Charlie the Wop" Carrollo, the current underboss, stepped up to the throne, but then he was also suspected of having created his own opening for that position by having ordered the killing of Lanzia. In 1939, Charlie the Wop took a fall for tax evasion and his underboss, Charles Binaggio, became the head man. Binaggio took the family into the area of labor racketeering. With his help, Forest Smith became the governor of Missouri in 1948. They had a lock on politics, but somewhere down the line, Binaggio made the national commission of mafia nervous. They had him whacked in 1950. Three years later, his successor, Anthony Grizzo, expired from heart attack. Seems that assassination, stress and law enforcement made for a constant change in leadership.

Next up in the rotating chair was Giuseppe Nicoli Civella, who became the public face of the KC family and the first boss to represent the Americanized version of the mafia. Big Jim Balestrere is alleged to have made a few assassination attempts on Civella's life, but graciously stepped aside when he saw Nick Civella had the backing of higher ups. Nick went on to make alliances with several mafia families in other cities and thus raised his own mafia family to greater importance. A witness identified Nick as being in the area of the infamous Appalachin meeting of top gangsters, but he was not among those arrested. He reigned for thirty years before his passing in 1983. However, being the CEO of the Kansas City branch of a large criminal organization did have its downside. Nick ultimately found himself the recipient of a couple of federal vacations. From 1979 until 1983, his brother Carl AKA Corky, took over as acting boss while Nick sat in the grey bar hotel.

Nick Civella's first federal fall came from gambling charges concerning the 1970 Super Bowl in which he lost about $40,000 and some of his freedom. His second go-down was for bribery. His third federal indictment led to material for a hit movie, Casino, starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. (The movie character of Vincent Borelli is loosely based on Nick Civella.)  Turns out the Feebs were wiretapping the phone lines of various alleged mobsters and their Kansas City associates when they stumbled over something new. Joe Agusto, head of Tropicana's Follies Bergere Show, was skimming money from the casino and then sending the cash to Nick in Kansas City, Joseph Aiuppa in Chicago, plus to mobsters in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Subsequent indictments and convictions became the background and story for the movie . In the end, the FBI's Operation Strawman showed how high the Kansas City mafia had reached for prominence in the criminal world. Nick died before he could go to trial on this indictment.

Side Note: I worked Kansas City during 1971-74 and had the pleasure of meeting one of the agents who surreptitiously entered some of the buildings owned by local mafia members and installed listening devices on the inside.

28 May 2015

Muscling Your Way Back Into Your Narrative

by Brian Thornton

 We've all been there–going great guns on a project, and then, suddenly REAL LIFE strikes, and drags you (frequently kicking and screaming) out of your narrative, and by the time you've got REAL LIFE tamed and wrestled to the ground, hog-tied and branded, your head's been out of the story for so long you're having trouble picking up where you left off.

After all, it's not a pensieve and we're not all Harry Potter, able to dip our face in it and drop right into the middle of the story.

So what to do in such an instance.

I've recently found myself on the horns of just such a dilemma, so I did what any evolved, 21st century writer does: I crowdsourced it by putting the question out to my Facebook writer friends earlier today.

And I have to say, I was both pleased and heartened by the response, not just from writer friends, but from non-writers as well. So I thought I'd share the responses here.

See below, and if you feel like weighing in with some free advice or just how this reminds you of this or that funny story, please feel free to drop a response into our comments section.

And how, without further ado, here they are:

"Not a writer, but i have an idea. when i read i put myself in the story, i become one of the characters. at the very least, in my mind i am in the room with them. try reading your story from the view point of one of the characters. it might put you back into where the story was headed. or, it might just show you a different direction to take it." 

"This happens to me a lot. I just begin to rewrite it from word one. I don't even consider moving forward for a day or two."

"Not a (fiction) writer, but I would think the process might be similar to reading the story. If there's a long break between reads in the middle of the book, I sometimes have to go back and reread all or a major part, just to get the thread of the book back in my brain. Perhaps going back and re-reading what you wrote will pull you completely through the story you've written, and re-remind you of where you were going with it...."

"I review my notes and outline then I edit the last few things I wrote. I have to do that all the time!"

"Once when I was stuck I wrote a "behind the scenes" scene of my characters talking about me, bitching about the long wait, complaining about plot holes and where they wanted their character arcs to go. It was fun and was, uh, scary what obnoxious opinions they had of me. Good luck!"

"Hire Bob Towne or Johnny Milius for the rewrite, while I grab a gimlet or six at the Brown Derby with Diane Keaton and Jackie Nicholson, then hit the links for a quick eight with Ronnie Reagan. At least that's what I'd do if I were Bob Evans."

"Read and re-read it until I finally get back in the groove."

"Plant ass in chair. Type."

"May have to go in seclusion for inspiration."

"Tough spot. Was recently there myself. But yeah, as has been stated, ass in chair, start typing. It also helped me to review my plot notes, do a re-read and reattach myself to the feelings that got me started in the first place. Ask yourself: Why did I start this mad scheme way back when?"

"I agree---re-read, that's what I did after I brought my old, old word processor online and looked to see if there were any stories I could salvage!"

"Re-read from the beginning. Then plant your ass in the chair and type. You can have some coffee."

"Write a tangent with the characters doing something that is not plot related. Kind of like letting school kids get a recess. It might get you back into the groove and you might get a short story out of it."

"As someone said, reread from the beginning or some other interesting spot. How about mood music?"

"I have to read it from the beginning, typically in one sitting with a notebook handy to make notes. Sometimes I forget what my characters have been up to! ... I just read the posts above mine: Glad to know that retracing the plot from the beginning is something you all do as well!"

"Hemingway said never leave off at the end (of a scene or chapter). Always start up more action then go right to it. Works for me. So does re-reading previously written section."

"I spend a few days being really cranky and kinda sneaking back up on it..."

"Whenever you leave your thread, jot a note of how to reframe and focus in. Survival tactic for to-do lists, dissertations, homework, vacation planning, blah, blah."

"I go back and re-read. If it's been a few days, I go back a few chapters. If it's been a while, I start from the top and read through."

There you have it, folks. The fruit of my crowdsourcing on this issue. Again, if you feel like being heard on the subject, please do leave a comment of your own.

Tune in two weeks from now to see which approaches worked for me, and which didn't. And a sincere thank you to all of my Facebook homies who chimed in with helpful l suggestions!