A grim and compelling book about Codella’s times as a cop in the Alphabet City neighborhood, and his life growing up in Canarsie.
An incidental, fascinating, and disturbing anecdote about one of his Canarsie neighbors.
For a while when I was a kid, the house next door to us was occupied by an off-the-boat Sicilian named Paulo and his family. Like my grandfather, Paulo had an old country ease and pride that showed in the way he did little things. Just strolling down the sidewalk or watering his lawn he had a kind of swaggering walk—shoulders back, stomach out, feet angled out to either side in a reverse pigeon toe. No one actually born in Brooklyn in the twentieth century walked like that. Paulo was as Old World as grappa.
Around the house Paulo was a happy-go-lucky guy—always whistling to himself, singing, narrating what he was doing in the mixture of hyper-speed Sicilian and slow English that earned native guys like him the behind-the-back handle “zips.” He loved kids and played with me sometimes when I was young. Paulo had two daughters and for a while I guess I was a stand-in for the son that he probably always wanted but never got. We played a game together that Paulo called “focu” (Sicilian for “fire”) that mostly involved us chasing each other around the outside of our semidetached houses. But Paulo had an edge. He was always fiercely competitive in the checkers games we had on his porch, and quick to loudly announce he had beaten his eight-year-old neighbor. When the mood struck him, he would go around to the back of the house where his daughters kept a rabbit hutch, remove one of the bunnies from the cage, snap its neck in a single shake of his arm, and deposit it on his kitchen counter. Lunch. It didn’t rattle him one bit.
If his wife spoke a word of English or any other language she never felt obliged to show it. She was always in black, scowling like she was born in mourning. Their daughters were beautiful girls. Olive skin, deep brown eyes, long dark hair like burnished mahogany—they were the apple of their father’s eye and the object of desire of every guy in school. Paulo ran his home like a castle where those girls were concerned. It was like they lived on the right side of the tracks and the tracks ran around the outside of the house. When his daughters were done at school and their retail jobs afterward, they went home and they stayed home. Selling lemonade together on the corner of Avenue M when we were little was one thing, but once we all got older, no amount of hormones in the world would’ve made me ask either of them out. It was just understood. I pictured Paulo and the rabbits.
Eventually, Paulo bought his family a big place on the water in Mill Basin and they moved away. How a roofer could afford to move into a five-bedroom home with an in-ground pool was the subject of some very quiet talk among the people he left behind in Canarsie. You really only had to look at his Mill Basin neighbors—made guys, mob lawyers, Canarsie crew stars and their families to start forming ideas. Paulo, the rumor went, had a side business, closer to what he did to those rabbits than what he did with a hammer on construction sites. The word was that he’d been imported from Sicily to use that skill on someone who pissed someone else off. The money was good, the work didn’t rattle him and he decided to stay. He sent for his wife in Sicily and started a family in Canarsie.
By the time I was working in Alphabet City, Paulo had achieved what he set out to do. He married his eldest daughter off to an Italian guy who had passed inspection in a huge wedding staged in a rented tent in their sprawling backyard by the water in Mill Basin. Paulo installed his daughter and her new husband into a similar house just down the street, and bought her a wedding boutique to operate while making her papa proud and her mother hint at a smile with a dozen or so grandkids. That was the plan, anyway.
One morning in the late eighties a man walked into the boutique. If you saw him come through the door you probably wouldn’t remember much about him—what he wore, how tall he was, what he looked like, other than a pair of dark glasses covering a lot of his face and a bright smile he occasionally flashed below them. The man browsed the glass cases displaying crystal and bone china, his gloved hands clasped behind his back, then flipped through a sample book of wedding registry patterns and sets until he and Paulo’s daughter were both alone in the store. When they had the place to themselves he locked the door, pulled out a butcher knife and began stabbing her. Paulo’s daughter was petite but she was her father’s child to her last breath. She fought and twisted against the knife, tried to push the man away, tore at his face, yelled for help, and demanded to live, but the man just kept pushing the knife blade in and out of her until she was silent and still. The medical examiner logged over eighty stab wounds in her.
Detectives found nothing missing from the store, the register, or Paulo’s daughter’s purse except her car keys. A short while later they discovered her cream Mercedes ragtop parked across the street from Paulo’s old house—the one next door to my family’s old place—a home neither Paulo nor his family had set foot in for more than seven years.
I was out in Canarsie at the Six-nine Precinct interviewing a robbery perp a few years after it happened. Out of curiosity I took a look at the investigating officer’s case file on my old neighbor’s homicide investigation. The file itself was a mess—badly organized and typed up—a textbook example of sloppy police work. I could handle that but I couldn’t handle the pictures. I knew her, I knew the store, and knew that no one anywhere needs to die of eighty stab wounds or see what that looks like. According to the Six-nine’s detectives, despite the blood on the counters, the carpet, the door to the store, in Paulo’s daughter’s Mercedes, and on the sidewalk, there was only one partial fingerprint successfully lifted. The FBI database supposedly identified it as belonging to a Sicilian national, whereabouts unknown.
The grieving father offered a huge reward to anyone who could identify the killer. He even hired a famous private detective to do his own investigation, but the case remains unsolved. I don’t have any more actual insight into what happened than anyone else. But I do have a feeling. It feels like a message. An anonymous Sicilian assassin cuts the thing you love most out of your life and leaves a reminder about it a few yards from your former house before shifting into park, stepping out onto the sidewalk, and vanishing? What that says to me is no matter where you go, remember where you came from. No matter what you do, remember that there’s someone you’re doing it for, and doing it to.