Growing up, my buddies in the neighborhood had nicknames like “Scoop” and “Stretch” and “Lefty” and “Stick.” Each one of those were given because of talents on the local baseball field.
But some years back, the world was introduced to the likes of “Lumpy” and “Mush” and “Jello” and “Meatball.”
Sounds like something out of a television sitcom — maybe a spin-off from the old “Leave It To Beaver” series, or items on a menu. But no.
While channel surfing earlier this week, I happened to settle on a kind of “Remember When?” show on the Discovery channel that focused on a roundup of some very bad men whose only use for a baseball bat might be to crack some kneecaps.
Each of these guys — along with about 125 others — were arrested in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida in what was being hailed as the largest mob bust in recent U.S. history.
But come on, how seriously can you take a hit man with the nickname of “Jello?”
“Listen here, pal, if youse don’t cough up the 50 large, I’m gonna sen’ ova Jello and youse can jes fuggetaboutit.”
My first thought would be … strawberry or raspberry?
Or how about this …
“You don’t wanna mess wit us, cuz if youse do, you’ll be gettin’ a visit from Lumpy one of dees days.”
As the texters say, LOL.
Apparently, though, the men behind these nicknames could be pretty violent. They were pals with guys carrying nicknames like “The Bull” and “The Claw” and “Jack the Whack” (now THOSE are nicknames that will get your attention) — all of whom were members of big-time crime families like Genovese, Gambino, Colombo, Bonanno, Luchese and others.
I’ve never met an actual Mafia type, that I know of, though I did have a brief run-in with a bully in the fifth grade by the name of Michael Cerra, also known as “Jingles” because he would want your lunch money — which, back then, was about 35 cents and jingled in your pocket. But Cerra was the classic case of a bully backing down when confronted by someone who pushed back.
That someone WASN’T me.
There may actually be a good reason for the fact that we had nicknames growing up. Being raised in the Upstate New York area of Binghamton, there was a strong Italian influence that often perpetuated stories — perhaps only legends — about the Mafia. It also gave us great pizza and terrific nicknames.
When I was about 13 months old, the infamous Apalachin Meeting was held a mere 10 miles away from my neighborhood at the home of mobster Joseph “The Barber” Barbara. That little get-together attracted about 100 underworld bosses — all with nicknames, including Frank “The Prime Minister” Costello, Stefano “The Undertaker” Magaddino and Salvatore “Vicious” Trivalino. Uninvited to the party, but showing up nonetheless, was a multitude of law enforcement officers.
There was a 1959 movie made about the Apalachin Meeting of mafiosos titled “Inside the Mafia” starring Cameron Mitchell, Grant Richards and Robert Strauss. It’s pretty good. But as far as TV and movies go, I’ll bypass the likes of “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos,” settling instead on “The Road to Perdition” with Tom Hanks, Jude Law and Paul Newman as the best Mafia movie. Fuggetaboutit.
Anyway, back to the more recent mob bust.
One would think — if you’ve watched any of those mob movies over the years — that these guys all but slept in fine Italian suits. But when ol’ “Lumpy” and “The Claw” and their pals were arrested, most were wearing wrinkled jeans or sweatpants with T-shirts that barely covered their pasta-filled “Jello” bellies.
I could almost hear …
“If youse don’t give us the lettuce youse owe, then youse gonna get a lit-el visit from a man in a rumpled sweatsuit by the name of Meatball. And youse ain’t gonna enjoy what he has in mind fer ya.”
Can’t you just see that line in a movie?
I don’t know what became of Michael Cerra, but there’s a chance he was in training way back in the mid-1960s. He’d be about 60 now — prime age to be a “boss.” I just hope he’s been given a better nickname than “Jingles” by now, like Michael “The Lunch Munch” Cerra.
Maybe I should send him 35 cents.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-506-3023 or [email protected]