Al Capone 'Scarface', Avon Barksdale, fact/fiction, Film, Gangster, gangster films as outsider art, HBO crime drama, James Cagney, little boy, Organized crime, Radio Raheem, Stringer Bell, The Sopranos, The Wire, Tony Soprano, tough guys
The first time it happened there was no warning, just a sharp crack, then a dull shock as the fist slammed into his cheek. It felt like being hit by a wrecking ball, not that he’d know what that was like, it was more about the image and what was happening to his cheek now, the delayed reaction followed by a level of pain that ought to have been more unfamiliar than it actually was. He felt sure some of the brickwork had come loose and checked the inside of his mouth with a frozen tongue. But there was no real damage, no stray enamel, and he realised then that this was no wrecking ball. It was barely even loaded, the man in front of him largely indifferent as he scratched his vest with a giant southpaw. No, this was just a quick warning shot, in case he was thinking of making the same mistake again. The huge man with the baleful eyes, who was also kin, sloped back into the adjacent room where he’d been trying to sleep. And the boy was left holding his face but making sure not to cry, as the man, his uncle, had promised him ‘two more’ if there were tears.
It felt harsh. All he’d been attempting were some basic ball skills indoors, keepy-uppy, which would make it easier to face the fiends in the playground back at school. But it was one of those days when the ball kept spooling away off a foot, a thigh, once even a knee, and the tap tapping on the wall eventually roused his uncle. Stupid really, and he should have checked first to see whether the room was empty, but even so, it was a bit harsh.
No point dwelling on it though. Luckily no bruises, and as far as he could tell no after effects either.
The doughnut tasted good, sugarcoating his tongue, hipping him to the prospect of its sweet, jam centre. And though he couldn’t really make out anything much beyond the hot water, it was exciting to be washing it all down with tea. This was a ‘big people’ drink, and there he was, sat at the counter, legs so short they still couldn’t reach the floor, blowing at the steam rising from his styrofoam cup just like he’d seen the adults do.
His uncle had made a point of taking him out for a walk, and once the boy had worked out he wasn’t in any more trouble, he’d enjoyed it. For a man who spoke very little English it was surprising how many people his uncle seemed to know, passing by doorways or generally just on the street. They mostly appeared keen to say hello and pass on respects but not linger, and one man in particular seemed very eager to get away, but with a promise to his uncle to get him ‘that thing’.
When they got to the bakery, his uncle had made sure to tell everyone, in his faltering English, that this was his nephew. And he wore a rare smile as he treated the boy to a doughnut and some tea. At one point, bored of waiting, the boy turned around to see whether the treats were ready, and caught a glimpse instead of the lady on the till fishing something out of her apron and handing it to his uncle. But he paid no mind. Today, after all, he was one of the big people.
As far back as I remember I always wanted to be a gangster.
What is it with wiseguys? Has to be more to it than just the flouting of the rules – the parking in front of hydrants, strongarming of rivals, the velvet rope treatment at the neighbourhood joint. The threads, the swagger, the women. Ah, fuck it–
One day…one day some of the kids from the neighbourhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was out of respect.
Perhaps our fascination with gangsters can be retraced through earlier mythologies, particularly Stateside ones, of rugged outsiders, making their mark on a hostile environment and doing so, impressively, with a total disregard for social norms. While making a lot of money.
Hence, former Sicilian mafiosi arriving in New Orleans alongside regular Italian labourers in the 1860s and largely taking over that city’s vice trade within the space of just 20 years. Profiteering going hand in hand with promiscuity with the unexpected result that it was the Big Easy’s gangsters who wound up championing the live jazz performances popular with the disreputable clients in their brothels at precisely the same moment that ‘respectable’ Americans were shunning this art form en masse as a black and criminal ‘jungle’ music. Likewise, in Chicago and New York, many of the earliest jazz clubs were controlled by gangsters like Al Capone and, like ‘Scarface’, they made a point of paying professional wages to the mainly black musicians who performed in their establishments, many of whom had previously lived in poverty. Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Ethel Waters were thus among the notables who effectively had organized crime to thank for their first proper paychecks.
Equally, the Genovese and Gambino crime families invested heavily in gay bars throughout the 1930s such that by the 1950s, most gay bars in New York, including the now famous Stonewall Inn, were owned by the Mafia. These were also some of the most racially diverse venues anywhere in the city, and many of the mafiosi who managed these spots were themselves gay. For a decade after the seminal 1969 police raid on the Stonewall, the Genovese clan funded the annual gay pride parades in New York, where the manager of the Stonewall, a hood named Ed ‘the skull’ Murphy, proudly rode the route every year in an open-top car wearing a crown and sash bearing the legend, ‘the Mayor of Christopher Street.’
As far back as 1948, film critic, Robert Warshow, musing on the public’s fascination with the great gangster films of the previous two decades, settled upon the recurring theme of ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’. He suggested that in the absence of solid details about the gangster’s rationale, ‘his activity becomes a kind of pure criminality; he hurts people.’ And of us, the viewer, he had this to say. ‘We gain the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster’s sadism and then seeing it turned against the gangster himself.’
But none of this should really come as any surprise. We know this already, or at least we ought to, since we’ve been complicit all along. Ever since the curtain fell on the silent era and reopened to the thrilling chatter of tommy guns wielded by bespoke tailored hoodlums, audiences have been captivated by the exploits of urban gangsters, depicted as living fast and often dying faster on unforgiving city streets. Effectively from that point on – the birth of the ‘talkies’ – we’ve been dining out on another’s daring even as we falter through our own humdrum for reasons every bit as mundane.
Yet it can’t all be down to reasons of risk aversion if our lives as consumerist frenzy are any kind of benchmark.
Snouts in the trough at all other times – sub-prime, credit boom, anyone? – but a sudden coquettishness when the deals go south and the inevitable social consequences become apparent far beyond the private/public grief of homelessness, bankruptcy, despair. There too for all to see in the low level skirmishing of our everyday, where so much of that anger congeals into random acts of unkindness. And yes, we become suddenly shy as flesh drips claret, particularly when it happens near us – the nimbyism of hiding behind a paper, or another set of priorities (what social psychologists have described as ‘the bystander effect’), while some poor sod gets battered on the adjacent platform, or on a bus, or across a vast swathe of our degraded public sphere. Unless, of course, the violence is graphic-novel stretched, a la Frank Miller, or so cartoonish that even a thug-pumped minstrel like Fiddy mightn’t die tryin’, more’s the pity.
So where the early Warner Bros. classics – The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (1931) – were touted as ‘machine-gun operas’, it’s unlikely posterity will look back with any great fondness at such latter-day masterpieces as ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’ ; or indeed at any number of gangsta-lite idiocies spawned by the hyper-capitalist obsessions that at some point in our late 20th, early 21st decline, overtook what used to be hip hop. Films so bad they ought to be ringfenced, like toxic debt, in a separate consumer ‘portal’ specially conjured for sub-prime celluloid.
But that’s not to say the gangster or urban outlaw has receded from our cultural imagination. Far from it. In fact all that’s really happened is that he’s skipped nimbly across media, with much the balletic grace that trained dancer, James Cagney, used to bring to his tough guy roles, whether avoiding bullets on the corner or subsequently squaring up to his adversaries on streets wracked by the last great Depression. These days of course the ‘dark corners of the American social experiment’ have moved away from the speakeasies and into the niche, post-industrial environs of prime, subscription fare on HBO.
We seem to like it that way, pumped straight into our domestic.
Groundbreaking crime dramas like The Wire or The Sopranos have brilliantly capitalised on the timely assumption that ‘we’ are not the average viewer. They have zeroed in on the narcissism of our consumptive habits, as we thrill to the snarl of The Wire head honcho, David Simon and his uncompromising mission statement: ‘Fuck the average viewer’.
In their complex, morally ambiguous staging of late American anxieties, these dramas have found a willing berth alongside our new-fangled voyeurism. Over the course of a decade and more they have turned us into long-form addicts, craving the next hit of grown-up storytelling lest we end up climbing the walls like so many lesser fiends, or worse still, find our sensibilities bracketed with those of the average viewer. Like Mr Creosote, we seem unable to resist when presented with even a ‘wafer thin’ plot development, such that one episode quickly becomes two, then three or more and before you know it, the dawn chorus has arrived and still not so much as a glimpse of Bunk’s Nadine.
But we plough on precisely because we’re not ‘the average viewer’ though our narcissistic desire to consume this ‘product’ along with the potent myths it indexes – of ‘coming up from the streets’, climbing out of the ruins – doubtless leaves us open to the charge of a certain kind of poverty porn. Due South in our own minds, scrambled by these new (yet very old) circuits of desire for what lies beneath. The underside, the psychotic underbelly of…no, let’s not name it yet.
Perhaps it’s because, deep down, we would rather see gangsters as belonging to the outsider art of film or visual culture than to that humdrum, the self-same one in which we devour these fables, faux-wrestling with a conscience which popped out a while back to put the kettle on. Which is why, whilst no one is arguing that The Wire isn’t ‘the shit’, it still speaks to an ‘elsewhere’. Lets us off the hook a little too easily; allows us to look, and dine, and quote, and fall in love with that version of ourselves that we never really were; and marvel at how Stringer’s Hackney roots feeds the voyeuristic myth in all of us, never mind that ‘the life’, as depicted in ‘Bodymore’, is so pitifully limited, or that ‘Black’ – that other presence, beyond the ken of the marketing men – was in retreat long before Stringer. Some might argue it’s been that way ever since the cops put the death clasp on poor Radio Raheem back in that hazy, Brooklyn summer. (Unless of course you count as ‘progress’ the ascription of ‘black’ as lazy commercial shorthand, manna for the madmen.) And if not right then, with the wall coming down in Berlin, then maybe the bit just after, the ethics choked out of a Bed Stuy equation along with the unfortunate, twitching hulk of R.R. A bad moment whose consequences we’re still living with, when the bling took over and the decline really set in (a shift not lost on String, then just plain Idris and presumably then too still in Hackney.)
And yeah, sure, we’re all Tony, whipping the corrupt local politician with his belt; and we’ve all got a Russian goomah tucked away in some stray corner of south London. And if the only Dennis Wise we’ve ever really known isn’t Cutty at all, but a pint sized homegrown thug, ‘way down in the hole’ something else entirely is possible. And the clippings and the whackings and the sit-downs and reasonings feel so true for those precious 50 minutes or so that the average ‘hit’ lasts. Because our lives are epic under this huge London sky and like String codifying ‘the wealth of nations’, we are the CEOs of our own drama, and the one thing we’ll never even countenance, less still admit, is how novels were hewn from less, and what we’re really doing is placing a long form shroud over our own neurosis.
Through the cracks in the joinery something audible, piercing the meatballs and the carbonara, the re-ups and the operettas. A little boy who once got his cheek smashed, standing in the draft, bigger now, and he’s got something to tell you, something very grown up. That’s why he’s nursing a cuppa and reading from a script:
“These things that you love so much are really about you; about the violence of your own constitution. You love these outlaws everywhere but here,” and he pauses for a moment, taps his heart to stress the point, “Because here is never here. It can’t be, else the whole sorry façade comes tumbling down. But I’m telling you, because I know, it’s the ones who are already in here that you should fear the most. I once read in some fancy book that it’s ‘outlaws in the guise of a domestic citizenry who convert life into myth and image by projecting society’s fears back to it as style.’ It took me a long time to memorise that, and even longer to figure it out. But you know what, I finally think I know what it means. If I’ve got this right, that makes us the frontier and psychosis our signature. Yeah, that’s right, US, motherfucker! So thank you for hearing me out and, oh yeah, one last thing. Fuck all of you!”
Now we can revel in our corruption. Flirt upstairs between Avon and Stringer, corner and product, then watch it all over till the image is ‘learned’. And don’t let Hackney, or anywhere else in the postcode lottery, tell you any different. If it’s a lie…
That’s right, baby, especially then, well, you know the rest.