Cartels

September 3, 2011

These days, I have garbage and economic cartels on my mind.  And Wall Street, of course.

In New York, the Department of Sanitation picks up residential garbage, but commercial waste is disposed of by private carters.  In the 1950s, the Department still picked up commercial waste on residential streets, i.e. streets that mixed apartments and businesses, but they discontinued that policy which opened up a vast market for private carters.  The Mob saw a great opportunity and moved in with force.

Until the late 1990s, the Mob controlled the collection and disposal of commercial waste with a cartel that all businesses were required to join.  Refusal was not a viable option.  It was, as they said, “A beautiful thing.”  Recalcitrant trash haulers were intimidated, firebombed, or beaten to a pulp.  Members of the club charged businesses exorbitant rates:  three, four, five, ten times what the cost would be in a market with competitive bids.  If any business protested, mom and pop grocer or Fortune Five Hundred multi-national, the answer was the same:  “Pay up!  Who youse gonna call?”

If a carter got out of line and actually submitted a bid for service that was below the cartel price, the Mob came down hard.  If the carter actually won the job, taking the “stop” from a cartel member, howls of protest were heard:  “He stole my stop!”  Restitution would be paid, or the stop would be forfeited.  The heavies in the cartel would try to set the rebel straight.  Submitting low bids did nobody any good.  It only ‘educated’ the customer that the price structure was simple gouging.  “And when that happens, who wins?  The customer wins”  Can’t have that!  It was the American way.  As the gangsters liked to say, “Hey, it’s a free country!”

I learned all this from a book called Takedown:  The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire.  It’s an in-depth recounting of a three-year NYC undercover operation that resulted in the complete destruction of the mob cartel.  It began by chance, when a detective interviewed an honest carter who just wouldn’t knuckle under:  some thugs walked in and asked who he was.  The carter, thinking fast, and knowing that being caught talking to a cop was a death sentence, said “That’s my cousin Danny.”  Thus was Rick Cowan, Irish NYC detective transformed into Danny Benedetto, member of a large Italian-American family that had been in the wastepaper business for generation.  He carried a wire and worked himself into the cartel for years, living a double life that I cannot imagine.  As Danny, he paid enormous amounts of extortion to the Mob, and got it all recorded.  The principals, among the Alphonse “Allie Shades” Malangone at the top, were convicted, fined, imprisoned, and debarred from the industry in perpetuity.

Reading this book, I reflected on the similarities between the mob cartel and the wall street cartel.  They both have beautiful things going.  Wall Street buys the politicians, makes the rules, comes up with derivatives that serve no purpose other than to generate massive fees, produces junk mortgages, and it’s all legal.  Transparency is anathema them all.  But what really got me, was a certain catch phrase.  When a cartel member was bumped from an account by an honest low bid, the cry was,  you have to make me whole! That is, pay me extortion to compensate me for loosing my good deal.  I thought I heard that during the Bear-Stearns debacle.

“In this room are people who have built this firm and lost a lot, our fortunes,” one Bear executive said to Mr. Dimon with anger in his voice. “What will you do to make us whole?”

After the takedown, prices for commercial waste collection in NYC fell by 40%, and in some cases much more.  The service vacuum left by the exit of the mob outfits was filled by big companies coming in, and they promptly began to raise their prices.  As a friend of mine who is an expert said on an NPR production about the topic a few years ago, prices are nearly back where they were under the cartel.  And the carter who started it all remarked, “The only difference between the Majors and the Boys is that the Majors won’t really kill you.”  Well…that’s a pretty big difference even so.

This is an excellent book to read if you want to know what the Mob is really like.

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Le deuxième souffle

May 15, 2011

Another film by Meville (the title translates as The Second Wind, as in another chance) with some new turns by the cast in Army of Shadows.  This one is about the world of gangsters, but its tone is not much different from that of his drama of the French WWII resistance, and the theme of honor and loyalty to comrades is important to both.

Lino Ventura plays Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda, a very tough thug whom we meet at the opening in the midst of a silent jailbreak.  One man falls to his death:  no one bats an eye.  The only thing that gets Gu excited is the notion that he might be a rat, and the not-too-bright police chief, Fardiano, spreads the story that Gu informed in order to drive him crazy, and maybe to talk.  Eventually, Gu exacts a terrible revenge that includes a signed statement that he did not inform on his mates to be delivered to the newspapers.  His honor among fellow thieves is his

life.  Even the Machiavellian police inspector, Commissaire Brot, grants him his due – after nabbing him  – by allowing the letters to be given to the newspaper.  Brot is always just a little closer to his prey than we expect in a big league Parisian policeman.

The glamor in the story radiates from Manouche, whom we, or at least I, thought was a love interest of Gu’s at first.  She is brought to his hideout for an elegant dinner, for which another thug brings Gu the proper attire.  They embrace on meeting, but we don’t see their faces, so it’s not obvious if their lips are meeting.  Most of the summaries I see of this film assume that they are engaged, or lovers, but later in the story, she is introduced as Gu’s sister.  During dinner, she says,  “We’ve been crooks since we were kids (les gosses)”.  Melville certainly is intrigued by mystified sibling relationships – a key element of the plot of Army of Shadows.

Here’s a post from another blog where the writer observes:

Manouche ( Christine Fabréga ) runs a chic Parisian restaurant, she is very concerned when she learns of Gus’s escape. Is she his girlfriend? An ex-lover? No, she is in fact his sister and their relationship is an intriguing and unique one.

In Melville by Rui Nogueria, Melville says that in French gangster slang “sister” is a term for girlfriend.  I believe Manouche is really Gu’s sister but the implied incest adds a compelling dimension to their relationship and Melville says “If I’ve let it be understood that Manouche is Gu’s sister, it’s because of the Enfants Terribles part of me- or rather because of the great homonyms Pierre or the Ambiguities.”

Jean-Pierre Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach) using one of  Melville’s lesser-known novels to dispel ambiguity – what a rabbit hole to go down!

The film is based on a novel by the author who wrote the story of Le Trou.


Caine/Carter

November 30, 2009

Michael Caine as the always fashionably dressed Jack Carter, a monstrous thug in the remarkably nasty, and very suspenseful, Get Carter.