Extolling The Bonanno Family Values.
By Jeff Smith
JULY 26, 1999: TIME IS A curious thing. Picture the tackiest, ugliest, most blatantly offensive thumb-in-the-eye your asshole of a next-door neighbor could dump in his yard where it glares at you every time you stand at your kitchen sink. Let's say he scored this hell-of-a-deal on some institutional art, and to help close the sale the vendor throws in a cotton trailer to haul it away.
So now your view to the west is filled with a 20-by-8-foot chain-link-sided International orange trailer on three flat and one not tires, filled with 80 percent of a five-member family of fiberglass humanoids, 10 feet tall, except for the kids, and the baby, who is inexplicably missing, holding burgers and mugs of A&W root beer; plus a Big Boy in checkered overalls, who is also holding a double cheeseburger, but no root beer. I cite these examples because I know most of you will recognize these commercial icons from the '60s, the A&W family of outsize trolls, and the Bob's/Shoney's/Whoever Big Boy, and because I used to drive by just such an assemblage of unsightly detritus every time I took the back way into Bisbee, back in the late '70s when I was on the road for the Tucson Citizen. Which was often -- the taking the back way into Bisbee.
At first I was jarred by the sight of these figures standing alongside the highway, where the south gate to Bisbee intersected the road to Naco. Lurid fiberglass in orange and red clashed with the muted earth-tones of the surrounding high desert.
But as the weeks turned to months and then years, the sun softened the sharp, gel-coat colors of the figures, birds perched and pooped on the statues and slowly transformed them into something resembling the world's largest drip-candle that used to be at Pancho's Mexican restaurant in Tucson. A few desperate vines took root at the family's feet and cloaked mom and dad partially in living attire.
After a while I came to look for my roadside nuclear family, and smile when they hove into view. Time had given them -- and me -- the status of natives. I could joke with the regulars at the Copper Queen bar about the olden days before the A&W folks had settled at Naco Junction. And the regulars knew thereby that I wasn't born yesterday.
Like the junk car abandoned in the riverbed for erosion control, or the Airstream trailer parked behind the house across the alley and used for a chicken coop; time and rust and mental adjustment turn ugly to curious to cute to cultural icon.
And so it goes with people you'd rather not have around.
Tucson was not exactly thrilled when Joe Bonanno decided to become a pioneer of the Sunbelt Sunset Years Movement. When the New York Mafia don first invested in our happy hometown, Tucson was a rural outpost of cattlemen, copper miners and convalescents. That was the 1940s, and that's why I'm here. My dad was sent here to die of tuberculosis.
Bonanno, by contrast, came here of his own volition, to avoid dying in New York of lead poisoning.
The late 1960s was a period of American fascination with the Mafia. Law enforcement and the media did yet have the drug war and the wetback thing to obsess over. So the FBI and all the Elliott Ness wannabes among local police and sheriffs promised the public that organized crime was going to be wiped out, within the current term of office.
Tucson was luckier/unluckier than most. We had a certifiable superstar in our midst in the person of Joe Bonanno. Never mind that he was at least semi-retired and that the Mafia family that still bore his name was run by nobody actually named Bonanno. And we had some second-echelon hoods like Peter Notaro and Pete Licavoli.
Bonanno and Notaro and Licavoli were indicted and tried here in federal court, for the kind of minor, unrelated offenses that the feds have always had to resort to, because organized crime is generally organized enough not to get caught doing the serious stuff they make their serious money doing. I covered that trial for the Star back then. Every day I'd show up with my notebook and Joe would show up with a roll of Life-Savers and give me one. We never exchanged a word, but I got comfortable enough with the courtly old gent that one day I asked him if he knew who was the pretty young woman who came to the courtroom every day and sat right behind the defendants' table, close to Pete Notaro. Bonanno looked out the window for a moment, and then slowly looked back, right in my eyes, and said,
"It's a very nice day today. Why don't we keep it that way?"
Chilled my shit, I am not ashamed to admit.
I have had other run-ins with the Bonanno family -- the night at a Salpointe High School dance, when I was there with Steve Carano, a Tucson High buddy of mine, and asked his cousin, Lew, to dance. She was gorgeous and I was full of hormones, and quite surprised to find myself in a shoving match with this dark-haired boy who seemed to have a proprietary interest in Cousin Lew.
"Let it go," Steve advised me, "That's Joe Bonanno Jr. and he's got a mean bunch of friends."
And then there was the night I was in a famous Sicilian/American lounge named Jilly's in Manhattan, pounding shooters of tequila and telling the Life-Savers story to these grey-haired gentlemen at the bar.
"That old Joe can be pretty scary without half trying," I said. And the man on the stool next to me leaned closer and whispered, in an accent remarkably like Mr. Bonanno's years before, suggesting we leave a nice day alone, "Maybe you'd better go home now."
But now Joe Bonanno is 94 years old and dresses like a Connecticut lawyer, and when he goes to the movies the press shows up and asks polite questions and writes stories that sound precisely like the sort of thing they'd write if Barry Goldwater still were alive and went to a private screening about his life.
Joe's even using a cane, like Barry did.
And like Barry drew the grudging admiration even of Democrats, as longevity and candor replaced political potency and killer instinct as the Goldwater signature, Joe Bonanno draws crowds of admirers and friends from unexpected quarters when he makes his infrequent public appearances these days.
Last week his family and friends and well-wishers arrived in cheesy white limos at The Loft on Speedway, to preview a made-for-cable film of Joe Bonanno's life and high crimes. Mr. Bonanno, ever the example of understatement, came in a Cadillac sedan. And he was treated with respect and honor. Respect and honor that sustained itself through delays for a malfunctioning projector, through the film, and through dinner at a fine Foothills restaurant afterward.
This, for a professional life of stealing and killing and trafficking in illegal pleasures of the flesh.
This is proof of the healing, beautifying effects of time.
And evidence of the ironic similarities and contrasts the public sees between former crime boss Joe Bonanno and former governor Fife Symington. Both have made careers of ignoring and violating their society's laws in order to enrich themselves and their families. Both have excused themselves, to themselves, because within their strata of culture and class their illicit behavior is tacitly approved.
But one is honest about it and the other isn't.
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