The mob and much more…

Walk into any big box bookstore these days and, chances are, you’ll be able to put your hands on a dozen or so organized crime novels in less than 10 minutes. Life with the mob is the newest darling of popular fiction in America.

If you like your mob fiction with a healthy dose of weirdness, though, you’re going to have to head for the paperback aisle of the nearest supermarket. With any luck, you’ll find a copy of Tom Piccirilli’s “Headstone City” (2006, Bantam Dell, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 302 Pages).

headstone_city

Piccirilli’s tale of mob violence, loyalty and persistent dead people revolves around ex-con Brooklyn cabdriver Johnny Danetello, who grew up with the once-powerful Monticelli crime family. Unfortunately, the Monti gang has taken out a contract on his life because teenage mob princess Angelina Monticelli died from a drug overdose in his cab while he was rushing her to a hospital.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

The tale seems pretty mundane as far as organized crime, vengeance and dead mob princesses go, but it’s anything but ordinary when you consider the fact that Danetello has the ability to communicate with the dead – his parents, the aforementioned Angelina, deceased mobster JoJo Tormino and tormented neighborhood grocer Aaron Fielding – whether he wants to or not.

Johnny developed this talent in his youth shortly after he and mob scion Vinny Monticelli tried to crash a stolen car through a police barricade and both were thrown through the windshield of the auto.

Vinny, too, picked up some unusual skills as a result of the crash. He can predict the future – sometimes – and has the ability to periodically slip between three different planes of reality.

Vinny now seems to be part of the mob family’s dedicated efforts to exterminate Johnny, but the two-fisted cabdriver proves difficult to kill, even when he regularly strolls into the mob’s favorite clubs and the mansion of once-powerful Don Pietro Monticelli.

Complicating Johnny’s threatened life are a cast of characters worthy of a Federico Fellini epic. There’s lovable Uncle Phil Guerra, a retired cop who probably killed Johnny’s father. And Grandma Lucia, a 78-year-old bingo fanatic with pink hair who delights in cleaning Johnny’s trusty .38 revolver and is no slouch when it comes to matter-of-factly clearing a room of troublemakers with a pump shotgun.

The cast of characters also includes Glory Bishop, a B-movie actress who achieved temporary stardom as the terrorist-baiting heroine of the action flick “Under Heaven’s Canopy”; and slow-talking Daniel Ezekiel Cogan, an FBI agent with a hee-haw smile and a cousin named Cooter.

Toss in a half-dozen steely-eyed hitmen and Johnny finds himself with an increasingly complicated social calendar – one that could get him killed.

Will our star-crossed cabdriver live to talk with the dead again? You can find the answer for less than six bucks in the paperback book aisle of your favorite supermarket. Pick up some cannoli while you’re at it…

Originally published April 9, 2006

Another sinister conspiracy…

My bedside telephone was ringing shortly after 2 o’clock one dark morning last week and I didn’t even have to use my psychic powers to determine that the caller undoubtedly was my old ’60s sidekick Sapper.

Forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentifiable herbs in Bolinas in 1968, Sapper is subject to periodic brainstorms and likes to share them with the world between midnight and sunrise.

“Lissen up, bro – I’m about to unveil to you, and you alone, one of the most fiendish conspiracies ever foisted upon the American people,” Sapper intoned ominously. “It’s all about Perky the Duck.”

“Uh…” I responded.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about Perky the Duck, Mister Pulsebeat-of-the-Nation journalist?” Sapper asked impatiently.

I initially drew a blank, but then sleepily remembered the tale of a duck who was shot by a hunter and tossed into his refrigerator, only to be found alive by the hunter’s wife two days later and rushed to a veterinary clinic, where it actually died on the operating table but later was revived.

“Yeah, yeah. Nice story. G’night …” I responded less-than-enthusiastically.

“Oh, maaaaaan. You really don’t get it, do you? Put your thinking cap on, brainiac. This isn’t about the duck, it’s about Vice President Dick Cheney running roughshod over the American people again,” Sapper said, enunciating each syllable as if talking to a backward third- grader.”

It took me awhile to put it all together, bro, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming,” Sapper explained. “Sometime in mid-January, Dick Cheney managed to elude his Secret Service keepers to do a little duck hunting. As is his habit, I’m pretty sure Dick managed to wing three lawyers, a bus driver and O.J. Simpson before he grazed a passing duck.

“Uh-huh…”

Another hunter mistakenly picked up Cheney’s duck and took it home, leaving Cheney with no proof that he’d actually been hunting ducks and not the entire defensive line of the Miami Dolphins, two exotic dancers and an ice cream vendor,” Sapper continued.

“The bird in question, I tell you, is Perky the Duck, and the heroic life-saving measures had nothing to do with saving a wounded duck and everything to do with saving Dick Cheney’s reputation as a skilled hunter.”

I probably should have thrown in the towel and hung up, but I couldn’t resist asking Sapper what kind of evidence he had.

“It’s called dee-ductive reasoning, pal. When you examine all the elements of this mystery, the diabolical machinations of Dick Cheney hold the only possible explanation. It’s like Sherlock Holmes said, ‘When you’ve eliminated the unlikely, the impossible is probable,’ ” Sapper replied.

“Now it’s up to you, bro. Take that ball and run with it. Put it on the front page and tell America what’s really going on,” Sapper concluded, for the first time in years hanging up before I tossed the phone across the room.

Much as I’d like to put this on the front page and the Associated Press wire, I really don’t think I can measure up to the magnitude of the story. Maybe I’ll just e-mail it to Katie Couric …

Originally published February 18, 2007

Welcome to S’lano now start paddling

Weather certainly is, ah, robust here, isn’t it?” a bewildered visitor to Solano County remarked to me following the region’s most recent spate of torrential rains.

“Hope you can swim, pilgrim,” I growled, reflecting back on all the times I’d found myself facing unexpected flood waters in fabled S’lano County, where men are men and women look downright fetching in hip-waders. This is, after all, the one California county where one can throw a Bass Festival just about any time between September and April and probably haul in a good catch, even if the fishing is done from an Interstate 80 overpass.

Unfortunately, Solanoans sometimes get unnecessarily tangled up in definitions when it comes to explaining the only two seasons we experience here (drought and flood). And one of the perennial problems we face in S’lano County is explaining the term “100-year storm,” because time is just a little quirkier here than anywhere else and so is the weather.

On its surface, the designation would seem to be absurdly simple. The first thing that comes to mind is a storm of such unrelenting intensity that it’s only likely to occur every 100 years or so. The is the storm your great-grandfather use to refer to as “The big ‘un of ought-six.”

Old-timers regularly recall such storms not in terms of years, but in terms of conditions that were encountered.

“Ayuh, Granddad said that was the storm that put the cows in the apricot trees and made poor ol’ Teddy Roosevelt swear off sour mash forever…”

And in any place other than S’lano County, the concept of a significant storm coming around every 100 years or so would probably be at least marginally believable. Here, however, 100-year storms seem to show up with alarming frequency.

As one resident asked following the county’s last disastrous deluge “How can it be a 100-year storm if the last 100-year storm was five years ago?”

Indeed…

Sadly, the newspaper’s city editor recently tried to explain 100-year storms to our readers. She should be all better and out of counseling any day now…

Part of the problem lies in how one defines such a storm. One widely accepted definition of “100-year storm” is any storm that has a 1 percent or less chance of occurring in one’s general vicinity in any given calendar year.

You might think that such a tempest might be better termed a “1-percent storm,” but who said weather terminology had to make a lot of sense?

The other problem lies in the very nature of S’lano County. Things are just different here. One man’s century is another man’s long weekend and the weather hereabouts is like one of those hangovers that you can’t seem to shake no matter how much aspirin, tomato juice and Tabasco sauce you ingest at the end of the aforementioned weekend.

Here, a 100-year storm may be better defined as any storm that might recur repeatedly and for no readily apparent reason over any 100-year period. Thus, last year’s 100-year storm might be repeated as this year’s 100-year storm, or this month’s 100-year storm or “Whoaaaaaa duuuuude, here it comes again!”

And it doesn’t get any stormier than that, amigos…

Originally published January 22, 2006

Adventure, intrigue and Dumpster diving

Dumpsters – don’t ya just love ’em?

A reader recently wrote to inform me that rummaging through neighborhood trash is much, much more than a pastime for inquisitive children with time – and possibly old coffee grounds – on their hands.

There is, in fact, a nationwide fraternity of Master Dumpster Divers who have taken sidewalk scavenging to a new level.

They’ve even got their own Web site, and it’s definitely worth a look. Diving through Dumpsterworld.com online is almost as exciting as leaping into the real thing out behind your favorite strip mall.

At this Web site you’ll find Dumpster-diving tips as well as tantalizing lists of startling Dumpster discoveries, links to preferred dive sites and a forum wherein seasoned Dumpster divers can reminisce about their triumphs.

This is so much cooler than some boring old National Geographic story about diving for lost Spanish treasure ships in the Sargasso Sea…

For novices, there’s a forum site that will enable less experienced divers to identify hard-to-classify Dumpster finds.

Have you found a sousaphone or an antique Hungarian fire extinguisher? Chances are, a helpful soul at Dumpsterworld.com will have the answer for you. They might even offer to buy it…

There’s also a place on the site where successful divers can proudly post photos of their greatest finds or, perhaps, their favorite local Dumpsters.

And if you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of any Dumpster divers in your community, Dumpsterworld.com can help through its friendly get-acquainted forum: “Meet up with fellow DDer’s and dive with them in your town!”

Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this site is the “Dumpster Diving Finds” section. Readers will quickly learn that there’s more to Dumpsters than moldy stir-fry and beady-eyed rodents who could use a bath.

Five-star Master of the Dumpster Jeff, for example, recently wrote of retrieving a dozen old fishing poles (which he plans to donate to a local Cub Scout pack), two log-splitting wedges and a small load of copper pipe suitable for making wind chimes.

(Add those two log-splitting wedges to the copper pipe and you’ve got one helluva wind chime…).These items, however, represent but a minor score for the enterprising Jeff. An earlier Dumpster diving adventure netted him a 12-volt car vacuum, a bagful of brand new cabinet knobs, a compass keychain, garden hose repair parts, a dozen white roses, a big bouquet of lilies and two vases.

This is a whole lot cooler than my long-ago college days when we used to raid the Dumpster behind McDonald’s to collect recently discarded burgers for our signature culinary creation, “Big Mac Stroganoff.”

Although the ambience is crummy, the legality’s questionable and the hours are decidedly irregular, it’s clear that these parking lot entrepreneurs have discovered their own retail rubbish paradise.

Remember the motto: “Dive like no one’s watching!”

Originally published January 16, 2006

The mustache knows all…

Wandering aimlessly through the dimly lit corridors of the old Solano County Hall of Justice not too long ago, I ran into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen for several months.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed that his once-aggressively black mustache had turned snow white – particularly odd since the fellow is considerably younger than I am.

I managed to mutter some inane pleasantries (I’m adept with those) and staggered back down the hallway, still shaken by my friend’s unexpected mustache mutation. Visions of my mortality were catching up to me.

My own mustache, the bristling remnant of a tequila-induced whim in 1970, has gradually been moving from brown to salt-and-pepper to more-salt-than-pepper. The next step, I realized, could only be an elderly shade of white.

No, shaving off the ‘stache or judiciously applying a periodic coat of walnut stain are not options. The mustache stays for better or worse with no additives or coloring.

It took awhile, but I eventually came around to the idea that this mustache metamorphosis might not be all bad.

As my old ’60s sidekick Sapper used to say, “When life gives ya lemons, shaddup!”

Sure, a snowy white mustache is an obvious sign of aging – or a catastrophic collision between one’s upper lip and a bottle of bleach – but it does have its good points.

Once your mustache turns white, people begin to look at you as a kind of elder statesman, a gentleman who’s been around and knows what’s what. Suddenly, you command respect, regardless of whether you deserve it.

Noticing that distinguished white mustache proudly perched on your upper lip, people will invariably turn to you for advice – usually about subjects of which you have absolutely no knowledge.

When you were younger, you might have begged off and admitted your ignorance.

With your snowy mustache riding shotgun, though, you can shoot from the lip about virtually anything and get a hearty nod of approval from others.

Thanks to your mustache, you have become the World’s Foremost Authority.

Quantum physics? No problem.

Microbiology? Piece of cake.

Mesopotamia in the Third Century B.C.?

(“Harrrruuummmph! Old Mesopotamia, eh? Hell, the place was full of Mesopotamians. You couldn’t walk 3 feet without bumping into one of them, and not a one of ’em spoke decent English. Can ya believe it? Lousy poker players, too, I can tell you…”)

And, with that authoritative white mustache, you can liberally quote wise men from history without ever being challenged on the accuracy of your quotation.

It’s easy:

“As Mark Twain used to say, you can take a riverboat downstream, but you can’t turn it into a silk purse.”

Who’s going to argue with you about that?

Best of all, that snowy mustache means nobody will ever dare card you when you demand your senior citizen discount.

And it just doesn’t get better than that, amigos viejos…

Originally published July 10, 2005

Engage brain before opening mouth …

It seems like every few weeks one of America’s respected leaders somehow manages to adroitly place foot in mouth and, in the process, annoy, offend or outrage at least a third of the nation.

When our political geniuses realize that they’ve said something that could easily be misconstrued by virtually everybody, they flip their mea culpas to full automatic and spend the next six weeks peppering the country with apologies, explaining to anyone who’ll listen how they were misquoted, misconstrued or misunderstood by their mothers.

This is not good, and it seems to be happening more and more frequently within our nation’s political arena.

What gives?Are these guys:

  • Stupid loudmouths who shoot from the lip?
  • Sniveling weasels who haven’t the courage of their convictions?
  • Stupid loudmouth weasels?

OK, OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh here.

Surely not all of our political orators are craven cowards when it comes to standing up for their beliefs – whatever they may be at any given moment. But a lot of them seem to fold pretty quickly whenever even a hint of controversy is aimed at one of their ill-conceived remarks.

Most recently, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois roundly offended large segments of the public by criticizing the treatment of terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

He, unfortunately, made reference to Nazis, Soviets and Pol Pot, thereby outraging Republicans, Democrats and several retired Siberian prison guards.

Then the senator from Illinois spent the next week or so sedulously apologizing to anyone who’d listen.

He apologized to the military, to the president, to families of the military, to veterans, to Holocaust survivors and, I’d venture to say, dozens of Moose Lodges, bowling leagues and skateboarders.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this situation if we were just talking about Sen. Durbin, but this happens all the time, from the city council level to the White House – say something incredibly stupid, then spend the rest of your term apologizing to anyone you may have inadvertently offended.

This has got to stop.

Our political leaders have to take a good hard look at themselves, square their shoulders and start standing by their statements, no matter how ludicrous. Only then will the electorate know who they’re really dealing with when it comes time to vote.

Sure, we all say stupid things from time to time. I believe that even I may have made a less-than-intelligent observation one time in 1988. And, er, perhaps, 1989. Oh, hell, just ask my ex-wife. I think she still keeps a scorebook…

But most of use aren’t running for jobs in which we may be expected to behave intelligently with things like tactical nuclear weapons and large sums of money.

From now on, reject sniveling apologies and weak-kneed explanations about why our politicans repeatedly say incredibly stupid things. The obvious explanation is that we’ve elected some incredibly stupid – and frequently spineless – politicans.

And we can straighten all that out when November rolls around…

Originally published July 3, 2005

More trouble on the horizon…

The 21st century is a frightening and uncertain time. It seems the unimaginable can happen in the blink of an eye and throw our lives into chaos. The world has become a playground for terrorists, street gangs, bands of Republicans and (shudder!) golf clowns.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?).

Trouble started a few otherwise unremarkable Fridays ago as I motored placidly down Highway 29 approaching the strategically unimportant Napa County Airport.

Suddenly, an oxidized red Ford Escort lurched onto the highway in front of me. Hanging from one screw was an unregistered, personalized license plate reading “HAHAHA.” In the rear window of the battered mid-1980s compact were a pair of size 29 shoes, a red fright wig and what appeared to be a mutant sunflower attached to a hose – trouble for sure.

I radioed the newspaper’s photo editor and described the southbound apparition.”Looks like a clown and it looks like he’s turning onto Highway 12 headed for S’lano County…” I reported as the Escort darted back and forth between a wine tanker and a tow truck.

Our photo editor, whose middle name is “Danger,” knew this could be a big, big problem for the county.

“Oh, maaaaaan, we don’t need that. We’ve already got a clown – and an opera company, too. Can you get the Highway Patrol to stop him before he crosses the county line, or maybe just nudge him into a ditch?” the photo editor asked, an edge of urgency in his voice.

Before I could reply, however, the battered compact had disappeared.”

I lost him, I lost him!” I wailed in despair. “I dunno where he went. The only place he coulda turned off is … Oh, no. This is bad. It looks like he pulled off at the Chardonnay Golf Club.”

The photo editor was silent for a moment, then sighed.

“A golf clown. We really don’t need one of those. He’ll squirt a few players with his big sunflower, distribute a gross of rubber golf clubs and exploding balls, then come hooting over here to wreak havoc on our courses. By their very nature, S’lano County golfers won’t notice anything different until it’s too late,” he growled unhappily.

I knew what he was talking about. There used to be a small California town called, if memory serves, Tafano, just north of Milpitas. The town had a prosperous camcrusher factory, a small tomato processing plant and, of course, a pristine golf course.

What, you’ve never heard of Tafano?

Of course you haven’t. It’s gone. The golf clowns came and all that remains are several hundred weatherworn size 29 shoes.

(This is, like, a true story. I heard it at the old Black Watch bar in Los Gatos, and anything you hear there is totally righteous.)

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this whole situation is the fact that these pie-throwing, flower-squirting troubadours of chaos are only the tip of the iceberg for Solano County’s golf courses. What invariably follows a golf clown infestation is even more horrific:

Golf mimes.

Saints preserve us…

Originally published June 26, 2005