Tonight the ballroom was open, but nobody was dancing. Whenever the crumbling hotel creaked in the wind you heard it up in the high corners of the room. It was dark except for a round table in a pool of light under a cobwebbed chandelier. On the table, next to a porkpie hat, a Lucky Strike and a cigar smoldered in a white porcelain ashtray with an ink sketch of the Sunset Lodge on the bottom, as Matty ‘The Mule’ Esposito talked about his life and times.
When Eddie had first seated himself at the table, Esposito introduced the blonde from the arraignment yesterday as “Sally.” She gave him a quick grin and slouched back, shivering in her rabbit fur jacket, smoking Kools, across the table from a fortyish guy the old man introduced as his son, “Tommaso.” Trim and handsome, in a faded denim jacket and thick black moustache and shoulder length hair, he muttered “Tommy,” and greeted Eddie with a cold glance.
He got out his cassette recorder and made sure the tape was turning. He’d begun to work with it last summer during the Lakewood riot when he couldn’t take notes fast enough to keep up with the interviews. When he put it on the table and asked if that was okay, Esposito shrugged and said he didn’t mind.
But Tommy shook his head. “Pop, I think you’re making a mistake.”
The old man was brusque. “Nah, I like the idea.” Tommy shrugged, sat back, and deferred to his father with a troubled sigh that said he really had no choice.
Eddie had assumed Esposito agreed to the interview to defend his reputation. But he was sure taking his time getting there.
“I was first violin in the Lakewood High School orchestra,” the old man was saying, aglow with memories. “I always had music in my heart. I was gonna be a musician. I played jazz trumpet. Nick La Rocca was my hero. I had all the Original Dixieland Jazz Band records. I even played this ballroom a few times, back in the ‘20s, way before my father bought the place. I could’na been older than you are now. Of course my father, he thought playing music was bullshit. He wanted his only son to take over the restaurant, so I hadta do it.” He sighed. “He thought playing music was no way for a man to make a living.”
Sitting in the chilly ballroom listening to the old man’s stories, Eddie was getting restless. He could hear the old jazz, a solo trumpet chiming through layers of syncopated rhythm or a line of saxophones swingin’ and swayin.’ But those were better days. Tonight the tables were draped with dust covers, wind gusts made the walls creak, and outside bare branches on the overgrown trees scraped the high windows. The ballroom was like the parlor of an old age home, and he had to remind himself why he was here. Get the interview done and get the hell out of this haunted house, he thought. Let Matty the Mule complain about harassment and defamation of character. Maybe he’ll cry anti-Italian discrimination or something newsworthy. Any story he got would scoop the other reporters, so it was worth his time to talk to the old man, but Eddie was looking forward to getting back out in the fresh air.
“We’re going to have to talk about the indictment soon, Mister Esposito. I only have two hours of tape.”
With a cough, Esposito lit his cigar. “Whattya wanna know?”
“Pop,” Tommy said. “Please. Can we talk about this?”
“We talked enough,” Esposito said. “I want to do this.”
“Okay, let’s get this out of the way first.” Eddie consulted his notepad. “The prosecutor, Mister Heckendorfer, called you the ‘Rackets Boss of the Jersey Shore.’ Care to comment?”
The long silence was broken by Tommy. “Hey kid… What are you, stupid?”
Puffing his cigar, Esposito’s eyes traveled to Sally. She looked at Eddie and shook her head, one eyebrow arching toward her hairline. “You don’t know who you’re talking to.”
The wind whistled, a gust slammed something loose against a wall, and Eddie flinched.
“Hey, no offense, but here’s Mister Esposito, people know him as a labor official, uh, as a hotel owner, and he’s been labeled this thing in the headlines. I want to be fair and give him a chance—”
The look in Esposito’s eyes stopped him cold.
“Don’t tell me I made a mistake, inviting you here,” Esposito grumbled, tapping his cigar in the ashtray. “What’d you think I called you here to talk about—the hotel business?”
Eddie flipped his notebook pages until he found the quote: “So you’re saying you are a ‘career criminal with your tentacles everywhere’? The prosecutor’s word, ‘tentacles,’ not mine.”
Esposito snatched his cigar from his mouth and blew a thick plume of blue smoke over the table. He leaned forward and spoke into Eddie’s microphone:
“In the ‘20s, my father ran the best speakeasy around, right here in Lakewood. That’s how I met a couple bootleggers. I put down my trumpet and went to work for them. I didn’t love it like I loved jazz, but it paid better. I started out riding shotgun on beer trucks, making deliveries from the breweries in Newark and the Bronx, all the way down Route 9 to Atlantic City. I was just a kid, but before long I was setting up my own shipments and handling protection. We did the distribution on a lot of the Canadian whiskey brought in by Longy Zwillman’s boys. We’d meet the freighters out in the ocean, load the booze onto fishing boats, and bring it upriver to a marina or somebody’s private dock. The cases went straight into the trucks. Nice payment to the local police chief, throw a case in his car trunk, no problems. Nobody ever got arrested on my runs. Two years is what it took, and a lot of kickin’ ass, and I was the biggest bootlegger in Monmouth and Ocean counties.”
“And nobody went ever thirsty,” Tommy said. “Top quality Canadian, right Pop?”
The old man ignored his son and went on. “Then come the ‘30s, I got into the gambling and shylock. I had the biggest card games outside of New York and Philly. I had cathouses up and down the Shore, the best lookin’ women you ever saw. My customers were all the top people in business and government, which is why whenever I needed a favor, I only had to ask once. Then in the ‘40s during the war, I sold counterfeit ration and gas stamps, I picked up some liquor licenses, I sold fireworks, untaxed cigarettes, untaxed gasoline, you name it. Made a lotta money. In ‘51, I set up the construction unions down here, because I knew the minute they finished the Parkway, the whole Jersey Shore was gonna go boom!”
“A man of vision and guts, my father,” Tommy said.
“Obviously,” Eddie said. “So you’re saying—”
“I’m saying,” Esposito’s impatient voice bounced off the ceiling, “my whole god damn life I’ve worked with this political organization! I paid ‘em enough bribes by now to open a bank! I bought and sold these fuckin’ pine cone politicians like a buncha two bit Hershey Bar whores! You understand what I’m saying? I’m an established member of this community! But now, all of a sudden, these bastards, they’ve got me fighting for my life!?” He rose half out of his seat, livid. “What the fuck is that?” Sally coaxed him back down.
“Fuckin’ ingratitude,” Tommy muttered.
“So you’re saying—”
“Forty years I ran my businesses, I paid off everybody from Colonel Ted McTierney on down! Now all of a sudden, what? They’re tired of this old face? My money’s no good?” His cries echoed in the corners of the empty ballroom.
I paid enough bribes to open a bank. Eddie lit a Lucky Strike off the last one with trembling fingers, realizing he had one foot in a world where he’d better not reveal his ignorance.
“That all sounds totally illegal, Mister Esposito,” he blurted out. Luckily, Sally laughed, and Tommy laughed too. Not the old man, though.
“You’re a reporter, right? So you know how things are.”
“So I’ve heard,” he lied, pretending to be casual. “I mean, I don’t know many details—”
From across the table the old man’s eyes burned into him. “You mean, you don’t know the setup?” Was Esposito going to leave it there, stand up, interview over?
“I’ve been a reporter about a year, I’ve heard some things,” he said. He had no idea there even was a setup. He hoped the old man would think he knew more than he did.
“How old are you?” Esposito demanded.
“You gotta know the setup. Who’s who, how things work. When I was your age, I knew the setup. I made money, and I made a lotta other people rich. Now they call me a ‘career criminal.’ Well, tonight I’m gonna tell you about some career criminals maybe you don’t know about.”
“What,” he said to Tommy, turning to his son for the first time.
“What’re you doin’?” Tommy said.
“I know what I’m doing.”
“And after you spill your guts, what’s left?” Tommy said.
“I don’t worry about that.”
“Did you ever once think about me, my future, the future of the business?”
“Every day,” Esposito sighed. “Every day.”
All the charges in the indictment were true, Eddie realized. Heckendorfer had sung the overture in court yesterday afternoon: Loansharking, Gambling, Racketeering. Now Esposito was about to sing the whole opera, feeling too angry and sorry for himself to give a damn whether it hurt anyone else. Too bad for Tommy. Eddie was scared of the old man, he could scarcely imagine life as his son. Calm down, he told himself, the guy across the table was still only a small town businessman with assorted interests. Keep him talking, catch your breath.
“So you’re saying—”
Esposito shoved himself to his feet. He slapped on his hat, and beckoned. “You need a history lesson, sonny boy.”
Giving Eddie a nervous look, Tommy stood up to come with them, and hesitated, like he was unsure if he was invited. Tommy was wearing flower-embroidered bellbottom jeans and the latest local fad in footwear, a leather bowling shoe in red, white and blue sold at a boutique on Brick Boulevard.
“I’ll be down here,” he said, sitting back down at the table.
“Yeah? Good,” his father said, looking around the vast empty room. “Keep an eye on things.”
The history lesson began on the second floor in Esposito’s private quarters, once the hotel manager’s apartment, whose living room resembled the lounge of an exclusive men’s club. Under brass and crystal chandeliers, the intricate parquet oak floor was laid with thick Persian carpets, black and burgundy like the velvet club chairs and camel back sofas. A brass pedestal ashtray stood beside every seat, and the air held hints of tobacco and alcohol and after shave lotion. Above the oak wainscoting the herringbone wallpaper was yellow from decades of tobacco smoke. He left his tape recorder running on a long coffee table strewn with the Press, the Observer, the Independent and the Lakewood Daily Times.
In his work clothes, Esposito looked like a guy who had been sent to the elegant suite to fix the plumbing. At the other end of the room, in her white go-go boots and tight jeans and rabbit fur jacket, Sally slouched against the curve of a long bar with a brass foot rail.
“Wait for us outside, sweetheart.”
After a second, Sally slid off the bar and ambled out, letting the door swing back and slam.
“Nice girl, but she oughta learn some fuckin’ manners.” He relit his cigar. “When the boys from Toms River had business to do in secret, this is where they did it, courtesy of my old man, and me. Colonel Ted, he had a big house by the golf course in Toms River. But he spent most of his time right here.” His eyes lifted.
Over the fireplace hung an oil portrait of a husky, red-faced man with white hair and ornate whiskers, grinning large. Colonel Ted McTierney. What did Eddie know about him? Not much. Big Republican political boss, died a couple years ago.
“He sat right here in this chair, the day after I buried my father. It was the summer the war ended. We were havin’ a couple drinks and listenin’ to the ball game on the radio.” Esposito grinned at the memory. “It was hot enough in here to melt the wax off your moustache, but he didn’t sweat one drop. I think his Irish charm was the key to his success with people. Of course, he could also be so cold he could chill a glass of beer just by holding it in his hand, if you know what I mean. He said to me, ‘Two per cent is what I make off everything legit that moves in this county, Matty. You pay me the same as your father did, and you’ll never have to worry about the law, and you’ll never have to worry about the boys down in Toms River turning against you.’ And I said, ‘Colonel, you are a standup guy.’ We shook hands, and that was that.”
“‘I make two per cent,’ he actually said that?”
“He said that. Of course, I knew it already.”
“He trusted you with that information?”
“Another guy might’ve used that information against him.”
“What for? We were businessmen. We made a deal. We made money. In those days, if you shook hands, you lived up to the deal or you weren’t a real man. I used to say to him, ‘Colonel, it’s your Ocean, I’m just swimmin’ here like everybody else.’ We made each other laugh. For an Irishman and an Italian, that’s something.”
“He trusted that you’d really pay two percent?”
“And I did,” the old man said.
“Where’d he come from?” Eddie asked.
“Originally from Philadelphia, I heard. He wasn’t a real Colonel, he was the kind of Colonel who runs auctions. In the ‘20s, he got himself appointed to local magistrates court, which you could do in those days, you didn’t even have to be a lawyer. When he died he was president of a law firm that had twenty lawyers, but I heard he himself never finished high school. From that little magistrate’s job, the Colonel built the Republican machine here. Total control over everything. A political organization richer than God. All this was possible because of one little thing. In 1933, the Freeholders passed a law. They let local companies doin’ county business add two per cent to their invoices, to give ‘em a little extra to help ‘em keep goin’, because during the Depression the county sometimes paid its bills late, since people paid their taxes late or sometimes not at all. That saved a lot of businesses and a lot of jobs. Well, that two per cent is still in every bill the county pays, but they stopped lettin’ the businesses keep it a long time ago.”
“That’s the two per cent he told you about?”
“How it works is, whenever you do business with the county government, you overcharge them two per cent on your bill. Then twice a year, you kick back that two per cent to the McTierney Law Firm. You call the check a ‘legal retainer’. It’s called the Colonel Ted Tax, and it’s a fuckin’ river of money, straight into his law firm, and all protected by the attorney-client thing. Not that anybody would have the balls to investigate.”
Eddie’s scalp tingled. Was he really saying this? “So he must’ve been incredibly rich.”
“Yeah, but he also put money back into the Organization. Every Republican campaign. They’d do mailings, buy radio time, hold rallies, things the Democrats could never afford. And once you took Organization money, you owed him forever. You wanna know how powerful he was? There was a steering committee meeting once to nominate a guy to run for something, I forget what. Half a dozen guys, Freeholders, Assemblymen, Senators, all stood up and made speeches endorsing the guy they liked. But Colonel Ted liked somebody else. All he did was stand up and say he’d consider it a personal favor if the committee members would support his guy, and sat down. It was a secret ballot and his guy was nominated unanimously. The other candidate even voted against himself, and got himself a nice county job as his reward.”
Esposito stared at the chair. “My friend Colonel Ted, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. This is no longer a world of standup guys. Nobody’s word means shit.” Esposito glared defiantly at him, his eyes shining. “Look at me! Fighting for my life! At my age! I got more knives in my back than I can pull out!”
“Maybe it’s time to turn over some of it to your son.”
Esposito spat disgustedly. “He can’t even manage his own life.” He started to say more, then shook his head. “No, the thing is, tonight I want you to listen, and I want you to get it all on tape. I got stories to tell. Nobody else can tell these stories, Eddie. You know why?”
“I guess nobody else knows them?” He seemed so dumb to himself sometimes.
“That’s right. Because in my world, I’m The King. How many men can say that?”
“None that I ever met.”
“You wanna hear a few stories, Eddie? You wanna hear how things really are?”
“Well, yeah, I came to get a story—”
“And that’s what you’re gonna get.” Esposito swung his overcoat over his shoulders. “Sally!” The door opened and she poked her head in.
“Tell Tommy to warm up the car.”