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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Me and the Mafia

Anyone raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) in the 50’s has at least a passing recognition of the name Russel Bufalino. When I was a kid, he was the head of the local Mafia, with direct ties to the Genovese family in New York.

My father was a blue-collar shoe factory worker, managing local plants from PA. to NY. The height of his career came in the 60’s when Mitsubishi hired him to oversee the production of shoes in South Korea. Those were wild and wooly days. Importing footwear (Bass Weejun knock-offs) into America was Mitsubishi’s first attempt to crack the global market.

About every 2-3 months when a shipment was ready, they would fill a suitcase with $100 dollar bills and give it to my father. He would accompany the shipment to San Pedro, Ca. where it had to clear customs. The cash was used by him to bribe the federal agents so Mitsubishi wouldn’t have to pay to have their products imported. Whatever money was left over, my father brought home.

I remember going to bed at night watching my mother count seemingly endless stacks of money.

Before this windfall hit our family, Bufalino, Philip Medico, and several others were guests at our home nearly every Saturday evening. They played very low stakes poker and gin rummy with both my parents (quarter, half, and a dollar bets) throughout the night. Rarely was there a Sunday morning that I woke up, came downstairs, and did not find them still playing from the night before.

The smell of stale cigarette smoke permeated the downstairs, but it didn’t seem to bother me as a ten year old. Medico would bring food for everyone from his restaurant in Pittston, and the odor of stale pizza somewhat offset that of the cigarette butts.

Over the years, prior to the windfall from Japan, my parents squirreled away enough cash to easily pay for my college education. But my personal association with Mafioso – The Genoveses (and the protection they afforded me) wouldn’t coalesce until the early 70’s.


I met my wife-to-be during my senior year at Syracuse University. My friend Mike Crum and I had been partying very, very hard and were getting ready to call it a night. We lived in the Brewster-Boland-Brockway complex on campus – a men’s dorm, a women’s dorm, a dining hall, and a common area separating all three.

Phyllis was sitting in the control booth in the common area the first time I saw her. She had beautiful brown eyes and long brown hair; she was coloring with crayons that belonged to my current girlfriend.

As we walked down the stairs and through the glass doors, I froze in place, grabbed Mike’s arm and said: “Mike, there’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Mike laughed and wrote the whole thing off to the tail end of whatever it was we had been partying with all night. I was dead serious.

Phyllis was a good Catholic girl. She went to an all girl’s Catholic grade school, all girl’s Catholic high school, and an all girl’s Catholic college. Then she met me.

I was invited to her parent’s home in Yonkers, NY for Christmas dinner. All of her family -- her uncles and aunts, grandmother, and close family friends were there. I had just driven five hours through a snowstorm in an unheated Volkswagen and had gotten a speeding ticket along the way. It was sort of like a scene from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” when I waltzed in and peeled off the Navy Pea Coat I was wearing. I had hair down to my shoulders and was wearing patched jeans.

There was quiet for a brief moment, and then I began to talk with everyone. Their attitude was simply “If this is who Phyllis wants to be with, then that’s fine by us.” I was accepted immediately into the family, even though I would not propose to Phyllis for another five years.

Her parents were gentle, kind, and loving. I had not experienced this sort of family growing up, and while I couldn’t articulate it at the time, it had a profound effect on me.

In Yonkers, Phyllis went to school with members of the Gambino family. Let’s just say their parents knew people. I worked briefly in Syracuse after graduation but hung around while Phyllis completed her last year of graduate school. Eventually I relocated to Yonkers. Phyllis was working for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, and her parents graciously offered me their Yonkers home to live in. I worked locally as a printer at a commercial color lab. Phyllis and her mom would come home for weekends; we had a rollicking time together.

After getting laid off I relocated to their home in Long Branch, NJ. The house, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, was a multi bedroom, three story home that Phyllis’ mom rented out to local seniors she had known for many years. It was like a small community of wonderful and caring individuals.

My only source of transportation at the time was my motorcycle, and its gas tank developed a small leak that needed to be immediately repaired. I took it to a small shop a few miles down the road, and the owner assured me he could braze the leak.

When I returned to pick it up, I was infuriated to see that in the course of repairing the tank, they had scraped my fresh paint job off. In a burst of anger, I said “You son-of-a-bitch. You ruined my new paint job.” There were two gorillas there at the time, a father and a son. They decided to take my words literally. As one grabbed me and threw me against the wall, the other came over, and inches from my face asked: “What did you just call my mother?” They proceeded to tune me up. Before they would let me leave the shop with my gas tank, they made me sign a document indicating I had brought the tank to them scratched; that they had done nothing to the paint job in the process of repairing it.

I returned to the house disheveled and distraught. Phyllis’ mom saw me and took me aside into the living room. She poured me two fingers of scotch and after I finished drinking, asked me what had happened. Once I had calmed down and told her my tale of woe, we both got into her car and she asked me to take her to the shop where all this had transpired.

We drove by and she made a mental note of the name and address of the facility. Two weeks later when we were out running errands together, we drove by the business again and my eyes bugged out. The repair shop was closed, boarded up, and out of business. She said nothing. It was her way of showing me that I was family, and no-one-ever-hurts-family.

It’s great to know people.

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