At the time I wouldn’t have said that Paul and Sonny were really, seriously crooked cops. They certainly bent the law, and sometimes Sonny was completely out of control. But they always had our backs at The Lark Tavern–in fact they’d just saved the bar manager’s ass–so I guess I looked at the whole thing both ways, the good and the bad. It was as though Paul and Sonny simply knew what they could get away with, and what they couldn’t.
From what I’d seen so far, that seemed to be the rule of thumb in Albany. What can we get away with . . . what laws do we have to obey? When first arriving in town, I remember stopping at a bar called G.J.’s late one afternoon.
There were a couple of booths on the left as you first walked in, and in the front one closest to the door, a well-dressed black man had his briefcase open on the booth table. The man was dressed Super-fly style. He was wearing a light red, flamboyant three-piece suit with bell-bottomed pants. He had his sunglasses on inside the bar. That briefcase had the top open and set straight up, and there were these small, clear packets containing some white powder stacked inside.
The briefcase was full of them. He was holding up one of the packets, about to hand it to someone who was slipping him some folded money.
This was in broad daylight, in the middle of the day, just inside G.J.’s front door. There were large front windows behind him, with a direct line of vision from the street.
“Welcome to the city,” I thought, having just moved here from the small town of Cortland, NY. I figured that for him to be doing this so openly, someone must be seriously taking care of somebody. At least one or two of the local patrolmen must have had their palms greased.
Later, when I began working at The Lark Tavern, a stereotype, middle-aged Italian man walked in with two large, thick-necked guys. This middle-aged man must have been wearing a thousand-dollar worth of clothes and jewelry. An expensive-looking silk suit, a fat gold chain hanging from his neck, and these ridiculously large rings on several fingers of each hand, some with flashing stones.
When I finished making their drinks, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a large wad of one-hundred-dollar bills, so fat it almost didn’t fit in the palm of his hand.
With the prices back then, the round of drinks only came to around ten or twelve dollars, so when I set the man’s change on the bar, I gave him a fifty-dollar bill with it. He picked up the fifty slowly, looked at it for a minute in front of his face, then handed it to me. Back then it was almost as much as I’d make for an entire night of bartending. “This is a good drink,” he said, looking right at me, “You make it like this every time, and we‘ll get along.”
The three of them only stayed for one more round, but with that last round they got drinks for everyone at the bar. They bought about twenty or thirty people drinks, and everyone began applauding. Then the three of them got up and left.
What struck me was that The Lark was just a neighborhood bar, not a gangster hang-out. Along with the mafia guys that night. we also had doctors and lawyers seated a couple of stools away. A few politicians had stopped in from the New York State capitol buildings two blocks down the street. There were some college students hanging around. But from the moment they walked in, these bent-nose types were immediately accepted. This was a bar, and it was as though everyone knew that there were many ways to make a living in Albany; some legal, some not.
One night the man who ran the New York State Lottery was in The Lark for some kind of going away party. (At least that’s what Tommy Talbor told me–that the man was either in charge of the New York Lottery, or at least one of its higher-ups.) This going-away party was to send the man off in style, because he was apparently beginning his prison sentence the next morning. He’d been found guilty of some scam involving the state lottery. Everyone was making toasts, and giving the sentenced man hugs.
Albany was so corrupt that one day when I asked a graduate student why she‘d chosen to attend college here, she said it was specifically because of the corruption. “It was either Chicago or Albany,” she told me, “I’m going for my Master’s Degree in urban sociology. Chicago and Albany are the last two cities still totally run on the patronage system.“
I remember a story about a mayor of Albany who had owned at least half the stock in a local brewery–Hedrick’s beer, I think. Jackie Rabbit told me that in those days every bar in the city had to offer Hedrick’s beer. If some upstart owner didn’t go along, his place would be suddenly shut down for some city liquor violation. The bar couldn’t open again until all Hedrick’s beer was on each and every tap.
Albany’s corruption was right in your face, right on the surface of things. It was as though everyone was so confident they didn’t even bother to hide what they were doing, and they took more chances.
It was something of a scandal in Albany when a lot of rich people’s homes were being broken into, robberies where the crooks seemed to know to exactly when and where to strike. These robbers were organized, they took everything of value. They must have backed up a truck to the targeted homes, stealing everything from cash, jewelry, and electronic equipment, to sometimes even furniture.
No one could figure how the crooks kept getting away with this, until one victimized family apparently said something that caught a reporter’s ear. They said it was a surprise that their home had been burglarized because they had specifically called the police, and asked them to keep an eye on the place while they were on vacation.
On a hunch, the reporter dug further . . . and what do you know? All these homes that had been looted were homes where the owners had called the police, telling them that they’d be away. Somebody in the chain, answering the police phones, or who had access to the phone log, or perhaps someone working in the detective division–someone was setting up the robberies from the comfort of the police station. It was a police-run burglary ring.
When the burglars were finally busted, everyone at The Lark just shook their heads and laughed. They all knew how this town operated.
Maybe the biggest, open secret was in Albany was the prostitution. Prostitution was absolutely rampant in this city. Albany was the capital city of New York State, which at the time was the largest and richest state in the country. With all the politicians, lobbyists, and the cash and influence spilling into this small city, prostitution might have been one of the biggest industries in Albany.
One day a cute young girl was sitting at the bar at The Lark. I was thinking that she might be new in town because she had that not-quite-yet-comfortable innocence about her. She was soon joined by a shady-looking dude, and I was surprised that she seemed to know him, at least who he was. As I walked by them on my way to the other end of the bar, I overheard them talking. “They’re going to be paying good money for you,” the slick dude was saying, “You’ll be living in style if you work for me.”
The guy was a pimp. Apparently he’d found the girl at the Albany Greyhound bus terminal, just as she’d gotten of the bus from somewhere, or from nowhere.
Prostitution was everywhere in Albany. One day in Washington Park, I walked up a wooded hill to sit and relax for a while. Washington Park was a huge, sprawling park, designed by the same man who designed Central Park in New York City.
As I sat on the hillside, I noticed a cop car parked down by a road that ran along the park’s edge. From the hill, I saw a young woman walk over to the cop car. She talked with whoever was inside for a moment, and then handed an envelope through the rolled-down front window.
I didn’t think too much about it, until another woman walked up to the cop car, and did the same thing. Then another woman, and another.
Later, behind the bar at The Lark, I mentioned this to one of the regulars. “Oh, that’s just the hookers making their payoffs,” the regular laughed. “The cops run the prostitution out of Washington Park. Everyone knows that.”
It was weird at first, having all the corruption so close to the surface, so readily seen. But after a while, I accepted it like everyone else. Welcome to the city.