(This note is from The Cantina Italiana, in Boston’s North End.)
Boston’s North End is the Italian district and as you’d expect the food in the neighborhood is fantastic. Working behind the bar, the best part of the night at The Cantina was the shift meal – Zuppa di Pesce, Bombolotti with Italian sausage, Linguine with Clam Sauce, Pollo Abruzzese. I was in heaven.
The North End is also one of the safest places to live in Boston. Women love to find apartments in this part of town because they feel free to walk down the street day or night.
But times do change, and for a while there were persistent break-ins at some of the neighborhood three-decker tenements. Residents put the blame on a few local junkies.
Who else would be crazy enough to start trouble in the North End? Invisible to the tens of thousands of visitors who regularly enjoy the food and culture of this district, there are some really, really tough guys living and “working” here. Wise guys. Connected guys. They keep things under control.
Some of them hung out at the bar at the Cantina. If you didn’t know who they were you might have thought that the quiet man sipping his espresso was someone’s uncle or grandfather, and of course he was someone’s uncle or grandfather – but he might also be a wise guy.
Joey Cigars was one of those guys. He was a reputed mob hit man, recently released after serving ten years in jail. Joey was a stocky man, medium height, but his square shoulders made him look as wide as he was tall. He had an aura that steamed off him like the smoke from dry ice. He had a glare that made you want to flatten yourself against the back wall, or slink to the nearest exit.
Joey Cigars and the other wise guys weren’t happy with the break-ins going on in the neighborhood. They had friends and family living here. This wasn’t supposed to happen on their turf.
Joey Cigars came into The Cantina one afternoon when I was working. He was wearing a tan trench coat although it was a warm, sunny day. He ordered a drink, sat at the bar looking around, then left.
Later I heard that he had walked from the Cantina over to the Peace Garden, half a block down the street. The Peace Gardern is a small church park adjoining St Leonard’s — it’s a quiet area with religious statues, fountains and flowers. Strangely, the local junkies used it as their afternoon hang-out.
Joey Cigars walked up to a group of young thugs gathered by the main statue. He stood silently for a minute, his hands in the pockets of his trench coat. The protrusion of two pistol barrels bulged ominously from under either side of the coat.
“Do you see that fire house?” he finally addressed the group. He nodded toward the fire station on the corner. They acknowledged they saw it.
“My mother lives on the other side of that fire house,” Joey said.
“If you’re walking down the street carrying a hundred-dollar bill,” he continued, “if you drop the bill and the wind blows it on the other side of the fire house . . . don’t go after it.”
“Don’t go after it,” Joey Cigars warned. “Don’t try to pick it up. My mother lives on the other side.”
“Don’t ever go further than that fire house,” Joey said, “Not for anything.”
About a week later, Joey Cigars was sitting at the bar and one of the guys he’d been talking to at the Peace Garden came into The Cantina. I only heard a little of their conversation, but he was apparently trying to convince Joey that he wasn’t involved with those break-ins.
“It’s not me,” the guy told Joey. He was maybe in his mid-twenties, not yet a broken-down junkie, but a small, ratty-looking kid.
“It’s not me!” he said. Just the way he was acting and the tone of his voice convinced me the kid was guilty. I kept busy, cutting more limes.
“I told you once,” Joey Cigars set his drink down, “I told you . . . I want the shit to stop.”
“It’s not me, Joey,” the guy kept protesting, “It’s not me. It’s not me!”
Joey looked to the side for a moment, then turned back to the kid. “Listen,” he said quietly, “I said I want it to stop. Do you understand?”
There was a long pause, then Joey Cigars spoke again.
“Do you understand?”
I never saw the kid again. A couple of weeks later I asked one of the regulars, who I was pretty sure was a connected guy, if he had seen the guy around.
The regular’s answer was cryptic.
“Naw,” he told me, without looking up. “You won’t be seeing him anymore. He’s missing.”