Back when I first moved to New York City in 1980, the mob was everywhere, all over New York. It was part of the very fabric of the city. I’m speaking right now of the Italian mob. The other ethnic mobs seemed to be connected to certain specific neighborhoods, only. But the Italians pretty much had everything everywhere all sewn up.
When I moved to New York City, I was 20 years old, and except for a handful of weeks where I had lived in a trailer in northern California with a lover who rapidly became my ex-girlfriend, my whole life had been lived in Ohio. There certainly was no World Wide Web, no Internet; only a few people back then even had cable TV. There was no access to anything global. I knew nothing about the world, nothing about life at all — except that, for most of mine, I hadn’t wanted to be alive or had struggled to stay alive. I didn’t know anything about mob guys and thought they were just something from the 1930s, or from Scorsese movies.
When I left Ohio for New York City it was because I had taken all I could from my horrible life in Ohio. I’m not going to ever get too personal on my blog about the stuff that happened in my family, I struggle with how to even approach it in my memoirs. Not that I can’t face my life, but there is still part of me that protects the abuser. (Or perhaps still lives in fear of the abuser? Probably both.)
But when I finally left for NYC, left Ohio for what I thought would be “for good” but what wound up being about 30 years, it was on the heels of having been raped again because of a situation that was going on within my family. And no one would believe me, listen to me, help me. Nothing. They all blamed me, turned on me, shut me out, crossed me off the list of existence in their own unique ways. It destroyed me.
And so this is the girl I was when I moved to New York. Really just terribly damaged. All I had were my songs, my guitar, you know. It was legal to drink at 18 back then, and I drank bourbon like crazy, did my share of drugs. I knew I didn’t want to be that girl who drank and took drugs, but it took a few more years & some sudden surging health problems to finally get past that kind of self-abuse. My first husband was instrumental, really, in getting me to grow up and to at least get past the drugs — and he remained instrumental even during the years when I had already left him but we were still married. He said things that always pissed me off, but it was only because, in my heart, I always knew that he was right about me and the destructive things I was doing. I was nasty to him a lot, but, in private, I didn’t stop listening to him.
When he and I met, we were both living temporarily in a sort of communal situation in an old brownstone in Brooklyn. He was Chinese, from an affluent family in Singapore. His life could not have been more different from mine. He was so worldly, sophisticated, well-traveled, well-educated. For whatever reason, he was very, very kind to me. He had figured out that I had managed to get myself pregnant. He never came right out and said that he knew, but he approached me in private one evening, around Christmas, and he gave me a very beautiful, tiny ceramic bottle.
“I bought this for you in Chinatown.” I was kind of speechless, I barely knew him. The bottle contained an essential oil. “This is what the girls use in my country when they are in your situation. If you rub a little in your belly-button, it will help keep you from vomiting so much.”
He never, ever asked me one word about that pregnancy, or why a baby never came along. We were married several months later, and were married for 9 years, but he never brought it up. Even though, a couple months into our marriage, he briefly met the man who had been the father.
After I was married and was back in Manhattan with a listed phone number, the man reappeared in my life like a rocket that explodes and then fades into darkness. He was only wanting to take me to dinner and have a talk with me one final time. I was afraid to say no. He pulled up in front of our apartment on the corner of 8th Avenue & W. 45th Street in a chauffeur-driven limousine. In those days, I, literally, barely knew how to take care of myself. My husband took one look at what I was wearing, the condition it was in, and said: “You cannot go out looking like that.” He made me take off my dress and he ironed it for me, and then I got dressed again. When I finally answered the door, the man came in for one moment, the two men met, and then my husband said, “have fun” and we left for an incredibly uncomfortable talk and dinner. (Over Italian food at Johnnies, on W. 44th Street. We took a limousine, literally, 2 blocks. Me, sitting in absolute silence in the restaurant, surrounded by framed photos all over the walls of mob guys hugging famous people like Sinatra. Him, berating me in a low voice; literally wanting to kill me. “Why did you do that to me? How could you do it? You killed my baby.” Me: “It wasn’t your baby.” Him: “Shut up. I know how to do math.”)
I had been living in New York maybe 10 whole days, when I had run into him on the street the first time and he immediately invited me to have a drink with him. To be honest, he was smitten on the spot. But he was 20 years older than me. I went with him because he seemed nice and because I did not understand New York City yet, at all, and so I thought, why not?
He took me to a bar on the East Side that seemed straight out of a Scorsese movie. Since I hadn’t yet realized that all those early Scorsese films were pretty much documentaries about Italian men in New York, I just kind of marveled at how this bar felt like it was right out of some movie. And everyone in the bar knew him. They were intense people, unlike any people I had ever met in Ohio. The guy behind the bar, my new friend explained, had been kicked off the police force for being a dirty cop. The woman who came over and said hello to us, with a really big smile, was just “some hooker — don’t fall for her shit.” The men who came over to say hello to him wore beautiful tailored suits, and gold-framed glasses, and these incredible gold watches.
Part of why the man liked me so much was because I was just so different. Fresh from Ohio, even though I was in this really damaged inner place that he didn’t know about. He was damaged, too, for a lot of reasons, I later learned, but the most recent was that his wife, who had suffered 6 miscarriages and had then filed for divorce from him, even though they were Catholic and didn’t believe in divorce, had jumped out the window of their apartment building instead. He was going through a lot of grief.
After one drink, he said, “You wanna come home with me? I just live around the corner.” And I said sure. It was 1980. I had no idea how many times I’d had casual sex already with people I barely knew.
At the time, he was living with his very elderly mother, in her apartment, because he hadn’t been able to stand staying in the apartment he’d shared with his late wife. In his mother’s kitchen, on the wall, was a framed front page from an old copy of the Daily News. The actual front page. Framed and hanging on the wall. It was a photo of his father, dead, having been gunned down in the middle of the street in some sort of mob war hit.
It was so macabre, but I still did not figure out that the guy I was with was in the mob.
Well, I do have to say, that of course we went to bed together, but it was the best sex I had ever had in my life. I had never been to bed with a man that much older than me, for one thing. He knew how to do all kinds of things no one had done to me before. Plus, he really made love to me. He was a man in a lot of grief, and here I was this 20-year-old Ohio girl. I think I was just so far away from anything he knew. So he really made love to me, he wasn’t just getting laid, and I was left kind of breathless.
We became inseparable after that. We made a lot of love. And he was always upfront about wanting to have a baby with me. Right from the start. He said, “Let’s get married. Come on. I want to have a baby with you before I’m too old.”
For some self-abusive reason, I wasn’t practicing anything at all that you could consider birth control. I really wanted to have a baby, I had no objection to the idea of having babies, but I had come to New York to be a singer. I wasn’t looking to suddenly get married and settle down. Still, I didn’t use any kind of birth control at all and I was having the most amazing sex. I got pregnant immediately.
I was secretly thrilled to be pregnant; I so wanted to have children. But I was also very freaked out by it because it wasn’t supposed to happen so suddenly. I had come to New York to be a singer. I wrote songs. I had wanted that to be my life first.
Nevertheless, the man was now in a position to finally be taken seriously by me about getting married.
Up until then, when we were together, we rarely went out in public anywhere. We were always up in his room, in his bed, making love. That was our world. This particular afternoon, when I’m finally becoming amenable to getting married, he takes me out to lunch at a diner around the corner. He has something to explain to me.
“If you’re going to be my wife, I need to teach you how to use a gun. I will always be gone for certain periods of time and I will need to know that you can protect yourself.”
That’s how he started the conversation. I was stunned, really just speechless. It was all a downhill slide from there. He explained that he was a hitman. That those guys in the bar with those tailored suits and fancy watches paid him to go out in the world and kill people.
I sat across the table from him in the booth and was already carrying his child. I had nothing to say. Nothing. I was in shock. Actual shock.
We went back to his apartment, but at this point I knew I wanted to get away from him as quickly as possible and never look back, but it just wasn’t that simple anymore. I don’t even remember the argument we got into, how it started, but it was ugly, it was loud, it got off the rails very quickly, and what I remember most is his gun right in my face. A gun I had never seen until that very moment. It was only a warning not to ever raise my voice to him again. He wasn’t planning to kill me that afternoon…
After that, I disappeared. Moved to that strange place in Brooklyn, no phone number, no forwarding address. I hid out. I tried to figure out what I was going to do. My dad and stepmom said they would raise the baby for me, until I could take care of it myself, so that I wouldn’t have to leave New York or give up my dream of being a singer. But that wasn’t the kind of mother I had ever wanted to be. On top of that, I’d been born illegitimate myself. I hated that fact. Most of all, I hated not knowing who my father was. I didn’t want to repeat all my pain on my baby. And I also really, really didn’t want my baby’s father to be a killer.
Instead, I gave it a mother who was a killer, too, even though it devastated me to do that. I guess I just tossed it on the heap of all the other damage, and tried somehow to survive it, killing my own baby, a baby I had really, really wanted. Getting married helped a whole lot. Getting married to a man with so much dignity who tried so hard to give my life a strong foundation, even though I fought him tooth & nail for pretty much 9 solid years.
After that, I had become a New Yorker. I had my New York stories to tell, the kind of stories all New Yorkers had back then. Harsh, sad, scary, but still way better than being in Ohio.