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My local dive, Friendly Lounge, was mentioned in I Heard You Paint Houses, a book soon to be turned into a movie by Martin Scorcese. Now Friendly’s featured quite prominently in The Last Don Standing, an account of the Philly mob by Ralph Natale. An infamous snitch, Natale still spent 27 years inside.
As I type this at Friendly, guitarist Jimmy Bruno and organist Joey DeFrancesco, both Philly guys, are killing it in the background. Anyway, this new book dubs this bar a training ground for the Mafia:
Hard case DiTullio developed an instant soft spot for the young Natale, providing a master’s class in the Mafia to his young and ambitious charge. His classroom was the Friendly Tavern on South Eight Street, where Natale proved a particularly apt pupil.
DiTullio is best known as “Skinny Razor,” father to Dominic and Marco, Friendly’s current owners. Marco loves that there’s a spotlight on this rather grungy, nondescript bar. Dom hates it. The book calls Skinny Razor a “legendary local mob killer.” A woman told me, “He was so handsome and impeccably dressed, but tough. He was a real badass!” The book:
if you were his enemy, [your] life would be considerably shortened. “We had more arms than an armory under the bar,” Natale recalled.
As far as I know, there’s only a blackjack behind bar now, and it hasn’t been used in years. The last time there was a commotion here was when a drunken Felix said to John the Hat that maybe John’s sister was pleasuring him. Absolutely not cool. John leapt off his stool, but Brad got in between them, and I, sitting next to Felix, persuaded him to apologize. Within minutes, everybody was laughing. We’re all friends here.
Another time, Johnny A.C. (for air conditioning) repeatedly screamed, in his bellowing, tenor voice, that Felix should move to Canada, all because Felix had mentioned Michael Moore. Felix actually hates Michael Moore. All across this increasingly angry nation, Americans are screaming at each other. Short fuse has become the norm. The very next day, Johnny came in with no memory of his bourbon-induced meltdown, and Felix holds nothing against him. We’re all family here.
Sometimes, though, retaliation or punishment must be met out. In the early 40’s, an insolent wise guy with a fake Irish surname showed up at Friendly. Not long before, Harry Barry had slashed a boss’ bodyguard in the face. Spotting Barry, Skinny Razor whispered to bookie Joe Panisi that he better collect whatever Barry owed him. Next morning, Barry’s corpse was discovered near the GeorgeWashingtonElementary School.
“That’s bullshit,” Dom objects. “He was found outside the police station, where the library is now. You know something else? If they were going to take out a guy, they might tip you off so you can go borrow money from him.” Dom grins. “There’s a lot Ralph Natale got wrong. My father got his nickname because he was a sharp dresser, not because he always carried a razor. Natale’s embellishing because he wants to sell books! Everyone has a story about my dad. He’s like the Paul Bunyan of South Philly.”
Dude’s a legend. At the end of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” Louis Prima could be heard to yell, “Skinny! Skinny!”
Book, “He wasn’t flashy and never did anything for show. Killing was for business, period.”
In Friendly, there’s a charming, amateurish oil portrait of Skinny Razor in a suit and tie, smiling and smoking a cigarette. More than anything else, he resembles an insurance executive.
Dom, “It was rough back then. If you weren’t vicious, you wouldn’t survive. Guys on 9th Street all carried guns and knives. Now, they take debit cards. Get the fuck out of here!”
For all the alleged hits, Skinny Razor was never convicted, so technically, he never swatted a fly. Suave, he was seen with Kim Novak under his arm.
For all his bluster, Ralph Natale is the nadir of the Philly mob, a mascot for its most bumbling and farcical years. Natale got locked up for the first time in 1979 for torching Mr. Living Room in an insurance scheme. After a co-conspirator burnt himself, the doctor who treated him was visited by the fed, so a wise guy dropped by to tune him up. “Why beat up the fuckin’ doctor?!” Dom throws up his hands.
After Natale became a rat, soldier Angelo “Buddha” Lutz summed him up, “This guy’s like something out of Shakespeare. He was a comedy when he came in, and now he’s a tragicomedy.”
Hearing about the mob makes me think of Vietnam, where shakedowns by tax collectors and cops, and bribes to politicians, judges and professors, are all standard. With their abilities to extort, kidnap, injure or kill, the mob and government mirror each other, and in any failed or collapsing state, they become indistinguishable or the same. Like a militia, moreover, the mob may be your only protection against the government.
When the state deprives its subjects of natural, basic necessities like alcohol, drugs, paid sex or gambling, the mob fills in. Likewise, when the state fails to protect or keeps out unwanted elements. Before the Philly mob was laid low, heroin and black crimes were largely absent from South Philly.
In a healthy, prosperous society, the mob is parasitical and another layer of oppression. In a dysfunctional one, the mob isn’t just unavoidable, but essential.
Dom, “This guy screwed someone’s teenage daughter, so he was found dead, with his dick stuffed in his mouth. That’s how it was done.”
A good buddy of Skinny Razor was Frank “Blinky” Palermo, the famous fight fixer. Dom still remembers how Blinky joked with him, “Hey kid, you want to be the next middleweight champion of the world?” Working behind the scene, the mob could deform reality and mislead the masses, just like the government.
The DC, Wall Street and Hollywood gang has been fixing elections, stock markets, unemployment and inflation figures, daily news and history books, all aspects of our clueless lives, in short. We exist in a staggering unreality conjured up by the biggest and bloodiest mob in world history.