There is a homely adage which runs, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” — Theodore Roosevelt, in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair, September 2, 1901.
I’ve been doing a lot of work for my lawyer on deposition prep. That is, going through the chronology containing all the documents we received as part of discovery, pulling significant ones as potential deposition exhibits.
Something about this work — the silent muscle buried in the documents and chronology — suddenly reminded me of an educational experience I had many years ago, when I was working in low-budget films.
We (the aforementioned Ropes McGonnigle and I) had a fully equipped film production studio out of which we produced our own films and worked on commercials for other companies.
Through some contact, we’d been introduced to the extraordinary Charlie Carmello. I’m using his real name because I’ve been told he died a while ago, although given that it’s Charlie, I can’t be sure he’s really gone, wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’s living in Costa Rica or Java — and, given that this is Charlie I’m talking about, he wouldn’t mind appearing under his real name, anyway.
Charlie showed up at the studio one day and offered himself as a general film crew guy. He could do anything on a film, he said. And he could: he built sets, tiled bathroom sets, set up lights, painted, loaded cameras. Everything.
Charlie was, in appearance, one of the scariest guys I’d ever seen. A few years later, when I had ascended the movie hierarchy and was working at Paramount Pictures during the time we were making The Godfather, Charlie would drop in unannounced. Our receptionist would call me, terrified almost to tears, saying, “There’s a Mister Carmello here to see you.”
Charlie was wiry, not tall. His stubbly face and strange eyes conveyed menace. However, he proved himself to be a great gentleman; kind, generous, funny, warm. He became a friend.
Throughout our initial acquaintance, Charlie would hang in my office telling me stories about his life. I picked up that he was a product of gangland Brooklyn, the Brooklyn docks, but I also sensed he was not a made man, so to speak, not bound to any Mafia family; not, in fact, a Mafioso.
Charlie was, I figured out, an individual. He knew people, sure, but was himself a renegade.
The stories Charlie used to tell me, crazy adventures involving stolen jewels, smuggled jewels, a crocodile alongside a jungle boat, purloined erotic Vatican sculptures — wild, mad narratives —were Indiana Jones material, back before there was an Indiana Jones. Tales of occasional sex, violence and crime, with Charlie as a swashbuckling, picaresque hero, dangerous when danger was required.
I loved the stories, would listen to Charlie with my mouth in a permanent “O” of delight and wonder. But even back then, when I believed everything anybody told me, I never really took the adventures seriously. I just considered Charlie a terrific storyteller.
Until one day.
One major problem with Ropes was that he always spent and owed more money than we took in. Thus, we were always in debt — to the landlord, to the nice hardware store guy across the street. To everybody. And consequently I, honest and always personally up to date in bill paying, was usually pretty frantic: I didn’t have the money to pay the bills, and got a lot of dunning calls. Hated it.
That particular day, I was in the office worrying about one particular bill, an open invoice I’d sent to a guy I’ll call Jerry Weisenfeld, a successful producer of TV commercials who had rented a lot of our equipment to use on a shoot in the Caribbean. He’d returned all the equipment but was now several months late in paying his substantial bill.
That money would go a long way to paying our bills. And although I loathed being put in the position of making dunning calls myself, I’d called Weisenfeld’s office several times and had been treated rudely.
Charlie walked in as I was mid-fret, and asked what was wrong. I told him. Hm, he said, I think I can help.
At that point, I understood, with a quality of desperation, that Charlie’s scariness could be my salvation. I gave him the go-ahead and Weisenberg’s phone number. Here’s what happened:
Charlie dialed Weisenfeld. “I’d like to speak to Jerry Weisenfeld,” he said politely. “This is Charlie Carmello.” Charlie waited, but not for long. Weisenfeld picked up.
“Mr. Weisenfeld?” Charlie said in his thick Brooklyn accent but so gently, so wimpily my heart sank. The following conversation was the opposite of everything Charlie had been telling me about himself. Just a disgraceful performance of abject weakness. His voice itself was even quavery.
“I’m sitting here with Naomi at the studio,” Charlie ventured hesitantly, “and — yeah, she’s a friend, so I thought maybe I could help out a bit.” Weisenfeld said something. “Well, she’s mentioned this bill? Something she says you might owe the studio?” Pause. Then Charlie laughed, “Yeah, Naomi gets kind of, you know, upset about things, you know she’s a woman…” Pause. “Well, I thought maybe I could just ask you…” Pause. “Oh I understand, I understand, sure, that’s fine, I understand, I’ll explain it to her…” Pause. “Thank you, thank you for talking to me.”
And he hung up. I was furious and furiously crushed. “Well, what exactly is that going to do?” I snapped at him.
Charlie rocked back in his chair and looked at me, smiling. “Well,” he said, “I hear the name ‘Jerry Weisenfeld,’ I’m thinking ‘Jerry Weisenfeld, Weisenfeld.’ I think I know this name. I think he’s connected. So I give him my name, Charlie Carmello, and now he’s picking up his phone and calling his guys, and he’s mentioning my name. And he’s finding out from his guys how many guns he got, and how many guns I got.
“The one who got the most guns is gonna win.”
The next morning at 9:30, when I arrived at the studio there was a nervous messenger waiting at the front door holding an envelope. Containing Jerry Weisenfeld’s check for the full amount he owed us.