Back in the old Village days, I was a kid living among older, much more sophisticated folk. “Folk” is the operative word, since pretty much everyone I knew was a folk musician-songwriter. They would tell me wonderful stories about the Village, Village places, Village characters. And I would listen wide-eyed and enthralled.
That was how I learned about money laundering and protection rackets.
What I’m going to tell you is almost entirely anecdotal. That is, I’m not guaranteeing its absolute accuracy, but it is accurate as I heard it.
In the early ’60s, The Village was in one of its transitional phases, moving from being beat (and an extension of Little Italy) into being the center of the folk world. There were a lot of folk clubs in the Village and my friends performed at them.
Here’s a generic description of a folk club: in or around MacDougal and Bleecker, down a few steep steps into a partial basement. Dark, primitively hip. Some tables and chairs, a small stage, a microphone maybe, and a greasy food menu (order if you dare). The walls, insofar as they were painted, were glum and you didn’t want to stroke them.
The Village and its money-making enterprises (did those clubs make any money?) were within the territory of … well, the Mafia. You know, that organization that isn’t supposed to exist. And the Mafia “protected” these clubs from … hm. From what? The Village, then and now, was always a pretty safe place to wander around, even in the middle of the night.
Never mind. Each club had to pay a protection fee. Actually, it wasn’t just one fee, it was multiple fees. The Police Department also collected protection fees, although maybe they called them contributions to the PBA, I’m not sure. Or the widows and orphans fund.
Here’s how I was told it worked: the local patrolman would stop in to the club every month or so (depending on the deal that had been worked out) and the club owner would hand over cash. The cash contribution was carefully scaled and distributed among the local patrolman, the sergeant, and up the hierarchy.
I don’t know if the area Mafia clubhouse had an official hierarchy but they did collect protection fees. See, the thing was, what these fees protected a club owner from was having his windows smashed, his sound equipment battered, and more.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the irony within all of this is, shouldn’t the police protection fees have caused the police to protect the club owners from the Mafia? Well, I’m just dreaming.
Anyway, that’s how it worked. There was one club owner, however, who refused to be extorted. His name was John Mitchell and early on he owned the Gaslight (which was later owned by Clarence and Sam Hood). Later Mitchell owned the Fat Black Pussycat and maybe a couple of other places. And John Mitchell, so I was told, just didn’t pay protection money.
Stuff happened, Mitchell, a legend for a number of reasons, managed to survive threats to his life and limbs, but eventually moved to Algeria, or Tunisia or Morocco. Either because he wanted to get out of New York or because he felt it wise to get out of New York.
So that’s the way a protection racket works. If you don’t pay, your property gets smashed and you’re put on the endangered species list.
What does that sound like? Like Yelp. Because as a helpful reader just informed me, if a law firm, say, which has been “reviewed” on Yelp, doesn’t take out a Yelp ad, Yelp yanks all the good reviews down and leaves the bad ones.
That’s breaking windows, all right. I’m thinking it must be as illegal or criminal as were the Village protection rackets of the 1950’s and ’60s.