While growing up, Joe Farroni almost never saw his Uncle Rocco, and when Joe asked his parents about the man, they’d kept their lips zipped. Only when Joe is an adult—a writer struggling with a mortgage and two kids—does he discover his uncle’s identity as the sneakiest, slipperiest, most successful conman to ever grace the streets of New York City. Now Rocco has passed away, and left it to Joe, his only heir, to write the story of his master schemes. The Bust-Out King is a rollicking caper about a wise guy of the gritty 1970s, a determined individual with a financial scheme well ahead of his time. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Avery Corman, including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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The Bust-Out King
By Avery Corman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Avery Corman
All rights reserved.
What you were supposed to do was sit down next to a girl in the balcony of the Loew's Paradise, engage her in a little bit of conversation, put your arm around her, start to neck, and feel her up.
This was Saturday afternoons; and Saturday nights there was a lot of talk around the neighborhood by people who said they did that. "Picked her up. Felt her up."
I never did that.
I never stole anything from the five-and-ten.
I never played hooky and sneaked downtown to the Paramount Theatre to see the stage show.
I never got caught smoking in the De Witt Clinton High School bathroom.
I did break a window once. We were playing stick-ball, and I hit a line drive down the left-field line that smashed Mrs. Barney's window, 3-C, in fair territory. We all ran away, but somehow Mister Kosco, the superintendent of that building, appeared at my door, looking out of context in my doorway and not in front of his precious garbage cans, and demanded $5.50 from my father, which my father paid. There is a boy's vision of America where you break a window with a gorgeous line drive, a fair ball no less, and you lie in bed that night with secret, delicious ecstasy over the event. I broke a window and I got caught.
I never danced the mambo or the cha-cha-cha. My sister tried to teach me, but after I saw Vinnie D'Angelo, a renowned Loew's Paradise balcony feel-em-up-er, dazzling some Jewish girls from Pelham Parkway at a party with his cha-cha-cha, I decided to forego Latin rhythms.
I never was a big beer drinker in college, which was the thing to be then in the early fifties, especially for students at New York City colleges, who were trying to look out-of-town-college-sophisticated. I was an English major at C.C.N.Y. and could not have passed for anything else, going out on inexpensive dates, like riding on the Staten Island Ferry with high-school girls I would take home on the subway and then rub up against in Bronx hallways.
I never did anything like Donny Patman's famous cigar-box trick, which was to take a cigar box, cut a hole in the side of it, put his penis in the hole, walk into a party with the box in front of him, ask a girl to open the box, and she would open it and there would be his penis in the box.
"You must get your face slapped a lot," I said to Donny.
"Yeah, but I also get laid a lot," he said to me.
In retrospect, is it conceivable that a young woman would have gone to bed with Donny Patman on the basis of seeing his penis in a cigar box? Or that Vinnie D'Angelo was actually able to approach a strange girl in the Paradise balcony and, after a few words were exchanged, feel her up? But these were the legends of the Bronx neighborhood where I lived, and I believed them as deeply as I believed I could never do that.
I never cut classes. I never cheated on any exam. I was never really out of line, and if a girl said, "Don't," I didn't.
I have tried to analyze why I was so correct, so reserved in my behavior as a young man, a pattern, I must admit, that continued as I grew older. It could not have been simply because my parents were Italian immigrants who spoke halting English and assimilation was uppermost in our minds. That was also Vinnie D'Angelo's background, yet Vinnie was out there cha-cha-cha-ing at parties with his erection showing.
I think the explanation may lie in an illuminating article that appeared in Catholic Issues magazine, wherein the writer, Father James L. O'Shire, said: "In many Catholic families, if the ultimate act of rebellion has occurred, that being the giving up of the practice of Catholicism, the failed Catholic, out of guilt, may continue from that point on to live an especially straitlaced existence, having exhausted himself as it were by the major rebellion of his life."
In my family, we were failed Catholics—my sister, six years older than I, my father before us, who never set foot in a church. As for my mother, the custodian of the faith in our family, she was not all that diligent a caretaker, and by the time the religious arguments got to me, she had very little energy for the crusade.
Yes, I think Father O'Shire may have had a keen insight into my situation, and although one must admit that in academic circles Father O'Shire has come under criticism for his outspoken views, I personally do not think his recent article in Catholic Issues, "A Confession of My Life as a Practicing Homosexual in the Parish," in any way undermines his scholarship on the rebellion-straitlaced issue.
However conservative I was in my actions while growing up, still I was accepted. What was held in high regard in the neighborhood was athletic ability. And I had, luckily, an especially accurate one-handed push shot in basketball. I did not look as though I would. I wore glasses. I was not tall, about five-feet-seven at my full height. I was on the thin side, with an Italian nose closer to Tony Bennett's than Marcello Mastroianni's. I was not particularly agile. I looked then as I do now, rather bookish, to be honest. But I had that one specialty. I would stand like a fireplug pumping out baskets. It was irritating, I know, to play against me and see the ball go in because I looked so owlish and incompetent. In that respect, I was like the skinny Irish-Catholic boys with acne who went to high schools like Cardinal Hayes and then went on to Manhattan College, and who were very gangly but in touch football ran like whippets right past you. Farroni's Push Shot. It helped me get through, adolescence, spared any streetcorner appellation like "Bookworm Bernie," who was the unfortunate Bernie Glitzman, and who was a person exactly like me, except for the push shot.
Recently, I took my two boys who are ten and seven down to a schoolyard near our apartment. After warming up, I made six out of ten push shots, and it may be unduly competitive to take pleasure out of your own children's astonishment, but it really made me glow inside when I saw on their little moon faces the same look of irritated disbelief I had seen all through my growing-up years as Farroni's Push Shot went right through the hoop.
After getting my bachelor's degree in English and spending six months in the Army Reserve, I went back to C.C.N.Y. for a master's in Education, eventually getting a teaching license and a job as an English teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. I was still living at home with my parents, but would like to stress that this was in no way an indication of caution on my part about being on my own. I had a great deal of freedom. I had a room of my own, could come and go as I pleased, and was even able to take girls up—after my parents were asleep. The thing is, in our neighborhood, few people moved out before they were married. It was cultural. What I mean to say is, I was only twenty-five, and at that time twenty-five was not that old to still be living at home. At that time. So I lived at home. But I did move out eventually. You did not move out just like that in those days. So I lived at home, which was right for then.
The apartment was a standard, dark Bronx apartment—four rooms, and you ate in the kitchen. What distinguished it from all other apartments in the neighborhood was my father's carpentry work: handmade bookcases, cabinets, tables, chairs. He had a streetside carpentry shop and made a modest living, mostly out of correcting building violations, work that was beneath his craftsmanship. To keep busy, he was always building something special for the house. There were none of the fights with the exaggerated hand gestures and shouting between my mother and father, which are supposed to characterize people from the old country. They were quiet people, gentle and loving to one another as they were to me. They are both gone now. I have two things I keep in a drawer, which I am sentimental about. One is a watch they gave me on my graduation from college. It is inscribed: "To our Joseph, always our good boy." The other is a wooden toy airplane. My father made it for me, and it withstood my childhood and then each of my two sons' childhoods and, out of respect, I have retired it.
Considering my reserved nature, it is ironic that at Yonkers Raceway I won the affections of the girl who later became my wife. The track was only a few minutes from where I lived, and on any given night, armed with pencils and Best Bets from the New York Post, there was an exodus from the neighborhood of our leading sportsmen. They ranged from young to old, from the barber to the foot doctor to my best friend Tommy Ryan, on his way to becoming a lawyer and a CPA and, at that moment, a skilled handicapper of the vagaries of Yonkers Raceway.
Incidentally, Tommy also lived at home well into his twenties, which I include to support my earlier contentions concerning living at home as part of the bias within our culture, so that is that.
Tommy was always after me to join him for "an evening under the stars," as he called it, trying to put an appealing face on going to the track. But the betting and the possibility of losing lay just outside my interest in risk-taking. To encourage me to join him, Tommy created the Movie System of Betting. We would each contribute $9 to a pot, giving us $18 to purchase nine $2 win tickets, one ticket for each race. Tommy would handicap the races. At the end of the evening—after paying admission to the track, purchasing a program, buying a ginger ale at the bar, and betting each race—Tommy usually picked about three winners, and the evening's entertainment never cost more than $2, which was the same as the price of a movie, hence the Movie System of Betting. Sometimes we even made a couple of dollars. Even so, after going to Yonkers this way a few times, I informed Tommy that I still preferred going to the movies.
Tommy arranged for me to meet a girl who was a friend of someone he was seeing. My date was, according to Tommy's salesmanship, "brainy and beautiful." She was a senior at Hunter College, an art major, and although I felt that at twenty-five I should no longer be going out with college girls, even a senior, I said yes, because at the time I wasn't going out with any girls.
"One requirement," Tommy said. "The girls demand an evening under the stars."
My date, whose name was Mary Anne Wellins, was simply the most beautiful person I had ever gone out with—ash-blonde hair, hazel eyes. We went to the track and installed the Movie System of Betting for the evening, won the first two races, and Mary Anne and I were laughing together and holding hands. Yonkers Raceway on a date, a highly successful icebreaker, better than going to the movies.
But then we began to lose—five races in a row. The others were still laughing, but I was not. There is nothing funny to me in a person losing his hard-earned money at a racetrack. Tommy let me pick the eighth race since I had observed his handicapping methods a sufficient number of times, and I chose a horse named Sparrow Song. Near the end of the race, with the horses at the far end and out of view, I noticed the track announcer was no longer announcing the position of Sparrow Song.
"Where is my horse?" I shouted to Tommy.
"Your horse is taking a nap."
The others were really laughing now, despite the last-place finish of Sparrow Song and the loss of another $2. We lost the next race as well, and a good time was had by all, except me, because the system had broken down; and counting the cost of the extra admission and program for my date, along with our losses, it had all cost quite a bit more than a movie.
As we were leaving, the napping Sparrow Song weighing heavily on my mind, Mary Anne slipped her arm inside mine and said:
"You are one of the sweetest, tensest people I have ever met," which was a rather unconventional thing to say on a first date.
We saw each other for a year and a half. I had by then moved into an apartment of my own in Manhattan, which should take care of that particular question. For the last six months before we were married, we lived together, which was somewhat dramatic for an Irish girl, and an Italian boy from the Bronx—in those days.
Our wedding reception was held at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, a small gathering since neither of our families was very large or very rich. There was some discussion in my house whether my Uncle Rocco, my father's younger brother, would show up for the wedding, since no one had seen Uncle Rocco in several years. Uncle Rocco did not appear, but several weeks later, Mary Anne and I did receive a wedding gift from him.
A strange, rugged man appeared at our door, wearing dark glasses and a black raincoat turned up at the collar, hardly your average United Parcel person.
"Joseph Farroni?" he said, almost as an accusation.
"Yes?" I answered, warily.
"Dis is from ya Uncle Rocco."
And he pushed a large box into the apartment and left.
We opened the box. It contained twenty-four identical Waring blenders. Which was typical of Uncle Rocco.CHAPTER 2
I saw him only twice in my life that I clearly remember. In 1945 when I was eight years old, my family rented a small bungalow in Rockaway Park, near the ocean. One day as my sister and I returned from the beach, we saw a Lincoln Continental parked outside the house and, leaning against the car, two muscular men. As we neared the door of the house, we could hear an argument in Italian, my father and another man. We went inside, and standing there with my parents was a short, stocky man, balding, dark complexioned, narrow, intense eyes, and a prominent nose like my father's and mine. The man was smoking a big cigar and wearing a matching silk cabana outfit with Hawaiian scenes all over it. But on his feet he wore ordinary black socks and black leather street shoes, as though he had put on a beach outfit appropriate for his visit and had not been concerned with this last detail.
"This is your Uncle Rocco," my father said.
"What do you say, kids?" he said, kissing my sister and shaking hands with me. Then he turned back to my father. "Salvatore?"
My father shook his head emphatically, no. Uncle Rocco nodded and then walked over to a suitcase he had placed on the dining-room table.
"Okay, then, Salvatore. You take care, kids." He opened the suitcase slightly.
"Here. Have a good time. Go on the rides."
And from the suitcase he handed each of us a $20 bill. I managed a quick glance and saw that the suitcase was stuffed with money. Then, in an elegant manner, he shook hands with my father, kissed my mother, kissed my sister, shook hands with me, and briskly walked out the door, carrying his suitcase, in his silk Hawaiian outfit with the black leather shoes.
Over the years, I would receive gifts from him at random times or at Christmas. Not the customary gifts an uncle might send a nephew, like a football or a basketball. I would receive a shipment of eighteen footballs, twelve basketballs, as though Uncle Rocco had suddenly cornered a market on them.
When I would ask questions about him, my father and mother offered no information.
"Where is Uncle Rocco?"
"Your Uncle Rocco has his ways."
"What does Uncle Rocco do?"
"Your Uncle Rocco knows what your Uncle Rocco does."
"Do I never see Uncle Rocco because he is in jail?"
"Your Uncle Rocco would never go to jail."
Now and again, I would detect my father and mother whispering about Uncle Rocco late at night in the kitchen, but I never knew what they were whispering about.
My sister knew as little as I did, apart from the knowledge that my mother would sometimes send photographs of the family to Uncle Rocco at a post office box number in Manhattan. It was to this address that the invitations for my sister's wedding, and then for mine, were sent. My sister, who over the years had received such gifts as one dozen dolls or two dozen tea services, received, at the time of her wedding, which Uncle Rocco did not attend, ten identical electric rotisseries.
When my father became ill and was hospitalized, I sent a note to the post office box number. Uncle Rocco never came to the hospital. He never came to my father's funeral. When my mother was ill and passed on, I wrote to him then, and he also never appeared. Where he was, I do not know. But in both instances, when I went to pay the hospital and funeral expenses, I was informed the bills had already been paid.
The only other time I saw my uncle was when I was nineteen and in college. I was walking along Broadway one day and a long, black chauffeured limousine pulled alongside of me.
Excerpted from The Bust-Out King by Avery Corman. Copyright © 1977 Avery Corman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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