How Italy Saved My Life

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Italy saved my life.

I first arrived there in the summer of 1969, 14 years old and thousands of miles removed from the streets of my New York City neighborhood. I left behind parents waging a futile battle against a crumbling marriage and a jagged mountain of debt and my closest friends beginning their surrender to the allure of drugs and a life of petty crime and one-way jobs that always follow in their wake.

I didn’t know what I would find in Italy but knew, even at such a young age, that whatever it was it couldn’t be much worse than what I was leaving behind. We lived in a four-room 10th Avenue tenement railroad apartment whose windows cracked and froze during long winter nights and were incapable of capturing even a slight breeze across many a brutal August summer. The night before my flight was to leave for Rome I sat with my mother on the stoop of our building, each of us cooling off with a Puerto Rican shaved ice cone. “You sure you want me to go?” I asked, speaking in Italian since my mother stubbornly refused to learn English, her one rebellious act against an American family and a way of life that for her amounted to little more than a prison sentence.

She nodded and then pointed to the street and the apartment buildings and clusters of neighborhood people milling about doing their best to escape the summer heat. “Do you want this to be the rest of your life?” she asked. “If you do, then stay and your father can find other uses for the money. But if this isn’t want you want, then get on that plane and go to Italy.”

“What’s there that’s not here?” I asked.

Continue reading “How Italy Saved My Life”

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Ischia: An Island of Memories

 

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It began, as it so often does in Italy, with a love affair.

In the steamy summer months of 1960, a movie crew arrived on the Italian island of Ischia, 18 miles off the coast of Naples, to continue filming what would turn out to be one of the most expensive films ever made, “Cleopatra.” Soon after their arrival, the stars of the movie—Elizabeth Taylor (the Angelina Jolie of her day) and Richard Burton (the Welsh version of Brad Pitt)–began a love affair that caught the attention of paparazzi around the world. Photographers by the hundreds swarmed the island and followed the couple wherever they went. Since both stars happened to be married at the time (Taylor to then well-known singer Eddie Fisher), a world-wide romantic scandal ensued, complete with harsh headlines and, more importantly, photos of the madly-in-love duo. Continue reading “Ischia: An Island of Memories”

John Douglas, The Profiler

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It happened in Detroit on a Super Bowl Sunday in 1972. FBI headquarters had ordered a cross country gambling raid, looking to rope in 1,000 bookies and shut down as many parlors as possible in a one-day raid. One-third of those arrests were expected to come out of the Detroit office. The gambling houses would need to be hit hot and fast, since they were always on the look-out for such attacks, especially on high-level gambling days like Super Bowl Sunday. “I made three arrests that day,” John Douglas recalls. “One of them turned the direction of my life completely around. Continue reading “John Douglas, The Profiler”

The Tuscan Life

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The Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, in the center of historic Florence, is the oldest herbalist pharmacy of its kind in the world. It is where Michelangelo, Dante, Da Vinci and Galileo and other giants of the Renaissance came in search of cures for their various ailments. It had once been a monastery, home to Dominican monks who worked the herbal gardens in search of medicinal remedies. The modern world is left outside once you pass through the thick, ornate wooden doors. Continue reading “The Tuscan Life”

Confessions of a Reluctant Dog Person

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(I originally wrote this for Bark Magazine back in 2011, the year Midnight Angels came out.) 

Four years ago, I was in the dairy section of a supermarket when my cell phone rang. My then-23-year-old daughter was on the other end.

“Which would make you angrier,” she asked. “If I told you I was in jail or if I told you I bought a puppy?”

“How long would you be in jail for?” I said. Continue reading “Confessions of a Reluctant Dog Person”

A Name By Any Other Name: The Top 10 Mobster Nicknames

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Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia

“JOEY CUPCAKES” PLED not guilty. That would be Joseph “Joey Cupcakes” Urgitano charged with taking a metal baseball bat and doing a number on two men who were harassing a woman on West 14th Street in New York City last month. For my money, I believe “Joey Cupcakes.” For two reasons: (1) With a nickname like that, dollars to donuts he would stand up for a dame in distress and (2) His lawyer is the great Murray “Don’t Worry” Richman. For this kind of charge, that’s the best kind of legal money can buy.

If you’re going to go into the business of crime (and I’m not saying “Joey Cupcakes” is in that business) then you need yourself a nice nickname, one that people and, more importantly, the press, will remember. Here are 10 of my favorites: Continue reading “A Name By Any Other Name: The Top 10 Mobster Nicknames”

The Master

Author Elmore Leonard Portrait Session And Book Signing At Book SoupElmore Leonard died at the age of 87, the result of a stroke. The day the stroke hit, Leonard was doing what he had been doing since 1951—the year he sold his first short story, a western, to Argosy Magazine—writing. He was working on his 46th novel, “Blue Dreams.”

Leonard, known as “Dutch” to his friends—a nickname he lifted from a Washington Senators baseball pitcher who shared the same last name—came out of the world of advertising, writing copy during the day and getting up before the sun rose to write two pages of a novel every morning. He would finish one page before he allowed himself a taste of that first cup of coffee. Continue reading “The Master”

The Thrill of Italy: Part 1

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IT IS WHERE I was always meant to be.

Somehow I knew that from that first moment when I stepped off the Alitalia jet and ventured into the chaos of Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci Airport. I was 14 years old on that miserably hot and humid day and knew I had found my special place.

It didn’t happen by accident. I was born and raised on the West Side of Manhattan, in Hell’s Kitchen, but I might as well have been in Italy. My mother spoke no English and neither did I until I walked into a first grade classroom. Continue reading “The Thrill of Italy: Part 1”