There were few, if any, salty tears spilled last week over the prison murder of former Boston mob boss and government rat Whitey Bulger.
Even though Hollywood made two or three movies about Bulger’s life of crime, including the Oscar-winning flick The Departed, there was nothing glamorous about his depraved life.
Bulger’s death reminded me of how many times I’ve heard that tired old line, “Las Vegas was better when the Mob ran the town.” This is typically muttered by old-timers who find reserved seating in hotel showrooms to be too impersonal, or don’t like the fact that the person who sold them the ticket or directed them to their seat didn’t know them from Adam.
“Vinnie always greeted us by name and made sure we had a great seat when Frank and Dean were in town,” goes the refrain. But of course Vinnie remembered their names not because they were special, but because they pressed two Andrew Jacksons into his lobster-like fist.
Maybe the nostalgia connected to the bent-nose guys of yesteryear working behind the scenes is tied to our fascination with crime and whodunits — the James Ellroy-drenched film noir infatuation with the notion that this modernized western city we call home has a heart as black as the hats that Bugsy and the boys wore back when.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Mob Museum and think it’s a great addition to our city. But that’s where the Mob belongs: in a museum. I, for one, would rather see that 10 or 15 percent share that the boys used to slice from the swing-shift profits go to our state coffers to help reduce classroom sizes and keep good teachers on the payroll.
I’ve been here long enough to remember some of the dudes the old-timers claim made this city so much better back in the day. In my four decades as a scribbler, I’ve interviewed a half a dozen serial killers and hitmen, and on two different occasions was “honored” to be on the final phone call list of death row inmates scheduled to be executed the following day.
Trust me: there is nothing uplifting about those conversations. They are out-and-out depressing.
I vividly recall a moment from the year 1981. The location: Alias Smith & Jones restaurant, on the east side of town. It was a popular watering hole until it burned down in a suspicious fire 15 years later.
I was on a first date with a young woman, sharing chicken fingers, when my companion nudged me in the ribs. There was a look of concern in her eyes.
“That man keeps staring at me,” she whispered, nodding towards a side table. “He’s making me uncomfortable.”
I took this as a subtle challenge for a guy on a first date hoping to impress. Should I reveal my inner machismo and quickly rise and confront the gawker and tell him to put his eyes back in his head? Or should I let her comment slide and profess to be a devotee of Gandhi and Mother Teresa?
When after a mandatory five-count I glanced over to see who was visually stalking her, I felt an instant chill. A short, stocky man with coal-black eyes and dark hair was sure enough shooting lasers at my date, and when I busted him in the act he turned his gaze directly at me.
The man in the booth that night was none other than Anthony Spilotro, or as he was called behind his back, “Tony the Ant.”
It goes without saying that on that night all those years ago I didn’t valiantly rise up from our booth and get in Tony’s grill. Nor did I tell my date until we were safely in the car and miles away from the restaurant that the man who found her so alluring was the Chicago syndicate’s main enforcer in Las Vegas, thought to have killed a dozen or more victims.
While it’s true that the East Coast-educated attorneys and accountants who run Strip hotels today might not be nearly as colorful as the grifters and second-chance guys who put Las Vegas on the map decades ago, they offer a far brighter view of our city’s future.
Las Vegas still has a world of problems to address, but I’d rather leave the answers to these challenges to the newer breed of gaming executives. Had the boys with the bent noses and colorful nicknames been left to operate unchecked, there is no doubt the big-league city we know today would have shriveled up like a human carcass buried under a yucca tree halfway to Barstow.