When last week's sweeping FBI roundup netted a handful of venal New Jersey politicians and kidney-pilfering, Prada handbag-counterfeiting rabbis, Governor John Corzine let loose with an equally sweeping condemnation:
"Any corruption is unacceptable - anywhere, anytime, by anybody. The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated."
This kind of blanket judgment may be all right from a moral and civic perspective, but, to borrow from another politician's recent gaffe, Corzine "acted stupidly" by ignoring the sensitivities of the small-but-needy constituency to which I belong: Novelists, screenwriters and satirists whose livelihoods depend upon New Jersey being faithful to its core tenets of slapstick mendacity. If Manhattan brought us "radical chic," the Turnpike brought us "corruption shtick."
We writers need material, primarily that which validates archetypes because we prefer to traffic in existing prejudices, not baffle our audience with too much irony and nuance.
Bruce Springsteen's ballads are replete with Jersey-based rapscallions, ranging from "the Magic Rat" and faceless "runners in the night" to the "Chicken Man" (my local mob honcho, Phil Testa, who was blown up by a nail bomb), and the Boss's boardwalk cavalcade of aching Sandys, Kittys, Wendys, Wandas and Rosies.
Nor is this is the first time larcenous rabbis have made headlines in New Jersey. A few years ago, my hometown rabbi, Fred Neulander, retained the services of a hit man to murder his wife so he could run off with his flame-haired deejay girlfriend, the thinking being that getting divorced would be a big scandal. The diabolical Neulander financed the hit using a black market Torah: He told his congregation he needed a new one. Torahs are expensive because they are carefully hand-written. Then he went to Brooklyn and got himself a cheap "fugazy" Torah for bubkis, and pocketed the difference to underwrite the killing. In a creative denouement worthy of Mel Brooks, Neulander then stiffed the hit man, an alcoholic congregant who he persuaded that the murder was his initiation test for joining the Mossad.
As my Uncle Max once told me, "Never stiff a preferred vendor..."
Uncle Max would know: He had a hoodlum friend from North Jersey known as "Big Pussy," who inspired a character on The Sopranos by that name. As a boy, I was introduced to this man (real name John Russo), and shyly asked, "Do people make fun of that man because of his name?" Uncle Max arched his eyebrows and deadpanned, "No." I thought it must be nice to hang out with people who wouldn't tease you because you had a silly name. Russo was eventually whacked, allegedly at the orders of his boss, Ruggiero "Richie the Boot" Boiardo, who, according to local lore, had a working crematorium on his New Jersey property, which was practical given his chronic personnel problems. Corruption shtick abounds. A Philadelphia-South Jersey mobster was arrested a few years ago for cocaine possession, and his lawyer stood on the courthouse steps to inform the media "they were not my client's pants." Nor can we forget the South Jersey-centered ABSCAM scandal, which ensnared countless local officials and six Members of Congress. The literary highlight of the affair was when a pub-owning Philadelphia congressman named Ozzie Myers philosophically accepted a bribe from a fake sheik with the chestnut, "Money talks, bullshit walks." Then there is the myth that Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried beneath Giant Stadium in the Meadowlands. It almost surely isn't, mobsters being way too lazy to lug a body from Michigan, where Hoffa was last seen, all the way to Exit 16 of the New Jersey Turnpike. Still, the state's mythical thuggery is so powerful that the collective imagination of the American public practically wills Hoffa's corpse eastward independent of all evidence to the contrary. There are nervous undercurrents that the bust of the Rabbis That Couldn't Daven Straight, on the heels of Bernie Madoff, will exacerbate a new wave of anti-Semitism. I'm not so sure. Given our steady media diet of killer mullahs, pedophile priests and sexually-confused gonif evangelists, it's unlikely that a few bent Syrian rabbis gift-wrapping kidneys in Prada handbags are going to awaken the Cossacks for an encore of pogroms. In the long-run, most folks will recognize that every subset of society has its reprobates, but not every minority group can combine abject tragedy (Madoff) with darkly comic relief ("Look, Murray, for Plotnick I'd give the spleen for $160,000, but for you, bubbie, 120. And I'll throw in a Kate Spade purse for Sylvia...") New Jersey's home state bard, Philip Roth, called it right decades ago when he said,
"We now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper."
For moral and civic reasons, Governor Corzine is right to want to purge the Garden State's human toxins. But for those of us whose creative legacies depend upon New Jersey for material, he should not forget a small but important constituency that looks toward the Turnpike's miscreants and longs like a lovesick teenager at the end of summer for another runner in the night.