The Pope of Brooklyn

06/05/2016 04:33 pm ET

We sneaked out of Brooklyn one summer morning in 1961. My father was already in the wind; the NYPD and FBI wanted a piece of him. He was a hustler, confidential informant, bookmaker, and compulsive gambler. Pope was his street name, and he conspired with cops doing shakedowns of his rivals. Along with my mother and brother, I would track him down in California—as would, eventually, law enforcement.

My dad was unmanageable, impulsive, bottled-up, unhinged, sentimental, take-no-bull, shifty, tough, smarter-than-he-wanted-you-to-think, dumber-than-you-could-believe, hyperactive, attention-deficit—a rakishly handsome man whom my va va va voom mother excoriated as somebody who, and I almost quote, “never shut up.” Her phrasing was more colorful.

As a little boy from Greenpoint, I was in the dark, however, about his criminal life, or why I was shanghaied to California, or that he would be extradited to New York. In 2015, I was enlightened.

Online I stumbled across transcripts of cop-corruption trials where he was the star witness. New York State Appellate Division Records tell a tortured story that had nothing to do with me—but had everything to do with me. These trials have gone unnoticed for 50 years, so in the annals of American jurisprudence not exactly O.J. or the Rosenbergs. In the annals of American me, different story. This was my old man and he spilled his secrets.

He was dead when those transcripts surfaced, but in his early 80s the Alzheimer’s wouldn’t permit him to discuss. I managed his care, spending more time with him than I did as a child, when he was a young man on the make.

Questions always irked him. As a child I had nothing but questions for him, and his default comeback was pure Brooklyn: “Whaddayou, writin’ a book?” Something similar took place when he was cross-examined:

  1. Do you remember being asked those questions and making those answers?
  2. Yes.
  3. Was that answer true?
  4. It was true at the time.

His lie had been true at the time.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, meet my dad.

Elsewhere he was pressed as to how he’d summoned recollections as to a particular crime:

  1. You might have said fifty?
  2. I possibly said fifty.
  3. Why would you say fifty if it was a hundred?
  4. I just came back from California.
  5. Anything in California to refresh the memory?
  6. I left the family behind.
  7. Now, how does it refresh the memory?
  8. At the time it did.

He routinely tied himself in knots. As my mother swore, he would lie even if the truth was on his side. His struggles on the stand seem more poignant in retrospect, when I factor in his dementia. Navigating transcripts, trying to comprehend my dad at 35, was heartbreakingly comparable to my understanding him at 82. One type of secretiveness and inscrutability was replaced by another. Transcripts furnished information about the past, but there would be no illumination forthcoming as to his dementia. As I reflect on him in my childhood and then his final years, I peer through both ends of the telescope.

In open court he was identified as an “unsavory character,” somebody who, it was said, would steal from his own mother to bet on a horse or pay off a loan shark. At the same time, he was capable of kindnesses and care for me and my son, for whom he was a doting grandfather.

We battled before dementia and after, when it wasn’t a fair fight. I confiscated car keys; he was a threat on the road. He was always demanding razor blades (he had a stock pile) or toothpaste (the cabinet overflowed). The TV remote vanquished him. I commandeered credit cards, paid his bills. He hated that I had financial control though conceded: “Guess you’re an honest guy.” High praise for a man like him.

He would ask, “Have you seen my wife?” when my mother had been long gone. “Is John coming by?” My dad and I were together when we last saw my brother. We hugged near John’s casket; he’d overdosed. Ghostly presences seemed real to him, as they were for me.

Before being bedridden, his go-to destination was the track. With the 2010 Kentucky Derby, he liked a horse that went off 12-1. Unlike most gamblers, and despite suffering cognitive deficits, he picked the winner: Super Saver. But there was no saving him from Alzheimer’s.

He remains a question mark. Maybe I did not know him while I was growing up, and we came full circle: as he was dying he couldn’t recognize me at all. My whole life I tried to read him. I see now I’ll have to write him for myself. From the beginning I guess he was right when I asked him my childhood questions. I was writing a book, my book on the Pope of Brooklyn. That was true at the time, and it still is.


Joseph Di Prisco is the author of The Alzhammer, a novel about a mobster with dementia, and the memoir Subway to California.

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