I was sitting in my car waiting and watching the front door. The summer sun in Florida kept my black car at a constant oven ready-to-bake temperature. The parking lot had no trees or shade to hide from the scorch. It was lunch time and I was in the only car in an oversized parking lot for Cafe Romano’s. I found it strange that there was this supposedly tremendous Italian restaurant in down town Fort Lauderdale that I never heard of. I took pride in knowing all of the Italian spots. Runway 84, Mateo’s, Casa D’Anelgo’s, Frank & Dino’s. I even knew the shitty ones. Somehow, I missed this one.
Frankie told me to meet him at 12 sharp at Romano’s. When I said that I never heard of it, he said, “What? Youz don’t know Romano’s, you fuck’en kid’en me, Romano’s! Youz ain’t heard of it? Deah ain’t nuttin betta in all Flarida kid.”
He sounded exactly like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas; exactly. But I never told him that. He said, “it’s right deah, as Sunrise Bou-li-vard makes dat tern.” I told him I knew where Sunrise Boulevard curved around near Federal Highway and that I’d find the place before 12.
It was 12:25 PM and I know I didn’t see him go in. I couldn’t miss him; there wasn’t anyone else around. I wondered to myself how long should I wait. My car’s AC was fighting the good fight against the noon sun, but the actual metal of the car was cooking around me. If the AC failed, I would burst into flames.
I thought maybe I should call him and see if he forgot. I didn’t want to be rude or pushy. I waited a few more minutes and called, “Frankie, this is Vince …”
Frankie was out of breath, “sorry kid, some mutha fuck’en moolie smacked into my car and I’m take’n care of it. You at a table?”
I told him I was sitting in my car. He insisted I go inside and tell the hostess I was waiting for him; they knew him there. Frankie repeated that the Italian food at Romano’s was the best outside of Rao’s in New York.
I imagined Frankie drove a large, shinny Cadillac. Yes I was stereotyping, but he was checking every box for me. Some poor black kid bumped into him, scuffed the oversized chrome bumper and was being stuffed inside a trunk. I shook off my thoughts, grabbed my briefcase and exited the car. I burned my hand as I closed the door.
I walked in to Romano’s and it was empty. There weren’t any customers inside. I could see a fat guy behind a large bar, one man sitting alone in the back and one woman seated on a stool at the bar. She slid off the stool in slow motion and did an oddly sexy walk towards me. She must have been a high paid stripper 20 years earlier. She didn’t offer me a menu or ask how many in my party. She said, “Can I help you?”
The restaurant was big, well set up and had at least 40 large round tables with white cloth set ups. I asked her, “are you open?” She nodded yes and looked at me. I said that I was there to see Frankie, that he told me to come here and wait for him. She lighten up a little and said, “Oh, Frankie, yeah he should be here soon. I’m Josephine, honey, you can sit anywhere you want, I’ll get you a menu.”
I sat near the front so I could see when Frankie got there. I was extremely nervous to meet him. I really didn’t want to meet him. I didn’t want to be there. I considered leaving. What would the consequences be? Maybe something came up and I had to go, I started to practice my excuses. I knew that I would eventually have to deal with Frankie, so I figured I should just get it over with.
I saw a guy come in and Josephine greeted him. She knew him but told him to wait at the front. Josephine walked to the back and spoke to the man seated in the back of the restaurant. He got up and met with the new guy and they walked into the parking lot and talked for a while. It was an animated conversation. The man that had been seated in the restaurant was obviously scolding the other guy. They eventually shook hands and parted. The man went back inside and took his seat in the back.
What was going on? The whole thing was bizarre. I thought, “how the hell did I even get here in the first place?”
It was two nights earlier that I got the call. Saturday night, around 12:30 AM, I was watching TV with my wife. Someone with a strong, high pitched New York accent called me and said, “Vinnie, what da fuck you do’en kid?” Whoever it was sounded very drunk.
I was confused, I responded, “who is this?”
The slurred voice said in a loud and sarcastic tone, “It’s Frankie, fuck’en Frankie. Louie’s friend. When am I gonna see you? Da vig on dat thing is gonna be more dan the fucking first ting. Da vig is gonna be double soon.”
“Yes, of course, how are you Frankie? I didn’t expect a call from you. How are you?” I said, as my head got a contact buzz over the phone.
Frankie sloppily spat, “I wanna see you Monday about dat ting. You got my friend Dominic’s case, right? Broken arm. And dat’s a good one. Meet me Monday at 12 sharp at Cafe Romano. You know da place, right?”
I was trying to think, but nothing was happening. How did Frankie know me? Louie’s friend. It finally popped, I met him for 30 seconds at Louie’s auto body shop a couple months earlier.
It was always fun to pop in at Louie’s shop. He had a hilarious way of telling crazy stories of his over the top partying and gambling. Louie was a monumental sports better and I had recently heard that he won a big bet on a parlay. I happened to be in the area, so I swung by Louie’s East Car Collision to kill some time and take it all in.
As I walked into the garage between wrecked cars, Louie was walking Frankie out. It was at that moment that Louie made the connection. He introduced me, saying “this is Vinnie, he’s my accident lawyer that did my case.” I shook Frankie’s hand and said hello. Louie was excited, full of energy, and he bragged how I got him a great settlement for his should injury and then he winked at Frankie. Frankie looked pissed off and barely spoke, but said that he’d refer people to me, if he could. I said, “that would be fantastic, thanks.”
When we went back into Louie’s office, Louie was bouncing off the walls. He must have been on an eightball. He told me that Frankie was his bookie and that I shouldn’t let the first meeting give me the wrong impression of the guy. He told me Frankie was usually a great guy and super funny but today he was pissed off because Louie won big that week. He showed me a bag filled with stacks of $100 bills that Frankie had to part with.
Louie said, “Yeah, it ain’t funny when he fuck’en has to pay, but when I’m down, he’s here all smiles telling me to double down and take another line.”
I asked Louie how much he won. I would never ask how much he lost. He dumped out the bags contents and said that he won $140,000. I never saw that much cash in one place at one time. Louie was beyond excited.
As I was piling his stacks of cash on the table, Louie gave me a bit of a warning. He said, “be careful with Frankie, he’s the real deal.”
I placed 14 stacks of $10,000 on top of each other to see how high they were. I said back, “you mean he’s your bookie, I don’t bet or gamble, so what’s the difference to me?”
“Nah,” said Louie, “I mean, he’s the real deal. He’s a somebody, if you know what I’m say’en.”
Louie was saying that Frankie wasn’t just a well dressed guy with slicked back black hair. Frankie was an actual Mafia member. A Made guy. I have always been fascinated with the mob. Not that this is anything original, as every mob movie since forever has been a huge hit. It seems that my entire generation found the Mafia mysterious and compelling. At the time, I thought it was “so fucking cool” that I just shook hands with an actual mobster.
As I was sitting inside Romano’s waiting on Frankie, several more guys in suits showed up to meet the guy in the back of the restaurant. Every time, they would walk out and talk in the parking lot. As this scene kept repeating, I finally realized that they didn’t want to talk inside. They must have thought Romano’s was bugged. Shit!
My thoughts began to run wild. If the restaurant was bugged, the FBI was probably somewhere across the street in a surveillance van taking pictures of everyone. I almost could hear the sound of cameras snapping. I imagined the FBI back at their head quarters with dozens pictures on a board with lines connecting the cast of a detailed criminal organization. Frankie was listed as a soldier and next to his name his rackets were spelled out: Book Making, Fencing, Extortion, Hit Man. Oh shit, a hitman?! Who the fuck was I meeting with and why?
On the corner of the board of pictures there was a picture of me, just snapped that day as I walked into Romano’s. There was a big question mark next to my face. One FBI agent said to another as he pointed to my picture, “we know all these other guys, but who’s this?”
As I was imagining this nightmare, Frankie walked in shouting, “I’m sarry I’m two-fuck’en hours late, kid. But I got a good case for ya.”
I was startled and only said, “huh?”
Frankie pointed out the window to the front of a BMW 760li. The front end looked like it drove into a wall. Frankie said, “The fuck’ed moolie stopped short and I blasted him in da ass. Dey give me da fuck’ed ticket, can youz believe dat?”
I asked him, “are you going to bring the car to Louie to fix it?”
Frankie laughed, “fuck no, dis ain’t no Cadi. I’m bringing it to BMW to fix da right way.”
Frankie told me how once he realized the cops were blaming him for the accident, he tried to get the guy he hit to hire me. Luckily, for me, it didn’t work.
Frankie pulled me out of the seat and gave me a big hug like we were old buddies. I met him one time before for 30 seconds. He told me to follow him to the bar. He introduced me to the super fat guy, “Dis is Joey da meatball. He’s da best fuck’en Italian cook around. Did you eat?”
I told him I had eaten, even though I never did. He next led me back to the mysterious man in the back. As we were walking back there, I wondered if we would head outside to talk.
Frankie grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the table. The man stood up as we got there. He was a fit, middle aged guy in a jogging suit, wearing reading glasses as he read the New York Post. Frankie made the introduction, “Hey Mike, meet Vinnie da lawya. He’s helping me wit a few tings.”
Mike was clearly Frankie’s boss and spoke in a slightly more refined New York accent. He said it was nice to meet me, but he seemed otherwise uninterested. They asked me to wait a moment as Mike grabbed a paper from the table to show Frankie. I could tell it was a Broward County Booking Sheet and Mug Shot. Frankie asked Mike, “Can we get him out?” Mike shook his head, no.
These were real criminals. Real mobsters. I did not belong there. I was sweating. I wanted to just run out the doors. Frankie wanted to talk to me. The door looked so far away. Why was this restaurant so big and so empty? I took note of Joey da meatball and there was no way he could stop me in time if I made a run for it. I stayed.
We left Mike and sat down. Frankie said, “I was just kid’en about da vig. So don’t worry about dat. But youz gotta get straight.”
I knew what he was talking about. He wanted me to pay him money for the client he referred me. I played dumb, saying, “what do you mean?”
He got a little irritated, responding “ya betta come up with da dime you owe before I put da vig back on top and double it. Dat a be two large.”
I was panicked. A mob guy was shaking me down for money. What were my options? Pay. Refuse. Would he kill me? Could I refuse? I had a third option, I lied.
“Frankie, that guy with the broken arm that you sent me. I want to thank you so much. I mean no disrespect, but it’s not good. It could have been a great case. Yes. But the guy who hit him had no coverage. So the case is no good. I had to close it,” I said.
Frankie was very disappointed, but he seemed to understand. I think the line I gave him about “not meaning any disrespect,” worked. I’ve seen that line used in every single mob movie when someone has to deliver bad news to a mobster and not get killed.
I wanted to get the hell out of there but the timing wasn’t right. He still wanted to talk. I felt finished. He had more pumping to do. I felt like a woman who orgasms too fast and has a drunk boyfriend thrusting on for a grueling 20 minutes. Finally, he started wrapping up, he told me that he had some friends that recently had some accidents and he was going to make them all fire their lawyers and hire me. He was excited to start referring me accident cases. He also had some other ideas he wanted to talk about the following week.
“Frankie, I cannot pay you for referrals. I do not want you to send me any referrals, this is not for me,” was what I was saying in my head. What came out of my mouth was, “Ok thank you so much Frankie, I gotta go. Talk to you soon.”
I was so happy just to get out of there. I nearly sprinted to my boiling car. Once inside, in a frothy sweat, I called the paralegal at my office who was helping me with the broken arm case and I told her to close the case immediately. I instructed her to tell the client that he needed to find another lawyer and if he asked why, tell him we had a conflict of interests.
I felt like such a coward. I didn’t have the balls to tell Frankie the truth; I didn’t want to know him. My mob fascination turned into mob fear. The mob was best left for the movies. Real mobsters shoot real bullets.
It would be just a matter of time before he called me again. I had to end it, but how?
Every night I had a fear Frankie was going to call that night, drunk, telling me to meet him at Romano’s. I needed to shake him. A week later, I decided to call Louie to see if there was some way he could step in and talk to Frankie for me. Louie answered the phone and told me, “didn’t you hear, Frankie died. He had a heart attack while taking a shit. Right there on the toilet. I’m so fucking happy, I lost a big bet that night. I would’a owed him 40 large. Win some, lose some.”
Frankie died. I felt an immediate release of tension. I was so happy. I was out. My brush with the mafia was over.