The Exceptions - By David Cristofano


When violence arrives, it rarely knocks. It seldom taps you on the shoulder, suggests you get ready. It creates change with the most capable tools in the toolbox: confusion, humiliation, destruction. And its survivors are lucky to have coughed out a raspy I never saw it coming.

I learned this in my earliest days, like all great family traditions. Some mothers hand down a culinary talent, some fathers pass a skill to a son or daughter, the familial reverence for the Holy Bible or a football team. But I grew up in a Sicilian household steeped in the practice of influence over the lives of others. We are the Bovaros, one of the oldest and most respected families in organized crime, and the tradition passed down to me with faith and accuracy was violence. I first witnessed it at age eight, first delivered it at age twelve. In our world, violence is the fulcrum. It keeps everything in—or out—of balance.

Perhaps no one has learned that lesson as well as James Fratello—known in our family as Jimmy “the Rat.” What Jimmy’s specific crimes against our family were I was never completely sure, though his coming and going—really, the going—kick-started events that altered the trajectory of my life. Jimmy was known as the Rat long before it turned out he really was one, named so for the stringy remains of oily hair that clung to the back of his meaty head. Whatever images of mafiosos your mind conjures from the movies, Jimmy would have been summed up like this: He wasn’t the strong one, the smart one, or the one with the good lines; he was nobody’s favorite; he was expendable, the one who might take a bullet and you wouldn’t waste the energy to shrug.

I was ten years old when my father gave the Rat what became a fabled slicing. Glad to say I never saw the result of my father’s brutality that day. I was hanging around, bored out of my mind—a difficult age to be Mafia-bred; too old to be innocent, too young to understand what’s really happening around you. I eventually strolled downstairs to see if I could catch a glimpse of what it was my dad did for a living, which at the time I misunderstood to be the manager of various restaurants. I stayed out of sight, watching the two of them chat in the kitchen long enough to realize nothing interesting was going on anywhere around them, around me. My father and Jimmy talked quietly, shared a few jokes. I yawned as I quietly made my way outside to the sidewalk.

All I can say is this: Jimmy never saw it coming.

Had I been inside or still within viewing distance of that kitchen, my life would have been cemented; the only way I could’ve survived the horror of witnessing premeditated murder by my father’s hand would’ve been to herald it, embrace it as my own, to become a player in the same league. Instead I was outside kicking stones into the sewer, watching some yokel from Jersey parallel park his Oldsmobile, back and forth and back and forth. Here I was ten years old and I knew enough to want to yell, “You gotta turn the wheel! Turn your freakin’ wheel!”

The guy spent close to three minutes inching his Cutlass closer to the curb, finished a good foot and a half shy of avoiding a citation. Then the suburban family slowly emerged. First the tall blond mother who would’ve had my adolescent brothers cracking crude jokes, then the father wearing an unseasonable wool raincoat and Yankees cap. But you can erase all of these images from your mind; that’s what I did as soon as I saw the little girl who wiggled out from the passenger side of the car. She was a few years younger than me, but I would never forget her. It was the first time a girl caught my attention, and she did so by staring up at the buildings with genuine admiration, inhaled the dirty air like a freshly lit cigar. A little Mary Tyler Moore, she was. A cascade of blond curls danced around her neck as she spun in circles on the sidewalk, her arms flailing about. She wore a short dress popular with the teenage girls in our neighborhood at the time and shoes that were black and shiny.

I still cannot understand what captivated me; she was just a little girl and I a little boy. But I became aware