But it was not entirely gone. On the corner of Elizabeth and Prince was a diner called Bella’s Luncheonette, where I was nursing a hangover. Bella’s was a place that served breakfast all day long. Bella’s was a real working class joint. But a few years from then, it too would be gone, turned into a chic Cuban eatery for the models and stock brokers and hipsters moving into the neighborhood.
But on that day, Bella’s is still a diner, a real greasy spoon. On the walls are 8 x10 photos from Martin Scorsese films, 8 x 10s signed by actors like Robert Di Nero and Joe Pesci. But there are also photos of locals, friends of Marty’s, who grew up in the neighborhood on Elizabeth, Mott and Mulberry Streets. They are photos of real wise guys, turned actors because Scorsese put them in a film. These are guys who in their younger days worked the numbers’ racket, or diverted stolen goods off the back of trucks. They are pictures of made men who now do punk stuff for a living or have semi-legitimate jobs to make it all even out. And every now and then they get a bit part playing themselves in a movie or a TV spot. It pays to have connections in Little Italy.
Several of the photos are of a guy named Vinny – Vinny Vella. One is a photo of him taken from the movie Casino in which he had a bit role. Another 8 x 10 glossy is his head shot, and another shows him with his son, Little Vinny. They both live around the corner.
Vinny Vella, Big Vinny, has white curly hair pulled back over his head. He, too, wears wife beater T-shirts and light blue silk running pants and white sneakers. There are always gold chains around his neck. Vinny is the real deal, the stuff that the cliché derives from. And he’s an old friend of mine.
When he greets you it’s with a classic, “Hey, how ya doin’?” When he says it, his hands are turned out at his sides, his palms up. His shoulders are back. Vinny is larger than life. Even when he is down, he is up, putting on a show, all attitude.
I love Little Italy.
I’ve known Vinny for years. The story we tell is that we met in the movie-making business. Yeah, that’s it. The movie business.
Big Vinny and Little Vinny live on Elizabeth Street, in a 5th floor walk up. Little Vinny, at this time was maybe eight or ten years old. In the evenings if you walked down Elizabeth Street you’d see Little Vinny shooting baskets into a low hoop attached to a lamppost. He was pretty good. No one I knew had ever seen Little Vinny’s mother. For some reason I was afraid to ask. For all I knew she lived with them.
That afternoon I ran into Big Vinny outside Bella’s. “Johnny, bubbie, how ya doin’?” He gave me a gentle slap on the cheek, then pinched it. “Lookin’ good, Johnny. Where ya been?”
“Around,” I said.
“Around, around. I know around. I know fuckin’ around.” He pats his stomach. “Look at this fuckin’ thing. Now, this fuckin’ thing is fuckin’ round.”
A good looking woman passes us on the sidewalk. “Check that fuckin’ broad out. Mama mia! That broad’s got class. Mama mia! Yeah, so how ya been, bubbie?”
“I’m good, Vinny. Good to see you. How have you been?”
“It’s been a fuckin’ hell of a day.”
“What’s the matter, Vinny?” I ask.
“The fuckin’s nuns,” he says.
“The nuns? Like the Catholic Nuns?”
“Yeah, the fuckin’ Catholic Nuns, the god damn Catholic Nuns,” he said.
“What did the nuns do?” I asked?
“You know my son, Little Vinny, right? Well Little Vinny, he’s got a pony tail. He likes his pony tail. I like his pony tail. Well, this mornin’ this fuckin nun comes up to me after I drop Little Vinny off at school. She says to me Little Vinny has to have his pony tail cut off, has to get a normal haircut. I say, ‘Sister, Come on, Little Vinny likes his pony tail. I ain’t gonna make him cut it off.'”
“Yeah? So then what?” I asked.
“So then the nun sticks out her hand and gives me this really cold look. So I reach into my pocket and give her a twenty. And she just keeps her hand there. So I give her another twenty bucks. And then another twenty. And she just keeps her hand out and keeps lookin’ at me like I’m goin’ to hell if I don’t cough up the money. So I keep peelin’ off twenties. ‘What’s it gonna take Sister? You’re killin’ me.’ I say to her. In the end, it cost me two hundred fuckin’ bucks for my kid to keep his ponytail. Two fuckin C notes.”
“Vinny, things are fucked when the nuns start shaking you down,” I said.
“Fuckin tell me about it,” he said. “Good to see ya, bubbie.”
“Yeah, always good to see you Vinny,” I said.
Vinny headed off down Prince St., “How ya’ doin’?” everybody he saw and telling them the story of the extortionist nun.
I love Little Italy. It’s gonna be a damn shame when it’s all gone.