The way Louie tells the story, he hadn’t intended to shoot the guy in the back. Louis Barone, as the police would identify him, Louie Lump Lump to those who knew him from 116th Street, said he hadn’t even planned to bring the five-shot Smith & Wesson to Rao’s that night. Not that Rao’s was off-limits for weapons. Wasn’t that part of its charm? Rao’s, with all of eleven tables, is located way up in exotic East Harlem. “Who eats in Harlem? Who even goes to Harlem?” said one restaurateur. And yet the place was nearly impossible to get into—Madonna was, famously, turned away. And some fraction of the draw was, as one Mafia lawyer put it, the “patina” of danger—in a safe way, of course. Part of the charm, in other words, was that a Louie Lump Lump might be at the bar. As one titillated downtown PR exec explained after a night at Rao’s: “I hugged one guy and I could feel he had a gun on his waist, and then I hugged another guy and felt his gun. The place is a pisser.”
Louie hardly thought in those terms. For him, Rao’s was an old-time neighborhood place, and Louie was an old-time neighborhood guy. He’d been going to the family-owned restaurant for 40 years, since Vinnie Rao presided in the kitchen wearing his famous cowboy hat. He’d known co-owner Frank Pellegrino, Vinnie’s nephew, since Frankie was a teenager with his heart set on a singing and acting career. Louie liked to walk down the four steps, past the Madonna in the window—the only Madonna who could get in—make a drop, as he’d say, spend a few bucks on a drink at the dark-stained oak-paneled bar with the red leatherette pad. He’d never be without cash in his pocket—at Rao’s a guy might tip $20 on a $30 bar bill. But if he had ready money, the bar at Rao’s was a place to run into old friends, say hello to the bartender Nicky the Vest, so-called because of his 142 vests.
Now and then, Frankie would even throw him one of those impossible-to-get tables. (He’d had one a week after his 67th birthday, November 14. He’d waited four months for it, and he took three acquaintances who’d begged him to get them in.) Louie had a lot of respect for Frankie and for Rao’s. Some people said that respect was one of those values that had, like Louie, seen better days. Even with mobsters—selling one another out for book deals—respect wasn’t what it used to be. But the way Louie would later frame the story, respect was one of those neighborhood things that counted with him. Could it be, as Louie would have it, that in his aging person, respect was about to take a last shot?
As a young man, Louie had made a living doing construction. Twenty years ago, though, Louie hurt his knee—in conversation, he pulls up a pant leg to show off three long scars. He’d been on disability ever since, which was how he supported himself. That and running numbers. As for the gun, Louie had carried one off and on for years. He’d been busted for carrying one after a club he was in got tossed—he beat that rap claiming an illegal search. He’d been arrested a couple other times, including ten years ago, on a gambling charge. It never amounted to much. Louie had never been sentenced to more than a year in prison.
By now, most of the guys Louie had grown up with—he’d lived in an apartment on 116th—had moved out of the neighborhood, which had been Italian before going Puerto Rican. Even Frankie now lived in Nassau County. Louie had first moved to an apartment on East 75th, a sweet rent-controlled deal. Then half a dozen years ago, he bought a real nice co-op on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, two bedrooms, for a monthly nut of $660, including—and this really appealed to Louie—indoor parking for his two-year-old gray Dodge sedan. Louie was not a public-transportation guy.
Later, Louie would tell the cops that he’d decided to carry the gun that night because of the Orange Alert, “a white lie” in Louie’s mind. In truth, sometimes he just felt better with a gun on him—“if I get a feeling,” he said—which probably wasn’t unusual for a numbers guy. Louie swore that he wasn’t a made guy, not a Mafia soldier—Louie acted as if that idea was laughable, a guy like him. Just ask his girlfriend. Louie has had the same girlfriend for decades. She chuckled at the thought of Louie as a big-time gangster. Still, to run numbers you’d have to be associated, and a former FBI agent said his association was with the Lucchese crime family.
For Louie, crime was a bit of a family vocation. The cops also knew Louie’s father, who they said had a Genovese association, and his brother. In fact, they knew his brother much better. Paulie “Fats” Barone ran wire rooms, where he took sports bets. Louie gave the impression that his brother was the successful sibling. His brother was the one throwing a Christmas party just up the block from Rao’s. Louie was, he said, getting by. Between disability and numbers, and watching expenses, Louie said he managed to keep his nose above water, which he indicated by placing a level hand to the tip of his nose.
That night, three days before Christmas, Louie took a seat at the far end of Rao’s small bar—it had only about eight stools—near a framed article about Nicky the Vest in Bartender magazine. Louie, at 67, was five eight or so. He had thick, steel-gray hair covered with a cap that said NASSAU, BAHAMAS, as if, maybe, he’d just come back from a cruise. He had a fleshy nose and a body shaped like a torpedo, an extra 30 pounds around his middle. By coincidence, Louie’s first cousin was at a table—a legitimate guy also named Louis Barone. (The two Louis Barones had promised to catch up.) So was Sonny Grosso, another ex–neighborhood guy and the ex-cop whose life had been made into the movie The French Connection. Now Grosso produced TV. Michael Amante, the tenor who’d recently performed at Town Hall, was there with his wife, a former Miss India. Johnny “Roastbeef” Williams, visiting from L.A., had wandered in with his daughter. He was another ex–neighborhood guy—he’d owned delis, including Johnny’s Super Hero, which accounted for his nickname—who’d gone into the movie business. He was an actor.