Until the plant closed earlier this year, Durante worked for Vertrod, a manufacturer of heat-sealing equipment and vacuum-packaging machines, for 44 years, a span calculated by measuring it against his wardrobe and recalling that the year he was hired was also the year he bought a pair of electric-blue, pistol-pocket, twelve-peg pants, which means 1955. He brought in the unions himself in 1960 (Teamsters 917) and was shop steward afterward. He designed most of the models they make. "When I got here, it was just a foot-pedal machine," he said once when I visited him at work. He opened a C-frame press, painted white and made for sealing medical equipment. "Look how tight that is," he said.
Though he drew only $1,200 a week, Durante never drives into Manhattan with less than $400 dollars on him, and usually tips 100 percent. "You play the table and the bar at Elaine's and that's how it works," he said. "I'm in there last week for $260." Durante worries when anyone else tries to pay, because his posse doesn't tip nearly so well, and besides, Elaine Kaufman isn't a woman you want to offend by not spending enough.
"I always wanted to be an entertainer," Geno says. "I was in Japan and then Korea for the last ten months of the war. One day some friends ask me to bartend at an officers' club. I wrote and performed Trip-A-Let, a three-act comedy show. I got top talent to headline for me. At the Air Force base in Japan, 27,000 troops came to see me.
"After the service, I did comic impressions. I did Ned Sparks, Kirk Douglas. Emory Parnell. Naturally, I did Bogart, Cagney, and Henry Fonda. Henry Fonda's the medium of the register. If you can do him, you can do anyone. Now I got a four-tooth bridge on my bottom row that makes it so I can only do down-tone people, not up-tone people. I did a routine I called "People That Nobody Know." It was character actors -- you'd seen their faces and heard their voices, but you didn't know their names.
"I was at a club called Ben Masick's Town and Country when I saw Billy Daniels singing 'That Old Black Magic.' I'd get a hard-on just looking at the guy. He was just so exciting, one of the great black celebrities. The guy was the most unique dresser I ever met -- a picture box! I used to run all over just to see his clothes."
Durante married, ran around, divorced, and eventually remarried. "Those times, if you were a wiseguy, you had to have a girlfriend," he says. "There were so many clubs in Brooklyn, you didn't know how to kill your night. I spent so much money, I needed to moonlight. And so I became a very elegant bartender." First at the Lavender Lounge in East Flatbush and then Thursday nights at the Lock and Key and Tuesdays at the Coco Poodle, where the Gallos went. Eventually, he worked the Wander Inn, Phillip Foffee's Vanity Fair at 53rd and Fourth, and the Night Cap, at the mouth of Prospect Park.
"I worked around every gangster in Brooklyn," Durante often declares. He will tell you the story of how a guy known as Ernie the Hawk was discovered dead after being seen in the Coco Poodle. When some cops saw there were holes in Durante's boat, they thought he knew something about the murder, though the damage to the hull was actually caused by rocks. "I told them all the cops I knew were lousy tippers, and they let me go with a kick in the balls. Later, I see this Jewish gangster, and he jokes with me, 'Geno, you're off the hook. Paul Vario took the rap for you!' Paul Vario, that's the guy Paul Sorvino plays in GoodFellas."
Then there was Roy DeMeo, who ran the Murder Machine, a car-theft ring involved in killing 75 people. He used to come to the Lavender Lounge when he was only 16. "He'd stick his nose against the window just to piss me off, and once I grabbed him, said 'Come in,' and gave him his first drink," Durante said. "Later, when he was already notorious, I used to do impressions at the Gemini Lounge, his place. I'd put him onstage and use him as the straight man and I did Pearl Bailey."
At the Wander Inn, he met Tony Arguello, known as Tony Gawk and "closely associated" with the Gallo wars. "Tony Gawk -- the best manager I ever had," Durante said. "There was Tony Gawk's version of a movie: Whatever he saw, he'd make it into a mob fable." For example, after taking in Godzilla at the cinema, Tony Gawk held forth at the Wander Inn with his review: "Godzilla is the biggest, toughest wiseguy who don't take no shit from no one." John Frankenheimer's Seconds he described as "Rock Hudson goes to the mob and asks them for a new life, but then they fuck him, and the moral of the story is, it's impossible to be happy if you ain't a wiseguy."