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There's Something About Geno

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Durante took me fishing one weekend. He was up around six because he wanted to buy the fresh giant squid, the right lure for sea bass, but the Chinese tackle shop on Avenue C wasn't open. "I'm surprised they would be closed Sundays," Durante said. "They're not religious people, the Chinese." He said the tub of sliced fluke's bellies he had in his trunk would do.

His boat, a 31-year-old, 26-foot Luhrs monohull, is named the Tee Gee and Two, for T., Durante's wife, Terry; G., Geno Durante himself; and their two sons. We were met at the Pilgrim Yacht Club by his son Eugene, who is 27 and looks as though he was built along the lines of a shot glass. Arriving late were Durante's friend Gerry Murphy and his son Teddy. Gerry was in standard mob leisurewear: stone-washed Bermudas, a band-collared shirt with frogging and a crest on the pocket, and a white tam-o'-shanter.

"Where the fuck you been?" Durante asked. Murphy said Teddy had stayed out all night and overslept.

"I'm still drunk," Teddy said.

It was Murphy, one of the original wiseguy-actors in the business, who first brought Durante into the scene. Murphy's the easiest to pick out of the crowd because he is the only guy in town who still wears his necktie in the style of a sixties gangster -- under his collar and untied but with one end crossed over the other, the position from Fig. 1 in any diagram instructing how to tie a tie. Durante keeps a snapshot of Murphy standing with Robert De Niro in his wallet, along with these pictures: Durante with Jack Warden, Durante with Cliff Gorman (from The Boys in the Band), and De Niro with a friend of John Gotti's.

Durante met Murphy on a cruise 21 years ago. They were on the same side in a bar fight, and afterward, Durante introduced himself and said, "Your face is familiar. Didn't I see you in The French Connection?" Murphy had in fact played a union boss in Once Upon a Time in America and acted in The Brinks Job but in The French Connection did only a small bar scene with Gene Hackman. He had been a construction worker when he met the director William Friedkin, who gave him his first break.

Durante eased his boat into Sheepshead Bay and got himself a drink in the cabin. "Does anyone desire anything?" he asked. He had beer, the makings of gin-and-tonics, and salami. Also, a bucket of tap water. "The sea is bad for the skin," he explained. "You rinse in fresh water, you get a nice feeling on your hands."

Teddy was seasick, so he crouched over the latrine hatch and vomited for a while. When his father laughed, Teddy raised an arm in the air and gave him the finger.

"Teddy, don't be doing that, you fuck," Gerry said.

Teddy flopped over on his back and passed out in the midday heat. We fished the Tin Can Grounds and Breezy Point, but nobody had much luck with the sea bass. We switched to fluke and tried the deep water outside Ambrose Channel, in the shipping lanes, so our lines couldn't hit bottom. Everyone put in $5 for whoever caught the biggest fluke. Eugene was the best fisherman, so he took the worst rod and played air guitar while he sat in a plastic deck chair and held the reel between his knees. He didn't even bother to replace his bait when it fell off. "You don't need bait when you got my skills," he said.

Murphy laughed. "Oh, I like that -- Skills Durante."

Durante is crazy about Eugene -- he emphasizes the first syllable, so it comes out Yoo-gene -- and before I'd left for Brooklyn, he said, "I'm sorry he's my son, because I go out with him and nobody wants to talk to me; they all want to talk to my son." Durante's second child is named James, after Jimmy Durante, who is no relation of theirs. He was in the waiting room when his wife was giving birth and he heard on the radio that the singer had suffered a stroke. "I thought he wasn't going to make it," Durante recalled, "then he lives. And Danny Stiles, the nostalgia disc jockey, comes on and says, 'Jimmy Durante is alive in Brooklyn!' "


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