Joann Dapolito and I leave High Society, the hair salon she owns on the corner of Old Town Road and Hylan Boulevard on Staten Island, and we hop into her cream-colored Jaguar XJ8 Sport. She’s wearing sleek black bell-bottom slacks, patent-leather boots, and a tight wool sweater with removable sleeves. “I got this on 86th Street in Brooklyn,” she tells me about the sweater. “I shop there a lot, and I go to the Short Hills Mall in Jersey and Paramus Mall, too.” Joann is my second cousin. We’re both 38, and we grew up near one another on Staten Island. But we haven’t hung out together since I ran away about fifteen years ago. Making the break wasn’t easy. If I felt I wasn’t accepted on sleepy and often inflexible Staten Island because I was gay, I certainly felt I wasn’t accepted in Manhattan because, well, I was from Staten Island.
These days it’s the Manhattanites who are heading for Staten Island. Saint George, the once-declining old section where the ferry lands, is becoming what Estelle Karp, a Century 21 realtor on Victory Boulevard calls “a new renaissance area,” as the double latte set discovers the city’s final frontier. “A lot of people are getting priced out of Manhattan,” she reports. “They’re buying up the old Vanderbilt Victorians that were playgrounds for the rich of that era. It’s only going to intensify with the new ferry terminal being built, lots of shops and walkways, and the new minor-league Yankees’ stadium.”
But there’s a cultural gulf 10,000 miles wide separating trendy urban Saint George and the rest of Staten Island – the Staten Island Joann and I are driving through. Soon enough, we’re whirling up exclusive Grymes Hill, heading toward a gated community known as the Enclave, where Joann lives with her husband, Paulie, and their two children, Ashley, 8, and Paul IV, 5, in a house with seven bathrooms on a cliff overlooking New York Harbor and the Narrows.
Paulie is a quintessential Staten Island success story. Like a lot of young guys from Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, he decided against college and went to work on the floor of the New York Commodities Exchange at the age of 18, hoping to make it big. Whether they be secretaries or stock traders, Staten Islanders have always preferred to work in lower Manhattan – a brief, free ferry ride away. When I was in high school, working part-time in the mail room at the AT&T building on Sixth Avenue just south of Canal Street, people in my neighborhood couldn’t believe I was working so far “uptown.”
Wall Street is also popular because it offers opportunities to make big money without having to spend those four years earning a college degree. On Staten Island, making money, and doing it quickly, is what counts most.
“My cousin knew all the people on the trading floor, so I began working there,” Paulie says, explaining his upward trajectory. “At first I didn’t care whether I was there or in outer space. I mean, it was 1979, and I was 18. But within three months, I caught on to what was really going on. I was hanging out with guys who were going to champagne lounges, drinking the best. Rolls-Royces, limousines, the works. I was like, ‘Something’s really good about this business.’ I caught on to it. In a year I was on my way to making that my career.” He eventually opened his own commodities firm with his brother and his cousin, trading cocoa futures. Today his company, Dapco, is the biggest firm trading cocoa futures on the exchange. “But now I’m looking for something else,” he says, anticipating a market downturn. “I’m thinking about construction.”
Joann is a Staten Island success story of her own. Well-off Islanders who don’t work on Wall Street tend to be private-business owners – like Joann’s father and my father, both of whom started out in the restaurant business, without the college detour – rather than, say, doctors and lawyers. Joann opened High Society in 1980, after getting her degree in haircutting from the Wilfred Academy. And the business took off.
Joann and Paulie moved to the house in the Enclave in 1997, from Prince’s Bay, where they had “a regular, half-million-dollar house,” says Joann. The Enclave was once the site of the gargantuan Hormann Castle, built in 1891 by a German industrialist and torn down in 1968. Now, nine homes, each worth well over $1.5 million, are perched atop a steep slope there. Unlike the rest of New York City, Staten Island is distinguished by seven very high, mansion-laden hills that dot the middle of the island from north to south, including Lighthouse Hill, where a 100-year-old lighthouse surreally sits not far from a Buddhist temple that houses the largest collection of Tibetan art in the Western hemisphere (the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art); Emerson Hill, where Ralph Waldo Emerson lived during his heyday; and Todt Hill (todt is Dutch for “death”), whose residents have included many reputed mobsters.
The wealthy tend to live high on the hills; the more modest homes are further down. “It’s all about getting water in your basement,” one of my uncles used to tell me. “All the water runs into the basements of the people at the bottom.” At 409 feet above sea level, Todt Hill is the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard south of Maine; other parts of the island are below sea level and prone to frequent flooding. Ward Hill, located on the North Shore, is the most extreme example of this hilltop caste system, looking like something out of modern-day Brazil. Gorgeous, well-kept homes are nestled on the very top of Ward Hill. But hugging the sides and bottom are low-income neighborhoods, and on one side – just three or four blocks from the top of the hill – is Jersey Street, one of the most poverty-stricken places on the island, plagued by drugs and burned-out buildings. Grymes Hill, too, is bordered on one side by what Joann calls “a bad neighborhood that I’m not allowed to drive through with the Jaguar.”
Joann and I pull into her driveway, and she takes me on a tour of her massive brick contemporary house, showing me the teal-and-black Ultrasuede couches, the leopard-print sofas, and the floors of terra-cotta tiles that were cured naturally outdoors in Spain and even have paw prints in them here and there. But she doesn’t like the floors very much, or some of the other accoutrements left by the previous owner, whose taste was “really Italian, too Italian.” Second- and third-generation Italian-Americans, a group that dominates Staten Island, tend to disdain those who adhere too closely to the ornate style of Southern Italians.
“They like antiques, and some Deco, but they like a lot of modern, a lot of contemporary – glass block and granite,” says John LaPolla, one of a small handful of local interior designers whose homes grace the society pages of the Staten Island Advance, the island’s Newhouse-owned daily newspaper, talking about his clients. “They like to mix it up a bit.” La Polla designed Joann and Paulie’s previous home in Prince’s Bay. He also designed their summer home on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a sort of Southampton for the Staten Island set and a place they often describe as “the exit right before Atlantic City,” which they visit often. La Polla is now working with Joann on the new house at the Enclave.
The house is a fairly standard suburban structure with a built-in pool and a patio. Its most spectacular features are the picture windows that frame the Manhattan skyline, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and assorted oil tankers and ocean liners sailing into and out of New York Bay.
The tour takes us into the bathroom off the master bedroom. “This bathroom has a story of its own,” Joann says. “The Jacuzzi was installed but never hooked up. So we banged out two tiles, and they worked under there to fix the plumbing. I had my engagement ring on and I was washing my hands in the sink, and I don’t know where it went, but I think it went under the Jacuzzi through the hole. We couldn’t find it. So we closed the hole up. But now Paulie feels that the hot tub is too low, that it should be up higher so that when he’s sitting in the hot tub he can look out and see the view, so he wants to raise it up. I said, ‘Paulie, don’t you get enough view? What is the difference? This is ridiculous.’ But I also thought, No, let’s do it, because I want to get my ring. I mean, I have no ring!”
Downstairs, off the kitchen, a pair of high-powered binoculars are perched on a pedestal facing the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the harbor. “I bought these for Paulie for Christmas,” Joann explains. “You can see everything through there, the top of the Williamsburg tower, every car on the Verrazano bridge.” At just that moment, the telephone rings. It’s Paulie on his way home in the car, asking her for a traffic report. Like a lot of other Wall Street management types who live on Staten Island, he drives to work – via Brooklyn – rather than cram himself onto the ferry.
Joann looks into the binoculars with the phone on her ear. She can see much of the route he takes, from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn Heights to the Verrazano. “The top level has a couple of cars,” she reports. “But I don’t see any on the bottom. Both levels are moving.”
In a sitting room off the main living room, Joann shows me some of her artwork. “You see my sculpture?” she asks, pointing to a curious abstract glass sculpture sitting on an even more curious glass table right out of a Maurice Villency ad. “It’s from a gallery, and it’s from Italy,” she explains, noting that it’s unlike the acrylic abstract sculpture nearby. “That one’s just, you know, from a factory, but this one is real art,” she clarifies. “It’s special blown glass. The artist is Emilio something, some guy.” She picks up the sculpture to take a look. “Let me see, Dino Rogan – no, Rodini. Oh, I don’t know, but it’s from Italy. It’s funky, right? I love it. It was a couple of thousand dollars, I think. Hopefully, it’ll be worth a lot more someday – when he drops dead.” We both burst into laughter.
There are more people and more money here now, but this is the same Staten Island I grew up on. It’s a place where excess is proudly celebrated and discretion is, thankfully, not at all the better part of valor. And kids are cultured into it from a young age. By the time I was 14, I had my name in gold block letters – MIKE – hanging around my neck, with the i in diamonds, a fabulous gift from my parents. A few years later, they gave me a ring that flashed my initials in diamonds – ms. It glittered beautifully in the sun as I hung my hand on the steering wheel of my new Trans Am, also courtesy of my parents.
We didn’t live on “the hill” – as we called nearby Todt Hill – opting instead for the more middle-class neighborhood of Dongan Hills (where there aren’t really any hills). But my father did have his Lincolns, his Cadillacs, his Jaguars, and his vintage Rolls-Royce in the garage, and we lived quite well. That said, he’d drum into our heads that we were not to take any of it for granted. Like many proud, self-made Staten Island men, my father saw the kids as somewhat spoiled. He broke his back – as he liked to say – working twelve hours a day, six days a week, owning deli restaurants, first in Brooklyn, then in lower Manhattan, for as long as I can remember.
And we were closer to the rule than to the exception. One of the biggest misconceptions about Staten Island is that it is solidly working-class. Though shades of the movie Working Girl are apparent, the island is not exactly the blue-collar bastion in which Melanie Griffith, playing a secretary named Tess, struggled to make ends meet. Those older, prewar North Shore neighborhoods are all still here, as are blocks and blocks of new middle-class detached and semi-detached homes. But Staten Island has for some time been the suburban home to a growing segment of New York City’s more ethnic upper middle class. The value system may in many ways be solidly working-class – which perhaps accounts for the confusion – but the money that people are making and spending is definitely something else.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Earnestine Lannigan, a physical-education teacher at New Dorp High School, notes. An African-American who moved to the island 19 years ago, she lives in a racially mixed townhouse complex on a plateau halfway up Ward Hill, and she has a tiny yard on a cliff with views as commanding as my cousin Joann’s. “One of my students said to me, ‘I’m getting an ankle bracelet from my boyfriend for Christmas,’ and I thought that was nice,” she observes. “When Christmas was over, I didn’t see it on her ankle. She said, ‘No, here it is,’ and there it was, full of diamonds, around her neck – they wear the ankle bracelets on their necks. It’s very different out here. Sweet-sixteen parties that are like weddings – I went to one at the Excelsior Grand; it had to cost at the very least $20,000. We saw a horse and carriage on New Dorp Lane the other day, and I thought, Oh, someone’s getting married. You know what it was? Someone’s first communion.”
Staten Island is where boys get Corvettes and BMWs on their eighteenth birthdays, teenage girls get furs and gold and diamonds, and toddlers have their birthday parties in catering halls. Just last year my brother Vinny threw his son Vincent’s first-birthday party at the Staaten. In the middle of the dance floor, the kids tumbled about in one of those huge inflated playrooms from an amusement park – one that was so big it kept hitting the chandeliers – while the 100-odd adult guests sat on the sidelines at tables, devouring lasagna, shrimp, and calamari.
Back in the forties, Staten Island was a summer retreat for literary types like Jane and Paul Bowles. Now it attracts celebrities like Steven Seagal, who has a huge compound on the beach in Annadale. Alyssa Milano and Rick Schroder grew up here four blocks away from each other, but they never moved back. Outside of Manhattan, Staten Island is the borough with the highest per capita income at $29,159. It is the fastest-growing borough in the city, and the fastest-growing county – Richmond – in New York State.
Tens of thousands of upwardly mobile Italian-Americans began moving to Staten Island as soon as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – sometimes derogatorily called “the Guinea Gangplank” – was built in 1964, connecting then-bucolic Staten Island to Brooklyn. That was a period of “white flight” from New York’s inner-city neighborhoods, and a time that saw the most dramatic growth on Staten Island in the more than 300 years since the Dutch first tried to settle here and came to blows with the Raritan Indians time and again.
The children of those former Brooklynites are part of a new generation that makes its home in the only borough of New York City that votes solidly Republican. Like all islands, Staten Island has a distinct island culture, one that breeds suspicion of outsiders. And some of its more upscale Italian-American residents smugly look down on their blue-collar counterparts across the Narrows, with their habit of covering furniture in plastic slipcovers, not to speak of their habit of voting Democratic. They are increasingly joined on the island by newer moneyed immigrants, including Koreans and Russians, who take well to the grand Italian-American sensibility.
As I ride around the island with Joann, I see that other groups are more visible than they’ve ever been. The Willowbrook section of the island is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, and a group of Hasidim have bought a large piece of undeveloped land on the West Shore. The Albanian Islamic Cultural Center on Victory Boulevard is the city’s second-largest mosque. The largest Liberian community outside the African nation resides here, too. And many Indian professionals have settled on the island in recent years. One Indian physician who lives on Todt Hill, Dr. Mukund Mody, often entertains the prime minister of India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee – the guy who last year tested the nuclear bomb – was spotted this year making an excursion to the Staten Island Mall.
Each group retains its traditions, as it also assimilates into the larger culture. And on Staten Island, the larger culture isn’t American culture but Italian-American culture. Growing up on the predominantly white South Shore, I honestly believed that most of the country was Catholic and Italian-American (or Irish, who were plentiful on the island). I knew there were blacks, but I saw them mostly on television, often on the news, in civil-rights protests. Or they lived in Brooklyn.
I also knew there were Jews – a few even lived on our block – but they seemed like a tiny minority that did not really affect the city. Incredibly, I had not even heard of the term Wasp until I went away to college, to Syracuse University.
Almost 80 percent of Staten Island is white, and about half of those white people are Italian-Americans. Republican U.S. representative Vito Fossella’s district (formerly Susan Molinari’s), which includes all of Staten Island and the western edge of Brooklyn, is the most Italian-American congressional district in the United States.
Even the political movements that emerge on the island seem to have grown organically out of the Italian tradition. The infamous secession movement of a few years ago, for example, which culminated with Staten Islanders’ overwhelmingly voting in 1993 to break from the city, seemed to have roots in Italian culture going back hundreds of years. The isolationist Southern Italians, from whom most Italian-Americans are descended, maintained a centuries-long suspicion of Rome. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the leading secessionists in Staten Island were the Italian-American politicians, such as Borough President Guy V. Molinari, Susan’s dad, and that the movement took on such momentum among Staten Islanders, who felt cheated by the city and suspicious of city government. Manhattan had become their new Rome, and the Molinaris their own family dynasty to ward off the Romans.
“The secession movement was all about ‘We are our own family,’ ” says Maureen Seaberg, a columnist for the Advance, which was a major proponent of secession. “It was very Italian in that way, saying, ‘We can take care of our own family.”
Seaberg jokes that she is “probably one of the few Staten Islanders who can’t claim any Italian blood” but notes that “it took going away to school in Pennsylvania, to college, to realize how much I’d picked up Italian culture right down to the foods and the way people speak. I was very different from everyone. People made fun of my hand gestures, and they thought I was Italian.”
Even the local rap-group superstars, Wu-Tang Clan, whose members come from the largely black Park Hill housing project, play off of the Italian atmosphere. Singer Darryl Hill has been alternately known as Cappadonna, Cappuchino, Cappa, and the Don. In the New Springville section of the island, young Asian men cruise around in their Lincoln Town Cars, slung low behind the wheel, sporting their Guido haircuts and wearing lots of gold jewelry. The Christmas lights on the homes of the Indian families and the Russian families moving to the island now rival those of the Italians, long known for stringing up thousands of multicolored bulbs on their homes and erecting light-up Nativity sets galore on their lawns. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen – the competition over the lights,” Seaberg observes. “It started with the Italians, but now everyone does it.”
The dominance of one ethnic group does, of course, create tensions. “You’ve got the same people representing you in Congress over and over again, and when it does change, they’re usually replaced with another Italian person,” the schoolteacher Earnestine Lannigan says. “If Susan Molinari wants to run for borough president, all she has to do is put her name on the ballot, no advertising, and she’ll win. Everything is Italian here. And Staten Island protects Staten Island, keeps everything inside. The attitude is, you have to keep all of your business in the family. If there’s violence or discrimination and other problems, well, just look the other way – it doesn’t happen here.”
Staten islanders mostly chuckle when they are reminded that to outsiders, the island is known mostly for the dump, the odorous Fresh Kills Landfill, which is scheduled to be shut down on New Year’s Eve in 2001. Kill is Dutch for “river,” and the area where the dump is located was once a series of tributaries that one 72-year-old man told me he used to go canoeing in, back in the fifties. Now the largest landfill in the world, at 4.5 square miles, it is a landscape that harbors its own myths and fascination. “You know, they say that it’s one of the few things that can be seen from outer space,” Paulie Dapolito tells me as we sit around the dinner table, “like the Great Wall of China.” The dump offers a bizarre backdrop to the splashy and flashy goings-on. On Staten Island, the landfill, piling higher and higher every day – and soon to surpass Todt Hill itself – is often visible on the horizon. And if you can’t see it, you can smell it. It sits almost in the middle of the island. Omnipresent though it is, people still try to avoid it at all costs.
“I don’t like to come down this way,” a short, plump woman in a green velour sweatsuit tells me one morning as she hurries toward her navy-blue Town Car outside the Department of Motor Vehicles in the area known as Travis, on the West Shore. She has a cigarette perched between her long red fingernails. And a necklace she is wearing that spells out her name in several carats of diamonds – TERESA – is glittering in the sunlight, as is her platinum hair. “It’s very creepy down here,” she says, and on that we concur.
The DMV is an isolated square white cinder-block building that sits almost at the end of Victory Boulevard on one side of the landfill, which towers behind it in the distance. From far off, the landfill looks like a couple of benign, even inviting, high grassy hills; you wouldn’t know what was on the other side if not for the thousands of birds buzzing around the top. To the right of the DMV, across the West Shore Expressway, is a huge Con Edison plant with several smokestacks belching out clouds. And to the DMV’s left is the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, 375 acres of protected wetlands that surreally sit at the edge of the landfill. “Between the dump and the Con Ed plant,” says the velour-clad woman, “what the hell kind of wildlife do you think is in there?”
The dump isn’t the only anomaly that Staten Islanders often appear not to notice. There are more structures from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries here than anywhere else in the city, and most residents (including me while I was growing up) know little about them. On Staten Island, people in Jaguars and Mercedes Sports whiz past Revolutionary War conference houses and nineteenth-century Edwardian villas on their way to a pizza joint in a strip mall.
An entire eighteenth-century village, Historic Richmond Town, lies nearly intact in the valley at the base of winding Snake Hill Road, complete with a church graveyard with tombstones from the 1700s. Sandy Ground still sits near Prince’s Bay, a community settled in the mid-1800s by freed black slaves, as Staten Island was home to some of the nation’s leading abolitionists. In the Prince’s Bay section of the island, at the end of a block of suburban tract homes of the type that dominates the island’s South Shore, is a simple Cyclone-fence gate that opens up to the 27-acre nineteenth-century estate where 70-year-old George Burke, a retired interior designer, lives. Several dozen peacocks strut across the grounds, which include stables and caretakers’ quarters. The main house, a sixteen-room Greek-revival mansion built in 1837, looks out across the bay to the Atlantic highlands of New Jersey. The estate once encompassed hundreds more acres, where all the tract housing surrounding it now sits.
“When I bought the house, it was a disaster, totally uninhabitable,” explains Burke. “This is the fifth house I’ve restored.” He and I and his protégé, my cousin Joann’s designer, John LaPolla, are chatting in one of Burke’s many sitting rooms, which are decorated with elaborate Edwardian, Victorian, Empire, and French Provincial furnishings.
The Burke-Seguine House, as it is now called, was owned by the French Huguenot Seguine family, who were one of the prominent Staten Island families of the 1700s and 1800s, along with the Astors and the Vanderbilts; they operated a world-renowned oyster farm on the bay. “As a kid, I grew up with the two Seguine girls,” Burke tells me, explaining that he was raised in nearby Annadale, now an area of detached suburban homes that back then was mostly forest. “We used to have all our big horse shows here – back then, everyone out here had horses. I used to ride out here and used to say to Mrs. Seguine, ‘One day I’m going to own your house.’ And she used to say, ‘No, no, no. We built it, and for seven generations we’ve owned it. It’s going to go to the girls.’ Well, of course, the girls got married and moved away.”
The Seguines let the house fall into disrepair before selling it to Burke. He restored it over several years, then had it registered as a federal landmark. Original seventeenth-century Bernini oil paintings hang on his walls, while Marie Antoinette’s gilded dog sits on the floor.
“I did a lot of houses out here,” he says of his decorating years, when he worked with wealthy women who lived on the hills, before he retired in 1984. “I did all the houses out here. There were no designers.” That includes the famed interior designer Mario Buatta, who grew up on Staten Island. “He left and went up to the city,” Burke explains. “And I stayed here.”
Today Burke runs an equestrian center he has founded on his estate, but once in a while he still consults for LaPolla on design work. He also helped LaPolla find and decorate his own house, a three-story pre-Civil War Italianate villa in West Brighton overlooking the Kill Van Kull, the waterway that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey. The house was originally owned by a nineteenth-century sea captain and industrialist, and part of the land on which it sits had previously been a Native American burial ground. LaPolla found that out when several Lenape Indians knocked on the door one day wanting to perform a ceremony on the property to rid it of evil spirits. He gladly obliged.
Perhaps Staten Island’s most controversial bit of notoriety is its reputation among many as a Mafia enclave. Even if that renown is in part due to the usual stereotyping of Italian-Americans, the truth is, the seven hills of Staten Island have been home to some well-known as well as some lesser-known Mafia families over the years. Certainly Francis Ford Coppola was keen to that when he shot the wedding scene from The Godfather on the grounds of a home on Todt Hill, and Martin Scorsese knew that when he shot several scenes from GoodFellas in Staten Island strip malls.
On Staten Island, you will get a heated debate about whether the mob in New York City is finished, and whether there are still a lot of families on the island that are “connected.” But in a way, that’s all beside the point. The Mafia, like the British aristocracy, still commands respect, and whether Mafia families have been deposed or not, on Staten Island they are forever royalty.
People regularly chart the comings and goings of pretty, fortysomething Connie Castellano. She is the daughter of the late Gambino-family crime boss Paul Castellano, who lived on Todt Hill with his family until he was shot to death in front of a Manhattan steakhouse in 1985 – a murder engineered by John Gotti, who then assumed power. Connie Castellano got married. She got divorced. She moved to Florida. And everyone gossiped about it as much as about Princess Diana.
Though it may not be politically correct, Italian-Americans often even enjoy the Mafia mystique. When I was a kid in the early seventies, my parents and assorted members of our extended family would sometimes go into Manhattan to Maxim’s, a restaurant on Madison Avenue and 61st Street, “owned by Pierre Cardin,” as my father had explained it to me. We had to get all dressed up: For the men, that meant shiny black, blue, or gray suits and even shinier shoes; for the women, it meant glitzy dresses, lots of gold jewelry, and the requisite makeup. We congregated on a sidewalk first and then walked in all at once, a massive glittering mob, punctuated here and there by big, bright platinum hair. The Upper East Side crowd in the restaurant was a bit stunned, and some people would sooner or later clear out, as we were also quite loud.
But some of us reveled in it: I remember one of my cousins joking, “Every time we enter the room, it’s like – shazam! You can just hear everyone sayin’, ‘Oh, here comes the Mafia!’ ” And then she laughed. We were of course not “the Mafia,” and we’d be offended if anyone seriously suggested that. Still, there was a certain guilty pleasure at being mistaken as such in a social setting where you might not otherwise be accepted. It certainly commanded respect – even if that respect was induced by fear.
The Mafia mythology provided us with a lot of fun. On Christmas Eve, my uncles, brothers, and cousins would go down the basement and have some laughs playing out scenes from The Godfather, including all the gory murder scenes. We even videotaped it and would show it later to all 35 guests who were over for the gargantuan traditional fish dinner and would hoot and holler. (Other families began making their own tapes, competing with us.)
Everyone on Staten Island has a Mafia story. One gay man on Staten Island recently told me in a very matter-of-fact way that his ex-boyfriend’s mother had once taken a contract out on him. Such stories – and they are abundant – are a dark but irresistible part of Staten Island’s folklore. The Advance’s Maureen Seaberg, who finds the Mafia connection to Staten Island “unfortunate” and says she is often “outraged” by the tendency for some to romanticize the Mafia, nonetheless can’t keep from telling her own story.
“I was a little girl and I was living in Sunnyside,” she begins, her voice slightly trembling with the suspense of a child telling a horror story. “And I had a little girlfriend who lived up the street from me, and I hadn’t seen her for a while and so I finally asked my parents, ‘Where is she?’ And they told me her father had died, that she wouldn’t be around. But then I found out from the kids at school that he was found chopped up in pieces in the garbage pail. I was not more than 5 at the time.” She pauses and sighs, then laughs nervously. “That’s such a Staten Island story.”