Truth, As Strange As Fiction: Life In Riverside

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The Great Falls of Paterson, NJ
Riverside is a larger neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey. Its boarded on three sides by the Passaic River, hence its name. My husband Angelo grew up in Riverside on Fifth Avenue. Everyone in the neighborhood was familiar with the mob's management style learned from fearful whispers. From the 60s through the 70s the mob was in control of this Italian neighborhood. Like other ‘families’ in other places, in Riverside the mob owned most everything. They owned many types of businesses. Among them oil and textile, dozens of factories that had seen better days, the local lumberyard, a couple of bars and a few restaurants. Even the local laundromat and a whole lot of real estate - many run down houses which crammed the city streets. It was far from an upscale area.
Random crime was not done in Riverside without the perpetrator facing retaliation to set an example. And the only killings, shootings and stabbings, handled the 'family.'
Between the police presence and the mob it was safe to walk the streets. Joseph D. Pistone aka FBi undercover agent ‘Donnie Brasco,’ said that growing up in Paterson he learned how local mobsters acted as he saw them hanging around, gambling, doing ''the basic things that wise guys do.”
The street rules were, don’t meet their eyes if you could help it, or if you did, look away as 
quick as you can. And if spoken to, be polite. You could see them at their local hangout
in the back booth and a nearby table in the pizzeria on River Street talking, smoking and reading newspapers or the daily racing forms.
During the race riots that followed the death of a great uniter Martin Luther King (1968) whose words and deeds would be later hijacked for political gain, the Riverside area stayed untouched for this very reason.
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This is what the house Angelo grew
us it looks like today.
While Riverside escaped the turmoil, my part of town near Madison Avenue and Market Street wasn't so luck. The riots brought nightly looting and fires to the businesses. We kept our doors locked and shades down through the curfewed nights. Each morning we'd wake and feeling jittery head out for school once the seven AM road barricades lifted.
National Guard lined the streets and manned the barriers while their military tanks (this was my first time I’d ever seen a tank) and jeeps parked nearby. My dad drove me to St. Joseph’s High School through these narrow cobblestone back roads. We meandered along those street to avoid any lingering problem passed an unkempt park.
This whole area was hundreds of years old. I asked my dad how he knew about these street. They were new to me. He smiled. In his college days, he said he attended William Paterson college then located on twenty-third Ave and worked for a beer distributor. He would deliver beer weekly to the St. Joe’s rectory for the priest’s Friday night deliver on these very roads.
Any murders in Riverside were not gangland killings, those between mob families over turf. But of anyone who betrayed or inform on the mob. Their bodies left in the open over night as an example to others. A few major cases were of a guy knifed on Fifth Avenue and left at the bus stop for the morning commute. Another was a man shoot threw the windshield and his car backed into a parking space in the A&P lot, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company-an extinct grocery stores chain. The third happened at 1:30 AM on October of 1966. A neighbor of Gabriel ‘Johnny the Walk’ DeFranco, (known for a limp when he walked), looked out and saw three men assail DeFranco on his apartment porch at the corner of Madison and 5th Avenues. DeFranco answered his doorbell to his killers. They beat DeFranco before slashing his throat. His killing would be later connected to an earlier murder of a young married woman shot twice in the head in February of that year. Her body dumped in a Garden State Parkway gully not far from her home. Her car was found in Newark doused with gas and on fire. Both murders were later connected to a wife-swapping club, amateur porno shoots, and counterfeiting.
Angelo was paperboy in the early 60s in the neighborhood and DeFranco was his best tipping customer. Angelo rode his bike to do his paper route after school. One time a couple of mob guys stopped him. They ask him to take a bag and ride down a block and throw it into the open window of a black sedan. Angelo murmured, “I got to get home,” and rode off. He knew not to do anything of that source.
Angelo and I married in 1970 and for a time we lived with my in-laws. (More on that in a future post.) Shortly we moved next door with our baby to the first-floor apartment of the corner house. Both my parents had died sixteen months apart and the rest of my family imploded in the squabbling aftermath. For me, my father was the glue. When he died my mother slipped away from the rest of the cracking paste which crumbled after her.
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THIS is the house we rented in the 1970s.
This is what it looks like today.
The mob boss drove himself around in a Cadillac. He would stop by for the rent money from my mother-in-law first of every month and have coffee with her. My husband’s family paid sixty-five dollars a month for as long as they lived there while most renters paid one hundred-fifty dollars and had to go to the lumber yard to pay it. If my father-in-law had a few drinks he would say the landlord was sweet on her. She got us the apartment next door.
I only met the mob boss twice and remembered all the rules of engagement barely looking at him while greeting him with smiling. I couldn't have described him if someone paid me.
Both meetings were in my mother-in-law’s unattractive aqua colored kitchen. All the rooms were the same color. That included the walls, woodwork and ceilings of this early nineteen hundreds house remodeled for the 1960s.
Near the end of the four years we lived in Riverside Angelo begun interning as a nuclear medical tech . He was now lived near that Pennsylvania hospital. So it was up to me to walk around to the lumber yard where renters paid there rent on the first of the month. Lumber of all sizes laid around in neat stacks lining the driveway you had to walk down. I don’t think lumber in the yard or at else from those stacks ever moved. I would write the check out at home to be able to get in and out of the office fast. You didn’t know who would be in the office. Usually a few men hung around a water cooler off to the side of the front counter giving you the eye. But it you were luck it would just be the one nice guy there was working the office. He wasn't much older than me and he was always respectful. Only once did one of the wise guys try to chat me up as I nervously looked away. But Mr. Nice Guy told him, “She’s married and a young mother,” to him and a smile for me.
Soon a new reason to leave arose. By this time muggings and worse began devastating the area. The neighborhood schools continued the downhill spiral they’d been on for years. My daughter was now a four year old and this was on our minds heading into the future. On weekday mornings I would feed my daughter, get ready for work and then get her dressed for another day with her grandmother. This one day, she couldn’t find her pink bow headband. It was a favorite for the moment, so I joined in her search. Earlier, she was playing on the couch in front of the TV. Thinking that was the best place to start, I moved a cushion and put my hand around it feeling to the beloved headband but pulled out a warm died baby rat. I knew mice from rats. I dropped it and drew my daughter away from the couch, leashed the puppy we took in after someone had dumped it in our backyard and ran to my in-laws. The lumber yard sent a couple of men right over in answer to my frantic phone call where I was told, "Yeah, we are have that problem in the area right now." They gave me the all clear the next day, but that was it for us. While we packed to move we found huge lifeless relatives of the baby rat in the yard. We saw our future elsewhere now. The old Riverside mob was beginning to lose its grip and the younger guys, now heavily into the drug trade and the crimes that it brought with it. No more ‘safety’ from the horrors of life.

~JD Holiday

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