Thursday, December 28, 2006

The short, sad tale of Benny Florino - mobster poetique

Benny Florino was born on the South Side of Chicago in August 1909, the fourth son of a Sicilian family that had recently emigrated to the United States. Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking if he was Sicilian he must have been with the mob, but that's just a rotten old stereotype. Sure, Benny's folks had connections to the Family (Benny himself was named after his Uncle Benny, who was lost during the Atlantic crossing when he sank his own ship because the captain refused to pay him protection), but Benny's father ran a Pizza parlour, and he was as honest a man as ever put Tuna on his pizza and called it anchovy.

Times were hard for the Florino family, though. They lived under the perpetual threat of disease, destitution and the ghastly prospect of becoming flashbacks in a Scorsese movie. Growing up in this emotionally charged atmosphere, young Benny took refuge in the work of the great French poets, finding particular comfort in the writings of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

A shy but perceptive child, Benny's life was changed unalterably at the age of 14, when his father, who was a great believer in the importance of division of labour, told Benny that rather than go to college he must join the family business and learn to raise dough. This resolution, repeated before his uncles at an annual family gathering, caused them to instantly adopt Benny and make him a part of their operation (well, of course they were mobsters - it wouldn't be a stereotype if it weren't mostly true, now would it?).

Having thus fallen victim to a common cultural misunderstanding of his time (the US census department estimates that the 'raising dough' euphemism caused over 10,000 sons of bakers and pizza makers to be lost to the dark side between 1910 and 1920 alone), Benny now embarked upon a life of crime. His initial forays in the underworld were marked by spectacular success. His blood-thirsty nature drew the immediate attention of the mob bosses, who were impressed by the zeal with which he spoke of "rape or arson, poison, or the knife" and frankly approving when Benny gave orders for a murder victim's heart to be cut out, so that he could "throw it down for my favourite dog's eating". A young man with such ideas, they felt, would go far.

Accordingly they promoted him and put him in charge of all the East Side gambling dens, where again he prospered, his chop-houses soon becoming so famous for their gloomy atmosphere (complete with harlots pale and quivering, dull smoky chandeliers and croupiers with lipless faces and blue-cold lips, if lips, of toothless gums) that people came from near and far to gamble in them.

By the time he turned twenty then, Benny was already a legend in the making, and the Family decided to honour him by giving him independent charge of the whole South-East side, the youngest person to ever be given such power. And yet it was this elevation, this opportunity to give free rein to his imagination, that would prove to be Benny's undoing.

At first things went well. When Benny had his opponents killed by tying them up and throwing them into a glass case filled with wild butterflies to be tickled to death, the other mobsters marvelled at his ingenuity; and his diabolical plan to fit a man with a catheter connected to a clock so that every time the clock ticked he would lose a little more blood was universally applauded, going on to win the Malcolm Baldridge Award for Excellence in Ways to Do People In.

It was then that Benny made his fatal mistake. Bouyed by his initial successes he hit upon the idea of threatening people by sending them bouquets of flowers. His idea was that the flowers would serve as warnings to the effect that even the most beautiful and blooming things may be cut down in their prime, but the recipients of these warnings, who had, alas, none of Benny's poetic sensibilities, seemed to view these missives in an entirely different light. Demonstrating an appaling lack of vision, these philistines remained unfazed even when they received so sinister a warning as a bouquet of two dozen roses. Some of them even seemed to think it was a goodwill gesture! And when Benny subsequently had these cretins gunned down, he found himself pulled up before the inner circle of the Family, who were all for bloodshed, of course, but felt that gunning a man down without first placing his pet's head in his bed or talking to him with cheek-pads in your mouth and a complete lack of facial expression (a popular form of torture in this period, called, for no discernible reason, 'Method Acting') was downright unsporting. Benny was relieved of his charge, and the dishonour of this, coupled with the casting director's confirmation that his character would, in fact, be played by Danny DeVito, meant that people began to steer clear of him.

His days of glory over, Benny was soon forgotten, and ended his days at the tender age of 23, cut down by a sawed-off shotgun while attempting to rob a liquor store with a nosegay.

Those of us who were around in the old days still have fond memories of Benny, though. His funeral, for instance, was a sight to see. All the top mobsters came, and they all brought firearms to place on his grave - revolvers, rifles, tommyguns - and not a flower petal anywhere. It made you want to cry.

P.S. If much of this seems unintelligible, you really need to read Fleurs de Mal

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Anonymous said...


(btw, do check out

and happy new year!

km said...

You've been watching that Piranha brothers' sketch on repeat, haven't you?

And now I must check out Fleurs du mal.