Tuesday, July 29, 2014

***Ain’t Got Not No Time For The Corner Boys-With George V. Higgins’ The Friends Of Eddie Coyle in Mind

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

Every kid, every “the projects” kid, a kid who would have to know this bit of urban legend wisdom sooner rather than later, know there was “no honor among thieves,” in order to survive out on the edge of society down there where the line between the lumpen and the downtrodden working poor (or can’t work poor) is blurred, very blurred. Know this by heart, by gut, in order to survive childhood in one piece unless he was “connected” or was tough enough, or had a brother or brothers tough enough to protect him. So would every triple-decker Southie/Dot/North Cambridge/Somerville/Revere and on and on Massachusetts Mom and Pop variety store holding up the wall looking for the heart of Saturday night corner boy, ditto on the “no honor among thieves” wisdom. Ditto too on the survival part. All knowing too that that principle though applies as well to “hit” men, stone-cold killers, grifters, drifters, midnight sifters, gunrunners, heist artists and every con man who walks the street going whatever his con is. Those young guys know deep in their hearts, and if not somebody better embed it there, just like Eddie Coyle knew, Eddie “Fingers” if you forgot his real name, and just knew him from his small reputation as a part-time stand-up guy, that despite all that stuff about the sanctified lumpen brotherhood down there in the grime of society, all that noise about keeping the faith as a stand-up guy if you want to stay in one piece, above about not being a “snitch” each of those projects boys or corner boys (could be the same depending on your town and its social structure) has to learn, and maybe the hard way, that down at the bottom of society, down there where the working poor meets the non-working poor meets the bottom feeder, what, Karl Marx, and not just him, called the lumpen that it is dog eat dog and the survivors move up the food chain.

And see the cops, the guys who deal with all of this one way or another as part of their jobs, who maybe lived in the projects coming up themselves or held up some corner storefront brick wall, work that knowledge to their benefit. Work each freaking guy up against it, each guy looking at some serious closed-up and forgotten time, each guy who comes up against their justice system and if you are a projects boy or a corner boy you will come up against that system if only for a search and frisk for being a po’ boy, to sell-out whoever and whatever he can to get right with whatever governmental agency has him by the cajoles. Not only do the cops know this but the guys who prosecute the cases for the government, you know the D.As. (really the Assistant D.A.s except in high profile cases),the judges, the jailers, and the constitutional law professors, most of whom did not come up that way, all know this. Laugh among themselves over drinks about how some poor snook could not figure out the fact that he was being used as an experiment in their “snitch” manipulations (mainly how to get those dockets cleared before noon day after day with ninety-five percent plea outs). The only ones who don’t know, or maybe do a little but don’t know the extent of it, are the average citizens who get bopped on the head, get their cars stolen, or get burgled.       

Hold on though there is another group, well, maybe not a group but a few guys anyway, smart guys in all ways, all important ways. Those of course are maybe guys who used to be in law enforcement now working as security for private businesses, maybe guys who used to try the cases for the government (or better get a negotiated plea out) now in lucrative private practices who make it their business to know so they could use that information when they went out and got real jobs, or maybe write about it, to wise the public up every once in a while.

That’s what this guy I knew once did, the late George V. Higgins, a guy who worked in the Attorney-General’s Office in Massachusetts and when he got tired of that moved up to the “bigs” in the federal district court in Massachusetts. Kind of a stand-up guy in his own way if anybody is asking although as far as I know he always had his nose in a book. He said one that he had done a little corner boy stuff and although he was a “projects” boy he gave up the thrill of the criminal life that beckoned to every corner boy early and from there went straight to the head of his class.

So George knew his stuff, had as they say “seen it all” and while he worked for chump change in the government he made a good living at writing the stuff up later because he knew his former low-rent “clientele” that wound up coming before him for a deal, looking for help, and ready to give up their acquaintances, their close friends, their relatives, hell, their mothers if it would get them out from under some long stretch in Cedar Junction, the old MCI-Walpole or you name your MCI, or down sunny “club fed” Danbury in Connecticut. Knew the Eddie Fingers of the world. Better, had a close ear to the way they talked, talked to each other, talked to the coppers, talked to the bench but most importantly knew how their minds worked, how they skittled the truth, on the job and off. Higgins knew too how to make a lot of guys at Sculler’s over in North Adamsville, guys like me who worked in that town and liked to stop off for a few after work, laugh that knowing laugh about that “honor among thieves” stuff.  (One time he said that North Adamsville was where he was originally from, or so I heard, and so he liked to go back to the old neighborhood taverns looking for “color.”)

I remember one time, it have to have been about thirty or forty years ago, Higgins came dragging his ass into the bar one night after some hardball case for the “feds” whom he was working for then had finished up, had become “case closed” and he was in an expansive mood so he just let it rip. Wanted to give out on about the 227th version on the “no honor among thieves” thesis. So somebody bought him a high-end Scotch (I forget the brand but he always drank high-end liquor in those days).  See he had been (as had me and a few other guys there listening) a corner boy himself and so could see where going off track might lead, had been in thrall to the “life” for a while until he figured the percentage differently from those corner boys who he grew up with and who choose a different “career” path ending up doing plenty of collective “hard time.”  Yeah, that night he told us about old Eddie Coyle, old Eddie “Fingers” who the day before had wound up face down with about nine slugs in him in the front passenger side of a stolen 1970 two-toned Chevy over at the Fresh Pond Shopping Mall in Cambridge as the prime new example he could give about that honor among thieves stuff.

George didn’t know much about Eddie’s early life but he guessed that like a lot of guys who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, guys from  Eddie’s “class” like Whitey Bulger who they just grabbed recently, a couple of years ago, grabbed good Eddie started early. Figure: probably a drunken father (like George’s had been, that was the first time I had heard that) who did, or did not beat, the kids (and wife) after a three day toot and who did, or did not, drink away his weekly wages leaving said wife with many empty envelopes for the “on time” bill collectors and repo men but who in whichever case applies was AWOL in bringing up sonny boy. Figure: a nagging mother (who despite the beating or short money would not leave her man, where would she go?) who kept sonny boy in tow for a while with “you do not want to be like your father” but who when he came of age turned more and more like his father-except he was in thrall to easy money, easy money “found on the ground” not whiskey. Figure too: too many kids in the family, too little space to breathe, always climbing over or under somebody, and the kicker- a serious wanting habit that never left him because there was too much to want and not enough to pay for it. Yeah, George did not know every detail, every Eddie detail but those of us on the stools kept nodding our heads as he spoke.

How to get that easy money though. Maybe Eddie started, you know probably with the “clip”, the “five-finger discount” at some cheap jewelry store downtown (and probably for some young girl that he was smitten with and had no dough to buy some harmless trinket. Little did he know then that there was not enough dough in the world when his women got their wanting habits on. That hard-bitten knowledge came later.). Kids’ stuff for kids’ eyes. Later when more serious dough was needed  maybe a quick Mom and Pop variety store robbery throwing a scare in the owners but no weapons (and not in the neighborhood either-funny about the “code” you did not hit the neighborhood stores but some other neighborhood stores with the same hard-working up against it small owners were fair game. Worse though was when the drugs came and distorted a lot so even locals were hit. But in Eddie’s time-stay away).Maybe some silly petty larceny thing finally graduating to more dough armed robberies, selling stolen goods, selling dope, maybe selling women who knows. The way George got to know Eddie though was as a gun-runner, one of the best in New England, and one of the surefire ways to get yourself before the “feds”-if you were looking for a way.








What Eddie was though, and here he was and is legion, was a career “soldier,” a guy just trying to do a little of this, a little of that to keep the vultures from the door. George said looking at photographs of Eddie when he was younger he looked pretty tough, but also a good- looking guy that would be spending a lot of time buying trinkets for one frail or another. George said think of maybe a young Robert Mitchum, all cleft-chin, barrel-chest, a mass of dark hair, and a little sneer that women, some women anyway, usually make it their business to take off a guy when they have a different set of wanting habits on. They would never make a movie of Eddie’s short unsweet mournful life but if they did he would suggest Mitchum for the role hands down.     

Yeah, so Eddie was just a guy doing the best he could, not an educated guy but “street wise” enough to get noticed by guys who notice such things. (Eddie dropped out of high school over at Rindge Tech in Cambridge after his first successful armed robbery and after he nearly beat one of the teachers, a shop teacher, to death when he asked Eddie where he was going with all shop materials in the back of his car after school).  Most of the time whatever caper he was on worked, a few mishaps, thirty days here, six months there and then back to the streets, back to the “this and that.” But here is where he got dragged into the “code.” One time he was look-out on an armed robbery of a department store on payday. Something went wrong and the guys who actually were to pull the robbery off fled leaving Eddie holding the bag. Eddie was left “holding the bag” (had a weapon on him as he was approached by the called cops.) Eddie, knowing the guys he was working with were “connected’ did his first stand-up guy routine-got a year and served six months. He would stand-up some more later but what was important was after that time, after he proved to be a stand-up guy, was when he began his career as the “armorer” anytime somebody needed some “clean” guns.   


But see guys like Eddie are street smart, or better be if they expect a longest career, but not smart, smart, not covered with about eight layers of protection before they might have to take the big fall, not brain smart and so guys like Eddie make mistakes, and certain mistakes cost a guy. That is how Eddie got his moniker. See mostly Eddie was after that youthful mishap stuff, that 30 days here, six months there stuff, a gun-runner, a job which means that he was “connected” if only by a “banker” to guys who mattered. Eddie was the guy who, if you were “connected,” could depend on to get guns for your caper and then you dump them in some river, any river and nobody was the wiser, no cops anyway. That was what Jimmy Smalls did, the case that later put Eddie face down, when he thought up his string of quick armed robberies and then fade out but needed a ton of hardware to pull them all off.

So there was always a demand, especially for guns that didn’t blow up on you when you used them, or blow up on you with a “history” (you know stolen, or from some government inventory storage, or used in some traceable criminal act if you got caught). Eddie made that mistake, once. See Eddie was supposed to give the good-housekeeping seal of approval on all the guns he sold, was to make sure that those guns had no history, had not been used before in some traceable criminal activity. That one time he got sloppy, dealt with a dealer who claimed the guns were clean (Eddie was always the “middle man” on these deals. Like George said where would he get guns, clean guns on his own.). Billy Banks, the old-time bank-robber (who like the more illustrious Willy Sutton said he did it because that was where the money was. Nice) depended on an Eddie gun, got into a squeeze with the “Feds” and found out the gun had been used in an unsolved murder. Well, Billy, who was connected from way back, was not going to be the guy who got the lesson. Our boy Eddie was. Here is how “connected” justice works though. They took Eddie’s hand (nicely giving him the choice of which one) and slammed it into a drawer-hard. So Eddie, now Eddie Fingers, had a grotesque set of knuckles on one hand ever after. Hence the moniker.                 

After that object lesson Eddie became cautious, much more cautious, for a long time. Like a lot of career guys, soldiers, he got married, had kids and so he needed a steady flow of cash and the gun trade was somewhat seasonal. So he branched out a little, worked a shipment of stolen goods up in Maine for a couple of guys, and got caught. That shipment turned out to be many, many cases of liquor, untaxed stolen liquor coming over the line from Canada. That is where George came into the story personally with Eddie. See an aging soldier with a wife and kids just can’t do the “time.” They had him solid on the heist, no question, and so Eddie seeing the writing on the wall, saw that being a stand-up guy was going to put him in nowhere land wanted to talk to one of George’s field guys, wanted to talk to “Uncle” George called the process.  And what “talking to Uncle” meant was that Eddie was ready to sell his mother to get out from under his expected two-to-five year sentence.

So Eddie made one of his life’s little compromises. Here is how that went. Eddie needing plenty of cash for family and lawyers got back into the gun-running trade while awaiting sentencing. Eddie was the broker for Jimmy Smalls’ caper like I said which needed much hardware in a short period. Eddie found his dealer, a young guy named Tiny Brown, who had serious connections to some small arms plant where they made the damn things, worked him hard, mercilessly in fact, to get the guns that were necessary for Jimmy’s series of quick bank robberies. Things went well for a while, Eddie got all the guns he needed at a decent price and plenty of dough for himself. The problem was the Feds were wired into the action (through the thoughtfulness of another snitch of course), wired in almost accidently.

In those days, back in the early 1970s, the Feds were up to their knees in trying to keep guns out of hand of black revolutionaries like the Panthers fearing some kind of race war with “whitey” getting the short end of the stick. Also as time went on and America got all crazy over Vietnam some white radicals figured they would start a “second front” in America to aid the Vietnamese revolutionaries over there and the black liberation fighters in America.  They too were looking for guns, heavy-duty M-16 kind of automatic weaponry. And Tiny was the man who could get such weaponry. So at one point on another Tiny dealt with some radicals looking for guns for the revolution at the same time as Eddie needed some quick gun turnaround. The Feds brought down Tiny, the gun-dealer with no problem. Oh yeah, with a little help from Eddie, something about machine-guns in the trunk of his car. George said Eddie’s logic was impeccable-he did not want to see his country overrun by n----rs and commies and why not throw a gun-dealer in the mix to lighten his sentence. Besides Tiny was kind of a snotty-nosed kid

Here is the funny thing about the “stoolie” business though, about when you stop being a stand-up guy. Once you give “Uncle” one thing he wants to put you on the “payroll.” Wants you to sing loud and clear in his choir. See George’s field guy went to bat for Eddie up in Maine but because he neglected to “dime” on the guys who ran the operation (connected guys and so you might as well cut your own throat if you brought them down as I am sure Eddie seriously thought about when he looked at his knuckles) the government guy in Maine wasn’t ready to do likewise. So our boy Eddie was going to have produce more than that one gun-dealer, like maybe give up who the guys were who organized that stolen goods shipment up in Maine. Here is where the “code of honor” goes to hell and back. The guy, or one of the guys who organized the stolen goods heist was a guy, Dixie, who ran a bar in Boston and was for his own purposes working for Uncle. And guess what Dixie was worried about. Yeah, Eddie’s problem, whether Eddie would be a stand-up guy when the deal went down. So Eddie became the classic victim of the squeeze. See Dixie put it in Uncle’s ear that Eddie was the guy who ratted out on the bank robberies, ratted out on Jimmy’s capers, that were spreading like wild-fire around Boston-using Eddie provided guns.

Here is what got Eddie doomed though, got him over to Fresh Pond. When the coppers, using information provided by a woman scorned girlfriend of Jimmy, the mastermind of those robberies, closed in for the arrests they killed one of his confederates.   A kid, a kid seriously connected to a local Mafia boss who treated the kid like a son. So the contract went out, the contract with one Edward Coyle’s, late of the Cambridge streets, name written all over it. An injustice, sure. A bad end, sure. Honor among thieves? Ask Eddie with his face down in some car seat. No, better, ask his widow. Jesus, that George sure could tell a story.                      

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