Carl Masters felt the muscles in his stomach tighten. "I'll think about it," he said, and returned the telephone to its cradle. He was angry, angry at himself. I'll think about it? Why hadn't he just said no. I'm sorry. It's impossible. That was then, this is now. Anything but I'll think about it.
From what part of his being, he wondered, did that leave-the-door-open answer come from? Was he afraid to say no? Or was he intrigued by the request? He slouched into the soft leather of his chair, surrounded by the accoutrements befitting the office of a successful lawyer. Off in a corner were the leather settee and leather chairs flanking the glass-topped coffee table, his office-within-an-office where he soothed ruffled clients away from the formality of his desk, in front of which was a straight-back chair where he seated clients he intended to berate. That had always been some innate ability of his -- the right thing to say at the right time to the right people -- and it had made him wealthy enough to drive a Mercedes, live in a half-million-dollar house and send his two teen-agers to private schools.
On the wall hung the diploma proclaiming him a juris doctor by way of the University at Buffalo. Next to it, in a much larger frame, was the certificate admitting him to practice law in the State of California. He swiveled in his chair and gazed out his office's wall of windows. From his perch on the 27th floor, he had a magnificent view of the harbor.
There were a lot more Navy ships 20 years ago when I came to San Diego, he thought.
Then his mind drifted across the miles and across the decades. He was a little boy again, maybe 6 or 7, and his name was Carlo Massera.
"Mangia," his grandfather said, shoving closer to him a bowl of small shells bathed in sugu.
"Boboluc," his grandfather explained as he picked a shell from the bowl, poked inside it with a toothpick and withdrew an ugly worm-like black thing and put it in his mouth.
"But Papa," little Carlo protested, "I doan wanna eat boboluc."
It was one of those times when his grandfather picked him up in his big, black Cadillac and took him out, usually to some restaurant in Buffalo or Niagara Falls. As the first-born son, he bore his grandfather's name, and this distinction, he sensed, made him special. After all, Papa never took his sister, older by two years, or his brother, Angelo, named after his mother's father when he was born a year after Carlo.
His introduction to snails had come at a place called the Turf Club at Busti and Jersey in Buffalo. He had learned about tripe at Andy's on Lower Terrace and about calamari at The Como on Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls. But he learned about much more than exotic Sicilian delicacies on those forays with his grandfather, only he didn't know it at the time. Not until years later did he understand why his Papa was always addressed as "Don Carlo." Why men often approached them with reverence while they ate in restaurants, bowing their heads to his grandfather as if they were in the presence of royalty or the papacy. Why sometimes his grandfather would summon a waiter to sit with little Carlo while Don Carlo walked off to talk with one of the supplicants.
Little Carlo loved his papa without reservation in those days. He would mess the few strands of white hair on his head when they played. He would climb up on his lap and stand on his knees as his grandfather took him through a balancing lesson.
"Raise your right arm straight out," Papa would command in his broken English. Out went the right arm. "Now up," and the right arm rose. "Now the left, straight out," Papa would demand.
"Now up, reach for the ceiling."
Carlo never forgot the feeling of exhilaration and triumph when he balanced for his grandfather's five-count, then collapsed into his massive arms.
His Papa, he knew, was rich. In those years of learning without knowing, his grandfather always had money, even though Carlo came to realize later most of the rest of Buffalo was suffering through a depression. He had money and he was generous. If Carlo wanted a bicycle, Papa bought him a bicycle. If Carlo was going with his sister and Angelo to Crystal Beach on the Crystal Beach boat, Papa made sure they all had something extra for the rides or cotton candy.
"Don't tell your mother," he'd whisper as he slipped them money.
It wasn't until later, much later in his life, that Carlo found out why his grandfather always had money. He never did learn specifically how his grandfather got his money. But now, at 45, much wiser than youngster Carlo Massera growing up in that big yellow-brick house on Busti Avenue, he had a pretty good idea. And to this day he still doesn't know whether to blame Canisius High School for shattering his life, or credit it with giving him a new one. At Holy Cross grammar school his ancestry and family never were questioned. His friends were all Italians, although some were quick to challenge that Sicilians weren't really Italians.
"No listen to them," his Papa told him when he posed the question on one of their outings. "Sicilians are one hundred percent Italians. They just jealous they not from Sicily."
The challenges were much harsher at Canisius. Like in his freshman year, when a senior with an Irish name, Cleary or Clancy or Connelly, something like that, picked a fight.
"Think you're a tough guy, dago, cause your grandfather's Don Carlo?" he said as he grabbed Carlo by the tie all Canisius students were required to wear. "I don't care if your family runs the Army, I'll make mincemeat out of you."
Carlo was close to 6 feet tall, wiry and strong, but not a fighter. Cleary, or whatever his name was, left him bloodied. Carlo was too embarrassed -- and too ashamed -- to tell his parents, let alone Papa. And when the taunts and the jeers persisted, he found comfort in the Jesuit priests who ran the school. It was through them that he learned what the taunts meant and why his name provoked menacing. The revelations sickened him. So much so that by the time he graduated in 1950, he vowed to break free from his bloodlines. That's why he moved to California, as far away from Buffalo, Don Carlo and what it meant, as he could go. That's why the day he passed the California bar exam and earned his ticket to practice law and make money, Carl Masters was born.
And that's why now, two decades later, he was angry he said I'll think about it instead of what he should have said: I'm sorry, but no. But here he was, thinking about it. Thinking about going back to Buffalo to do the right thing, say the right things to the right people and try heal the rifts that were tearing apart his grandfather's crime family now that Don Carlo was dead.
Lee Coppola, dean of the journalism school at St. Bonaventure University, is a former Buffalo reporter who covered organized crime. His last story for FIRST SUNDAY was on Paschal Rubino.