I shouldn’t drive down this block. I’m taking a chance. True, it’s just another street in Brighton Beach, where five-story apartment buildings march right up to the ocean. They resemble 1776 Walton Avenue in the Bronx, where I grew up—plain and mundane. But these sit on the Atlantic, right on the cusp of land and sea, just where the swaying palms should be.
Down one of these streets, past the buildings, surrounded by a tall beach fence (reinforced since Hurricane Sandy), looms what I call the Gangster’s House.
Wedged onto a tiny lot, the Gangster’s House manages to convey power. Matching stone lions face each other on the porch (if you can use that word to describe a place where people are tortured). The door is impenetrable. The roof groined. There are windows whose dark glass reflects light and into which nobody has ever seen.
It’s a scary place. When I took my grandson there, he of brave presence in the lands of Minecraft, he started to cry.
Yet I go. Just to look, just to imbibe. Writers are fascinated by gangsters. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Allison Leotta, writers spin tales around the exploits of our most notorious citizens—folks who, in real life, are simply brutal thugs. But beneath the pen of a skilled writer, these characters take on legendary proportions. Why? They are dangerous, and every great story is about danger in one sense or another.
People who lead safe tidy lives are not fodder for storytelling. Very little is at stake. But for the mobster who lives by the gun, the Mafioso torn between safety and honor, the hit man in danger of losing his soul, the stakes are high. We all relate to that realm; we all feel like we’re in danger, however much we try to escape. Remember the last time you were in an airplane that hit turbulence? Gripping the armrest, for one instant you were alive or dead.
Whoever lives in the Gangster’s House inhabits that hazardous dimension all the time. And, since the House stands in a part of Brooklyn known to be home to the Russian mob, it’s a safe bet that the place really does belong to a gangster.
Once, when I parked outside, two guys came out. They were huge and had two huge Dobermans in muzzles, on short leashes. They headed for the monster SUV parked inside the gate. They saw me. I looked away, lest I make contact with the black depths of their soulless eyes. I pretended to be looking at a map; I pretended to whistle.
That time, I got away. But I’m going again today to take a picture for this article. If you are reading this, I made it home safe. Don’t look too closely. Don’t try to figure out where it is. The man who owns the house does not like people snooping around. He doesn’t know he’s fiction.