Thomas Calabrese — Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Paisano emigrated from Sicily with his parents Vito and Lucia and four older brothers, Gaetano, Salvatore, Luigi and Pietro in 1923. The family processed through Ellis Island like 12 million other immigrants did searching for a better life, did between the years of 1892 and 1954.
Vito was a skilled concrete mason and got a job working on the New York subway system. The older boys found employment and the family was doing well. Joe Paisano came to realize that he had a different skill, one where he could make more money in one evening than his entire family could make in a week of hard manual labor. That skill was gambling. It was after a poker game that Joe won a lot of money from Charles Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello from the Five Points Gang when Meyer Lansky approached him, “You’re a hell of a card player.”
“Everybody gets lucky once in a while,” Joe responded humbly.
Meyer said, “I was consulting with my associates and we think that there’s an opportunity for us to make some money together.”
“Thanks anyway, but I work alone,” Joe answered.
“We’ll set up games, give you protection and take 25 per cent as our cut,” Meyer offered.”
Joe countered, “That’s hefty cut.”
“Seventy-five per cent of a lot is better than a hundred per cent of not so much,” Meyer pointed out, then added, “You’ve got a family…right?”
“What do they have do with this?” Joe was naturally defensive.
Meyer responded, “Easy does it, that protection extends to them as well. If they have a problem, you can always come see me.”
“Now that’s a deal I can agree to, “Joe responded and extended his right hand and Meyer shook it.
For the next five years, Joe and the Five Points Gang did indeed make a considerable amount of money. Vito and Lucia moved into a spacious townhouse with a view of Madison Square Park. Charlie Luciano used his considerable influence in the city government to get Vito Paisano promoted to maintenance supervisor with the transit department. Joe’s brothers were married and raising families of their own and doing well in their lives.
In 1935, Charlie Luciano pointed out, “Your reputation is scaring off a lot of high rollers. There’s a lot of money to be made in Los Angeles from people who don’t know you. Take a trip out there and see if you like it.”
Joe replied, “I guess a change of climate might do me some good. I’ve always wanted to see California.”
When Joe arrived in Los Angeles, he was met by underworld kingpin, Jack Dragna and his right hand man, Johnny Roselli at the Union Train Station.
As soon as he stepped into the warm sunshine, Joe immediately knew he was going to like Los Angeles
Jack smiled, “Welcome to the Golden State.”
“Thanks, Charlie, Meyer and Frank send their regards.”
Jack’s demeanor changed from cordial to defensive in an instant, “Did Meyer send you to check on me? I told him and Charlie that I don’t need no babysitter!”
“They got other mugs for that. I’m just a gambler, nothing more,” Joe responded.
Dragna was a sociopath and as ruthless as they come. One of his schemes was to send his henchmen to threaten business owners, then deceive them into paying for protection from his own men. Despite his efforts, Dragna didn’t have the skill or mindset to control all of the rackets in Southern California because he didn’t operate his organization like other crime bosses. He was obsessed with power, would do anything to get it and keep it and wanted people to know and fear him. The other crime leaders on the other hand, saw power as a means to an end and gauged their success by the bottom line. If nobody knew who they were, especially law enforcement that was even better. They worked diligently to keep a low-profile.
Meyer gave his opinion about Dragna, “He’d take a sledge hammer to kill a fly. He’s addicted to his own notoriety and wouldn’t mind getting arrested if it got his photo on the front page.”
This frustrated the leadership of the Five Points Gang back in New York, who were taking a percentage of the profits from Dragna’s activities. They knew that he could do much better, but was too stubborn to listen to their advice. Eventually Dragna would cross the line, and no matter how much money he was making, he would become expendable.
Charlie Luciano sent Nick Licata from Detroit and Jimmy ‘the Weasel’ Fratianno and Frank Bompensiero from Cleveland to strengthen Dragna’s organization. With their assistance the West Coast gangster got involved in the import/ export business.
It didn’t take long for Joe Paisano and Jack Dragna to butt heads. Their personalities were polar opposites. Joey was a good-hearted and easy-going and that irritated Jack tremendously.
Jack growled at Joey, “These guys are suckers…your job is to take their money and give us our share. I don’t care how you do that.”
“If you’re asking me to cheat, that’s not going to happen. I play a straight game, always have and always will. Meyer and Charlie know my style. You got a problem with that, talk to them.”
“Every time I tell you to do something, you bring up Meyer and Charlie’s name. Maybe you’d like to stand on your own for a change,” Jack offered.
“I’ll make you a deal. You leave your men out of it and I’ll do the same with Meyer, Charlie and Frank. Just you and me, anytime and anyplace.” Joe offered.
Dragna wasn’t used to fighting his own battles or have someone stand up to him so he was caught off-guard. He declined the offer, “One of these times, gambling man you’re going to overplay your hand and I’ll be there.”
Joe smiled, “You’re a lousy gambler, Jack, you wouldn’t know if I was overplaying my hand if I showed you my cards.”
Three days later, Meyer called Joe, “What the hell were you thinking calling out Jack. He’s going to have to kill you to save face and I don’t think I can stop him.”
Joey responded, “I ‘m not going to cheat, Myer. You guys sent me to make money and that’s what I’m going to do. If Dragna kills me, then that’s just the way it is. He’s got to do what he has to, so do I and so do you. As long as my family is safe, that’s the most important thing to me.”
Meyer laughed, “I wish that Charlie and me didn’t like you so much…this would be a lot easier. I’m going to send Rico Rizzi to keep on an eye on you. Don’t argue with me on this.”
Rico Rizzi was Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano’s personal enforcer. He stood six feet four inches tall and weighed 325 pounds with mangled hands from too much fighting. Rizzi was fiercely loyal and had a reputation as a savage and remorseless killer. He once murdered six men single-handedly to protect Meyer. In a notable incident, Rizzi intercepted two hitman sent by Al Capone to assassinate Charlie Luciano in a bold attempt to extend Chicago Outfit’s power to New York. Rizzi subdued both men with his bare hands before binding and gagging them with towels. He carved the words, Stay out of N.Y. into their chests then put their bodies in a wooden crate and shipped them back to Big Al. They were on the verge of death by the time they arrived in Chicago.
When Jack Dragna was informed that Rizzi had arrived in Los Angeles, his self-preservation instincts kicked into high gear. He knew it was Meyer Lansky’s subtle way of telling him to tread softly. Rico moved in with Joe at his home on 415 St. Louis Street, which overlooked Hollenbeck Park. Despite his penchant for extreme violence, Rico had a softer side, he loved to cook Italian food. When he wasn’t out with Joe, Rico could usually be found preparing some delicious meal in the kitchen.
In the beginning, Joe traveled all over Southern California to gamble, from the harbor of San Diego to Hearst Castle in Central California and even to San Francisco a couple times. The higher the stakes, the further he would be willing to go. He had been in Los Angeles nine months and developed friendships with several high rollers. Joe played it straight up and nobody knew of his mob connections and he saw no reason that they should. He began having weekly games at a suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood. Some of the more notable players who attended the games were Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Pat O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway and William Randolph Hearst, as well as sport stars and titans of industry.
After a one particularly long session when the game went on for seven hours, Joey got the worse neck spasm, he had ever experienced. Every movement was excruciating. Errol Flynn noticed Joe’s distress and commented “You don’t look good.”
Joey grimaced, “I’ve got a stick neck.”
“There’s a guy in Japantown who will fix you right up. He’s got Asian medical skills. I’m speaking from experience when I say he’s taken care of me up more than once. That’s saying a lot since nobody in Hollywood abuses their body more than me,” Errol wrote down a name and address on a card and slipped into Joe’s pocket.
The next morning, Rico drove Joey to Japantown. Joe gingerly made his way through the front door of the pharmacy. By now his neck was so stiff that he had to turn his entire body to look right or left, There was a middle aged man working behind the counter and Joey said, “Excuse me, I’m looking for Mr. Kane… Ka…
The man smiled, “I’m Akio Kaneshige…how can I help you?”
Joe grimaced, “Errol Flynn sent me… I’m in a lot of pain.”
Kaneshige walked over and touched Joe’s neck, instinctively knowing where the problem was located, “Any friend of Mr. Flynn is welcome here,” Kaneshige called out, “Reiko, please come here.”
A beautiful Japanese woman with flawless skin approached, “Yes father.”
“This is a friend of Mr. Flynn, please show him to the treatment room,” Akio said.
Reiko led Joe to a room in the back of the store and helped him on to a massage table. The scent of jasmine and vanilla filled the room. It could have been from the exhaustion of being in pain or the serenity of the situation, probably a combination of both, but as soon as Joe laid his head on the feather pillow and looked into the eyes of the Asian beauty, his entire body relaxed.
Reiko’s voice was soft and soothing, “Rest, my father will be here soon.”
The last thing Joey remembered was the gentle touch of Reiko’s hand on his forehead. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep, but when Joe awakened he felt refreshed and was completely pain free. He walked out of the room and saw Rico sitting at the soda fountain, eating a bowl of rum raisin ice cream and laughing. “How long was I conked out?”
Rico grinned, “About three hours. Akio and me have been exchanging recipes. You need to try this homemade ice cream, you think you died and went to heaven.”
“How do you feel?” Akio asked.
Joe answered, “Great…what did you do?”
“It is called acupuncture. Needles are placed in specific places in your body tostimulatethe central nervous system. This, in turn, releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These biochemical changes stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being,”
Akio handed Joe a bag, “Here is some herbal tea, drink it in the morning and evening. It will help you relax. You should come back next week for another treatment.”
Joe inquired, “How much do I owe you?”
Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill, “For what you did, a five-spot is much too little.”
As Joe and Rico left, Reiko flashed a big smile. Rico nudged Joe, “I think she likes you.”
Over the next few months, Joe went on a hot streak that every gambler dreams off, but never experiences. Maybe it was the weekly treatments from Akio Kaneshige or the developing relationship between him and Reiko, but he had never been happier or more alert and aware of his surroundings
Reiko came to Jo, “I’ve got a problem…well actually my friend’s brother is in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Have you ever heard of a man called Nikolay Federov?” Reiko said.
Joe answered, “I have, but we don’t travel in the same circles.”
“My friend’s brother owes Federov a lot of money. He came to their house and threatened the entire family if they don’t come up with the money,” Reiko said.
Joe asked, “How much does he owe?”
“Thirty-five hundred dollars.”
“I can give you that much,” Joe volunteered.
Reiko said, “Bobby would probably just go back and gamble some more and be in the same position in a few months.”
“From what I hear, Federov runs a crooked game so even if your friend’s brother was a fairly decent gambler, he still would have lost, but then again a good gambler wouldn’t get involved in a crooked game,” Joe said
“So there’s nothing you can do?”
“Let me think about it, I might be able to come up with something, “Joe smiled, “If they’re friends of yours then I’ll do my best.”
Joe and Rico showed up at Federov’s gambling establishment and walked up to the table where five men were playing. Joe watched for ten minutes then asked, “Mind if I sit in?”
Federov replied, “Sure thing, mister, table stakes…let’s see your money.”
Joe pulled out a big stack of money and sat down.”
Federov’s eyes opened wide when he saw the cash, “What’s your name?’
Federov was surprised, “You work for Jack Dragna, don’t you?”
“We’re business associates.”
“You’re a high stakes gambler,” Federov commented, “What brings you to my place?
“A friend told me about you. Before we get started, let me warn you, I like an honest game. My associate and I get very upset when people cheat.”
Federov glanced at Rico and stammered, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
It only took Joe four hours to clean out everyone at the table. He had six thousand in chips in front of him so he stood up and commented, “This clears Bobby Temple’s debt with interest added on. I don’t want you playing with him anymore. Leave him and his family alone, understood?”
Federov looked over at his three henchman to make sure they were ready to back his play, “Are you threatening me? You’ve some nerve coming into my place and telling me what to do. I got friends too.”
In a split second, Joe pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Federov’s head. Rico pulled out two pearl handled .45 caliber pistols and was ready to use. Six more men in the room pulled their weapons and it looked like a bloodbath was moments away.
“You’re outnumbered,” Federov tried to give the impression that he finally had the winning hand.
Joey wasn’t even slightly intimidated, “No matter how this goes down, you die, first, second, third, you die, regardless. You see my friend over there…it’s going to take about eight or ten bullets to put him down. By that time, most of your men are going be lying on the floor bleeding to death.”
The armed men seemed a lot less enthusiastic and confident than they did a few seconds earlier.
“You’re bluffing…you don’t want to die,” Federov boasted.
“You can easily find out, just tell your men to start shooting and I’ll see you in hell,” Joe said calmly
Federov hesitated for a moment then called out, “Holster your guns, boys…he means it.”
As Joe turned to leave, he warned the Russian, “I am proceeding under the assumption that we’ve got a deal. I need to hear one way or another from you before I walk out the door.”
Federov replied, “We’ve got a deal. I’ll leave Bobby alone.”
Rico used his most intimidating voice and imposing demeanor to scare the living daylights and gambling addiction out of the young boy, “I will kill you with my bare hands if you start betting again. Do you understand?”
Bobby stammered, “Yes sir…no more gambling for me.”
Joe talked to Clark Gable, who used his connections at MGM Studios to get Bobby a job in the prop department. The more popular and powerful that Joe Paisano became, the more it irritated Jack Dragna. He secretly envied the charismatic young man and his jealously elevated his vindictiveness.
Over the next three years, Joe learned to speak and understand Japanese fluently as he spent more time with Reiko. It was July 14, 1941 and Joey and Rico were at the Kaneshige pharmacy enjoying their lunch in the back room with Akio and Reiko, when four rough looking thugs entered and the bell hanging over the door rang.
Akio stood up, “I’ll be right back.”
When Akio approached the men, he politely asked, “How may I help you?”
One of the men commented, “We’re in the property and life insurance business and are here to sell you a policy.”
When Akio didn’t return for several minutes, Reiko said, “I wonder what’s keeping my father. I’ll be right back.”
Fifteen seconds later, “Joe, I need help!”
Joe and Rico came rushing out of the backroom to see Akio and Reiko being restrained by two men while the other two took money from the cash register.
“Let ‘em go.” Joe demanded
One of the men replied arrogantly, “You don’t who we are, we work for Jack Dragna.”
Joe and Rico exchanged glances and knew that they were about to cross a line that would have serious consequences. Joey repeated his demand, “Let ‘em go and put the money back”
One of the men suddenly recognized Joe, “You work for Jack too, what the hell are you doing?”
“I don’t work for him, we’re business associates,” Joe corrected the man.
The man explained, “Jack is taking over Japantown…we’re here to start collecting protection.”
“Not anymore,” Joe stated.
The tension increased in a split second. Two men reached for their weapons and Joe and Rico shot them_dead. The other two ran for their lives, got into their car and raced off.
Rico commented, “That didn’t turn out well, did it?”
When the two men got back to Dragna’s house, they told him who killed their comrades. Dragna was enraged, “Paisano is dead! You hear me, dead! dead!
Later that night, Joe called Meyer Lansky in New York to tell him what happened. Meyer was irate, “I already got a call from Dragna, what the hell were you thinking? It hasn’t been easy keeping Dragna from killing you before, but now that you rubbed out two of his men, I won’t be able to stop him anymore. You and Rico need to get out of Los Angeles fast…come back to New York, you’ll be safer here.”
Joe responded, “You would have done the same thing if you were in my place. Those were my friends that Dragna’s men went after. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”
Meyer sighed, “Your greatest trait and biggest weakness is your loyalty. Once in a while, it’s alright to put business before friendship.”
“Not for me it isn’t. I’ll ask Rico if he wants to go, but I’m staying.” Joe said defiantly
“Didn’t you hear what I said? Dragna wants your head and I can’t start a gang war to protect you. Too many things and people would be involved. It’s also bad business…nothing personal.”
“I’m on my own, I get it. Thanks for everything up to this point,” Joe hung up the phone.
When Joe walked over to where Rico was standing, the big man asked, “What did Meyer say?”
“He wants us to come back to New York,” Joe replied.
Rico asked, “Are you going?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. I highly recommend that you leave as soon as possible. No reason for both of us to do something stupid.”
Rico smiled, “I’m just getting good at cooking Japanese food, and I don’t want to leave now.”
Joey and Rico discussed their options and thought it was best to move to Japantown. They organized a neighborhood watch program in preparation for an attack by Dragna’s men. Whenever any strangers came into the area, a runner was sent to notify Joe and Rico about their arrival and whereabouts.
Dragna was impatient for revenge so he sent five torpedoes (Torpedo, 1920’s slang for a hit man or hired gun) after Joe and Rico. They exited their vehicle, guns at the ready and prepared to enter the pharmacy. Joe and Rico came up behind them with twelve gauge shotguns in their hands. Joe instructed, “Drop the heaters (guns).”
The men chose the alternative and the shotguns spit fire and death. When Dragna received a package of fish by special delivery, he knew what that meant, ‘his men were sleeping with the fishes.’
Joe bought a building and made it his base of operations. Dragna reluctantly backed off because his men refused to go into Japantown, knowing it was a suicide mission.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and soon afterward many Americans including powerful politicians became worried that citizens of Japanese ancestry would act as spies and saboteurs for the Japanese government. In February, 1942 Akio and Reiko Kaneshige were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack while permanent internment camps were being built around the United States.
Joe was outraged at the mistreatment of the Japanese people who were loyal and patriotic Americans and would never betray the country. Fear and stupidity was a difficult obstacle to overcome especially when it became a full blown panic fueled by reckless and incendiary rhetoric. Joe bid a tearful farewell to Reiko and joined the Marine Corps.
Before leaving for basic training at San Diego, Joe took Rico the Union Station, who was heading back to New York to rejoin the Five Points Gang.
Rico broke down in tears as he bid farewell to his friend, “Don’t get yourself killed.”
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. Thanks for keeping me alive all these years,” Joe said and embraced Rico, “Go take care of Meyer and Charlie and hopefully we’ll see each other when this is over.
Since Joe spoke Japanese fluently, he became a valuable asset to Marines. He became a scout and fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima. Joey needed every bit of luck that he had to survive the war and was often called upon to go behind enemy lines, to capture prisoners and assassinate high value targets. By the time the war ended in the Pacific, Joey had been wounded three times and awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Navy Cross.
Joe was discharged at Camp Pendleton and returned to Los Angeles. Jack Dragna was still in power and he went to see the mob boss. It had been over three years since they had seen each other. “I just wanted you to know that I was back in town. I need to know if we’re going to pick up where we left off or if that’s behind us.”
“You made a quite a name for yourself fighting the Japanese. You must be pretty tired of killing by now,” Dragna said, “Maybe you should find a nice quiet place to live. This is still my town.”
Joe responded, “I’ve done some things that I’m not proud of during the war, things I’ll never forget. Besides having those bad memories, I’ve also developed some deadly skills. So, let’s keep this simple, if you want me gone or dead, then send your best men. After I kill them, I’ll show you some torture techniques that the enemy used on us.”
Jack Dragna rubbed his chin and felt a chill run up his spine, “When you put it that way, I guess Los Angeles is big enough for both of us. Thank you for your service and welcome home.”
When Akio and Reiko were released from the Manzanar Internment Camp, near Lone Pine California, Joe began working with them and other detainees to rebuild their lives. He borrowed several million dollars from Meyer Lansky and began buying vacant commercial and residential properties throughout the Southland. Rico Rizzi moved back from New York and opened Rico’s, an Italian restaurant, located on La Cienga Boulevard in Beverly Hills. It soon became a regular hangout for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and members of the Rat Pack. Next door to it was Kaneshige’s Noodle House.
Joey bought Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, 168 foot yacht called Camille, and renamed it Reiko. He turned it into a floating casino and kept it docked at San Pedro. When the guests were all aboard, the yacht would head outside the three-mile territorial limit and gambling would begin. The floating palace would cruise up and down the coast then return at sunrise.
On February 23, 1956, Jack Dragna died of a sudden heart attack while having dinner at the Brown Derby Restaurant, or so the autopsy stated. Even though she had drastically changed her appearance and name, Joey still recognized Virginia Hill while having lunch with actor George Raft, several months earlier, but said nothing. She had been the girlfriend of mobster and gambler Benny Siegel, who was murdered on June 27, 1947 at his Beverly Hills Mansion. At his funeral, she vowed revenge against those responsible for Benny’s death. Was it just a coincidence that she was the waitress that served Dragna on that fateful day, then quit within hours?
Joe has his suspicions, since many people including him, believed that Dragna had ordered the hit on Siegel. Nine years is a long time to wait for revenge, but some people never forget or forgive.
Joe asked Akio Kaneshige if food or herbs could induce a heart attack. Akio answered, “In the proper combination…absolutely.”
Three months later, Joe and Reiko celebrated their five-year anniversary by purchasing a ranch in Malibu. They continued to invest in Asian and minority owned businesses and by 1960, their diversified portfolio included interests in entertainment, real estate, manufacturing, shipping and casinos in Las Vegas and Reno.
In Japanese, the word is tomodachi. In Italian it is paisano. In any language or in any situation, Joe was a loyal and faithful friend. He judged each person by their character and was willing to fight and die for what he thought was right.
The Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during World War II ended up losing between $3billion and $6 billion worth of property if calculated in 2021 dollars. The government used fear, ignorance and panic to turn Americans against each other. Whenever a politician says that they’re here to save you …be extremely skeptical, think carefully and remember what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II.
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
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