Friday, January 28, 2011

On the GS Bookshelf: Alphaville

Just try talking about the Lower East Side now without using the phrase “back in the day.” Betcha can’t do it. The particular “back in the day” of interest in Alphaville, 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York City’s Lower East Side (St. Martins, 2010) is the 1980s. At that time, the storied neighborhood, already prey to encroaching gentrification, still housed lots of working class immigrants and low-rent bohemians, while certain of its streets functioned as open-air drug bazaars. And while the crack epidemic was in full swing, the “D” in Avenue D stood for Dope. Heroin flooded through the Ave D projects, spreading through the Alphabet, and outward from there to the rest of New York City, and the entire country.  

Retired New York City cop Michael Codella worked the Lower East Side narcotics beat during this infamous period, first as a housing cop patrolling the massive Riis and Wald Houses on Avenue D, and then as a DEA deputy investigating one of the D’s heaviest street dealing crews. Alphaville tells his story.

Few people are prepared from day one for their chosen vocation. Codella, to hear him tell it, was such an apprentice. He came of age in the 1970s out at the end of the LL line in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood populated, at that time, largely by wise-guys and cops. Codella’s own family tree also reflected this demographic slant. His dad was a housing cop before him. His grandfather, originally from Sicily, had once been on the payroll of  Lucky Luciano. These early influences, Codella argues, sharpened him up for duty on the D, where harsh reality often called for a fast-and-loose interpretation of the NYPD Patrol Guide, and conscience demanded some fundamental guiding code. Gramps, it turned out, provided the latter, in the form of an old world ethos, transplanted to Canarsie, of “Behave-a yourself,” meaning roughly a combination of “don’t get caught” and "always have fun."

Codella clearly enjoyed his police work. He makes no bones about having been hung up on the adrenaline pumping thrill it gave him. He and co-author Bruce Bennett—who some readers might recognize as the guitarist for the A-Bones, himself a long-time Lower East Sider from “back in the day”—do a great job of injecting some of that kick into Alphaville. Structurally Alphaville resembles Stanley Booth’s book about the Stones (which changes titles with each new printing—currently it’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones), in that it alternates installments “present time” story, i.e., scenes from the D, with chapters from Codella’s past. This pattern eventually leads to the big payoff, the investigation of the notorious 3rd and D crew, aka, “The Forty Thieves.” If in Booth’s book the driving question is “what happened to Brian?,” in Alphaville it’s “how did Mikey C end up on the D?”

Reading co-authored books sort of resembles watching a cricket match after a lifetime of baseball. The rules of the more exotic game remain mysterious. Codella describes at length the good chemistry he enjoyed with his old police partner Gio. Howzabout the chemistry with his more recent partner, Bruce Bennet? These two--the hepcat and the narc--would seem to make for an odd combo.  In another sense though, their collaboration befits their subject. After all, they did both roam the same streets “back in the day,” in a neighborhood where everyone, in one way or another, felt the effects of the Avenue D dope trade.

No comments: