1959-1961: Me, the Mob and Cáfe Rafio
Those of you who know Patricia are aware that she is a very beautiful woman who only gets more lovely every day.
In 1959 at seventeen she was the most stunning creature in Greenwich Village, and the two of us were inseparable. We soon attracted a large following. It was a small community in those years before the "Flower Children" and the "Hippies", perhaps a hundred or so poets, artists, writers many of whom considered themselves Beats as we did.
Love poems flowed from my heart like the torrent shooting over Viagra Falls, and I was taken on as a poet reading my own work at the Cáfe Bizarre on 3rd Street on my first attempt.
Pat in leotards and little else passed the hat after each session, and I did so well I gave away my easel and never sketched another portrait.
A couple Beat buddies named Ted Joans, Ringo Angel and Jamaica Jonny Cayonne and I cut a record, which I am embarrassed to say is still available here, and you can hear us all reading our Beat Poetry here.
God we sound dated, like some passe "period pieces", but at the time we were as serious as sin.
On the album's back cover (below) I am described thus:
The Mad Monk, Rafio
The High Priest of the Beat Generation, known also as the most far out prophet going by those who know. The final word in Beat circles on matters moral, spiritual and erotic. According to the Gospel of Rafio, as the initiated call it, Bedroom Theology, all is one and love is all! Therefore enjoy it!
Talk about purple hyperbole - at least I'm not guilty of having written that blurb, but I assure you we all believed this stuff in the 1960s.
By this time the mob's strip joints in The Village were really being hurt by the Beat phenomenon. The New York Times interviewed me as the poets protested a crack-down on coffeehouses by the police instigated by the mob, and the story called me "a beatnik spokesman", as if an unruly mob like us could have such.
The Bizarre and all the other coffeehouses were turning away customers several nights a week, and I'm sure this and my newspaper notoriety led to my being approached by a Jewish mobster who lived in this Italian neighborhood.
A guy named Sol Joseph introduced himself to me one night when Pat and I were having an after work drink in a bar around the corner.
An offer I couldn't refuse
Sol exclaimed over my poetry, but seemed even more impressed with my promotional skills and the NY Times story.
After a couple meetings, one at Sol's apartment where Pat had her first champagne, he "made me an offer I couldn't refuse", and this was long before The Godfather.
Sol owned a building at 165 Bleeker Street, and he proposed we become 50-50 partners in a new coffeehouse named after my nom de plume, Rafio.
As Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist anything except temptation", and I heartily agreed.
I was also a 29 year old jaded newspaperman by then, and I was well aware that the Italian mob ran The Village which was then a homogeneous Italian neighborhood.
Sure, the Beat coffeehouses were visible on the main drags, but the powers-that-be sipped their espresso in the small local neighborhood coffeehouses which outsiders like us never tried to enter because we knew we weren't welcome.
Mob boss Tony Bender ran that precinct until he disappeared in 1962 presumably in the cement foundation of a New Jersey sports complex. Bender was believed to have set up over 50 gangland murder victims. Besides his lust for violence, Bender oversaw rackets in Greenwich Village, Manhattan and oversaw the New Jersey docks, so since I had every reason to believe Sol was "connected", Bender's representative wasn't someone I wished or dared to refuse.
And until we had a problem a year or so later, Sol was a peach, the ideal partner in that he allowed me to make every decision about my new coffeehouse.
Since I was tired of reading poetry by then, I made a 180 degree switch and wouldn't allow a poet in the door except to have a free meal.
I redid the front wall at the new Cáfe Rafio with a large picture window for the musicians and stand-up comedians to perform in so the passing throng might be lured inside at a cover charge.
I had a huge banner made to hang over the awning at the entrance and created sandwich boards to hang from that outlining each night's acts.
This was one of the first comedy clubs in the city, but I alternated the comics with jazz groups like the Billy Taylor Trio and others.
Feeling the weight of the law and the mob
Since Sol was my silent partner, I had no trouble with the local hoods, at least those who knew the score.
But one huge local thug named Gazoot, who had always been friendly to me when I was a starving artist, came in one afternoon and dumped a couple boxes of candles in glass jars wrapped in webbing on the table and said, "I think you should buy these for your table tops."
I thanked him politely, but declined his offer.
He then put his very large and muscular arm around my neck, dragged me to the pay-phone on a nearby wall, and proceeded to beat me over the head with the receiver saying, "Rafio, you really should buy these candles."
I gargled as best I could saying, "sure, Gazoot, just let me call my partner and ask him for the money for you."
I got Sol on the phone, and whatever he told Gazoot worked, because he turned pale, picked up his candles, and quickly left.
I only saw Gazoot once more when Sol "dissolved" our partnership the "the hard way."
The only cash pay-offs we had to make was to the cop on the beat, the local NYPD precinct, the NYPD division and the boss at the local NY Fire Station. Otherwise they would close us down for failing to have a license for entertainment like the strip joints had.
But these police pay-offs were a total waste because the day Gazoot accosted me, Pat ran screaming to the cop on the beat for help, but he high-tailed it in the opposite direction.
Success - immediate and bad for your health
From the first weekend Cáfe Rafio opened we were an immediate success. There were lines waiting to get in on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the rest of the week when we busy as well.
Pat and I moved into a nice apartment off Orchard Street, took limos out to Fire Island, and flew to Southbridge to visit her family. Business boomed, the village was the place to be, and life was one, continuous party.
A car, a boat and a hurricane
We bought our first car, a tiny Vespa automobile, into which we crammed three friends along with Pat and myself to visit Point Judith RI every week for a couple days to work on your boat.
The boat was a 40-foot US Navy launch which we were rebuilding as a ketch so we could set sail around the world and educate our kids on board.
Luckily for us a hurricane came one weekend while we were all back in The Village, and it tore of unfinished yacht from it's mooring where upon it wrecked havoc as the hunk smashed one pleasure craft after another in the harbor.
I say lucky, because we probably wouldn't have survived that sail anyway.
Things went great for a year or more.
Then Sol decided we needed more space for the business we were turning away. Since he owned the building, he suggested that we check out the building superintendent's apartment which separated the restaurant from an large open area in back which could serve dozens more during the busier summer months as an outdoor addition to the business.
As we toured his apartment, the very old building super figured out what was happening, and begged us not to dispose him. He told us his ancient wife had lived there since getting off the boat from Italy decades earlier, she'd recently had a heart attack, and he was sure the move would kill her.
It was the first (and last) serious dispute between Sol and myself.
I told him I wouldn't do it, that money wasn't everything, and we'd find another way to increase profits.
You can figure out how that played in his Machiavellian mind, and the result of my refusal will make interesting reading in the next chapter, especially since it led to Rafio's murder.