Thick morning fog rolled in off New York Harbor as the old immigrant was led to a secluded spot in the back of the lot. The hanging mist and a sun that was still a few minutes from rising made him and the younger man who guided him invisible even to those who were filtering through the chain-link gate for a day's work, just fifty or so yards away.
They stopped behind a green dumpster. The old man was told to get down on his knees, and even though at seventy he was twice the age of the younger man, he did what he was told. The young man stuffed a white sweat sock into the immigrant's mouth.
"You make a sound, I'll smash your fuckin' head in, understand?" the young man threatened.
The immigrant nodded.
"Gimme your hand."
The old man complied. At first he tried to get away with offering up his left hand, but it didn't fly.
"Not that one," the young man ordered. "The one you write with."
The immigrant pulled his left hand back and slowly pushed his right hand forward, along the ground, making grooves in the earth with his fingers.
The young man removed a hammer from inside his coat pocket.
"Remember, not a sound," he warned.
The immigrant pressed his eyes closed tight.
The hammer swung down with full force. Blood shot out from all sides of the old man's hand as if someone had stepped on a sponge soaked in dark red paint. The grooves in the dirt filled in black. Despite the sock and the warnings, the immigrant let out a wail that couldn't be heard over the sound of workers unloading flatbeds by the gate.
"Motherfucker," the young man barked, and he quickly drove the hammer down into the hand two more times as punishment for the old man's disobedience.
The immigrant collapsed onto his side, grasping his mangled paw. He wept silently, the pain too great for any more screams. The young man grabbed the dumpster by its side and pushed it over. The immigrant didn't even see it coming; he just felt it land on his hand, crushing already broken bone into smaller pieces. The pain was so bad, the old man passed out.
When the other workers found him about twenty minutes later, he was unconscious, bloody, and alone.
The immigrant wasn't the first guy in Brooklyn to catch a beating—and he won't be the last. Everyone in Bensonhurst pays their dues eventually. Some pay what's fair; some pay tenfold. A lot of people feel I didn't pay nearly enough; they think I got away with murder—figuratively and literally.
And if that is how people want to look at me, I won't try to convince them otherwise. The blood on my hands and the hands of others—I caused it all. It's that knowledge that gives me the nightmares that keep me awake every night. But I deserve them; I deserve everything I got. It's my never-ending penance for what I did. Because what I did was horrible.
My father hired a limousine to take my entire family from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see me graduate from law school. I watched them pour out of the vehicle in front of my apartment building on 113th Street—my stocky father, my portly mother, fat Uncle Vincent and husky Aunt Edith, and finally my chubby sister Ginny. It looked like some kind of Fat Italian Clown Car. I had tried to dissuade my father from getting the limo. He and my mother didn't have much money and a limousine definitely was not within their budget. He wouldn't listen.
"This is the proudest day in Principe family history," he told me. "We're going to celebrate it properly."
My grandfather served under Patton and stormed the beach at Normandy but me becoming a lawyer was considered the family's finest hour. Makes you think.
To my family, and especially my father, my graduation was validation that everything my family had gone through was not in vain—from my mother's father leaving Italy as a stowaway in the bowels of a cargo ship to my dad's dad, and my old man as well, destroying their bodies, one day at a time, as overworked, underpaid, journeyman carpenters. I was the big payoff, the jackpot, the scratch-off ticket that when rubbed with a quarter revealed three perfect cherries. I was the one who would transition the Principe family from blue collar to white, from tool belt to leather belt, from work boot to dress shoe. I was the Golden Boy.
Despite my parents' aspirations for my career, I never wanted to stray far from my roots. Even though I was recruited by all of the top Manhattan corporate law firms, I turned them all down. Instead, I opened my own practice immediately after law school. I was so goddamn naïve—I thought I had outsmarted everyone. While my classmates from Columbia were working hundred-hour workweeks for behemoth firms such as Sullivan & Rose and Warren, Kugler & Curtis, I'd have my own personal injury practice.
My father provided a built-in client base. He had worked with every lather, carpenter, and laborer from Coney Island to the Bronx. These guys knew him and respected him, so why wouldn't they hire his son if they ever got hurt on the job? Construction sites are dangerous places and guys get hurt all the time, and their lawsuits are very lucrative. Why the hell would I want to work at some stuffy firm representing banks and hedge funds when I could represent real people, people I knew and grew up with; people who truly needed my help—people who wouldn't be able to feed their families if they broke their leg or fractured an arm? I was going to get rich doing God's work. I truly started out with the best of intentions.
I realize now that a big reason I went out on my own was because of my dad. I think subconsciously I knew I could never pay him back for all he'd done for me, putting me through college and all—working his ass off so I could get an education. The least I could do was help his Union brothers when they needed help the most. That kind of thinking was my first mistake. A son can never pay back his father. It's impossible. You can give him everything in the world and still come up short.
So after graduation I opened an office above Morelli's Deli in Bensonhurst, at the corner of 18th and 71st, just a few blocks from where I grew up. The space was big, but reasonably priced, mostly because on hot days the smell of headcheese and pimento loaf would seep through the cracks of the old wooden floorboards. There was a reception area with a secretarial station, a large office, a small bathroom, and a smaller office that was so jammed with old furniture, boxes, and other junk from the prior tenants that you couldn't walk more than a few feet inside. The space needed some work—a coat of paint, some rewiring, and a few holes in the walls had to be patched—but it was nothing my father couldn't fix over the course of a weekend, which he did of course. It wasn't much, but it was more than adequate for a sole practitioner just starting out.
The large office had a great view of the neighborhood. Sometimes, when I was at work, I'd look down on 71st and see guys I grew up with riding the sanitation trucks or humping Sheetrock for Fortunato Construction for a three-story that was going up across from Morelli's. I'm ashamed to say it, but there were times when I looked down on them in more ways than one. Even though I was raised by and grew up idolizing men who worked with their hands for a living, once I knew I'd never meet the same fate, I sometimes felt I was a little bit more important than my former peers who dug ditches for a living. Don't get me wrong—I wasn't an elitist, and most of the time I didn't feel that way. It's just that every once in a while, right after I had first opened shop, I'd strain my shoulder patting myself on the back.
My father was so excited when I first hung my shingle. Actually, it wasn't a shingle at all. I had a glass door at street level that opened to a staircase that led up to my office. I put those gold, stick-on letters with black trim on the inside of the door—ROBERT R. PRINCIPE, ESQ.—ATTORNEY AT LAW. My dad kept telling everyone in the neighborhood that I "was a partner in my own law firm."
The old man had a tendency to exaggerate the accomplishments of his children. Once, in junior high, Ginny brought home one of those paper certificates you got in gym class for the President's Physical Fitness Challenge. She did more sit-ups than anyone else in her class or something like that but my father told anyone who would listen that his daughter got a personally signed "Commendation" from President Carter. A couple dozen Americans were holed-up in some basement in Tehran, gas prices were skyrocketing, and the United States had just boycotted the Moscow Olympics, but somehow my dad had convinced himself that Carter could sleep at night because my sister clocked a good time in the shuttle run. But you gotta cut the guy some slack. There are a lot worse things you can say about a man than he thinks the sun rises and sets on his children.
Besides, he wasn't the only one who was excited about my new firm. I couldn't wait for my first case to come in. I'd be helping the injured in their time of need. And if I got rich in the process, what was the harm of that? I figured I'd settle a few big injury cases after I graduated from law school, save carefully, and be retired within five years. That was eight years ago.