By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A few weeks before that, there was even better publicity when the FBI busted an organized crime ring headed by a venerable Gambino crime family capo named Greg DePalma, who had gotten doctors to give him huge quantities of Viagra and other free prescription drugs in exchange for Rao's reservations. "You got to tell me if you need some tables," the feds heard DePalma tell one doctor. "I gave up from May already. I still got the rest."
That was only the most recent Rao's boost by DePalma, whose gangland fame was sealed when he appeared in an arms-around photograph with Frank Sinatra and late godfather Carlo Gambino at the old Westchester Premiere Theatre. In a 2002 trial, prosecutors charged that DePalma, already doing six years for racketeering, had tried to hire a hit man to murder a rival who had tried to swipe his regular Rao's table.
DePalma beat that case, but he wasn't the only gangster allegedly driven to distraction by the threat of losing a reservation there. A few years ago, city detectives listened in as Steven Crea, the acting boss of the murderous Luchese crime family and a Rao's regular until he was dispatched to prison, angrily dismissed a plea from other gangsters that he give up some of his nights there. "What the fuck is it they want?" Crea was heard to say. "They want the table," answered mob soldier Dominick Truscello.
Then there was the time, as later revealed by federal prosecutors, that a crew of Albanian thugs jousting for territory with a weakened Gambino crime organization bullied their way into the restaurant and claimed a table that had been passed along like a cherished heirloom from John Gotti Sr. to his son and namesake and thence to acting boss Arnold Squitieri.
Topping all of those "allegeds" and "reputeds" was the Christmas Eve 2003 shooting by one pistol-packing Rao's diner of another in a dispute over a patron's singing talents. Luchese soldier Al Circelli was shot dead beside his bar stool. A friend dining with Straci caught a bullet in his foot. The incident prompted front-page tabloid spasms of delight and consternation among wiseguys with dinner reservations. "Listen, Rao's closed?" a desperate-sounding Anthony Megale, a Gambino underboss, was heard to ask on his FBI-monitored cell phone the day after the shooting. "Because I got a table there tonight and I've been trying to call all day." Ultimately, shooter Louis "Lump Lump" Barone pled guilty and ended up with a 15-year sentence. But it didn't hurt business. Rao's wound up with an episode of TV's Law & Order about the incident, and a reservation list that went from unattainable to impossible.
When a 30-year friend and business associate called Straci recently to ask what the chances were he could get a table to celebrate his son's birthday, the lawyer responded, "Not with a shoehorn."
But all that mob romance gets lost somewhere between Pleasant Avenue and the sprawling bus yards of East Brooklyn and the South Bronx where members of Local 1181 park their buses. Even if they could somehow cadge a seat at Rao's, the members would need the early-plate special. They are family men and women whose job it is to get up before dawn and transport the city's children in big yellow buses to school. Some drive, and others serve as escorts or matrons on vehicles carrying handicapped kids or those enrolled in special-education classes. Each paid $300 initiation fees to join the union; another 1.5 percent of their wages is deducted every month in dues. In exchange, the members say they have asked only that their union treat them with respect and represent them when disputes arise with management. They say they have gotten neither.
The dissidents: Tommy Nero, Dina Nero, Brijida Pilgrim, Jonas Saint-Fleur, Marc Clergeau, Warren Zaugg, John Bisbano, and Eddy Megie.
photo: Dennis Kleiman
The dissidents know the 70-year-old Straci as the handsome man who "wears nice suits and looks like an actor," and who sits on the podium at union meetings with Battaglia and Bernstein, offering occasional whispered advice. Those members say that Straci and his clients run their union as a closed shop for themselves, with little concern for the drivers' interests or welfare.
"What they say all the time is, 'You are lucky to have this job,' " said Simon Jean-Baptiste, 50, a bus driver for 19 years who ran for a post as union delegate in the disputed elections held last June. Jean-Baptiste, a tall man with a quiet demeanor, was one of thousands of Haitians and other immigrants who began working in the school bus industry over the past two decades. They were part of the transformation of a workforce that was once predominantly Italian, Irish, and Jewish, composed largely of retired city cops and sanitation workers. The membership of Local 1181, which also represents drivers of para-transit and some commuter buses, is listed on filings with the federal Labor Department as 14,500. The union's own officers acknowledge that the ethnic makeup of its membership is now almost three-quarters black and Latino. Yet all of the officers are white.
A few years ago, a friend of Jean-Baptiste's named Marc Clergeau filed suit against the union and his former employer after he claimed he was wrongfully fired from his job as a driver with a Brooklyn bus company. Clergeau said the union refused to represent him, thus violating federal labor laws that say union members have a right to "fair representation." In a jury trial held in 2002 before U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis, Clergeau won more than $100,000 in back pay and damages.