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But there were more snarls than smiles. Barone cursed and shook his finger at the lawyers before him during the sessions, even leveling abuse at the assistant U.S. Attorneys on his side of the table. "Jesus Christ, you're a pain in the neck, counselor," he snapped at a federal prosecutor. Asked by the government whether a partnership between two waterfront figures was criminal in nature, Barone sneered, "They weren't selling Bibles, for chrissakes. What's the matter with you?" It was the kind of conduct you can't get away with when the judge and jury are in the room.
At one point, Barone jumped up from his chair and made as though he was about to leap across the table at a defense lawyer who had succeeded in getting under his skin. "You're full of shit," he bellowed at attorney Gerald McMahon, who was there as the legal representative of one of Barone's closest former union associates. "You want to come outside and settle this?" Barone shouted.
An FBI agent, one of three in the room, physically restrained the old man with a hand placed firmly on the witness's chest. But the rage had passed. "Let me go, sonI won't do anything," Barone is heard quietly assuring the agent on a videotape of the encounter.
Still, he kept coming back to his mission. "I killed for them," the elderly mobster sighed. "I produced things for them. And they made millions of dollars, and are still making millions of dollars. And they defrocked me, and they tried to kill me. Why shouldn't I get even?"
Admittedly, it's a little hard to sympathize with a confessed Mafia hit man who gets self-righteous about the failure of his cohorts to live up to their criminal code. But such has been the story line of a score of mob turncoats in recent years, who have insisted that they were squealing only because their pals had betrayed both them and their sacred oaths. It's a rationale that doesn't score too highly with most people, who generally find mobsters who turn informants more unsavory than those who tough it out.
But even if he's not about to win anyone's popularity contest, the story of George Barone represents a true slice of Americana, one that's fast disappearing in this city's rearview mirror.
He was a child of immigrants, born in 1923 in Bensonhurst. His father was Italian; his mother was Irish and Hungarian. His family moved to Chelsea when Barone was still in grade school after his father got a job as a watchman on the piers. Raised on the brawling West Side streets, the young George Barone could have stepped out of a frame of Angels With Dirty Faces, the 1938 Warner Bros. classic about tough New York street kids. He dropped out of high school to go to work, and thenin his first round of patriotic dutysigned up with the Navy after World War II broke out. Old photos show Barone as a good-looking guy in those days, with dark hair and a sharp hawk of a nose. It's easy to imagine him as a young wiseacre on shipboard, a tough-talking Dead End Kid aching to give the Nips more than they bargained for. If so, he got his wish: Navy records show that he participated in five invasions, including Guam, Saipan, the Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima. He came home with a chestful of ribbons and a Good Conduct Medal.
For a while, he lived up to those decorations. He tried his hand at school for a couple of years, attending what was then Pace Institute. He even worked for a time in an advertising company. But when that didn't take, he shipped out again, this time in the Merchant Marines. He had been at sea for two years and was docked in Naples when he busted his hand so badly in an accident that he couldn't work. Back on the West Side, he hooked up with some of his old pals from the neighborhood who were doing well, running the union locals that controlled the then bustling piers. There was Mickey Bowers, a "racket hoodlum" who ran the Upper West Side and whose union was dubbed the "Pistol Local" because guns settled most disputes there; there was Eddie McGrath, another "Irish local racketeer," as Barone explained it, and Harry Cashin, a union leader and family friend who got Barone his first work on the docks.
Barone's job was to serve as hiring bossthe guy who chooses the crew for each day's workfor a company that cleaned staterooms on the steamship lines. When a union dissident named William Torres complained that he wasn't getting hired, Barone took offense. According to accounts of the February 1954 incident, Barone and a pair of union heavies challenged the dissident when they spotted him at 15th Street and Eleventh Avenue. "What are you doing, looking for trouble?" Barone reportedly yelled, and then took off after Torres, trapping him inside a meat market on West 14th Street, where he proceeded to beat him with an 18-inch-long metal bar.