Mendel Letters 74 — Donnie Brasco

Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in the movie version of Donnie Brasco.

April 23, 2022

Dear Mendel,

Donnie Brasco was a movie about former FBI agent Joseph Pistone who went undercover in a Brooklyn Mafia family as the mobster Donnie Brasco. I wasn’t in the movie, but I “shoulda been.” I don’t think I ever told you this story.

I was laid-off as a middle school teacher just before the 1975–1976 school year when New York City went bankrupt. Five thousand teachers were permanently let go and our lists were frozen. I wasn’t rehired as a teacher until three years later.

I was planning to get married and needed a job. For a year I worked as a substitute teacher hoping my list would be unfrozen and I would be called back. When that didn’t happen at the start of the 1976–1977 school year I went looking for jobs as a driver. I had driven a cab in college and trucks and buses for the community center and Camp Hurley. Someone I knew from the community center’s day care center got me a spot assembling and delivering display cases for a local Coca-Cola warehouse. Ironically the pay was better than I made as a teacher. Unfortunately, the job only lasted for three months. Coca-Cola was shifting from glass to plastic bottles and it turned out if you dropped one of the plastic bottles it exploded. They suspended the campaign until they found a solution and let all the new hires go.

My next driving job was for a candy and cigarette delivery distribution center. Large trucks brought the stuff into a Brooklyn warehouse and me and a couple of other guys delivered it to stores across the city using smaller delivery vans. I actually liked the job. I made good money, not as much as at Coca-Cola, but still better than a substitute teacher, and enjoyed driving around the city.

There was a lot of freedom, but there also were some problems from the start. The partners were always pressing us to make another delivery but when we got back, instead of paying us time and a half for overtime, they would only offer to give us our time back, which we never saw. I talked with the other drivers and the warehouse men and we all felt we needed a time clock to keep an accurate record of our work hours. Someone spoke to one of the partners and he refused to install a time clock. This was supposedly a Teamsters union shop so I agreed that I would call the union rep. The day after I called I get told to report to the office. The partners wanted to know why I was causing problems by calling the union. Evidently the Teamster rep had called them and ratted me out as a troublemaker.

The next week, I met Donnie Brasco. I pulled out of the warehouse and headed west on Linden Boulevard to where it feeds into Caton Avenue. I stopped at a red light at Flatbush and then suddenly a gun came through my driver side window and someone entered from the passenger side, covered me with a blanket, and dragged me out. The next thing I knew I was lying on the back seat floor of a car, covered by the blanket and being nudged by the gun. Two guys in front, the driver and the gunman, started talking to me. One went through my wallet and said there are twenty dollars there. “Is it yours or the bosses?” I said it was mine so he said he was putting it back but was taking my library card with my address so they knew where I lived. We must have driven around for about three hours while their gang disposed of the truck and its contents. During the whole time they talked to me. If I cooperated they weren’t going to hurt me and I better not identify them to the cops. I said over and over again “I didn’t see shit. Just tell me when I can get out.” Finally they pulled over near the Brooklyn docks and told me to keep my eyes closed, get out, walk down the block, and don’t turn around. I did as instructed. By the time I got to the corner they were gone.

I called the warehouse to report what happened. The boss only wanted to know what happened to his van. I said I didn’t know. I then headed to the nearest police precinct to report the hijacking. I had to report the incident to the police because I did not want to be accused of being involved in the theft. I told the police I didn’t see anything and couldn’t identify anyone but they had me go through a book of photos anyway. When I finished at the police station I called the warehouse again. The boss wanted me to come in and do another shift but I told him I was going home.

I was pretty sure I had been set up by the partners. It was probably their turn to give up a truckload to the local mob and they gave up me as a lesson because I had gone to the union with a complaint. The next day I went in to tell them I was quitting and to get my pay.

Years later I was watching the movie Donnie Brasco with Johnnie Depp and Al Pacino. I had never seen the guys who hijacked my truck, but I had listened to them for three hours. Depp and Pacino had working-class Brooklyn accents down perfectly. They were playing the guys who hijacked my truck.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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