Next week we will discuss I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. A tell-all book about the mafia, the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa, Brandt’s detailed interviews with Hoffa’s “close friend” Frank Sheeran take us into the back rooms, bars, back seats and hotel lobbies of the murderous mob world.
I was a child of two card-carrying union member parents, who believed in advocacy and representation for the working man. The corrupt Teamsters disappointed my dad, an AFL-CIO guy. “Those Teamsters give unions a bad name.”
“Hoffa is long dead, dead dead,” he dismissively said to Walter Cronkite and Bob Schieffer on more than one occasion.
The union couldn’t save my dad’s job as a machinist at the plant, Dana, Spicer Corporation. In the early 1980s, as Detroit died, so did manufacturing in Toledo. Typical tale: they closed shop and relocated to Mexico. It was the first and only time I saw my father of four cry.
As a permanently laid-off factory worker, he started a painting company that gained a reputation for fair prices and quality work. “Painting is ninety percent prep,” he’d explain when I on a rare occasion was allowed to tag along with him to “help” on the job. He was right. And he was a storyteller.
With each brushstroke, my father would tell stories about his clients. It was special father-daughter time.
Once, he got a job to paint the interior of an upscale Italian restaurant, downtown. Although the restaurant was open for dinner only, dad told tales of the real business transactions that happened during the day. Trucks delivered produce and mysteriously sealed boxes were loaded, silently. Well-dressed men in shiny dark suits, with bags or suitcases, walking in the front door and exiting through the kitchen.“ Holding court in the dining room, sat the restaurant owner and a few other important men. . “No one eats. That’s not why those machers meet at the restaurant.” And then he’d raise his highbrows, lower his head and look out above his glasses. I understood. What happened at that place was dangerous and frightening. “I couldn’t live like that. When you work around these people, it’s serious. You don’t say one word. You just turn away and schmear,” he’d say to remedy my worried look..
I was proud of my dad! So brave, to brush shoulders with the mafiosa Minding his own business. And supporting a large family.
Brandt’s books tells similar shady stories, except John Mitchell, the Kennedys, Nixon and Hoffa are involved. As the author puts us in situ, we, too, are looking the other way, but witnessing suspicious transactions, hanging around corrupt men, describing death “Going to Australia,” and hiring a hitman with the observation, “I heard you paint houses.” All taken place under the guise of a union, laundering money and murdering people, including Hoffa.
Is the reader to believe Sheeran’s every word? Did I believe my dad’s? Was it hard to keep up with all the players? Sure. But the story was great. Enlightening. Frankly, growing up, Jimmy Hoffa conjured up a football stadium image in my head. That’s it. Thanks to Brandt, it is clear that we have all brushed up against the mob. And now I know why.