Some evening soon, drive out to Pacific Beach. Be there about 8:15. The sun will have been down several hours. Across the sky every last orange and violet streak will be gone. Take a jacket. I was cold. Bone cold.
Turn south off of Grand onto Lamont Street. Park along Lamont. Wander over to the gas station. The gas station on your right, as you face away from the traffic along Grand. Back in 1977, a pay telephone stood along the side of the station. It was an Arco station then. Frank Bompensiero made his last telephone call here. “Dialed,” someone told me, and then laughed a high-pitched crazy laugh, “his last number.”
Nobody knows what number Bompensiero dialed. Nobody knows to whom Bompensiero talked, or, if he talked to anyone. Whomever he called, he knew the number, by heart. No one found wadded scratch paper that had numbers scrawled across it in the pockets of his dark green trousers.
Some people say Bompensiero talked to James Aladena (“Jimmy the Weasel”) Fratianno. Others claim he spoke to Joseph (“Joseph Bananas”) Bonnano, the former New York Mafia leader simmering in exile in Tucson. Fratianno insisted that Bompensiero was returning the call of Los Angeles’ Mafia overload, Dominic Brooklier (who in a fit of Anglophilia had changed his name from Dominic Bruccoleri). Still other people said — whispered — that Bompensiero called the FBI.
When you get right down to it, it’s hard to know much about Bompensiero. By the time I went that February evening to the spot where Bompensiero “Dialed his last number,” I had spent ten years off and on, asking people questions about him. I had read court records and old newspaper clippings. I had sorted through shoe boxes stacked with blurry photographs. I had sat outside houses and apartments where he’d lived in Little Italy and Kensington and Pacific Beach. I had snapped photos of houses where he lived. Many times I walked past his long obliterated bar — the Gold Rail — which had stood in the 1000 block of Third Avenue between Broadway Credit Jewelers, the States Café, Graf’s Exclusive Furs, the Hula Hut, and the Cuckoo Club.
I visited San Quentin, where he stoically did five years. I went to church to sit behind one of his sisters, an elderly woman who had refused my request for interviews. I could hear her beads click as her fingers rushed across the Hail Mary’s strung between Our Father’s. I harried retired law enforcement guys, I harried the FBI. I filed endless Freedom of Information Act requests. When the requests were honored and papers arrived I was excited as any child at Christmas. I tore open the packages. I studied blacked-out redacted reports. I listened in those reports to the sound of Bompensiero’s gravelly voice.
I wrote obsequious letters in which I begged people to talk with me. I offered money, far more money than I could afford, to try to get people to talk. I went to the post office and bought money orders and mailed them off to a man in prison who had known Bompensiero. I ordered fiori di Sicilia and stirred the aromatic citrus-and-vanilla concoction into my old proud cake recipe. I bought a Sicilian cookbook and made pasta with peas, which someone told me was a Bompensiero favorite. I even considered flying to Sicily and boarding a bus to Porticello, from where Bompensiero’s parents came.
I, who never read my own horoscope, looked up what the stars promised Bompensiero on February 10, 1977. “Don’t get too critical about the conditions at home or it gets worse. Do what you can to better conditions there quietly. Try to be more cheerful and lift the spirits of others. Handle money matters wisely.” Finally I read and reread his autopsy; as if what David M. Katsuyama, pathologist for the coroner, wrote about Bompensiero’s heart could tell me something about his soul. His heart, Dr. Katsuyama noted, “weighs 540 grams. Multiple sections reveal moderately severe sclerosis of the coronary vessels, reducing the lumen in some areas to 25-30% of original caliber. Complete obliteration or thrombosis is not encountered. Cut surfaces of the myocardium show no recognizable infarct. Valve appearances and sizes are normal. The aorta shows moderate to severe atherosclerosis.”
Even with all that and much more, I never knew—I do not know now—as much as I needed and wanted to know. I don’t know small personal details—how he smelled, how he kissed, if in his last years he (like LA’s Mafia boss Jack Dragna) wore dentures, if he slept well at night. I didn’t know how he felt when he put a rope around Frank Borgia’s neck and pulled and Frank Borgia crumpled to his knees. I did not know if he ever tried to quit smoking his big cigars. I did not know why he married his second wife, Marie. I did not know if he ever said the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t know what, other than newspapers and magazines, he read. I didn’t know how smart he was. I have a copy of his file from San Quentin; next to Intelligence Estimate,” a prison official printed “DULL NORMAL.” Entire years passed during which he seemed to disappear, to leave no spoor of arrest or statements to newspapers. Yet for all that I did not know, I felt some days, that I knew more about him than I knew about myself.
This not knowing got me interested in epistemology, that branch of philosophy “concerned with the definition of knowledge, the source and criteria of knowledge, the kinds of knowledge possible, and the degree to which each is certain, and the exact relation between the one who knows and the object that is known.” I became interested in this “exact relation between the one who knows and the object that is known.” By the time I started asking questions about Bompensiero, he was an object. He was to be known and I wanted to know him.