BY DICK RUSSELL
On the waterfront, it is Sunday and Hoboken’s 5th Street Pier is still. The demolition team is gone, the Hudson is shuttered behind locked gates, and only the breeze breaks through to crease the trousers of Anthony “Tony Mike” DeVincenzo.
“I kept this pier, and the Holland-America Line, closed for 16 days in a row,” he says. “The men wouldn’t go in, till I gave ‘em the okay.”
It has been more than 20 years since Tony Mike DeVincenzo stood here alongside Hoboken’s longshoremen, and then broke the back of the waterfront mob with his testimony before the New York State Crime Commission. More than 20 years, too, since Columbia Studios came to this pier, and Elia Kazan coached Marlon Brando to “walk like Tony Mike, talk like Tony Mike” in what would become the most acclaimed film of its time.
Now, the man whose life was a model for “On The Waterfront” cups a cigarette against the wind, then sweeps a finger across the breadth of the 5th Street Pier.
Far into the harbor, a tugboat whistle howls and subsides. At last, flicking his cigarette between the rusted ties of the pier’s old Erie-Lackawanna freight tracks, Tony Mike DeVincenzo turns and says:
“I only seen the picture once. It brings back too many memories.”
In Hoboken, there are still many who speak of him as The People’s Friend. That is the slogan for Tony Mike’s campaign for city councilman in 1975 and his opposition to what he calls “the lying regime” of Hoboken’s government. At 64, the waterfront hero has begun his last crusade.
By accident, I had learned of his existence. And so, for no logical reason, one afternoon I journeyed across the Hudson to Hoboken, to walk through the echoes of forgotten movie sets.
The maze of looming high-rises that have inundated once-bawdy River Street are eyesores, for Hoboken is a red-bricked, cat-walked, back-alleyed world that the mid-century has cast aside. This is its charm, its legacy.
In one of its byways, in a little park called Elysian Fields where Alexander Cartwright once invented the game of baseball, I came upon Joe the Whistler. He was a caretaker of sorts, and when he learned of my interest in “On the Waterfront,” he ushered me into his park house and closed the door.
Joe the Whistler, like many of his local relations, was a gnarled, grizzled character out of Damon Runyon. “The man you wanta see,” he almost whispered, “is Tony Mike. He’s the one the picture tells about. You’ll find him at the Outlook Club, corner of First and Madison. You shoot straight with him, maybe he’ll talk to you. If you don’t, well” – he cleared his throat gravely – “he could put you in the river! But you can tell him Joe the Whistler sent you.”
The Hoboken Outlook club, headquarters for the city’s opposition political party, straddles the boundaries of several territories: Puerto Rican, Irish, and Italian; voting wards three and four.
It occupies a remodeled first floor, and along its wood-paneled walls are diagrams of voting blocks, blueprints for progress, and posters of candidates. At a long table where several men sat smoking long cigars, Tony Mike was plotting a campaign for public office.
“Joe the Whistler?” he cried. “Joe the Whistler sent ya?!”
Years of hard times have left their brand in long crescents below his eyes. He bit down upon his lower lip as he spoke.
“Joe the Whistler, we called him that ‘cause he always whistled when he talked and didn’t have his teeth in!”
The others – portly, swarthy men with leathered faces – grinned and nodded. Tony Mike laughed alone, heartily.
“But how do you know I’m Tony Mike?” he demanded.
I know, because…because I know. Yes, he had lost considerable weight over the years. He was not the same towering figure who had worked up from longshoreman to hiring boss for the biggest U.S. stevedore company by the early 1950s. Not the same man who was banished forever from the piers by racket boss Ed Florio after testifying in 1952.
He was a tall, gritty old man who found work running a New York newsstand and who had served since 1969 as health aide inspector for Hoboken’s rodent and insect control program. In 1973 he finished second in a four-man race for Councilman of the Third War. “I’m a fighter, not a runner,” he had said after his defeat, and now he was gearing up to fight again.
He was of a vanishing breed. Never subtle, rarely diplomatic, described by “On the Waterfront” screenwriter Budd Schulberg as “courageous, and with a great deal of heart.” A vanishing breed of man who, in this November, was arising daily at 5 a.m., donning an apron in a small restaurant, and helping an old friend with a bad hip serve morning customers before he left for his own job at 8:30.
All this is somehow contained in Tony Mike’s tough, sentimental, lonely face. And so I know.
“It’s all the past!” he scoffed now, waving his hand as if in farewell. “Look, my wife is sick, my daughter is in the hospital for surgery. I got enough problems. There’ve been lots of articles, a long time ago. I don’t want to do it all again.”
But the more I talked of my admiration for the movie, the more Tony Mike seemed to warm toward me. He remembered how Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan had come to visit him, at the suggestion of the real waterfront priest Father Corridan, and had talked about a film that “would show people the truth.” He remembered the names of the real-life counterparts for Johnny Friendly, Edy, Charlie. He remembered the night Marlon Brando came for dinner to his home, the delicious pasta his wife Florence had cooked, the tales they had shared.
“You know,” he remembered, “he was built like me, well put together, but later when I took pictures with him, in the photo spread that little s.o.b. was a half-an-inch shorter than me! I liked him, though. I liked him.”
So, in the end, he agreed. I should come Sunday to his home on 5th Street. We would go pay homage to all the ghosts….
The house is an old graystone dwelling which rises in several layers above the GROTTO BAKERY and its “Finest Italian Bread.” For 40 years he has been here, raising four children, with nine grandchildren (and another on the way). The bakery had belonged to his in-laws. Today his youngest son, 27-year-old Anthony, is its proprietor.
“That Anthony, oh, he’s a headache,” Tony Mike is saying. He is standing on the front steps on a brisk gray morning, a hand in his trenchcoat pocket. “He’s sometimes worse than what I am. What I was. This guy don’t even given you a chance to talk to him. He uses his hands first, then he talks after the fight is over.”
Tony Mike smiles as he shakes his head. He cannot conceal his pride behind the show of disapproval. Yes, Anthony was with him. Anthony was a battler.
In Tony Mike’s world, men had always lived by codes. Once, there had been a code on the waterfront. Nobody broke it; nobody “stooled” or turned “canary” on the thugs who ruled their lives. You lived, slaved, and died “D&D.” Deaf-and-dumb. It was an evil code, and Tony Mike was the first to break it. But there were other codes, more personal codes, codes a man was born to and avowed for better or for worse. These were codes of duty and honor to family and friends.
In the code he stood by, Tony Mike had once been a professional boxer. He had fought six times, twice in the old Garden, and won them all. He had quit the ring 40 years ago, on the Saturday morning his father died. It was his father’s last request.
In the code he stood by, Tony Mike wouldn’t testify against the racketeers in Foley Square until he had the blessing of his wife and mother. “My mother, she was the boss ‘cause my father died young,” he remembers. “She said Tony, we can’t stop you, you got your mind made up.”
In the code he stood by, Tony Mike never forgave his cousin, a former Commissioner of Public Safety, for saddling him with two 24-hour police guards after his testimony. “He wouldn’t send strangers either. Nothin’ but friends of mine! Oh, that used to burn me up. It was their job to follow me to my mother, to my parish. If you wanted to come in my house, you hadda give your pedigree. It was embarrassing, and it went on for almost a year.”
Today, according to the code, the mayor of Hoboken was no longer his friend. He had known Steve Cappiello all his life in the Third Ward, and Cappiello had served through the 1960s as ward councilman. In 1973 he had been elected mayor. It was then, Tony Mike believes, that Cappiello abandoned his people.
Now, leaving the curb in a Cadillac borrowed from a close friend, Tony Mike cruises away from his home and turns left onto Adams Street. The mayor’s house – “that yellow one, not the ground floor, one-up” – is less than three blocks away.
“He was my buddy,” says Tony Mike. “His brother Joe christened my daughter. I only got one girl, and Joe was her godfather. Now he’s my enemy. I told him that, right to his face, in City Hall. I offered to debate with him at my cost, but he won’t have no part of it.”
The vendetta had begun when Cappiello selected a man “unknown in the Third War” to take his old council seat. So Tony Mike had opposed the mayor’s man in the next elections, believing if he could gain a seat on the nine-man council, he could stop “the deterioration” of the Third Ward. Tony Mike had lost by 255 votes. The deterioration, he felt, had continued.
He had hoped to retire in ’74, he says, on October 23, his 64th birthday. His wife couldn’t stand politics. But he had to run again. There was nobody else who would. The election would be in May.
He drives on, past a darkened building called Company K – “the headquarters of the hoodlums, where you got sentenced to death or you survived” – past the alley where he’d chased pier boss Ed Florio with a lead pipe – “when I gave him the 32 stitches, and lost my waterfront job” – past the 14th Street Viaduct where the mob had tried to eliminate him – “buckshot right through the car window. I go home and Charley says, what you got there? An air conditioner? I said, yeah, otherwise, I can’t get no ventilation.”
He stops at the parks, the churches, the alleys where the movie was born, remembering the sequences of the scenes. An alley become a supermarket, a street of rooftop pigeon coops become a high-rise project, a pier become another site for a wrecking crew. All these are preserved only in celluloid. Celluloid, and the memories of a few.
Tony Mike does not linger long at the waterfront. Long enough to point out the spot where the Manipole Bar had stood. Inside the Manipole, with 10 men with names like Rockyh and Stonewall, he had fought Ed Florio and his “meatballs” for stealing “tax money” from the longshoremen. For weeks, Tony Mike and his friends had been dropping a share of their earnings into a cigar box that Florio was supposedly setting aside for the IRS; but when income tax time rolled around, each longshoreman received a bill for $724. Tony Mike took action the only way he knew. And Ed Florio paid the bills.
“I had my nose busted, my lip busted, a big gash over my eye. But Florio came out worst – and he weighed 280 pounds!”
They were all dead now. Florio, longshoremen’s union head Joe Ryan, Hoboken mayor Fred DeSapio. All the men Tony Mike had warred against, all dead of cancer.
In 1952, Tony Mike had helped send Florio to Connecticut’s Danbury Prison for 18 months, and eventually Florio was dismissed from his waterfront post by Joe Ryan. That same year, after Tony Mike had testified, longshoremen made a Christmas pilgrimage to his newsstand in New York, and handed him envelopes of appreciation.
Then the years began to recede. Tony Mike would work for a while for Hoboken’s parks and engineering departments, and open a restaurant. The bosses would die and the new Waterfront Commission would clean up the piers. And Tony Mike would find himself in the twilight of his days plotting paper strategy at the Outlook Club.
He is going there now, speeding from the piers down First Street, talking about an old boyhood acquaintance named Frank Sinatra.
“He still comes back to town, to the Lamppost Club at 11th and Madison, but only very late at night when nobody knows, to hang out with his old buddies, you know? He usedta play the piana in our club.
“You know, when they made the picture, they considered Frankie Sinatra for the part. He was a much smaller built man than me, though. I don’t think he woulda fit the part.
“After it was all over, ‘On the Waterfront,’ I got in a shell. I got in a shell and I couldn’t step out of it. I went to work against my will. I developed a restaurant which paid very very good, but I wasn’t the Tony Mike of old. In my mind, I was under the impression that only time would tell when the Lord would call me. I was under the idea that I had cancer.
“Oh, I lost weight! Almost 100 pounds I lost. And I only started recuperatin’ and puttin’ on weight since 1969, when I got this job with the civil service.
“You see, I had to go into many homes where I thought these men, these longshoremen that I busted my balls with, were dead. I hadn’t seen them in years. But when I entered, their homes, not only were they there, but their daughters and grandchildren, and some of these men would hug me, and with tears in their eyes, and would say ‘Tony Mike, I’m so glad you’re alive, what you done for the men on the waterfront.’”
At the table, one of the men is nodding silently. Finally he says: “Those were thankless things that he did. He’s still paying the price for it, but this is what he accomplished. I never thought he’d get away with it. I never thought he’d be sittin’ here today.”
Hoboken’s Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor is located at the far end of Hudson Street, near the PATH station. The building is a red-brick inlay that recedes on frayed edges into the old brown Seamen’s Hall.
Each weekday morning at 7 a.m., the longshoremen gather outside. They filter in, past unerased blackboards listing HATCH GANG AVAILABLE, past NOTICE – SPITTING ON THE FLOOR IS A VIOLATION OF THE LAW, over the wooden planks of the hiring hall to form into lines and “badge-in” with a dispatcher and his computer.
As many as 700 men will walk through that ritual by 8:30, gathering afterwards in small groups, talking and laughing in a dozen dialects, waiting for the words that have become almost inevitable since October: No ship. No work.
They will not go hungry. The contract that Tony Mike was once so instrumental in initiating has been fulfilled beyond his wildest imaginings. The guaranteed annual income of a longshoreman is $14,440, plus vacation, hospitalization, and pension plans. But the docks have hired no one new since 1969.
After 8:30, the exodus begins. Holdmen, foremen, deckmen, and hatch bosses amble together through the gray awakening streets of Hoboken, and huddle in coffee bars.
Tomorrow, they will come again.
“My day, we had nine piers operatin’. Today, we only got two. But, oh, as far as benefits, the longshoremen never had it so good! They got protection, they got the guarantees. No hoodlum can come and say ‘Put him to work for him.’ And three weeks vacation, we never got that! We didn’t get a day! We were lucky to come home with $20 for a week’s work!”
Slowly, the Cadillac moves out from the Waterfront Commission and maneuvers down darkening streets until it comes once again to the half-erased face of the 5th Street pier.
Here, and on half-a-dozen other piers, Tony Mike had “shaped” for 21 years, shaped for the right to sweat thousands of pounds of cargo into the holds of massive ships, shaped in tight gangs of angry men, shaped and watched the “meatballs” and “pistoleros” and “shake-down cabbage” hustle his friends out of their pride and their dreams, shaped and cursed and vowed to defeat the Ed Florios, the “Johnny Friendlys,” the Lee J. Cobbs of this world. Shaped, and won.
Twenty years do hollow things to great dreams.
“When they came back to Hoboken last year for their reunion, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan and the rest, Elia Kazan said to me: ‘Tony, what happened to the piers?’”
Sweeping his finger once more across the breadth of the docks, Tony Mike continues: “The waterfront in Hoboken now, it’s dead. This is a ghost town.”
It is dark. Tony Mike DeVincenzo reaches for another cigarette.
“Look, I wouldn’t do it over again, at this age,” he says. “But if I was 10 or 15 years younger…Well, just gimmee 10 good solid men.”
Tony Mike died in late November, 1983, at age 74, after a bout with cancer. Here are some further observations about him from Budd Schulberg, whom I interviewed at the time:
“I sat in on all of the hearings of the Crime Commission. I’d met Father Corridan before the hearings, and he put me in touch with the whole insurgent crowd. We went over to see Tony Mike, spent evenings with him. Pigeon-raising was a fairly popular sport among longshoremen, and he was one of them. He was awfully brave, truly stood up on the docks. He had a great deal of heart, and was gentle to people who were his friends. Always a reformer and a fighter for what he believed. Tony Mike was a true survivor.”