For some time now, I have been intending to write about a new local book, La Mia Famiglia: Never let them Steal Your Name. It was delayed because the autobiography merited serious attention, as well as a little research. I wanted to meet with the author, Anthony Scarpo, as well as with some people who are knowledgeable about Tampa in the 1960s and 1970s. Hubby and I have lived here since 1972, but the book reveals many things that differ from a time that I thought I knew.
Yet the geography was the much same for me and for Tony, who is about a decade younger. My world centered then around USF – still so new that you actually could drive up and park in front of any building without any sort of permit. Tony attended FSU, but he grew up near USF in the Skipper Road area that now is New Tampa. The family later lived on a Lutz lake amid orange groves, and many of our young university friends lived there, too -- often in houses that were little more than fishing shacks. We agreed that this world is completely gone.
Young Tony was there because his father, Art Scarpo, wanted Tony and his two sisters to be safe from the underworld that prevailed further south, in the seemingly more respectable part of Tampa. He was a grandson of Antonio and Rosa Scarpo, Italian immigrants whose eleven children grew up in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. The extended family made a decision to migrate south in the early 1960s, mostly to escape from thugs who threatened their pizza-and-beer business. Little did they know that they would find even stronger organized crime here, as Tampa was the most notorious such city in the South.
Art followed in his father's footsteps as a tavern owner after he and his wife, Sandella, saved enough money to buy the Springs Tap in Sulphur Springs. She cooked, while he poured – and occasionally used his fists to bounce out a drunk. The place was very near the greyhound track, which then was new and now is defunct. Some of Art's customers wanted to place bets without bothering to leave their bar stools, so he began a career as a small-time bookmaker.
But even small-time was too much for the powerful crime syndicate based in South Tampa, and "in a scene straight out of "The Godfather," Art was invited to join two members of the Trafficante family for coffee at Ayers Diner – you probably remember it. They made him an offer, but based on his father's admonition to "never let them steal your name," he refused.
Secreted in an obscure house off Skipper Road, Tony and especially his mother became close friends with people who, at the time, would have been called "freaks." Priscilla lived in a grove next to them, and she introduced herself by saying, "They call me the Monkey Girl or the Bearded Lady." She was indeed covered with hair like a gorilla, and her husband was "the Alligator Man," with scaled skin akin to a gator. Instead of joining other circus families at their winter headquarters in Gibsonton, they chose to reside where their son could have a more normal life. He was Tony's age: they both attended Mort Elementary School; they helped their families with growing chickens and rabbits, and they fished and swam in the many lakes – until they found the body of a young woman in a Cone's Construction gravel pit. That probably was related to what we now call sex trafficking, but no one seemed to care.
Tony was around ten when he inquired about a bed in a back room at the Springs Tap – and did not rethink his assumption that couples going into it were "really tired or something." Although too young to understand sex, he wasn't too young to make deposits at Pan American Bank, an impressive new building next to the dog-track. One day, his dad went with him and showed him bundles of cash in a safe-deposit box: the money was insurance, he assured Tony, in case of kidnapping. From the conversation at Ayers Diner, Art knew that the Trafficantes knew where his children lived and went to school -- and he wanted Tony to know that the safe deposit box could provide ransom.
Tony began to think about that – and about the money it took to buy the family's new acquisitions, including horses and a Lincoln – and "at some point, it hit me that Dad must be doing a lot more than selling beer and sandwiches." What "more" was wasn't entirely clear to the boy, but he did know that Art sold only beer, wine, and food because he couldn't get a license for hard liquor. The adult Tony declared: "The city council was corrupt to the core, beholden to the Tampa mob."
So Art moved his business way out of town, to unincorporated Hillsborough County, where Art's Lounge still exists on US Highway 92. The family has not owned it in decades, but I've driven past there countless times and never noticed that the sign that says "Scarpo Plaza." As had been the case in Sulphur Springs, few of Art's customers were Italian; instead, they were blue-collar Anglos who followed him further east on the same road to the new location. Mostly men but also a few women, they were a community bonded by food and friendship, and they especially enjoyed the isolation and protection of his lounge.
Some of that protection, in fact, came from the sworn officers of our elected sheriff. Tony used his name in the book, so I guess I shall, too. The late Malcolm Beard of Plant City held that office when, one Sunday, Tony was working on the roof of Art's Lounge. He spotted sheriff's cars among the trees across the highway and ran to his dad, assuming that the cops intended to raid them for selling beer on Sunday. No, his dad assured him, these guys were deputies he had paid to keep other law enforcement from enforcing the law.
A LAST STORY AND SOME MUSING
This is perhaps my favorite quote from the book because it is so indicative of the status of Italian women, something that has fascinated me since 1986, when I published Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America. Italian women can be much more determined than the stereotype, and indeed, most second-generation women dominated their households. Women's status always is complicated by a culture's religion, and Tony wrote:
"All the women in my family were strong women, and they were all devout Catholics. They went to Mass and Bible study regularly, and they made sure all the children did, too… The Scarpo men sanctioned all of this, but even at this age I couldn't escape noticing their hypocrisy, because for them religious practice was at best a pretense… They were happy to relegate religion to the realm of women. Kids who complained about having to go to church were quickly set straight by the men, even though the men never went themselves."
Men did go to Catholic rituals for kinfolk, however, and Tony continued: "The entire family attended a baptism for one of my cousins. We were all there in the church…thirty-five or so… [It was] a private event, so we all sat near the front…The priest was in the middle of the service when an explosion boomed in the back of the church…
"My dad and all his brothers ducked behind the pews. Right next to me, he knelt there with his snub-nose .38 in his hand… My uncles hunkered down, guns drawn like they were ready for war…
"As the silence hung, it occurred to me that the noise sounded just like a huge door slamming shut, caught by the wind. The same realization must have slowly taken hold of everyone. Eventually, the guns all disappeared, the men got back in their seats, facing forward as if nothing had happened. The Scarpo women seemed to take all this in stride… Ask yourself this: how many kids do you know whose family members pulled their guns out during a church service?"
There are many more fascinating tales in the book, including a Lutz pornographer and the 1975 assassination of Tampa police sergeant Richard Cloud. I remember hearing that news on the radio and trying to figure out what wasn't being said. There was a trial and convictions, but I still haven't figured it out.
OUR PARALLEL UNIVERSES
While Tony was checking out kidnapping cash at the Pan American bank, I may have been at a NOW meeting in the same building. Our first ones were at the downtown library, but they wanted us out earlier in evenings than we wanted. Banks and other businesses with security guards offered community meeting rooms back then, and we moved to the lovely conference room of that Sulphur Springs bank. I had been a pioneer member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), first in Massachusetts and then here. Tampa's chapter organized in May of 1972, and I joined after we came to USF in August.
A few months later, Betty Castor became the first woman on the county commission, and governmental reform began. Pat Frank also was elected to the school board that year; she joined Cecile Essrig, who pioneered that position in 1967. Catherine Barja had been the first woman on Tampa City Council in 1971, but the biggest sweep was in 1974: Fran Davin joined Betty on the County Commission; Jan Platt and Sandy Freedman joined Cathy on City Council; Marion Rodgers joined Cecile and Pat on the school board; and even more significantly, Helen Gordon Davis became Tampa's first woman in the state legislature, while Robin Krivanek won the important post of Supervisor of Elections.
Things never would be the same, especially after three male county commissioners went to prison for taking bribes a few years later. I remain proud of helping elect these women and implementing other reforms, and I know we were aware that we were making genuine change away from the good ole boy system. Yet I never knew how bad local corruption was until I read this book. I can be naïve, but it never once occurred to me that while we were strategizing at NOW meetings, people who were very nearby had very different aims.
So I asked Tony if he thought his father's associates were at all cognizant of us, and he thought not. I do, too. I think they dismissed us as wild women incapable of actually taking the reins of government. I do remember a couple of clues that I missed at the time: Fran Davin once warned me not to drink alcohol, as Malcolm Beard's lieutenants might be targeting feminist drivers. There was serious conflict between us, as one of the era's main issues was women in law enforcement. I also remember that when my dear, dead friend Lee DeCesare wanted to lobby her fellow Hillsborough High alumnus, Mayor Dick Greco, to hire female police officers and firefighters, Lee had to find out-of-town women to go with her. (Yes, I was missing in action. It may have been in summer, and we went north most summers back then.)
But now, under three female mayors and a female police chief, Tampa has the lowest crime rate ever. The connection is clear: the criminality that still prevails in much of the world, especially in Latin America, is directly related to the status of women. Only by recognizing that fact can we live in a safer, more peaceful world.
A QUICK PROPOSAL
Catherine Barja, 'Cile Essrig, Marion Rodgers, Jan Platt, and my beloved Helen are dead, but many of us with roots in the League of Women Voters remember those days. Tony tells me that many of the era's gangsters also remain. I want to propose a giant discussion, probably at the History Center, so that we can mull over our parallel universes of the 1960s and 1970s. Let's get these thoughts on record before it is too late. It was a half-century ago, and statutes of limitation have worked their redemption. No one need worry about being killed or kidnapped, and we can have a candid discussion. I'm sure it will be fascinating.
Speaking of fascinating, if you want a copy of La Mia Famigla, please contact Ben Norton at Brock Communications. The number is 813-961-8388 or use email@example.com.