Monday, September 26, 2016
"The Weasel's World"/ "Bog Tender"
Sept. 10, 2016 "The Weasel's World": I cut out this article by Joe O'Connor in the National Post on Nov. 5, 2011. It was in the A- section.
He says I can call him Marv, Marvin, or the Weasel, an affectionate nickname bestowed upon him by George Chuvalo, the great Canadian boxer who fought Muhammad Ali, busted up the champ’s ribs and lived to talk about it.
Ali gave the Weasel something, too, a gold bracelet that jangles from his right wrist. He wears a gold watch on his left, plus a gold necklace. Hoffa’s boys bought the necklace for him in 1952. That’s Hoffa, as in — Jimmy Hoffa — the Teamsters union boss who disappeared, mysteriously, in 1975.
“I have it on good authority that Mr. Jimmy Hoffa is resting at the Renaissance Center Hotel, in the concrete, in Detroit, Michigan,” says Marvin Elkind, aka The Weasel. “When I went to work for Mr. Hoffa, as a driver, he told me if I was ever late I would be hurt. For four years, I was never late. I still have a reputation for being prompt.”
And so it was that the Weasel arrived several minutes early for our lunch date at The Lakeview Restaurant, an oldstyle Toronto diner and former neighbourhood haunt of a former hoodlum.
“I got busted here,” says the portly, slope-shouldered septuagenarian with a brokentoothed smile.
Popped by the cops when he was 11, for breaking into stores and bragging about it by buying a round of ice cream cones for his buddies and then flipping the waiter a dollar and telling him to keep the change: ‘‘Bogart did it in a movie.”
Marvin Elkind’s life could be a blockbuster. But then, it is always best to start with a book, and The Weasel: A Double Life in the Mob, written by the National Post’s award-winning crime writer, Adrian Humphreys, and excerpted here today, is an exquisite tale: revelatory, deeply layered and, best of all, true, confirmed by the agencies that worked with him.
The Weasel, understand, had other names: rat, fink, snitch, turncoat or, to be polite — paid police informant. Names his mobster buddies never knew about. Had they, Marvin Elkind would be wearing concrete slippers and sleeping with the fishes at the bottom of Lake Ontario.
Instead, he is digging into a Lakeview cheeseburger, telling stories about his 25-year career as the Wayne Gretzky of Finks, a stint that spanned several continents and saw him working with the FBI, Scotland Yard, RCMP and Mexican Federales.
“I’ll tell you what makes a good informant, and I am giving it to you straight, kid,” says the Weasel. “You have to be a guy that isn’t high level in any one mob, and works in several; a guy that is dissatisfied, feels he never rose as high as he should have and doesn’t have strong loyalties and is embittered. And you have to have steel balls and no brains, and I got them both.”
Chutzpah, and the audacity to stroll into mobsters’ lairs wearing a wire with no backup.
The Weasel recalls a case involving Johnny Pops Papalia, the Ontario mob boss. Pops was running a mortgage scam, selling land that didn’t exist.
Mr. Elkind got in on the deal and met Pops wearing a wire rigged into his belt.
“The meeting was going terrific, and I am looking at a piece of paper, and John, sitting opposite me, reaches toward my belt,” says the Weasel.
The fink thought fast. If Pops touched the belt, he would slug him in the mouth, call him a “fag” — remember, this was a while ago — and pray the wise guy’s embarrassment would rescue him.
“It turned out he was reaching for the paper in my hand,” the Weasel says, cackling.
There were bigger jobs. Marvin’s connections gave him access to other bad people, like Muftah El-abbar, a suspected Libyan terrorist with a penthouse in Toronto and ties to Muammar Gaddafi. U.S. agents asked for an introduction, and soon enough, American missiles almost put the Libyan dictator out of business in 1986, long before his own people did, thanks, in Bogart did it in a movie part, to a phone number provided by the Canadian fink.
“That’s the one thing I am most proud of,” the Weasel says.
Today, his pride is wounded. He is old, and looks it. He has diabetes, high blood pressure, bad kidneys, trouble with stairs and trouble standing. And he is still working, a legit job, driving for a family with a mentally challenged daughter.
“I am going to be frank, kid: if I was in a situation where I had enough dough to retire and enjoy life I wouldn’t have done the book,” he says. “I am doing it because I see it as a last hurrah to see if I can make some money.”
Books, you see, get turned into movies, and the Weasel’s life is an epic.
“Danny Devito could play me,” he says, flashing his broken tooth. “Or else, maybe Joe Pesci.”
There was an excerpt called "Hello, FBI Detroit" by Adrian Humpphrey's printed on the same page. It's not on the internet though. It's part of the book The Weasel: A Double Life in the Mob.
"Where it feels natural": I cut out this article by Alix Ohlin who reviews Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory.
BOOK REVIEW Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory By George Szanto Brindle & Glass 272 pp; $24.95
Is home the place where we grow up, or one we grow into? For George Szanto, who has spent his life teaching and travelling in locations from Wyoming, California and Montreal to Germany, Mexico and Brazil, it took retiring to Gabriola Island, B.C., to feel rooted and at ease.
In Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory, Szanto writes of Gabriola with as much sweetness as its title suggests. Structured as a year-long journal, Bog Tender records the shifting seasons and local landscape, as well as the minor events of retirement. He reads and writes, undergoes medical treatment for his ailing eyes, takes care of his house, sees friends and family.
At the same time, Szanto digresses into his personal history, as each month of the year gives rise to associations from the past. September reminds him of time spent in Mexico; May of meeting his wife on a boat trip to Europe. The memoir swings between travel and repose, the past and the present, with a quiet, steady rhythm.
Some recollections offer more substance than others. The strongest sections centre on his father, who instilled an appreciation of the natural world by teaching him to fish: “He gave me the woods, the ponds, the lakes and the bogs. Handed them to me, with a fishing rod.”
Later, when Szanto is forced by airline security to relinquish fishing lures that had belonged to his father, he gets terribly upset. It’s the only moment in this otherwise tranquil book when he admits to being angry. As an anecdote, it’s both perfectly ordinary — it could happen to anybody — and genuinely heartbreaking.
Not every ordinary moment is fascinating, though, and sometimes his attention to the daily record can grow minute. “Also new for us this spring,” he remarks, “an uncertainty about the septic tanks” — a detail with the ring of truth, but perhaps not one the reader needs to share.
As his anecdotes range from his parents’ lives to his own experiences as a graduate student, playwright, professor and parent, Szanto always
He gave me the woods, the ponds, the lakes and the bogs returns to the bog by his home. Waterlogged and still, it presents an extended metaphor for the rich, sometimes melancholy process of recollection: “I look down into the September bog, under the water — what’s down there in all the murkiness? And in my own shadowy storehouse of memories?”
The bog is a place to observe wildlife — especially birds, which are vividly described — but also to brood. The deaths of Szantos’ parents bring out what he calls “the satisfaction, and the sadness, of remembering.”
Counterposed to this sadness is an intense attachment to nature. Szanto is acutely, almost painfully, sensitive to the world outside his front door. When a heavy snowfall breaks the branches of some flowery plum trees, he feels crushed himself, and immediately seeks to repair the damage: “Staring at the mutilated trees gave me only a sense of devastation and loss. Now, with luck, healing and growth could begin.” He fixes the trees, carries the downed branches into the house, and enjoys the flowers’ sweet smell.
In this as in many of Szanto’s stories, a small misfortune gives way to deep gratitude. A sense of constant good luck hovers over the book. A great deal of space is devoted to the Szantos’ quest for the perfect piece of real estate. All tradespeople are honest and reliable, all meals are delicious, and all inconveniences are minor. The contemplative life is punctuated by festive dinner parties and trips to Hawaii and Alaska. It seems either a charmed life or an edited one. As one visiting friend remarks, “All I’ve seen is beautiful places. Isn’t there anything ugly on Gabriola?”
Maybe there isn’t. Certainly Szanto is conscious of his privileged existence, and Bog Tender’s pleasant tone is colored by his understanding of how easily things can go wrong. A fishing accident and hornet sting could prove fatal, but don’t; cataracts threaten his eyesight but are successfully treated. Szanto’s anxiety over his sight — the sense that most connects him to nature, and to his writing — is muted but palpable. After surgery, he feels both euphoric and insecure: “like somebody’s faking all this new clarity of vision for my momentary benefit and can take away the fakery with equal ease. As if I were flying across a frozen bog, unsure of the forces keeping me high in the air.”
To be tender is to be sensitive; to be a tender of a place is to take care of it. Tender also refers to currency. Bog Tender encompasses all these meanings. Szanto, in his mild, unhurried way, makes a strong case for the beauty of the bog, and for the value of choosing, at last, a home.