My Brush with the Mafia

Today, our family business received payment for losses resulting from our relationship with Suprema Cheese, and although I wish the amount of the check had been higher, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing the bad guys lost.

It was early in 2001, and due to another one of those blows that sometime whack a small business owner, I had been secretly learning to be a forensic accountant.  It wasn’t anything I had aspired to, but when money goes missing and the IRS asks you where it is, somebody has to answer.  As a result, collections also came under my jurisdiction.

We were payrolling workers for Suprema Cheese Co., which meant that although they toiled under Suprema’s roof, we wrote paychecks every week for the hours those people worked.  Suprema was first billed monthly, and then, when they began to fall behind in their payments to us, weekly.  The amount they owed ran very quickly into tens of thousands of dollars, and it fell to me to pressure them to pay up.

Knowing that we would likely get NOTHING if I laid off their workforce, I made weekly phone calls to the very smooth CFO of the company.  He was in New Jersey, Italian, and schmoozed with all the charm of a mob boss.

The calls would always go something like this:

“Hi, Pauli.  How are you?”  I would then ask about the well-being of his family and how life in general was treating him.  Eventually I would get down to brass tacks and say, “You know, Pauli, I really don’t want to have to lay off your workers… but I do need to receive a check from you folks.”  He’d always give me a big song and dance about how slow cash flow was and how he really couldn’t say when he could send a check.  I’d listen, sympathize, and then repeat, “Gee, that’s rough, and I know how difficult it is, but you know, Pauli, I really do need that money, and I’d hate to have to lay off your workers… but if I don’t receive a check by Monday for at least $ XXX, I just won’t have any choice.  I really hope you can help me out here.”  That would bring the dance to conclusion, as he’d say he’d try to have something for me by Wednesday, and I’d thank him and say how much I would appreciate that, and repeat that I really didn’t want to have to lay anybody off.  I would then wish him and his family well, hang up the phone, and shout profanities at the top of my lungs.  A week later, the act would replay.

Eventually Suprema hired the workers onto their own payroll.  Because of my weekly schmoozing with Pauli, they only owed us $7,000 at the time, and despite spending around $15,000 on legal representation, we never got another penny.  Other businesses – such as the milk cooperative that supplied Suprema  – did not fare as well, and I like to think that as much as Pauli was an asshole, he appreciated my weekly playing of his game.

Today, 14 years later, I learned that in 2008, Suprema exec’s were found guilty of massive fraud and were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.

I learned that today because it took another seven years for any reimbursements to be made to Suprema’s creditors, and, no doubt because of the legal costs of prosecution and the fact that much of the $177 million dollars in lender and investor losses was not recovered, our business received a grand total of forty-two U.S. dollars.  That’s a bit short of the $22,000 we were due, but then there’s this:

Pauli did not go to prison.  In August of 2001 it was reported by a Suprema press release that he had died unexpectedly of a heart attack – just after I last spoke with him.  An underling was elevated to Pauli’s vacated position, less than 3 months later the company Controller resigned and blew the whistle on the embezzlement.  It was that underling and one other kingpin – Pauli’s brother-in-law – who were charged and went to prison in 2008.

The poets tell how Poncho fell
And Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold
And so the story ends we’re told

(Pancho and Lefty, lyrics by Kris Kristofferson)

But is that the end of the story?  After considerable online searching, I can find no record of an obituary, nor any account of Pauli’s death other than the one provided by Suprema, and I can’t help imagining that Pauli knew what was coming down, faked his death, and now lives comfortably somewhere in Sicily with a mistress and his share of the millions. What do you think?

 

 

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Enough of Mickey, Already!

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2006

Imgp6348 (2) 33pct

Sometimes you might be lucky enough to “get the picture” in the field; sometimes you might have to bring the subject to the studio and work at setting up a shot.

This fall there was a stretch of time when the milkweed pods began to open and the weather favored the transport of their seeds on dry, silky bits of plant-fluff. Rain would end Wind’s opportunity, and so time to photograph these ephemeral fliers was also passing. I carefully gathered up a vase-full of stalks and seed pods – several already open and beginning to spew their contents – and brought it into the house. My plan was to keep them dry and then take them back outside for photographs when I had the time.

Yesterday I glanced at my “bouquet” on the window sill near my desk. The pods are empty! No, the seeds aren’t littering my floor… they were all eaten by the mice.

How Much is a Tractor Worth?

Quite a few years ago, my husband and I went into the firewood business.  It wasn’t our dream job, but it paid our few bills and gave us the flexibility to owner-build our house.  It also was the reason we bought a used Ford F600 flatbed truck.

Homesteaders, we were, and every homesteader these days needs a tractor.  We sought a Ford 8N, vintage early 1950s, a simple little workhorse, and we found one for sale on the food co-op bulletin board.  The seller was another “Back-to-the-Lander” whose marriage had disintegrated, not surprisingly given what we would learn about him on the Sunday morning of our taking possession of said 8N.

The firewood truck had a bed that was eight feet wide and twelve feet long.  We built it a rack made of  hard maple one-inch boards and 2×4 stakes to hold the firewood in place, and eventually we had a lift put on it which turned it into a dump truck and relieved us of the wearying task of throwing the six or seven cords of firewood off by hand at each delivery.  At the time we purchased the tractor, that had not yet been done.  I wasn’t taking many photos in those days, but here’s one taken on the morning of an unfortunate situation in which the loaded truck was partially swallowed by a four-feet-deep patch of previously frozen ooze that thawed with some overnight rain.  

Ford F-600 Truck-2

With one not-too-excited teenaged daughter and one little guy in diapers, we gleefully piled into the cab and headed for Waddington, some thirty miles north.  It was a cold April day, and the gray sky pretty much matched the mood of Phil and his wife who were parting with the 8N.  You could see that they had put a lot of work into their place, and we admired the new barn that was housing the tractor and probably had also been a place for a few farm animals.  A dream gone bad.

Of immediate concern was how we were going to get the tractor onto the truck.  The truck bed was four feet higher than the ground.  The usual way to do this would be to find some kind of embankment, back the truck up to it, and bridge the gap between ground and truck-bed with tracks made for this purpose, or with a couple of sturdy planks.  The less the incline and the shorter the distance needing to be bridged, the better.

Phil, perhaps trying to prove his manhood, had no such intentions and was insistent on driving up over planks and cement blocks which he had brought out for the purpose.  He was in no mood to have his sanity questioned.  This meant a total ramp length of about 24 feet – two 12-foot planks stretching from the ground to a small pyramid of blocks, and two more from there onto the truck-bed.  There was no convincing him this wasn’t a very safe plan, and in fact it was all I could do to get him to agree to at least nail the higher planks to the truck-bed.  We sent the kids in the house.

With Phil in the driver’s seat, the tractor purred toward the planks, we said, “Yes, you’re okay so far,” and he started up the makeshift ramp.  He passed the blocks, continuing upward, and it seemed at that moment that perhaps he had been right:  it was working.  Then, apparently concerned that he was, in fact, still centered on the planks, Phil stopped. Our hearts in our throats since he first hit the ramp, we all shouted, “You’re okay, keep going!” and he gunned it.  The front wheels of the tractor made it onto the bed – as the sudden acceleration gripped the planks and sent them flying backwards and out from under the tractor.  The 8N abruptly fell earthward, only to be stopped from crashing on the ground and on top of its driver by the bucket loader which hung up on the tall wood rack on the right side.  Tractor and driver swung wildly back and forth from left to right as Phil tried to jump away from it.  Finally, in what seemed like slow-motion, he jumped to the ground and the tractor gradually became still… still, and hanging with its large back tires about two and a half feet above the ground.

And there we were.  The four of us, silent, walked slowly and solemnly to the house.  It was several minutes before anyone spoke.  We each knew how very close we had come to losing a life.

Getting that tractor back to earth is a story for another day, but I can tell you that same 8N tractor is sitting near our barn as I write this, having served us well now for about 35 years.

Why?

Why is life so unfair? Why do some good people experience sadness, loss, frustration, illness – a litany of Wednesday’s Child’s woes – while others (some of whom are real rotters) – skip happily through life without a care? Yes, I know that books have been written on this subject, but I feel compelled to ask the question anyway.

Consider this: a toddler – barefoot, sweet, innocent, loving – sees a horse and runs to pet it. The horse is loose and grazing peacefully – facing away from the on-coming child. The unexpected touch startles the horse and it does what a horse is wont to do: kicks in reaction. The child’s skull is shattered; she lies unconscious.

How did this happen? A series of events occurred, and if any one of them had been ever so slightly changed, the outcome would have been different.

1. It is the end of August. The pasture is dry and over-grazed, so the horse is allowed to feed on the lawn. (This was a normal occurrence).

2. The grandmother and aunt sit beside a swimming pool up-hill from the horse. They can see the horse, but because of the rolling yard, they can not see the horse’s lower legs. A row of arborvitae trees stand between the house and the hill leading up to the pool, blocking the view of the horse from the driveway and house.

3. Two neighbor girls enter the yard and ask if they can pet the horse. The grandmother says no, they must never go near the horse because she is easily spooked and might kick them. (The words of this conversation described exactly what would happen moments later).

4. The grandfather returns from picking up the toddler and her mother. The round-trip has taken him about half an hour. (One more car at a stop-sign, one red light being green would have changed the outcome).

5. The mother, child and grandfather get out of the car. Mother heads toward the back of the house to get her bathing suit off the clothesline, and as she does, all three hear the telephone ringing. Thinking the toddler is with the other, both the mother and the grandfather run to answer the phone – the mother to the back door, the grandfather to the front. They meet in the kitchen at the phone, each asking the other where the toddler is. Mother answers the phone while grandfather runs back to find the child, but the child has disappeared.

6. The phone call is from a disabled aunt who has never phoned before. She called the mother’s apartment, getting no answer and apparently being determined to make a call, decided to try calling the grandparents home. The aunt had no particular reason to call, nor did she know the grandparents. The mother quickly says she can not talk right now and hurries outside to find the toddler. (What caused this person to make that pointless phone call? What sparked the idea to also try the grandparents’ house?)

7. Meanwhile, the grandmother and aunt see the horse jump and comment on how they had just warned the neighbor girls about such a thing. Although they had been watching the horse, the lay of the land blocked their view of the toddler approaching it. (Turn the horse so slightly so that the toddler’s approach was not a surprise…)

Seizures and paralysis followed, were treated, and the toddler regained her health and lives a normal life until thirty-six years later when she suffers a grand mal seizure, the apparent result of that long-ago head injury. Following a seizure, a person must not drive a car for six months; in a rural area, there is no mass transit. This grown-up toddler, now a home-health nurse and the mother of a 4-year-old, has suddenly lost the ability to go to work, to earn a living, to get to the grocery store, or to “drive my son to the beach.” She has done only good in this world. Why did this happen to her?

note:  originally published August 9, 2006