I can start me a war / Be a war song soldier / I can stand on my head / I can walk on water / Haven’t even begun / If you wanna talk evil / Now my mouth is a gun / I’ma let my words rain down like rain on cardboard / Gangster fools who / Wave their tools in / Pictures on their wall
— Gerry Cinnamon, “War Song Soldier”
I got to meet Paul in the first place because I refused to buy an EZ-Pass. He used to be the toll booth collector at the Bear Mountain Bridge — right at the border of Orange and Rockland County in New York. The bridge stretches across the Hudson River, connecting Garrison to Fort Montgomery. Even though Paul is somewhat of a legendary figure in our little river town, I’d never met him until I was in my late twenties. I’d heard stories though: fires, fist fights, switchblades, and all-around deviance. He used to own a bar that sat at the top of our town like a citadel – it was infamous for degeneracy in the late 1970s and into the 80s. Paul, for what it’s worth, was its ringleader.
Years ago, I was crossing the bridge around midnight when I saw that they were installing a machine that would accept cash and replace the toll booth collector’s nightshift. I felt a personal offense at the sight of the thing. Paul happened to be there that night and he seemed as unamused as I did. It was weird to see a man sitting next to a machine getting assembled that’s sole purpose was to take away the nightshift — which, I believe, Paul enjoyed working the most. And I happened to enjoy my brief “hellos” with the toll collectors — plus, in the age of EZ-Pass, the cash lanes actually moved quicker.
Not long after, anytime Paul and I would cross paths on the bridge he’d want to talk to me about his life. He knew I wrote stories and told me he had one for me about Hell’s Kitchen, Irish gangsters, death threats, and murder. It didn’t matter what time of day it was that I happened to cross the bridge. I would pay the toll and he would tell me part of his story – sometimes causing a long line of traffic to line up behind me as I listened to him unspool his memory. He didn’t flinch at people yelling at us, and I never released my foot from the brake until he felt like he’d told me enough in one sitting.
For a while, I started to think he’d only taken the job at the bridge to get a good look at every person who crossed it — like he was waiting to find some of the people he had trouble with in his past life in Hell’s Kitchen.
A Nightmare, Dislodged From Reality
In 1982, Paul drove an hour-and-a-half down into Hell’s Kitchen to identify his older brother’s body. He hadn’t seen Brian in seven years — not since they each threatened to kill each other. And ever since, they obeyed the self-imposed exile from one another, even if it meant that Paul was out of the family business, and Brian couldn’t return to his hometown. They’d drawn their lines and stuck to them.
Their father had been dead for years, and Paul wouldn’t put his mother through the trauma of having to see her firstborn on the slab in a morgue in Manhattan. It was up to him to identify his brother — no one else.
The whole way down, Paul kept thinking, This ain’t gonna be Brian. He’s too smart to wind up dead in a police station.
He figured his brother got into some trouble, like they always used to, and schemed up a way to swap out his body with some other poor soul from Hell’s Kitchen. Even though it’d been seven years since they spoke, Paul was confident his brother hadn’t changed much. Word of Brian’s dealings would find a way up to Paul from time to time — so it was entirely reasonable to think his brother had finally screwed with the wrong person. He knew he’d been running a few bars in Hell’s Kitchen and was still in tight with some Irish gangsters.
Paul had the whole thing mapped out in his head. Brian probably found a way to steal a dead body, put his identification on it, and then he would’ve bounced out of the city before things got too hot.
Their little brother, Tom, accompanied Paul in the backseat. Tom and Brian were ten years apart; they really never had a relationship. Paul told him he didn’t have to come, but Tom felt obligated. Their friend, who went by the name Murph, tagged along too.
They parked outside the precinct. Paul and Murph decided to go in alone without Tom.
The sergeant, a big guy, stopped them at the entrance. Paul could tell this cop was angry, so his fists tightened, just in case. He sized up the cop immediately — he was about 6’ 3” — and ran through all the different ways this cop might try to fight. This was a habit of Paul’s. Anytime he saw someone, he thought about all the variations his possible opponent might choose to swing. It never mattered who it was. By the time Paul saw you, he already knew how to destroy you.
“What are you here for?” the sergeant asked.
Paul said he’s there to identify his brother’s body.
The sergeant took a breath, seemed to cool down, and asked for the name of the dead.
“Brian O’Callahan,” he said.
The sergeant started to get real angry — huffing and puffing and throwing his arms up in the air.
“Oh, no. Oh, hell no… We’re not going through this again,” the sergeant said. “He’s already been identified by his brother. I’ve been here 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life.”
What the hell is this guy talking about? Paul thought.
He told the cop that there’s no one else to identify the body but him.
The sergeant said, “Well, your other brother was already here.” He paused to look around the station. “That fucking maniac flipped over every desk in here.”
Paul looked around and saw about twenty desks — half of which had been flipped. There were people picking up typewriters and papers and pens scattered across the floor.
“My brother only has two brothers,” Paul said. “I’m one of them and the other one is out there in the car. So I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Paul started to feel real good now because this had to mean Brian was definitely not dead. It made no sense. Must’ve been a big mix up.
“I want to see the body,” Paul said.
He stood there like a mountain, not letting this big cop intimidate him. He just had to see the body. If it wasn’t Brian on the slab, they would keep the secret and move on. It would be one last brotherly thing to do. If his mother went down and couldn’t identify the body, that’d mean Brian could still be in danger. He might’ve hated his brother, but this was the least he could do. He’d like to think that Brian would’ve done the same for him.
“This is bullshit,” the sergeant said, and then called two other cops over to take Paul and Murph down to the morgue below the precinct.
On the way down the stairs, Paul was thinking Brian really pulled this off. That cocksucker. They walked up to the storage wall where other cadavers might’ve been waiting to be identified. The officer opened the door for Brian’s body, slid out the long drawer, and, to Paul’s surprise, there he was. It might not have been that much of a surprise though since each brother swore to kill the other — any reunion would’ve ended with one of them dead and the other one standing. Paul was more surprised his brother had actually allowed himself to get killed. Brian was too smart for that — he was lightyears ahead of everyone. This type of ending, it didn’t suit him. It didn’t feel right.
The officer explained how Brian had been shot point blank three times in the back of the head. His face was black and blue from the damage to the skull. The cheekbones were slack, his face contorted. They found him in the driver seat of his car — parked outside a discotheque on 11th Avenue.
“You know what that other guy did?” the officer asked. He sort of motioned up the stairs at the mess in the station.
“What’d he do?” Paul asked.
The officer said it was a big Irish fella. Heavy accent. Piss drunk. Came in here saying his brother had died and he had to see him. So the officer brought the guy down to the morgue and when he pulled out the slab, the Irish guy grabbed the corpse, put him in a headlock, and took off running up and down the hall — running and dancing and singing with the corpse in his arms. Then he tore up the whole place. The cop described the whole scene as if the guy was swept up by such great and miserable Irish grief. That he’d been so rocked by grief, he became a nightmare, dislodged from reality.
“Give me his name,” Paul said, feeling his adrenaline spike.
Paul didn’t know it yet, but this guy had put word out on the street that he wanted Paul dead because he was positive Paul was the murderer.
Nobody Is Above Suspicion
That night, the cops brought Paul to Brian’s apartment. There were four heavy locks on the front door and each one had already been opened.
One of the cops was holding a key chain with dozens of keys. He shook them at Paul and said he couldn’t find out which key went to which lock. He went upstairs and got some guy to climb down the fire escape and through an open window.
That’s when Paul knew he couldn’t trust these two cops. There was no way his brother would’ve went through the trouble of putting four locks on his door just to leave a window open. It didn’t add up.
He noticed it was a two-bedroom apartment and both of the rooms looked lived in. He asked who else lived there besides his brother.
They told him it was a man by the name of Gil Morris, Brian’s business partner. They ran a few bars together. Gil was out of town — somewhere off the coast of Oregon.
The cops brought Paul’s attention to a table with seven different landlines, each one with a different number. Seemed like Brian was bookkeeping, loan sharking, and through one of the lines, he was running a black market adoption ring. The cops gathered that he must’ve been some type of broker for parents to sell unwanted babies. If there was a way to make money, Brian wouldn’t flinch.
The number of phones in there alone made Paul think that whatever Brian had gotten himself involved with was much bigger than he expected. It could’ve been anyone who wanted him dead. And the phones still rang.
Paul decided he would spend nearly every night in Hell’s Kitchen until he figured out who was responsible for Brian’s murder. For all he knew, it could’ve been anyone in Hell’s Kitchen. But first, he had to bury him.
‘I didn’t kill my brother’
Brian could return to his hometown the only way he could — in a casket. It just so happened that the last place the brothers saw each other was in Joseph’s, the restaurant right next to the funeral home, about a two-minute walk from the house they grew up in.
About half the people in attendance were cops trying to make sure nothing got out of hand because the other half were Irish gangsters with some affiliation with Brian. The parking lot was mostly cop cars and limousines for gangsters.
Paul was in the hallway of the funeral home when he heard a heavy Irish accent booming through the entrance. He knew immediately that it must’ve been Kevin, the guy who danced around the morgue with Brian, and word had gotten back to Paul that this guy was dead set on killing him.
When Brian turned up dead with three bullets in the skull, Kevin told everyone it was Paul and it didn’t take long for that rumor to spread north. By the time of the funeral, Paul had also realized it wasn’t just Kevin who blamed him. The cops started to think it was Paul, too. Mutual friends, as well. Even Paul’s uncles thought he might’ve been the one who pulled the trigger.
Paul cut short whatever conversation he was having and bolted towards the Irish guy. He shoved him down the hallway, into the bathroom, and locked the door. Paul threw the guy against the wall.
“I didn’t kill my brother,” Paul said. “But I’m telling you this … I will kill you. I got no problem with that. I’ll kill you tonight, or I’ll kill you tomorrow. Whenever you fuck up, I will kill you.”
The guy tried to budge, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Paul had calculated all this guy’s weaknesses in the time it took to shove him down the hall and into the bathroom.
From what Paul could gather, Kevin truly believed that Brian was his brother by blood. He’d been locked up in the Elmira Reformatory for nine years for killing a cop. When he got out, he had nothing, and somehow connected with Brian. After a while, Brian kind of adopted him. It seemed to Paul that this guy became a sort of surrogate brother for Brian.
Paul might’ve hated his brother, but he would never kill him. He’d do anything for him. Just like he always had before their falling out.
A Family of Rebels and Soldiers
When Brian was 21, he was at the local bar all their friends used to call the Bucket of Blood. He was upstairs playing cards for money with a bunch of soldiers from the neighboring Army base.
Brian called Paul at the house. He sounded frantic.
“Paul, there’s gonna be some trouble in a couple minutes.”
Paul didn’t know if his brother was cheating, or one of the soldiers, but somebody was cheating … and it was probably Brian.
He knew Paul carried a switchblade. He’d seen him filing it everyday on the porch so he could snap it open and closed easy. Paul must’ve been about 17 or 18 at the time. Only a year earlier, he used that same switchblade on their own father when Paul was piss drunk and stole the family Bonneville. His father tried to stop him, and Paul brought the switchblade down the length of his father’s arm before jumping out the front door and taking the car all the way down to the Bronx, where he fell asleep at the wheel doing 90 mph and crashed into another car.
“There’s about four or five of them,” Brian told Paul, anticipating trouble.
Paul said “OK,” ran down to the Bucket of Blood, and hid behind the wall where the garbage cans were lined up by the back exit.
The place never broke loose. Brian must’ve found a way to calm things down. But Paul waited there with the knife, ready to use it.
The boys came from a family of rebels and soldiers.
Their great-great grandfather and his family fled Ireland because the British were trying to execute them for stealing some chickens. They made their way to County Cork, changed their last name, hopped on a ship, and wound up in Herkimer, New York.
One of the boys joined the Army to fight in the Civil War. He got captured and thrown in Andersonville Prison — a Confederate-run prison for Union soldiers. It was, at one point, almost 27 acres big and housed approximately 45,000 soldiers. According to the National Park Service, 13,000 soldiers died in custody. Somehow, Paul’s ancestor escaped through the swamps. He slept in the day, and ran through the night. Hounds chased him. Confederates chased him. All the locals were against him, but the black people he came across along the way were happy to help. They fed him and offered reliable directions through the woods back to DC, where he’d been previously stationed. It took him 31 days to return to safety.
The boys grew up with that “yes, sir, yes ma’am, bullshit,” as Paul puts it. Their father was a strict, spit-shine, shave-three-times-a-day type of military man. Not long before their father died, he and Brian were at Joseph’s for some drinks. There were two guys getting kind of rowdy. Their dad said to Brian, “you take the young one, I’m gonna take the old one.” Paul remembers the “old one” being much younger than their father.
Growing up, Paul used to shadowbox in his room and practice fighting. He’d picture anyone — his friends, his father, strangers he saw that day — and pretend to pinpoint all of their weaknesses, so that when it came time to actually fight, he didn’t even have to think about it. Second nature. He knew from an early age that his adrenalin was capable of going zero to maximum real fast because he never planned on losing.
Aside from fighting, another family tradition was dropping out of school by ninth or tenth grade and joining the Army. After Brian enlisted, Paul remembers him coming back from a tour in Korea a different person. He wasn’t only more calculated now, but he seemed to have acquired new ways to balance his supposed normalcy with a penchant for real trouble. In his time in Korea, he’d become a bookie and a loan shark. He operated all his secret businesses out of a closet while stationed overseas. When he returned, Paul said Brian had made something like $15,000 from all his “side jobs.”
After he returned, Brian took some time off and went to California. When it came time for him to go back to New York, he looked through the newspaper and found a guy who wanted to hire someone to drive his car back to the east coast: a brand new Thunderbird convertible. But Brian decided to take a detour to Las Vegas and blow the $15,000. He didn’t arrive in New York until about a month later.
Brian’s problem, according to Paul, was he was too smart. He knew what he could get away with, and he didn’t really like other people. It’s a dangerous mix for someone trying to pretend to function normally in a society of rules; someone who can exploit any loopholes to avoid consequences.
By the time Brian was in his early twenties, he’d already had judges, union leaders, police officers, soldiers, and mobsters in his pocket.
Eventually, all these connections helped him land a winning bid to run a cantina and multiple coffee trucks on the construction site for what would become the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The Falling Out
In the early 1970s, the Meadowlands used to be a swamp — but with enough State money, they turned it into a desert so they could build a casino and a racetrack on top of it. They installed a twenty-foot-wide tube that reached ten miles into the Atlantic, and it siphoned the sand from the ocean floor to fill in the swamp.
Thanks to some connections with authorities —that is, authorities who were corrupted by gangsters — Paul and Brian got the sole rights to operate a cantina on the entire worksite. They sold food, coffee, and cigarettes. They started the business out of a station wagon in Rockland, New York — and now they were guaranteed decent money every day. They were proud.
“It was like being in Arabia,” Paul said. “The whole place was sand with ten shanties in the desert.”
Aside from their business, there was a slab of blacktop on the far end of the site where the operating engineers made offices out of trailers. And there was a mysterious warehouse that was mainly used by the Hells Angels.
The Hells Angels used to show up every morning around seven or eight o’clock. They’d arrive thirty deep, girls on the back of each bike, and disappear into the warehouse for the rest of the day. The only sounds that Paul heard emanate from within were gunshots. Supposedly, they were part of the operating engineers. But they were all no-show-jobs — gifts from the mob — probably as payment for running security. Paul heard they built a pistol range in there.
But it was some of the operating engineers who actually caused the most trouble. They were directly connected to the Irish gangs —or they themselves were the gangsters. One day, they came into the cantina just as Paul was closing and asked for twenty-one sandwiches. He had already cleaned up, but he said he’d do it anyway. As he was making the sandwiches, they took a bag and started loading it with all of the candy bars and drinks on display.
Then they told Paul they weren’t paying for any of it.
Paul, who’d been working since four in the morning, said, “I want my money.”
To which they replied, “You’re not getting it.”
As he was trying to ring them up, Paul called Brian. Brian told him to give it to them for nothing. Paul couldn’t believe it. He didn’t like caving into demands.
That next morning, Paul woke up to a phone call around 3 am. All the tires had been slashed on the coffee trucks.
“My adrenaline was going fucking wild,” he said. He had to get down there and get sixteen tires put on the trucks and out to work by 6 am.
It wasn’t long before he found out who sliced the tires and went after them.
There were these two young guys who’d come in every weekend with black eyes and busted lips. Once Paul tracked them down, he didn’t kill them, but he wanted to. With his adrenaline pumping the way it was, they were lucky they survived.
A few days later, Paul showed up to the cantina early to open up shop. He had his employees turn on the grill and get the meat slicer ready. When Paul asked someone to bring out the ham so he could start slicing it, they yelled back from the fridge — everything was gone. The fridge and the freezer had both been emptied out. The only thing the thieves left was the butter.
Every time he spoke up in defense of his business, they’d retaliate. When they stole all the cigarette cartons out of the coffee trucks, he decided it was time to listen to his adrenaline.
He called up Brian and asked him, straight up, for an Uzi. Brian told him to calm down.
“I know you’re connected with someone who can get me an Uzi,” Paul said.
Brian told him he’d straighten it out. Paul called him a cocksucker and decided to handle it himself. There was no time for patience. He needed to teach these guys a lesson to keep their hands out of his and Brian’s business.
He had a ‘73 Buick Riviera. Maroon with a white top. He hopped in and took off at the end of the day across the meadowlands and aimed the car at the trailers. It must’ve looked like a speedboat — it had the ducktails going up with the sand. He fishtailed all the way across the desert and slammed on the brakes right when he got to the operating engineers’ trailer.
He ran into the first office where two guys were sitting behind a desk, one with his feet up. Paul ran in with his fists out, ready to go. He asked them where the head guys were. The guy must’ve been so scared of Paul that he didn’t hesitate to tell him they were all in the trailer next door.
There were about thirty guys sitting at a long table in the trailer. Paul nearly tore the door down, and started calling them all a bunch of scumbags.
He said, “You know I work down here, 14-15 hours a day, for a hundred and fifty dollars a week. You’re in here making two to three thousand a week. And you gotta have your guys steal my cigarettes?”
He told everyone in that trailer, “You guys are fucking lucky.”
He said this could’ve been a lot worse for you, waving his fists as he screamed. Paul stood there waiting for someone to make a move. He was ready to take them all on if he had too, but no one had anything to say. He took off and sped out, not realizing it would be the last time he’d see the cantina and the coffee business that he and his brother had worked so hard to build from the ground up.
That night, Brian got a phone call. The operating engineers told him that the next time his brother acts up like that, well, when you open up the cantina, his head is going to be on the grill.
Brian knew them well enough to know they weren’t bluffing.
The brothers met at Joseph’s Restaurant.
Brian told Paul there’s no way he can go back to work. He knew his brother’s temper couldn’t be contained and now that he’d already pulled a stunt like that, they’d do anything to poke him until he snaps again.
In the back of his mind, Paul probably also understood this, but wouldn’t allow himself to admit it.
“Why?” he asked Brian. “Why can’t I go back down?”
“I don’t wanna see your fucking head on a grill.”
“I’m not worried about it,” Paul said. “I’m going back.”
He was one of those guys that lacked whatever chemical it was that caused fear. He said he didn’t feel scared of the threat. If they were going to try and take his head off, then so be it. He would fight them like he’d fought everyone else. He always fought to win, and up until that point he had never really lost. But Brian took them dead serious. He’d spent more time with them. He knew what they had done and what they could do.
“If you go back, then I’m not goin’ back. ‘Cause I ain’t gonna watch that happen,” Brian said.
“You know what?” Paul asked. “We’re both going back because we owe our mother $40,000. She invested in the company, helped get us started. I’m not leaving until I get that money back to her.”
“Well, I’m not goin’ back,” Brian said.
Before Brian could tell what was happening, Paul landed a fist square on his brother’s face. Brian took the hit. He didn’t try to fight back.
Paul stood up and told his brother, “If that’s the case, you better not come back home.” Brian understood the threat was real. No one knew his brother’s rage and adrenaline better than him. Once Paul had made a decision, he’d stick with it till the bitter end.
Brian took his brother’s word. Paul did too. He couldn’t understand it clearly back then, but he can admit it now: his brother saved his life.
Seeking Revenge in Hell’s Kitchen
After Brian’s funeral, Paul made a habit of driving down to Hell’s Kitchen almost every night. He went to all the bars and started listening to people talk. Asking questions. Trying to understand who his brother was dealing with in the days leading up to his murder.
He had walked into one of his brother’s bars, this place where a lot of professional wrestlers would drink, and stood up in the middle of the place and started yelling: “I’m running everything now. This is my brother’s bar, and I’ll be here every night until I figure out what happened.”
Some Irish guy, this longshoreman, came up to Paul and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Who the fuck are you? You got nothing to do with this,” Paul said.
The guy said he was good friends with Brian, and with Brian’s partner, Gil.
“I don’t give a fuck who you are,” Paul said. “You ain’t telling me nothing. I run this place until Gil gets back, not you.” Brian had been running his own bar back home, so at the very least he understood how to keep the place going. And he wanted everyone to know who to come to with information.
He’d eventually hear rumors going around that Brian’s partner had taken out an insurance policy that would pay off big time if Brian died.
Gil finally returned, much later than expected, to find how deeply Paul had entrenched himself into his bar and Hell’s Kitchen in general.
“Where have you been?” Paul asked. “Your partner gets killed, and you can’t come back? Seems to me that this is all a big set up. He dies, you don’t come back, and I bet you thought he was all alone.”
The business partner tried offering Paul work, a new job, some money, a partnership.
He asked him if it was true that he had an insurance policy taken out on Brian for $250,000.
The partner played dumb. Paul didn’t trust him.
“What’s my mother gonna get?” Paul asked. “She’s the one who changed his diapers, bought his books, clothed him, everything, and she gets nothing … Meanwhile, you get all that money?”
The partner said, “Look, I’ll give you the same deal Brian and I had going.”
“Three bullets in the fucking head?” Paul said.
It wasn’t going anywhere. He had no proof, but the guy seemed full of it. Paul kept going down, trying to piece together his brother’s life any way he could. He was good at getting information from talking to people. Even if it was just a fragment of truth or a slip of the tongue, Paul listened very closely. The cops, it seemed, were trying to lead him away from Hell’s Kitchen. Even though he was a suspect, they had absolutely nothing to pin him for other than rumors of them threatening each other’s lives seven years prior.
After spending several weeks in Hell’s Kitchen, Paul thought he got somewhat of a handle on what went down: “You talk to enough people who hang around and who’d also been drunk and the truth is bound to slip in part, here and there.”
Eventually, he sat down at one of his brother’s bars for a whole night and kept getting a weird vibe from the bartender. She couldn’t look him in the eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to say a word to him. She was fine with everyone else — but something about Paul disturbed her.
He found out that she was the one that called his brother on the night of his murder to tell him she was about to close up. So Brian went down to his car, started it up, and somewhere between there and the bar he was murdered.
Paul was sure that Brian’s business partner had something to do with it. He didn’t think he pulled the trigger, but he had a hand in it. He doesn’t even think he hired a shooter — he thinks he suckered them into it. Fed them bad information.
From what he could gather, one of Brian’s girlfriends had been from Ireland. This same girl also used to date the man who Paul believed to be the shooter. Word was this Irish girl also dated that longshoreman who gave Paul a hard time when he first walked into the bar in Hell’s Kitchen. Rumors around the bars were that Brian’s business partner kept instigating the guy, poking him, saying things like, “His friend had been dating his ex, and he’s been talking all sorts of crap to everyone about you.” People were saying it started to drive the guy crazy. He didn’t have to be hired, he just didn’t realize he was manipulated into doing it.
The most likely scenario, according to Paul and everyone he spoke with, was that another mutual friend asked for a ride down to the docks right as Brian was making his way to help close the bar. When the friend got in the car, he pulled a gun on Brian. He made Brian pull over, and another mutual hopped in the backseat. The longshoreman. He put a gun to the back of his head, and told him to drive down to 11th avenue. They had Brian pull up in front of an all night Spanish club, and shot him in the head.
Paul knew they were all connected with the Westies, an Irish mob that ran Hell’s Kitchen at the time. He wouldn’t go to the police with any of the information because he didn’t trust them either. He was almost positive the two cops that showed him Brian’s apartment had been paid off to obscure the facts. There should’ve been a lot more cash in Brian’s apartment — and there were no bank statements that proved Brian deposited bar money anywhere.
What he decided to do, though, was keep an eye on them — the cops, the supposed shooter, Gil, anyone involved. He’d follow them, stay in the shadows. He knew one of those cops had a cocaine problem — it wasn’t direct proof of his involvement in covering up Brian’s murder, but it seemed fairly obvious to anyone who’d spent enough time watching any of these guys that they were all operating above the law. He wanted to catch them slipping — that would be proof enough — and then he’d take his revenge.
Haunted by Guilt and Revenge
Paul spent the next five years drinking himself to death. He bought a house on a lake in his hometown. He never left the house unless he was called to beat someone up at the bar he’d purchased up the street. For what it’s worth, it was a successful bar — so successful it put three other local bars in the small town out of business within a year.
“They’d call me when there was trouble at the bar,” he said. “And I’d go up there to beat the shit out of somebody and then just come back down to the house. That would happen about once every two weeks.”
Sometimes he’d run up the two steep hills between his house and the bar just to pummel someone. Anything would set him off. He’d call to check in and would hear someone in the background asking the bartender who she’s on the phone with. Paul would ask who said that, she’d tell him, and he’d say, “OK, I’ll be right there.” Then he’d run up the street, burst through the door, and start fighting.
He cut down a line of trees outside his house. The stumps were like steps going into the living room window. He sat in a chair in the dark with a gun for years. He had let his hair and beard grow out so much that people started to say he looked like a lion.
He tried to watch TV, but he couldn’t concentrate. He only thought of violence and revenge.
He suspected that the mob guys in Hell’s Kitchen would come for him eventually. They must’ve caught on to his little investigation, and that it was only a matter of time. He was sure that if they came up to do the job, they’d try to get in through the living room window. He wanted them to. He fantasized about it. He’d pull them in through the window, into the dark, and shoot each one. And then he’d burn their bodies in the woods with a flare gun from World War I.
Eventually, two guys that wanted his bar figured they might be able to inherit the business, if they could only drop Paul off at detox –– some long program that’ll keep him away for a while. Everyone got tired of waiting for him to die, he said. It was clear that Paul was chasing death through drugs and alcohol and a taste for blood.
He’d been drunk so long, he’d been close to getting wet brain — a brain that becomes permanently drunk. Imagine a brain in a bucket of alcohol.
His friends told him they were throwing a party just for him. When he asked what for, they said to go to the hospital. “OK, good” he said. He figured he can go to the “party” and get all the drink and all the cocaine he could possibly want, and at the end of it, tell everybody he’s not going anywhere.
They got him so drunk they were able to get him in a car, drive him across the river, and leave him at the hospital for a 28-day program.
During the three weeks he was in rehab, he beat up four other clients and one counselor.
One of the managers said, “Paul, I can’t send these people home looking worse than when they got here.” He said he was sorry, and that any time he feels like he’s about to punch someone, he’ll put his hands on the rosary beads instead — just like how his grandma used to pray for him and his brother.
He was haunted by guilt and revenge.
When you finally get sober, if you’re that lucky and you’re anything like him, Paul said you have an awful lot of guilt, and an awful lot of revenge. As a guy who protected people his whole life, it’s impossible not to have guilt. He would sit there in the halfway house watching a TV show, like Cheers or Jeopardy, and he couldn’t make it five minutes without thoughts of killing everybody involved with his brother’s murder. The characters on the shows would all warp into people from Hell’s Kitchen.
He was starting to accept time and distance in order to allow his guilt and lust for revenge to scab over. Thirteen years had passed since his brother’s murder, and Paul made a point of putting himself into different programs to keep clean.
One night, one of his counselors, a woman he’d become quite friendly with, had given him The Basketball Diaries to read. And he loved it. She knew nothing about his brother, or his history with Hell’s Kitchen, but one night she loaned him a copy of a book about the Westies, Sleepers — all about Hell’s Kitchen and Irish gangsters.
He would read the book again and again. Each time, he’d pick up something new about the characters. He knew these people. He started to connect aliases to real names, remembering bars and avenues and people who even came to Brian’s funeral.
The book mentions Jerry, the bartender. He talked about Jerry being in the bar around the same time as the longshoreman, a guy who murdered a prison guard that had assaulted him earlier in his life.
Paul remembered something that happened at Brian’s funeral. Jerry told him he was sorry and that he and his wife loved Brian — but, he said, “This is the second time something like this has happened connected to the bar. It’s getting too close to home. We’re going back to the city, packing up, and leaving for good.”
When he referred to Brian’s death as the “second time,” Paul knew that the first time was the prison guard getting shot to death by the longshoreman. It confirmed what he had already suspected. The longshoreman had since died. He had mysteriously fallen down three flights of stairs. Paul thought it was the work of gangsters.
The police in Hell’s Kitchen never officially figured out what happened to Brian. It’s still a cold case. Today, Paul swears if you went and dug up his brother and ran some DNA tests, they’d have all their answers.
Paul never got absolute answers, but he felt like he got close enough to the truth. Having some type of closure gave him a chance to heal. The revenge subsided. He even found some compassion for the murderer after reading Sleepers so much. According to the story, the guy had been sexually abused and grew up to be vicious because of it. Paul said he would’ve wanted to kill everybody, too.
Even with the need for revenge disappearing, the guilt remained. Paul kept himself in different programs to stay clean. One counselor talked to him about the burden of his guilt.
He told Paul that that guilt was born when he was in the middle of the worst of his alcoholism. He told him to write a letter to his parents, grandparents, brother, and anybody else and just tell them that you’re trying to live a better, more spiritual life; that you are working on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, and you’re trying to help others. He said not to list all the shit he did back in the day because that’ll only bring up the bad feelings, the things that haunt you most, kind of like dragging a lake.
The counselor said said that after he wrote his letters, he needs to take them out back and burn them; send the words up to them. He pointed up to the sky. “But if you don’t believe in that,” he said, “you put those letters in an envelope, have them dropped in your casket, and you can hand deliver them yourself.”
Paul chose to write them and burn them. And he actually felt the crushing guilt lift from his shoulders.
Once, he did a nine-month stint of rehab in upstate New York. It was a safe house with about fifty other recovering addicts. All they did was smoke cigarettes and talk. But Paul refused. He only listened. At a certain point, a counselor came up to him and said, “Hey, Paul, you’ve been here three weeks and we haven’t heard from you yet.”
So he sat down in a small room and told them about Brian, the murder, the violence, the regret, the revenge, and the guilt.
When he finished, the whole room was silent. Everyone stared. The shock was palpable.
The counselor finally broke the silence.
“Well, Paul, I really don’t know what to tell you … I don’t know what to say, or how to help you. Maybe you should seek out a different recovery panel…”
As Enduring and Treacherous as a Glacier
Against all odds, Paul — now 74, a grandfather — is still working. He lives in the house he grew up in, hidden on a back road above the river, a dead end that no one ever drives down. I’ve lived in the same town as Paul for nearly thirty years and never knew the road even existed. It’s at the edge of a steep drop down to the Hudson. Living on that road almost seems like a defensive maneuver, a way to take high ground and use the geography to his advantage. The same way a general might seize land in an effort to stop an invasion.
George Washington chose to turn this area into a fortress for the very same reason in anticipation of ambushing British warships where the Hudson River bottlenecks in the valley between the mountains.
Paul’s been ripping up the earth in his backyard to uncover the natural cliff the house was built into. He scraped away the dirt and grass and loose stone with his hands. It’s as if he’s turned all his attention to sizing up earth itself — the sun, the tectonic plates, the mountains, time, fossils. These are the things that occupy his thoughts now.
He spends his time sitting on his cliff with a view of the valley, going through the millennia of natural violence it took to form the mountains and the river below. He speaks of Pangaea and the way tectonic plates eventually smashed into one another — he recounts it as if it’s the play-by-play of an old fight. Plateaus colliding. Land spiking high up into the air from out of the early ocean. Ice Age. Glaciers melting. And over time, the great masses of ice getting pulled south through the crest, eventually splitting it in half. Forming two different mountains. Two giant fists. He can see both mountains from his cliff. He knows New York used to be underwater because he used to go to a friend’s farm on top of a mountain in Cooperstown, New York and find seashells buried in the ground.
You would think hearing Paul condense millennia down into a few seconds would make him appear smaller against the vastness of time. But somehow it only makes him seem as enduring and treacherous as mountains and glaciers.
If you trace the line of men in his family from the mid 19th Century, the ones who escaped Ireland and traveled across the Atlantic to New York, it started with a fight and continued to be a fight all the way down to Paul and his brothers. It’s easy to think it’s all myth passed down from generation to generation. But he’s found ancient American Legion newspapers with proof of his ancestors’ troubles — the war, the death, the fights. He has tintypes of his ancestor who escaped Confederate Prison. He’s turned his investigative powers into uncovering his family tree. Plus, he was always listening. Even as a boy in the house, he’d put his ear to the vents and lay on the floor listening to the old people in the kitchen downstairs talking politics and history.
He survived to help pass on the family story to the next one in line, and so on and so forth until so much time has passed that he himself will be nothing more than legend.
Directly across from his yard, on the other side of the river, he studies Breakneck Mountain — a tall, jagged mountain that casts a shadow across the Hudson River in the morning. He points out a face he believes Native Americans carved into the mountainside, something, he says, you can only see under a Harvest Moon. He says he’s seen it. It makes you want to cross the river, climb the mountain, and look back at Paul’s house, to see if he’s carved something into the side of his cliff, like a sign for anyone in the distant future to know he had been here.