“Bright Sides, Dark Sides,”

Fiction by Jeffrey Sussman

Strange, isn’t it, that two dedicated psychotherapists with criminal pasts would wind up helping hundreds of patients? We tend to see good people as essentially good, and bad people as stripped of decency. These two men were complicated combinations not of good and evil, but of the circumstances that formed them. Though both are dead, I won’t reveal their names, for their families survive and their memories are private.

I’ll call one Doc A and the other Doc B. Doc A was born, in 1921, to a Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father. His parents divorced when he was 7. His mother was awarded custody and moved into a railroad flat with her own mother on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. Doc A’s father was in the Mafia and lived the high life. He had an apartment in the Waldorf Towers and consorted with his bosses, first Lucky Luciano and then Frank Costello.

The father ran illegal sports betting parlors and controlled the finances of hundreds of bookies. He would occasionally send his former wife an envelope of cash.

While the money arrived periodically, he did not. His son rarely got to see him. The boy became a delinquent and ran with a gang in Little Italy. They mugged people and extorted protection money from local shopkeepers.

A sometime member of the gang, Rocco Barbella, aka Rocky Graziano, went on to become the middleweight boxing champion after defeating Tony Zale in one of the bloodiest battles in boxing history.

At 19, Doc A was given two choices, one by his father, the other by a local cop. His father offered to get him a job as a runner for some bookies and as a bag man. The cop, who had arrested Doc A, gave him another choice: “Give up your criminal behavior and join the Army or I’ll see to it that you get a 19-year sentence in Sing Sing.”

Unlike others who said with bravado that they could do a 10-year bit standing on their heads, Doc A joined the infantry.

“I don’t know why, but for some reason I didn’t want to take anything from my father. He had been an absentee father and I resented him. Keep your job, I thought, I’ll make it on my own,” he said.

And he actually enjoyed basic training; he learned to dismantle and assemble his rifle, he learned hand-to-hand combat, he learned to live with other men who came from diverse backgrounds.

“There were a lot of guys from Appalachia who joined the Army back in ’32 during the height of the Depression. The Army gave them a roof over their heads and three meals a day. They made a career out of being enlisted men. They were in for the best years of their lives. I learned a lot about other people. Those barracks were a real education for me. One of those guys was a Communist, very well self•educated, and he gave books to read. I read ‘Das Kapital,’ ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ books about unions, books about crooked politicians and rigged political sys•tems, a book by Trotsky, one by Max Eastman, Tom Paine’s ‘Common Sense.’ This guy gave me my education. And when we finally landed on Omaha Beach, I was ready to kill every fuckin’ Nazi I could get my hands on.”

He got badly wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, was shipped to an English hospital, recovered, and was sent back to the front. While crossing into Germany, he and his buddies encountered a 12-year-old Nazi sniper.

“Everyone wanted to kill the kid. Who knew how many of our guys he had killed? I said I’ll take him into the woods and blow his brains out. Once in the woods, I took the kid’s weapons, stripped him down to his underwear, and told him that if he ever shot an American G.I., I would first cut his dick off and then blow his brains out. I fired a couple of shots into the air and returned. My life changed after that.”

Shortly after arriving back in New York, he enrolled under the G.I. Bill at N.Y.U., where he studied to become a clinical psychologist. Following graduation, he enrolled in a psychoanalytic institute and subsequently became a licensed psychotherapist and psychoanalyst. Many of his patients over the next 40 years were sons of mafioso who did not want to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. He also treated anyone who needed help, whether they could pay his fees or not. At his memorial service, nearly a hundred former patients showed up to honor his memory and express their gratitude for all that he had done for them. In their memories, there were no dark sides, only bright futures.

And now to Doc B. He was born in 1916 to a pair of Russian émigrés; his brother was born one year later. The family lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, fertile ground for Murder Inc. The boys were exceptionally good students. After school, they would run errands for their father, but they were never sure of what he did for a living. Not until their midteens did they realize that their father was in•volved in complicated, shady dealings.

By the time the boys graduated from college, they were instructed by their father to attend law school, for which he would not pay. Being entrepreneurs, the boys opened a grocery store in an Italian neighborhood. They took turns attending classes. While one attended classes, the other ran the grocery store. It took twice as long as it took other students to earn their law degrees, but they nevertheless graduated at the top of their classes.

Because most of the customers of the grocery were laborers who lived paycheck to paycheck, they often had to borrow money. The brothers lent money at reasonable in•terest rates. When their customers wanted to buy small houses and couldn’t get bank loans, they borrowed from the brothers. Over the next few years, the brothers developed a successful mortgage company and then a title insurance company.

Doc B was not yet a doc. He was an adventurer. He liked living close to the line of legality. While his brother became one of the most successful and skillful New York real estate lawyers, Doc B enjoyed challenging the law. He associated with organized crime figures, and the associations proved profitable for him. When the mob took over a popular restaurant because the owner could not pay the exorbitant fees for food, liquor, and linens, Doc B was put in charge of the restaurant. He ran it for a year until the mob burnt it down for the insurance.

The following year, Doc B was arrested for torching a warehouse in the Bronx. A photo of him being led off in handcuffs was printed on the front page of The Daily News. While he got off with probation, he lost his law li•cense and became a private detective.

For several years, he worked for his brother and mob associates; he carried a pair of snub•nosed .38s, but never acted like a tough guy.

A natural entrepreneur, he started a commercial bus company, a small trucking company, and an airport for small private planes. He married a beauty pageant winner and had two daughters. They lived in a mansion on the Gold Coast of Long Island, “Great Gatsby” territory.

With enough money to last the lifetimes of his great•grandchildren, he gave up his business interests and enrolled in the psych department of C.W. Post. He went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate in clinical psychology.

He opened an office in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where he treated poor black people, who he felt never had the chances he had to rise out of poverty. His fees were based on a flexible scale from zero to whatever a patient could afford. In 1985, while getting into his BMW, a crack addict approached him, demanding money and keys to the car.

While Doc B smiled and offered to be helpful, the im•patient addict pulled out his Glock 9 and fired a rash of bullets. While Doc B bled out on the sidewalk, his assailant drove off in the BMW.

A funeral service was held at a synagogue on Long Island, followed by a massive service at a black Baptist church in Brooklyn. At both services, the blacks outnumbered the whites five to one. Doc B would have smiled. He, too, had made an indelible mark on the lives of people.


 


Jeffrey Sussman is the author of 10 books and the president of a public relations and marketing company, Jeffrey Sussman Inc.