The below short story originally appeared in American Crime Magazine.
By Paul Davis
I was a bit taken aback when I read about Ruggerio Martino.
I was smoking a cigar and drinking a cup of coffee in my booklined basement office, flipping through the local newspaper that carried my weekly crime column, when a photo of Martino caught my eye.
I had not thought about Martino in years. I knew him originally from the South Philly neighborhood where we both grew up. He was an oddball. A big guy, but soft and sloppy. The guys on the corner called him “Baby Huey,” after the cartoon giant baby character.
Martino was a quiet kid, but he was teamed up with Edward “Eddie Crow” Esposito, a fast-talking and annoying skinny kid. They were not part of our crowd, but they often came into the luncheonette where our street corner gang hung out. We thought of them as square, goofy guys, as they didn’t drink or get high or do the other things South Philly street guys generally did in the late 1960s.
I left the corner at age 17 when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and sailed to Southeast Asia on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. When I returned home two years later, I found that my crowd had moved exactly one block north from the luncheonette to a corner bar. Martino and Esposito also drank in the bar, but my old crowd didn’t have much to do with them.
I broke away from the crowd in my late twenties when I began to date a beautiful woman whom I eventually married. I later began working as a crime reporter, which led to my having a crime column in the local paper.
As I smoked my cigar and looked at Martino's photo, I thought back to the year 2000. I recalled having a drink in a corner bar where I knew the owner, Mike DeLisi. I liked DeLisi, a former boxer and a great cook. His Baked Ziti reminded me of my late Italian mother's Baked Ziti.
On the night in question, DeLisi was behind the bar talking to me when Martino and Esposito came in. I saw that Martino’s baby fat was gone, replaced by an overly muscled body. Esposito was still a scrawny guy, and he still had a big mouth.
Esposito saw me and rushed over to shake my hand.
“Hey, Paulie. Do you remember me? I'm Eddie Crow?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I remember you. How are you?”
“I’m good. Fucking good. Hey, Ruggerio, come over and say hello to Paulie Davis from the old corner.”
Martino walked over slowly and shook my hand and nodded.
“Hey, Mike, we knew this guy from the corner before he was a big-shot newspaper guy.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’m hardly a big-shot.”
“I read your articles every week in the paper. I love it. I tell everybody I knew you from the old corner."
Esposito asked DeLisi for a beer and turned back to me.
"I could tell you some things, you know, confidentially like," Esposito said. "What do you call it, off the chart?”
“Off the record,” I replied.
Martino poked Esposito and turned his head towards a guy drinking at the end of the bar.
“Hey, Paulie, I got business I have to take care of. Good to see you again.”
Esposito walked down to the guy at the end of the bar.
“You know those assholes, Paul?”
“I knew them from the old neighborhood.”
“They’re potato chip gangsters. Esposito is a collector for Big Rocco. You know him?”
"He runs a gambling and loan-shark operation. When these two clowns started coming in here, I asked Rocco if they were with him, because they were throwing his name around, acting like big shots,” DeLisi said. “Rocco told me Eddie Crow collected small time for him, but he’s a nobody. I don’t like him or Ruggerio. Ruggerio is always trying to look tough. He’s big, but I don’t think he’s so tough."
From that night on, DeLisi and I got a kick out of watching the two would-be-gangsters act out in the bar.
One night Esposito was trying to impress a young girl at the bar. We heard her ask him why he was called Eddie Crow.
“They call me Crow because crows are wise birds.”
I leaned over to Mike and said he was called Crow as a kid because his black hair and hooked beak nose made him look like the cartoon crow from Disney’s Dumbo movie.
“You know, last year Eddie was parking cars for Longo’s restaurant, and I slipped him a five,” DeLisi recalled. “He followed me to the door of the restaurant and kissed my ass. Now he’s a gangster. Wise bird, my ass.”
But as funny as Eddie Crow was, Martino, the once quiet Baby Huey, was even more amusing.
Martino was always speaking awkwardly to the girls and trying to impress them. One night in the bar, DeLisi and I heard Martino say in his half-mumbling, half-stuttering way that he had served in Vietnam.
“I was a tunnel rat in Vietnam.”
“Oh, really,” the girl replied politely. “What’s a tunnel rat?”
“I used to crawl into the tunnels and go after them Viet Cong.”
“I’m glad to see you came home safe,” the girl said as she slid away from the hulking man at the bar.
“Bullshit,” I said to Delisi. “He wasn’t even in the service, let alone a tunnel rat. Can you imagine that hulk crawling through a tunnel?"
“Yeah. That pisses me off,” said DeLisi, a genuine Vietnam veteran. “I ought to say something.”
“Well, you saw the girl wasn’t impressed. She didn’t care if he was in the war or not.”
Delisi agreed to let it go.
Another night in the bar we watched and listened to Martino tell two girls that he was a street tough. That image was not aided by Martino drinking a “Dirty Shirley,” a fruity mixed drink.
“South Philly has changed, so you girls got to be careful. Back in the day, we were tough guys on the corner and we was always fighting each other in gang fights, but we didn’t bother no girls or rob old ladies.”
DeLisi and I laughed.
“I'll bet the biggest fight Ruggiero ever had was with a banana sundae,” DeLisi said.
“I don't think the big doofus ever had a fight in his life,” I said.
On yet another night, Martino worked his so-called charm on a young woman.
“I been with a lot of girls in my time, but ah, you got the prettiest eyes. What color is they?”
DeLisi and I covered our mouths to prevent us from laughing aloud, as the young woman made her excuses and bolted for the door.
“I never saw him talk with a girl when I knew him,” I said.
We laughed as we watched and listened to Martino as he struck out with girls night after night.
One night, I overheard Esposito talking to Martino at the bar.
“You’re a big guy, Ruggerio. Look at you. Are you going to let that fucking guy talk to you like that?” Esposito said. “You ought to go down there and straighten him out.”
Martino nodded and downed his fruity drink like it was rotgut whiskey from a Wild West saloon. He stepped off his bar stool and headed down the bar.
I called DeLisi over and warned him that there might be trouble.
“Fuck off, ya big slob,” I heard the guy at the bar tell Martino.
The man at the end of the bar was Billy Leto. I could see that he was drunk. Leto was of average height, but he didn’t look like he was afraid of the massive guy towering over him.
“Knock him out, Ruggerio,” Esposito said, taunting his friend.
"Yeah, try it, Fatso,” Leto said.
“Hey, hey,” DeLisi called out. “Take that shit outside. There’s no fighting in here.”
“Ya want to go outside, Fatso?”
Martino’s face reddened. No one had called him fat in years, and it stunned him.
“Let’s go, motherfucker,” Esposito said to Leto.
The men went outside to the sidewalk. The bar cleared out to watch the fight. I stood with DeLisi on the steps as the two men went into boxing stances. Martino stepped in and swung a wild hook at Leto, who stepped back easily to avoid the blow. Leto countered with a series of blows to Martino’s head and body. Martino was unable to block any of the blows and he began to bleed from his nose.
Esposito, like a corner man in a movie, pushed Martino towards Leto with instructions to punch his opponent in the jaw. Martino swung again, and again he missed his target. Leto then delivered several combos to Martino's face and head. It looked like Leto was pounding on a punching bag.
Esposito, seeing that his friend was clearly outclassed, pulled a .38 revolver out of his pocket and pointed it at Leto.
“Whoa, whoa,” DeLisi yelled. “No fucking guns here. Put that fucking thing away or I’ll shove it up your ass.”
Esposito saw the anger in DeLisi’s face, and he slipped the gun back into his pocket.
Martino fell back heavily against a parked car as the blood flowed from his nose. Leto laughed and looked at his bloody hands.
“Look how I fucked up my hands hitting this fucking refrigerator,” Leto said to his friends.
They all laughed and then they climbed into a car and drove off.
“You and Martino are barred from here,” DeLisi said. “I don’t want to see your ugly fucking faces again.”
“Yeah? We’ll see what Big Rocco says about that,” Esposito replied.
"I’m going to call him right now and tell him what a pair of clowns you guys are.”
With that, Esposito took Martino’s arm and they walked down the street.
Everyone else went back into the bar.
“Not much of a fucking fight,” DeLisi said. “Ruggerio is still a Baby fucking Huey.”
It was the year 2000, a new century, so I suppose Martino felt that he had to adapt from a Baby Huey doofus to his reimagined persona as a street tough and hardened Vietnam veteran. But that persona was crushed brutally in the fight outside the bar.
As I reread the piece on Martino, I felt bad for him. The newspaper story reported that Martino attempted to stop an armed robber from holding up a store. According to the piece, Martino advanced on the armed robber, and when the robber saw this big man moving down on him, he opened fire and shot Martino in the chest. The robber fled as Martino bled out on the store’s floor.
Esposito was quoted in the piece, stating that Martino was a true hero. He told the reporter that Martino was a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, so the headline read, “Decorated Vietnam Veteran Murdered Preventing Robbery.”
I picked up my phone and began to call the reporter to set the record straight about Martino. But I paused, and then I laid my phone down.
© 2022 Paul Davis