SOMERVILLE, Mass. This densely-populated suburb of Boston is known now as a student ghetto, but not long ago it was notorious as the headquarters for one of the most powerful organized crime rings in the Northeast. “The Summer Hill Gang was named after the street where it first put down roots, and it controlled prostitution, gambling, extortion and mumblety-peg in this area with a vise-like grip,” says retired prosecutor Michael Stantler, winking at this reporter over his play on words. “By the time I retired they were pretty much out of business due to an excess of native stupidity.”
Beautiful downtown Somerville
Demographics changed all that as students and young couples began to replace older working-class families; the number of bowling alleys in the city’s zip code fell from fourteen to one, before rebounding to twelve when hipsters took up ironic bowling. At the same time, the number of yoga studios soared from zero to twenty-two at present, presenting aging mobsters with an opportunity even if they didn’t realize it at first.
“Yoga, like trash collection and cement-mixing, is an excellent vehicle for money-laundering,” the process of converting ill-gotten gains into the apparent proceeds of legitimate business, says Lyle DeLisle, a member of the State Police’s Organized Crime Strike Force. “It’s mainly a cash-business. It’s tough to consolidate on a regional basis because of the need to deliver the services in person, and there’s not a lot of competition because people don’t like to handle garbage, wet cement or sweaty yoga leotards.”
Hipster bowling: “I don’t let my MFA-induced sense of irony keep me from my bowling night.”
And so a sub-family of the Summer Hill Gang came into being almost overnight, like mushrooms after a heavy rain. “La Yoga Nostra has muscled in on just about every branch of yoga and yoga accessories,” says DeLisle. “Hatha, raja, tantra, mantra–you name it, they got it covered.”
The extent to which organized crime has infiltrated the once-spiritual discipline becomes apparent as the spring schedule of classes is posted at Downward Facing Dog Studios in Davis Square, a facility up a flight of stairs from a pizza parlor that formerly housed a tae kwon do institute. “Who is Tony ‘The Ice Pick’ Gravano?” asks Beth Arthur, who was hoping to secure a place in an advanced hatha yoga class.
“I don’t know,” her friend Mia Flores says as she scans the list. “Gaetano ‘Joey Pockets’ DiSalvo is new too.”
The two make their way uncertainly up the steps where they are met by a heavy-set man sitting behind a metal desk, who is scanning a racing form as he smokes a cigar.
“Excuse me?” Arthur asks hesitantly.
The gatekeeper–Steve “Baby Shanks” Buco–looks up from his paper and gives the two young women the once-over. “What can I do for youse?”
“You wanna achieve nirvana you better get that derriere in the air-e-air, sweetie.”
Flores gulps, but finds her voice and asks “We were hoping to sign up for spring classes.”
“Terrific,” Buco says. “A ten-class card is $108, but since it’s such a beautiful day, I’m gonna offer it to youse for a bill.”
“A . . . bill?” Arthur asks, not recognizing the underground slang term for one hundred dollars.
“A Benjamin,” Buco replies with a manner that suggests he’s surprised to be dealing with someone so naïve.
“Benjamin?” Flores asks, still confused.
“One . . . hundred . . . dollars–got it?” Buco snaps, beginning to get annoyed.
“Oh, I see,” Arthur says, relieved that the language barrier has been breached. She reaches in her purse and starts to take out her checkbook, but Buco stops her.
“No checks, sweetie,” he says after removing his cigar from his mouth and blowing a perfect smoke ring.
“But they always have before,” Arthur says.
“Well there’s a new sheriff in town,” Buco says as he slips a small key into the lock of a grey metal cash box.
“Here, I’ll pay for us both,” Flores says as she takes out a credit card.
“Everybody stay on your mats and nobody gets hurt, okay?”
“Excuse me,” Buco says with the air of one about to correct a disobedient child.
“What’s wrong?” Flores asks, genuinely puzzled.
“Didn’t youse hear the omniscient narrator say the word ‘cashbox’ up there a few lines ago?” Buco snaps.
“Well, yes, I guess,” she replies with an abashed air.
“So . . . if I took credit cards, he woulda said ‘credit box’–right?”
“I suppose,” Flores says.
“Is there an ATM around here anywhere?” Arthur asks. “I don’t want to lose my spot in the class.”
“Down the stairs, past the pizza parlor,” Buco says with the air of someone who knows the value of the product he has to sell. “There’s a stoplight, it’s right across the street.”
“Thanks,” Arthur says. “We’ll be right back.”
“Fine,” Buco says as he returns to his paper for the odds in the third race at Suffolk Downs. “Oh, and ladies . . . one more thing.”
“Yes?” Flores asks.
“Cross at the green and not in between,” he says with a smirk. “We don’t like no lawbreakers in our classes, okay?”