Too Much Pep

Damon Runyon

January 10 1931

It is really surprising how many wicked people there are in this world, and especially along East 114th Street up in Harlem.

Of course I do not say that all the wicked people in the world are along East 114th Street, because some of them are on East 115th Street, and maybe on East 116th Street, too, but the wicked people on East 114th Street are wickeder than somewhat, especially Ignazio Vardarelli and his mob.

This Ignazio Vardarelli is called Ignaz the Wolf, and he is an Italian party from Calabria, with a noggin shaped like the little end of an ice-cream cone, and a lot of scars on his face which make him look very fierce. All his mob are also Italians, and most of them have noggins shaped like Ignaz’, and some of them have even more scars on their kissers, and therefore look even fiercer than he does, which is very, very fierce, indeed.

Now Ignaz the Wolf is a guy who never works, and neither does anybody else in his mob, and what they do for a living is very simple, and I do not mind saying I am sorry I never have the nerve to invent something as easy, because after all work is a great bother.

In Harlem there are a great many Italians, and among them are quite a lot of Moustache Petes, who are old time Italians with large black moustaches, and who have little stores in cellars and such places and sell spaghetti, and macaroni and cheeses, and other articles of which Italian persons are very fond. I like spaghetti myself now and then, and also pasta fagiole, and broccoli, cooked with garlic, which is very good for the old stomach.

In fact, it is because I like such things that I come to hear about Ignazio Vardarelli, because I often go to a spot in Harlem where a guy can get good Italian food, especially devil-fish fixed a certain way, and maybe a little red wine which the guy who owns the joint makes right in his own cellar by walking up and down in his bare feet in a tub of grapes. In fact, one time when the guy has very painful corns on his feet, and cannot walk up and down in the tub of grapes, I take off my shoes and walk for him, but whoever sells him the grapes leaves a big rock among them, and I get a bad stone bruise from it on my heel.

There are always some very nice Italian people sitting around and about this joint, and I love to listen to them eat spaghetti, and talk, though I do not understand much of what they are saying because Italian is one language I never learn. In fact, I never learn any other language except English, and a very little bit of Yiddish, because a guy who lives in New York can get around most anywhere on these two languages, with a few signs mixed up with them.

Anyway, I have a lot of very good friends among the Italians, and I never speak of them as wops, or guineas, or dagoes, or grease-balls, because I consider this most disrespectful, like calling Jewish people mockies, or Heebs, or geese. The way I look at it, if a guy is respectful to one and all, why, one and all will be respectful to him, and anyway, there are many Italians, and Jewish people too, who are apt to haul off and knock you bow-legged if you call them such names.

Well, all these Moustache Petes I am talking about are very industrious, and very saving, and most of them have a few bobs laid away for a rainy day, so when Ignaz the Wolf feels that he needs a little money to take care of his overhead, he picks out some Moustache Pete that he figures is able to contribute and writes him a nice letter about as follows:

“Dear Joe” (or maybe Tony, for most Italians are called Joe or Tony), “please call and see me with five hundred dollars. Yours sincerely, Ignazio.”

Then Ignazio waits two or three days, and if Joe or Tony does not show up with the five yards, or whatever it is that Ignazio asks for, Ignazio writes him another letter, which is a sort of follow-up letter, the same as any business concern sends out to a customer, and this follow-up letter is about as follows:

“Dear Joe” (or Tony), “I am sorry to hear you have a headache. I figure you must have a headache, because you do not call to see me with the five hundred dollars. I hope and trust you get over this headache very soon, as I am waiting for the five hundred. With kindest regards, I am yours truly, Ignazio.”

He puts a black mark on this letter, and shoves it under Joe or Tony’s door, and then he waits a couple of days more. By this time Ignaz the Wolf is naturally getting a little bit impatient, because he is a good business man, and business men like to see their letters receive prompt attention. If he gets no answer from Joe or Tony, there is nothing else for Ignaz the Wolf to do but put a little bomb under the joint where the Moustache Pete lives to remind him of the letter, and very few of Ignaz’s customers wait any longer to settle after the first bomb. So Ignaz the Wolf and his mob do very well for themselves and are able to wear good clothes, and jewelry, and sit around eating spaghetti and drinking dago red and having a nice time generally, and everybody that sees them says hello, very pleasant, even including the Moustache Petes, although of course the chances are they are not on the level with their hellos and secretly hope that Ignaz falls over dead.

Personally, I never hear much of Ignaz the Wolf until I run into a young Italian guy in the Harlem eating-joint by the name of Marco Sciarra, or some such, who is a very legitimate guy up in Harlem, being in the artichoke business with his old man. It seems that the artichoke business is a first-class business in Harlem, though personally I will not give you ten cents for all the artichokes you can pack in the Hudson tubes, as I consider them a very foolish fruit any way you look at them. But Marco and his old man do very good with artichokes, and in fact they do so well that Marco is able to play plenty of horses, which is how I come to get acquainted with him, because it is well known to one and all that I am one of the greatest horse players in New York, and will be a very rich guy if it is not for crooked jockeys riding the horses different from the way I dope them.

Anyway, one night Marco somehow starts beefing about Ignaz the Wolf and his mob, and finally he lets it out that Ignaz is trying to put the arm on him and his old man for five G’s, for no reason except that Ignaz seems to need it.

Now Marco is born and raised right here in this man’s town, and he is quite an all-round guy in many respects, and he is certainly not the kind of guy anybody with any sense will figure a chump. He is not the kind of a guy a smart guy will figure to hold still for five G’s for no reason, and the chances are Ignaz the Wolf is not thinking of Marco in the first place. The chances are he is thinking more of Marco’s old man, who is a Moustache Pete in every way.

Furthermore, if it is left to the old man, he will kick in the five G’s to Ignaz without a yip, just to avoid trouble, but Marco can see where he can use any stray five G’s himself to pay off a few bookmakers. Anyway, Marco tells me he will see Ignaz in the place where Ignaz is a sure thing to go someday before he will give up five G’s, or any part of five G’s, and I say I do not blame him, for five G’s is plenty of sugar, even if you do not have it.

This is the last I see of Marco for a couple of weeks. Then one day I happen to be in Harlem, so I go over to his place of business on East 114th Street. The Marcos have an office on the ground floor of a two-story building, and live upstairs, and when I get there I notice that the glass in all the windows seems to be out, and that things are generally upset.

Well, when I find Marco he explains to me that somebody puts a fifteen-dollar bomb in the joint the night before, and while Marco does not say right out that Ignaz the Wolf does this, he says he is willing to lay 8 to 5 and take Ignaz against the field, because it seems he sends word to Ignaz that he need not expect the five G’s he is looking for.

Then Marco explains to me that the fifteen-dollar bomb is only meant as a sort of convincer, and that according to the rules Ignaz will next put a thirty-two-dollar bomb in the joint, which will be a little more powerful than the fifteen-dollar bomb. In fact, Marco says, the thirty-two-dollar bomb will be powerful enough to lift them out of their beds upstairs a foot to a foot and a half. But finally, if the five G’s is not paid to Ignaz the Wolf in the meantime, he will put a fifty-dollar bomb under them, and this bomb will practically ruin everything in the neighborhood, including the neighbors.

Well, naturally I am very indignant about the whole proposition, but Marco says it is only fair to Ignaz the Wolf to say he writes them a couple of very polite letters before he makes a move, and does nothing whatever underhand before sending the bomb.

“But my old man is now very much displeased with Ignaz,” Marco says. “He is even more displeased than I am. It takes quite a little to displease my old man, but when he is displeased, he is certainly greatly displeased, indeed. In fact,” Marco says, “my old man and other Italian citizens of Harlem hold a meeting today, and they come to the conclusion that it is for the best interests of the community to have Ignaz put in his place before he cleans everybody out. So they are going to put Ignaz in his place.”

“Well,” I say, “what is Ignaz’s place?”

“Ignaz’s place is six feet underground,” Marco says, “and this is where the citizens are going to put him.”

“Why, Marco,” I say, “this is most horrifying, indeed, although personally I am in favor of it. But,” I say, “I do not think Ignaz will care to be put in his place, and as he is well mobbed I do not see how it can be brought about without somebody getting in trouble. I hope and trust, Marco,” I say, “that neither you or your old man are going to get tangled up in this proposition.”

“No,” Marco says, “we will not get tangled up. In fact, nobody in Harlem will get tangled up, because they are sending to Sicily for a certain party to put Ignaz in his place. They are sending for Don Pep’.”

Well, I finally make out from what Marco tells me that at this meeting many of the old-fashioned Italians of Harlem are present, with their moustaches sticking right out straight with indignation, and it is the opinion of one and all that Ignaz shall be put in his place as quickly as possible. But Marco says there is quite a difference of opinion as to who shall put Ignaz in his place, and the meeting lasts a long time, and there is plenty of argument.

It seems that all of these old-timers know of some party back in Italy that they figure is just the one to put Ignaz in his place, and they get up and make speeches about their guys as if they are delegates to a convention boosting candidates for a nice nomination.

Marco says an old Moustache Pete by the name of Biandhini, who is a shoemaker, almost carries the meeting in favor of a guy by the name of Corri, who, it seems, makes a great showing putting parties in their places around Napoli, and who is favorably remembered by many of the citizens present. Marco says old Biandhini is a good speaker and he talks for almost an hour telling about how this guy puts parties in their places by slipping a little short rope around their necks, and guzzling them before they have time to say Jack Robinson, and it is commencing to look as if Corri is the guy, when Marco’s old man steps forward and raises his hand to stop all of this cheering for Corri.

“I will not take up much of your time in presenting the name of my choice,” Marco says his old man says. “It is a name that is well known to many of you older delegates. It is the name of one who has made history at putting parties in their places, the name of a celebrated citizen of Sicily, experienced and skilful in his calling a name that is above reproach. I give you, fellow citizens, the name of Don Pep’, of Siracusa.”

Well, at this everybody becomes very enthusiastic, Marco says, and also their blood runs cold, because it seems that Don Pep’ is for many years the outstanding man in all Italy at putting parties in their places. All the old-timers know of him by reputation, and some of them even see him when they are young guys back in the old country, while Marco’s old man knows him personally.

It seems that Don Pep’ has a record like a prize fighter, and Marco’s old man reads this record to the meeting, as follows:

Milan, 1899, 2 men Venice, 1904, 1 man Naples, 1909, 3 men Rome, 1913, 1 man Genoa, 1921, 2 men, 4 horses Nice, 1928, 1 man

Well, when the thing comes to a vote, Don Pep’ gets all the votes but one, old Biandhini sticking to Corri, and the meeting adjourns with everybody satisfied that Ignaz the Wolf is to be put in his place in first-class style.

Now getting Don Pep’ over to this country to put Ignaz in his place is going to cost something, so Marco, seeing a chance to turn a few honest bobs, propositions his old man to get Ignaz put in his place for about half of what Don Pep’ will cost, Marco figuring that he can find a couple of guys downtown who are willing to work cheap, but his old man refuses to listen to him. His old man says this business must be transacted in a dignified way, and under the old-fashioned rules, though Marco says he does not see what difference it makes if a guy is to be put in his place whether it is under the old-fashioned rules or the new no-foul system, especially as nobody explains the old-fashioned rules, or seems to know what they are.

Personally, if I am planning to get a guy put in his place I will not go around telling people about it. In fact, I will keep it a very great secret for fear the guy may hear of it and take steps, but these Moustache Petes make no bones whatever about sending for Don Pep’, and everybody in the neighborhood knows it, including Ignaz the Wolf and his mob. I figure that maybe the Moustache Petes want Ignaz to know it, thinking he may decide to haul ashes out of Harlem before anything happens to him, but Ignaz is a pretty bold guy one way and another, and he only laughs about Don Pep’. Ignaz says Don Pep’ is old stuff, and may go in Italy years ago, but not in the U.S.A. in these times.

Naturally, I am greatly interested in Don Pep’, and I make Marco promise to tell me when he arrives. I love to look at a top-notcher in any line, and I judge from Don Pep’s record that he is a champion of the world. So some weeks later when I get a telephone call from Marco that Don Pep’ is here, I hurry up to Harlem and meet Marco, and he promises to show me Don Pep’ after it gets dark, because it seems Don Pep’ moves around only at night.

He is living in the basement of a tenement house in East 114th Street with an old Sicilian by the name of Sutari, who is a real Moustache Pete and who has a shoe-shining joint downtown. He is a nice old man, and a good friend of mine, though afterward I hear he is a tough guy back in his old home town in Sicily.

Well, when I get a peek at Don Pep’, I almost bust out laughing, for what is he but a little old man wearing a long black coat that trails the ground, and a funny flat black hat with a low crown and a stiff brim. He looks to me like somebody out of a play, especially as he has long white hair and bushy white whiskers all over his face like a poodle dog.

But when I get close to him, I do not feel so much like laughing, because he raises his head and stares at me through the whiskers and I see a pair of black eyes like a snake’s eyes, with a look in them such as gives me the shivers all over. Personally, I never see such a look in anybody’s eyes before in my life, and I am very glad indeed to walk briskly away from Don Pep’.

I peek back over my shoulder, and Don Pep’ is standing there with his head bowed on his chest, as harmless-looking as a rabbit, and I feel like laughing again at the idea of such an old guy being brought all the way from Sicily to put Ignaz the Wolf in his place. Then I think of those eyes, and start shivering harder than ever, and Marco shivers with me and explains to me what happens when Don Pep’ first arrives, and since.

It seems that Marco’s old man and a lot of other Moustache Petes meet Don Pep’ at the boat that brings him from Sicily, and they are wishing to entertain him, but Don Pep’ says he is not here for pleasure, and all they can do for him is to show him the guy he is to put in his place. Well, naturally, nobody wishes to put the finger on Ignaz the Wolf in public, because Ignaz may remember same, and feel hurt about it, so they give Don Pep’ a description of Ignaz, and his address, which is a cigar store on East 114th Street, where Ignaz and his mob always hang out.

A few hours later when Ignaz is sitting in the cigar store playing klob with some of his mob, in comes Don Pep’, all bundled up in his black coat, though it is a warm night, at that. He has a way of walking along very slow, and he is always tap-tapping on the sidewalk ahead of him with a big cane, like a blind man, but his feet never make a sound.

Well, naturally Ignaz the Wolf jumps up when such a strange-looking party bobs in on him, for Ignaz can see that this must be Don Pep’, the guy who is coming to put him in his place, and knowing where his place is, Ignaz is probably on the look-out for Don Pep’, anyway. So Ignaz stands there with his cards in his hand staring at Don Pep’, and Don Pep’ walks right up to him, and shoots his head up out of his cloak collar like a turtle and looks Ignaz in the eye.

He never says one word to Ignaz, and while Ignaz tries to think of something smart to say to Don Pep’, he cannot make his tongue move a lick. He is like a guy who is hypnotized. The other guys at the table sit there looking at Ignaz and Don Pep’, and never making a wrong move, though on form anyone of them figures to out with the old equalizer and plug Don Pep’. Finally, after maybe three minutes hand running of looking at Ignaz, Don Pep’ suddenly makes a noise with his mouth like a snake hissing, and then he turns and walks out of the joint, tap-tapping with his cane ahead of him.

After he is gone, Ignaz comes up for air, and starts explaining why he does not do something about Don Pep’, but even Ignaz’s own mobsters figure the old guy runs something of a sandy on Ignaz. What puzzles them no little is that Don Pep’ makes no move to put Ignaz in his place then and there, as long as he comes all the way from Sicily to do it.

But two nights later, when Ignaz the Wolf is again playing klob in the cigar store, who pops in but old Don Pep’, and once more he stands looking Ignaz in the eye and never saying as much as howdy. This time Ignaz manages to get a few words out but Don Pep’ never answers him, and winds up his looking at Ignaz with that same hissing sound, like a snake. After this Ignaz does not keep his old hours around the cigar store, but he starts in getting very tough with the Moustache Petes, and writing them very stiff business notes about sending in their contributions.

Well, it seems that the citizens around and about get very independent after Don Pep’ arrives, and commence paying no attention to Ignaz’s notes, and even take to giving Ignaz’s collectors the old ha-ha, in Italian, which burns Ignaz up quite some. He complains that Don Pep’ is hurting his business, and lets it out here and there that after he takes care of Don Pep’ he is going to make his old customers very sorry that they ignore him. But somehow Ignaz does not put any more bombs around, except a few fifteen-dollar ones on guys who do not count much.

In the meantime, old Don Pep’ goes walking up and down the streets, his whiskers down in his cloak collar, no matter how warm it gets, and the citizens lift their hats to him as he passes by. In fact, I lift my own lid one evening when he passes me, because I feel that a guy with his record is entitled to much respect. But knowing Ignaz the Wolf, I figure it is only a question of time when we will be walking slow behind the old guy, especially as he does not seem to be making any kind of move to put Ignaz in his place, per agreement.

Always late at night Don Pep’ stands in front of an area-way between the tenement house where he lives and the house next door, leaning up against a sort of iron grating that walls off the area-way from the street. It happens that no light shines on the area-way, so all you see as you pass by is a sort of outline of Don Pep’ against the grating, and now and then a little glow as he puffs at a cigarette through his whiskers. He is certainly a strange-looking old crocodile, and I often wonder what he is thinking about as he stands there.

I can see now how smart the Moustache Petes are in making no secret of what Don Pep’ is here for, because the publicity he gets keeps Ignaz the Wolf from doing anything to him. Naturally if anything drastic happens to Don Pep’, the coppers will figure Ignaz responsible, and the coppers in this town are waiting for several years to find something drastic that Ignaz is responsible for.

But there is no doubt Ignaz the Wolf is getting sick and tired of Don Pep’, especially since business is so bad, so one night the thing that is a sure thing to happen comes off. An automobile tears past the spot where Don Pep’ is standing, as usual, in front of the area-way, and out of this automobile comes a big blooey-blooey, with four guys letting go with sawed-off shotguns at once.

As the automobile cuts in close to the curb, this puts the gunners only the distance across the sidewalk from Don Pep’, so there is little chance that four guys using shotguns are going to miss, especially as the shotguns are loaded with buckshot, which scatters nice and wide.

Well, there are very few citizens around the spot at this hour, and they start running away lickity-split as soon as they hear the first blooey, because the citizens of this part of Harlem know that a blooey is never going to do anybody much good. But before they start running, some of the citizens see old Don Pep’ fold up in a little black pile in front of the area-way as the automobile tears on down the street, with Ignaz the Wolf sitting back in it laughing very heartily. I will say one thing for Ignaz, that when it comes down to cases, he is always ready to go out on his own jobs himself, although this is mainly because he wishes to see that the jobs are well done.

Ten minutes later, Ignaz is walking into the cigar store so as to be playing klob and looking very innocent when the coppers come around to speak to him about the matter of Don Pep’. And he is no sooner inside the joint than right at his heels steps nobody in all this world but Don Pep’, who has a licence to be laying up against the area-way grating as dead as a doornail.

Well, old Don Pep’ is huddled up in his cape and whiskers as usual, but he seems to be stepping spryer than somewhat, and as Ignaz the Wolf turns around and sees him and lets out a yell, thinking he is seeing a ghost, Don Pep’ closes in on him and grabs Ignaz as if he is giving him a nice hearty hug. Ignaz the Wolf screams once very loud, and the next thing anybody knows he is stretched out on the floor as stiff as a board and Don Pep’ is stepping out of the cigar store.

Nobody ever sees Don Pep’ again as far as I know, although the coppers still have the straw-stuffed black suit, and the black hat and cape, as well as the false whiskers with which Sutari, the shoe shiner, fixes up a phony Don Pep’ to lean against the area-way grating for Ignaz the Wolf and his gunners to waste their buckshot on, because it seems from what Sutari says that Don Pep’ carries two outfits of clothes for just such a purpose. Personally, I consider this very deceitful of Don Pep’, but nobody else seems to see anything wrong in it.

Well, when the croakers examine Ignaz’s body they do not find a mark of any kind on him, and they are greatly puzzled indeed, because naturally they expect to find a knife or maybe a darning-needle sticking in him. But there is nothing whatever to show what makes Ignaz the Wolf die, and Marco tells me afterward that his old man and all the other Moustache Petes are laughing very heartily at the idea that Don Pep’ uses any such articles.

Marco tells me his old man says if the croakers have any sense they will see at once that Ignaz the Wolf dies of heart disease, and Marco says his old man claims anybody ought to know this heart disease is caused by fright because Don Pep’ is putting guys in their places in such a way for many years. Furthermore, Marco says his old man states that this is according to the old-fashioned rules, and very dignified, though if you ask me I think it is a dirty trick to scare a guy to death.