When I was a kid, my favorite chocolate chip cookies were paid for with blood money. Of course, I didn't know this until much later. As it turned out, there were probably a lot of things I wasn't ever told about the neighborhood where I grew up.
        This much I did know: there were mobsters around. I was raised in a quiet corner of Queens, full of hardworking Italian, Irish, and Jewish families, with a sprinkling of … well, what my grandmother might've called "a criminal element." You see, I grew up in the same neighborhood that crime boss John Gotti called home. In twenty years of living close enough to toss a horse's head at this mafia legend, I never actually saw him except on TV. But his presence was always felt.
        This started at home with my Dad. Some fathers played golf and others were into gardening, but mine collected newspaper articles, including ones about Gotti, also known as the Dapper Don. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight when Dad first mentioned that a mob boss lived a few blocks away.
        "He does not," I said, as if I'd just been told that the Tooth Fairy had moved in around the corner and Santa Claus was putting in a bid on the place across the street.
        "Sure he does," my father said.
        "How do you know where he lives?" my mother asked, more concerned than doubtful.
        "If you keep your ears open, you learn these things," my father said.
        I kept my ears open, but I didn't learn much else. Then one day, on the way home from school, my father took my brother and I on a little detour. "There's the Gotti house," he said, and now I knew he had to be lying. In a neighborhood with some massive brick palaces, this house was as small and plain as our own.
        "Mob bosses are rich," I said. "That's not a rich person's house."
        "Sometimes you can't judge a book by its cover," my father said.
        Then again, maybe you can. I would guess the Dapper Don's children did many of the same things my brother and I did: played handball, did their homework, and rode their bikes into the weeds, where burned-out cars would appear every now and then. There was really only one time a year when it became apparent whose father was an electrician and whose was the most powerful mobster on the east coast.
        Every year, the kids at my elementary school were enlisted to sell candy to unsuspecting relatives and family friends, and prizes were handed out based on how much you sold. My brother and I always bullied our diabetic grandparents into forking over enough money for a box or two. And for our efforts we would generally be awarded a rubber ball and wooden paddle, though I always aspired to one of the bigger prizes, like the inflatable beach ball.
        Then there was the prize every kid coveted, a color TV, which was reserved for the school's biggest seller. Year in and year out, that honor went to John Gotti, Jr. But then, I suspect his father had more opportunities to sell candy than most other parents.
        I imagine one of Gotti's lieutenants walking into his office. The Godfather would say, "Hey, my kid's selling candy. You wanna buy some?"
        "Sure, I love candy. I'll take five boxes."
        "That's it? Five boxes? Five?"
        "Ten. I'll take ten."
        "No, I don't want to pressure you. You want five, you get five."
        "Twenty, I'll take twenty."
        "No, I'm not selling you nothing."
        "Thirty, okay? Here's the money. Thirty boxes, a'right?"
        But the school candy sale was an isolated incident. Mostly, my parents shielded me from the criminal underworld that existed just beneath our own. But my father was fascinated by it. Every once in a while his enthusiasm would get the best of him, and he would offer a tantalizing glimpse into this secret universe.
        When I was eleven, he came home from work once and reported very matter-of-factly, "You know, there was a body over on Cross Bay Boulevard this morning when I left the house this morning."
        "A stiff?" I asked.
        "Was he whacked?" my brother wondered.
        My father shrugged. Maybe, that shrug suggested, someone hadn't bought enough candy. Or else they simply had a heart attack while out jogging. Alone. At four in the morning. Yeah, right, that shrug said.
        Whenever my father reported an incident like this, I eagerly checked the local newspaper for coverage. You would think that even if someone had died of a stroke, this would be worth a brief mention in a paper whose front page headline might blare "NEW STOP SIGN INSTALLED ON 161ST AVENUE." But there was never any word about dead bodies, just as there was never any coverage of the various accidents that occurred.
        Sometimes, you see, buildings would just mysteriously catch fire. Well, actually, sometimes buildings would explode into tiny pieces and be scattered across the cement like bits of Parmesan on a slab of lasagna. I remember vividly when a seafood restaurant along the main drag was leveled, the only thing left standing its sign at the edge of the sidewalk. At least you could pretend that maybe there had been a gas leak in the kitchen. That was a little harder to do when the neighborhood's new video store blew up. Twice.
        Strangely, no one in the neighborhood talked about these things. There was an unspoken sense of omerta. Even in my own house, there were certain things that were never spoken of. My parents, for example, didn't tell me until years later that the woman who ran my Cub Scout pack was married to an alleged hit man. He was the suspected mastermind of the infamous Lufthansa robbery at Kennedy airport and was immortalized by Robert DeNiro in the movie Goodfellas. Legend has it that Jimmy the Gent, as he was commonly known, earned his nickname for giving the truckers he hijacked fifty bucks instead of whacking them.
        Of course, there wasn't much whacking at my Cub Scout meetings. Mostly there was a lot of hot chocolate and Entenmann's cookies served by a lovely woman whose husband was simply "not around" (understandable, as he was busy working in the prison laundry). From this warm, kind woman I learned such important life lessons as treat others as you wish to be treated and always respect your elders. I suppose she believed that lessons such as "if you steal six million dollars in unmarked bills from a German airline, don't get caught" were probably self-evident.
        Looking back, I can see that perhaps I had a less than an idyllic childhood, without picket fences and a neighborhood soda fountain. But really, that's okay. I like my memories just the way they are, wiped clean of all fingerprints and with a bit of gunpowder around the edges.