Why Is the Mob Often Tied to the Garbage Industry?

vchal/iStock via Getty Images
vchal/iStock via Getty Images

I know I’m only about a decade late, but I recently, finally, watched the entire run of The Sopranos. Tony and his crew get their hands into plenty of different moneymaking schemes, but throughout the series one character or another (Tony, Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto) is involved in solid waste management. What makes trash collection so attractive to mobsters?

The areas where criminal organizations tend to do steady business - drugs, stolen goods, gambling and protection rackets, for example - conform to the basic necessities of the wiseguy economy. They’re all easy to get into (you need significantly less startup capital to hijack a truck than to start the next Google) and exploit, and are highly profitable. The business of garbage collection satisfies those same needs, but has the added bonus of actually being legal. Mobsters can pull down serious profits from a legitimate, in-demand business, while also using it to launder dirty money from their other enterprises.

The mob really got into trash in the mid-20th century, when many cities stopped collecting commercial waste and left businesses to find private haulers.

Mobsters from New York to Chicago saw an opportunity and either started or took over (with money, intimidation or violence) hauling firms. Within a city, crews would divvy up routes, rig contract bids, and harass and extort non-mob haulers and customers in order to quash competition and keep their prices high.

Soon, gangsters, mostly from Italian- and Irish-American crime families, had monopolies on trash collection all over the Northeast and upper Midwest. The so-called “garbage mobsters” who ran these operations often falsified paperwork and tampered with waste scales, sometimes to skim profits from the business, and sometimes to hide dirty money in it. Crew bosses and members often got no-work, no-show “consulting” positions at the firms, which gave them a legit job to put on their tax return and explain their income.

Cleaning Up

Mobsters began to lose their grip on garbage in the last 20 years, as the industry became more corporatized and companies like Browning-Ferris Industries and Waste Management got big enough to step into mob-controlled territory and give them enough competition to drive them out of business. In New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the city government finished the job that market forces started, conducting an undercover investigation, led by NYPD detective Rick Cowan, of the mob garbage cartel, and creating the Trade Waste Commission to regulate trash haulers.

In some places, though, the mob continues to hang on to its trash routes. Late last year, the New Jersey Commission of Investigation released a report saying that, despite law enforcement’s knowledge of the situation and years of effort to block their involvement, mobsters are still prominent in the trash business because state and local government fail to put up the resources, money and manpower needed to close loopholes, enforce laws and force them out.

That same report says things aren’t much better across the Delaware, and points out that alleged Philadelphia mob boss Joe Ligambi was on the payroll of a Philadelphia trash hauler from 2003 to 2010. He received $1,000 a week and health benefits for most of that time without, it seems, actually doing any work.

Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

iStock
iStock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception: in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

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