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Why Is the Mob Often Tied to the Garbage Industry?

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.

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Did We Start Wearing Pants?
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iStock

It’s a question that has plagued Donald Duck for decades: Who decided pants were necessary? Did the motivation stem purely from modesty, or was there another reason we started climbing into trousers?

Over at Discover, author Sarah Scoles has offered a plausible explanation by describing a 2014 archaeological find in China’s Tarim Basin. Researchers with the German Archaeological Institute excavated what is believed to be the oldest example of pants ever unearthed, made from wool and dating back 3000 years.

The pants themselves held no clue as to why they were made, but their location did. The research team found them buried at the Yanghai cemetery along with a number of other artifacts, including horse-riding gear that was in the same grave: a wooden bit, a bow, and an axe. The pants-wearer was surely someone tasked with galloping around and slaying animals for food—likely necessitating apparel that would allow him to mount a horse without being encumbered by clothing.

A screen shot of Donald Duck near a door
Disney

That idea eventually bled into Greek and Roman culture, where those on horseback sought out a comfortable and practical way of avoiding chafing. (The grave’s proto-pants also appeared to be an early example of being fashion-conscious. While mostly practical, each leg had cross-stitching that appeared to be purely decorative.)

Whether the Yanghai discovery is considered the earliest example of pants depends on how one defines pants. Ötzi, the European iceman first discovered in 1991, lived roughly 5300 years ago and died wearing goatskin leggings. We know a cartoon duck who has a lot of catching up to do.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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