Saturday, November 3, 2007

Coffee story from the Big Apple

Recalling the 1957 mob hit on Albert Anastasia

The barista stood stock-still, her steely eyes glistening off the cool metal of the espresso machine. She grabbed the handle and there was a bang-bang! A few quick hits to the side and, faster than you can say Starbucks, a Macchiato double-shot sat steaming on the counter.

Fifty years ago today, in the same spot where that very espresso machine sits whipping nonfat mocha lattes, perhaps the most notorious mob hit in history happened.

Albert Anastasia, the powerful leader of Murder, Inc. who was believed to have personally killed 36 people, stopped into what was then a barber shop in the Park Sheraton Hotel's lobby on West 57th Street. As he dozed in the chair, two gunmen walked in and fired a barrage of lead into the crime boss.

Meyer Berger, who covered the hit for The New York Times, wrote, "Anastasia fell to the floor...One pudgy hand was outstretched. The fluorescent lights kicked fire from the diamonds in his fat finger ring. He lay still."

The killers were never caught.

It is difficult today to stand on the tiled floor of the Starbucks and imagine the pool of blood where the man nicknamed the Executioner once lay. Those ghosts are all gone amid customers sipping Tazo teas and leaning over laptops, oblivious to the murder that captivated most of the country five decades ago. The hotel has since been renamed the Park Central Hotel, and back where the barber stood before the gunmen barged past him, a sign advertises the Starbucks song of the day: Dave Matthews' "Grace is Gone."

"You think people care?" says one barista, out on a smoke break and checking her cell phone, and who, as per company policy, would not give her name. "That was 50 years ago. Trust me, they just want their coffee and they want to get on their way."

Anastasia ran Murder, Inc., a group of trained contract killers who did the mob's grisly bidding, and he seemed to delight in offing rivals. He was ultimately undone by fellow bosses leery of his intentions to accrue more power for himself and by internal feuding within his own family. His killing captivated the nation and later inspired the famous massage murder scene in "The Godfather."

"It was unheard of to so brazenly kill a boss," said Selwyn Raab, author of the mob book "Five Families." "Anastasia was probably the most powerful mobster in America. He thought he was so safe that he would even go to a barber shop without his bodyguard."

The hotel's current general manager, Florencio Ferraro, laughs when asked whether guests should feel nervous about getting a haircut there.

"Absolutely not," he said. "We don't even have a barbershop in this hotel at this time."

Life on the street that Anastasia walked in his last moments continues apace. August Fischer, visiting from New Jersey with his wife, remembered coming to the city back then.

It was a different time, he said, but he had no memory of Anastasia's bloody end.

"What happened, he didn't like his coffee?"

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