“Ever since as early as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.”
Martin Scorsese attributes these words to Henry Hill in the opening moments of his 1990 opus. Actually, the words as delivered by Ray Liotta are: “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
I’m one of those guys who knows movie quotes. Most of my guys are also movie quote guys. Maybe its a Get X thing… drives the wives nuts. Guys like me can have a whole conversation in movie quotes - not just a spontaneous remake of an original, but criss-crossing films and genres seemingly without breaking context. The delivery of the right line, in the right context, in the right moment is a badge of honor. It’s a part of our identity.
The Henry Hill quote, in spite of the fact that he was a criminal and worse - a rat - is perhaps my favorite in all of cinematic history. I like it best because I feel it. To be perfectly clear: I never wanted to be a gangster. But the conviction in Liotta’s voice, even despite the immediacy of his circumstances as depicted in the scene itself, continues to this day to align me immediately with whatever broad ambition I might have.
Despite the esteem in which I hold those words, I deliver the quote wrong. For me that’s saying something. For whatever reason, I like my version better. Its rare even that anybody challenges me on the accuracy. Maybe I’m convincing. Maybe even more convincing that Liotta - a Jersey guy and not a New York guy like me. It even bothers me a little that he delivers a proper “R” sound at the end of “gangster.” Nobody from my neighborhood, much less those portrayed in the film, would have made that mistake.
My mom is Italian American from Queens. Some of the scenes in Goodfellas are filmed in the very same Maspeth neighborhoods where she grew up. It isn’t hard at all to imagine my grandfather, who looked, sounded, and potentially even cooked like Paul Sorvino’s Paulie, having friends and a social life that mirrored some of the behaviors and norms of the good fellas in that film. The language and accents in my grandmother's dining room would have been indecipherable from what audiences experienced with Goodfellas - foul language (mostly in Italiano, but sometimes in English) included.
I struggle with it now. After so many years away… Massachusetts, Spain, Virginia, my NY-ese, as my dad used to call it, sounds fabricated now - almost like I’m trying too hard. But its still in there, part of me… my identity. I’ll always be from New York.
New York has a rich music scene and the term gangster holds a place in this space as well. Unlike references to criminal elements, although there are undoubtedly similarities, gangsters and even original gangsters refer to influential personalities in the space. “OG” is usually reserved for those held in the highest regard by their peers, maybe beyond. The term is used less literally in its original context with the five families of New York organized crime, and more commonly with the rap music genre.
Like organized crime, rap references in modern culture often have some element of swagger or coolness attributed to their characters. We can be forgiven for appreciating that swagger in those characters… rooting for them in the media through which they are introduced, wondering what it might be like to be them. My dad was also a Queens guy.
Like Jimmy, my dad wasn’t Italian, but he knew guys… made guys. If you know the film, he walked those streets, drove those cars, probably even literally ate in some of those restaurants. He even worked at LaGuardia. Attribution is interesting in that way. Identity can be fluid, though when it is used with humility and honor, it can be an exercise in remembering and applying the broad history that each of us has, and delivering its most cogent details, like movie quotes, at the appropriate times. It is said that history is written by the winners. While too many use this power for evil, each of us experiences some degree of attribution as we consider our own identity. What are our frames of reference? How do we measure our aspirations? Whom do we admire and why? What makes us who we are?
After my father died a few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with his sisters. I knew little of my aunts as a child and even as a young adult. They lived in Florida, the deepest of New York’s southern districts, and we rarely traveled. After my parents divorced late in life, my father moved to Florida to be closer to his sisters and their husbands. Though I was initially upset with him, I would become so grateful for their willingness to take him in, to assimilate him into the family they had built, and to give him some small measure of OG status.
My father’s identity changed in Florida. Not his name, but with a new context, he was now ‘NY Al.’ That name would have made no sense in New York. What also made no sense is that he frequently found the local VFW and AMVETS bars and sang country songs. What made even less sense is that he sang them with a southern twang that was even worse than my current New York accent. He had an opportunity to reinvent himself and he did, attributing elements and context that made sense for a guy now single and living in Florida, evidently with a deep catalog of bluegrass.
My brother and I were left to settle his estate after he passed, and found ourselves with his younger sister - the self-appointed family historian. She was the one who introduced me to O. G. Smith. I marveled at having not sooner been aware of him, Oscar Gilbert, my great, great, great grandfather… whom his friends, undoubtedly with no irony at all, called ‘OG.’
Is it attribution when you just didn’t know? ‘OG’ spent part of his life in Washington, DC, not 10 miles from where I’m raising my family in Arlington, VA. He was an officer in the United States Navy and a surgeon who spent the American Civil War patching up Union troops on a ship in the Washington Navy Yard. Before that he studied as an undergraduate and medical student at what the Ivy League then called ‘Columbia College,’ where he also
served as the editor of the school newspaper. Our family still has some of the original newspapers with his name and depictions of the graphics and layouts to which he contributed. Kind of extraordinary stuff for the late-1840s, and paints my battles with Print Shop in the mid-1980s in an entirely different light.
It’s odd now to remember the pride with which my parents gushed about my being the first member of my family to go to college. A subtle stretch of a story for the purpose of improvement was never beyond my mom’s capacity. She herself had attended college, though only for one semester. Otherwise, none of my parents, aunts or uncle, or grandparents did attend (and graduate) college… well, other than OG of course who not only attended but went Ivy League - arguably twice. I’m not to proud to say that Columbia wouldn’t have me, and now I’ll always be left to wonder if it might have made a difference if anybody involved had known I was a legacy.
I’ll also wonder why OG’s son - my great, great grandfather - didn’t make it to college. We have no records that he did. What we do have are military records of his service to America in the Spanish-American War, his son’s service in the Great War, his son’s service in the Second World War in the Pacific, and finally his son’s - my father’s - service, this time during peace, after Korea, but before Vietnam. What stood out suddenly as I learned my own history was my own lack of service.
Identity is a fascinating and powerful thing. Despite living more of my life now in Virginia than New York, I’ll always be that kid from Long Island… a kid who wasn’t the first in his family to attend college (and also not the second to attend an Ivy League), and a kid who broke what appeared to be a quietly held, Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump-esque tradition of generational military service.
Presently, despite these intriguing developments to my own identity, I find myself practicing Organizational Culture and asking leaders and professionals to consider how they show up. I’d encourage people, especially leaders, to periodically consider their identity. Think about what goes into the character that people identify as you. One of the most common mistakes I see leaders make is feeling like they need to fit their round peg self into their square hole idealized view of what a leader should be. One of the key first steps in being a leader is being followable… and it is very hard to follow someone who isn’t authentic.
I certainly didn’t mean to advocate for attribution in this piece - specifically attribution of other’s character or culture. Self-examination can be a healthy process that validates ambitions, aspirations, and behaviors. It can help you to understand why, since as early as you can remember, that you wanted to be a gangster, or whatever it is that you have wanted to be. This was certainly my experience. Learning of my family’s deep history of service validated the role that I have been fortunately enough to craft as an Organizational Health consultant and coach, a role intrinsically focused on the service to people. Examining one’s own history and experiences for unshared or even previously unknown facts is a perfectly fair attribution that might just add more to your already complex character, create alignment points for new relationships, contribute even more to your authenticity, or even reveal that you too might be a direct descendant to an OG.
See, now you don’t gotta live the rest of your life like a schnook.
From my family of veterans to all of our American veterans, thank you for your service.