The South Philly mob has faded away, but it still casts a long shadow — just ask George Martorano.
I'm speaking on a borrowed BlackBerry, and George gets only 300 minutes on the phone each month, so I make plans to follow up later by email. The phone gets passed down an eager line of family, neighbors and former schoolmates from St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, most catching a smoke break on the sidewalk outside La Locanda Restaurant, which is tucked into a strip mall so indistinguishable from its neighbors that I drove past it twice down a highway in the South Jersey suburb of Voorhees.
Inside, a well-dressed crowd is gathered for a fundraiser to support George, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for drug trafficking. Although subject to the brutal uniformity of a Florida federal prison, he has remained a committed Philadelphian — and become a prolific author and playwright. He is the son of mobster Raymond "Long John" Martorano, but he was never accused of a violent crime and, by all accounts, was never a member of the mob. Now 60, George has been inside a prison cell since age 32, when he pled guilty to trafficking heroin, cocaine, methaqualone and marijuana. His supporters contend he received his harsh sentence as punishment for his father's sins, and for refusing to tell prosecutors things, back in an era of rampant gangland bloodletting, that he says he did not know.
George now teaches writing to fellow prisoners and counsels those on suicide watch. The dinner fundraiser is for George's legal defense and also for an organization to promote literacy that he founded. Men in Hawaiian shirts with smoothly gelled hair chat with women with dyed-black hair, curled. Stephen Ritrovato, whose business card identifies him as a "vocalist/personality," has donated his time to sing lounge anthems, Sinatra included, over a synthesized beat. The South Philly accents have stuck despite a neighborhood diaspora that stretches from South Jersey to South Florida.
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