Blood-smeared smoothies

Take it from one who knows real-life Sopranos: You don't want to have ziti and OJ with some pulp with these brutes.

When last we saw Tony Soprano, he was lying in a leather jacket on a bare mattress, clutching an automatic weapon like it was his last friend on the planet.

All around him was whacking and chaos. Tony seemed small and vulnerable - sympathetic, even. It made us root for him to survive in tomorrow night's final episode of The Sopranos.

And therein lies my problem with this unquestionably brilliant show:

We like these people too much.

The real Mafia - the sociopaths I grew up with in the crucible of the American Cosa Nostra in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn - are nowhere near as charming as James Gandolfini, who plays Tony.

Imagine the guy in the SUV who just cut you off. Now add a charcoal-black and shriveled heart, a soulless stare, and a nine-millimeter that can't be traced, and you'll begin to get the picture.

The gray grid of alleys and avenues where I grew up throbbed with guys with no direction and few options.

They were the Mob's farm team.

A maladjusted kid with some talent (larceny, virtuosity with a knife) and a dream (getting rich running a crew of miscreants) could easily garner the attention of the criminal varsity, whose members hung out in bars, clubs and cafes known to the neighborhood.

It was tempting for all of us at least to consider joining up. The Cadillac-piloting wiseguys wore gorgeous suits, chunky bling, and amazing ties from Barneys that exploded with the kind of color you don't normally get to see in the drab half-light under the elevated B train.

More important, from our teenage perspectives, young women draped themselves all over these men like yet more fashion accessories.

When your father had no work, and the overworn seams in your jeans kept ripping, and no girl would look at you because you rode the No. 5 bus, these high-GQ, low-IQ men were walking recruitment posters, representing a reasonable life alternative.

Except they sold heroin to children. I could never get past that.

And they regularly shook down my uncle at his pizza joint for protection money. I could never forgive that.

So I went another way.

And when I became a newspaperman, I tried my best to avoid writing about the scum I left behind, because the truth is, newspapers, books, movies and yes, HBO series tend to aggrandize these men in some way or other.

David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, says in interviews that he has worked hard to make sure viewers don't forget that Tony is a monster. And, yes, we've seen him kill his kin and diss his wife to further his aims.

There's little doubt, too, that Tony may pay dearly for his chosen vocation.

But he, Silvio Dante (Bruce Springsteen's right-hand man, Steven Van Zandt), and others are still rakishly likable. We feel a certain sentimentality about them, because we've followed their lives over the years.

It's like that with so much Mafia-themed media, especially movies. The Godfather, particularly, played up attractive aspects of the life of the Original Gangstas: friendship, family, loyalty, honor, adherence to a code.

It all sounds very nice - in art. Real life, however, is a different story.

If you met genuine Mafiosi out on the street, believe me, you would not invite them into your living room every Sunday. Even if they did leave their guns home and bring cannoli.

 


Coming Sunday

In Arts & Entertainment, Inquirer television critic Jonathan Storm looks at 10 key moments from The Sopranos.

 

Join an online chat Monday at noon about The Sopranos' finale at http://go.philly.com/chat.


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.