A thank you to my proof readers including Mark Coates for tearing apart my puny one-page intro to Two Tonys book, which has now been expanded as follows:
As a nerdy business-studies graduate moving to Arizona from the UK, I hadn’t planned on ending up in prison, where a Mafia associate classified as a mass murderer serving 141 years would befriend me. A few days before meeting Two Tonys in late 2004, I’d been attacked by a biker, an associate of a serial-home-invader-torturer who disliked me for being a “fish” – a new prisoner. When my cellmate found out about the attack, he suggested I meet Two Tonys, who was at the top of the prison hierarchy for murdering rival gangsters, and capable of protecting me. Waiting to meet Two Tonys over a game of chess, I was conscious of my heartbeat revving up and sweat trickling down my sides. I thought, Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. If I beat him, he might want to kill me. My cellmate brought Two Tonys, bespectacled and in his early sixties with hazel eyes and slicked hair greying at the sides. Slightly under six feet and with a medium build, he wasn’t physically intimidating, but as he got closer, and I heard his voice and saw his eyes, I felt uneasy. His gaze was fearless and aggressive to an extreme degree. I sensed that if he were pushed, his response would be limitless. The hardcore in prison communicated in gangster lingo. Lacking that ability, I worried I’d say the wrong thing and cause offence. My voice betrayed my nervousness as we chatted, but Two Tonys put me at ease by asking in a mock UK accent whether I’d ever had tea and crumpets with the Beatles.
After the game, I shook his hand. “I won because you kept speaking your mind. It gave me an advantage.”
“Me and my big mouth,” Two Tonys said, slapping the side of his head.
Two Tonys trusted me enough to ask me to write his life story. I felt honoured. Daily, I visited his cell with writing supplies. He dictated for hours. My parents posted some of his stories to the Internet. He quickly gained a following at my blog, Jon’s Jail Journal, which was inundated with questions and comments for him. Readers warmed to his voice. TV gangsters typically come across as uneducated thugs, whereas Two Tonys had evolved from that by spending decades reading in the Arizona Department of Corrections, rendering his voice – which I’ve written this book in – a blend of Mafia associate and philosopher. We spent so much time together that by the end of my sentence, Two Tonys said that I was like the son that he’d never had. There were moments when writing this book – reminiscing about our time together – I had to stop to clear away tears. The same happened when I said goodbye to Two Tonys at the chain-link fence just before my deportation. I still fall back on what he taught me about life such as appreciating small things instead of seeking excitement in all of the wrong places.
Meeting Two Tonys was a blessing because there was much more to him than his rap sheet. By using his influence with the gangs, Two Tonys saved several lives in prison– including mine. He got a hit called off on me that had been initiated by an Aryan Brotherhood gang leader who I’d unwittingly made an enemy out of by blogging about drugs in prison. What impressed me the most about Two Tonys was his devotion to his daughter and grandchildren who came to visit him, and his relentless appreciation of life.
When prisoners complained about our breakfast being cold or recreation not commencing on time, Two Tonys would jest that it was worse in the Siberian gulag, where they fought over fish eyeballs in the soup, and his favourite character from literature, Ivan Denisovich, resided. The Russians were worked to death in temperatures so cold that they lost fingers, noses and ears to frostbite. Those who refused to work were dragged to death by horses or thrown off cliffs. And they were mostly political prisoners who hadn’t harmed anyone. Two Tonys never complained about getting caught or made excuses for his crimes. He backed up his stoicism with quotes from the myths of Ancient Greece and philosophers such as Aurelius, Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, who he affectionately referred to in gangster nomenclature as The Schop. His favourite authors included Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Haruki Murakami, Gore Vidal, Hemingway, Tolstoy and Steinbeck. He even aspired to be a book critic.
As amazing as it was for me to experience Two Tonys' humanity, I never lost sight of the horror of his crimes, which were to various degrees business decisions and drug-fuelled outbursts. As a teenager, he recognised his tendencies, and so did the Mafia, which Two Tonys eagerly joined. To kill or be killed is the ethos of gangsters, and Two Tonys saw little difference between that and his contract with the US government during his days in the military. Knowing that he could be murdered by a rival at any time, he was quick to kill those scheming against him, which he credited for keeping him alive. The murders started after Two Tonys heavy cocaine use, and he constantly warned me to never go back to drugs. Working for the Bonanno Crime Family in the 1960s, Two Tonys was indoctrinated into a world of old-school Mafia values, including not harming women or kids, a far cry from the powerful Mafias of this day such as the Mexican cartels, who have decapitated entire families and posted videos of the massacres online. I’m not making excuses for homicide, but I feel that Two Tonys actions need to be understood in context.
During a recent interview, I was asked, “As a guy that was well into love and the rave scene, you spent a long time documenting the life of a killer who you cared for. How do you square that?”
“Prisoners are human beings,” I said. “In prison, I realised there is good and bad in everybody. I try to focus on the good in the belief that it helps it to come out.”