Every night except Sunday, Alphonse ‘Lift’ Vitulli stood plugging the front entrance to Luciano’s Bar & Nightclub on West 120th and Amsterdam.
To put it quietly, he was a beefy guy, built like a bison, with battering-ram arms. A towering hunk of meat that had kissed goodbye to 6 feet many inches ago. Boxy head, carpeted with a thick, black school-boyish mop that, if you could ever imagine him as somebody’s son, you might see his mom giving it a playful ruffle. But everything about Alphonse Vitulli suggested you’d be safer sticking your hand under a moving lawnmower than initiating physical contact.
Incongruous with his bulk, he always appeared impeccably dressed, in quality suits that could only have been bespoke. An intimidating package indeed. The thing is…this not-so-gentle giant came within a bee’s dick of rendering me a quadriplegic. And unless you subscribe to sadism as sport, the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
Luciano’s was wildly popular with the university crowd eager for a bit of happy-hour respite from academic ennui.
In another life, the venue was a church, though I’m not sure what denomination – or how it ended up as this type of place of worship. It had retained the coloured leadlight arch windows, giving it a welcoming, though perhaps quizzically judgemental façade.
Luciano’s provided the usual social crowd pleasers like open mic nights, karaoke and live music. There were half priced cocktails on certain nights, and regular happy hour specials including food for the starving student.
A pitcher of beer and a spaghetti supper, shared and stretched between two or three could provide sustenance and sufficient buzz without obliterating the average college-goer’s slim budget. No wonder it was popular.
Luciano’s gaudy purple and red neon sign declared that the place was OPEN and that you were WELCOME.
But before you had any chance of crossing Luciano’s threshold Alphonse ‘Lift’ Vitulli was there to make you well aware of the terms and conditions to getting in – and remaining in.
Patrons were patted down without apology, even the ladies. Luciano’s had a strict ‘no drugs’ policy, other than alcohol of course, so it always puzzled me as to why it was so popular. I’m not suggesting that all college students are crackheads and stoners, but I’m just saying…
Lift would check every item that could have doubled as a vehicle to carry contraband. Even tiny clutch purses. Eager wannabe patrons would have to take off their coats and jackets and he’d rummage through every pocket. You were frisked and scrutinized. If your gait was less than ramrod steady, or your pupils even slightly dilated, you were physically turned around and shoved off.
But nobody seemed to mind. Those were the rules, and if you wanted in, you went in clean. After all, this is New York – we’re used to bag checks, random frisks and the right of refusal.
Nobody really knew Alphonse Vitulli’s story. The world wide web wasn’t giving up any of his secrets. My brother, a rookie in the NYPD tried to find out if he had a rap sheet, but he didn’t show up in the system. And that surprised me. There were rumours around campus that he’d once worked for US Customs and Border Protection, but he’d been canned for inappropriate use of force. Rumour or not, that didn’t surprise me.
Lift took his job as peace keeper very seriously. If you managed to comply with the man-mountain’s entrance criteria and make it inside, you were only half way there. Stationed throughout various vantage points during the night, he’d watch for violations of the Lift code. That’s not to say you couldn’t get a bit boozed up and enjoy a few laughs, but if you looked like crossing his line, he’d be there to yank you back, in the direction of the exit. He’d earned the nickname Lift due to his signature crowd-control technique. Lift didn’t bother with first or second verbal warnings. The spoken word was not part of his methodology.
Lift was like many textbook thugs and career bullies who audition for and win the part of big bad bouncer. He used his height, weight, ugliness and his chronic lack of empathy to instil fear. Physical force was his forte, but not the usual kind of push and shove. He would deal with offenders by wrapping his mammoth paw around their neck and raising them off the ground. How far off the ground, would be relative to the offence. The amount of damage and discomfort would vary for mouthing off, concealing contraband, being obnoxiously drunk or high, or using fake ID.
Lift’s specialty was mangled hyoid bones. Ligament injury was common, bruised larynxes no extra charge, and I could personally confirm at least one cervical fracture.
I was happy with the direction my life was going, and I’d made my peace with the whole college scene. I’d finished my undergrad course in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia and glad of it. Most days I felt like I didn’t fit with the program. I’m not much of a people person. I prefer my friends with four legs, fins, feathers or fur.
One good thing though, I was lucky enough to line up an internship, with the view to a full time position at the Bronx zoo. As far as I was concerned, my future was on track. Until Alphonse Vitulli de-railed it.
While I’m not that fond of the human species, I’m also not a robot. There was this girl I met in my sophomore year. Laura. She was a freshman doing Art History and Archaeology. A little nerdy, but I find that quite sexy. We started dating and the more I got to know her, the more I liked her. She was driven, and sure of herself. Pretty as well as smart, she seemed to find my foibles tolerable – maybe even charming. It could have moved on to something serious.
I’d been working at the zoo for about 6 months, and Laura and I were still dating. One Friday night, she asked if I would come to Karaoke night at Luciano’s with her and another couple from one of her classes. I would have preferred a quiet night in with a pizza. I loved working at the zoo, but it was often intense and tiring, and I had an early start the next morning. I agreed to go, but with the condition that I’d be home in bed at a reasonable hour. I had no idea that I wouldn’t be seeing my bed for quite some time.
That night, we stood in the line waiting to be processed. Me, Laura and her friends Kathy and Vince, whom I knew vaguely. To me, Vince already looked a bit wired, but then Friday night usually brings out the buzz in the pub crowd. I hoped it was an organic, not a chemical high.
After a thorough pat down and security check more befitting entry to the White House, we made the cut. We found a table and Vince bought a round of beers. We drank, chatted, and listened to varying degrees of vocal talent. It always puzzled me why any individual would willingly and without shame, want to embarrass themselves by howling offkey into a microphone in front of a crowd. I didn’t mind listening to it, I mean it was all in good fun and I’m not a complete stiff. But I’d still rather strangle myself with my own shoelaces than get behind a microphone.
So why then, did I end up on that very stage delivering a rendition of Gangsta’s Paradise that would have got the nod from Coolio himself? I don’t even like hip hop. And why did I then launch myself off that stage into the crowd, then proceed to breakdance like a hyperactive eel? And how did I think things were going to end, when I anointed Alphonse Vitulli with the remains of a pitcher of beer after showing him my bare ass?
Let me explain that I don’t do drugs and rarely drink alcohol. One glass of beer brings on immediate Asian Flush. Any more than that, usually gives me the same size hangover as a seasoned habitual swiller. It’s something to do with a genetic variant. It means that Asian people have trouble producing an enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol (and drugs) in the liver. So it’s some kind of miracle that a beer spiked with methylenedioxymethamphetamine (garden variety Ecstasy if you need to know) didn’t land me on a mortuary slab instead of in an ambulance. It could very well have gone that way, thanks to Vince and his private experiment to ‘loosen me up’.
So once Lift was finished with me, I spent a month in a halo brace, and 6 months in physiotherapy recovering from the hairline fissure in my C2. I lost my girlfriend, (she told me she couldn’t deal with this crazy side of my personality). I lost my job at the zoo, and pretty much my will to live.
I tried every avenue I could to sue the bastard. But it seems that Alphonse Vitulli was protected by Luciano’s ironic-clad zero trouble-tolerance policy. The guy was untouchable, and whatever ill-gotten license he used to rough people up when he felt like it was explained by Lucianos’ lawyer as “the legal right to use reasonable force to subdue unruly behaviour for the protection of the public, when necessary”. But then of course it didn’t help that blood tests showed MDMA in my system, so the fact that I was high on ecstasy kind of ruined any argument I had for compensation.
It was a painful road to recovery, paved with plenty of time to think about retribution. I’m not by nature a malicious person. I’d been bullied a bit at school – not really that bad, just the usual ethnic slurs, theft of lunch money and toilet ambushes. But over the years I’d cultivated a disdain for people who used physical size to intimidate others. The incident at Luciano’s cracked not only my spinal cord, but the stiff moral staff I liked to wield.
So there I was, back at Luciano’s. It was a balmy New York night, and from a distance I watched the long line of usual hopefuls who wanted in. I had a plan, but gaining admission wasn’t part of it.
I felt as though I’d aged about a dozen years over the agonizing 10 months since being Lift-ed. I’d shaved off my hair so I looked like a cross between a Buddhist Monk and a member of the Flying Dragons (if they’re still a thing). I’d ditched my glasses in favour of contacts, and with the wheelchair, plus the apparent perception by many that we ‘all look the same’, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t remember me. Even so, the sight of him still gave me the cold sweats.
Over the next twenty minutes, Lift ‘processed’ the clubbers, allowing most of them in one by one. When the line had disappeared, I made my move and pushed slowly towards him.
I soothed my frayed nerves with a quick meditation technique I’d practiced while lying immobilised. When you’re wracked with pain, in fear that you might never walk again, you learn ways to cope. In truth, I did use the wheelchair during the early part of my recuperation. I didn’t need it now, but it was an excellent prop to carry out my plan.
With my weapon tucked away in the sack attached to the back of the chair, I sucked in a mouthful of air and said a silent prayer of thanks that the street was mostly empty.
Lift frowned as he saw me approach. For a tense moment, I thought he’d recognised me and I was prepared to bolt. But palms up, he wiggled his fingers at me and grunted something about not making exceptions for people like me.
He patted me down from shoulders to waist, and told me he wanted to check the bag hanging on the back of my chair. I told him to go ahead. He grabbed the thick black drawstring cloth bag, pulled the string apart and plunged his arm in. He groped around for a moment, then I watched his annoyed scowl turn to stunned surprise. Then came the look in his eyes that I hoped represented the collective physical pain he had caused others throughout his miserable life.
The Taipan, irritated at being disturbed from its peaceful reptilian slumber chomped down on Lift’s probing paw. With his hand still inside the bag, Lift stumbled backward and lost his balance. He fell to the ground and hit it hard, his head bouncing against the pavement, eyes as wide as tire rims.
The angry snake slithered out of the bag and across Lift’s face, planting a lightning quick, venom filled kiss on his blubbery cheek. Droplets of blood oozed down to Lift’s chin, and a stream of foam trickled from the corner of his mouth. I plucked the leather elbow length glove from my jacket pocket and slipped it on.
I got out of the chair just long enough to return my friend to the bag and without a backward glance I jumped back into the seat and made a hasty exit to my car, parked a half block down on 120th Street.
I felt like David, having felled Goliath, and the adrenalin-fuelled zap of pleasure was almost enough to obliterate the pain that had been chewing at me for months.
There’s not much you can do whilst recovering from a cervical fracture other than research, and I did a lot of it. I became good at it. It gave me power. I’d like to think that I’m intrinsically a good person, but then a thug called Alphonse Vitulli nearly killed me and with my pre-existing disdain for bullies, I guess I meandered over to the dark side. I hope it’s only temporary.
I found out that the world of animal smuggling is pretty lucrative. You wouldn’t believe what manner of creature gets shipped into and out of the country. People want rare birds, monkeys, insects and reptiles as pets or to buy and sell on the black market. If you ask the right questions, you can get just about anything that wriggles, flies, bites, stings or crawls. Having connections at the zoo helped too of course.
It’s been a couple of years since the incident that changed my life. I’m happy to say that my injuries have pretty much healed, and apart from recurring neck pain when I sit for too long, I count myself lucky. The dark side of my nature has all but retreated and I hope I never have to bring it out again. Once I’d ‘taken care of’ Alphonse Vitulli, and the adrenalin wore off, I lost some serious sleep over what I’d done. But only for a week or so. For a while, I feared every knock on my door, thinking it could be the cops. But nobody wearing a uniform, other than my brother, ever knocked.
According to my brother’s inside information, Alphonse Vitulli was well disliked by almost everyone who knew him, including acquaintances in the mafia. Murder by venomous means was the quirky calling card of the Giovanetti mob family members. But then I already knew that. Like I said – research gives you power. Thorough research gives you power absolute.
Luciano’s Bar & Nightclub is now redeemed, and has gone back to being a place of non-denominational worship. The gaudy neon sign has been replaced by a joyful congregation of looping LED dots that spell COME INSIDE AND LIFT YOUR SOUL.