on July 7, 2006
If you think your work is killing you, what would you think if killing was your work? Nothing, if you were Frank Sheeran and had sent 25 to 30 men "to Australia".
I Heard You Paint Houses is a taped narration by 83-year-old Frank Sheeran of his life as a hit man, thief, thug, bagman, and corrupt Teamster official, to all of which he had taken like a fish to water. Against daunting evidence of his having a conscience, he asks from his grave that we believe his narrative. Still, one warms to him, a 6 foot 4 good-looking "stand up" guy known as "The Irishman", who looks like a crooked, friendly cop on the take, likable for his rough candour, boozing, and ball room dancing, noted for his cold eyed stare above a half smile look, and his stammer under stress. Hearing him in one's mind is like listening to the voice heard in darkness by a priest in a confessional box, the face of the speaker unseen. The irony that Sheeran is speaking in an assisted living facility does not escape you. Sheeran, an aged, much-used assassin, optimistically speaks of a "shot" at heaven by confessing to a priest who will grant him absolution. If Sheeran can make it, the whole neighborhood can make it. Who can say that Sheeran the pentitent did not shake hands with Sheeran the predator who was waiting outside the confessional, sniffing the air for money for his estate? If Sheeran were the reader, would Sheeran believe someone with his history? Is Mayor Bloomberg 6 feet four?
The book is the work of Charles Brandt, former Chief Deputy Attorney General of Delaware, who oversaw the tapings after dogging Sheeran for several years to make them. The narrations are enhanced by Brandt's factual commentaries that provide useful contexts of time, people, and events. When shown the book, Sheeran, hunched over, appraised it. "The title sucks", he said. Indeed, the title does "suck", but don't let the title fool you. The book is an artful work crafted by Brandt so intensely that one is not surprised that Brandt as pall bearer carried Sheeran to the very lip of his grave, perhaps out of an impulse to learn at the last moment whether Sheeran had conned heaven out of God.
As one closes the book, one imagines its array of characters and events. Sheeran in front and center, and around him, the warriors Jimmy Hoffa and Robert Kennedy, Russell Bufalino, the most powerful godfather in the United States who had a hand in the Bay of Pigs tragedy ("These Kennedys could louse up a one-car funeral", said Sheeran.), Sam Giancana, who sent his mistress to a grateful President in Camelot, Crazy Joe Gallo, whacked by Sheeran in Umberto's Clam House, Frank Fitzsimmons, the Teamsters president annointed by the imprisoned Hoffa and corrupted by the mob, the liberation of Dachau by US soldiers, Sheeran among them, Sam Giancana's associate, Jack Ruby (remember him?), known socially to Hoffa and Sheeran, Joe Colombo whacked by a "cowboy" who was promptly shot, "Bugs" Briguglio, a hit man shot twice in the head by Sheeran while greeting him heartily, prison guards who for years watched Sheeran, more mean in prison than on the street, the men Sheeran had whacked all of whom presumably had a last roll call in Sheeran's confession, the Cosa Nostra commission of which Sheeran was one of the only two non-Italian members, Attorney General John Mitchell as bagman to whom Sheeran delivered large sums of green stamps, Nixon signing the commutation of Hoffa's sentence, the Teamster Pension Fund used by Hoffa and Cosa Nostra as a private bank, crooked Teamster officials, goons and hit men of competing unions, even E. Howard Hunt accepting a truckload of weapons from Sheeran in Florida. All these and many more from central casting loiter in your memory. No stumble bum hitman this Sheeran who speaks of the killing of President Kennedy to whom the mob gave Illinois as an electoral gift after a chat with Kennedy's former bootlegger father, a Sheeran who speaks with ease of the mob's attempt to poison Castro, the mob who with the warrior Hoffa hated Robert Kennedy for his drive against organized crime. What did Bufalino mean when, having trouble with a recalcitrant Hoffa, he said to Hoffa that Hoffa was not showing "appreciation for Dallas"?
Sheeran was born in 1920 in Philadelphia in a poor Irish-Catholic family that solved its rent problems by flights from one to another unsuspecting landlord. Grey was the color of his childhood, his father an unloving, feisty, common type, bitter in occasional jobs during the Depression. He took little Sheeran to farms where they would steal vegetables, flee steps ahead of gunshot pellets, and spread their takings on the table for the family's meal. His father, however, showed a spark of economic promise. He would enter bars and wage a quarter matching the 10 year old Sheeran against the 15 year old son of any customer. If Sheeran lost, his head would feel the cuff of his father's hand. In his first and last year at high school, an incautious principal unjustly cuffed Sheeran's 16 year old head and promptly received Sheeran's personal broken jaw award. Years of drifting in the bottomlands of Depression work followed: carnival work as a laborer, sex lessons from carnie dancers remembered by the aged but still grateful Sheeran as " Little Egypt" and "Neptune", work as a logger and talented dance instructor, winding it all up in August 1941 in his Army enlistment at 20.
World War II drew Sheeran into an horrific 411 days in unrelenting combat in which he learned to kill the enemy and especially the captured enemy. "The lieutenant gave me a lot of prisoners to handle and I did what I had to do". He killed them routinely, the way you and I comb our hair. He particpated in the massacre of more than 500 German army prisoners of war at Dachau after it had been liberated. "And no body batted an eye when it was done", he said. "Somewhere overseas", Sheeran said in an unusual reflective mood, " I had tightened up inside, and I never loosened up again. You get used to death. You get used to killing."
Discharged at 25, he did hard labor, was a bouncer, taught dancing, married, had children, worked and repeatedly stole from his employer, drove trucks, and then "at some point, I just joined that other culture" in which he met the godfather, Russell [Rosario] Bufalino, who "changed my life". He became Bufalino's driver. Sheeran loved, revered and respected Bufalino, a lowkeyed, quiet man. Even the reader develops a liking for Bufalino's equanimity. "Russell", said Sheeran, "treated me like a son." Sheeran handled "certain matters" for him. One day, Bufalino handed the phone to Sheeran. It was Hoffa. He said, "I heard you paint houses", an oblique reference to blood that strikes the wall or floor where someone has been shot. Sheeran answered, "I do carpentry work, too", meaning that he disposed of bodies as well. Hoffa thereupon employed Sheeran at the International Teamsters office where Sheeran handled "certain matters" for Hoffa the way "I did for [Bufalino]." Indeed, Sheeran performed well. For example, in a 24 hour period Sheeran at Hoffa's order flew to Puerto Rico, whacked two, emplaned for Chicago, whacked one, and then flew to San Francisco to report to Hoffa who complained that Sheeran was late.
Hoffa became the president of the Teamsters in 1957. By 1969 he had been sentenced to terms totalling 13 years. After the green stamps were delivered to Attorney General Mitchell, the terms were commuted in 1971 by a thoughtful "I am not a crook" President Nixon. Hoffa immediately went into high gear to regain the Teamster presidency. In 1974, Bufalino told Hoffa that the mob leaders were content with Fitzsimmons, Hoffa's successor. Fitzsimmons was weak and from him the mob leaders could obtain favorable loans from the Teamsters Pension Fund. Hoffa, however, refused to stop his campaign. Bufalino told Sheeran to tell Hoffa that if he did not stop, Hoffa would be killed. Hoffa said, "They wouldn't dare", a sign that Hoffa wasn't playing with a full deck. The mob would dare anything and he was only a 5 foot 5 tough talker who could be snuffed out like a cigarette.
On July 27, 1975, following Hoffa's public threats to drive the mob from the Teamsters, Sheeran told Hoffa that Bufalino was agreeable to a settlement meeting on July 30th. Like a starved lion, Hoffa went for the meat, so much so that he asked Sheeran to be his back up man at the meeting and to be sure to take his gun with him. In the afternoon of July 30th, Sheeran, Hoffa, and others, drove to a one-family ordinary home in Michigan. There were two "cleaners" hiding in the kitchen as Hoffa, with Sheeran behind him, walked into the hallway. Hoffa, seeing no one, panicked and went for the door knob. Sheeran immediately pointed his gun under Hoffa's right ear and blasted him twice. Sheeran, knowing that a hit man sometimes has his own house painted on the spot, dropped his gun, drove to a waiting private plane, and flew out of Michigan. "My friend didn't suffer", said
sentimental Sheeran into the recorder.
As for those vexed with the question of the location of Hoffa's body, Sheeran states that it was taken to a Detroit funeral parlor for cremation. "Anybody who says they know more than this - except for the cleaner who is still alive - is making a sick joke", said Sheeran. I like that, a touch of class at the end.