Nebraska Center for Writers

by Eric Konigsberg

Chapter One

Be Worthy of Your Heritage

This is how my family made its money. In May 1955, my grandfather Leo Konigsberg left the wholesale food business his uncle had started and struck out on his own, taking with him one delivery route, one driver, and two trucks. He added an afternoon route and drove it himself, dropping in on high-volume grocery stores and restaurants to see if anyone was running low and needed something on the spot. That was what Leo liked most about being a butter-and-egg man, getting out and seeing customers.

At first, Leo ran the business out of his home, in Bayonne, New Jersey. He made do that summer by storing nonperishables — pickles, mayonnaise, and shortening—in his garage. Perishables he had delivered to his house, and in the evenings he stored them on his trucks with blocks of ice, or ran them over to Jersey City, where he rented two walk-in coolers. In time, Leo was able to pay his father rent on a garage that he could convert into a warehouse and an office. As he frequently reminded his children, the only free thing he ever accepted from his relatives was parking space in the driveway.

He built a successful outfit, and if you drove through Hudson County in the sixties or seventies, you probably saw the red trucks with their cream-colored cursive lettering: "Leo L Konigsberg Foods. Bringing Fresh Hotel Bar Butter to the Stores." Leo was a big distributor for Hotel Bar, and in exchange for the mobile advertising the company had painted his trucks. He customized three of them with the names of his wife and daughters, which were stenciled above the grille: "Frieda," "Shelley," and "Barrie."

Leo's day began at four-thirty in the morning and usually went until ten at night, when he climbed the linoleum staircase to his family's second-floor apartment, sat down to a steak my grandmother had broiled for him, and fell asleep at the kitchen table. He made his first delivery by 7 AM, then had eggs and bacon (he wasn't kosher outside the house) at one of the diners on his route. It was just a few blocks from one stop to the next, and he could make as many as four in an hour, thirty or forty a day. At its peak, his business had more than a hundred customers.

My grandfather was tall and, from the time of his marriage, in 1938, heavyset. On most workdays, he wore a sweatshirt over a short-sleeved dress shirt, and gray chinos with pockets he had reinforced at the tailor's because he always carried a lot of cash to make change. He was sweet mannered, but too preoccupied with the task of supporting a wife and children for anybody to describe him as happy. He was suspicious by nature. He wouldn't let employees load cargo unless he was watching. He smoked El Producto cigars because they were short enough that he could finish one in the time it took his men to fill up a truck.

Leo was fanatical about his reputation. For years, the sales reps from Kraft continued to thank him for the time he 'd saved them $30,000 by alerting them to a misplaced decimal point on his bill. He once reprimanded an employee for not applying the bulk discount to a small independent grocer's order for a single ham. He figured that if a merchant was buying only one ham at a time he could use a break. "Tell him it was our mistake," he told his salesman, and sent him back with a refund. Another time, passing through customs on the way home from a family vacation in Canada, he declared a one-dollar doll he 'd bought for one of his daughters.

One night in 1958, Leo returned from his delivery route and was met in his office by three men; two of them had stockings over their heads and one shoved a crowbar into his ribs. They made him open his safe, which had more than two thousand dollars inside, then bound his arms and legs with heavy rope. The police who arrived on the scene afterward gave Leo a hard time, "as though he was the one who'd done something wrong," my grandmother recalls. Leo had never once stayed home from work, but he spent the next day in bed, sick to his stomach. What upset him most was the headline in the Bayonne Times: konigsberg's brother victim of safe robbery."

Leo was and would forever be known as the brother of a criminal. Although the United States Department of Justice struggled to ascertain a precise count, internal memos allege that Leo's baby brother, Harold (Kayo) Konigsberg, committed at least ten homicides in the service of organized crime, and perhaps as many as twenty. Others who knew Harold, including two of his lawyers, put the total even higher.

Although as a Jew Harold was ineligible to be made by the Mafia, his independent-contractor status gave him latitude and autonomy. Unlike a typical hit man, who answers to a hierarchy of bosses, Harold was freelance, and would work for whatever family hired him—even simultaneously for more than one if he felt like it.

People who came into contact with Harold &#$151; prosecutors, detectives, defense lawyers, underworld associates — reach for superlatives: "toughest Jew" (this, a full generation after the Jews had got out of the business or, at least, like Meyer Lansky, limited their activities to the white-collar end) and "smartest hit man." The Justice Department considered him the king of all loan sharks. Conducting business out of a half dozen offices in Manhattan and New Jersey, he claimed to have a million dollars on the street at any given time. Although he'd quit school at sixteen, at which point he still hadn't completed eighth grade, he claimed to have taught himself to read as an adult, and he served as his own lawyer in two major trials.

Reprinted with permission
from Blood Relation
Copyright © 2005
by Eric Konigsberg
HarperCollins, 2007

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