An Ode to Paulie Walnuts

Tony Sirico, who played Mafia henchman Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos”, died last week at age 79. A memorably eccentric character, Paulie was superstitious, quick to anger (even by gangster standards), and vain to the point of old-womanish fussiness about his appearance. Sirico did his own hair on set, creating Paulie’s distinctive two-tone hairdo, a dark grey bouffant with white “wings” at the temples. From the NY Times obituary:

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1942, the son of Jerry Sirico, a stevedore, and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was called, remembered that he first got into trouble when he stole nickels from a newsstand. He attended Midwood High School but did not graduate, his brother Robert Sirico said.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mob-type people,” he told the publication Cigar Aficionado in 2001. “I watched them all the time, watched the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid.”

He worked in construction for a while but soon yielded to temptation. “I started running with the wrong type of guys, and I found myself doing a lot of bad things,” he said in James Toback’s 1989 documentary, “The Big Bang.” Bad things like armed robbery, extortion, coercion and felony weapons possession.

While serving 20 months of a four-year sentence at Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, N.Y., he saw a troupe of actors, all ex-convicts, who had made a stop there to perform for the inmates. “When I watched them, I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’” he told The Daily News of New York in 1999.

Co-stars Steve Schirripa and Michael Imperioli’s “Talking Sopranos” podcast recounted that Sirico had a chance to move up higher in the mob, but declined, saying he wasn’t good at following orders. A tactful way to say no to the kind of guys who make offers you can’t refuse…

In his honor, here’s a poem from my unpublished chapbook The Waste-Management Land, which I wrote last winter while bingeing the show. Hard-core fans, see if you can catch all the episode references.

Between Noon and Three O’Clock

for Paulie Walnuts

What am I paying for, Father?

I was raised — and not only me —
on the creed that if I served
my silent time in the flame-
colored jumpsuit, I’d walk clean
through the snow at transmission’s end.

What’s a few hundred years
of ashes in the purgatorial can
compared to that damned cut to black,
the freezing barren where I’d plead
guilty to hold even my enemy
warm as a lost shoe?

But no more protection
gold for you, Father,
the saint can parade bare-faced as a boss
who lets his stockboy’s legs be broken
rather than pay me one bean.
It’s over for the little guy.

I’ve seen the Mother of Sorrows on the stripper pole.
I’ve seen a cat suck the breath from a ghost.

See, bad luck’s contagious
as piss on a shoelace.

Everyone who headed that crew
before me died
or will die and everyone
takes that one-way cruise
with the man who says, let’s go fishing.

When my time comes, tell me, will I stand up?
Last night I dreamed I asked
my underwater friend
but he just flipped
the fish frying in the pan
and passed the plate
to me.

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