When it comes to the Mafia, there are five infamous surnames: Lucchese, Colombo, Genovese, Bonanno and the best known—my own—Gambino. And that name inevitably provokes two words that I've heard more times than I can count, so I might as well just spare you the breath: Any relation?
Truth is, I don't entirely know. Some details lend themselves to speculation. My father was born in Ozone Park, Queens, which was the stamping ground of John J. Gotti, who seized control of the Gambino Family in the 1980s. And when my dad and the rest of the family (that's "family," not "Family") moved to Long Island in 1960, it was James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, the true-life Robert De Niro character in GoodFellas, who bought our house. Then too, my uncle goes by the name "Choppy" and is in the construction business. But despite the circumstantial evidence, this branch of the family tree is clean. (Choppy is "Choppy" because his sister couldn't pronounce Charles, his given name, when she was young.) If we're related to the crime family, it's distant.
Blood relative or not, Gambino is a hefty weight to carry. I'm actually a mutt when it comes to ethnic background—more Irish than Italian—but the Italian in me trumps all. As a toddler, I had a T-shirt blazoned with "Bambino Gambino."
I wasn't aware that my last name connected me with a surly underworld until I was old enough for people to ask me about it. In high school, my history teacher warned boys they might find themselves wearing concrete shoes at the bottom of a lake if they messed with me. But I took everything in stride. In fact, I soon learned the name has its benefits.
A couple of years ago, I drove from Vermont to Boston with a few friends from college. While navigating my way through the Big Dig, I mistakenly drove down a street restricted to government vehicles and got pulled over. The officer took my driver's license, stepped away from the car to write up the ticket—then hastily returned. He said he didn't want any trouble; I could barely suppress a smile, as my slack-jawed friends looked on. My boyfriend, who happened to be in the car that day, hadn't met any I-talians before me. But now even he gets comments by association. When Gambinos made headlines this past February with the largest Mafia takedown in memory, his Swedish-American godfather asked him just what he had gotten himself into.
The power of the name grows stronger the closer I get to the Big Apple. (I've found the speed with which I can get a pizza delivered to be a good gauge of its clout.) Not long ago, my family made a reservation at Gallagher's Steak House in Midtown Manhattan. When we got there, the entryway was lined with the entire kitchen and wait staff; as we walked the gantlet to our table (far from any windows), I heard one waiter ask another, "Which one is Mr. Gambino?" But regardless of where I am, whenever a hostess, bouncer, retail worker, librarian or whoever else asks about my family ties, I tend to say "Nah" with a half-smile, to leave some room for doubt.
And if any readers have any smart ideas about sending me less-than-complimentary letters about this piece, you might want to reconsider. Hey, you never know.
Megan Gambino is an editorial assistant at Smithsonian.