Study Guide

Goodfellas Traditions and Customs

Traditions and Customs

JIMMY: Everybody gets pinched, but you did it right. You told 'em nothing, and they got nothing.

HENRY: I thought you'd be mad.

JIMMY: I'm not mad; I'm proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man, and you learned the two greatest things in life.

HENRY: What?

JIMMY: Look at me. Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.

Mobsters have a code of silence, and this is the first thing Henry learns. Henry is going to end up breaking it. Big time. That's why he has to go into the Witness Protection Program—he knows what happens to rats.

KAREN: They had bad skin and wore too much makeup. I mean, they didn't look very good. They look beat up, and the stuff they wore was thrown together and cheap: a lot of pantsuits and double knits. And they talked about how rotten their kids were and about beating them with broom handles and leather belts, but that their kids still didn't pay any attention. When Henry picked me up, I was dizzy.

Sorry, Karen. The mob wives have their own traditions, too. Unfortunately, they mainly consist of crimes against good taste. The wives are supposed to look a certain way, act a certain way, and simply look the other way when it comes to their husbands' infidelities. Check out The Real Housewives of New Jersey for some more recent examples.

KAREN: There was always a little harassment. They always wanted to talk to Henry about this or that. They'd come in with their subpoenas and warrants and make me sign, but mostly they were just looking for a handout: a few bucks to keep things quiet, no matter what they found. I always asked them if they wanted coffee. Some of the wives, like Mickey Conway, used to curse at them and spit on the floor. She used to spit on her own floor! That never made any sense to me. It was better to be polite and call the lawyer.

Dealing with cops and their search warrants is yet another mafia tradition, just part of the drill. As Karen explains, all of the wives handle it differently. Personally, we prefer Karen's coffee-serving approach to Mickey's spitting strategy.

HENRY: For most of the guys, killings got to be accepted. Murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line. You got out of line, you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules.

Everybody knows the rules because murder is one of the family's oldest, and grisliest, traditions.

HENRY: Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends.

As far as the mob's traditions and customs go, this one is non-negotiable. Can all of the bling in Brooklyn make up for your husband having a bunch of girlfriends?

HENRY: In prison, dinner was always a big thing. We had a pasta course, and then we had a meat or a fish. Paulie did the prep work. He was doing a year for contempt, and he had this wonderful system for doing the garlic. He used a razor, and he used to slice it so thin that it used to liquefy in the pan with just a little oil. It was a very good system.

Henry and his crew's elaborate prison dinners prove that customs don't go out the window just because these men can't go outside.

HENRY: It was revenge for Billy Batts, and a lot of other things. And there was nothing that we could do about it. Batts was a made man, and Tommy wasn't. And we had to sit still and take it. It was among the Italians. It was real greaseball s***. They even shot Tommy in the face so his mother couldn't give him an open coffin at the funeral.

Henry's explanation that there was nothing they could do about Tommy getting whacked shows how set in stone the mob's rituals are. You can't kill a made man. You just can't. And you definitely can't complain about the consequences.

HENRY: For a second, I thought I was dead. But, when I heard all the noise, I knew they were cops. Only cops talk that way. If they'd been wiseguys, I wouldn't have heard a thing. I would've been dead.

The traditions and customs that govern how the mob works stand in stark contrast to how the police department works. For starters, the wiseguys are far more sinister. And usually better dressed.

HENRY: If you're part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they're going to kill you. Doesn't happen that way. There weren't any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles. They come as your friends, the people who've cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time when you're at your weakest and most in need of their help.

Making a big scene? Tipping somebody off that they're about to get fitted for cement shoes? Well, that's just not the mob's style—they're your nearest and dearest up to the second they whack you. As Henry explains, they have an entire code of conduct under which they operate, and their refusal to break with tradition is part of their menacing recipe for success.

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