A century ago pushcart rackets were a big deal for the emerging American Mafia. They shook down dealers and demanded tribute for allowing small-time vendors to operate and to keep out competitors. Today, the pushcart rackets appear to outsiders to have faded away. Surprisingly, that is far from the truth. The new Mafia has learned how to milk an old-time racket and in fact add considerable profitable scams.
The offshoot revenues justify keeping their eye on pushcarts. Today a vendor cannot simply open up wherever he or she wishes without expecting some unhealthy consequences. And equally unhealthy is a vendor's trying to get supplies on his or her own. Vendors are required to deal with suppliers who are either mob dominated or ones who have made an accommodation with the mobsters.
Included are beverage and butane suppliers. Once when Joe Bonanno's son Bill was attempting to make it big in the mob, he received an education when he took part in a jurisdictional dispute between vendors of the Bonanno and Lucchese families. The Luccheses demanded the rights to two spots held in the Wall Street area, big money-making enterprises despite the prosaic appearances. Bill couldn't see the dispute as worth fighting over, but there was a real possibility that it might come to that.
As it was, the Bonannos won out. There was a mess of money involved. The stands each did hundreds of sales in sodas each day, and the mob held the loyalty of the vendors by underselling other beverage suppliers. Key to this was the fact that under bottle and can deposit rules the vendors paid 3.5¢ for each deposit item, so if cans were returned, vendors could collect the standard 5¢ deposit and net an extra profit of 1.5¢. In practice, however, no one returns cans to the pushcart for a refund.
But the mob, meanwhile, has made an extra profit simply by importing cans and bottles from a deposit-free state such as Pennsylvania. For the privilege of engaging in this scam the vendors gladly allow the mob to store their carts after hours for a fee the competition cannot or dares not match. Add to this the price of weiners, rolls, napkins and the like, and the mob is really cutting the mustard.
The big money the mob has learned is the deposit money, and they have expanded it in other outlets, especially in Chinese takeout, with the savings considerable since the custom in many Chinese food outlets is to award one or more free cans of soda depending on the amount purchased by a customer. In recent years the mob has used their "expertise" at this to supply street fairs with all the drinks at bargain prices.
Far from being a penny-ante operation, the racket in all its variables, is a multimillion-dollar business that can warrant a pushcart war if necessary.