This is a story about an unlikely series of events and an even unlikelier set of alliances. Here’s what led up to a John Muir wanna-be, a stoner, my father, my younger brother, and I driving two dozen huge barrels of glass and aluminum to a recycling center in Clark, New Jersey—in a truck borrowed from one of the area’s most powerful Mafia soldiers—to the consternation of the North Caldwell establishment.
The offer we couldn't refuse: the Eco-Freaks needed a large truck, and the mobster had one.
Author’s Note: All of the events in this story are true, as are the people and their actions. Some of the names have been changed in an abundance of caution—after all, the mob was involved. Many thanks to my brother Allan and my mom, who corroborated the events.
Want to find out more about the mob’s move to North Caldwell? Include this in your comment on this story and if there is enough interest, I’ll write one about it.
In high school it’s often about a member of the opposite sex. During my junior year in the fall of 1969, I was attracted to Jeff, a rugged-looking redhead who loved the outdoors and forestry. I started hanging around the newly formed Environmental Studies Organization (named to give the ecology club legitimacy and school approval), started by Jeff and hippie co-conspirator C.B. (pronounced CEEB), and guided by intrepid faculty member Miss Larson.
Eco-consciousness had been growing, and preparations for Earth Day had begun. Soon I became truly interested in the environment and recycling. The club needed a real-world project, and Jeff and C.B. came up with a pilot program to prove feasibility of recycling. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how the powers that be in the school could have approved our idea. I think they didn’t have a clue about what was involved.
To be considered part of the “in” group in our town you had to be 1) White Anglo-Saxon; 2) Protestant; 3) male; 4) conservative. Jeff and C.B. satisfied the first three conditions. Jeff would have been fine if he’d kept his environmental ideas, which were considered communist and a threat to the economy, to himself. His mother was president of the school board, which gave him cover. Besides his unapologetic pot use and straight hair to his shoulders, C.B. was quiet and mild, but still an environmentalist. He discovered that researchers had determined that 35 mph was the speed that conserved the most gasoline. And that’s the speed he drove at all times, causing near apoplexy in the drivers behind him. The rest of us in the club were a motley mix of Jews, drama club enthusiasts, nerds, and misfits.
At the beginning of 1970, we ran a promotion about our new glass and aluminum recycling program, with posters and flyers in stores and articles in the school newspaper. In March and early April, each weekend the group took over a spacious concrete area at the back end of the school, adjacent to a large parking lot. People could drive in and leave glass bottles and aluminum cans, which we would place in bins to be processed for recycling.
The tasks were much more involved back then than merely dumping the material in a bin. We received mostly soda bottles and a few cans. Cans were relatively simple to process by crushing them with our heels. Bottles were a challenge. The soda had sugar then (diet drinks being in their infancy), and the bins attracted bees. We first had to use pliers to remove the narrow metal rings around the tops of the bottles, putting the rings in a separate container. Then, piling a few bottles at a time into a large barrel, the boys would crush the glass with a sledge hammer, and repeat the process until the barrel was full. It’s a miracle no one was stung by a bee or cut by shards of glass.
The first few weekends we processed a lot of glass and cans and had great feedback from the community. Then the backlash started. Cars would drive into the parking lot and people would shout, “Eco-Freaks, Commies, stop ruining our town!” A few even threw soda bottles out their windows. We were undeterred and persisted through several more weekends, adopting the Eco-Freaks moniker. Then, in mid-April, it was time to recycle the glass and cans.
Recyclers didn’t come to you at the time; you had to bring the goods to them. Jeff and C.B. identified a recycling center in Clark about 35 miles away, and initially they thought we could load the barrels onto a pickup truck and drive them there. However, we had filed way more barrels than we expected, too many to fit in a pickup’s bed. We would need a much bigger truck—a commercial kind that a construction company had—and an adult to drive it. We were stumped.
That spring of 1970, Gennero “Gene” Monti, owner of Mon-Bros Construction in Fairfield with his two brothers, was not in a good place. As the first and for a long time only mobster living in North Caldwell, he’d been tolerated for years. He kept a low profile and was a good community citizen. Mon-Bros sponsored the yearbook and other school activities. Gene Monti’s son Russ, in my class, wasn’t a stellar student, but enjoyed sports and kept out of trouble. Monti’s stepdaughter, Ellen Kay, a senior, would do any parent proud. Chair of the school spirit committee and a cheerleader, she also was a national honor society member, excellent student, and actually nice to those of us in the “out” crowd.
Mr. Monti’s mob association was well known, and while money laundering was an obvious activity at local restaurants, in the last few years he had been sloppy with the Mon-Bros operation. He ended up in court for an assortment of Mafia-related white collar crimes, and in the late 1960s served a short prison sentence for contempt of court. The town establishment wasn’t pleased with the publicity, nor did they relish the trickle of mob families starting to buy homes in town. But Mr. Monti’s marriage to the recently widowed Selena Kay was the last straw.
Gene Monti’s marriage to Selena Kay caused the biggest scandal in years. While Monti had been widowed a long time, Selena’s husband Brian, a beloved figure in the town, had been dead for only 18 months. As partner in Dorn & Kay, a musical instrument company, Brian had supported the marching band and all music at the high school. So now, everyone in town gossiped: Selena combined households with a gangster who had served a prison term? The couple was snubbed, but Selena especially suffered humiliation. Ellen Kay walked around with her eyes to the ground for a year.
The Offer We Couldn’t Refuse
While I can’t prove it, I’d like to think that what happened next for the recycling project resulted from Mr. Monti’s desire to get back at the town establishment for humiliating his new wife. By helping the Eco-Freaks, he could show both his civic involvement and lack of respect for the people—mostly the same people—who had been causing trouble for us and for Selena. The Eco-Freaks needed a large truck, and the mobster had one.
Here the logistics get fuzzy. Somehow, Mr. Monti found out about the Eco-Freaks’ plight, or someone asked for his help. It could have been Ellen Kay or Russ, the whole school being well aware of our project, but there had to be adults involved. Jeff’s mother, in her school board position, had some power. Miss Larson, herself a creative thinker, was a likely candidate. How much Mr. Monti’s mob connections encouraged or discouraged the acceptance of the truck remains a subject of speculation.
However it happened, two days before we needed to take the recyclables to the center, we were told that a truck would be coming to us from the yard at the Mon-Bros Fairfield site. We gladly accepted, the irony being apparent to Jeff, C.B., and me. But immediately there was a problem: who could drive such a truck? I didn’t even have my license, and Jeff and C.B. weren’t candidates. The only adult we knew to be capable was my father, who as an engineer in the concrete pipe industry, had experience with those types of trucks.
By some miracle, my dad agreed to be the truck driver that Saturday. I don’t recall how the truck got from Mr. Monti’s yard to the school, but my brother remembers my dad struggling to back it out of our driveway and get it to the school parking lot, where Jeff, C.B., and a bunch of boys loaded it up with barrels. Then my dad, my brother Allan, and I climbed into the cab. Jeff and the boys got into C.B.’s car to follow the truck, and off we started.
The trip to Clark and back is mostly a blur, although I remember us going slowly and carefully. C.B.’s driving at 35 mph wouldn’t have been a problem. I doubt we went on the Garden State Parkway, and as much as I was a bit annoyed at my 12-year-old brother being with us, Allan had the best sense of direction and navigated from a paper map. (C.B.’s sense of direction was nonexistent, so I’m glad he followed the truck.) We arrived at the recycling center, where the boys unloaded all the barrels and got paid—a huge sum of about $7.
The trip back to the school was somewhat faster and noneventful. I can’t remember the truck going back to our house, so perhaps one of Mr. Monti’s employees picked it up. I do recall the relief all we felt. The $7 went into our club fund. We had successfully proved that glass and aluminum could be recycled, however cumbersome the process, and the local economy hadn’t collapsed. Now that bins and barrels weren’t in the school parking lot, the community’s hostility subsided. The mutterings about Mr. Monti’s marriage also began to subside.
With Jeff and C.B. graduating at the end of the school year, the following week I was elected president of the Environmental Studies Organization for the next year. Having proven our point with recycling, the group decided to limit our activities to studying and lobbying. Our plans were interrupted the first week of May, when the Kent State shooting turned everyone’s attention away from ecology and to critical political issues.
But, for a brief time, the Eco-Freaks had found a new and unexpected ally—the mob—in the effort to clean up our environment. It was a time that no one involved can forget.
Jeff. True to his John Muir leanings, Jeff went off to Williams College and then got advanced degrees in forestry and headed for the woods. He now runs a forestry consulting firm in the upper Midwest.
C.B. With very common given and surnames, C.B. is lost to history. His maddening but sweet personality is unforgettable.
Miss Larson. While low key in approach, super intelligent Miss Larson was on our side. Frizzy haired and wearing no makeup, she was likely gay, which might explain her empathy for outsiders.
The Mobster and Family
Gene Monti. His misadventures with the law started in the late 1950s, but the records end abruptly in the mid-1970s. Mon-Bros no longer exists. The last court records cite Monti’s and the company’s “lack of moral integrity and responsibility” to bid on construction projects and reference his falsification of income tax returns. He had been jailed for contempt of court for failing to produce records about the company. From the mid-1970s on, nothing could be found, except that Gene Monti retired to Florida and died in his early 80s.
Selena Kay Monti. It turned out that Gene and Selena made a lasting match and truly loved each other, staying together for the long term. After Gene’s death, Selena moved to a retirement home in Savannah, Georgia, where she died at the age of 87.
Russ Monti. He ultimately married and divorced, but little information can be found, except that he had a short life. He sadly died at the age of 48.
Ellen Kay. She married and had two children, and she and her husband, a clinical psychologist, were living in Savannah, Georgia, at the time of her mother’s death. Ellen’s brother had taken over the management of the Dorn & Kay Instrument Company.
My dad. He never explained his willingness to drive the Mon-Bros truck, but my intuition tells me that, working for a concrete pipe company, he was familiar with the Mafia’s operations and didn’t want to do anything to antagonize Gene Monti and his cronies. My brother remembers him driving very conservatively and being anxious about backing the truck out of our curved, hilly driveway. My dad died in 2001. I wish I’d thought of asking him about this incident.
My brother. Allan was bar mitzvah’ed in the middle of June, 1970. The party was planned for our large backyard, but it rained and we moved everything into the house. With an environmental connection after all, he retired last year from his associate director position for a small and deliberately under-the-radar California state agency dealing with toxics. He still has an excellent sense of the direction and is the family navigator.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.