PHILADELPHIA–Frankie "The Gorilla" Pistone leans wistfully on his bat. Then, without warning, he picks it up, swinging it furiously toward his deadbeat client's leg. Just before the Louisville Slugger makes contact with the man's kneecap, he pulls back, as only a real pro can, leaving the $250-in-the-hole man gasping in fear and relief. "Just get it to me by tomorrow, because next time, I ain't gonna let up," Pistone says.
As the thankful man scurries off, Pistone pulls the cigarette out of his mouth and drops it to the ground. "I'm going to miss this," he says.
Frank Pistone is part of the dying breed known as the American Loan Shark. Not so long ago, the loan shark flourished, offering short-term, high-interest loans to desperate people with nowhere else to turn. Today, however, Pistone and countless others like him are being squeezed out by the major credit-card companies, which can offer money to the down-and-out at lower rates of interest and without the threat of bodily harm.
"It's a damn shame," said Joseph Stasi, 61, a South Philadelphia loan shark whose business is down 90 percent from its mid-'70s heyday. "These days, there's just no place for the small businessman. My kind, we just can't compete with the Visas and MasterCards of the world."
"The old customers don't come 'round here no more," said Felix Costa, 59, speaking from the Elizabeth, NJ, pool hall that has served as his place of business since 1972. "Time was, a guy who needed a quick $400 for a new refrigerator or some car repairs would come straight to me. Now, he just puts it on his Discover card."
Though their client lists are dwindling, the loan sharks still have their champions.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the loan sharks to the credit-card companies," said Gene Hobson of Detroit. "When I borrow money from Three Knuckles Benny, I know there's going to be a personal touch, whether it's a dead animal on my doorstep or one of my kids coming home with a missing toe. The credit cards just don't give you that sort of individualized attention. And, if you're late with them, it's a form letter and maybe–maybe–an irate call from the accounts-receivable department."
"With our overhead, we need to charge a 50 percent weekly interest rate just to break even," said a Chicago loan shark who identified himself only as "Johnny Toothpick." "We've got rent, pay-offs, and switchblade maintenance, not to mention travel expenses. How can we compete with rates as low as 18 to 26 percent a year?"
Continued Toothpick: "These [credit-card companies] are monsters. They care nothing about the damage they're doing to the American landscape by driving us out. Loan sharking was about more than giving people money and roughing them up when they didn't come through. It was about ruffling a kid's hair on the street, helping out a local fella who needed a break, and occasionally letting somebody off easy with just a couple of punches to the gut instead of a glass-filled sock to the face. It's a unique part of our shared national experience that, once extinct, will never come back."
With nearly 200,000 new credit-card solicitations going out every week, the loan sharks have little hope of regaining the ground they've lost.
"We were going by word of mouth, and we did pretty good around the neighborhood," Pistone said. "But these credit cards? With direct mail and the Internet, they reach a customer base we can only dream about. In this business climate, how can a small, independent goon possibly compete?"