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Sugarfish

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You’ve heard of Sushi Nozawa—home of the “Sushi Nazi,” Kazunori Nozawa—where the wrong order can get you thrown out on your ear with a “Too many California roll!” This newcomer, looking a lot like a prototype for a chain, is a spin-off billed as its antidote—the anti-Nozawa restaurant. Odd but true. Sort of. The staff is California friendly, the decor fast-food mod, but the menu is as fascistic as you’d expect (Nozawa’s son Tom is in the kitchen). It comes in three basic renditions: Trust Me #1, Trust Me #2, and Trust Me #3. Each is larger than the last, and all are composed of coldedamame and tuna sashimi followed by singularly unexciting variations on a yellowtail-toro-crab roll theme. Think McSushi. On the plus side, the bill includes the tip, eliminating all that arithmetic torture. »47221/4Admiralty Way (310-306-6300 or sugarfishsushi.com). L-D daily. Beer and sake. Sushi  $$-$$$

Mickey Today…

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Bill Gilson, a KTTV reporter, is the only Los Angeles newsman to interview Mickey Cohen since his release from prison. The following report is based on his conversation with the former mobster last month.

Eleven years in federal prison have made a shambles out of the Mickey Cohen an earlier generation of Southern Californians knew and enjoyed during his more sinister salad days. The Mickey Cohen who came home to Los Angeles in January of this year is a physically broken man; reduced by the attack of a fellow inmate from a preening, prideful gangster to a graying, faltering cripple wearing borrowed clothes.

But being allowed to return to Los Angeles was “like being born again,” he says, after spending over a decade of his life in federal penitentiaries in California, Washington, Georgia and Missouri.  

The face of the city has changed drastically since Cohen was imprisoned in 1961 for federal income tax evasion, and so have the people. Clothing styles are for another time and place than the era the once elegantly-dressed Cohen left behind, flanked by federal agents, his hands cuffed in front of him.

“They’re not for me, those clothes,” Cohen said of the brightly hued styles worn by today’s male. He looked down at the mis-matched sweater and trousers he had borrowed from his brother, Harry. “This is the first time I’ve worn the same clothes two days in a row. One of the things I was looking forward to was getting dressed when I got out. But I’ve just got to wait and get myself together and get my clothes.”

Cohen still has the fetish for cleanliness he had during his heyday as the reputed king of the Los Angeles gambling underworld.  He still washes his hands several times a day and repeatedly dry washes the curved handle of the gold-toned, tri-tipped cane he needs to lean on these days in order to move even haltingly.  
Cohen said he knows ‘nothing about that crippling attack except what he was told later in court during the trial of a damage suit he brought against the federal government. (Although he won the suit, he claims he hasn’t yet seen a penny of the nearly $200,000 judgment.)

The lead-pipe armed assailant, according to Cohen, was known to prison authorities to be mentally out of step with other inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution at Atlanta, Ga. Cohen said he had never met the man before, nor to his knowledge had he ever seen him before.  Yet the inmate scaled a 12-foot wall in the exercise yard at the Atlanta prison, dropped to the floor of the compound in which Cohen was relaxing, and bludgeoned the Los Angeles mobster to the ground with a lead pipe.

Cohen’s skull was crushed. He was in a coma for several long weeks, a coma which prison medical authorities for a time believed would deepen into death.  When he finally emerged from unconsciousness he was partially paralyzed, in need of intensive medical care. And bewildered. “This is not to brag, but I was
considered one of the best-liked prisoners anywhere I was, either Alcatraz or Atlanta. Even the warden asked me, ‘Mickey, how in the hell can something like this happen to you? You’re one of the best liked guys in prison.’”

Cohen has not consciously surrendered to his infirmities. The high-pitched voice is still tough, his thinking process apparently not impaired by the injuries. But there is an unexpected turn to some of the concerns he expresses.

For instance, can anyone imagine a Mickey Cohen of the ‘40s or ‘50s talking about prison reform? Today he says he feels it is his “duty as an American” to make those thoughts known, “particularly with regards to the federal system,” which he says he feels “should set the pattern.”

Keying Cohen’s concern for reform is what he characterizes as the “unbelievable” problem of homosexuality in the federal prisons to which he was assigned.  Prison staff members, he said “are part and parcel of it … they go along with it, maybe they kinda feel it keeps the population calmer.”

Anyone sentenced to prison, asserts Cohen, needs “God’s help” to escape attack by what he describes as an organized homosexual element which is tacitly sanctioned at best or ignored at worst by prison authorities. “My morals, my standards in life,” declared Cohen, “have always been kind of strong, particularly against homosexuals of any kind. And I can’t see why the things I consider wrong, or things the general population considers wrong, shouldn’t be corrected.”

Cohen’s new freedom is on a medical parole from the Federal Medical Center at Springfield, Mo., to which he was transferred following the attack on him in Atlanta. The medical release recognizes his physical inabilities, and while it makes him answerable to a local federal authority, it places few restrictions on his travels or on the persons with whom he associates.

Cohen poked an emphatic hole in the air with the forefinger of his right hand when he recalled he had told the parole board  that it might as well lock him up again if it wanted him to “turn my back on the people I once knew.”

There is still a fire in Cohen when he talks about his flaps with Los Angeles police in the days before it took the Internal Revenue Service to sock it to him.
He was rousted so many times for unjailable, unprovable offenses that an official at the MacNeil Island Federal Prison in Washington state came to Cohen’s defense, claiming that Los Angeles police officials spent so much time chasing Cohen-whom he  characterized as a small –time hoodlum-that they let the big-time
crooks in Southern California literally get away with murder.

Who was responsible for those years?  ‘The big trouble was with former Police Chief William H. Parker,” said Cohen. “It was like he had a personal vendetta.” It was true the late Chief Parker didn’t like Cohen, nor the gambling element and the violence it incurred. Parker’s men nailed Cohen and his confederates at every opportunity, but more often than not failed to come up with sufficient evidence to take them to court.

Cohen knew as he recalled those long ago clashes that times have changed. Chief Parker is dead, victim of a heart attack in 1966. Mickey Cohen couldn’t even attend the funeral.

Now Mickey has returned as a curiosity piece in the city where his activities used to command front-page headlines. To an earlier generation that remembers him as the Mickey Cohen, he’s back, but he’ll never be the same.

Mickey Cohen: Memoirs of the Good Days

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Late author and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote this account as part of an unfinished biography of Mickey Cohen in 1958-9. It is published here by permission of his widow, Rose Hecht.

I am full of hair-raising information told me by an ex-underworld king-pin named Mickey Cohen. How he shot, slugged, gouged and swindled his way from rags to riches. How he preyed on society as a stick-up man and crooked gambler, how he corrupted its guardians and strutted for a long time in the nation’s headlines. In addition to facts, I have a knowledge of this disorderly man that may be a deep one. I feel I know him as well as I know Macbeth or the blonde Borgia.

Looking on what I know about this rambunctious law-breaker and headbreaker, I find myself diverted, relaxed, even pleased by Mickey Cohen and his fie-fo-fum activities. They represent a certain sanity in a lunacy-whirling world -the sanity of the criminal. All other human matters change, grow complex and undecipherable-what is good, what is noble, what is pious, what is progressive.  The criminal alone remains a constant.  It is his pleasure to break laws and hold society in contempt. As he was in the tribal civilization of thirty thousand years ago, so he is in the civilization of, oil interests, hydrogen bombs, and the disintegration of human thought into political jabberwock.

I am far from alone in my concept of the criminal as a relaxing bed-time story.  He has been putting the U.S. happily to sleep since World War I. If not for the criminal and his endless bang-banging villainy on movie and television screens, in fiction and newspaper headlines, it is quite possible the U.S.A. would have had a nervous breakdown-or rather a worse one.

Another engaging side of Mickey Cohen is that he is no product of “Our Times.” From a literary point of view this is a considerable virtue. He is not the victim of our economic or political system, or even its revoltee. He is, in fact, totally uncritical of these galaxies.  

The criminal has no hates or fears – except very personal ones. He is possibly the only human left in the world who looks lovingly on society. He does not hanker to fight it, reform it or even rationalize it. He wants only to rob it. He admires it as a hungry man might admire a roast pig with an apple in its mouth. He is the presocial part of us-the Ape that spurned a collar.

The criminal in the time of his lawlessness is one of the few happy or contented men to be found among us. He has a blood lust, an exploding temper, a savage pleasure in breaking heads. But in a criminal his blood lust is business equipment. He uses it as naturally as a banker uses a frock coat. And if he has other neuroses than a need for bloodletting, these are equally untroublesome.  He lives his primitive instincts (called neuroses by society) to the hilt. While he remains a criminal he is as free of conscience pangs as the most right-doing of bookkeepers. He eats well, sleeps well, lives well, and his only disadvantage is that he may die ahead of his time from an enemy bullet, the gas chamber or electric chair.

When I was a newspaper reporter in Chicago, I saw a dozen men executed by hanging. Those of them who had been urged into murder by misplaced loves or accidental rages were usually numb with the terror of dying. It was otherwise with the authentic criminal. He usually faced death casually- as does the Ape.
With these preliminary broodings out of the way, I feel more eager to investigate the brawling life of one of the Republic’s most colorful, and, for a long time, most successful criminals, Mr. Cohen.

Mickey was born in Brooklyn, 1913, of immigrant and orthodox Russian Jewish parents. Four sisters and a brother awaited him.

Two months later the father died and Ma Cohen parked four of her brood with relatives. With daughter Lillian at her side and Mickey in her arms she headed westward. She settled in Los Angeles and opened a small grocery store in Boyle Heights, the toughest and grittiest area of the city.

Ma Cohen was a good and pious woman as Sam, her husband, had been a pious and kindly man. Her kin were equally God-fearing and law-obeying.  Yet mysteriously out of this religion and honest family a criminal emerged.

Mickey’s criminality began at the age of 3, long before environment could start shaping him . At that age he earned his first nickels as a newsstand helper. His duties were to sit on the stacks of newspapers, protecting them from the winds and grabbing hands of Boyle Heights.  Becoming aware of the valuables he was pinning down, Mickey started swapping them, furtively, for candy and hot dogs.  

“I was really looking to make a buck at a very early age,” Mickey puts it.  

At the age of 7 he became a bootlegger, making gin in the rear of a drugstore and peddling it to a grateful clientele. A hundred street corner fights marked the next three years, during which Mickey became a fixture in the First Grade of the Cornwall Elementary School. His education collapsed in the Second Grade.  He was to remain unable to read, write or count beyond five until in his twenties.  

At the age of 9 Mickey selected his career. He went on his first heist and held up the box office of the Columbia Theatre, using a cudgel as a persuader. This is one of the psychological curiosities presented by my subject’s story. He took to burglary and violence as a duckling takes to water. No Jewish morality, no family decency had touched his spirit.  He launched his attack on society as if sired by a long line of pirates.