Robert Bacigalupo was a fixture under the gaudy gold chandeliers and oak encrusted ceilings of Las Vegas casinos back when the town was run by the mob in the 1970s. He sat alone amongst strangers, holding his cards close and blowing money at a rapid pace, until he retreated to a cheap and sleazy motel for the night. He knew the town well from frequent vacations, jetting over whenever he felt like it. He liked to be hidden in the crowd.
“They don’t know you from a hole in the wall,” Cards said. “They just know your hand and that you’re spending money. ”
Returning home to Boston, however, always brought Bacigalupo a new identity. He became the town funnyman, going to great lengths to make people laugh. The only part of his Vegas identity that followed him east lay in his nickname: Bobby Cards.
Now, Cards is in his sixties, and his main haunt is Skip Scaro’s barbershop on Dorchester Street in South Boston. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in September, Cards crept down the side streets near the barbershop in his old, red Toyota Camry for the second time that day. The first visit was devoted to a haircut and some tomfoolery. Cards spends time performing card and magic tricks for the clientele in the hundred year old shop.
On the second trip, Cards burst through the rickety screen door of the barbershop and Scaro greeted him excitedly. Cards’ cream-colored corduroy blazer fell smoothly atop his gray and white button-down shirt, open to the third button. He’d shined his wingtips without a scuff. His sharp dress contrasted with the dingy wood paneling of the shop, covered with dust and hair clippings. The sun shone through the window, illuminating a thin dusting of talcum powder over the shelf next to Scaro’s chair. Yellowing pictures of celebrities who visited the shop line the walls in the closet sized shop, and Cards seems at home amongst them. He has become somewhat famous in the neighborhood for his tricks.
The folding chairs on the right side of the shop remain empty, but Scaro is snipping gray hairs from the side of Eddie Flynn’s head at the first of his few barber chairs on the left side of the shop. Cards immediately sidled up to the left side of the occupied chair and whipped out his deck of cards. Flynn’s eyes averted from the mirror ahead, down to the deck of cards, looking somewhat skeptical. Cards flipped and hid and folded and threw the cards, only fooling his audience some of the time.
“There are always characters walking through here,” Flynn, son of Boston’s former Mayor Flynn, said from the barber’s chair, his hair uneven. The barber had abandoned the scissors in favor of winding up Cards for a Donald Duck impression. “You’re interviewing a real good guy.”
Flynn’s distinction became important when Cards revealed the reason for his second visit.
“I gotta pick up the paper because my friend just got put in jail for extortion,” Cards said.
Cards met the recently indicted Joseph “JoJo” Burhoe at the barbershop years ago and approached him about some stolen property. Burhoe offered to “take care of” the problem for Cards.
“I’m not a violent person, I’m just a fun loving guy,” Cards said, smiling and showing his chipped front tooth. “I didn’t want to get involved.”
Cards’ desire of anonymity seems flimsy given his love of entertainment. Perhaps his need for obscurity is only in regard to the law.
“It’s very easy for me to get into trouble. I’m around a lot of street people,” Cards explained, parked in the lot at Sullivan’s on Castle Island, precisely the place where the FBI photographed mobster Whitey Bulger during many clandestine meetings. “I went to the college of hard knocks. I made a lot, a lot, a lot of money. Fast cars and fast women.”
Now, Cards’ anonymity lies in his celebrity; if he is the funny guy, people won’t assume he is a the criminal. He tries to stay away from trouble, his card tricks keeping him busy. Aside from entertaining at the shop, Cards books odd entertainment jobs, like clowning at kids’ parties and performing card tricks on Boston Harbor cruises.
Antiquing bamboo or tropical-looking items is one of Cards’ favorite hobbies. After a morning coffee, light with two sugars that he drinks from a straw, Cards heads to antique shops, surveying what came in since his last visit. Cards, in the midst of a stroll on Castle Island after a hot dog from Sullivan’s, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, pulling out his old T Mobile flip phone to display photos of his latest prizes. He boasted a bamboo kitchen table, chairs, a mirror and is building a bamboo headboard.
Odd hobbies help keep Cards in a favorable public way and out of view of the law, but Cards’ personal life is very private. He was married once, but left after six months.
“I didn’t like being confined,” he said of his quick marriage. “I didn’t like the idea of anyone trying to control me.”
Cards’ cousin is his only living relative, making his familial obligations nil. He had two sisters and parents whom he lived with growing up on East Third Street in Southie.
After graduating from high school, Cards went into the restaurant business. He worked in pizzerias in the North End and at Triple O’s, a bar owned by Bulger’s affiliate Kevin O’Neil where members of the Winter Hill Gang met frequently. Buying and selling property was one of his final ventures, and the most lucrative. With this money, he went on long, lavish vacations to places where no body knew him, sometimes without packing a suitcase; he bought new clothes at his destination. He gambled away much of the money that was left.
“Casinos, gambling was an addiction,” Cards said of his habits. “I don’t do it now because I don’t have the money.”
He says he would go back to gambling if he had the funds.
Gambling truly offered Cards anonymity. He was outside the law in a town run by criminals. It allowed him to be Robert Bacigalupo, a self-proclaimed nobody doing what he liked to do. He’s lived in Boston too long to be invisible here, though, so Cards hides in plain view when he’s back home, winning laughs instead of poker chips. Now, Cards’ next undertaking may be acting. He is taking head shots with the help of a friend and sending them to New York City agencies. Perhaps this publicity will be the ultimate form of anonymity for Bobby Cards, but what if he plays a crook? In his struggle to stay out of the eyes of the law, Cards may end up in police officers’ homes, on their televisions.