There she was, outside the Jersey City Marriott. You know the type. Oversized sunglasses, white pants, and a Federal Witness Protection Program T-shirt. A real Sopranos fan.
She winced at my rusty 1995 Jeep Wrangler, and counted my cowlicks. "You're what a Wolf looks like?" she says. "You're Buck?"
"Maybe … and maybe not," I says. "What's it to you, sweetheart?"
But I knew her story. She knew mine. And it was no time to get cute.
The Sopranos' fourth season was only days away, and like the rest of the world, I was losing my mind. The closer it got to the premiere, the more I played cops and robbers. I was becoming a pseudo-Sam Spade, with one foot in a noir fantasy.
‘Take Us to Tony’s House’
I needed information, and fast. So I drove out to Jersey City, to meet with the best in the business — Soprano Sue.
Soprano Sue happens to be the brains behind the SopranoSueSightings.com Web site, and a consultant for the Sopranos On Location bus tour. It was my one chance to see the real locations of all Tony's hangouts, including the infamous Bada Bing strip club.
It was crazy, I know. We were on the trail of an imaginary gangster. I brought an old poker associate, Mr. Umansky. He was a photographer who didn't carry a camera and I was a reporter afraid to ask questions. We're old friends.
"Take us to Tony's house," I tell Sue. "We want to see Tony."
"You'll go where I take you," she says. "And you'll like it."
So she showed us the Sopranos tour itinerary. It wasn't pretty. We were heading to the butcher's shop where Richie Aprile got chopped into mobburger, the diner where Christopher nearly got whacked — the new cultural highlights of northern New Jersey.
Along the way, we'd see every shallow grave, every dark alley where Silvio and Paulie gave chumps lessons in "old school" respect. But one thing was clear. She wasn't taking me to Tony's house.
Was she playing me for a sucker?
I had to slap her around a little. "Listen, you — and listen good. I didn't come out to Jersey on a Saturday to smell the fragrant landfills. You're taking me to Tony's house."
OK, reality check: I didn't slap anyone around. My recollections may be a little embellished. But Sue Sadik really is a 41-year-old former private detective who's the master at finding the Sopranos cast when they're shooting — no matter how grungy the location.
The Gospel According to Tony
If I'm a poor sap living out a gangster fantasy, at least I'm not alone. In the last 2 ½ years, some 3,000 fans have taken the Sopranos tour — and some make the pilgrimage in full gangster regalia, right down to the pinkie rings and pointy leather shoes.
One measure of a classic TV show is the number of rabid fans and ancillary products it produces. Sure, Trekkies set a milestone by translating Shakespeare's Hamlet into Klingon. But The Sopranos is well on its way to creating an alternate universe that rivals anything on Planet Vulcan.
Sopranos fans now have their own lingo, cookbooks, landmarks, college course — even a religious leader, a minister in Houston who's written The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (Relevant Books).
And then there's Soprano Sue. She grew up in Clifton, where Sopranos creator David Chase was born. Chase later moved to North Caldwell, the basis for the town Tony and Carmela call home.
"There was a lot of mob there when I was growing up," Sue says. "My high school boyfriend used to brag that he was related to Lucky Luciano."
She says she doesn't watch much TV, but when she saw images of her hometown on the HBO show, she got hooked. Soon she was hunting down both locations and actors.
"I track them like animals," she says, and has pictures of herself with every obliging cast member to prove it.
Sue's also got some powerful allies. Capo Frank, a consigliere (that's mobspeak for "trusted adviser"), writes dispatches for her Web site and moderates an Internet forum on the show's latest happenings.
Gambling on some inside information two years ago, Sue and her sidekick, "Gramps," took off on a 100 mile drive into the wilds of New Jersey. The payoff? They witnessed the shooting of a classic moment, wherein Christopher and Paulie botch the execution of a Russian mobster and nearly freeze to death. Gramps' car actually appears in the episode, Sue says.
[For a quick tour through Soprano Sue's New Jersey, click here.]
Where does she get her inside information?
"I value my kneecaps too much to tell you," she says. But the truth might be the biggest scandal since Big Pussy ratted out Tony.
Soprano Sue says she maintains good relations with all involved. That why there's no stop at Tony's home. Neighbors of the folks whose house is used for the exterior shots complained about fans hanging around. But the $30 "on location" tour (cannoli included), takes you all over the rest of Tony's turf.
As for the new season, I tried pumping her for details — but got nothing. "I know a lot," Sue says, "and all I can say is this — someone is going to die."
But Sue isn't the only one who's jumped on the show's bandwagon. Here's a look at some Sopranos products:
Bada Being and Nothingness
Sopranos Psychology — Would a shrink be crazy to treat Tony Soprano? Poor Dr. Melfi was forced into hiding after Tony's "associates" found he was discussing "the business" with a psychiatrist.
"I would only refer Tony Soprano to my worst enemy," says Dr. Glen Gabbard, a professor at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and author of The Psychology of the Sopranos (Basic Books).
Still, Tony's complexity intrigues the mental health community. The American Psychoanalytic Association even honored Lorraine Bracco, along with two of the show's writers, for Melfi's portrayal.
In an earlier book, Psychiatry in the Cinema, Gabbard reviewed more than 400 movies and TV shows. He says The Sopranos is the most "credible" portrayal yet of psychiatric treatment.
Just for starters, Gabbard says Melfi may be the first female Hollywood shrink to keep her paws off her patients. "The female therapist almost always falls in love with her patient," he says, citing Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound and Barbra Streisand in The Prince of Tides as prime examples.
Gabbard teaches Psych 101, Sopranos-style, in his new book. In Chapter 1, "Bada Being and Nothingness," we learn that Tony is not a psychopath, even though he's a ruthless thug.
"Tony suffers from anxiety and depression after he lies and cheats and steals," Gabbard says. "A psychopath typically wouldn't."
Who are the Soprano family psychopaths? Tony's rivals Richie Aprile and Ralph Ciforetto, Gabbard says. They're self-absorbed and kill without compunction.
In the long run, will psychiatry help Tony?
"Tony's making slow progress," Gabbard says. "But I predict he will die before he finishes with therapy," Of course, that might be true for most of us.
Premium Video: Loraine Bracco on Good Morning America
Sopranos Gospel — You can learn a lot about Christianity at the Bada Bing, according to Pastor Chris Seay of Houston, author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (Relevant Books).
You might think The Sopranos would offend a minister with its graphic violence, foul language and sex. What's more, the show airs on Sunday.
But Seay urges viewers to look beyond the depravity for important lessons. He says Tony is like the biblical King Solomon. Both have tremendous wealth and power. Still, they inwardly feel weak and empty.
"Tony is a powerless father," Seay says. "He can't stop torturing himself because he thinks he's failing them [his children], just as his mother and father failed him."
Seay calls Big Pussy "the Judas Iscariot of the New Jersey mob" for betraying Tony and becoming an FBI informant.
Tony's only shot at happiness is to seek God, the pastor says. Therapy alone can't help, says Seay. He paints an unflattering portrait of Dr. Melfi, who attempts to heal Tony and "other misguided patients" without "possessing a true sense of the illness in her own life."
Seay describes Melfi's tendency to drink bourbon before seeing patients as "only the beginning of her ethical dilemmas."
"She sits in a place of perceived power, but, like Tony, finds herself weak and bankrupt."
If only Tony could read The Gospel According to Tony Soprano. Being compared to Soloman might finally cheer him up.
Sopranos Lingo — If you think a "goohmah," is the person married to your grandpa, you'll need The Sopranos: A Family History (Warner Books) by Alan Rucker, the most exacting of all episode guides.
A goohmah is a mistress, and every "made guy" in the Sopranos crew has one.
Here's a couple of other lessons in singing Soprano:
Large — $1,000, as in "You owe me 50 large." Buttlegging — Bootlegging untaxed cigarettes. Guest of the State — A convicted criminal Stugots — Testicles. Also the name of Tony's boat. Wearing It — Dressing in traditional gangster attire, with a shiny suit, hankie, pinky ring, gold cufflinks and other ornaments. Silvio and Paulie are always "wearing it." Mortadella — A total loser. Wonder Bread WOP — An assimilated Italian-American.
Sopranos College — Is Carmela Soprano the Blanche DuBois of northern New Jersey? Are Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante gangland's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
Professor Maurice Yacowar of the University of Calgary in Alberta is teaching the first college class devoted to The Sopranos. "They really do stand up to the kind of analysis I'm used to giving for a [Harold] Pinter play, or a Tennessee Williams play, or a Hitchcock film, or a Shakespeare play," he tells Reuters. "The text is that rich, the context is that lively."
This film studies class will call on students to view gangster classics like The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather before tackling the HBO drama.
Sopranos Cooking — Mafia movies are famous for killing and cooking — and the Soprano family has recipes for both. Tony's friend Artie Bucco is credited with compiling the official Sopranos Family Cookbook (Warner Books) featuring 100 Neapolitan and southern Italian recipes.
But to muscle into the world of gangster cookbooks, Tony's fictional family will have to square off with Henry Hill, the real-life gangster who disappeared into the Federal Witness Protection Program and became the subject of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas.
Hill's Wiseguy Cookbook (New American Library) offers practical advice for guys "on the run," like substituting pork loin when your jailer won't let you to have veal.
"I love the Sopranos, but, if anything, they underplay food," Hill says. "I used to see bosses who would ruin $2,000 suits because they'd insist on cooking. And those guys don't wear aprons."
The Sopranos Family Cookbook features vignettes with each family member, as well as recipes. "Mama always cooked," Uncle Junior says. "No one died of too much cholesterol or some such crap."
Carmela extols the healing virtues of ziti. Dr. Melfi offers an essay on "Rage, Guilt, Loneliness and Food."
As for Hill, he plans to whip up one of his special "kick-back" antipasto heroes and watch The Sopranos' season premiere.
"I'm thinking that this season, it's time for either Paulie or Ralphie to get whacked," he says. "Both those guys have it coming to them."
And that's about as close as you can get to an expert opinion.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.