Even a night at the movies is a risk, he said, because "that would be a place that would be really easy for them."
So where did this mob groupie-turned-witness-turned-author meet for an interview to promote his new book, The Plumber? In the very public bar of a restaurant at one of the largest hotel-conference centers in the area.
Sipping a martini and smoking Marlboros, Salerno seemed comfortable, no doubt, because his companions included retired FBI agent Andrew Sloan and Lt. Joe Khoury of the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office. Still, he frequently looked over his shoulder whenever new customers entered the bar.
"I'm used to doing that," shrugged Salerno, 45, who was a plumber in Brigantine when he started associating with members of the Scarfo crime family and still works in that trade. "I'm constantly looking. . . . I'm used to never keeping my back anywhere because that's what they do - they shoot you behind the back."
A slender, dark-haired man, Salerno rarely smiles. He has dark-brown eyes that remain virtually expressionless while he speaks, an emotionless stare that perhaps is born of seeing death and living with fear.
With co-author Stephen J. Rivele a few feet away, Salerno explained that he thought a book would help his family and the public understand what he has been through and show that the glamour of the mob is just an illusion.
"I had an image . . . but it was a false image until you really see what these people are about," he said of the mob. "People watch The Godfather . . . and all they care about is Al Pacino is great. He's a hero."
Hanging out with mobsters, he said, is not glamorous.
"It's the opposite," said Salerno. "They are deep, dark nightmares, believe me.
"If you join these people, there's three things that are going to happen. You're going to be like them and kill people . . . be killed or you're going to go to jail," he said.
He said he was buoyed by the November 1988 convictions of Scarfo and 16 of the leaders and most active soldiers in the Philadelphia crime family who have been sentenced to prison terms that are likely to keep some of them behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Salerno said also that he was relieved about the defections from the mob last spring of underboss Philip Leonetti and captain Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino, two of the three defendants in the murder case that prompted him to become a prosecution witness.
The third defendant in that case was Scarfo, whom Salerno quoted as having said that it was "one of the happiest days of his life" after Margate, N.J., cement contractor Vincent Falcone was shot to death in December 1979.
Salerno, who was present at the slaying, followed Scarfo's instructions to tie up the body "cowboy" style and waited for police to find the bloodied body in the trunk of the contractor's own car.
Salerno said he kept his composure in Scarfo's presence, but inwardly was horrified and terrified.
After learning from law enforcement officers that Scarfo had plans to kill him next, Salerno became a prosecution witness and was placed in the federal witness-protection program.
During an interview last week, Salerno described how Leonetti coolly pulled the trigger that December day in 1979 when Falcone was shot to death before his eyes and how Scarfo offered to put another round in the body.
"Nicky says it was one of the happiest days of his life, and he loved it," said Salerno.
As for Leonetti, he said, "He was just cold, cold-blooded. It didn't bother him at all."
Merlino, he said, was hungry after the killing. "He was eating and drinking."
It was, he said, an unforgettable experience.
"You never forget that. You remember that," said Salerno, shaking his head in disbelief. "Here's a guy that's in the trunk of the car. Unbelievable."
His unwitting brush with murder, however, didn't prove to be the worst of it.
Scarfo, Leonetti and Merlino were acquitted of the Falcone murder in spite of his testimony. And then, after his testimony before New Jersey gaming regulators got Scarfo and others banned from Atlantic City casinos, Salerno's father was shot and wounded outside the family motel in Wildwood Crest.
Though his father survived, the experience left the son distraught. "I was devastated," he said. "It was unbelievable."
The shooting prompted Salerno to promise his father that he would never again testify against the Scarfo mob. He broke that promise in 1988 during the federal racketeering trial that, among other things, accused Scarfo and others of plotting the elder Salerno's shooting.
Salerno also was displeased with his experience in the witness-protection program, saying that it was poorly run and unable to deal with the psychological trauma that witnesses in the program go through.
He says he moved 30 to 40 times before leaving the program in early 1985. During those years, he said, he was treated with indifference and his federal allowance was cut off after he advised federal marshals that his wife's parents had shown up at the secret location where he and his family were living.
Although he has been out of the program for five years, he remains in hiding.
The jacket cover of The Plumber describes the book as "the true story of how one good man helped destroy the entire Philadelphia Mafia," and it characterizes Salerno as a "man of courage" who was transformed from an ordinary plumber into a "uniquely American hero."
Indeed, Salerno was an important prosecution witness during that trial, but he was one of literally dozens of witnesses who took the stand.
And his significance in the racketeering case paled in contrast to Nicholas ''Nicky Crow" Caramandi and Thomas DelGiorno, the first fully initiated Philadelphia mob members to break the Mafia's code of silence.
Caramandi and DelGiorno linked the Scarfo group to a dozen murders and provided firsthand knowledge about extortions, beatings, political corruption and drug involvement by members of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob.
Salerno said he hoped that the book would do well and confirmed that there had even been "a lot of movie offers." But neither he nor Rivele would say what might ultimately come of such offers.
Salerno said he was not interested in fame and fortune - only the resources for his sons to get good educations and maybe a start in a business.
And as for himself, he said, "All I want is just to have the peace of mind to come and go as I please. I'm not looking for mansions."
Salerno said that his weeklong tour promoting their book, The Plumber, had been tough. It would pretty hard, after all, for a man in his position to sign books at a bookstore in South Philadelphia - or anywhere, so Salerno was always accompanied by law enforcement.
"I don't like it that much. It's like bringing up the old stuff over and over again. I feel like I'm waving the flag, and I don't feel good in doing that," said Salerno, dressed in jeans, black turtleneck and brown leather jacket.
The worst part of it all, he says, has been the missed opportunities for his three sons who are living at another undisclosed location.
"That's the toughest part," said Salerno, pointing out that he hasn't seen his sons for at least 18 months.
He said he had seen his parents just once in 10 years and can communicate with them by telephone only through a special line he calls at FBI headquarters.
If he had to do it all over again, would he testify?
Yes, said Salerno.
But if he had the choice of whether to become buddies with the Scarfo clan, he said, "I wouldn't go near them. I wouldn't cross their path. I'd move my family . . . to another state. I'd play sick or something. I don't know what I'd do. I'd get out of it."
But for now, he said, he's content that the Scarfo crime family finally has been dismantled.
"The best thing that happened to me in the last 10 years is that these people are gone. . . . Where they are, that's where they belong."
His role as government witness, he said, is over.
"I got back at these people," said Salerno. "I didn't have to shoot them."