Kiss the mob goodbye.

It's true - or it's in the papers anyway, which is nearly the same thing. "The Mob in Decline," the headline says. "A Battered and Ailing Mafia Is Losing Its Grip on America." In Los Angeles, investigators have started calling their local branch of the business the "Mickey Mouse Mafia"; this is not a compliment, not even in Los Angeles. In New Jersey, one of the onetime big-time groups is now known as the "Geritol gang." In one city and another, old Mafia haunts are being replaced by shopping malls and swimming pools. How embarrassing!The experts are debating how it happened, and here's what they think: tough new laws, incompetent leadership, changing neighborhoods, dwindling family loyalty.

Here's what I think: People magazine. People magazine and nicknames.

In the old days, there were two ways for the average Joe to get famous: Be a star athlete or be a mobster. But being a star athlete was hard work; not everybody could do it. Besides, a star athlete's career was short - a few years in the limelight, then a long and boring retirement. This was never a problem for mobsters. Being a mobster was a lifelong career. How long a life was a question, of course, but by following a few simple rules - don't stand under a falling safe, never wear concrete shoes - you could have a pretty good run, fame- and fortune-wise.

And nickname-wise. In the old days, the athletes and the mobsters got all the best nicknames. "The Splendid Splinter" and "Scarface," "The Say Hey Kid" and "Bugsy," "Charlie Hustle" and "Crazy Joey." For Tony Ethnicci or Mike O'Ethnihan or Izzy Ethnicsky, for all those kids out there who knew they'd never be able to hit the curve ball or turn the double play, joining the mob was their only shot (pardon the expression) at a nickname of their own.

Then came People magazine, and two things changed. One, there were suddenly thousands and thousands of people who couldn't hit or field or gun somebody down over a plate of clams, but who were perfectly famous anyhow! And two, lots of these suddenly famous people had nicknames.

Glance through an issue or three of People, and you'll see what I mean. Nicknames everywhere, and almost all of them in that particular People style. The first name, the nickname (in parentheses), the last name. It's almost never "Joe Blow, `The Galloping Roast.' " It's almost always "Joe (The Galloping Roast) Blow."

Sometimes these Peop-nicks work pretty well: Here's "Edward (The Equalizer) Woodward," for instance, and "Barry (Rain Man) Levinson," and even "Peggy (Mod Squad) Lipton." Strong, solid - the kind of nicknames any formerly aspiring mobster would be happy to have.

Sometimes it's a bit of a stretch: "Jasmine (A Different World) Guy," for instance.

And then there are the nicknames you're sure no one would possibly want to have crammed in there, but People hands them out anyhow, and nobody seems to complain: "William (Die Hard 2) Sadler." "Elias (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) Koteas." And my personal favorite, "Thomas Wilson (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) Brown."

Awkward? You bet. Better than nothing? Also true. And they don't even have to take blood oaths.

Of course the mob is in trouble.