The Secret is to Tell All!

Living in Milan

After my prison sentence was over, I went several months without working. I amused myself by traveling the length of the coast, up to Nervi, sometimes in the company of friends that I’d made, but most often by myself. Like the great lords of the past, I also dedicated a certain amount of time to making visits – in different Italian towns – to the people I knew or relatives whose addresses I’d carefully noted. My funds decreased in the blink of an eye, and I then made the decision, always delayed until then, to settle in Milan and seek out work and adventures there. In Liguria, I obtained my driver’s license, and my scorn for prudence had rapidly made me a skillful and reckless driver. I even had the feeling of being a kind of knight in the marionette theater, fearless if not blameless, when I got behind the wheel and pushed my old BMW to the maximum speed (its motor was in perfect condition). I bought it from a Swiss smuggler who had retired.

Winter approached; it was already October. As a good impoverished southerner with a police record, I could find nothing better than an exorbitantly priced room on the Via Gaudenzio Ferrari. It was a traditional furnished room that a little woman rented illegally, without posing any questions to anyone who could pay her in advance, to any tenant willing to increase her pension and help her survive. The gloomy weather and the eternally clouded sky made an unpleasant impression on me, and the metropolis did not, at first glance, seem to be a golden Mecca dreamed about by emigrants. Rather, it was the city of the dead! Everyone bustled about in that gray madhouse, blemished by smog,[1] and conditioning themselves to work frenetically so as to avoid being overwhelmed by solitude, to justify their endless suffering as individuals condemned to sell their time to a boss.

Milan is not an easy place, and it doesn’t allow half-measures. One loves it or hates it violently. Even today, this town in which the majority of my friends and those who are dear to me live and of which I have learned to appreciate all its aspects and its spirit (to the point of not wanting to dislodge myself from it); even today, I understand the degree to which it can appear to a newcomer as cold, oppressive, compartmentalized and implacable, despite its apparently good organization.

The first few days I was there, I surveyed the Corso Buenos Aires without managing to gauge the atmosphere, and I fared no better when I disappeared into the spider’s web of streets with dilapidated houses that were just off of the main artery, and I got nothing more than superficial and distracted cordiality from the shop workers and the sticky conversations of the old people who were seated in the last remaining bars below the apartments ornamented with balconies. These empty but exhausting days ended at the restaurants. I still remember the price of the subscription tickets: a dozen meals, a quarter of a liter of red wine included: [a mere] ten thousand lire. In the club of aspiring suicides (though suicides were rare), one thought oneself in paradise when one exchanged two words with the person who occasionally shared one’s table and, when someone managed to laugh heartily, it was as if one had won the lottery! And work? Ah . . . yes . . . work. . . . I looked for it, but despite my skillful lies, I was offered nothing better than a job unloading crates at one of the covered markets, which I did not accept. I spoke very little and listened a lot. I floundered like a piglet in shit, without ever expecting to get out of the pigsty, and I once again found myself, invariably pissed off, in my cell.

One night, I was awoken by a police siren. The cops were in the process of encircling the building (one has the habit of using this phrase, though, in Milan, they block the exit and don’t bother to encircle the house). Whatever they were doing, I got to the window just in time to see an impressive number of cops rally themselves with their customary and useless cinematic staging at the entryway (which was open, because they lock had been broken for the last seven years). Some of them had their pistols drawn; others had their Beretta submachine guns in their hands. Perplexed, I was gaping at the scene when they banged like maniacs on my door, while I heard from the stairs down to the lower floors the cries of those who had been unable to escape the raid. They only act this way with poor people and the defenseless. Have you ever heard of such a racket at the property of Calogero Vizzini?[2] When I sleep, my mouth gets dry, and my problem is producing enough saliva to relieve that inconvenience. I was making an effort to do this when, the door being open, I found myself dragged into the hall, dressed only in my pajamas.

The cops had information from a spy in need of money, and they were searching for stolen goods. As they didn’t find any (they would eventually), all the suspects, that is to say, all the men in good health between the ages of 15 and 60, had to face the wall with their hands held high. An officer with a nose as long as Pinocchio’s – I pity his poor mother when she first saw it – held the barrel of his gun against my back, causing my mouth to become perfectly moist and giving me a very bad headache. Nevertheless, I didn’t judge it necessary to express my gratitude to him. A quarter of an hour later, they decided to leave with two poor guys whom they’d handcuffed. I was absolutely amazed to see the others disperse without a word, as they do at the end of celebrations sponsored by L’Unita.[3] I allowed myself to make a comment.

“You might have excused yourselves,” I said, “for having disturbed those who didn’t do anything, the so-called innocents, at this time of night.”

“There are no innocent people here,” a commissioner in civilian clothes stated dryly. He was big and fat, with a shaggy beard. He was named Voltolin, as I learned later.

“Your response isn’t very funny, and I believe that excuses are in order,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes.

He was unmoved by this. Voltolin was known in the underworld as a bastard who had no great respect for the rules and, as compensation for it, a polished nastiness.

“Are you talking to me, you tramp?” he asked in turn.

“Who else?” I ventured, quite determined but slightly worried.

That mountain of fat and muscles kept his sardonic expression and appeared to not be paying any attention to me. He calmly lit a cigarette, and then he added, “Handcuff him and take him away, too . . . for an identity check. . . . He doesn’t have any identification and surely he doesn’t live here in Milan. . . . Tomorrow we’ll send him back to his village.”

He was going to fuck with me, the bastard. Given that I had no job, my deportation was assured. I was about to be placed in a police van when a decent guy with an open and likeable face, in his late forties, intervened. His robust and stocky look was spoiled by a belly that betrayed a long familiarity with barbera.[4] He spoke in a pure Milanese dialect and grabbed the bearded cop to speak to him confidentially.

“Come on . . . let him go. . . . He barely has the strength to speak, that dumb southerner. . . . Don’t lock him up, don’t break his balls or he’ll die. You see that he’s got the jitters. . . .”[5]

“Are you in a good mood, Didi? Don’t be. . . . If you don’t end up in San Vittore[6] tonight, you will next time, you rogue of a thief!”

My impromptu defender was not at all offended.

“Cut off my hands, illustrious one, if I’ve ever stole five bucks,” he said.[7] Then, laughing, he hid his hands in the pockets of his jacket, as if the curse had come true. He continued. “Let him go . . . inspector. . . . Listen.[8] If you take him away in his pajamas, L’Unita will say that you’re fucking little boys in police headquarters.”[9]

I followed their strange conversation, handcuffed, silent and cold. Finally, they let me out of the van and rewarded me with several insults and sent me off with “Goodbye, pig.”

It was three o’clock in the morning. Didi turned towards one of the bystanders (the owner of a dive) and asked him to bring a bottle of wine, specifying that the one to pay for it would be me (or, rather, that “bavar d’un barlafus d’un bicciolan d’un teron”[10]). As one “thank you” followed another, the empty bottles piled up, and dawn found us drunk; we’d chatted at great length, and most of it had been nonsense. Around noon, I accompanied my savior to Bersgliera, a restaurant in the Piazza Tirana, where he introduced me to one of his friends, a man named Tarzan, who directed an employment office for petty criminals. First he gave me an oral examination and then a practice test. Eventually I was hired as the chauffeur for an illegal gambling house. My duties were basically very simple. I had to stay parked nearby, and then – if the panthers[11] arrived – get the respectable clients in fast and give the cops the slip.

I’d finally found a job, and I saw open before me a completely different Milan, a more human one, a vintage and peaceful underworld that was settled in the working-class districts of Ticino, Giambellino and Barona. Strange people: on the one hand, they were very attached to their families, but unable to accept the rules and therefore ready to binge for an entire week, kept awake by cocaine, on the other. There were no other drugs, and no one sought them or dealt them. A parallel world to the one of slightly fanatical, lower-level Mafiosi of the Corso Buenos Aires; less likely to kill and more disposed to overlook missteps and even betrayals . . . perhaps more specialized in small, skillful crimes and certainly less attentive to accumulating profits. In fact, they earned very little, but at least enjoyed themselves often, from the miserable bars on Naviglio to the little inns on Brera, where it was not impossible to chat up a rich girl who was in heat. Sometimes things turned out badly, as when Didi used his strong hand to strike a marquise in the back (she’d shouted “hit me!”) and was surprised to see her run out of his car, without her panties, half-fucked. Tarzan, on the other hand, had a special liking for fights. As soon as the amount of wine that had been drunk passed a certain level, he sought trouble with everyone, involving us in a continuous seesaw of blows and flights all across town.

The gambling den paid me pretty well and I had a good reputation. Thus the cops began to keep an eye on me, until one day – after safely discharging my passengers – they managed to nab me. A second police car had come to the scene, and I found myself trapped on the via Colletta, near the Porta Romana. At the time, it was a dark, very isolated street. Commissioner Voltolin got out of an [Alfa Romeo] Giulia, and he recognized me immediately.

“It’s our innocent man,” he said sarcastically.

“I don’t think it’s illegal to drive a car,” I said, boldly, as usual. And I added, “If you have something against me, charge me. But I must call my lawyer right away.”

Of course I didn’t have a lawyer, and I didn’t even know how I came up with a stunt like that. It is certain that the effect was lethal, throwing the cops into a black hole of consternation. Their leader, however, had a solution to unexpected problems and a certain expertise in overcoming a scoundrel’s technicalities. He stroked his beard, scratched his belly and struck me in the face with the back of his hand.

“So we have a lawyer,” he hissed. “Do you think that I don’t know that they can’t prove anything? I know, dear Messana, I know . . . and I don’t give a fuck.” He gave me another slap in the face and continued.

“You’ve already had your trial, and you’ve been found guilty, even extremely guilty. So, to avoid you bullshitting the people in court, instead of charging you, we are going to go straight to your sentence.”

Cued by Voltolin, they started beating me, all six of them, and it was like a punishment from God. First they used wet rags, so as to hurt me without leaving any marks; then, more and more excited, they did without this precaution. It lasted a good ten minutes. That does not seem like a long time, but it felt like an eternity. They shouted that I should defend myself, to show that I was a man; and that I should try to escape. But I did not fall for it; I knew it would have been an excuse to arrest or even shoot me. I realized that it was useless to fight back and so I chose to throw myself on the ground, like I was dead; I pretended to be unconscious and resisted the temptation to complain once the last kick rained down. I heard them leave and immediately decided to change professions: small-time criminals only collect crumbs and a lot of trouble.

The next morning, at the bar called Wanda, I met “Professor Stamp,” a small man, around 50 years old, rubicund, with a white mustache, a specialist in the fabrication of counterfeit money and papers (from whence came his nickname). It was to him who perfectionist criminals turned, and he was proud to be considered the best; he ceaselessly recalled the day when the police found one of “his” driver’s licenses on the ground and returned it to the person whose name was on it, without noticing that anything was amiss.

“Mine are better than those of the prefecture,” he loved to say. The Professor attached great importance to his own education (he knew by heart hundreds of Milanese poems by the famous poet Carlo Porta) and to the education of his son, who was forced to attend the University of Milan and became part of the student movement. His son was also present at Wanda, and this provided an opportunity for me to let go of my old milieu, to once more change identity, and to associate with that troop of crazies who had no means but an infinite number of projects.

I then participated in a series of five or six meetings during which they talked about the Chinese Revolution and Mao Tse-Tung (it was incomprehensible to me, but they were nice), and we ended up drinking Apulian wine at Strippoli. Shortly thereafter, we decided to occupy a large abandoned hotel in the center of the city: the famous Hotel Commercio. I am still amazed by the simplicity with which this very complicated plan was carried out. In the final analysis, all we had to do was break the lock on a door and enter as a group, right before the eyes of the uncertain and perplexed cops. The luxurious rooms therein were requisitioned without too many formalities in the name and to the profit of the working classes, of which I was a member with full title. I was delighted to leave behind my squalid furnished room at the Porta Genova and the agonizing loneliness of that concentration camp. Waiting for me was a marvelous and new adventure among the political people, who at that time asked you nothing about your past nor thought in terms of gray tranquility.[12]

I conquered a single room on the third floor. I furnished it with the essential furniture, but according to my tastes: it almost resembled a cabin in the Kirta! Looking out of my window, I could see the center of Milan, and I was filled with joy when I realized I could live for free in the temple of the most important bourgeoisie in Italy.[13]

There was an incredible bustle on the stairs and in the rooms of the Commercio: fugitive girls, students from the suburbs, the offspring of illustrious families, and sub-proletarians, not forgetting, of course, the spies and unscrupulous thieves who didn’t hesitate to steal what little there was, slipping into every corner of the building. There abounded portraits of Che Guevara with his cigar and beret, and Ho Chi Minh with his goatee. The Feltrinelli bookstore[14] never had enough books to satisfy the sudden explosion of requests. I did not go to the demonstrations because they were terribly boring, and you had to walk for hours, until you were exhausted. But I often helped to mimeograph flyers and collaborated on the distribution of propaganda to the various college departments: I was left with a rather ill-concealed passion for [speaking through] megaphones and for all the tools of the printing press! However, the unbridled individuality of my character clashed with the mania for collectivism that spread throughout the tribe, especially since I had the habit of distrusting the apparently sincere altruism of the ringleaders of the movement.

In the assemblies of the occupiers of the Commercio (participation was obligatory and people from the outside could get involved), they often spoke of Cavallero and Notarnicola,[15] especially the latter, a veritable idol of the masses and even the author of a book. I preferred the former for the genius with which he had organized the robberies, especially the double-shot, in which the second robbery came so soon after the first one that the police had no time to organize their defenses. If his accomplices had listened to him, they never would have gotten caught, I guess. Cavallero (unlike his accomplices) despised the underworld and constantly moved to avoid being noticed, patiently studying the objective like a gambler on the stock exchange studying the economy. At his trial, he dominated the dock[16] with more force than Curcio or Moretti,[17] won the complete respect of the court, and even demonstrated generosity to that asshole Lopez, who had spoiled everything with his lack of experience. Cavallero got me thinking, and I decided to use his shrewd techniques. I chose to direct my attacks on objectives that were of secondary importance to power (at least from the symbolic perspective), but well provided with cash: small post offices, delivery men on pay days, cooperative porters, supermarkets and toll booths on isolated highways. My wallet was empty, and I searched for guys who would be able to help me in the realization of my own wicked schemes. It isn’t easy to secure board and lodging without subjecting oneself to a steady job. Given the weak propensity for toil in the entire scene that surrounded me, it didn’t take much time to assemble an effective trio. The two other guys were Antonio, a fellow villager whom I’d met at Strippoli (where I never paid, always with good excuses, which unleashed the fury of the owner), and Roberto, an anarchist who was as crazy as a young horse, a protester even in his appearance: a beard, a long scarf that went down to his feet, a kind of black caftan and army boots. It was Roberto who decided that a quarter of the loot should be given, anonymously and in secret, to our political organization.

“There are four of us,” he said; “us three and the Revolution. Thus it is fitting to share it four ways.” No one objected, though it seemed stupid for us to set aside not-yet-stolen money for others.

I tasked myself with finding two pistols; Antonio took care of the car, but didn’t find anything better than an old and completely fucked Fiat 500. After we fought for an hour about the pathetic vehicle that our band of oddballs[18] was equipped with, we finally robbed the post office near the Piazza Frattini. Result: two million, three hundred thousand lire. I would never have believed that it would be so easy. Roberto waited behind the wheel; Antonio and I calmly entered the middle of the line of retirees and I suddenly called out, “The first one to move will get a bullet in the skull and, if you do not remain calm, we will massacre you all without pity.” My stomach was in a nervous commotion, but the terrorized stupor of the people reassured me. As in a dream, I saw Antonio take hold of the plastic sack containing the money, with the result that I remained still a moment, dazed, with my pistol leveled at an employee who didn’t know what else I could possibly want. My associate whistled, and we fled in our pitiful car, driven by Roberto, who was very excited. It was a miracle that we arrived back at the house without having an accident with another helmsman.

In forty minutes, I had pocketed the equivalent of three months’ salary of a worker at Pirelli,[19] and I had also helped to finance a political movement, contributing to the chaos, if not changing society. We celebrated this success in Il toro bravo, a typical Spanish restaurant on the Porta Garibaldi, ordering the most costly specialties without minding the tally, happy as children who had stolen plums. Fresh wine, straight from the cask, flowed like water, and it didn’t seem necessary to us to stop gulping down tequila with lemon until the bottle was empty. In the end, we were completely drunk and, on orders from Roberto, we intoned the song “Figli dell’Officina”[20] at the top of our lungs, watched by the amused night owls of the Moscatelli brigade. (Not Moscatelli, a member of the Resistance, but simply the regulars at a restaurant of the same name that was open until very late at night.)

The extreme Left grew day by day, and became a presence that even the most distracted observer couldn’t ignore. The confrontations with the police, the strike pickets in front of the factories, the occupations of buildings and schools became part of everyday life. Antonio and I lived at the margins of this experience, distrustful of all the Northerners. Roberto, on the other hand, threw himself into it completely, even trying to convince us that the moment for a general uprising was near. Carried away by this obsession, he rather suddenly announced to us that it was essential to build a Marxist-Leninist party (he estimated that anarchism had been surpassed). To prove the seriousness of his intentions, he shaved his beard and cut his hair. In the motley community of the Commercio, there were many who thought as Roberto did, but before there were real fights the authorities evacuated the building by force, and our protests didn’t do much to stop it. Despite indignant and bloodthirsty declarations, we all found ourselves in the street again.

After five successful robberies and under the weight of the events and individual choices, our trio broke up. Roberto got into trouble because of a bastard who had mentioned him in a story about explosives, though Roberto wasn’t involved. His arrest put an end to our collaboration, and he spent a year in prison before his innocence was recognized. Antonio was no longer happy robbing post offices, and he tried to drag me into bigger heists, but I refused and we fought about it. Several months later, he was arrested in a bank in Varese, in the company of a Venetian, both of them armed with machine guns and bombs. I once again found myself all alone, and the police were watching me. I knew that the cops knew and were waiting me to make for a false move. Moreover, I wanted to marry a Sicilian woman who seemed well suited to share my life with me. Having no other opportunities, I took my courage in hand, jumped into the ditch and, in the hope being forgotten, I took work for three months as a seasonal worker at the Motta [cake] factory.

Milan changed before my eyes, but I didn’t realize it. I had lived as rebel outcast during a hot autumn,[21] and I wasn’t even aware that I’d actively participated, not only in the profound transformation of society, but of myself, as well. I did not realize the decisive influence that the joyous carnival of the Hotel Commercio had exerted on me or that Roberto’s style had marked my character. Damaging the mechanisms of power possessed a discreet charm that had conquered me; it was impossible for me to once again become a simple petty crook, as my break with Antonio had demonstrated.

The day that I headed to a factory for the first time in my life, spring exploded. The intense odor of the linden tress filled the entire city, especially during the early hours of the morning, when the air was still light. As it would have been in bad taste to go to the factory in my old BMW, I used public transportation to go from Baggio, where I slept at the house of some friends, to the Viale Corsica. The three cars of the train I took were packed full; I did not know my way around crowds of workers nor how they found the energy to reciprocally exchange such elbow jabs. My senses were oppressed to the point of nausea by all that human flesh crammed into such a small space, and I had a powerful desire to cry out that we were all slaves.

I sought refuge by putting my nose close to the neck of an employee who was intent upon reading the sports pages of the Corriere and by breathing in the smell of his plentiful aftershave. I was certainly bothering him, but he didn’t dare protest. I got off two stops before mine, not only to regain a little energy, but also to have the feeling of still being able to be my own boss, to not be completely automated. I continued strolling until I reached my little-desired destination.

A small crowd waited at the entrance. Mixed among the workers were sellers of cigarettes, watches and even encyclopedias on credit. This might appear unbelievable, but some of these street peddlers managed to sell these monumental works by using their nerve and angelic smiles to get signatures on contracts that reduced the workers’ salaries for several months. When the signal was sounded, everyone moved towards the doors, with the mass thinning out as it crossed through them and retook its original size immediately afterwards. To me we looked like foot soldiers from the First World War mounting an assault on the trenches, and our objective was hardly more sensible than theirs. The first to arrive punched in with such speed that it was useless to hope to receive any information from them. I was among the last and was thus assigned the most unpleasant task, stationed right next to the oven and under the nose of the boss. The work was not difficult: we simply repeated the same motions for eight hours, increasing their frequency to reach what was called the “average.” Those who did not reach it were dismissed; at least that is what I was told. Some of us managed to make ourselves a little more comfortable by appearing stupid or simply insolent, but the essence of our fate remained unchanged. It wasn’t fatigue that oppressed us or, rather, not only fatigue. I had done a lot worse in the past. What really made us suffer everyday were the ass-kissers paid to watch us sweat and report on us like spies in the midst of those dirty rooms: proletarians who were around fifty years old and had no futures, smoking cigarettes in the bathrooms, deluding themselves by stealing two minutes from bosses who were stealing our lives. I thought of the speeches I’d heard at the Hotel Commercio, and I could not manage to understand how all the students who cried “Workers’ power!”[22] in the streets could work without protest instead of creating havoc and putting their theories into practice. There were at least fifty of them among the seasonal workers, all dressed alike (parkas and scarves), slaving away without a word, even if they’d just distributed some bullshit about the “Third World.”

I spent a week baking doves[23] like an asshole. I could no longer stand the smell, I wanted to bake them into round or square shapes, to make them look like hammers-and-sickles, 38-caliber handguns, cocks stuck up asses. I laughed to myself, imagining the face on some old upper-class woman after she opened the package while celebrating Holy Easter with her family. I waited like manna from heaven the outbreak of a unionized struggle, the rupture of that absurd monotony, in sum, revolt against the entirety of the obligatory motions that only had meaning for the boss (that pig). When you’re at the station, awaiting a train that hasn’t arrived on time, you will ask just about anyone for information, just to relieve the stress of the situation, knowing full well that it is useless to do so. It was in such a fashion that I confided my boredom to Maurizio, someone in the student movement whom I knew by sight and who had been a friend of Roberto (both of them had been obsessed with the idea of the Party). I approached him in the cafeteria, but he didn’t seem delighted to see me; he even looked at me suspiciously and interrogatively. As soon as I mentioned the name of our mutual friend – to refresh his memory – he responded brusquely that I was a “provocateur.” I endured this humiliation and I restrained myself from giving him a smack. Several months earlier, that son of a whore had accepted money from Roberto and was now scared shitless, without having enough intelligence to understand that Roberto was innocent. To get to the bottom of this character, I suggested to him we go out on a classic strike, but he didn’t say anything, hard as a marble statue.

“This isn’t a game, my friend,” he said [at last,] sententiously. “The struggle must not come from above; it must have the support of the rank and file; it must have an organization.”

“Okay,” I said, “but if we only distribute moldy nonsense to the rank and file, and if they see us working like donkeys, how the fuck will they understand? We must set an example, show them that we aren’t full of shit.”

“Listen,” he cut in. “I have this job thanks to a friend of my father. The money I get here allows me to take vacations, and I don’t intend to give this up just to please some sub-prole who doesn’t have a bit of political awareness. So leave me alone!”

“You piece of shit,” I shouted at him. “You want a revolution in Korea and Uganda, everywhere, but not here. And to top it off, you don’t even take care of your friend who is in prison. I’m only a sub-prole, there’s no doubt about that, but you disgust me, and I’d be happy to break your nose, you dirty strike-breaking spy.”

There followed a good discussion, with all the elements of a brawl. A guy named Pietro – also a student – was absolutely in agreement with me and, as he was good with words, he managed to convince twenty of the hottest heads not to return to work. He took a large marker from his pocket and wrote the following on the back of a poster from ENAL,[24] which would come in from Venice in exchange for mere peanuts.

Workers, all that we have to lose is a shit job; what we have to gain is the entire world. Kick out the shop stewards, block production, piss on the cakes. Let’s make ourselves respected: throw cakes in the face of the boss! An immediate wage increase of 50,000 lire, with no negotiations. Fight tough without fear. [Signed] A group of workers.

He stood on a table while I hung the proclamation up, and then he made a speech that made people stop in their tracks. The union members tried to make him come down, but he screeched like a polecat and defended his position with kicks. Such a commotion: most of the workers were dumbstruck; they lowered their eyes, but groups of seasonal workers ran through the factory shouting. I followed Pietro into the workshop to help him stop the machinery until calm returned (two hours later). They fired us both without pity for “insubordination” and expelled us from that circle of hell. Once on the street, Pietro smiled at me.

“We went strong, didn’t we?” he asked me.

“We wanted to, we wanted to,” I said, “but now I’m fucking broke, although many of the guys were with us.”

We discussed things a little more, and he explained to me that his group had organized an occupation of newly constructed working-class houses for the following day. I told him that I would be there: I was truly happy with having left Motta by slamming the door. Everything ended up in a joyful mood, eating and drinking at the home of my new friend, and we laughed at all those people who had turned around and tried to restart the machines.

The next morning, there were more than two hundred of us in front of the apartment buildings on the Via Lope de Vega, which was a very large boulevard near the Milan-Genoa highway, specially designed to allow the hurried motorists to run down the unwary who tried to cross the double lanes. In fact, the cars went by at an average speed of 90 to 100 kilometers an hour, without regard for the crosswalk or the people in it. Fortunately for us, the architects of the IACP[25] had left sufficient green space for us to assemble without us losing our lives in an inglorious fashion. We didn’t even need the intervention of the guys armed with molotovs[26] who were posted at strategic points to block movement by the public and private police forces. Exasperated by the interminable wait to obtain lodging, the families in question couldn’t wait to get in, and many of them were organized, their trucks loaded with mattresses, beds, kitchen sets, televisions and cabinets. As soon as the lock on the principal door gave way under the blows of chisels and hammers, the gold rush began, and there was a mighty surge down the stairs to see who could occupy the biggest and best-situated premises. The so-called “group leaders” soon realized they need not lead anything and retired en masse to a nearby bar and surveyed from there the situation, which would be determined after the usual scene of fighting, screaming matches, touching appeals and threats that people use in such circumstances.

Thanks to my long strides, I took possession of a decent three-room place on the third floor, and I integrated myself into the hive. Above me were the Salemi brothers (Giovanni, Giuseppe, Vito, Michele and Rocco) with their two wives, nine children and an elderly father. They’d hardly arrived before they took down two partitions to allow the three apartments they’d conquered to communicate with each other, and they wrote their name upon the door. I noticed that they had a van, and I sought them out to ask them to help me furnish my new residence. It was Giovanni who opened the door. He was a very funny guy who walked with a limp and expressed himself in a kind of Sicilian-Italian that a slight stammer rendered even more incomprehensible. Giuseppe soon got involved in the conversation and, with his handsome and knowing air, accompanied me to a second-hand dealer. Thanks to his selfless kindness, I was able to buy the basic necessities for living at the cost of a few thousand lire. That same evening I was able to return the favor. Two political hacks claimed to have seen the family load materials from the construction firm (rolls of metal and a small cement-mixer) on to their van so as to re-sell them. Giuseppe had desperately tried to show that he didn’t know what they were talking about, but was not able to lie and found himself in obvious difficulty. His accusers spoke of throwing them out because he had “discredited the occupation” and other lies of that sort. I was happy to be able to defend him.

“None of us has a clean record,” I said, “and it would be useless to try to pass ourselves off as something we are not and will never be. The important thing is to not trick each other and to respect each other reciprocally. It was the construction company, comrades, that stole it – we all saw it – to get reimbursed by its insurance company without losing anything!”

There was nothing to fear: the companies that get contracts were not angels; such tricks were played all the time; and they couldn’t withstand the testimony of a hundred witnesses! There was a compromise, and it was even accepted by the hacks (obviously not enthusiastically). The affair ended with several warnings, and the clan of Sicilians expressed its recognition with primitive cries of gratitude.

The next day, we went as a delegation to establish our gas and electrical connections. Frightened by our ugly faces, the ENEL[27] granted the hook-ups even though we had no lease. After that, I went to Rosaria, my girlfriend, and told her that I’d found a place, reassuring her by showing her a fake rent-receipt from a nonexistent owner. Several weeks later, we were married, and she immediately became pregnant. My child, I thought, would surely have a better existence than mine: without the perpetual fight to survive!

The apartment on the Via Lope de Vega was a very entertaining and odd place. If all the medical certificates that came out of that agglomerate had been real, it would have been appropriate to put a big sign on it that said “Hospital for the Chronically Ill.” The inhabitants exchanged amongst themselves – like on a stock exchange – information about the different doctors who could help them get paid sick days, and those among them who could deliver those precious orders were considered to be manna from heaven. The Salemi family, in particular, accepted all offers of seasonal employment and, when their respective trial periods had ended, they were overtaken by acute headaches, depressive syndromes and toothaches. And so the companies that had hired them didn’t see them again for the rest of their contracts. They supplemented their income with a few hours in a caravan[28] or the unauthorized sale of balloons in the Piazza Duomo. I was really good in that little modern world in which one borrowed money without ever giving it back and in which you cheated each other affectionately. Who scams who?

[1] English in original.

[2] Head of the mafia in Palermo, extremely famous in Italy between 1945 and 1965. Though a drug trafficker and allegedly a murderer of hundreds of people, he died in his bed, rich and “innocent.”

[3] The official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party.

[4] Wine from the Lombardy region.

[5] Milanese dialect in original.

[6] Prison in Milan.

[7] Milanese dialect in original.

[8] An allusion to a poem in Milanese dialect by Carlo Porta (1775-1821) entitled “Lament Del Marchionn Di Gamb Avert.”

[9] Milanese dialect in original: che fate i balletti verdi (“organizing green dances”).

[10] Milanese dialect in original, not translated or even included as untranslated Milanese in the French translation of this book.

[11] A reference to the Squadra volante, a division of the Italian State police, who drove high-speed cars and whose insignia included a black panther.

[12] Instead of translating di grigia tranquillita, as we have done, the French translation replaces this phrase with de sécurité (“of security”).

[13] The French translation renders this line as le plus grand temple de la bourgeoisie italienne (“the greatest temple of the Italian bourgeoisie”).

[14] Operated by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore (the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli publishing house), which was founded in 1954 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a Communist and political activist.

[15] Pietro Cavallero (date of birth unknown) and Sante Notarnicola (born 1938) – as well as Donato Lopez and Adriano Rovoletto – were members of the Cavallero Band, which carried out a series of bank robberies in Milan between 1963 and 1967. Inspired by Bresci and Ravachol, their motives were political. Tried in 1968, they were sentenced to life in prison. Cavallero was released in 1988 and Notarnicola, the author of several books, including L’evasione impossible (Feltrinelli, 1972), was paroled in 1995.

[16] The Italian word used here, banco, means both the dock in a courtroom and a bank.

[17] The French translator identifies these men as “leaders of the Red Brigades,” and says, “Moretti carried out the abduction of Aldo Moro, President of the Council, and killed him.” But we have a better grasp of the facts: while Renate Curcio and Mario Moretti were the historical founders of the Red Brigades, the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro were ordered by enemies of the “historic compromise” and carried out by Italy’s secret services.

[18] The untranslatable Italian word (possibly dialect) used here is strapelata, for which the French translator used the word farfelu.

[19] A manufacturer of tires based in Milan.

[20] “Children of the Workshop,” an anarchist song from 1921, written by Giuseppe Raffaelli and Giuseppe De Feo.

[21] The autumn of 1969 was considered “hot” due to the intensity of the political and economic agitation.

[22] potere operaio was also the name of an ultra-Left group.

[23] Colombe (“doves”) were a kind of brioche shaped in the form of a bird. Specially made for Easter, they were generally sold in boxes.

[24] Ente Nazionale Assistenza Lavoratori (National Body for Workers Assistance), which offered workers goods for purchase, interesting vacations, trips, etc. between 1945 and 2011.

[25] Istituto Autonomo per le Case Popolari (Independent Agency for Working-Class Housing).

[26] Molotov cocktails; English (or rather Anglicized Russian) in original.

[27] Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica (National Electricity Board).

[28] Though the Italian here is qualche ora in carovana, the French translation of this book renders this phrase as quelques petits travaux au noir (“several small jobs off the books”).

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