“Appetite comes from eating,” my mother used to say, evoking the old proverb like it was a prayer. After the success with Super-Cleaning, I didn’t intend to stop my operations, and I soon decided to organize a second, even more audacious one within the fertile sector of cleaning services, in which it was very easy to find work. Rocco, that lazy soul, was convinced with great difficulty to take part because he lived blissfully when his wallet was full, and he was more inclined to spend than to save. To avoid temptation, I obligated him – good general that I was – to acquire treasury bonds with quarterly due dates (two bonds of five million lire each). By artificially depriving him of liquid assets, I provided him with an incentive to take action. Verter, the deserter from the previous campaign, was allowed to make a second try but, as tangible proof of the seriousness of his intentions, we required that he immediately quit his job at Super-Cleaning. Having undertaken a trip to Calabria, Cosimo was replaced by Angelo, a young electrician from Barona who was in his twenties. He had a long black mustache and a ready wit. This new recruit associated with people at the Lope de Vega and was the sworn enemy of all forms of paid employment.
Thanks to a substantial bribe (300,000 lire) given to a willing guy at the Employment Office, it wasn’t difficult for all four of us to be assigned to the same company. Allow me to say again that all these jobs had the least interest, and it occurred to no one to protest this change in the procedure concerning the waiting list, which in principle prohibited it. The target, SPA Splendor, prospered in the business of cleaning bank offices using rags and modern equipment. It increased its profits by doing business with a certain number of other firms. The boss began by sending us to a small metallurgic factory, where we acted like honest idiots, washing and polishing the floors and doors, even the door handles. Having passed our first test with merit, we managed to get in good with the usual team leader who, wanting to compensate us for our good will, sent us to a subsidiary of the Bank of __________, which was located in the historical center of the town. He told us a thousand times to polish the place until it looked a mirror, because this bank was Splendor’s best customer.
We did the worst of the work, which – though boring – did not present particular difficulties because credit offices are quasi-antiseptic places in which the employees customarily walk on tiptoe, do not eat sandwiches and tolerate their unhappiness in silence. After the doors had closed, the five of us entered and went to work under the vigilant eyes of the uniformed guards, all of whom were called sheriff. We typically only spent four hours in such establishments, after having worked the preceding four hours in apartment blocks where we were separated from each other and assigned to an entire floor. Although we studied the situation carefully, we didn’t come up with many ideas, because each envisioned maneuver faced an easy counter-maneuver. In fact, to strike against Splendor, we would have to attack its relations with the bank, without forgetting that, as soon as the company understood our intentions, it would hasten to isolate and disperse us.
After some black-hearted reflection, we hit upon an idea, and we decided to provoke a gigantic disturbance that would stay in people’s memories. Just after arriving at work, the cleaning crew was transformed itself into a veritable team of saboteurs [guastatori], benefiting from the unexpected absence of its fifth member (on sick leave), in whom we did not have great confidence, although he had the air of being a good guy (that is to say, a scoundrel like the rest of us).
With unscrupulous determination, we began by diligently plugging up the toilets with a good quantity of plaster-coated sanitary napkins, which caused all of the shit-containers to overflow. Verter, who knew a bit about plumbing, sabotaged two toilets so that they leaked steadily.
Thanks to a fortunate set of circumstances, I was able to add a final touch: a gigantic turd in one of the sabotaged toilets. Meanwhile, Angelo worked upon the electrical system and quite cunningly discovered two wires in a spot that was impossible to find quickly. He momentarily cut the contact thanks to a wooden chip that was balanced on a piece of ice, which was only set into place a moment before our departure. We laughed ourselves silly thinking of Rocco, who had spent more than twenty minutes in the bars trying to find the right piece of ice for the job, only to return and find all the door handles covered with shit.
The next day, we sent an observer over to the bank. The results had surpassed anything we could have hoped for. The bank had opened an hour late! The water had flooded the floors and ruined the carpeting. The guards had responded immediately, but there was no electricity to run the air pumps, and all efforts to re-engage the circuit breaker were unsuccessful because of the broken contact, the location of which could not be found. A team of specialized workers was summoned, and they managed to put things back into order, but the bank personnel were furious and couldn’t understand what had happened.
At that moment, we prepared and sent off an anonymous letter, made out of newspaper clippings (like a ransom note), to the Super-Cleaning Company.
“Dear Sir: Messana and his band are working at Splendor and are making a career of it. They do not know them there and take them to be little angels. I am telling you this because I hate them. A friend.”
As foreseen, the Lombard at Super-Cleaning telephoned his fellow torturer, who then had no doubts about the causes of the disaster. We had managed to get the message to Splendor without exposing ourselves, but they couldn’t act on it because it is prohibited to transmit negative information about former employees. We were obviously transferred away from the bank and the climate changed radically. They banished us to cleaning industrial boilers located faraway, hoping to wear us out. We reacted on two fronts: on the one hand, hoping to get our transfers annulled, we went before a judge and cited the people at the bank as witnesses to our transfer, and, on the other hand, we distributed printed protests to the clients who came to the bank’s doors. The bank did not appreciate the difficulties that we, enraged workers, caused them, especially after their clients saw us wearing sandwich-boards that bore this declaration: “They have chased us from our workplace without good reason.”
The boss at Splendor was almost completely cooked, assailed, as he was, by the bank, which wanted our heads, and surrounded by complaints from the little bosses whom we hadn’t failed to ridicule in front of their colleagues. He went for broke, sending us to the last circle of hell that he had at his disposal: a little factory in Rozzano that manufactured chemicals. Pollution abounded there, and even the air in the offices was toxic. He didn’t understand that this played into our hands, because it allowed us to take action. As soon as I was there, I immediately saw that the dates on three of the four fire extinguishers had expired and that one was completely empty.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “it is time for another performance.”
Calmly, I started to cry out that I refused to get to work: we were confronted by an attempt to kill us. Very surprised, the watchman frowned and responded that the manager had already left. I ordered him to get on the telephone, which he did, because we seemed very determined. On the other end of the line, that little tyrant ordered that we be thrown out. This message was relayed to us by the watchman, who spread his arms out wide.
I grabbed the receiver, redialed the number (which I’d seen and memorized) and, without hesitation, I said, “My dear sir: this is worker Salvatore Messana, from Splendor, sent here legally. If you want to send me away, you must call the police, because I will not budge.”
“You’re crazy,” he said, disturbed. “But if you want to stay, then get to work. Otherwise get out, and tomorrow you will hear from me.”
“I must hear from you today,” I said, “to get the fire extinguishers back in working order. I am ready to get to work, but I refuse to do so in such dangerous conditions.”
“Now I will treat you as you deserve. . . . If you do not leave immediately, I will come there with the police.”
“Good,” I said. “See you soon. Meanwhile, I’m calling the fire department.”
The watchman was stunned. In all his years of service, he had never seen anything like it. When I called the fire department, at first they wanted nothing to do with the situation, and told me that such matters were someone else’s responsibility, because their job was putting our fires and nothing more. But then, trying to not make any mistakes, they promised to send a functionary who was qualified to deal with such matters. But he only made this promise after I told him: “It’s a real mess here. . . . We are all on strike. . . . There are even students with clubs, and the police will be here at any moment!” They feared getting into trouble, so, twenty minutes later, the functionary showed up, furious at having been disturbed at that hour.
A curious assembly – a glimpse of a deformed Italy – took shape. The sergeant entered at the same time as the manager and, without knowing anything, we told him to shove off.
“Excuse me,” Rocco said, “I’m in charge here, along with my three colleagues. Who is this man? Is he the owner?”
“I am the manager,” the guy muttered. He was the very incarnation of a young executive on the way up, dressed in a herringbone sports jacket.
“Perhaps you are the manager,” my colleague continued sadistically. “But unfortunately for you, you aren’t the boss. And so you have no right to block work contracts.”
“But of course I do,” he protested rashly, rather stung.
“Then either show me where it says that or put your tail between your legs and go back to watching television with your wife.”
“You must leave and that’s that,” he hissed, humiliated.
The sergeant came to his aid.
“I order you to follow me to the police station or clear out of here,” he said.
Verter Mola began to weaken, but Angelo held firm.
“Yes,” he said, “let’s go to the police station. We will follow you, crestfallen. It will allow us to make a verbal complaint. Like Garibaldi, we will obey, but you must be quite clear that you have fired our company. . . . In fact, you owe us for the day’s work. . . .We are willing to clean this place, but only when the fire extinguishers are in working order. And you must make a full report on this matter. So, sergeant: shall we go?”
Meanwhile, Rocco and I, paying no attention to the lamentable protests of the poor watchman (who was more and more amazed), used my miniature camera to take photos of the fire extinguishers, next to which we’d placed that day’s newspaper to authenticate the date of the incident.
We were getting ready to go to the police station when the fireman came in and asked what was going on, and so we had to start all over again. As soon as he realized that he’d been duped, he began to hate us: his expression one of pure hatred. We began with the matter of the fire extinguishers; then we demanded that he examine samples of the substances used in the production cycle and pay attention to the air, which burned the eyes. He told us to go to hell, barking that pollution wasn’t his job and that we weren’t in America. Nevertheless, he agreed to take note of the expired fire extinguishers and the one that was completely empty, which (thanks to Rocco’s prompting) justified his being called down there. The boss of the factory would have to pay to replace them.
He paid for the intervention, but not his bullshit!
At the police station, the manager in the sports jacket was present, and it took us a good hour to get the report drafted. We made sure to dot every “i,” because our availability as cleaners had to be clear. When we left, after we’d signed all the respective declarations, the manager was frothing with rage.
To deliver the final blow, I said to him in a provocative manner, “We will see you tomorrow night, hoping that we can do our humble job in peace. And don’t forget to tell the boss that we want to speak to him directly so that we can learn the precise limits of his powers. . . . In my opinion, you exaggerate . . .”
He didn’t let me finish and left, slamming the door of his car. He accelerated so quickly that his tires squealed and left marks on the pavement.
The very next day, Rinaldi sent a letter to Splendor.
The undersigned, etc. etc, were unable to do the necessary cleaning work due to the fault of the client, who asked them to work without proper fire-protection. Please intervene to safeguard our interests. We will show up punctually, in the spirit of self-sacrifice, to our assigned posts. Distinguished salutations. We kiss your hands.
At the appointed hour, an individual sent by Splendor’s boss was waiting for us. He invited us to follow him to see the manager and refused to give us any explanation, no doubt afraid of making a mistake. We obligated him to give us a written declaration that exempted us from service and guaranteed our pay; otherwise we’d go back there due to receiving no orders to the contrary. He did this only after telephoning and receiving approval from the boss. This maneuver allowed us to be late and further annoy an already weakened enemy.
“Where are we headed?” our employer asked us in a polemical tone. “Here we take work seriously: there’s no room for people who make trouble and do nothing else. Either it’s war or we must resolve this annoying situation as soon as possible. Tell me what you want to get out of here.”
“You should be more polite, dear sir,” I said, “and keep in mind that certain words sound bad coming from you. We feel perfectly good taking your orders; we have great fun; and we would like to remain here until retirement . . . or at least as long as the company exists.”
“In this statement,” the vampire hissed at us, “there is a threat!”
Speaking calmly, I replied, “Nothing lasts forever, Knight Commander, and especially not a cleaning company. But if you can take it, we’ll stay until retirement. . . . I do not want to threaten anyone. Nevertheless, if we decide to leave on our own accord, keeping in mind the fact that steady employment with you seems certain, we would need to have twenty million lire, at least, to set up our own firm. . . . This truly isn’t due to malice, believe me, but because inflation is so high.”
Walking around, he growled. He looked like one of those German shepherds that prowl back and forth behind the gates of houses when kids pretend to enter and tempt them by waving sticks.
“Out of the question,” he said. “If you want twenty million, you must earn it with the sweat of your brow, and you can count on me to break your backs.”
Angelo was sincere. “You have already drunk the blood of my grandfather and my father.” he said. “I’m twenty years old, and I’ve done jobs that you can’t even imagine. You’re frightened by the very idea of cleaning toilets, but for me that’s like drinking a cup of coffee. You say that, if we want twenty million, we must earn it. . . . Well, let’s go, guys. Back to working hard!”
The guy didn’t let us get out the door: we had done too much damage in record time. He began to negotiate and spoke of millions of lire as if it were peanuts. The back-and-forth sounded like bingo numbers being called out: four . . . nineteen . . . seven . . . eighteen . . . twelve . . . sixteen. In the end, we approached relatively close numbers. On his side, fourteen million; on ours, fifteen. Each side held to its position. After ten solid minutes of discussion, Rocco came up with a brilliant idea; it showed his longing for his preferred vice.
“Knight Commander,” he said. “There’s only one way of concluding this to our mutual benefit. Let’s take the million lire at issue here and bet it on Cornisch Cris, the certain winner of the Arona Prize, at least according to my calculations. . . . We can’t go wrong. . . . The jockey will be that devil Canzi and, on a 1800-meter track, no one can beat him. The odds are three to one; we will share the winnings. And I won’t stop there! We’ll take Brio di Valle to place at the Premio Prize, and – as winners at Trebbia – Tivorno, Quattrino and Alkan.”
Amazed, we all looked at him, even the boss, who paused for a moment and thus betrayed a certain vague interest in the idea. But then he recovered.
“You keep on playing,” he said, “but I wouldn’t even play a hand of cards with you. My final offer is 14,500,000 lire. . . . If you want, bet your own money . . . Moreover, Alkan is a nag.”
The rest is obvious. The lawyers spoke by telephone and – to use the jargon of the court – we “spontaneously” went before the judge who was assigned to our case. The agreement was drafted in black and white, and signed. That was on a Monday. Getting out of court, we went to a bar to celebrate our victory with champagne and canapés. In the middle of the rejoicing, Rocco stood up, his eyes fixed upon the newspaper on the neighboring table, and he began to curse, raising his hands to the heavens.
“The bet would have been good. . . . Tivorno, Quattrino, Alkan. . . . We have lost a fortune. . . . There’s still a chance, because I bet fifty thousand on Cornisch Cris. But keep in mind. . . . Alkan a nag?! Never listen to bosses, even when it comes to horses. . . . I have lost a fortune . . . a fortune!”
It was quite pleasant to be there, like gentlemen. But we still had a question to settle: the customary distribution to the other employees at Splendor of the photocopies of our checks.
 Though the Italian original speaks of malvagie riflessioni (“black-hearted reflection”), the French translation insists on labeling their idea as machiavélique (“Machiavellian”).
 The French translation gratuitously inserts the idea that the final touch was digne d’un artiste (“worthy of an artist”).
 The French translation neglects to translate the phrase indicando quelli della banca come testimoni.
 In the French translation, this paragraph is followed by one that does not appear in the Italian original.
We didn’t stay more than a week cleaning the boilers. We knew well that it couldn’t last long, as long as we kept calm, except for staging a few delays, instances of insolence, and demands for tools and interventions by the authorities to verify that everything was being done by the rules (the factory owner was given, among other things, a fine for a reason that I’ve forgotten).
 Here the French translation changes ci intimò di smammare (“we told him”) to il nous intima (“he suggested to us”).
 Here the French translation omits Rocco’s claim that io sono l’operaio addetto and replaces it with the idea that he and his three colleagues are merely les ouvriers préposés (“attendant workers”).
 A law firm.