The Secret is to Tell All!

Operation Super-Cleaning

When I stopped my friend Cosimo in front of the Racing Hall on the Via Fiamma to propose to him that we go to work, he looked at me, stupefied, thinking it was a joke. And when I explained to him that it was to be the most miserable and poorly paid jobs, a frightened look came over his face, and he mechanically began repeating, “Why me exactly . . . among millions of other people?” It was only his great trust in me that the little devil, who had just been released from the Novare prison,[1] decided to go along with my plan, but not without some perplexity. Otherwise, he had no other destiny than going back to prison, especially because he easily lost his temper.

“I have developed an astrological system,” I said facetiously, “that allows us to have the law on our side while we punish the bosses and extract advantages from them.”

With my friend Rocco, on the other hand, it was much easier. He grasped my proposition in mid-air; he was very clever and, if he didn’t have a mania (or, rather, the vice) for gambling, he would have made his way in life instead of accumulating mishaps. Together, we three would be able to move mountains. In case of a fight, Cosimo would handle the defense, but his thug’s face dissuaded all possible aggressors right away. In his desire to make himself appear taller, because he was very short, he wore high-heeled shoes and improbable striped clothes. He inspired sympathy and embarrassment because he looked like the strings on a violin. Rocco, on the other hand, had a perpetually reassuring air, with his inseparable bag, and no one could suspect his determination to grab all the cash that fell into his hands at gunpoint and place bets on the horses. Imperturbable, like all those devoted to gambling, he accepted this new adventure without batting an eyelid, dignified like a count concluding a marriage for money: courteous but without enthusiasm.

After the customary procedures at the employment office, we were “initiated” into a dreadful Cayenne[2]: the Super-Cleaning Company (the reader will excuse me for modifying the name of this firm and substituting for it a made-up one, but I can guarantee the absolute truthfulness of what follows). We had to work nights, starting at 8 pm, in the huge open-air garage of the municipal tram company. We had to wash, sweep out and polish – until they returned to their original colors – the interiors and exteriors of a string of public vehicles, some simply large, others truly enormous. We obviously declared ourselves satisfied with the salary and proposed to work overtime, even on Sundays. This gimmick was highly effective. We were assigned to an extraordinarily ugly man with a big beard and almost no hair who limped terribly, was never clean, and possessed an aggressive stupidity that showed through his yellowish smile.

“If this is the guy in charge,” I murmured to my friends, “imagine what the others are like!”

The locker room was a stall that was large enough to contain several automobiles. There were a number of nails on which we hung our clothes and, when we had finished, our gray work clothes. Rocco immediately wanted to plunge his hands into the tempting pockets but managed to control himself. We looked at each other in our new getups, and we laughed about the small adhesive labels that clumsily designed us as workers at Super-Cleaning. The very large jackets allowed us to keep sweaters on underneath to protect us from the bitter cold of the winter nights. We took our equipment that dispensed acids and solvents (noxious, despite the already lenient laws concerning them), and we went to work. The teams of ghostly robots entered the empty vehicles to clean them of wastes of all kinds. Try to imagine all that a trolley car could swallow in twenty-four hours: everything from children’s urine to drunkard’s vomit, from old people’s spit to snot from noses . . . without forgetting the atrocious chewing gum [gomme americane] that collected in the most unexpected places.

Humanity is dirty, the pessimists say. But the segment of humanity that uses public transportation seems to have decided, out of vengeance, to leave behind a quantity of debris that surpasses the hypothetical average, with the peaks coming in the first and last trips of the day.

The head of the team (a certain Ottavio, no last name, lost eight years previously, on the night he was hired) assigned us to a line of buses and told us, with refined humor, that he wanted to see them new again. And we responded with an enthusiastic “yes” and called him “sir” because we noticed that this pleased him and that flattery was his weak point. We were ready to tolerate everything and anything to be able to reach the end of the fateful trial period. We threw ourselves into the mist and, to give each other encouragement, we called out to each other whenever we saw our silhouettes.

Like Hercules, we had to complete seven tasks, and ones that were hardly less terrible than his: such were the many obstacles placing along our way during the two-week-long probationary period. The boss hired little bastards who were ready to spy on our behavior and thoughts: guys who insisted on knowing where you had worked so that you could be controlled better. We calmed them by saying that we had just returned from France, where we had been employed: one of us in the wine-producing industry; the others in unloading grain silos. That was enough to satisfy the interested curiosity of the spies but without arousing embarrassing new questions. Once or twice we were at the point of collapse because he had frozen hands, heavy heads and broken bones, but we revived each other’s morale and continued, hating a little more each day our enemy, the unknown owner, who perhaps was at a casino making bets with the money earned from the labor of his employees (I was the one who came up with this image to excite Rocco, as one does with the bull at the start of a bullfight).

Our torture came to an end when a so-called inspector arrived: he was well-dressed, with an overcoat made of camel hair, a fur hat worthy of a Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, and an expensive wool scarf. Ottavio, that monster, scurried along behind him, limping terribly and informing him of our abilities. The inspector grabbed a rag and then, with military authority, he inspected the vehicles cleaned by the seven recently hired employees. He complimented the three of us, expressing his joy at having “valuable people” in his employ; he judged suitable the work of the two fearful Venetians, but was pissed off by the work of the two other workers. He waved at them the rag that proved the insufficiency of their efforts. Upon a signal from the inspector, the gimpy guy displayed these workers’ employment cards, which indicated three late arrivals in two weeks. The guy in the camel hair no longer had any doubts.

“We don’t want scroungers here,” he said. “We are not a charity. Tomorrow you will receive your money, your letters of dismissal and then you will get the fuck out of here. I hope that this lesson will teach you to live in this world!”

I expected a reaction from the unions, but there wasn’t any. None of the established unions – the CGIL, the CISL and the UIL[3] – covered such jobs. Workers in our field were still in the times of the textile workers of the 19th century. We could only get back at those bastards if our plan worked out.

Finally we could grab the knife by the handle. They could no longer throw us out, at least not without “good reason,” and the sheep could now become ferocious wolves. It was pay day, but, as usual, management was two days behind, so that it could get some more fucking money by way of the interest on their accounts.

“My dear Ottavio,” I said. “No money? No work. I have slaved away, I must have my money: it’s my right.”

This scene foreshadowed other interventions: first by Rocco, and then by Cosimo, who appeared as if by chance, hollering about his debts. He commanded respect with his loud voice, which was made to say “Put your hands up!” He intimidated his audience, and we were there to support him. Thanks to the support of Verter (that’s right: not Werther) Mola, one of the full-time employees, half of the workers voted to strike, since problems with getting paid was a very sensitive topic.

In front of the locker room, just before leaving, I said, “My dear Ottavio, good flunkey that you are, go tell your boss that, from now on, he will want to be punctual and that, in addition, he must personally come here to give us his excuses, otherwise we going to go to his house to get them.” The gimp looked at me, shocked; this had never happened to him before; he opened his big sad eyes as if I had beaten his mother up.

The following night, there was a tension. The inspector in camel’s hair arrived with the money and gave a lecture. To be irritating, I called him Mister Green instead of Mister White (his real name), and, annoyed, he corrected me. In the middle of the discussion, Rocco had a stroke of genius.

“Hey, Doc,” he said. “Don’t pretend to be an idiot. We have the money, but not the pay sheets! They are a specific obligation of yours, and I want mine right away. So get in your car, dash off to the tobacco store or wherever you need to go, and bring me the pay sheets so that I can check them item by item, line by line. As for your smiles, save them for your boss.”

It was as if the inspector had received a smack right in the face. He said that we were crazy and that, at that hour, everything was closed. He finally promised to give us the sheets the next day, and then left, pissed off like a wild panther at the zoo, shaking with nervous tics. No one had ever treated him that way, and he plotted his revenge, without even bothering to try to hide his intentions. As for us, we slowed our pace down and, instead of fifty cleaned buses, there were only twenty-five, exactly half. We were sure that after two days of such bad service, the Municipal Tramways Company would tell the manager off, thus assisting our plan. We explained to everyone the reasons for our strange behavior, which was supported by Verter and Pasquale Forcella, a Neapolitan earthquake-stricken wreck[4] who was used to sleeping in a school that hadn’t been ruined. Together, we placed a truly gigantic poster on the wall. It said:

Workers, they pay us 250 lire per train, starting with the fiftieth one, and we must bust our asses to reach that number. But the company invariably receives 25,000 lire. At this rate, the bosses will get richer, and we will remain assholes. This is why we want a minimum of 5,000 lire for each additional car and, if we don’t get it, the inspector can wash them himself. Until then, for good measure, we will remain men and we will not wash more than twenty-five vehicles a night. We will see who blinks first!

Each of the five rebels received a registered letter a half-mile long that accused them of poor performance and peremptorily demanded written justifications. That very afternoon, we got together and, taking the opposite tact, we went to the administrative headquarters, where we declared to the secretary that the boss was expecting us. This trick worked and, for the first time, we found ourselves in front of the mysterious enemy, whose colleagues had only seen on postcards.

“Here are my justifications,” I declared with military crispness and gave him the following text.

We have the right to not work ourselves to death in a train car; the pace of work is absurd. Moreover, we demand detoxifying milk, as required by law, plus a real locker room, located far from the trash. Mister Boss, you should also immediately hire a carpenter, because you will need to build a bulletin board for the communications from the union that we are forming. Sincere salutations.

But the guy was clever. We could see that he was green with rage, but he continued smiling, smoothing his silver mustache between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, while conscientiously masturbating a provocatively pricey pen from top to bottom with his right.

“If you have finished, you can go. . . .” he said. “And next time, make an appointment. You will receive news within the prescribed period. Goodbye, gentlemen.”

He had a very pronounced Lombard accent and the photogenic image of a good father, but you could feel his dagger ready to strike you in the back.

In fact, that very evening Verter Mola disappeared. He wasn’t fired: he was promoted. He’d sold himself for the proverbial plate of lentils and did not respond when we telephoned his home. A very well-aimed blow: for twenty thousand lire a month, officially justified by a change of job title, our strike against hackwork was neutralized. As for us, we were each given three-day-long suspensions.

As you must know, if you seek arbitration at the Employment Office, the sanctions are suspended until an official decision can be made, and that takes at least four months. We proceeded in that fashion, and the penalties were eventually blocked, which increased our prestige and allowed us to resume the struggle without losing face.[5] Our work slow-down was beginning to take its toll, and two replacements had to be hired to pick up the slack. Then I called Mola at his new office and got through. I recorded him whining about having a family and pleading to be left alone, because his promotion had been granted on the condition that he had nothing to do with us. I let all of the workers listen to it.

“See? The boss is terrified! You have never been given raises, and now he immediately tries to avoid trouble. Which means that you get what you want by rebelling, and by obeying you continue to get treated like donkeys.”

The maneuver had been turned against the enemy; we had acquired an unprecedented insolence, and we had wrecked havoc without restraint. Ottavio and the inspector in camel’s hair were subjected to the shame of having failed to neutralize us, and they seemed much less intimidating to us.

Over the course of the next month, we collected four sanctions, all of which we submitted to arbitration by the Employment Office. And we had an ace up our sleeves. Management had not posted the collective contract in the garage, thus violating the law that required it to do so. As a result, the judges nullified all of the sanctions. We had taken care to inform management of its violation of the law and so were able to deal them a blow to the gut at the right moment. To needle the adversary, we all spent four sick days at home, and we didn’t have much difficulty finding a doctor who could diagnose our “depressive syndromes.” After all those nights spent in the cold, we needed a bit of rest! After recovering our strength by sleeping, we spent the last of those four days of freedom in Calmogli,[6] strolling around and benefiting from the winter sun.

We went by boat to Punta Chiappa and, at the seaside terraces in Drin, we sampled the healthy Ligurian cuisine. Pasquale was fascinated; he almost forgot his misery. He drank fresh vermentino[7] (he was our guest, obviously) and thanked God for the catastrophe that had chased him from the streets of his old neighborhood. With the help of the wine, we elaborated our plans with joy. After that, it seemed necessary for us to go stretch out in the sun . . . and, asleep, we took on colors that gave us the look of good health, thus putting a final arrogant touch on our provocations!

Upon our return to Milan and work, Ottavio tried to bribe me by offering me a position as team leader. I laughed in his face as I explained to him that I didn’t give a fuck, and I experienced a particular joy by indirectly inflicting this slap on the boss. A half-hour later, the inspector in camel’s hair showed up, wanting to know if I’d fallen into his claws or if we were creating havoc as usual. Cosimo lunged towards him, pulled on his wool scarf and confronted him.

“You are a worm, and you hope to buy people off with a bowl of soup. But we are luxury items and our price is expensive. Get the fuck out of here or I will break your jaw.”

The inspector was really pissed off, but he didn’t say a word. All those present rejoiced at seeing their torturer finally treated as he deserved, and the men in blue overalls regarded the inspector a long time as he walked away with his head down, full of fear. At that moment, we all came together in a line, at attention like an honor guard for an unknown soldier. Rocco called out to him in a soft and persuasive voice, “Mister White . . .” The inspector turned around just in time to see us, in perfect synchronicity, raising our thumbs to our noses, accompanied by a loud choir of farting sounds.

The letter, a single one for everyone concerned, was not unexpected.

Dear Mister Messana, through this letter we take action against the disrespectful behavior that you and three other employees engaged in on 12 February at 10 pm with respect to our inspector, Mister White. For no reason and in the presence of workers, he was insulted with unspeakable words and seriously threatened.

According to Article 7, I. 20/5/70 n. 300, and the CCNL in force concerning Cleaning Companies, we call upon you to present any possible justifications for this behavior, and we warn you that, after this deadline, sanctions foreseen in such cases can be taken against you.

Sincere salutations.

Twenty-four hours later, the Rinaldi Agency[8] sent four responses by express mail.

Dear Mister Businessman,

Article 7, which you cite, requires that the list of infractions and sanctions is posted in a place accessible to all. As you are used to doing whatever you please, you have not judged it necessary to respect this obligation. Thus it is useless for you to threaten sanctions that would be null and void. In any case, everything that you have stated is false. We are workers who respect the law and do not allow ourselves to be bothersome. We will take this opportunity to indicate to you the absence of fire extinguishers in the stall that you call a locker room, and we ask you to remedy this situation, otherwise we will have to inform the Fire Department.

The enemy suffered a terrible blow. In sixty seconds, we destroyed one month’s work that had aimed at our dismissal. They all had long faces, those guard dogs, reflecting the mood of their sovereign. While they were still licking their salted wounds, we introduced another novelty: the assembly. According to the law, the union had ten hours per year to speak to its member-workers; it could even (if it wanted) send a delegate. And the company had to pay wages for the hours devoted to those meetings. That’s what the statute specified, because the government preferred to strengthen the three existing union confederations instead of seeing new groups form spontaneously. Thus it preferred to choose the lesser of two evils. When they first arrive, the unions always promise the workers mountains and marvels, and nice slice of the pie. It is only after the workers become members that they have power and can get something in return. But naïve Super-Cleaning did not know this. The four of us went to the headquarters of the CISL on the Via Tadino, and we explained that, faced with so many problems, we were beat. Since we had paid our dues, they promised us that someone would come. In fact, someone telephoned Rocco, asking him a bunch of questions, going into all the details, and then sent a letter to management that demanded the convocation of an assembly.

Everyone – even Inspector White, without his camel’s hair jacket, no doubt to mix with the proletarians better – came to one of the many halls owned by the company and placed solely at our disposition. We immediately began to shout, “Get out! Get out!” and White responded, “I am an employee, just like you. . .” quite forgetting the fact he had jumped the barriers of the hierarchy and was in the process of prostituting himself. Rocco asked the delegate if specialists in dismissals were authorized to attend union meetings, and the room exploded in laughter. The union delegate signaled to us that we should stop making trouble and began to explain to us what raises and sums were due us but hadn’t been paid: indemnities for this, additional payments for that. . . . No one understood the reasons, but, totaling them up, we discovered that, over the course of the last two years, management had stolen thirty thousand lire per month from each one of us. This explained why management had not provided us with a salary bulletin! By plebiscite, we all agreed to initiate a grievance. First, a warning letter, and then a strike or, rather, legal action because the result was so assured that it wouldn’t be necessary for us to use work stoppages to put the pressure on. I took out my pocket calculator: 30,000 lire X 47 employees spread over different garages but in the same situation = 1,410,000 lire X 12 months = 16,920,000 lire annually + benefits = 24,000,000 lire. “A nice win at the racetrack,” Rocco said, always thinking of his horses with nostalgia. We had come to the seventy-second day of our military campaign: a battering ram had opened the main door of the enemy’s fortress.

The boss called us to his office. With a weary air, he asked us how much we wanted to “fuck off.” Cosimo demanded ten million lire before I had time to demand twenty. He had calculated what an average bank heist would have netted us and announced the equivalent. Pasquale almost passed out: he couldn’t believe his ears; he would’ve been happy with nine hundred thousand lire. The Lombard removed his hand from his silver mustache and blurted out, “But that’s extortion!”

“Do not forget that you called us here, Doctor,” Rocco snickered, his face like ice, as if he were playing poker.

I went even further: “Today it is ten million, sir. Next week, it will be twelve. And it will increase like that, two million every week, because we have accumulated quite a bit of anger while cleaning your trams. If we do not manage to let off steam, we will suffer from a nervous breakdown.”

He went to telephone in another room, then returned and offered us five million each. We stuck to our position and did so for the next twenty minutes, impassioned by this mind-blowing discussion. Out of habit, workers usually do everything they can so that their bosses consider them to be good people. We, on the other hand, sought all possible arguments to make him think the opposite and to even appear worse than we were. In brief, it was an exhilarating reversal of logic, and it amused us greatly. We were especially amused by the Parthenopean[9] responses of our earthquake survivor, who was now on the same wavelength as we were.

We came to agree on eight million lire for each one of us, with an end-of-employment bonus and our last month’s salaries not included, obviously.

At that moment, I gave the boss the telephone number of our attorney so that they could work out the agreement together. The enemy trembled with rage.

“Why would your attorney need to get involved?” he asked.

“He would need to get involved,” I said, “because he followed the affair of the disciplinary actions, and because we want everything to be legal, approved by the courts, and not done in secret so that it might all be denied one day, perhaps even tomorrow.”

He could not go back, and it was him, obviously, who would have to pay all the court fees. We had organized a false dismissal for official reasons, and the agreement would be drafted in black and white. In the corridor, they gave each one of us a check for 8,734,415 lire. Victory!

But the vampire’s ordeal wasn’t over yet. The checks, laid out one next to the other, with our names legible, were photocopied 50 times, with the following text printed at the bottom: “Wake up! Struggle pays. It pays.” Instead of choosing to take the money and disappear, as old Piras did, we distributed these copies to our colleagues, who were astonished and said that, thanks to them, they had learned more in an instant than they had learned their whole lives. It was quite obvious that a good number of them had to take a step back, but Super-Cleaning certainly never returned to its previous tranquility. As for Verter Mola, who had sold himself for an increase in misery, he kicked himself and begged us to take him along on the next operation.

The photocopies of the checks were the straws that broke the camel’s back. When we went to renew our work permits, the Lombard insulted us and sought to provoke us by every means he could think of. It was wasted effort on me, but Cosimo gave him a smack that made him stagger. We took off, fearing that he would denounce us, but fortunately he did not. If he’d kept quiet, this was in part to keep us from filing a grievance concerning the insults that he’d hurled at us and in part (and especially) because he didn’t want to look like an asshole by recounting the whole story.

[1] In Milan.

[2] As the reader will recall from previous chapter in this book, the Cayenne was “a ship fit for deportees only (the crew was in fact forced to be there).”

[3] Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (“Italian General Confederation of Labor”), Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori (“Italian Confederation of Trade Unions”) and Unione Italiana del Lavoro (“Italian Labour Union”).

[4] The earthquake that struck the Irpina region of Southern Italy on 23 November 1980.

[5] The following three sentences do not appear in the French translation of this book.

[6] A seaside tourist resort on the Italian Riviera.

[7] A Ligurian wine.

[8] A law firm.

[9] Supported by the French Army, the Parthenopean Republic existed in Naples for the first six months of 1799.

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