The Secret is to Tell All!

Part One: II

Whether they were white, yellow or black, the soldiers from the United States of America addressed themselves to us, the children, by gesturing or expressing themselves in a labored Italian that seemed so much harder to understand because we were used to speaking a dialect. They asked us about everything: from the prices at the restaurants to the names of the streets. But they most often asked us about “the thing,” waving banknotes and gratifying us with complicit smiles. Saverio and I looked at them in perplexity and, at the beginning, we could not manage to figure out what they meant. Nevertheless, so that we lost nothing, we pocketed what they gave us and trotted off – without heading in any precise direction – through the small streets of the town, very sure of ourselves, hoping that chance would come to our aid. At the first distraction of those who followed us, we’d take off and hide in a friend’s house, leaving them with open mouths. But one day, a large, skinny guy, red-headed, covered with boils and with a mouth full of rotten teeth, recognized us and grabbed hold of my friend and told us off in English, using obviously insulting words.

Several idlers who had bivouacked at the tables of a bar intervened by suggesting that he stop immediately. After a lively exchange of points of view (half in Apulian dialect and half in a foreign language) that no one understood, they all sprang into action, and a furious brawl broke out, as was common at the time.

We were bandaging our injuries, evoking the different stages of the fight and already beginning to exaggerate the details, when the adults explained to us that “the thing” mean prostitutes and that the soldiers were always seeking pimps or kids to take them to them. In fact, the whorehouses were available and legal; one could even recognize them thanks to a small painted sign at the two ends of certain streets. But the majority of the women preferred not to be in a file, keeping alive the hope of abandoning as soon as possible the profession that they had chosen for the moment, pushed by hunger. On the other hand, in the official bordellos, the military police could easily stage a raid. The solitude of the clients and the misery of the women were materialized in a veritable mob of people, which characterized the neighborhood, but this was not our scene. Before abandoning these little games, we guided several groups of marines, dropping them off (this time advisedly) at the most infamous streets, where, without great difficulty, they could find what they desired and thus export venereal diseases of Italian origin.

The years passed and the bigwigs once again took complete control of the situation. The Popular Front was dismantled, the Communists were marginalized, and the old fascists were returned to their posts, amidst the indifference of a people accustomed to being screwed. In 1949, Saverio and I were already real men, even if we were only twelve years old. Prematurely matured by circumstances, we were able to take the wheels off of any car without difficulty, to make off with small suitcases at the train station, and even (our hearts beating fast) slide a watch off the wrest of a distracted person. We had acquired a profound aversion to work, despite our families, which had no intention of supporting two layabouts and didn’t hesitate to entrust us – after brief negotiations about salaries that they would collect directly – to our first boss, for work off the books.

He was a very fat person (at the limits of obesity) who used us as warehousemen and paid us in mere pennies. We had to load sweaters, tee shirts[1] and shirts into a medium-size truck, sweating like beasts and without a moment of rest. In fact, if we even looked like we were going to stop, that bastard hastened to knock us down with powerful kicks (to straighten our backs, he would say), and thus accelerate our speed. At the end of two or three months, if we hadn’t earned any money, we had at least accumulated sufficient rage and hatred to want to see our torturer die in some kind of automobile accident. But he always returned and very promptly. He also tended to increase the number of his trips (and thus our fatigue) so that his business would prosper. He would send us to buy him drinks but he never offered us any; then he would spit on the ground and laugh at his own idiotic jokes, ceaselessly repeating them in the hope of making us appreciate them. We had had enough and decided to put an end to this situation.

One day, after we’d set a plan and carefully studied the workings of the business, I leaped into the truck at the moment that it pulled off. I balanced upon two boxes in the pile, chosen at random, and then I descended at the first red light to rejoin Saverio, who awaited me with my plunder. The torturer noticed nothing until the delivery of his goods; he contented himself with doubting our honesty and ceased to call upon us. We had killed two birds with one stone: on the one hand, we were delivered from that sad drudgery; on the other hand, we even earned several bucks by selling what we’d taken.

The fear of some new “placement” incited me to flee more and more often from a household where I was less and less desired. I slept in the train station, where it wasn’t difficult to install myself comfortably, but I was often nabbed and, willingly or by force, returned to my “place of residence” where I regularly received a good number of beatings dispensed by the [older] males of my family. In the course of my wanderings, I had the occasion to meet people used to living by shady deals and expedients. Saverio was enthusiastic about this and succeeded in proving to me that the moment had come to put into practice all that we had learned. Under very precise directions, we stole soldiers’ uniforms from a laundry and sold them for three bucks each. We were obviously soon found out, but, as we were children, the owners contented themselves with slapping us around for two or three hours.

They had us under their eyes in our neighborhood, and so it became necessary to change our zone of operation. Thus we transported ourselves to a large place with intense traffic, a veritable strategic point. Six streets met there, frequently creating traffic jams around the obelisk that marked the center. The vehicles that passed through there (and the trucks that resupplied the American barracks were among them) were obligated to stop. At Saverio’s signal, we threw ourselves upon the cargo like hawks upon their prey, plundering all that was possible to grab in a few seconds. Before the drivers had time to react, we had already disappeared into the crowd, into a myriad of inextricable and apparently similar alleys. It was almost always rice and bottles of preserves, but from time to time choice morsels fell into our hands, and we had a festival. Our little enterprise prospered and we were very proud of becoming real hooligans. Saverio was decidedly a very daring kid, but he knew how to defeat criticism with a smile and the natural sympathy that he inspired, with the result that we both lost our sense of limits and bragged in public, in loud voices, of our illegal exploits. Our band was composed of six effective members and one or two sympathizers who were only involved on certain occasions. We got together during the evenings between the columns of the Santa Croce Church. It was rare that someone was missing because everyone loved to stroll through and play in the gardens, where we nabbed fruit from the trees. Then we bought ices, smoked Kent and Pall Mall cigarettes on the sly, and recounted our first shots to the old, coarse whores of the neighborhood. There was no talk of work, except when we went as a group to laugh at a friend who ended up becoming a salesman in some shop.

Things couldn’t go on like this, if only because other groups of little hoodlums had followed our example, and the thefts increased beyond the limits set by the authorities. The people had quickly forgotten fascism and the war, deprivation and misery. In the countryside, chaos had begun again, the Cold War reigned over the world, and, in the factories, strikes broke out in a continuous stream. The Democratic Christians hoped to make dramatic changes and even provided instructions to the police, but, finding it impossible to attack the local Mafiosi, found an excellent target in the thieving kids: “this scandal” had to end! One accursed day, they encircled half the town and began to stage very focused raids. We were obviously taken in, our loot and us, and our careers as scugnizzi[2] were brutally ended. We were unceremoniously locked up in a reformatory where, at night, we slept in the huge army camps that had fortified doors and solid locks. There were more than a hundred of us and the newspapers poured out praises for public safety and the government minister who resolved this serious urban problem so brilliantly.

Saverio – who was left all alone in the world by a series of misfortunes – succeeded so well in selling his own loot that he was adopted by a rich Italian-American family. He left for overseas; I never saw him again and know nothing more about him. It is not impossible that he once again fell into a tight spot. We, the ones who were “responsible,” were all carefully listed and entered into police files. Two weeks later, our jailers divided us into groups and washed, sheared, and disinfected us. They attained their objective, which in short was punishment and redemption: that is to say, they forced us to go to work, and those who didn’t go along received slaps. Mornings and afternoons, they reunited us and gave us long speeches about our respective futures and the necessity of changing our lives, but the orators themselves knew perfectly well that they were wasting their time. In any case, I felt a desire for adventure that was too powerful to be extinguished by sermons from obtuse bureaucrats whose only care was tranquilly reaching retirement.

My mother and my entire family were delighted by my confinement, the legal justification for which I still don’t know. They had one less mouth to feed and could hope that my virulence would end up calmed. I, on the other hand, had had more than enough of being locked up and washing floors for the commander of a barracks located near the port. I was quite decided to change the atmosphere, no matter what the cost. And so I didn’t hesitate to accept a place that no one wanted and became the jack-of-all-trades (the fifth wheel) at a psychiatric hospital. This truly thankless task was an unforgettable experience and, subsequently, no workplace appeared as bad to me as this fortress transformed into a living hell. When I indicated my intention to accept, they made me sign an already drafted declaration, which I did not bother to read, as I was almost illiterate. In its great lines it was stipulated that I had volunteered, that I was engaged for a certain period of time, of my own free will, and that I knew all the rules. When I arrived at my destination, they gave me a work shirt, no doubt white long ago, but now dirty and smelly.

The facilities were very modern. As was the case during the war, they made use of gasoline to combat the prosperous colonies of lice (I could write a treatise on the habits and behaviors of bugs!). The unfortunate mentally ill patients and even the epileptics were, willingly or unwillingly, attached by chains to rings on the walls. And when this wasn’t sufficient (and sometimes it wasn’t), the old “nurses,” who were completely worn out by their work, thrashed them pitilessly with sticks. But their victims, weakened by deprivation and moral distress, didn’t even think of revenge. The food surpassed anything that a sadist could imagine. It will suffice to say that I myself was assigned to cut up old, leathery, skeletal meat, including [the animals’] heads. The bureaucrats, who possessed an honesty that was above all suspicion, model citizens, who were certainly irreproachable, pocketed the difference between their real costs and the ones they declared. This was watched by their poor employees, who bow down today due to fear and tomorrow will perhaps cry out between their [employers’] claws.

Thus, I went from the frying pan into the fire. At the end of three months, I was truly fed up with this horrible asylum, the fetid odor of urine and excrement, the unpunished maliciousness of my colleagues, and especially the continual whimpering coming from the rooms, which I could hear while I slept and which resonated in my ears as soon as I woke up. Comparison with a snake pit truly doesn’t seem excessive to me. Fortunately, upon my arrival, I gave them a false name, close to my real one, but made-up. This precaution proved useful; it permitted me a strategic escape without suffering any adverse consequences. Nevertheless, before I took off, I decided to commit an act that was, no doubt, crazy, but necessary to be able to live without the disagreeable company of repressed anger. I am not ashamed to affirm that I acted upon a whim, but it didn’t lack grandeur. I audaciously started a fire that destroyed, among other things, the brand-new car of that bastard, the under-director, but that wasn’t my only victim (not counting an almost-human, age-old tree). Thanks to the panic that ensued, I cleverly reached the exit and ran out without my stuff. It was September 1954: I had finally regained my freedom.

[1] Translator: English in original.

[2] Translator: Neapolitan dialect for street urchins.

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