It was a backstreet flat only the young and the down and out could have loved. There was a single bed in one corner, a sink with no cabinet in the other one, old wooden floors thick with varnish and a dresser between the entry and closet doors. The toilet was down the hall. A single window looked out over some tenements in back. The sounds of the Milano streets echoed up night and day and never left you alone.
You accessed the flat by an open stairwell between two storefronts. A small shoe repair shop sat to one side, a cheap Italian diner to the other. The stairwell had paisley wallpaper that had turned the color of umber with the passing of years.
I had stayed in half a dozen flats like it around Europe and they all had a similar feeling. Just going up the stairs and down the hallway, you knew you were on the wrong side of town. If you had ever been down on your luck, there was no need to describe it. It’s like this or that bus stop on the way to Memphis. No matter the town, the picture is always the same.
That first day in my flat, I opened the window and heard Caruso crooning from across the way. That one thing never changed during my stay in Milan. There was always one opera or another echoing in through the open windows.
Most of what I heard came from the tenement buildings across the way. All of them had makeshift catwalks crisscrossing between the upper apartments and some led up to the roof. Clotheslines were strung here and there with fresh laundry and Caruso sang in the late summer sunshine.
Besides opera, and the general cacophony of daily life, you heard kids playing in the streets down below the tenements and couples arguing. There were dozens of conversations and TVs blaring. Some of the arguments sounded as if they were out there on my fire escape. I often lay on the bed, imagining the obligatory hairy chested Italian lout in his spaghetti t-shirt, seated at the kitchen table, his wife sweating over the stove, both of them mad at the world and each other. She was yelling at him. He was yelling at her. Caruso serenaded their drama.
I’ve always had an aversion to bedlam but as a young man newly out in the world, and in a foreign land, it was all magic to me. I could have lain there for weeks listening to the sounds of the city and making up stories.
I had only one problem right then. After four months in Europe, I was broke and had no ticket back home. While visiting the consulate the previous day, they had offered to repatriate me but the idea had a ring of defeat to it. You felt homesick and ran back to the familiar. My friends hanging around after high school, doing the same crap. A war I did not want to see.
Nonetheless, I had filled out the consulate forms. A kindly but formal young woman had explained the process. The application went to the State Department in Washington, from where it could take weeks to be approved. If it was, a voucher followed, enough to pay for my flat until a flight back home could be arranged.
I decided to set things in motion. I could always say no.
Having done that, the young woman encouraged me to return every day and check on my status. In the interim, I could take in the many wonderful sights in Milan. She recommended various museums and cathedrals.
I had gone from there to the nearby Duomo di Milano but the immensity of it left me feel hollow so I tried the Palazzo Bagatti-Valsecchi and got lost there for hours, first in a special exhibit of Van Gogh and Cezanne, and then in Picasso. I loved everything he did. It was as if a child had been let loose with brushes. You never knew what to expect.
Afterwards, I went to sit in a nearby park and tried not to think of Lisa. Each time I thought of her, I felt frustrated and angry. I was prepared to cross a thousand galaxies to get her back. Things would have been all right if she hadn’t listened to her parents.
Absolute questions started to dog my thoughts. Why am I here? What is the purpose of existence?
Two weeks earlier, I had been waiting tables in a little restaurant on the coast of Livorno, broke for the most part but happy as hell and little concerned with absolute questions. Then Lisa left and everything went to hell.
Goddamned romance. Women rent their clothes over it. Empires ground to a halt. Otherwise sane men took their lives.
Late that afternoon, I freshened up in my room and went down to the cheap diner at the bottom of the stairs. Dusk was engulfing the day. Four people were eating inside, two old men at one table and a middle-aged couple at another. None of them much noticed me coming in.
The owner came out of the kitchen and took my order. Out of kindness he added a sausage to my plate of pasta. His wife spoke French and brought me a basket of bread. When I quickly consumed the first basket, she brought another one. I washed all that down with a liter of red wine, thanked them for their kindness and started towards the Parco Sempione. The city streets were dark with evening now. A wind had blown down from the Alps with the first hint of autumn and rustled in the elms. I was thinking about the repatriation. It would be better if I looked for another job and continued my adventure. I had no proof Lisa would be waiting for me upon my return.
With the summer crowds gone, the city seemed empty, leading to more homesickness. A memory of summer days at the beach passed through my thoughts—suntan lotion, rock and roll music on transistor radios, stopping by a roadside hamburger joint on the way home. Just to or talk to someone in English would have been a thrill.
After a long walk through the city’s back streets, I reached the Piazza Duomo and what had been a fairly quiet night was suddenly bustling with people. The front porches of apartment buildings lined the surrounding streets, each of them packed with families drinking wine, eating gelatos and generally taking in the packed plaza. Voices and laughter and music filled the air.
I was halfway across the street when a young man called out to me from in front of one of the apartment buildings. When I looked back, he waved again.
I went over and was greeted in broken English. The man quickly introduced to three other young men milling around out there on the sidewalk. They nodded sullenly. Their appearance was somewhere between Giorgio Armani hippies and the mob: shades, cotton sport coats, styled hair and wide-lapel shirts. The first guy waved as if to introduce me to three women sitting on the stone steps of an apartment building. They smiled as sullenly as the men had.
With a bit of pantomime, I quickly got the first guy’s drift. He pretended to smoke a pipe. Did I want some hashish? I nodded, sure. Why not?
The four men began talking amongst themselves in Italian and one of the women suddenly stood up.
She looked plaintively at both her friends and at me. The man who had offered to sell me the hash spoke harshly at her and she sat down again. He smiled back at me. I nodded knowingly and started to leave.
“No,” the young man said and grabbed my arm. “She’s a…” He made a gesture at his head, suggesting she was crazy. “No like a the drugs, eh?”
I nodded unenthusiastically, still sensing a set up.
“Look. Give a me five thousand lira. I go right here. In this a building.”
I shook my head and started to leave again.
“Eh, where am I a going? Everyone wait right a here.”
He waved at his friends. I looked at the woman who had said “no” and up at the building. Supposedly their connection was inside. I stood there playing with the stubble on my chin. I wanted to get high but still smelled a rat. As a compromise, I handed the guy 2500 lira.
“The other half when you get back.”
He looked discontentedly at the money but took it anyway and started up the steps of the apartment building. When I looked at the one woman again, she averted her eyes.
Once the man had disappeared inside, the other three men started drifting away. Two of the women quickly followed. The one who had objected to the deal looked nervously at me several times before hurrying down the sidewalk.
“Son of a bitch!” I said and raced up the steps to the apartment building.
I quickly searched all three floors but saw no one. With more Caruso entertaining me, I dashed down the hallway to a back door and hustled down the fire escape to a back street. I raced from one end of that block to the other before finally accepting it. I had been ripped off. 2500 lira was only about fifteen dollars, but it represented half my funds and was a significant hit to me.
I headed back towards Parco Sempione, kicking myself as I did.
Leaning against a lamp post where the metro tracks ran alongside Parco Sempione, I heard a man go by speaking English with a Bronx accent and followed after him. He was swarthy with black, curly hair and could have easily passed for another Italian. He was with three other men and I heard them speak in both English and Italian. Without hesitating, I barged into their conversation.
“Blake,” I said. “Sorry to interrupt you guys but I’ve been dying to talk with someone in English.”
“Fougetaboutit,” the guy with the Bronx accent said. He shook my hand. “Did you hear that, youse clowns? Another Yank, so youse can fougetabout giving me any more shit. All right?”
“The name’s Tony,” he said, returning his attention to me. “This is Ian, Arrigo, Janek. Foreign degenerates, one and all.”
I knew immediately by their names and hellos that Ian was British, Arrigo Italian and I assumed Janek to be Czechoslovakian. Only a year earlier, the Soviets had invaded Prague so it was common to see thousands of Czechoslovakians like Janek fleeing across Europe. Janek still looked to be in shock. He and his fellow countrymen had been blown away like the wind.
As to the other two, Arrigo looked more like a New Yorker than Tony did with his pork-pie hat and goatee and Ian had that pale Limey appearance about him, accented by long, brown curly locks.
“Ian here just got back from England,” Tony went on to explain. “So we’re trying to decide. Have some dinner or get some hashish first.”
At hearing this, I explained my recent saga.
“Oh shit,” Tony said with a finger pointed at Arrigo. “See what your goddamned greasy countrymen will do for a buck.”
Arrigo said something in Italian and the two of them shoved each other.
“Arrigo here’s my cousin,” Tony said with a big smile. “We’s family from way back. Right, Henry?”
Arrigo clearly did not like being called Henry and had a few more words for Tony. Tony smiled broadly at me in response.
“Let’s have a bit of the oobly boobly then,” Ian suggested. “I’m in a funk after that long train ride.”
“Then oobly boobly it is,” Tony added and off he went down the sidewalk, bantering with Arrigo. Ian, Janek and I fell in behind them.
Given Janek’s lousy English, I struck up a conversation with Ian. How long had he lived in Milan? What was it like? Ian explained that he was an artist and did airbrush work for a photography studio. I was about to ask why photos had to airbrushed but Tony and Arrigo dashed across a busy boulevard opposite the metro station. Tony got behind the wheel of a parked Fiat. Arrigo sat next to him. Ian, Janek and I made the same mad dash and crowded into the back seat. The five of us were soon racing along the boulevards of Milan.
A mile up the road, Tony swerved onto a winding side street, not much wider than the car and increased his speed.
“Jesus,” I said and sat forward in a panic. Tony looked over the seat with a big laugh. He was doing fifty miles an hour and couldn’t see a hundred feet ahead of him. If another car suddenly appeared from the other direction, we’d be dead.
Arrigo was staring forward, seemingly indifferent to the impending disaster. Janek was staring out the side window at the passing buildings. Ian looked over at me and smiled.
Miraculously, we came out onto another main boulevard unscathed. A few blocks later, Tony turned onto a quiet, residential street and parked. Arrigo got out, climbed the steps to a three-story building and went in.
While we waited, Ian spoke quietly with Janek in French. Tony listened for a moment then spoke with me about how his and Arrigo’s families were involved together in the olive oil business.
Tony gave me a big wink.
When Arrigo returned, we drove in the same mad fashion over to Ian’s pad. It was a spacious upstairs loft and looked the way you would imagine an artist’s place to look. There was a drafting table, an easel, oil paintings in various stages, photographs suspended from clips, pencil and charcoal sketches pinned to the walls.
Ian quickly produced a water pipe and everyone took a turn at it. Once we were all high, the usual laughter and irreverent conversation broke out. When asked how I had ended up in Europe, I explained the saga of chasing a woman over to Paris, the adventure that had followed and how I had applied for repatriation the previous day. I wasn’t sure if I would go back or if she would be waiting for me at home, but the Vietnam War was there, all right.
“It is this way in my country,” Janek observed. “Everyone leave because of war, and leave love behind same time. Many, many unhappy people.”
Apparently dissatisfied with the maudlin tone of the conversation, Tony fell from the couch to his knees.
“I love a you so much.”
“Tony wouldn’t know about such things,” Ian commented dryly. “He’s only in love with himself.”
“At’s a right,” Tony said and went back to his prone position on the couch.
Arrigo had stared without emotion throughout it all, apparently as dispassionate about love as he was about everything else.
“Hey, I just had this vision,” Tony said while still staring up at the ceiling. “There are two Roman armies approaching each other on a field of battle. One of them is composed entirely of men, the other of women. Their shields are up. Their swords are at the ready. They get closer and closer. They can nearly touch but none of them know they’re men and women until the last minute, when all of the women throw off their helmets, and seeing this, the man drop their swords.
“ ‘Eh, screw this’,” they say.
“You’re an idiot,” Ian said, choking on the pipe.
Everyone laughed but Arrigo. Tony tried making fun of him with various faces, but nothing worked.
“Eh, screw this,” Tony said and the laughter started all over again.
Eventually, someone brought up food. Tony suggested we dash out for a bite to eat. Another wild toad ride aside, that sounded like a great idea to me.
All of us rose from our opium like trance and followed Tony downstairs. He got behind the wheel and we were soon on another giddy ride across town.
Arrigo recommended a restaurant but when we arrived there, it was already closing. Going in the front door, the owner let us know as much. Tony and Arrigo took a table anyway. The rest of us joined them. The disgruntled owner offered us a liter of red wine but that was it.
Janek sat quietly. Ian suggested another restaurant. Tony stared at the owner as if he was not at all satisfied with the answer he had received.
The owner returned a few moments later, poured everyone a glass of wine and started off again. Tony called out to him in Italian. The owner came back, wiping his hands on his apron. Tony schmoozed with him and let on by way of gestures that we didn’t wanted much, just a quick bite to eat. He gestured at a couple still eating against the far wall. And the waiters were still there.
The owner acknowledged this but gestured ‘no’ with of his hands. The kitchen was closed. We were welcome to finish our wine while the waiters put out fresh linens. Then we had to go. The owner made another gesture as if to say he was very sorry about it but, eh, it was late.
He turned to leave but Tony barked something and the owner stopped in his tracks. Every head in the restaurant turned. Time seemed to stand still.
When the owner turned to face Tony, Tony allowed a moment to pass before holding out his right hand, his right palm facing outward away from his body and turning it swiftly back in towards himself, the back way. The meaning of the gesture was a mystery to me, but the owner seemed to understand and hurried back over to our table. Knowing it was best to mind their own business, the waiters resumed their work. The couple went back to eating. The owner was now leaning over our table, ready to do whatever Tony pleased. Tony ordered in Italian and the owner scurried off towards the kitchen, snapping fingers and giving orders to the waiters as he went.
I looked around the table. Janek turned away. Ian shrugged. Tony and Arrigo stared. I suddenly got the picture. It was a mob thing. I smiled and looked away, realizing it was best if minded my own business too.
Twenty minutes later, a feast was delivered to our table, an antipasto, pasta with red sauce and meatballs, a veal dish, wine and all the bread we could eat.
Very late that night, Tony dropped me off at my room. There were fond farewells and the boys drove off. They were headed to Genoa in a few days and maybe on to the French Alps. I was welcome to come along. If not, they had left me with a couple of grams of hash.
Late the next afternoon, I stopped by the consulate and learned they had already arranged my flight home. I was to board a plane for New York in two days. I headed back towards my flat on foot, not so sure I wanted to go ahead now.
As evening settled over Milan, I started back downstairs to the streets. A part time Italian interpreter who worked for the consulate started down with me and struck up a conversation in French. He was in his thirties, slim and urbane, with thinning hair combed straight back.
Very quickly, the nature of my circumstances became clear. I was alone and without much money in his country.
“Alfredo,” he said and held out his hand.
“Come, you will have dinner with me and my wife tonight.”
I started to protest but he would have none of it.
“Please, my wife, she always makes enough for ten people.”
Sophia met us at the door, wearing a white blouse, a black skirt and black high heels to go with her pale skin and black hair. She was petite, beautiful, sweet, charming and effervescent in equal proportions. The furniture was streamline Italian that evoked the early sixties. The atmosphere was the romance of young couples. All it needed was some Frank Sinatra or Jack Jones on the turntable. Instead, Alfredo played some lovely string music. Sophia guided me to a seat at the dinner table and went off to the kitchen. She came back with grapes, marinated albacore and various antipastos. Regina encouraged me to indulge myself while she went off to prepare the next course. By the time she returned with the pasta and veal cutlets, I was nearly full. Alfredo and I were lost in conversation.
While we ate, Sophia asked Alfredo how I had ended up in Europe.
“Ohhhh,” she said when I explained about my love affair.
Love was the same to women, anywhere you went. All through the meal I kept thinking, if only I could find a girl like Regina. So far, no one had appreciated my chivalrous intentions.
Later on, back in the darkness of my room, on a late summer night in Milan, I lay listening again to the couples arguing through my open window. Alfredo and Regina were the lucky ones. Two of the lucky few. Most couples drifted apart with the years, or spent a lifetime arguing with each other.
I remembered Tony and the gang going off to Genoa and the French Alps. This business with Lisa seemed pointless in comparison. Rush home for what? To find my headlong journey had been in vain?
Round and round my thoughts went. It would be fun, just me and the boys on our way up to the Alps. But to dwell on Lisa for five hundred miles?
I lay there until late, tossing and turning, love tugging at me like a deep, unseen ocean current, not certain yet what I would do in the morning.