I FIRST MET Sal in the winter of 2019. I was in Sicily. He was sitting at a café. Spoke to me in English.
Hey buddy, could you spare thirty cents?
New York accent. Maybe habit, addressing people in English.
Yeah, I said. What for?
And then, because I had just been there: You’re from New York?
Brooklyn. How’d you guess? Lived there thirty-five years.
He occupied the edge of the café’s wicker chair, hands interlocked between his knees. Only his small head – arched upward, eyes narrowed towards me – seemed to support him.
Look, he said, I just need it so I can get something to eat. My sister’s sending money tomorrow, but I don’t have anything till then. So if you can just spare me a little, well–
Where are you staying? I asked. You live here or something?
He told me about a place – a hotel, not far. Thirty euros a night.
I’m going back to New York in April, he said, and no money till tomorrow. That’s when my sister usually sends me some, through the money transfer.
There was a Western Union on every block of Palermo. Other than that, there were the internet cafés. Sometimes I’d sit in them, thinking of home.
I’d dreamt last night I was back. Dreamt I was loping and falling over the hills of Gunditjmara country near Warrnambool. Dreamt my sister had a new boyfriend (unfairly, intensely handsome) and my mother was in tears because I hadn’t stopped off in Paris on the way home to get her something nice.
And while I made the journey back in my head, outside the rain would start.
Now I’ll have a busy time getting back to the hostel.
As if it were home.
It was always busy there in Palermo. During a snow shower I’d sit in the cafés, small corner net connections. Sometimes the weather was a little heavy – I’d kick my boots clean of ice at the entrance, umbrella heavy with sleet. The man you paid to use the internet would be singing in Farsi; a woman would speak in hushed tones in the cubicle. Sometimes not so hushed. Talking to her family on the other side of the world. Where maybe it was snowing, too. And together they could listen to each other. Together in the snow they could talk.
Me, I hadn’t talked to anyone in a while.
I guess that’s how I ended up meeting Sal.
When was the last time you ate, bro?
Thin-as-a-rail Sal. He said he’d had a cornetto for breakfast.
Then he started telling me how he’d only made, I don’t remember the figure exactly, but he showed me some coins and it looked like about six euros – well, he’d only made it in two, maybe three hours, and I laughed and said that bums in Lille in France during Christmas made about 300 euros a day, so he must have missed the season.
Well bud, have you got any money for me?
Sal shrugged. What’s your name?
Sascha, I said.
Well, Sascha. Let’s see if I can’t get us some money.
Hand on my shoulder, guiding me into the shadows of the café. He pointed to three Chinese men standing around the slot machines.
These guys, he said, these guys have been playing here since eight. I think that this guy – flicking his wrist as if to invite him over – has spent 300 euros already.
There were two major migrants’ ghettos at this time in Palermo: the Africans living just down from the café around Via della Speranza, and
the Asians – Malay, Filipino, Chinese – living between the train station and the port. Usually they were in the business of selling Chinese clothes, brands with Armani symbols and Gucci NY logos, consumer fashions. Whatever made its way into the Chinese manufacturing industry’s typography. They employed the Africans as salesmen, men from Ghana or Nigeria who spoke fluent English and Italian.
I’d talked to a Ghanaian, once. He was alone. Sent money back to his family. Didn’t speak much, and seemed sadder than anybody I’d seen out there on the street. He said, If I make enough money, I can go home. Then shook my hand. Told me his name was Isaac.
His employers were probably in a similar situation.
In some of the better stores, the clothes were made in Italy, and the owners spoke a little English. That was the strangest thing – all these migrant businesses lining the street, with the occasional Italian jeweller’s or perfumery scattered like misplaced decoration.
I bought a pack of cigarettes in the café and watched the slots for a while. Sal was speaking to one of the Chinese and another man, a Sicilian, and giving him money.
By the time he returned his hands were nestled deep in his pockets. I guess the gods must have been smiling because he said, Let’s go eat.
Out in the streets he was crazy with the women, telling them all they were beautiful, whistling in incomprehension, and I said, What’s up with you?
Listen – I say, you are sexy, you are sexy mama, you know?
You think they understand?
I think it gets them wet. What? Yeah they understand. I think they get a little wet when they hear that.
He was old enough to be the father of some of those girls. I don’t know why, but he never spoke to them in Italian. The Italian he used when we reached the deli on the corner, though – it was good. Fluent. Ordering smoked cheese and salami like a pro, even if he kept talking about mayonnaise and sandwiches like a New Yorker.
Hey, I told him as we left the store, I’m going to Via della Speranza. Before we eat. I’ve got to talk to this guy. Said he’d be there on Tuesday.
Via della Speranza, what is that?
It’s near a mission.
What do you want to go there for, Sascha?
I don’t know. It looked interesting. Maybe I’ll write about it. I’m not really sure.
Yeah? So you’re a writer then.
I write sometimes.
Man. Yeah. I wish I could have been a writer.
I waited for him to finish – but that was all he said.
It was raining a little by the time we arrived. I asked the man I’d talked to yesterday at the entrance the same question I’d asked then: Could I talk to anyone there?
Talk? What do you want to talk for? he said. If you want to join–
Not join. Just talk.
I think what I was looking for was some company in a foreign city. And seeing as I was in Nigeria soon, I was hoping to maybe get some advice, too.
There were a few Ghanaians loitering around the tent, watching us. They had something – a kind of stare – that was difficult to describe.
I’d met some Nigerians in Palermo by then. At a church where the preacher spoke in English, a blind man beside him translating into Wolof. Raising his hands as he spoke, the interpreter following, musician and conductor.
After the service I mingled with the congregation. I wanted to speak to someone and see if they could tell me where they’d come from, how they’d arrived at the mission.
Some of them I had met by day in the streets. They would sit in stores converted from their living rooms. Maybe using a brother’s property if they were new to Palermo. Selling deodorants. Potato chips. Detergents. The items arranged on shelves or stuck with clothes pins to makeshift frames borrowed from a neighbour’s laundry. Just as they might have done back home – small items maintained for survival. Now they could retain no memory of the Nigerian day’s heat. The smoke. Smell of fuel. Traffic slums like processions slowly, slowly moving forward, approaching houses built on stilts, water looping around their bases. No recollection of that crowded place. Just this city of cement and cobblestones and European history – and maybe something else, something they hadn’t quite found the words for, in sentences that would come easy enough to their children, whose mouths could open and speak without being apprehended by the language of a missing home.
That day in the church the preacher raised his hands and began to say, John the Baptist, looking for a home, alone in the wilderness…
While the musician put it into Wolof. The other language.
I realised then that I was an outsider among the locals. The migrants.
And more of an outsider than either – because I had believed all along in my tourist’s invisibility.
So after a while I gave it up with the Sicilian, who stubbed his cigarette in the dirt and refused to say anything else.
I turned to the rain, the slow shifting sky. Patterns tracked the ground. Footprints of stray cats. Sneakers.
They – the locals – would always know someone was with them. The ones they’d left behind.
I couldn’t even lay claim to that.
To my surprise, Sal had turned round and begun talking to the man. I didn’t understand exactly what he was saying, but there was a suggestion of some small and intimate disappointment. I heard him ask if he was Sicilian.
Yeah. Why shouldn’t I be?
Look friend, Sal said, I mean, can we speak to anyone here today or not?
He looked back at me, mouthing a single word between his lips.
So with the weather clearing and everything beginning to suggest itself bright and beautiful, we were back on the streets.
Those assholes, Sal was saying. Those fucking assholes. I mean, if we were Sicilian.
Listen, I said. It must be hard here, right? I mean, look at you – begging on the street.
So why not go back to New York?
Like I say Sascha, I’d really like to. But as soon as I go back, I know I’d be leaving again. For good, this time.
He looked at me, making a strange gasping noise. As if trying to sigh but finding he couldn’t.
You know, I once tried joining that mission myself. But because they think I’m Sicilian, they can’t see why they should let me.
When? Back when you used to live here?
When I what? Oh yeah. A while ago. How’d you know?
Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.
Was your sister here then? Your father?
No. I think my sister was in California.
I asked who he was living with at the time – but Sal didn’t seem to hear me.
My father lived in New York, he said abruptly. He lived there until – ah, I don’t know. Why the fuck should I be telling you, Sascha? But you know, he lived there and he died there, too.
As though there were anything else I could say.
Run over by a truck. Forty years old. Me, I’m forty-one.
Sal said all this as we angled towards the street leading up to my hostel. I raised my hand, pointing it out to him. He was a little ahead of me and did not face me as he spoke.
Yeah. Almost the same age. Built like a brick shithouse. He never exercised or anything. Because of his work. Construction. He was a construction worker. Just like – he gestured at some men we had passed, laying bricks in the pavement – those guys, I guess. Like a Sicilian. And I did the same. Until recently.
He looked up at the sky, whistling as we came to the courtyard entrance.
Wow. Big place.
Then he raised a bony hand, the same hand he had pressed into my shoulder as he guided me towards the Chinese slot-watchers, placing it now upon the banister of the staircase to my room, and he began to head up, one foot at a time, beginning with the left, then following with the right, until we had reached the landing.
I let him inside, pointing the way to the balcony.
As we went out to the terrace and sat down to share a pack of cigarettes, I noticed his socks were wet. Water had seeped in through the holes of his shoes as we walked.
Need new ones, he said, catching my glance.
Oh, I didn’t mean to–
It’s okay. I’m always walking around here. In New York I could have just caught the subway. Like I did when – he looked up again, whistling – like I did when the asshole used to beat me.
I wanted to turn away. Pretend I hadn’t heard. But it just seemed to make Sal want to press on.
Sometimes for nothing at all. Can you imagine loving someone for that?
I don’t know.
I can, Sascha. Well – I guess I have to.
He looked away for a moment, cigarette cradled atop his right knee.
You ever been to Brooklyn, Sascha?
No, not really.
Yeah. Just ’cos, I got a feeling that New York has changed, man. The places they were always talking about – Harlem, El Barrio – they’ve been…what’s the word? They’ve been – Christ. Gentrified?
Something like that. Jesus, I’m even forgetting my fucking words now.
It was then that I noticed the sadness. A stitched-togetherness in his expression.
Momentarily embarrassed, ashamed of seeing so much vulnerability in a grown man, I said: Well, I was up walking at 4 am. Nothing happening. I’ve met white people who gasp when you tell them that. But the scariest thing that happened to me was sitting in Mount Morris Park at five in the morning and seeing the first squirrel I’ve ever seen, in my life I mean, hopped up on Coca-Cola and hamburgers and God knows what else and staring straight at me. Before realising there were fifty or so in the park, sprinting up trees and towards my legs…
You know what they call me here? Sal said. Americano. I say, don’t call me that. Call me Sal, or Salvatore, but not, you know, Americano.
I wanted to say something, but then realised I didn’t know whether he was listening anyway. Probably he didn’t need me to.
Almost tenderly, he asked, So how are things in Australia, Sascha? Good?
Yeah, not bad.
You pay a little extra – that’s what I hear, anyway. But it’s worth it, right?
I thought of telling him about stolen land. Paying the rent. Instead, motioning for another cigarette, I said: Well. It’s the standard of living, I guess.
Sal looked up, shaking his head.
God. Fuck me, if I could just go home.
The image of his dead father rose inside my mind’s eye. His sister, wiring money.
You’ll be in New York soon, right? I said.
Yeah. Yeah, guess I will.
And then, Hey, you know what? This salami’s good. Just like the salami in New York, you know?
Since I wasn’t too sure, I replied: Yeah.
I wonder if that guy at the store was really Sicilian. I mean, he could have been Italian or something. You know? See, these Sicilians, they don’t give a shit about anybody. Sicilians are in it for themselves. Won’t give nothing to nobody. That guy at the mission – wouldn’t let a white guy through the gates of hell, Sascha. Cos you gotta be born black. Gotta be African or a migrant or something. Black or born here or fresh from riding your fucking camel through the deserts of the motherfucking Middle East, else you’re fucking nothing.
Because let me tell you something else, Sascha. The Mafia – it’s the Mafia keeps those fuckers in line. And the Mafia is the whole of fucking Sicily. Were you born here? That’s the first question. That’s your diploma. Your fucking ticket. If you weren’t born here you’d better leave. Or think about learning Farsi or Yoruba or something.
I took a few breaths before I spoke. Said the only thing I could think to say.
I mean – you really haven’t got any family here?
Sascha, you want to know something? When you said that stuff to me about writing, I thought, here’s someone who’s got a goal. Something to live for. I thought I could have been a writer once, you know. I’ve got loads of stories.
He pushed aside his sandwich, edging closer.
Thing is, that’s about the only fucking qualification I’ve got. Yeah – as if someone like me could write a story. I suppose believing in that bullshit makes me a real fucking writer, huh?
How do you mean?
You – you can actually write. That’s what makes you different. You have something to hope for, Sascha. You know what I’m saying?
Sal had drawn his chair towards me, and on his face I saw it again, the sad expression, the stitched-together look he had when he couldn’t remember how to speak English.
Look. Sascha. The thing is, I haven’t been completely honest with you.
He closed his eyes. I watched his cigarette flicker and die. He reached across and removed a fresh one from my pack, lighting it with his other hand. It hovered just out of the corner of his mouth, as if he were afraid it might somehow break between his lips.
Thing is, this is about stuff I haven’t told anyone, really. Stuff I don’t wanna have to think about. I just don’t want to know, you know? But I’d like you to, because I think you’re different. I mean, I hate myself for doing it – lying to you, I mean – but I can’t live without it. And I guess I wouldn’t have met you if I didn’t.
Thing is, Sascha – the first thing is – I don’t have a sister. And second, I’m not homeless. I live with my nonna. She lives down the street. Maybe thirty blocks. She lives thirty blocks away, and I live with her.
A column of ash fell from my cigarette.
So why are you begging?
I don’t know, Sascha. I don’t fucking know. I don’t have any sister wiring money. I made all that stuff up. My father’s dead. That part’s true.
Sal threw a hand up, eased back his hair, negotiating.
Fuck me, he said, his hand flicking back to reassert the cigarette dangling between his lips. Yeah, fuck. That’s true.
He shifted his gaze, looked directly at me.
All I have is my nonna.
And you live here now? I asked.
But wondered: What if it was all a story he had told a million times before? What if he had rehearsed the whole thing as we walked? And would it have mattered whether I was the first or the last one he had told it to?
Oh yeah. I live here. Lived in New York for thirty years. But I’m here now. Suppose you’re wondering why. Fuck, I know I am.
He paused and seemed to look for something in my pocket, his mouth askance.
Thing is, I got deported. From New York. Eighteen years ago now. Can you believe it? Deported from your own country. Because I was never actually a citizen. When I got back from visiting my nonna over here they arrested me at the airport. Couldn’t have been long after September 11. They arrested me in my own city and flew me here.
I looked towards the pot plants beside us. Angled up at the sun, their small fronds waving, gentle somersaults in the wind. The architecture of Sicily’s terraces and apartments staggering upward, as if they, too, hoped to register some warmth.
So you know what? Sal said. I’ll never see my friends again. Over there I wasn’t much. But I was still Sal for fucksakes. Now I’m just some fucking Americano.
He cupped his hands, a vanished look on his face.
I found myself wondering what his nonna saw in him when he got home in the evening. What his father had seen.
It occurred to me that his grandmother, living in Sicily while he worked in New York, might know somewhere he could get a job. But when I mentioned it, Sal said, I don’t know if I can get a job. I’m too close to being Sicilian, without actually being one. What else can I do? I’m no Italian-American over here. I’m no fucking Salvatore here. I’m just a loser from New York who left Italy. You say people make big money in France at Christmas? Christ. The French, eh? Guess you gotta be in Western Europe. Somewhere people still feel good about giving away cash. Socially conscious or something. The most I ever got was ten fucking euros from some Irish guy. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot – but I wonder how much a bum in China makes during the New Year. Or an Indian. I think to myself – yeah, what does he get for his Ramadan? I just try to make enough for some cigarettes and some salami, mayo and bread. I eat lunch with Nonna most days. Look out the window and think every fucking day of that airport. The fucking embarrassment man, my wrists in handcuffs in front of all those fucking New Yorkers… That’s why I’m never going back.
But you know, for the first time in my life, I actually feel like a New Yorker. It’s all I am here. Sicilians run the joint. Know why you don’t see any Africans, any Indians or Chinese getting outta line here? Because a Sicilian would fucking kill them. Because if a Sicilian does it, well, it’s not the same deal. If you’re Sicilian and you mess up, you’ve just messed up. But if you’re not Sicilian – you’ve really fucking messed up. They tell me I can’t get a job here. Funny thing is, no one can – the Chinese already own everything. But maybe it’s my accent. I mean, my Italian’s pretty good, but maybe it’s that. I don’t know.
Sal pulled another cigarette from my pack and hugged himself as he lit up. Shadows and smoke fell over the apartments and alleys.
I realised then that I had no idea what his birth language was – whether he had spoken English or Italian or something else entirely.
But I’m glad you listen to me, Sascha. I’m sorry about lying. Like I said, I don’t think I could go on living if I didn’t. You’re a writer, so maybe you understand. Hell, even if you don’t, at least I can rest easier knowing I’m no liar to you. And that stuff you said, something you said, made me want to tell you – what was it? Gentrified. Yeah. Yeah, it’s gentrified. It’s been fucking gentrified. There’s something else I wanted to say, but I can’t remember. I’ve been here so long, I swear I don’t fucking remember anything anymore.
He laughed loudly, as if he had said something funny.
I looked down at his feet, remembering the way he had walked up the stairs. Wondering if it was his father, or his construction work.
My nonna, you can visit her, Sal said, tilting his cigarette skyward. I think she’d like you.
What would she think if she knew I was up here, talking to her grandson?
How’s it sound? he said. We can meet again, back at the café. Same time tomorrow. We can have lunch. The works. Because you bought me – raising it like a prize – this delicious baguette.
And I remember saying yes. Telling Sal I would come meet his grandmother in the afternoon. But who knows? Maybe I said nothing.
The truth was I still couldn’t entirely believe everything he’d just told me.
Yet another part of me felt that maybe I’d known all along and had entered into it anyway. Like he had learnt to – needing to believe in what you were faced with until you could accept it.
Cool man, he said, even though I hadn’t said anything.
The next day I waited at the café. Sal never showed.
I left after an hour or two, having smoked the last of the cigarettes from the previous evening.
As I walked back down the alley and entered Via Matteo Bonello, I wondered if he was still alive. I thought again of that sad, stitched-together look. How he got it on his face as he talked about his nonna. New York. His father.
Or when he realised he was forgetting his language. Salami and mayo. A New Yorker’s English.
Why didn’t he just call them from the internet café? His family, his friends? The people he’d known?
Maybe he’d lost their numbers. Maybe there was no point now.
Or maybe there was no family. No Nonna, either – all just a story, one that he needed. A story so he could keep on going there in Palermo, among the internet cafés and money orders.
And if he’s still living, then that’s the only life Sal ever told me about. The one he claimed to have told no one else. The one where he was no longer his father’s son. The one in which he was no longer Sal. Not even Salvatore.
Just the Americano.