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October 6, 2013

Parking in Naples

In the 1960s my father received a grant to do research at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy. I was in my early teens, relatively competent in French, a quick study in other languages and excited by the adventure.

Arrangements were made. My father's lab was ready, a local housekeeper had been recommended and hired, and soon a very nice apartment would be available; soon, but not immediately. So the first month we were there we stayed in a small pensione (hotel) very close to the Mergellina, a strip on the bay where cafes and restaurants jostled for a view of Vesuvius across the bay.

It was also close to the large downtown park of which the Stazione, which doubled as the city aquarium, was the central jewel. It was also, of course, in the middle of the city. The park was a long green lozenge of grass and trees, an oriental rug studded with statues, gazebos, and bandstands. It was lined with walks and its border was a ring of wide streets from which narrow alleys drifted like a grimy fringe.

The pensione that we lived in was about three blocks from the park on a main street. It faced the bay, there were restaurants nearby, It was like living in a postcard. But, within a few yards, back in the alleys, there was another world, the real world of Naples.

Even back in the 60s the economy of Naples was depressed. Some estimates put the unemployment rate as high as 70 percent. It was a given that the largest sector of the economy was the black market. Even the wealthiest Neapolitans seemed to have a hand in it. There were dozens of shops on every block where you could buy smuggled goods, and it wasn't just the dingy, tiny storefronts, some of the ritziest shops had legitimate goods on sale above the counter and smuggled or stolen goods below. It was organized crime, but on such a massive scale that it was more like a shadow infrastructure.

I didn't know this when we first arrived (though eventually I made friends with many of the locals and even went out on a speedboat smuggling run or two). I was kept busy the first few weeks learning my way around the area and getting to know the people that my father (and I as occasional lab assistant) would be working with.

The third day at the pensione, I noticed that my transistor radio was gone. As I was looking for it I realized that I was also missing a pair of sneakers, and my favorite jacket. My parents, alerted by my flurry of searching suddenly realized that many of their possessions were gone as were those of my brother and sister.

My father demanded an explanation of the owner of the pensione, who shrugged ... of the police, who shrugged ... of the consulate, who shrugged. So, we bought replacements for things that we needed.

And they disappeared.

At the end of the first week, it seemed that the only possessions we could retain were those that we were actually wearing. My parents were so caught up in getting things straight and taking care of my siblings, that I was pretty much left on my own.

So I went down and talked to the guy who made hand gestures to help people park their cars. He was in his early 50s and had a yachting cap that he wore to show his official status as owner of the parking gesture franchise for the eight parking spaces at the front of the building.

I will call this gentleman Enzo. He had grace, style and wit, and you instinctively knew that cars in his care would be there when you returned and that goods left in the car would remain there, though perhaps somewhat disarranged. He was 'someone to be trusted' and his service/protection franchise was a fully owned subsidiary of the local gang.

How do I explain this business to you?

Imagine that you need to park in downtown Boston. You drive slowly down the right lane looking for signs of incipient departure when a neatly dressed man (well-shined shoe, slacks, white shirt, tie, sports jacket, peaked hat) steps out from between some cars and motions to you. You roll down your window and he tells you that the red car three spaces ahead will pull out in about two minutes, and will leave more than 15 minutes on the parking meter, and, if you would care to wait, he will make sure that you can pull right in to that spot.

The red car pulls out, and with the helpful gestures of the gentleman, you pull in. He then informs you that he will be glad to make sure that no-one bothers your car, and that, if you would like, he will feed the meter for you. "How long do you think your errand will take you sir?"

If someone scratches your car by pulling in too close, he will get the license number name and address of the offender. He may even work out a payment so that when you return he can point out the damage and hand you a wad of money from the other driver as compensation. So, when you come back to retrieve your car, he tips his hat and you tip him for making your life a little less stressful and smoother.

The generosity of your tip affects his memory. The next time you are in need on his block, he'll remember you and the level of your appreciation of his efforts will determine the availability of a parking space, and safety of your car. The fact that these are public parking spots on a public street does not factor into this equation at all.

The reason that this works in Naples, is their sense of honor. There is, unfortunately justly, a suspicion in the UniStatian culture that assumes that anyone who is trying to make your life easier without presenting a contract and stipulations with non-fulfillment penalties and schedules of payments is probably a con man who is trying to rip you off. The sad truth is that all that paperwork makes no real difference. There less honor and honesty in our documented transactions than in the verbal, almost implicit, Neapolitan agreement. The legal foofaraw just gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling and forty pounds of paperwork to store and haul around with you for the next 20 years.

Although engaged in a what our police would call a protection racket, the Neapolitan car parker treats his occupation as a real job. He doesn't, and his customers don't think of it as a scam. He provides a service, and one that is both useful and pleasant. Were he to fail to protect your vehicle he would consider himself dishonored. That may not seem important to many of us in the US but it is desperately important to him and it is why you can trust him.

But now let's get back to my story.

Since I had been in Naples for a week, and noticed how the locals dress and carry themselves, I have tried to assume some protective coloration. I'm trying to blend in. Part of that is learning the language. I've spoken French for years and had a crash immersion course in Italian at Berlitz to prepare me for the trip.

But Enzo doesn't speak Italian, he speaks Neapolitan. Neapolitan is the 'Spanglish' of Italy. Some theorize that it is the bastard child of Italian and Romanian, others opine that it is just a degraded dialect of the unlettered South. I think that it is an elegantly compressed form of Italian.

Neapolitans, more than any other cultural group other than the deaf, talk with their hands. They can hold impressively long discourses at a distance in a noisy environment without saying an audible word, so when the need to speak arises, they run their words together hoping to get through the ordeal quickly. Naples was known for its noisy marketplaces and an entire vocabulary was developed, far more sophisticated than it seems from the caricatures we are generally fed of hand waving intermixed with a few unsavory gestures. I am going to resist going off on this tangent now but perhaps, another time, I'll get back to the topic.

So I left the pensione and went down to the street. I sat on some steps and watched Enzo work and listened to him talk. It was hard to understand but there was enough classical Italian to help me work out meanings from context. I'm making this sound very deliberate. It wasn't. I'm a compulsive communicator and I am driven to understand what people say and what they mean and whether they're the same.

Enzo seemed amused by my attention. He started talking to me switching back and forth from Neapolitan to what he called Roman (no not Latin, Roman as in how they talk in Rome). At one point, he was so caught up in explaining a word to me that he had me walking with him as he did his job. Since I was in my early teens and fairly good-looking (most people thought I was Italian) there was a slight upward trend to the tips.

This amused Enzo greatly, so the next day he took me on as a kind of apprentice, bringing me a cheap yachting cap. He showed me the parking car gestures, but even better he started to explain some of the Neapolitan gestural speech,starting, of course, with the swears. By the end of the day I had learned among other things, how to call some one a half-wit, ask what the Hell they thought they were doing, and a series of gestures that I didn't understand the meaning of but seemed to get the recipients very ... very ... angry all without opening my mouth.

The tips were rolling in. The area was dense with European tourists and they seemed to think that Enzo and I were a father and son team and tipped extra for the cuteness and warmth that it implied. Enzo was pleased.

The next day I showed up without my hat. Enzo wanted to know why. I explained, as best I could, that while my parents and I were out to dinner, the hat had disappeared. Enzo shrugged, a shrug that seemed to say 'it happens'.

By now I was 'Davio' and, on the strength of two days worth of conversation, a friend ... almost family. That's one of the things that I love about the people I met in Naples. They were quick to befriend you if you just left yourself open to the possibility.

Enzo was as curious about my extended stay as I was about his language.

Why were we here? I explained as best I could.

He was amazed. "Your father is a Professore!? A Dottore!?" Trust me, he pronounced the capitals the exclamation points and the question marks.


"How long will you be staying?"

"Probably two years."

"Two years!!!!" Enzo was shocked. "You will be living here in Naples for two whole years?"

The wonder of it overcame him. He lifted his eyes in disbelief to the sky as if imploring God to send a sign that this was not his imagination and that a miracle of biblical proportions was being revealed to him right here, right here, as he stood beneath the blue sky.

Then, since no further sign was given, he gave that shrug and sideways wag of the head that indicated his acceptance of whatever he was dealt, pushed back the brim of his cap, put his foot up on the bumper of one of the vehicles in his charge, and extracted a crumpled pack of Pall Mall cigarettes (part of a tip from a tanned young man who, a few months later would let me help transfer cases of cigarettes and whiskey from a darkened steamer onto his speedboat) from his breast pocket. He extracted a cigarette, flourished a well worn Zippo, and blew out a stream of smoke as he gazed moodily and romantically across the road, past the seawall to the blue of the bay and the looming volcano beyond.

This wasn't strange behavior, far from it, this was how Enzo always smoked, especially when there were tourists with cameras in view. He did however seem more pensive and quietly amused.

The next day I found the hat in my room. It was in a place I had searched, but ... oh ... never mind.

Things were proceeding in my parent's lives. More and more of my time was needed elsewhere, but I did spend what time I could with Enzo and he patiently and wittily tutored me in the way of Neapolitan life. He introduced me to some of the fishermen from nearby Santa Lucia (yes THAT Santa Lucia), and waiters from Mergellina and some interesting people who didn't seem to have anything to do but hang around, teach me some Neapolitan songs, and disparage my young already baritone range as inappropriate to the purpose.

Every day though, more and more of the stuff we had thought stolen was reappearing in our hotel rooms. I couldn't help but wonder where it was coming from. By the third week, which was to be our last one at the pensione, there was more stuff appearing in our rooms every day; clothing, knick-knacks, electronics, etc., but now it was stuff that wasn't ours. Not a lot of it, but stuff we'd never seen before.

There was an excellent pair of butter-soft black shoes that were exactly my size that appeared at the foot of my bed. My mother wondered aloud at the scarf she'd found in her suitcase. My brother was unable to account for the wind-up toy speedboat that we found him testing in the bathtub, my sister had discovered a doll in a gypsy costume, my father never seemed to run out of his favorite brand of cigarettes.

Finally, our apartment was ready. We'd be moving all the way out to the Northern tip of the bay to Capo Posillipo. We were packed, but we had more suitcases than we did when we arrived and they were all full. My parents must have puzzled about it, but they were too caught up in everything else to pay attention.

While they were finishing up, I took the suitcases that were ready down to the front door. I sat on one of them. Enzo, when he had finished greeting the driver of a battered Fiat as if he had a Rolls Royce, came over and sat with me. We could see the crenellated towers of the building that I would be living in across the small arc of the bay to the north and I pointed it out to him.

"Nice place," he said. "Lots of pretty girls." He made the modified epicure's gesture. With the tip of the finger on the side of the upper lip and a quick twisting motion as if twirling a moustache, it meant good food. The same gesture made with the knuckle instead meant beautiful woman. "Go to the Riva Fiorita and dance with the tourist ladies. Let them think you are Napolitano, because now you mostly are, and they will think that you are romantic and you will live in their dreams. Then you say, 'it's so hot to dance ... niamosheh, let's go down to the beach.' Then you roll around in the sand and who knows?"

I laughed, "I'd probably end up kissing a gangster's sister by mistake."

"You could do worse."

"I'll be working right down the street," I said, "I'll come back and tell you if I need protection."

I finally got the courage up to ask Enzo. Did he know what was going on with all the stuff? Where did it go? How did it get back? Where did the new stuff come from?

"Aahh stai'tzeet (shut up)" he said. Indicating by gesture that he maybe knew something but no information would be shared. Then he shrugged, and I knew that he would tell me something, a small piece. He grinned and said, "someone probably didn't know that you were staying, paisan."