Embroidering the Truth
Letizia Mirabile | 30-06-2008 | ENG
(Translated by Sylvia Notini)
The bittersweet humour and sharp sounds of the Sicilian language to tell the story of what is known as the “pizzo” business. A monologue.
(A woman comes on stage, she clears her throat, smiles at her audience and begins to speak.)
(She seems pleased with herself.)
I am here to tell you my story. I live, I mean, I reside—gotta be careful about the words I use—close by, in a house for people like me, working-class.
God knows how much of myself I’ve had to give
(She stops, looks up, aware of the double entendre.)
to get this hole in the wall.
We all know that the City Administration is like the Lord. But I don’t care, ‘cause I’ve got a friend who’s even higher up, and he gives me excellent advice! What is his name?
(Deep in thought she tries to remember.)
I can never seem to remember it. I never remember anyone’s name. It must be… what do you call it, something anthological about my profession.
Everyone knows me, they respect me, it’s me that can never remember anyone.
Right, they respect me, and why shouldn’t they…what...is it only men supposed to get respect? I’ve earned my respect working for a better society, where safety comes first, order, and someone to protect you, you know, for the good, especially mine, and if I can help in any way
(She imitates another person stuffing his mouth.)
You’re probably wondering about the line of work I’m in. I am a young businesswoman, since I am a woman and that’s been helped by the Government. You all know how hard it is for a woman to have to work with men. You’ve got to give ‘em something in exchange, even if all you can do sometimes is smile at ‘em, so’s they think they can dominate you and tell you what to do. You keep your head down and in the meantime you get what you want. More or less.
Anyway, this is what I do: I’m in what they call the “pizzo” business here.
That’s right, sort of like when you make lace, or you crochet something.
After all these years I know just how to do it, I know what’s right for people even before they start talking. When I was younger I used to work with my mother and father, then I started doing things on my own. After me and my boyfriend eloped, he left me after four months ‘cause he couldn’t stand the idea of having to work, and there was no way he was going to open up a shop with me, I ended up alone, poor, maybe a little crazy.
So what was I supposed to do, shoot myself? Not a chance, not for that jackass, not even for a jackass and a half. If I had gone to work with my brothers I would’ve ended up in the kitchen doing the bills. What I wanted was to have my own business. I started going door to door, asking around, taking advantage of what you might call a… particular moment. I was humble.
And the reason why I was successful was because I knew how to keep my prices down. I never asked for too much. It’s hard times for everyone, even social security isn’t what it used to be, there’s no one can spend too much, not even for what they really need. But I did not raise my prices! The same year after year. And some people still owe me! I never forget, I’m careful, I have a book where I write everything down. Who pays, who doesn’t, so I can get organized, defend myself from anyone who wants to give me the run around, who forgets they’ve been helped. And keeping everything neat and tidy is always a good idea. Not like nowadays! There used to be more respect, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s going on now. Everyone’s doing a little bit of everything nowadays. Judges talking about writers, politicians ‘bout fiction, cooks ‘bout painting… One of these days it’ll be the police taking kickbacks. And I’ll be left with nothing! But I’m wise to all this. I make sure all the doors are locked, and I’ve gotten people to sort of like me. They trust me. And anyway I’m the first woman to work on her own. The first woman in this field to come out in the open. People like that, doing business with a woman, it reassures ‘em, makes ‘em feel like it’s their mother their working with. And I let ‘em believe that, why should I take their dreams away. In the end I’m pleased, it doesn’t cost me anything, and there’s this feeling that no one can touch me. Even the old pigs stand back. No one touches Mom! There’s something holy about a mother, she’s like an angel. If you steal from San Gennaro all hell breaks loose, there’s no way out. I treat ‘em like pack-animals: I whip ‘em, but I give ‘em something nice every now and then! The stricter you are, the more people will fear you and respect you. People want leaders, they want winners, they want someone they can look up to. There is no such thing as self-discipline: either you do things straight or they jump down you neck, won’t give a damn about you. And I do have to keep the business going.
I hired a young boy to help me, he goes out to get what’s owed me and then brings it back. I trust him, he’s only seventeen but he’s sharp. No one pulls the wool over his eyes. He grew up in the streets and he’s real fond of me, ‘cause I helped him out of a little jam.
(She imitates a person behind bars.)
When you’ve got the faith of these people you’re fine, better than blood between men, who think they can buy anyone they want, when instead what they’re really doing is setting things up for some rough competition. I ask for nothing, I help. It’s them out there that feel like they should pay me back. ‘Cause they’re grateful, of course! And why should I refuse? I couldn’t, they’d get offended! Out of kindness I accept their work and when I can, if they’re good, I fix ‘em up somewhere, odd jobs, so’s they can buy cigarettes. That’s why I hired Benny, I gave him a role in life, in society. He knows he’s safe with me, if he behaves I know how to gratify him. I’m making him study, he needs more than grammar school. I want him to get ahead. Anyway, while he’s out there I take care of things in the back. Of course, it’s the kind of job where you do have to fight, but at least I don’t have to answer to anyone, I don’t have to punch in; I work with the public, can get to know people, expand on my customers. And once you have people that are loyal to you, you know you can count on your earnings, more or less, for the rest of your life, it just depends on whether it’s their life, or yours.
The only bad thing is that you’re exposed, you have to be careful about doing things right, they’ve got to seem clean, otherwise people will complain and that’s no good. You’ve got to leave something nice behind, be ready for ‘em, meet people halfway, sometimes do things for Christian charity, like the good Lord taught us. I am a very religious person: I go to mass, I feed stray dogs, I give money to those who need it…I keep my interest rates low. I do what I can.
What I’d really like to do is expand
you know, spread out, but keep on working the same honest way. Maybe start a franchise, yeah, an organization, open up in other cities where I have friends that can help me.
So I want each and every one of you to believe in your dreams, and if you walk the right streets, I mean the right ones, there are streets and people that will help you and you, too, can get ahead. You know what they say: where there’s a will there’s a way!
(June 30, 2008)