Me & the Mafia

September 19, 1994
Florence, Italy

Traveling requires scheming. Manipulating. It’s a jungle out there, and getting a room with a view, a desirable table in the restaurant, or the best of anything can bring out the beast in all of us. On this fine Florentine evening, we landed at il Chingiale Bianco (the white boar) for dinner. It was low on our possibility list and high on the price list, but time was running out for passing judgment on restaurants, and we were far from our room on wobbly legs. We desired to dine early—which means 7:30 or 8: 00 by both Italy’s standards and ours. Il Chingiale Bianco told us they could seat us at 7:00.

One of our guidebooks told us to ask for the table in the loft, so we did. The friendly restaurateur nixed that idea posthaste, so Kyia pointed to another fine table, one stuck partly into a little cave away from the hub-bub of the main room. No, he said, that’s reserved by a fellow restaurant owner—a Mafioso from Sicily. Then, with the devil in his eye, he bubbled, “Oh what the hell. He’s only a Mafioso. It’s yours!” We left for a drink and to kill some time, and came back at 7:00 sharp.

We were seated, and then abused periodically by the restaurateur’s wife, Waitress from Hell #55. Toward the end of the meal, while I was away peeing, the restaurateur introduced Kyia to the mysterious Mafiosos (who had been seated at the table next to us). Paulo, who was young and suave, spoke a LEEtul INGleesh, wore jewelry, and explained that he was in “import, export—wine, pasta, bread, whatever’s moving.” (Importing and exporting bread?) His cohort, the older and distinguished, suitclad Luciano spoke no English, but knew the universal language of debonair quite well. Shortly after I returned, a grappa bottle and two glasses appeared on our table. We were touched (and confused) by their kindness, and poured ourselves a couple shots when our food was gone. To be polite, we toasted them, and thus ended up in a conversation, and soon found ourselves standing next to their table, chatting away. We had—in classic American style—filled our little shot glasses to the brim, which appeared rather silly compared to their restrained half-full shots, but proved to be downright disastrous when I proceeded to spill my entire shot on Luciano’s lap. Yes, it was one of those nights.

Red-faced (and ready to fall to my knees), I apologized in 15 languages while visions of cement shoes danced in my head. He kept saying, “No problema, va benne!” but was staring at the big wet spot with a tilted head. His face reminded me of Brando’s in The Freshman (a Godfather spoof) when he’s warning the stockbroker, “Louie, I told you to call me when my stocks are UP, not down…” I poured another glass, not quite so full this time, and we all drank. Then we toasted and drank again. Following that, I somehow dropped my glass to the floor, where it shattered into about a million pieces. If their kindness was motivated by recruiting some blond American Mafiosos, I think I failed the test. About this time, the owner wanted our table, so we paid and moved on—inviting our new friends for coffee in reciprocation for all the grappa. First they said no, no, no, then si, si si! So we took a long, long walk down a dark street by the river, until they spotted a gelati bar to their liking.

I don’t drink coffee at night and felt too full for gelati, so I ordered a vino bianco instead. This move made them cringe with disapproval—heads swaying, foreheads in hands—which signaled the clerk refuse my order. Panicking, I pointed to the nearest gelati—which happened to be mango. It was delicious! The flavor transported my to simpler times on St. John, where we ate football-sized mangoes by the dozen. (I thus discovered perhaps the first link between these two homes of mine this year).

We talked, sometimes all at once. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers. They were from Palermo, Sicily, of course, which is the true headquarters of the mob. We were told we’d “be taken care of” in Palermo when we visited, which, ironically, we were planning to do. We were to see Luciano there, and call Paulo (who’d be in L.A. at the time, yet omnipresent thanks to international cellular technology). Paulo would set us up at his hotel/restaurant, we’d meet his family, and who-knows-what else. He also told us he’d be visiting us in Minneapolis next winter, since he’d be in nearby Chicago anyway. When I asked for the gelati and coffee tab, the Sicilians sternly said my money’s “no good in this country.” The gelati workers played their roles well—standing at attention and smiling to Luciano and Paulo as if fully aware that these mobster men demand respect. To me, the workers just grinned, shook their heads, and hid their hands when I tried to give them cash.

These gentlemen had to work tomorrow, calling on contacts in Florence. So after another long, verbose good-bye, we all headed in separate directions—into the black, cavernous streets of Florence. Like all Sicilians I’ve met, they were magnetically friendly—warm and alluring. As I wander this world, I strive not to judge people on the fact that they may be of color, of unusual beliefs or clothing, or of the Mafia. In fact, my intrigue usually increases with someone from a different mold. The Mafia is—after all, and particularly as they view it—just another way of doing business.

Nonetheless, I think we may forget to call them in Palermo. In fact, I hope never to see them again.

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