Marco Di Nunzio
Adelaide Di Nunzio/La Città nascosta
I met Anna in the afternoon. Anna is a tailor on demand, fixing and re-arranging clothes that are too big or too small for a fee. Many in my neighbourhood, a predominantly working class area on the periphery of inner city Naples, turned to Anna, including my grandmother and my parents. “Oh you got fatter. Let us take this jumper to Anna and let us see if she can fix it,” I heard my mom telling me and my father for almost two decades. For me Anna was someone in the background who enabled coats, trousers and jumpers to catch up with the changes in my body, growing larger or shrinking as I gained or lost weight.
Many in the neighbourhood knew Anna’s story, one which kids who, like myself, embarked on middle class lives—going to university, leaving Naples and joining the educated diaspora—were shielded from. Joining the middle class meant that you had to nurture distinction and distance from those who, though living in the same neighbourhood, were miles away from the rhythms and concerns of a bourgeois existence. Media and public discourses have indulged such middle class demands for distinction and distance. They celebrate the good Naples, with its traditions, wittiness and spectacular sunny landscape against the bad, poor and delinquent Naples. They put the respectable against the criminal. They grant la gente perbene political, moral and intellectual citizenship, while denying people like Anna—e malament (the bad people)—a recognition of their ability to think, to be reflective, to be critical and aware.
My first step towards carrying out research in the neighbourhood I had grown up and left over ten years ago meant more than simply crossing a boundary between la gente per bene and the so-called malament. I also had to question the political and moral legitimacy of such a distinction, and recognise how the violence of inequality and exclusion in Naples is both narrated and enforced through these categories.
I went to meet Anna in her small flat, a basso, located on the underground level. She always kept the curtains on the small window next to the door open, so customers could see if she was in. I peeped through the window. Anna was sleeping. I went for a coffee in a nearby café. From a distance, I saw an old woman confidently knocking at the door and walking in, so I went back. The old woman who walked in on Anna’s sleep was Rita, a client and an old friend. She is a fellow of the same Evangelical church Anna attends thrice a week. Anna had just finished retailoring a coat for the husband of Rita’s niece.
Rita herself had never married. “She did it for her mom,” Anna told me once she was gone. While her sisters married, she stayed home to care for her mother. Now Rita’s mother is dead and she could start her own life, but, aged 70, she is now too old, Anna feels. Rita is also visibly sick but her niece sent her out on a cold day to collect her husband’s coat. Anna cannot stand Rita’s relatives and how they treat their ailing aunt. “She is just by herself, living alone in her house. She did not marry. You know, I think with age she got jealous of one her sisters. Perhaps one of her sisters married someone she loved when she was younger. I told her that. She told me: ‘How do you know that? How can you say that?’ Do you think I am an idiot? I told her, I have lived and when you have lived the way I have lived, you get things.”
“People like me”
Anna herself was born in La Croce, a neighbourhood near Naples’ central train station. When she was still a child her family moved to Maruzza, a paradigmatic inner city neighbourhood with a longstanding reputation of being a place where contraband, the drug trade and the camorra are dominant. Anna’s own surname identifies her as camorra royalty. Her brother, Michele, was among the most famous camorra gangsters in Maruzza, with a long and bloody criminal biography. Anna herself did not mention her surname. “Your mother knows my story,” she told me. When I assured her I would use pseudonyms, she said, “Good. People like me, those from the popolo, have always a story linked to their names.”
When she was born she did not know she bore such a dangerous surname. “It is my brothers who made it like that,” she told me. Her mother left when Anna was just 6 and her dad did not care much about her. She was brought up by her father’s parents who took care of her as much as they could. They had many grandchildren and they were poor. And Anna was not an easy child, she remembered. She cried all the time, asking about her mother. Having none of your mom’s care and love is a bad thing and it affected her entire life, she told me. She always looked for love, even from people who did not deserve to be loved by her—her mom included. After her grandparents, she moved from one aunt to another. With her aunts, she could not simply live, nurtured by the love of her relatives. Instead they asked her to clean, to cook. The lack of love and care, she repeated, was her predicament.
When she was 14, she was raped by a man who was 11 years older than her. At that time, she told me, young people did not know what to do. Five months later, she realised she was well into her pregnancy and her grandparents made her marry the man who raped her. She had a difficult pregnancy and developed a dangerous case of peritonitis. Eventually, though, she delivered a healthy baby, a girl.
Her life with her husband was never easy. He was a violent man. Three years after their marriage, he left for Milan, leaving her behind with her daughter. She had relatives in Milan who called her there, wanting to save the marriage. Anna went to Milan and was soon back with her husband; from there on, it was 50 years of beating and suffering she said. He is now dead. “Thank God,” she said.
“Reaching to the stars”
By the time she turned 21, Anna had gone through seven pregnancies. One baby, a little girl, died soon after birth. The family lived near a monastery in a small town 20 kilometres from Milan. A nun called Giovanna and a black priest, Anton, took care of her. With the help of Sister Giovanna, Anna found work cleaning houses. When she was too busy working, Giovanna and Anton would pick her kids from kindergarten and take care of them. She was very grateful.
Her neighbours, Anna recalled, were also nice to her. They liked her. “Whenever my husband got back home, I always left the door to my house half-closed,” she said. She could never know if her husband would get angry at something. With the door propped open she could run away quickly, and her neighbours often saved Anna from her husband’s violence.
One of these neighbours was a family from Avellino: 6 sisters and one brother. Anna had fond memories of them. They were the ones who most often rescued Anna when things went badly wrong. Anna did some cleaning at their houses until they helped her to find an off-the-books job in a woodworking factory. She was still young and beautiful and some of her male co-workers teased her, flirted with her. Anna fought back, strong with her long experience. “I told them, if I wanted to live that life [fare la bella donna] I would have gone to via Lazzari, or what we would say here in Naples a ferruvia [the central station]”—places where sex workers cluster to pick up customers. In the end, Anna had gained the respect of her co-workers. She was strong, determined and hardworking.
Some years later Anna and her family moved to another town 8 kilometres away where her husband opened a greengrocer’s. This was the beginning of a new life, running a small family business. At first Anna tried to keep her old house near her neighbours and Sister Giovanna and Father Anton and to commute daily to the greengrocer’s. This turned to be tiring and expensive. Eventually the family moved into the three rooms behind the shop. Anna lost the support and friendships of her old neighbourhood. It was difficult.
The relationship with her husband also remained difficult. The beatings continued. Yet the two found a way of avoiding each other’s presence. Anna would do the morning shift, until 4pm, and her husband the evening shift, from 4pm until 8pm. “So you were working much more than him!” I exclaimed. “Yes, and you also need to count the washing, the cooking …”
Over time they had regular customers, including some old people who would just buy a few items. “My husband did not like those old people, just buying small,” she said. But Anna liked them. She understood that the old people came to buy oranges and apples just to have someone to talk to. Anna also liked having them around and often took them to her house to keep her company. They also helped her to learn some words in the local dialect, useful for her trade. “You know, parsley in Neapolitan is petrusin, but they call it erbusin. Tomato in Neapolitan is pummarol, they call it tumatis.”
They were working hard and they were making good money. The time came when they could afford a summer holiday. “We could have gone to Sicily. My husband had friends there we could stay with. Or Naples. Some of our kids had never visited Naples. They wanted to see it. So we came to Naples for our summer holidays.”
Once at home, Anna became homesick. “Maruzza was not like now. You could see people cooking on the streets, people selling cigarettes....” Maruzza was alive with energy, the people and streetlife, very different from her small Milanese suburb.
Now they had money, Anna’s mother reappeared. She asked for Anna’s forgiveness. “It seemed I was reaching to the stars (toccare il paradiso),” she told me.
Adelaide Di Nunzio/La Città nascosta
Eventually, Anna and her husband decided to move back to Naples. This was 31 years ago. “This was the biggest mistake I had ever made in my life,” Anna said. She had left Naples when she was only 17; she had grown up away from the city. She did not know what her family had become. “They have a code. Talk but not say, hear but not listen.”
She began hearing of the things her family was involved in and she did not like it.
Her life in Naples was not the way she had expected it to be. “I was born useless and, in Milan, with my shop, I had become useful. I had become useless again.” In Naples, she was back to cleaning, going house to house, sometimes even working at her sisters’ houses.
At first, Anna and her family did not have a place to live. They lived with one of Anna’s sisters in Maruzza. Anna paid a monthly rent, but when she refused to become involved in her family’s business, she and her family were kicked out.
She found her basso in La Croce and began her 25 year career as a tailor, fixing and arranging clothes for a fee. Her husband was a tailor and taught her the trade. This was the only thing he taught her, beyond beatings and violence, she told me.
While Anna worked hard, away from Maruzza and the pressure of her extended family, the lives of her husband and two of her three sons went in another direction. “My husband begun doing tarantelle,” she said. The word she used refers to the tarantella dance; she meant, he became involved in Anna’s family’s business. Her husband was now even more trouble than he had been.
One of her sons, Mario, spent 20 years in prison and died a violent death. Then, there was Gaetano. “Gaetano was like me,” she said. He could not say no when people asked him to do something. He also had a kind side. He wrote poetry, telling that he loved her and that Anna had been mother of herself in addition to be mother of her sons and daughters. Gaetano went to jail multiple times, spending 12 years of his life in prison.
Before his final stint, Gaetano had already served a long sentence in prison. After coming out, he joined the ranks of illegal parking touts, guarding cars and taking money from drivers in an area controlled by Anna’s brother, Michele, the head of the family. This was an illegal and off-the-books business which means that Gaetano had violated his parole. In March, he was sent back to prison. In October, he was found dead in his cell, seemingly of a cerebral haemorrhage. At first his cellmates were willing to testify against the prison guards. Later, they refused, saying that Gaetano had died while they were away from the cell.
“Bad things do not only come from the malament [the bad people]. They also come from la gente perbene [“the good people”]”, Anna said, referring to the prison guards. “Maybe, the malament are better. They have some bits of humanity left, not in their heart though. They do not have that. But at least they can be moved by something when they see it….”
Adelaide Di Nunzio/La Città nascosta
“I am taking care of her”
A couple of hours later, Gaetano’s daughter, Carmela, and her husband, Antonio, came by for a quick coffee. They live in Maruzza. Anna told me their story after they left. Antonio is unemployed. He is a good guy, Anna said. He is a street vendor and goes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, selling whatever he manages to find at a low cost, from kitchenware to umbrellas. He works on the streets, but as soon as he gets enough money to make do, he is back home with Carmela. He has been approached by Anna’s family endless times, but always refuses to join them.
Francesca, Anna’s eldest daughter, is now back in Naples but her two grown-up children live in Milan. She came back to Naples to take care of Anna. Anna has severe diabetes and cannot move much. “She came here to take care of me, but I think I am taking care of her,” Anna said wryly.
Francesca left Naples when she was 21. She could not take living under the shadow of her family’s name and troubles. In Milan, she successfully ran a factory producing foulards. After more than a decade in business, Francesca ended up bankrupt, the business overtaken by the import of cheap foulards from Asia, especially China. She now lives in a basso not far from Anna’s.
“Holy God!” Anna cried out as Francesca walked in. I understand that Francesca might be upset to find me writing down Anna’s life story. I hid my pen and closed my notebook which, luckily, looked like a Bible. Francesca had come to pick up her two small dogs, which often stayed at Anna’s while she ran errands for herself and her mother. Francesca has four more dogs and whenever she can, she feeds a few more of the cats strolling around the neighbourhood. “She is an animalist,” Anna told me. Francesca was still in the room, unpacking the bags of groceries she had bought for Anna. “You know, perhaps, it is like with me being into religion. My daughter is into dogs and cats.”
“Only God can judge”
Listening to Anna speak, I could not help appreciating her intelligence and eloquence. She is a storyteller, gifted with the capacity to take you with her along her train of thought, her rationales, emotions and experiences.
Anna writes poetry. She burned many of them, she told me, but Francesca managed to save some. She won prizes for her writing, and some poems were read on the radio and local TV stations. She read out one of her poems on the stage of one of the main theatres in Naples. It is about her, her life, her feelings.
After our long afternoon together, I went to look for news coverage of the arrest of her son, Gaetano. Reading it, I became enraged by the tone used by the journalist, who indulged in a superficially exotic and moralising portrayal of Gaetano’s trajectory. Without knowing Anna, I would perhaps not even have noted the patronising tone of the journalist and gone straight to the points he wanted to focus on: the link between the illegal parking business and the camorra. Gaetano, the parking tout, was after all the nephew of Michele, the head of an infamous camorra family. In the eyes of middle-class Neapolitans, parking touts such as Gaetano are embodiments of predatorial street criminals, bothering innocent citizens trying to make their way in Naples’ dense and overpopulated city centre. Their ubiquity is a metaphor for the tentacular presence of the camorra in Naples’ streets. The news of Gaetano’s arrest was written in a way to indulge and confirm this middle-class obsession.
Gaetano might well have committed a crime, or been part of a wider criminal economy. But his story was not contained, or even defined by it. Gaetano, his poetry, his personal story, his predicaments were kept hidden, untold.
“I don't judge them,” Anna told me, speaking of her relatives. She did not condone criminal behaviour, but was strong in her religious faith. She felt that their conduct was not for her to judge. “Only God can judge.”
As a writer, an ethnographer and often an external observer, whether in my hometown or elsewhere, I am asked to cross that line, to judge, “situate” and “contextualise”, and to be careful not to buy into my interlocutors’ narratives.
Anna’s storytelling offers a way out of this moral and intellectual compulsion to judge. Her story narrates a tension between trying to navigate challenging circumstances and seeking to not be defined by them. This tension has encompassed Anna’s life, swinging her between hope and despair, joy and pain. Listening and witnessing that tension is the least we can do to widen our shared sense of humanity and break down stereotypical divides between good and bad, la gente perbene and e’ malament, that keep us apart, that blind us and undermine our collective ability to challenge those cleavages of class and inequality that haunt Anna and those with whom she shares her existence.
It was time for me to leave. Anna was tired. As I rose, one of her brothers came by, looking concerned. “Are you talking?” he asked Anna. He did not seem happy to see me there. I smiled. He did not smile back. “Thanks a lot Anna,” I said. “Thanks to you for listening. You made me talk a lot. People here have never time to listen….”
The names of individuals who appear in the text have been changed to protect their privacy.
Marco Di Nunzio is an anthropologist, urban ethnographer and militant wanderer. He has spent the last ten years researching the street economy and the politics of city building in Addis Ababa. He has way too many side projects and hopes to write and research more about activism in his hometown Naples. He is the author of The Act of Living (Cornell, 2019) and founder of OtherwiseMag.