COOKING THE OCTOPUS
Mo’ lo facc’. I'm on it.
Mo’: the Neapolitan “now.” Mo’, a grunt, a moo, brought up from the middle of the chest and thrusting the bottom lip into the top, making for a sudden mouthy shrug, an extreme contraction wrung out of al momento, “at this moment.” Mo’, they say, whatever the moment, a morning amid the crowd at the hilltop funiculare station or an evening as the heat releases its grip on some downtown piazza: now. You hear a special emphasis in the expression mo’ lo facc’, roughly “I’m on it,” MOH loh fahhhch, the last syllable a diminishing drawl.
And me too, mo’, now, Naples. This hub of a Janus-faced Siren (to dream up a creature itself bicultural, Roman and Greek), a city that both triggers baroque aspiration and burns away, infernally, all hope—despite its incongruities, its fillips and overlaps and outright contradictions, to me the metropolis remains one thing always, the locus of renewal. So, me too, I’m on it. I’ll do it. I’ll find the coherence in this crowded place. After all, on top of whatever the city has meant to me, doesn’t Naples deserve this, just on its own merits? An informed treatment, for a well-nigh eternal downtown? If Americans think of Naples at all, they think of the murderous Camorra and the crap in the streets. Or, better, they think of the incomparable Sophia Loren, born and raised. They think of renewal Hollywood-style, one of those stories in which Loren restores the soul of some uptight Anglo (say, Jack Lemmon, lucky guy); she awakens him to a primal joy, enriched with mozzarella. Americans may have seen that movie, or its feminist version, Enchanted April. Or what about Eat, Pray, Love, in which our heroine awakens to “a relationship” with Neapolitan pizza? These days any American who calls himself a foodie will seek out the original, the blistered Margherita. In place of soulless wedges, the True Pie has a cooked leaf of basil or two, which suggest the wilting of an ancient face. The initial offering came out of a Naples oven back in the era of incandescent visitors like Goethe and Mozart and Shelley. Americans know that, or some do, and a few can sing along to “O Sole Mio” (far more know the Elvis rendering, “It’s Now or Never”). A few realize that the ululations of the Siren don’t always lead to drowning.
Helping sort through the noise, helping create a fuller appreciation, that’s part of my project. That takes me beyond my own ups and downs and discoveries, which, to my ear, risk coming across like the whines of a Neapolitan mammone, a Mama’s boy. Rather, I want both: my family mo’, my city mo’. But this leaves me at another confounding juncture in the downtown warrens, wondering which vicolo to follow. It puts me in mind of another meandering meditation, concerning another seaside capital, which calls history “a shout in the street.” That’s what Naples offers as well, no end of “now,” and at which do I begin?
It’s been three thousand years, or close enough, since Greek immigrants laid down the urban blueprint. You can see some of that first pavement still, the best preserved are under the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, and between that time and this other landmarks have jutted up, like Apocalypse Pompeii and Incandescent Mozart. A beginning closer to home feels better, feels fitting. Consider, then, Anno Domini 1948. In that year my father emigrated for New York, sickened by what he’d endured in these streets, secrets it took me years to discover. Sins of the fathers.
He followed the call of a contemporary siren, Golden America. Indeed, he’d already enjoyed what Neapolitans call a colpo d’oro, a “golden wallop.” He had a new American wife. Yet Pop’s origins render him “Napoli D.O.C.,” to use a quip the locals like nowadays, when they want to establish their bona-fides. My father was born a stone’s throw from the old seaman’s chapel. His baptism records, Vincenzo Vicedomini, spring 1925, turn up in another nearby church—another of those that’s since lost its congregation and padlocked its doors. The twenty-first century downtown has a lot of such negative space, deconsecrated. In any case, Pop’s early experience has a distinctive old-city pungency, with everything from church incense to the stink off the docks. In those days Naples was the country’s center for merchant shipping (a distinction that’s since moved down the coast to Salerno, not without wrangling and names called), and the loads came ashore a block or two downwind of the Piazza he called home, then known as della Borsa, “of the bank.” That bank’s slit-eyed granite lions still brood over one angle of the square, but the place’s name has changed, in a typical fumbling attempt at civic renewal, to Piazza Giovanni Bovio. Like Bovio (“some philosopher,” the Neapolitans shrug, “years back”), the name Vicedomini carried a certain fading glory. A portmanteau construction, the word translates roughly as “God’s helper,” and young ‘Enzo had relatives prominent in the Church. In ‘36 a chapel over in San Pietro ad Aram was dedicated to the boy’s cleric uncle Giovanni.
This church still hold mass, it offers confession, since inside you’ll find the stone on which Peter baptized his first converts in Italy. Its hours, however, have been cut back severely. Most of the day, African sidewalk salesmen block the doors, and the mob keeps the neighborhood (the Forcello) in a chokehold. Still, Enzo’s Giovanni, that’s me, I’ve visited ad Aram. I’ve stood under the old priest’s commemorative plaque, struggling with its grime-darkened inscription: in memoria di Giovanni Vicedomini...
Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, esteem like that was hardly the norm for my Neapolitan family. My father’s father, cantankerous in his support of workers’ rights, ran afoul of Fascist authorities. With his wife, two young sons, and a daughter, Nonno was banished temporarily to an outlying hamlet. It must’ve felt as if they’d been sent to the howling wilderness that, in all ancient literatures, lurks beyond the city. Here transport moved on hooves rather than wheels, water arrived via rope and bucket rather than out of a spigot, and electricity remained unknown. Italy’s hardscrabble backcountry often served Mussolini as a dumping ground for troublemakers. Carlo Levi would be most famous, an outspoken foe of the Black Shirts who turned his “internal exile” to the compassionate meditations of Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Eboli, in fact, could be called part of greater Naples. It’s along the commuter lines, though on the farther, southern slope of Vesuvius. This places the town outside the ugly suburban sprawl (made worse by less than legal construction techniques) known as the periferia. The crossroads along which Carlo Levi begged for a bite of dinner and a candle to write by, six or seven decades later, came to enjoy a certain cachet for local vacationers: a great place to get away from it all.
Ripe with irony as the region may be, however, this was no comfort for my grandfather and his family. In order to return to the centro, and to their own century, they had to rely on the influence of his wife’s people. Nonna’s family weighed more heavily on the rusty old scales of the Neapolitan aristocracy, or so the story goes. The social dynamics have faded almost to mist, but I can see, if I squint, what sets my father’s father’s clan apart from my father’s mother’s. Vicedominis were the Lord’s helpers, not Lords themselves, and my father’s fathers tended to have earned whatever stature they’d achieved. By the time the War came, my Nonno was back in central Naples, running the main Post Office. This imposing Fascist edifice still raises its barrel chest over Via Monteoliveto, and during the hostilities the papers and parcels it handled could never have been trusted to some party lackey. The former exile, on the contrary, had first gotten in trouble for showing gumption. My grandfather’s story has a couple of additional layers, too, layers which went unpeeled for decades after his oldest son abandoned Naples—but that abandonment remains the point of my preamble. To young Enzo all these vicissitudes came together as no way to live. His father asks for a living wage, and this gets him banished to a cave in the hills; in order to return to decency, or halfway, he needs to kiss the wrinkled hand of some old relation who’s never worked a day in her life. She queens it up amid show china and pewter saints, unused finery that, at the turn of the next century, I myself got a chance to inspect. The bric-a-brac was kept dusted, I’ll give them that. At the end of the 1990s the last of my grandmother’s people occupied a penthouse above one of the lower city’s few wide and well-kept avenues. The sole breadwinner was another man who’d married in. A Mercedes dealer, a nose for a Euro, this interloper dressed with rhinestone flash and spoke in gutter dialect. After my visit I besieged a closer relative for an explanation. Mr. Mercedes, it turned out, infused the threadbare family holdings with fresh cash; his dealership was a favorite of the Camorra.
Faced with hypocrisies like that, my father must’ve started to think about abandoning his hometown even before the nightmares of ’42 and ’43. As for those, bombing and starving and combat hand-to-hand, by the time I could speak Pop had tossed them in a closet. In a closet in a box, and on the box two simple words: “The War.” Before it was opened again, his sons and daughter would be likewise grown and gone. Before then, what we mainly knew was, Vincenzo Vicedomini left for New York in 1948. Whatever shock waves carried him off, however, remained powerful; they incurred a ripple effect in his oldest son. About twenty years after Pop left, I was over in Naples enjoying my own first solo walkabouts. By then the terra wasn’t wholly incognita; my father had brought the family over earlier. And by the time I was old enough to travel solo—taking heedless teen advantage of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the cheap oil, the good cheap education, and other historical anomalies—I always reached town thinking I’d only spend a few days. The place wasn’t even on the Hippie Map (try Amsterdam, man). Yet each of these visits wound up lasting for weeks. Yes, I enjoyed the cooking and coddling of Neapolitan relatives. Yes, I enjoyed brushing up on my Italian. Still...
Mo’, that’s what held me. The eternal mo’, in the original city.
The central cauldron of the place’s overmany active agents seemed to be Spaccanapoli, “split Naples,” the noisy, narrow thoroughfare which cuts through the historic center. Though the street's official name changes five times along the route, the byway remains best known by its ear-pleasing slang handle: SPAHK-kah-NAHH-poh-lee. And I could see why everyone used the shorthand. No point naming the tunnels in an anthill. My shoes and pants-cuffs seemed caught in a perpetual shuffle through swirling sulfur dust, and no matter the direction I tilted my nose, I caught some reek, shellfish or acetylene, garlic in oil or a blend of tobacco and hashish. Or manure, or lemon. Overhead, meantime, the sky remained a serene, sea-freshened azzura. That strip of far heaven, however, never grew any wider, pinched between cracked rooftop cornices and often hedged in further by weeds that sprouted from the high stones, and what’s more crisscrossed by laundry that, time and again, caught my unsuspecting head or neck with a cold sprinkle. And with these alleyways threading off left and right unpredictably, with every third or fourth palazzo marked with the blackened bas-relief of some illegible coat of arms, with the random shop-cubicles of neon and plastic stirring up eddies in the crush of pedestrians—with all that, I couldn't imagine how anyone found their way. I couldn't understand, even, how so many downtowners survived the day’s comings and goings. You wouldn't call the edges of Spaccanapoli sidewalks. Side-niches perhaps, or cobble-steps, their wear and tear suggested something from Pompeii (like most Americans, I knew ancient Italy better than the country of my own era). Yet somehow thousands of us made room for occasional Fiats (though even the tiny 500 was supposed to be illegal, here in the zona senza traffica) as well as for three-wheeled trucks and the more manageable but nonetheless earsplitting scooters and mopeds. I too made room, amazed. Could this chaotic melange be considered civilized life?
One answer, for a dreamy teenager circa 1970, seemed to stare out at me from a photo of my father, not much older, circa 1945. The black and white might’ve been the earliest picture in the Domini albums, and fascinating to the kids (my older sister, my younger brother). The shot catches Pop downtown, mid-stride, center-frame. It’s as if the others had fallen into phalanx behind him. They’re not on Spaccanapoli, I can see that now, the slope suggests instead a cross-street, running from the Museum down to the docks, but whatever the address, it’s bright midday. The shadow puddled at my father’s feet presents a stark contrast to the white of his open-necked shirt, and the other figures are a blur, half-hidden in the encroaching shade. A woman frowns at a storefront, a man grins around a cigarette, but my father stares into the lens, mouth just ajar, head just cocked, his stride shifting as if he were considering his next move. He’s wary. Switch out the face in Photoshop, and you’ve got a still of some tightly coiled screen urbanite, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets or Omar in The Wire. But then, my father himself was screen-worthy, I can see that now: his brow broad, nose “Roman,” eyes sloped in bedroom shadow. His shirtfront is V’d to mid-chest, and there are curls showing, as on his arms, where he wears his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. The shirt doesn’t hang on him but it’s loose, as are the slacks, so that with one hand sunk deep in a pocket, and with the hitch in his stride, his hips and crotch tip provocatively. Half a century and more after the photo was taken (and a quarter-century after it had gone missing, dropping out of sight for much of my adulthood, until at last my mother and I rediscovered that page of photos, come detached from its album, in a crate of ill-sorted papers), my daughter reached an age when she knew what she was looking at, in the shot.
“What a hottie,” she declared.
But back before the photo had wound up, somehow, in the crate labeled “Misc. Maggie & Enz,” Pop had another box for whatever lay behind his alert gaze, his street-smart step. Whatever put him on edge, there in broad daylight in ’44 or ’45, continued to molder under the label “The War,” itself barely legible in the back of the closet. Which was fine by me, c. 1970. I’d reached the verge of adulthood with something less than my father’s looks, but with no serious scarring or disability, one of the world’s elite in fact, enjoying a dressed-down Grand Tour (with an assist to the late, great Icelandic Air, them of the postage-stamp ads in the Times, offering dirt-cheap roundtrips so long as you didn’t mind a pre-dawn layover in Reykjavik). My luck was undeniable, and I was half-aware of it at least—in particular the luck of having a Neapolitan father. The traces his younger self had left, across this downtown, seemed like something I could rely on now that I was here alone and on the verge of adulthood. I had a ghost guide, as I ambled through the mornings, the lunch hour, the hour of riposo and the challenging dawdle of the evenings; his photo often came to mind.
So, Spaccanapoli, what did you have for me and my shadow?
I turned up shorthand reminders of accomplishment, signifiers of a city that mattered. Not that I had more than the sketchiest notion of why, for instance, one of the street’s five names should be Via Benedetto Croce. Some philosopher, years back. Croce had talked trash about the Fascists, I’d heard that, and they’d come down on him as they had on my grandfather. When I tried his History of the Kingdom of Naples, I found it hard to imagine the offense in arguments so clotted and ornate, but nevertheless I sought out the palazzo where Croce had been kept under house arrest. Another plaque to puzzle out, and later, down one of the narrowest vicoli, I came across the tomb of Giambattista Vico. The man turned up in my class notes, him and his theory about history working in cycles; his name served as a pun in the opening lines of Finnegans Wake. Then by the time I’d put those references together, I’d come across a different sort of sidestreet, curving away from the central spacca rather than crossing it at right angles. For an explanation, I may’ve checked an old British Blue Guide. The alley, I found, followed the oval outline of a long-gone Roman amphitheater, a performance space built for the Emperor Nero. 1900 years before my visits, Nero had abandoned Rome for his mistress Poppea, his own Neapolitan Siren, and he’d embraced the Greek ways of the south. Refined, those Greeks, civilized—but also, to be sure, sybaritic. The Emperor indulged himself in a splashy new venue for his songs and skits, while up in the capital the Praetorians cut down anyone who raised a murmur of complaint. Before long, his opposition had had enough, but when they’d got Nero cornered (back in Rome, now), his madness proved stubborn. “What an artist,” he cried, “dies in me!”
So at one end of Spaccanapoli I encountered a tyrant and creep, while at the other I could celebrate courage and freedom of thought (abstruse thought, granted; recondite). The urban axis stretched between the infernal and far better, and along the way offered no end of the ordinary: buying and selling. Together, this street and its uphill parallel, Via Tribunali, might have served as the model for the expression “a confusion of shops.” Most of these, in time, I recognized as more selective versions of American vendors. When I needed a detergent gentle enough for washing socks and underwear at my aunt’s sink, for instance, I had to find the hole in the wall that featured kitchenware and household goods. This mercato featured the meats, that one the breads, this one the candy and that one the postcards, and for music and instruments, anyone could tell me, I needed to search the lower slope of Via San Sebastiano, just uphill from Santa Chiara. In the streets themselves, in that smoke-filled era especially, the cigarette ruled; it wasn’t uncommon to find Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes hawked tax-free, out of a shoebox or a zipper-bag, a few steps from some shop that sold them over the counter.
And there was stranger merchandise available, goods unfamiliar even to a boy who’d done some wandering around Italian-American New York. The Nativity handiwork crowding San Gregorio Armenio wasn’t new to me, exactly. My father and I had put together our family crèche, our presepe; I’d built a cavelike stable, papier-mâché, and he’d supplied the Holy Family and the visiting kings. My clearest memory is of the manger cow, I liked to finger the little horns, and that animal was made of the same terra-cotta as I saw, years later, off Spaccanapoli. Its paint flaking, its texture never quite smooth, the cow was kiln-fired. Yet I also have a recollection of wooden figurines, the babe for one, and those would’ve been carved in greater New York somewhere. Also, did Pop whittle a sheep or two himself? Did we paint that piece, or those pieces, together? He enjoyed such detail work, and enjoyed as well those father-son efforts during which I didn’t leave too much wreckage behind. In any case during my late teens, my early 20s, I recognized the merchandise along San Gregorio Armenio. I knew the major players, even the chocolate-colored Moorish kings and their blacker-still retinue. I smiled to see an artigiano dab paint on the eyes, the turbans.
Still, some of the stables ran far, far larger than my own, or indeed than anything I’d come across in lower Manhattan. These Nativity sets had ground-floor wings and upstairs rooms. Beneath dangling angels, the buildings branched up and out into elaborate miniature cities, and included the butchers and fruitsellers and pasta chefs of central Naples, as well as a wide array of their tools, from hunks of red meat to rolling pins of deep ocher to bright silver spatula. Also the figures in waiting might include a politician in contemporary suit-and-tie, the name unknown to me but the face familiar from the papers. Or a soccer player, or the great comic actor Totò, with his cocked bowler and hooked nose, or even Loren, modest in the country dress she wore in Two Women, but still the voluptuous antithesis of the Virgin Mother.
Stranger still were the shops that sold oggetti votivi, prayer offerings. Gold and silver handicrafts, intended to encourage God’s help, most of these took the form of pint-sized body parts. You saw double hands folded in prayer, single hands spread wide open as if for counting to five, arms and legs and handsome heads. A lot more besides, including a conjure against addiction, a syringe rendered with the precision of a catalogue. Believers would tack these to the walls of favorite chapels, or hang them from the reliquaries of patron saints, or even scatter them on church floors. No better than sanctified bribery, really, yet they left me staring, wondering. In Spaccanapoli’s perpetual stone twilight, behind the black steel grid that protected the shop windows, the hammered high sheen of these oggetti appeared to float. They constituted a second, half-secret urban landscape. A city of whispered hopes, with the gilded embellishment and delicate shaping hope always gives its artifacts, in this case polished to a greater glow by the overlapping pressure of first the Olympian Hera, later the Christian Mary, first Mithra and later Christ, one iconic belief system after another. Among the oggetti, you saw a wide array of hearts, from the anatomically correct to the sacred crowned in flame to the sorrowful valentine, cracked down the middle.
And farther down Spaccanapoli, in some hole in the wall, I would lunch on Neapolitan pizza. In these places there’d be only a handful of additional menu items, always including the insalata di mare, or frutta di mare, in either case another misleading name. The dish always had more meat than fruit or vegetable. It arrived with an upturned centerpiece coil of octopus tentacle, like a lavender crown of flesh, and was otherwise garnished with nothing more than a sprinkle of herbs and a dollop of oil, a wedge of lemon on the side. Yet both insalata and pizza proved a full-bodied meal. On the thin pizza crust the sauce and cheese and basil leaf lay in largely separate blocks, islands in an iridescent skim of oil, but this paucity increased the meal’s impact. The first uncomplicated chaw, with the crackle and redolence of brick-oven cooking, took me to the Italian word for “eat,” mangia. There seemed the same whole-mouth workout: m with the tongue back, n with it forward, a soft g buzzing throughout, and twinned long vowels fore and aft. Much the same workout resounded in the name for such pizza, Margherita, for me yet another of the local mysteries. Hours after I finished the meal, this unknown woman would linger with me—not unlike the other unknown women along Spaccanapoli. The flesh and blood, the pretty cheeky faces glimpsed and gone.
These faces, in chiaroscuro, took me to that photo of my father at my age. I recalled the others in the shot, the crowd, their faces half-revealed or less—yet in the smoker’s hint of grin, in the window-shopper’s pokerface, they got across the notion of la bella figura, a good show. Now before me, in living color rather than flat black-&-white, the scene suggested birds of paradise in a coop too small. The coop was worn, gray, smelling of sulfur and drabbed with droppings. Yet I’d never seen, for instance, such shoes: busy with tassles and stitching and buckles, buffed as brightly as the oggetti votivi (Italian footwear was is its Golden Age, the quarter-century following the War). I couldn't imagine how so many of the women got around on high heels.
But then the shoes were only a bit of surface distraction when it came to understanding the city’s women. I’d never given credence to the expression “doe-eyed beauty,” an empty theatrical flourish it seemed, but on the streets of the centro storico, which probably hadn’t been grazed by a wandering deer since the days when the evening crowds spoke Latin, the girls in their teens and twenties brought just such beauty to life. Sigh-inducing life, no less, and that was only the chrysalis stage, for the Neapolitan woman. As they reached middle age they mutated, improbably, impressively, into hawk-eyed maintenance of decorum and order. The younger ones moved in groups, in pairs at least, and their showy bracelets and earrings themselves seemed to chatter as they glided like skip-stones over the turbid inner-city currents. Their elders on the other hand sat solitary sentinel on doorway stools, devoid of any jewelry except the wedding ring, presiding cross-armed and sack-dressed over their alleyway or street-corner.
From my first weeks in town I was hearing the local myths of womankind. I heard of Partenope the siren, outwitted by Odysseus. The city, at its founding, had borne her name: par-TEH-no-pay. And up in Cuma I visited the Sibyl's cave, seat of the oracular crone of the Aeneid. Both she and the Siren recalled the Earth-Mother theocracies with which Europe began, the first in the frieze of icons that now included Mary the Queen of Heaven (and continue yet, in the post-Catholic Naples of the twenty-first century, in private shrines to Buddha). Also I read D. H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia. Lawrence declared that the mothers of the Italian south “send one’s heart straight back to pagan days.”
The men of city center posed different questions. The pizzerie, though cramped and barely sanitary, were staffed by adults, men with middle-aged beard-shadow and paunch. A boy might run errands (their outfits impossibly clean, sometimes even the uniform of a Catholic school), but along the shop's arched ovens you saw none of the teenage help you'd find in a fast-food place in the States, and next to no women either. Likewise the customers, unhurried in blue suits and white shirts. Grown men, these were, established, professional, or at least to them it felt imperative to appear that way. Talking impassively, or what Neapolitans consider impassively, a pair of these management types might linger over a half-liter of the house white and a wheel of Margherita from the dot of noon till the last moment before siesta. Even in dreamiest adolescence I knew there was something strange about the work ethic. And yet these slow-moving suits and ties were never to be confused with the young bucks who went in for dolce far niente.
Sweetly doing nothing: there was plenty of that, out on Spaccanapoli. In every excuse for a piazza, I had to pick my way around young men taking their ease on church steps, or perched atop blunt-topped chain-posts, or balanced spread-legged on the edge of a planter. Then on second glance, these giovannoti too appeared to be acting a role. In their case the act was about looking carefree and eager to sow your wild oats, even if your hairline stamped you as some years past thirty. During the day they were the ones roaring by on unmuffled Vespas, more often than not seated two per Vespa. Though I couldn't guess where they might be going, the shouting intensity of their biketop jabber always suggested they were hot on some scheme. Around here, dolce far niente was somehow full of zip, and these players best defined the bella figura. Even the most likely criminals among them, the stoop-loungers of the Spanish Quarter (where Spaccanapoli began) and the crowd-prowlers of the Forcello (where the street ended), even these were nearly always scrupulous about their clothes, in crisp open-necked shirts of Neapolitan blue, or white bleached and pressed, and long pants with neat creases on the hottest August days. Ostensible toughnecks, they too went home to Mama; every morning they could count on laundry freshly done.
From morning through siesta, though, the young and counterfeit young were only a part of the crush. You could always spot the block-minders, the crones on their stools, and the wheeler-dealers, the men of 40- or 50-something who held, if only in their own minds, positions of esteem. Like the politicians caricatured in the presepe sets, these men tended to suits and ties, even in the heat of August. If they wore a jacket, its fabric glimmered as if they too had a Mama taking pains. Then as evening came on, in another surprise for the American teenager, his peers didn’t take over. Naturally the sundown crowd was dominated by the young, the boys almost as pretty as the girls, their eyes almost as doe-like. In threesomes and foursomes they trotted out of the vicoli and buzzed across the piazzas on mopeds and bikes. My contemporaries, they would settle down stretch-legged on the steps of cathedrals and funiculare stops, and by sundown in early summer, 8 p.m. or so, there would be blocks of Spaccanapoli that seemed like a shifting freshman mixer. Girls laughed over each other’s jewelry and footwear; boys thumped each other’s chests in joshing combat. But the seats in the cafés, seats for which there was a table charge, were mostly occupied by men and women whose faces bore the seams of lifelong smoking, grownups who indulged their urge to look good by means of jewelry and watches. Not infrequently, too, they had their children with them, the truly young. Again an American visitor didn’t know what to make of it, these second- or third-graders out so far past their bedtimes. Back home, some do-gooder might make a call to Child Health Services, but here the little ones were part of the family display. Boys were turned out in fashionable polo shirts, and girls, not uncommonly, wore dresses so ruffed up with petticoats you’d think they were headed to First Communion.
Naples has its demimonde, to be sure. It never took me long to spot the prostitutes, in as much glitter and makeup as their small fees allowed, lolling by doorways in the Spanish Quarter or skirting the towers of the Porta Capuana. Now that my nonno and uncles had deemed me of age, they’d let me know that some of the most striking whores were men. Such trasvestiti had long found business off the docks, they’d refined their drag to the point of international notoriety, and the city at night, like any other city, carried its share of other unhappy parasites. But on those evenings when I first strolled out alone, along Spaccanapoli, I might spot a hooker or two, a jittery addict under the chipped alcove of an abandoned palazzo, but I had to look for them. Dominating the scene were the teens, young adults, and older folks up to something less dangerous, something more ordinary. I knew hanging out when I saw it.
But again, the differences from American hanging out bespoke a local character—a deeply rooted, utterly urban character—that remained at heart an enigma. I knew what I was seeing, and also I didn’t understand at all.
Boys and girls, men and women, would hook up unselfconsciously with another of the same sex, hip to hip, arms around waists, fingers even in each other's belt-loops. Everyone kept up some kind of movement, the adults in the cafés circulating from chair to chair as the conversations progressed, and yet nobody appeared to be going anywhere: not to a dance, not to a movie, nor to the nearest gelato bar. Naturally I spotted the occasional gelato, a lover’s accessory for an evening stroll, and usually it was the woman licking down the pastel blob atop her cone. The older folks at the tables nursed their Peroni or Nastro Azzuro (beer rather than wine, in the summer). But by and large these people met and moved on without the gnoshing and finger-licking that fuels an American crowd out on the Miracle Mile. Instead they seemed powered by touch, gesture, and sheer talk. The slang for what they were doing, intraliarsi, was itself an odd bit of talk, not quite translatable and requiring some practice to pronounce: een-trrah-LYAHHR-see. It was during the hours of intraliarsi, as at no other time of day, that Spaccanapoli rang with the city’s distinctive conversational music.
Local pronunciations and cadences remained a bell-clear signal of origin. In the Italian-speaking world, I’d been told, to talk like a Neapolitan was a stigma. It carried the same onus in Milan or Florence as talking like an Okie did in my greater New York. In the decades since, happily, some of the dishonor has washed away; Neapolitan has become the language of Italian rock and (especially) rap. Anyway, back when I thought myself something of a rock’n’roll boy, to my ear the accent came across sweet as the singing of Partenope herself. A music rough but irresistible, it had, like Twelfth Night’s, a dying fall. Mo’ lo facc’: the sound ballooned on the first syllable, then struggled to rise again on the third, fa-AHH… before guttering out, diminishing to a drawl, chhh-shh…. The pattern was unmistakable after a few hearings, yet even now as I sound out the words before entering their transliteration into a computer—a technology that itself underscores the many years, the many returns, since those first nights on my own—even now I feel like I can’t get it right, the verbal magic of downtown.
As those nights wore on, as the lights of upper apartments went out and stretches of Spaccanapoli's strict and narrow length sank into darkness, the whole scene seemed impossible to get right. Adults and kids ambled out of sight, and the noise of their intraliarsi became ghostly, an echo out of the distant past. The original city.
Spaccanapoli ends to the west of centro, at a intersection you wouldn’t call a T, rather a drunken F. There, in a wide hole fenced by dented railings, I’d looked over building blocks from the street’s first flooring. The site offered nothing so impressive as the layers of antiquity I’ve seen since, a few blocks away under the cathedral of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Those church basements and sub-basements, however, remained under lock and key; only when the parish found itself in need of the tourist dollar, in the 1990s, did it allow the public into its underground passageways, whole preserved streets along the old forum and, still farther down, the agora. In ’60s and ’70s, all I had were these stones at the sunrise end of the artery. Still, they were something, mammoth blocks of tufa cut from the earth, rubble of a more elemental heft than the bricks of the Roman engineers. Of course, Spaccanapoli had been laid out before the Romans came along. The northerners had taken charge in 325 BCE, one of those details rattling around in the mind of a twenty-year-old, and how many twenty-year-olds laid end to end would it take just to cover the years between these stones’ first placement and the city’s first change of hands? Fifteen of my fumbly lifetimes? And then to go from Rome’s annexation to Nero and his performances, that was more like eighteen or twenty—twenty of my twenty, imagine—and then from Nero to, to, what? The end of the Empire? The date for that was 476, and the Goths had shown mercy on the last of the Caesars, they’d packed him off to relatives in Naples...
I couldn’t keep up the game, not with its continual turnover of everything I’d been or known. All that got trampled underfoot, here on what the Romans called a decumanus, laid out east-west and wide enough to allow wheeled vehicles. On this one the carriers had rolled along under many a different flag or scepter or imprimatur, and lately they’d borne license plates, but all had traveled the same ruled line as me, between the same metropolitan clusters, and the sun hadn’t changed its place either, the sun was either in their eyes or browning the backs of their necks, over the course of journey after journey after John-times-150 years of journeys. Longer histories could be found, in looking over the world’s cities. A few, a very few, had their date of founding further back. Yet with the possible exception of Damascus, none could resurrect, with so little as an informed glance, so many previous sensations of mo’. The street before me may have been in continuous daily use longer than any other urban byway in the world.
Could a stretch of paving stones possess the secret of eternal life? The good life, could that be what had me searching up and down Spaccanapoli, till all hours? Other human hives might’ve hummed more loudly, but they’d turned to husks. Even Rome had spent post-Imperial centuries shrunk to a huddle along the Tiber. Then who were these Neapolitans, and how did they make this place work? What had my father known, as he too passed from sun to shade, here, just a single John-journey back?