The Times of Sicily Following A Revered Literary Tradition
Through the 19th Century, serializing books in magazines was a very popular practice in both Europe and America. Among the authors whose books first appeared as serials are Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas (Sr. & Jr.), Henry James, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert to name only a few. This custom has stretched through the 20th Century and into the 21st. In keeping with well respected literary heritage, The Times of Sicily has accepted Mark Spano’s memoir The Sicilians for serialization within these pages. Mark Spano is a writer, filmmaker and regular contributor to The Times of Sicily. At this time, we are pleased to offer the first installment, and we invite our readers to stayed tuned for each new episode of The Sicilians.
—The Editors, The Times of Sicily
The First Installment from The Sicilians by Mark Spanò
Chapter 1: The Beginnings
I will tell a double story…at one time all coming together into one
by Love and at another being borne apart by hatred of Strife.
—Empedocles, Sicilian Philosopher, 5th Century B.C.E.,
from Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics
I grew up in a blue-collar, downtown neighborhood halfway between Kansas City’s North End and Northeast. The North End, near the City Market, was where many Sicilians and Neapolitans settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My father’s people settled first in the North End, and my father was born there.
The Northeast was a leafy, boulevarded neighborhood, where many of those very first Sicilian and Neapolitan arrivals matriculated when they had taken some steps up in the great American socio-economic ladder. My mother’s family lived in the Northeast, and my mother was born there.
The Northeast and the North End were not all that distant from each other. This was key. If there was a step-up that could be taken by Sicilians and other southern Italians , that step had to be taken within the sight of those left behind, or else there would be no point. For these people, for my people, change was not change, progress was not progress unless it was visible. What benefit would there be to have made good, if the less fortunate of your community could not witness your prosperity? Secret prosperity was meaningless.
The Great Depression hit both my parents’ families hard. My father’s family fell apart. My mother’s relatives were better prepared emotionally and financially and weathered the worst of the Depression years. In 1933, my mother’s best friend had a cousin who was tall and good-looking, and wouldn’t my sixteen-year old, yet-to-be mother like to have her friend’s handsome cousin (my yet-to-be father) take her to the prom? Of course she did. It was love at first sight, but my father had no job and little prospect of one. My mother’s father was dead set against it. And, anyway, the boy was unemployed, from the North End, and most inauspiciously, he was Sicilian.
My maternal grandfather was from a tiny and extremely poor village in Apulia. It seems the men from this village took religion much more seriously than most Sicilian men. My mother’s relatives were more staunch and upright than my father’s. A couple of my paternal uncles ended up in the local newspapers when they were arrested for petty crimes.
My mother’s father believed no good would come of the match between his daughter and the tall, handsome Sicilian. Despite Grandpa’s objections, my parents dated until 1942, when my father enlisted in the army so he would have enough money to marry my mother. My parents were married a few months before he was sent overseas.
After the war, with my sister having been born while my father was overseas, they moved to the neighborhood where I was born and grew up. We lived in a tiny flat in a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood between the North End and the Northeast. It had been Irish, but by the late Forties the Irish had all but disappeared. Some Sicilians and other southern Italians remained, as well as smaller ethnic cadres from Mexico and eastern Europe, and even a few Syrians and Lebanese.
By age fourteen, most of us knew who were the criminals and who were not. A fact of life. We were street kids, noisy and bored. Most of us were Catholics. There was crime in our neighborhood, but we didn’t consider gambling as criminal, even though it was illegal when I was a boy. Stupid maybe, but not criminal.
We knew crime. Crime was drugs, guns, prostitution, “protection” and the sale of stolen goods. It was everywhere. We saw it at a very early age and knew exactly what we were seeing. We also knew exactly what our parents thought about it, and more importantly what was expected of us in the face of it. A criminal life was unthinkable in my family. That was that. My family, like many Sicilians and southern Italians, may have been overly sensitive about what others might think about this or that turn of events, but they were honest to a fault and had no use for the allure of easy money that so captivated some of our neighbors.
My father worked in a steel mill. Until we had a car, which was not until 1955, he took the bus to a hot, noisy and miserable job. I was the youngest of three children. When I started first grade my mother went to work as a bookkeeper for a mail order company.
At fourteen I was accepted to the Jesuit boys’ prep school clear across town. The tuition was $300 a year. This was a considerable sum for my family in 1964. It was supposedly the best school I could attend, more to the point, the best Catholic school I could attend. So, there I was every morning, twenty miles across town, a greaser among the preppies.
Within days of my arrival at that school I was approached by a classmate who lived across town where my school was. I will call him Jimmy Santangelo. He was a Sicilian kid but dressed very preppy. I knew some of his relations who lived near me. The first thing he said to me was, “Hey, Spanò, you come from the North Side. Your Dad must be in the mafia.”
I knew Santangelo’s family. His grandfather had been the biggest bootlegger in our town, but like gambling, I never considered bootlegging much of a crime. Lots of people had done it during Prohibition. So what? Turns out, Santangelo’s granddad provided not only bathtub gin that made many a drinker go blind. Nonnu Santangelo also delivered the muscle to protect his operation and the operations of his pals across town. Nonnu Santangelo was a mean, violent man and he killed lots of people. He shot a distant relative of mine, about age ten, off a produce huckster’s truck to prove some kind of point. I knew this. Everyone where I grew up knew this. Jimmy Santangelo, though, did not know it. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that he lived across town because his grandfather had been a bootlegger and a murderer.
It was, though, from that comment by the young and sadly uninformed Santangelo that I began to notice that the world only knew one thing about Sicilians, and that was crime. Even Sicilians themselves like Santangelo displaced their erroneous notions about Sicilians on others. My family was scraping so I could go to that school, but because I had a Sicilian background and came from the old neighborhood, I must be the gangster’s kid. For the rest of my life I found that most people associated being Sicilian with only one thing: crime.
I came from a family of readers, and I am one. At one point in my life I began to read about Sicily. There was crime in Sicily like in the neighborhood of my childhood. It was undeniable. There was and is, though, so much more to Sicily, to being Sicilian, that I cannot imagine that the entire planet has fallen for such a cheap ruse.
Most John Wayne fans are surprised to find out that a great many cowboys from the old west were black men, not part of the story most of us have been told about the American cowboy. We, of course, learned most of what we thought we knew about cowboys from the movies, which has little or nothing to do with what actually happened in the authentic history of the American west.
Sicilians have had their American stories told by filmmakers, and let’s face it, shoot’em up criminals make a more exciting film than working union jobs, living in sub-standard housing and raising three children by the skin of one’s teeth. I love gangster movies as a genre. They can be great entertainment, but their content, no matter how well-crafted, is fiction having little or nothing to do with the people who lived more than three thousand years on a triangular-shaped island at the toe of the Italian peninsula.
This story is my attempt to find a Sicily that is not fictitious, a Sicily that tells me more about myself than gangster movies. This is not everyone’s story of Sicily. It is mine. It is a record of where my reading and travels have taken me.
The biochemist, Rupert Sheldrake coined the term morphic resonance, which is “the idea that, through a telepathic effect or sympathetic vibration, an event or act can lead to similar events or acts in the future; or an idea conceived in one mind can then arise in another.”
There is, as you might imagine, some disagreement whether this is a valid scientific concept, but for the sake of a reasonably useful conceptual tool I am going to assume that Dr. Sheldrake is correct. What is Sicily? What has happened in Sicily? How have events over the last three thousand years resonated in the lives and personalities of the island’s people? How have the people from this island influenced events, ideas and tastes across our planet? And, how has this island where I have never lived, where my father never lived, a place where grandparents and great aunts and uncles were born and departed, how has this island influenced me?
Are my feelings of Sicilianess simply imaginative constructions? Or, does Sicily, its people, its stories and its terrain, have considerable sway on who I am and what I have become?
Despite my father’s sketchy education and hard-knocks upbringing, he was an avid and voluminous reader. These factors likely contributed markedly to his characteristic Sicilian cynicism. He did not view history, religion and macroeconomics as somehow flawed. Rather he saw them as skillfully thought-out and finely articulated areas of inquiry that were utterly and quite intentionally deceptions. My father was capable of rigorous and compelling denial of even the slightest good intention in relation to most of the world’s scholarship. When I was young I vehemently disagreed with my father’s worldview that most global institutions were colluding in some mass economic conspiracy. In midlife I found his ideas to be part of the comedy we attribute to the families we grew away from because of our travels, education, and careers.
My father masterfully articulated his ideas, punctuating his orations with the occasional f-bomb to my mother’s unflagging disapproval. Such words should not be spoken in the presence of her grandchildren. These discussions were always fun in sort of a mean-spirited way. This upbraiding of the whole world was something for my siblings and me to enjoy. It was part of our family’s oral history. It remains for us a vivid memory.
In the latter third of my life I am beginning to understand that my father’s observations were not entirely incorrect. The deck is stacked everywhere. Sicily, so often subject to external forces and lacking control of its own destiny, has been a poster child for the notion, my father’s idée fixe, of history as a stacked deck.
My credentials as an author of a book about Sicily are simultaneously extensive and meager. My reading has been extensive. But I did not visit Sicily for the first time until I was sixty years old. My Italian is rudimentary at best. I have yet to find blood relatives in Sicily. But I am drawn there like a pilgrim to Mecca. As I sit at my keyboard in the office of my North Carolina home, I wish only to be in Sicily. My nose itches for the smells of Persephone’s Island.
And, what if anything, does any of this have to do with the Kansas City of my upbringing in the 1950s and 1960s? This book is an attempt to find connections among the threads of my adult life, the inner city life of my childhood and the mysterious land of my grandparents.
Through all of the stories and lore of my family, I was told of a Sicily that never truly existed for me. I am not altogether certain that it existed for my relatives in the ways they described it. It is a place that in this writing I am reimagining. This story of Sicily will embody the ebb and flow of these varied and remarkable occurrences through the pre-Socratic Sicilian Philosopher Empedocles’ prism of Love and Strife.
The Sicilians recounts my meetings with Sicilians, in the places where my forebears worked, played, prayed, loved and struggled. By witnessing how Sicilians today live their lives, I will bring to life a fuller picture of the great dichotomy that is Sicily.