Flangia di Chiesa

10 Mar

I think that’s how you say “church bell” in Italian. I don’t remember too well. But I have this nice image of opening up two huge windows in a smoky apartment in Rome in January of 1980 and hearing the flangia di chiesa just across the piazza go: one ring, two rings, three rings, stopping at eight. I had slept in my coat on a small divan. It was cold in January in a smoky apartment in Rome. We had no heat. We…were six of us. Two other boys and their father. My father and I. And a friend of my father’s from University. A small man sponsored by Catholic Charities in New York City. The two other men were chain smokers. The family of three was heading out to Cali. Eventually. We hoped. Or they did. All of us were immigrants on hold in this grown-up hostel waiting for paperwork to get into the States. I don’t remember why we were on hold. Something to do with the legality or illegality of officially immigrating from a Communist country. Something to do with only allowing emigrés from democracies or the West. Anyway, there was the bell. And the smoky apartment. Everyone else was still asleep. I could never sleep. I haven’t been able to in decades. Ever since I was nine. I always got up before everyone else. And so the windows. And the bell. I threw a small orange at a parked Lancia below. I prayed it didn’t have an alarm. I only knew about car alarms, then. I hadn’t actually heard one go off. And so the bell: one two three…eight. Eight in the morning in a cold, smoky apartment in Rome in January of 1980. The blue cloud of pollution floating inside didn’t bother me. We lived across the way from a porno theatre. There were provocative posters in the box office windows. A little man changed them every other day and squeegeed the glass. It was the first time I had seen breasts. And other parts. The bell again. And someone walked down below. A young lad in a black, leather jacket. He waited in between the Lancia and a dirty Citroën. The bell again. Must’ve been number five. A small van stopped in front of him, briefly double-parking. I wanted to throw down another orange. Smell of stale cigarettes. Porno theatre. Someone in the van handed the young lad something. A picture? Something dark. The bell again. A picture of some sort. Black and grey. Shades of. A Polaroid? No, too big for that. I had seen a Polaroid for the first time the summer before. Two German tourists, a man and a woman, snapped the weird, self-developing photo of me standing in front of a statue of the poet Mihai Eminescu, just in front of the Atheneum. This wasn’t a Polaroid. Something else. I recognized it. An x-ray. The young lad took it. An x-ray. Then the van drove off. And the young lad walked away with the photo of his insides. Or someone else’s insides. Strange things sometimes happened in smoky, cold apartments in Rome in January of 1980. Or just below them in between Italian and French cars. I wished I had another orange to chuck down. Strange things. Like the clerk at the American Express office where we got our liras changed into dollars. She kept saying “welcome.” In my language that gets translated into only something you say to people who arrive in your home or apartment for the first time. For dinner or coffee. She kept saying “welcome” and I found it strange that she considered the exchange office her home. Or acted as if it were her personal apartment. I didn’t understand (yet). We just went there to exchange money. She didn’t live there. The bell again. Number eight.

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