Cardboard Magnates

PDF printable version (in Italian)

It was nine o’clock, and I had just finished a very long business meeting at a business partner’s office near Via Marsala in Rome. All the participants had come out exactly as they had gone in: each convinced that they were right and, more importantly, undaunted in their claim that of the whole pie, they were entitled to three-quarters. Clearly, the account never added up, and imagination soon replaced common sense and utility. After a couple of hours during which my participation had made sense, I spent the remaining time immersed in my thoughts, doodling or reading the news on the computer.

Once out of the offices, I did not decide, as I often did then, to call a cab to go home, but I preferred to walk a few steps and reach the Termini subway station.

The weather was cold, and gusts of wind lashed my only uncovered parts: my face and hands. I quickened my pace as a drizzle, more like moisture than a thunderstorm, began to form rivulets on my forehead. When I reached the right sidewalk in Piazza dei Cinquecento, covered by the noise of the many buses and horns, I heard a voice that seemed to address me, “Do you have a cigarette for me?

I turned toward the flower beds separating the street from the paid parking lots and saw a black man with gray hair and a curly, grizzled beard. He smiled and moved, limping slightly toward me.

I admit that I am not usually expansive with strangers I meet on the street; if it happens, I give them a few coins and shoot straight, but the man appeared different to me, like a lapsed aristocrat who could not, despite himself, give up elegance.

I took out the packet; there were three cigarettes. I handed it to him.

Take them all. I have another one in the bag,” I replied.

He followed my invitation, pulled one out, and asked me to light it. I was on the verge of leaving him the lighter, but then I remembered that I would need that and put it back in my pants pocket. I greeted him without interest and tried to leave.

You are in a great hurry!” he exclaimed.

I was in no hurry, lived alone, and no one was waiting for me. I realized that my action had been more spontaneous than rational, and I paused as if a doubt had suddenly assailed me.

“I‘m tired, “I told him, “I’ve finished work now.”

I can see you’re tired,” he muttered in perfect English, “It’s written all over your face.”

On the contrary, his face looked very relaxed, and although he was a bum, he seemed calm, content, and serene even in bad luck.

What are you doing here?” I asked him to cut it short.

I live there! In French, they call us ‘clochard,’ in English, ‘homeless,’ in refined Italian, ‘homeless,’ but I think the most honest are the English. Italian is too poetic: I don’t lack a roof… I could go down in the subway or make a cover for myself with cardboard… I live without a home. The one where you are headed. The one that drives you to run like a frightened hare to its lair… Right now, if you must know, I’m just a prisoner of the Earth!

I was amazed at his command of the language, although it was equally unquestionable that his origins were African. Now and then, the accent became more nasal, and, more importantly, it was impossible to trace it back to any inflection that became familiar to those who lived for a long time in any Italian region.

I can imagine,” I said, only to regret that stupid superficiality immediately.

The man paid no attention to my words, perhaps now too familiar for him, but he placed a hand on my arm and, contracting his face in a grimace, added: “They are tough-skinned. But lately, I’ve been spending nights in the cold, believing I couldn’t do it….”

In the face of my transfixed silence, he added, “A couple of weeks ago, one of us kicked the bucket–he wasn’t sick, he wasn’t old–he was simply one of us. Do you know what that means?

You are certainly not doing well,” I replied, letting my embarrassment seep out.

No–that’s for sure, but what I meant was that when one of us dies, it’s as if we all die–not out of solidarity or any such nonsense, but simply because we’re all the same. After the police removed the body, someone said he was already a heart patient — nonsense! I knew him well, Peter the Cardboarder, and he was fine. He died simply because we die at night here — and like him, we can all die. No one is excluded. None!“.

But, you said you’re thick-skinned- I’m sure you’ll be able to resist,” I muttered in a half-voice.

Now I realize the triviality of my arguments, but I was struggling. You can counter with a peer, with someone who risks precisely what you risk, but how do you come up with convincing reasons with someone who lives with only a few coins in his pocket and sleeps stretched out among the sidewalk puddles?

We are all the same,” he replied, dispelling all my doubts. “We are the same and play the same way. Whenever I fall asleep, covered with old rags or a box, I start thinking about the first rays of the sun. I wait for them and then close my eyes, imagining them slowly rising to the horizon. When it begins to dawn, with the delicate tones of pink, I know I can get by another day… Instead, when everything is gray as if time does not want to flow, I realize I will have to suffer the cold, and I start pacing up and down the street like a desperate person. Sometimes I even get to St. Peter’s, look at people with smiling faces and smile too… Then I come back here, slowly, eating a few slices of pizza or, very often, nothing…

But wouldn’t you be better off asking for a dormitory bed?” asked I, reading(perhaps mistakenly) a somewhat excessive pride in the man’s tone.

He gestured with his hand as if to chase away a bad smell: “Dormitories are for small children and real old people… I did not make that choice and then beg like a wretch! You don’t know me, but I used to walk around dressed like you, in a suit and tie, some time ago. Now you see me like this, patched up like a rag, but everything used to be different….

As he took another cigarette, I watched him and grew impatient. I was tired, and that chatter was beginning to irritate me, though I understood it to be more of an outburst than a tantrum.

I believe you,” I replied casually, “But I have to go now…”

Hey!” he exclaimed, “Don’t you want to know Kamil Emmanuel’s story?

I felt considerable disappointment at that umpteenth disruption of my plans, but I could not say no, even though inside, I kept wishing more than anything else to go home and relax in my little sofa.

I tried to challenge him, just like that, to make such an unusual exchange more pleasant: “And what would be so interesting about your life?” I asked him with bravado.

The man laughed, “Nothing…” he exclaimed, throwing out a small cloud of smoke.

You care so much about telling the story, though! Are you doing this to seek company?

I don’t tell it to everyone,” he replied a little more seriously and compassionately. “Most people shoot straight. If I can drop a few pennies on them, that’s fat… Imagine if they wish to listen to my adventures….

And instead, I…”

He continued, “You stopped, and that already refreshes me… If you don’t want to listen to me, go ahead. Is your wife waiting for you?

No,” I answered with slight embarrassment as if that was a treacherous question, “I live alone.”

I was almost getting married instead,” he urged. “A long time ago, I still lived in Lagos, Nigeria. Do you know where it is?

Yes, of course,” I murmured, accompanying the words with a gesture.

Kamil closed his eyes briefly as if he were reviewing a movie in his mind, then retook my arm: “There was a girl who drove me crazy, the daughter of a big textile merchant. I used to wait for it as I wait for the sun’s rays now: I used to hide behind a little wall and pray for it to pass… I was shy and timid… You see, I was living well at that time, so I could also afford to be shy…

But you never talked to her?” I asked in amazement.

He laughed, “No–that sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

How many women do you fall in love with (or, perhaps, it would be better to say, fall in love with) without even knowing them? In the subway, I had seen hundreds of them: of some. I was fascinated by the hands of others, the hair of still others(few, actually), and the face. Some had impressed me so much that I also hoped to see them again. However, I knew that nothing else would happen, not least because perhaps any approach would have materialized what was to remain pure essence, unbridgeable emptiness that drew the object back to itself and then fled again.

It doesn’t seem crazy at all,” I answered him, “It happens… But why were you doing well then and now, instead… Yeah, I mean, now… “

He took me off the hook: “…Am I homeless now?

That’s right…”

“Just now, you didn’t care about my story and wanted to run away home!” she exclaimed like a little woman who, after being rejected, is called back to herself.

I did not respond. I pulled another pack of cigarettes out of my bag, opened it, and started smoking. That gestural response was more eloquent than a linguistic statement.

My father was a diplomat in Nigeria,” Kamil began. “Until my teenage years, he worked as a government official in Lagos, and, as you can imagine, we had no shortage of money… Keep in mind…” he said, raising the tone of his voice slightly and taking my arm as if that act served to transfer more pathos “…When I say ‘well’ in Nigeria, I don’t mean the ‘well’, you know… We could afford the luxuries of an upper-middle-class Italian, with the difference being that my family lived in a nation where there were people who were found dead in the streets…”

I saw something similar in India,” I said.

The man huffed, “In India… Nigeria is not India. Over here, people who die because they couldn’t get food or because they get typhoid or meningitis or any other horrible disease don’t willingly accept that fate–no! Mothers hold their dead children in their arms until they begin to stink. With us, a gift of nature is not a loan without collateral!

I nodded, imagining a woman holding a lifeless child in her arms, waiting perhaps for the miracle to open that shrunken little mouth again to seek his nipple again. I shudder. I felt the cold lashing me more violently, perhaps because I had glimpsed, suspended in the drizzle, his pale face waiting ravenously for its next victim.

How did you end up here, anyway?” I asked to break the pathetic monotony of that heartbreak.

After a long period of internal work,” Kamil began again, “The minister proposed a quantum leap to my father: he asked him if he would like to serve as an official at the Embassy of Nigeria in Rome. You can imagine… For my brother and me, it was extraordinary news. We regarded Europe as a place where happiness was distributed on a par with water… Although later, when we arrived, we found none of such magical fountains…

I grimaced, “We say that the grass is always greener on the other side… But I believe there are types of grass that mock men: whichever way you look at them, they appear dark toward us and bright on the other side…”

Kamil laughed, and I was still amazed to see how perfectly he understood English: he must truly have been an educated man, now wretchedly fallen into poverty.

“That’s right, man,” he replied. “But my brother thought otherwise… I quickly realized that I was a foreigner in an ultimately hospitable land but still far from where everything was familiar. Whereas he didn’t… He loved to have fun and burn money when he was still in Nigeria, and he started to do the same here. For him, the grass was always green, even when it was right to dry and burnished….

“Was it him then who reduced you like this?

“In a way,” replied Kamil. “But he tried to go straight as long as my parents were alive. The trouble happened later…

Now and then, he would pause like a thunderstorm, waiting for new clouds. I lit another cigarette, now resigned to having to stay and listen to him until the end.

When we arrived in Rome, my father immediately had an important assignment. We were making good money, and even though my mother was not working, we could afford an apartment in Piazza Bologna within a few years. I still remember the man’s triumph when he signed the deed of purchase… He said many in Lagos would envy him, and we had better make the appropriate assurances!

“I have to admit,” I said, strengthened by a particular, unusual confidence, “that this is the first time I’ve talked to a son of a diplomat like you –, to be exact, it’s the first time!

“But what do you think,” Kamil replied, smiling and pointing to the Windsor knot on my tie. “A few years ago, I used to walk down the street in tailor-made suits and Marinella ties specially flown in from Naples… Every time I saw the bill, I would get a churning in my stomach… In Nigeria, ten families would eat there for at least three months… On the contrary, my brother was always smiling when he could spend his pennies, and the more things cost, the happier he was…

Indeed, it was unquestionable that the man had all the outward characteristics of an affluent person who, despite his misery, retained a savoir-faire and manner of speech usually rare in clochard circles.

One day,” he continued without my inciting him, “As so often happens to men who work like donkeys in the world of happiness, my father was seized by a heart attack and fell lifeless a few meters from the embassy, with his car keys in his hand and his blue pinstripe suit…”

He paused momentarily and then, in a whisper, added, “I was the one who identified him.”

Sorry. It must have been a bad blow,” I said with the dull banality of one who can never know another’s pain. “After all, you all depended on him…”

I was depending less and less… I was studying and would soon get my law degree. My brother, a daredevil from birth, was getting busy in nightclubs, and my mother — yes, maybe she was the only one addicted. But not for the money- the embassy immediately granted her a monthly allowance to live with dignity. No… My mother was addicted because she believed that marriage was a choice, a path into which you enter and can never go back. She loved my father and would do anything for him and with him… On her own, however, she felt lost. I used to try to console her, telling her that everything would pass and that, after all, we had a house and a pension to live with… She would look at me as if I were speaking an unknown language, squint slightly, smile, and then, stroking my hand, repeat that I was too young to understand…

I understood the meaning of that image long afterward. Unfortunately, I associated with her only the face of despair at that moment, with the absurd idea that we cannot go on any other way.

It happens,” I murmured, “You’re not the only one…”

It only happens to those who think their spouse is the opposite pole of their universe,” Kamil intervened vehemently. “Her husband was the only possible sunshine for my lunar, brooding mother. It was the Sun. Losing him meant her beginning a mad, fulcrum-less, aimless gravitation… She died two months later. The doctors told us that she had been feeding less and less. She had let her body bring forth a dried-up spirit: her third birth, I called it, as I wiped away more tears in the heaven of happiness“.

Angel of Death by William StoryBad story, “I repeated, imagining an elderly couple holding hands until the end. Immediately, I was reminded of the sad story of sculptor William Story, who carved the famous statue “The Angel of Grief” to adorn his wife’s grave in Rome‘s non-Catholic cemetery. Shortly after finishing it, when the last strokes of the chisel had imprinted into that block so cold all the warmth of a broken relationship, Story died, perhaps because he was aware that his moon was waiting for him, smiling beyond the gap. For a moment, it made my thoughts wander in a hyperboreal space where every desire burns eternally to continually give itself as a spark escaped from the heart of flames.

Kamil abruptly brought me back to the reality of a winter evening in the Piazza dei Cinquecento: “From that moment, my misfortune began…”

Why?” I asked curiously since, generally, when both parents die, the children become richer or, in the worst of circumstances, less poor.

My brother and I, of course, inherited everything–everything,” repeated the man, smiling sarcastically. “In truth, this ‘everything’ was only the house and little else. My father had invested every saving to buy it, and it was impossible to get by without his salary. With the little money left over, we lived decently for less than a year, but one day, strutting like a rooster, my brother told me that the house had to be sold and the proceeds divided into two“.

He paused. Her eyes shone with a faint glow as if the drizzle had settled in the long furrows of her face, making those off-white bulbs sparkle against a background of fine rosewood.

I refused!” he exclaimed, clenching his fist as if trying to hold on to a now elusive desire. “My father had made enormous sacrifices to buy that house, and now that idiot wanted to sell it like a moth-ridden pastern! The blood went to my brain, and I pounced on him… It was perhaps my mother who stopped me; otherwise, I would have beaten him like a rabid dog”.

I read a hatred buried under a frost-hardened skin, but after that statement, I also failed to understand the real drama: “So you still have the house in Bologna Square?” I asked him without hiding an indisposed surprise.

You don’t believe it?” said Kamil in a tone of defiance.

Yes, yes … I believe that,” I replied, “But then, can you explain why you live this life? Can’t you live there together with your brother?

He puffed like a saturated kettle: “With my brother? Go figure… I haven’t seen him for at least a year… And anyway, after countless squabbles, we decided to rely on the courts, resulting in the apartment being closed and uninhabited, and I have far too much pride to ask to sleep there… at least when it’s freezing outside“.

But it doesn’t make sense!” I exclaimed as if the affair touched me, “You risk your life by staying outdoors at night when you could be living in one of the most luxurious areas of Rome! This is absurd!

Kamil smiled and showed me the empty pack of cigarettes. I handed him some more, although, in my heart, I would have hit him full in the face, just as he had wished to do with his brother.

“That’s fine with me,” he sentenced. “When the court has decided what to do with the house, perhaps I will return to my old life. Until then, I will sleep rough, like the trees and wild animals. What are we at the end of the day? In Nigeria, I saw much worse, and no one cared. Here.” paused for a moment. “Here. It is the same. How many people care about us without first reducing us to hopeless derelicts? Wouldn’t I like a real bed and three meals a day? Certainly, there are homeless centers, but as long as they are precisely ‘Homeless Centers,’ they will not differ much from concentration camps. You don’t pay, of course. But instead of money, they ask you for dignity in return. And I, the son of an embassy official, will not bend to this blackmail. I earn just enough to make a living playing jazz piano. I’m good, you know? Some piano bar managers know me, and when I am short of money, I drop by to see if the evening can be warmed up. I usually remedy fifty euros: a fortune for a bum….

“But the court will force you to sell the house and share the proceeds!” replied I as if I wanted to show the man a truth that he had instead not only understood but also evolved into unquestionable and very trivial reality.

I don’t care. When the law tears it away, I will agree to sell it, but until then, it will remain closed“.

I began to get nervous. I could hear in that tone an arrogance that clashed with the evidence.

But excuse me, you told me you are all the same just now! I don’t believe that Peter, what did you call him, owned a house!”

Neither do I!” replied Kamil with the coldness of a winter cliff. “If that’s the case, that house doesn’t exist…”

What the hell do you mean?” I exclaimed, irritated by such seraphic levity. “That it’s all a lie?”

Absolutely. There is nothing false in what I told you. The apartment is always in Bologna Square. Empty. Uninhabited. Cold. Right now, perhaps, it could be a rooftop, as well as that of a public dormitory… But it is not my home“.

There were two possibilities: I was looking at a bum who was extraordinarily good at acting, or the man’s pride had engulfed him to insanity.

As I thought back to the nonsense I had been told, whether true or false, Kamil, with slow, calibrated movements, lit another cigarette, smiled at me, and waved a high-five.

I did not understand and remained silent. Seeing my uncertainty, the man, in a pathetically authoritative tone, said, “Now you give me five euros for the story I told you!

What?” I suddenly blurted out, “I did not ask you to tell me anything. I stayed to do you a courtesy, and indeed, it’s late now. Take care, Kamil, the weather will get worse….” and walked toward the subway escalator.

But I gave you a gift!” he exclaimed, “Don’t you understand?

I paused again as if hypnotized. At another time, I would have shot straight ahead without looking back, but then it was as if an unknown force forced me not to be indifferent.

In a calm tone, I replied, “If you told me a little story, that’s fine with me. But if you tell the truth, don’t you understand how unworthy your claim is?

“I feel like I can see myself trying to convince my mother of the futility of her behavior,” he said, “But if I had asked you directly for five euros so that I wouldn’t be fasting again tonight, would you have given them to me?

I already gave you the cigarettes and the lighter,” I replied dryly, trying to conceal the interest that story had aroused in me poorly.

You would have given them to me, I know,” Kamil added confidently.I read in your gaze a noble soul. And I’m sure you would also act just like me….

Perhaps he was right: if he had merely told me about his misfortune without going any further, I probably would not have had too many qualms, but the idea that the man owned a valuable house left to rot on a whim sent me into a frenzy, even if I did not understand the real reason. Yet before me was neither a rich man nor an absolute lunatic.

The man, whom I now noticed unsteadily on his legs, was emaciated and weak, dressed in shabby clothes wholly inadequate for that climate, and it was by no means out of the question that he was risking his life night after night when by then temperatures were touching zero degrees.

I had three euros in my pocket, the change from a soda purchased immediately after leaving the office. I took them and handed them to him, “I only have these. Don’t ask me anymore“.

Kamil winked at me and thanked me. Then he turned and limped back to the edge of the flower bed where he had spread out his bed.

I sat in a half-empty carriage in the now uncrowded and quiet subway. The few faces moving in front of me looked like cracked mirrors, and in each of them, I could make out my person’s tired, faded features.

In that return, everything became ethereal: the wax masks melted away, the frayed costumes were worn out, and the few lines of that drama escaped like mute syllables and were covered by the screeching of the train on the tracks.

In front of me, I noticed a young brunette woman. She was well dressed in a brown skirt and a thin ivory sweater. He kept his coat and bag resting on his legs and kept turning a conspicuously large ring on his left ring finger.

I watched her demurely, as Kamil perhaps did with his fantastic lover, and after a few moments, I met her gaze. Her green eyes gave a fresh tone to that face as if her actual day was beginning at that moment. Yet a jarring note kept tinkling in the dark depths of that soul. I foolishly tried to hear her, but without realizing it, I laughed like a child and lowered my gaze to avoid being noticed by the other travelers. I felt like a little boy who, hearing a word forbidden to him, caught in emotional upheaval, takes refuge in the most instinctive reaction: laughter. I laughed without understanding why, but in my heart, I was more than convinced that I possessed the key to that secret, though distorted, elusive, hidden by its blatant appearance.

The woman got off slowly at the Ponte Lungo stop. I watched her go: she was beautiful in her movements and appeared even more fascinating in that strange silence. He disappeared in moments behind the clatter of a billboard.

I abruptly stopped laughing as soon as the doors were closed again. In front of me, reflected in the fogged glass, I saw only a sad, stunned look, as often happens in the morning, when the alarm clock, without any elegance, inevitably finishes the endless imprisonment of sleep.

Filed for legal guardianship with Patamu: certificate

If you like this short story, you can always donate to support my activity! One coffee is enough!

Share this post on: