by Alberto Moravia (translated from Italian)
When I was a kid playing with other kids, we had that counting rhyme that goes ‘Centocinquanta la gallina canta’ and ends with ‘and now it is precisely your turn!’ I remember how much I wanted that counting finger to stop at my chest, and that I’d be chosen to lead. Self-love. In life, you know, self-love is everything. Those who don’t understand this understand nothing. When I grew up, I continued to hope it would be ‘precisely my turn’. Sadly, it’s not often my turn, indeed almost never. I’m too humble, I know. Furthermore, until recently I was a mondezzaro, a dustman. There’s a lot said about rubbish and dustmen. There’s no one below dustmen, they say, not even beggars. That could be true. But if there were no dustmen, what would happen? We see it on strike days: the whole city’s dirty, sad, litter everywhere, the bins overflowing. And the most beautiful roads, they’re the dirtiest because, you know, the rich make more filth than the poor – rubbish shows you exactly how people live. It’s on strike days, I’ll say it again, that we appreciate the dustman and his importance to modern life.
I’m just saying that, when I went around with the cart, picking up rubbish, I’d think of that phrase ‘now it is precisely your turn’ and how I’d never hear it for me. It was always others who got their turn, especially with women. Every single time I was with a girl I liked and I’d get to telling her ‘I’m a dustman’, I’d see her darken and twist her nose. Then, more sooner than later, she’d leave me.
I might as well have said, ‘I’m a thief.’ I didn’t get it at first but when it happened over and over, I began to suspect that I might be better off hiding what I did. It was one of my cart partners, old Silvestro, who, you could say, opened my eyes. One morning when we were going from house to house, and I was complaining about women finding fault with my job, he said, no pleasantries: ‘It’s because it’s a dirty trade… women don’t like dirty trades… you should hide it.’
‘Just say you work for the council… it’s true after all… we’re all council employees… we pick up rubbish, those at the registry office sit behind their desks… but we’re all employees.’
The third cart partner, Ferdinando – my age, red-haired, freckle-faced, bespectacled – interrupted: ‘I think you’re wrong… why hide what you do?... It’s a job like any other… we’re workers like everyone else… hiding it just lets prejudice win.’
‘Bravo,’ Silvestro said, ‘but prejudice exists doesn’t it? And for Luigi, is it more important to fight prejudice or to get a girl to love him? On the other hand, look at porters… they’re workers too… and they’re calling themselves things like steward now… they’re changing the word though, not the deed… they’re doing it and all because of prejudice.’
‘Mind me, Luigi,’ Ferdinando said, stubborn, ‘don’t hide nothing… if a woman’s swayed by prejudice, that just shows she loves prejudice more than you.’
Anyway, we discussed the matter a great deal while the cart filled with rubbish and proceeded slowly slowly from one street to the next, all in the November morning mist. The cart stopped in front of a house. Ferdinando grabbed a sack, climbed down from the cart and strode into the doorway, whistling all the while. I said to Silvestro, ‘You’re old and you know about life… you tell me what to do.’
He pulled his pipe from his mouth. ‘Ferdinando chooses to boast about his job… for me that’s just another way of being ashamed of it… me, I’m not ashamed… I don’t boast of it and I don’t hide from it… I’m a dustman, that’s all.’
‘Yes, but I…’
‘It’s different for you… it’s better for you to hide it… you should pretend you’re a council worker.’
In that moment, I rejected that advice. I was a dustman and didn’t see why I should hide it. But a few days later, in my free time, without my cap or apron, I was sitting on a bench in Villa Borghese and thinking to myself that Silvestro might be right after all. With that thought, I suddenly felt like in some dreams, when we dream we’re walking about with just a shirt on and our arse is naked and we don’t know, but then someone tells us and we wake up. So, I’d been a dustman for two years and I’d never thought about it. So, I’d been walking about with just my shirt on and I’d been the only one not to know it. So…
It was a day in mid-November, really pretty, the air sweet and misty, and the trees all yellow and red, the avenues full of women and children. I’d been so deep in my reflecting that I hadn’t really noticed the young woman with the little girl joining me on the bench. Perhaps she was a maid or a governess. At the sound of her voice, ‘Beatrice, don’t go too far,’ I turned to look. She was young, stocky, with a round face all whites and reds, and a blonde braid as fat as a hawser wound about her head. Her eyes struck me the most – black and shiny as velvet, smiling eyes. The little girl was crouched down, playing with the gravel. The woman sat holding the girl’s bucket and spade. Sensing she was being watched, she turned to me and said calmly, ‘You don’t know me… but I know you.’
Such words seemed suggestive somehow and I felt myself blush. Thinking she must have seen me with a sack of rubbish on my shoulders, I replied right away, ‘Miss, you’re mistaking me for someone else… I’ve never met you.’
‘And yet I know you.’
Already set on lying, I said, ‘That’s impossible… unless you’ve seen me at the registry office, where I’m employed… lots of people pass through there…’
She said nothing, but she looked at me at length and strangely. Finally, she asked, ‘You’re an employee at the registrar?’
‘Well, sometimes here, sometimes there… there’s a great many offices.’
‘Then,’ she said slowly, ‘that’s where I’ll have seen you… I was there two days ago.’
‘That’s it then.’
The little girl, meantime, had ventured away and was rummaging with both hands in a pile of debris and dead leaves. The woman scolded her, ‘Leave that alone, Beatrice… it’s rubbish… good little girls don’t touch rubbish.’ At the word ‘rubbish’, I couldn’t help wincing. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, a street sweeper approached with his ugly grey uniform and his zinc cart and brush, and started sweeping away the pile.
She said, ‘With all these dead leaves, the streetsweepers must be very busy.’
I blushed again and hoped that she’d agree with my reply: ‘That’s their job… they’re employed by the council like me… they sweep and I write… there’s no other difference.’ Still looking at me strangely, she said, ‘My name’s Giacinta… and yours?’
That’s how our relationship began. She never told me where she lived – she said she didn’t want her mistress to know we were seeing each other. It turned out, however, that she lived in the area where I went with my cart every morning. We saw each other often, sometimes during the week, and every Sunday. We’d go to the cinema, or a football match, or the caffé. I fell in love with her, you might say, for her character. I’ve never known another character like hers: quiet, sweet, calm, sly perhaps, all concealed and secret like a deep still water. She was always silent and, when I spoke to her, she’d nod her head sweetly like she was approving of me and, at the same time, she’d make a little sound like a moan, as if to say, ‘That’s true, it’s so, you’re right.’ If she didn’t speak, her eyes spoke for her, always smiling, always attentive, velvety black and mysterious. She never allowed me to get familiar; perhaps a few times at the cinema she let me hold her hand. Meantime I continued to tell her I was employed at the registrar, always adding some new detail to reinforce the impression of the truth. But every now and then I’d betray myself, because rubbish and dustmen are part of conversation more than we think. Like the time that, having made me wait, I told her off, saying but not really meaning, ‘I’m a man, you know, I’m not rubbish.’ Straight away I bit my tongue and blushed to my ears. I thought she smiled as she said nothing.
I was so in love that I began to think of getting engaged. But I knew right off that if I wanted to marry her, I’d first have to change jobs. I’d told her too many lies. Suddenly acknowledging that I was a dustman would have meant ruining everything, mainly because of the inevitable disappointment of me being a dustman. Then she would discover that I was a liar and, everyone knows, women don’t love liars. But it wasn’t easy changing jobs, and I had to change two: my real one and my fake one. In my free time, I began to go about Rome looking for work. I couldn’t find any and it came to me that, since I was damned either way, I might as well sack myself and be unemployed. I don’t know why but being unemployed sounded better to me than being a dustman. At this point, however, the event I’d feared actually happened.
We always took the same route in the mornings. Like I said, there were three of us on the cart: Ferdinando and I who’d take turns filling the sacks, and Silvestro who’d drive the horses and help us balance the rubbish in the back. We spoke little. Silvestro would sit at the front, reins in hand, smoking his pipe, Ferdinando would perch on the rubbish, reading a magazine or newspaper fished out of some bin, while I thought about Giacinta and all my lying. Now one morning, when it was my turn to fill the sacks, the cart, as usual, stopped in front of a yellow three-storied building near Piazza della Libertà. Without a word, I grabbed the sack, got down from the cart and went in. There was no lift to the three flats. It was an old house and so quiet that it seemed uninhabited. I climbed the stairs two at a time, sack in hand, up the first flight, then on the landing I went to the first apartment. The plaque on the door had a straightforward name: ‘Ginesi’. I recalled vaguely that the same person would come to this door: a middle-aged cook from Friuli, solid, surly, sad, mannish. And that morning, as usual, as soon as I heard the door open, without even raising my eyes, I called ‘Rubbish!’ and opened the sack.
But seeing the two hands that offered me the aluminium dustbin, not the cook’s large dark hands, but small white ones, I looked up and saw it was her. I learned later that there were two servants in the house, the cook and Giacinta, and that, because she was a lady’s maid, she’d never come to the door but had observed me from the window. That morning, by chance, the cook was ill. I also learned later that shyness had stopped Giacinta from speaking when she saw me on the threshold. We all know better in hindsight. But at that moment, while silently she handed me the dustbin, I detected I don’t know what teasing in her black eyes watching me. I sensed myself blush and blanch as I poured the rubbish into my sack, swung it over my shoulder, and turned my back on her. I’d seen myself for what I was, with my cap over on my ear, and my stinking striped apron: a dustman, not an office worker. I thought I’d never have the courage to see her again. I didn’t go up to the other apartments, but instead went back down to the street, threw the almost empty sack to Ferdinando, then the cap and the apron. ‘Take these too… I’m ending it… I’m going… Tell dispatch.’
‘What’s the matter? You gone mad?’
‘No, I’m not mad… goodbye.’
I’d arranged to see Giacinta that day, but didn’t go. I lay on the bed in the basement rented from a seamstress, with a wanting to weep that wouldn’t decide itself, like when your nose itches and you want to sneeze but can’t. Towards evening, instead of weeping, I fell asleep. Upon waking, I realized that it was truly the end, and feared being unemployed forever. Instead, by pure luck, after a few days I found a job as a caretaker at an out of the way building site near Magliana.
For a full four months I remained in the countryside as that site’s guard dog. But one Sunday I went back into Rome, and met Silvestro in Piazza Risorgimento. Soon as he saw me, he said, ‘We found out why you left… that girl… but you did wrong… she really loved you. She loved you for being you and not someone else… she said she only had to see a man with a dustman’s cap and a sack swung over his shoulder, and her heart would begin racing… She said that for her the dustcart was better than a luxury car… and now she’s with Ferdinando.’
‘Right. She wanted a dustman and she got him… he never hid his job, he was proud of it… they’re engaged.’
I left him with his mouth still going. I’d have eaten my hands. The one time the counting game had stopped at me when, as the old rhyme says, ‘it’s precisely my turn’, I hadn’t understood. Among all the women, I’d encountered the one who liked dustmen, but I hadn’t guessed. Ah life, that’s how it is, we misread things, and so I missed my turn again.
Alberto Moravia, one of Italy’s most famous literary figures, is renowned for his neorealist and anti-fascist novels such as Gli indifferenti – The time of indifference, La Romana – The Roman woman, and La Ciociara – Two women, but he also wrote more than a hundred short stories featuring the common people of Rome, collected in Storie Romane – Roman Tales. Although Moravia wrote these in standard Italian, he used Romanesco flourishes to convey sentiments and emotions, from passion and pathos to hubris and humour. He was a fervent admirer of the Romanesco poetry of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who said:
Ma nun c'è lingua come la romana
Pe' dì una cosa co' ttanto divario
Che ppare un magazzino de dogana.
— G. G. Belli, ‘Le lingue der monno’
But there’s no language like the Roman
for saying something so variously,
it’s like a customs warehouse.
— G. G. Belli, ‘Languages of the world’
Like Belli had done through thousands of sonnets a hundred years previously, Moravia in his Roman Tales dissected Rome’s ‘commoners’, so transmitting his profound love for these people and their language. The tales were written to be read with a Romanesco accent, the way Rome’s people speak, not standard Italian, and to my ears the former has a lovelier sound, as distinctive as Lallans or Geordie to the British ear, or Gaditan to the Spanish.
Although the story below doesn’t appear to have ever been translated, it deserves to be better known, epitomizing as it does Moravia’s illustrations of Rome and its Romans. It also says something about the aspirational character of Italy as a whole in the 1950s, when it was transitioning from an agrarian past to its industrialised future, uncertain of its place in the global context, especially after its miserable performance during World War II. In first person, Moravia brilliantly characterises the dustman as someone ambivalent about his place in the world – on the one hand recognizing his worth, and on the other needing to be more in the eyes of his beholder.
It’s perhaps not an accident that Moravia chose to focus on il mondezzaro since this word could be understood to have a dual meaning: this Romanesco name for dustman is derived from immondezza or filth that is out of this world, where world is mondo; the word mondezzaro also sounds like it could mean ‘everyman’, or any man in the world. By equating the dustman to an everyman, Moravia might have been commenting how Italians should not be ashamed of themselves, rather take pride in who they are or risk losing what they hold most precious. He might also have been reflecting on that most Italian of vices: the need to make a ‘bella figura’ or good impression.
To make a ‘bella figura’ is a typically Italian way of demonstrating dignity and self-respect, but Moravia could be suggesting a negative aspect when someone feels the need to pretend to be more or different to one’s real self. Although Moravia has been praised for his analysis of ennui and alienation, a theme throughout many of his stories is actually authenticity. ‘Just be yourself,’ he seems to be saying, ‘be yourself and everything will be all right.’ Sound advice for anyone.