Excerpt from Il silenzio (Piemme, 2007) by Gianni
Il silenzio © 2007 by Gianni Palagonia
Inquiries regarding rights may be addressed to literary agent
Piergiorgio Nicolazzini: firstname.lastname@example.org
English translation © 2008 by Anne Milano Appel
SILENCE: The Story of an Anti-Mafia Cop
Senza soddi non si canta missa*
(Without money Mass won’t be sung)
* Translator’s note: This inscription, as well as much of the dialogue in these chapters, is in the Sicilian dialect.
There are no more killings in Sicily, and this is the most serious sign, the gauge by which we know that things are going well for the Mafia. There are no killings, and everyone thinks that after some outstanding arrests the Mafia has been defeated. But here even children know that when there’s too much silence it’s because business is thriving.
By now the crews have learned their lesson, they know that your best friend can become your executioner and so they’ve changed their strategy. They work in watertight compartments: if someone “repents” and turns state’s evidence, he can get five people arrested, not a hundred like at one time. It’s a reticular, post-hierarchic model.
Over the past ten years we investigators have done only what the pentiti told us, losing contact with the territory, with the informers, with the street, and now there is darkness again. It will take years to understand what the devil is happening, what the new Mafia is up to. Their bywords today are recycling, investment, shops and hotels. And then the stock market, the resumption of construction, large contracts, and above all politics. Figure-heads, puppets, the truth is that we live side by side with the Mafia every day. It can be the kid who sticks a gun point-blank in your face, but more often it’s a bald-headed guy with a paunch, wearing a jacket and tie, and the only thing in his pocket is a pen for signing checks and deeds.
I have a story to tell about all this. I’m almost 40, I’m a cop, but this is not a biography.
It’s just a piece of Sicily, of me, of all of us. I’m a cop. Not just one of many: a troublesome one, so they say.
This time around, my name is Gianni Palagonia.
CHILDHOOD OF A COP
Chapter One: Childhood in Catania
“Gianni, Gianni; acchiana subbitu a casa, veni a sturiiari, come home and study right now!”
“Avaia mamma, come on, another five minutes, I’m talking to Franco.”
Franco was the security guard at the Banca Popolare on Via Manzoni, in the Nuove Palme quarter. He worked there from dawn to dusk, until closing time at the bank.
Every morning I would wake up and check: Franco was already at his post, his sub-machine-gun cradled in his arm. He was my hero. The dining room was the spot in the house that allowed me to see him best: in the afternoon I did my homework there but I would open the curtains and spend part of the time looking at my book and part of the time at Franco. Every so often my mother would come by, find me staring out at the street and give me a cuff on the head: “Sturia, ca sannunca ta bocciunu, study or they’ll flunk you.”
I wondered if I would ever get to know anyone as important as Franco. Burgundy and green uniform, white holster with a pistol, the lightweight automatic longer than his arm, Franco was a friendly guy who greeted everyone, though with a serious face that made you feel in awe. He looked older than his 25 years, and had a huge belly, thick curly hair that looked impenetrable, and a missing incisor. My father was one of the bank’s customers and sometimes he brought me with him. Franco would greet him, then look at me with that severe scowl and greet me too. I responded ducking my head and slipped quickly into the bank. While papa took care of his business at the counter, I would often observe Franco’s big, calloused hands from inside. And I dreamed of standing in his place with a pistol and an automatic to defend the weak against the bullies.
Already I knew that words and nice ways were not enough to protect yourself and others. I had learned this in elementary school, in the Limonaia district, before my father decided to move so we could live a more peaceful life in a new and better area. In Limonaia you never knew if you would live to see your next birthday, even though you were only 8 years old. And in Limonaia I had to deal with one of the most feared hoodlums in the area.
“Pippuzzu” would be gunned down by the Mafia with a machine-gun many years later. At the time he was 14 years old and was already considered a dangerous thief. He came looking for me because of his brother. I had won some trading-cards fair and square from him, playing mazzetto, and he wanted them back. I had given him a sharp reply and so he sent his ruthless brother.
I was in the delicatessen shop on Via Alfieri.
“Cchi ci facisti a me frati? What did you do to my brother? Why did you take his trading-cards?”
I couldn’t speak, I saw the clerk petrified, I thought he would kill me.
“Cu tia stai parannu, I’m talking to you, you son-of-a-bitch piece of shit. Why don’t you answer me, chi ci facisti a me frati, why did you take his cards?”
The slap was so hard it made me fall right on a rack. A few seconds of absolute blackness, then I got up the courage to shove him with all my childish strength. Pippuzzu took it as a real offense. With a leap he climbed over the deli counter, went to the knives and grabbed the longest one.
“Tammazzu, ti taghiu a facci, bastaddu!, I’ll kill you, I’ll cut your face, you bastard!”
The only thing I remember was the clerk’s cries: “Run, run, scappa, before he kills you!” And then the car that was about to hit me as I ran across the street, the blasts of the horn, the driver yelling: “Figghiu di buttana!, son of a bitch!”
For some time, my parents did not let me leave the house.
The story had terrorized them, they knew who they were dealing with. Every evening I saw my father turn out the lights and peer out from behind the window. I was crazy with fear, I cried, I thought he would kill us all. My father spoke on the phone, seeking advice from whom I don’t know, asking if we should go looking for him to apologize. The matter went no further, but it lasted a number of days.
I began to realize that everything can’t always be resolved civilly.
Following a bank robbery Franco was transferred, and they replaced him with another security guard. After barely a month the bank was robbed again and this time it was like something out of a film. I was at home when I heard shooting and my mother screaming, terrified.
A swarm of policemen arrived. One of the robbers had been hit in the legs by the new guard, and was screaming in pain, prostrate on the steps in front of the bank. The funny thing was that the money that one of the robbers had in an envelope slipped out and the bills flew all over the place. I too ran down to grab some, like everyone else was doing, but then I lost my nerve. I could feel the stern gaze of the police officers on me as they kept watch.
I stayed in the courtyard to study what all those cops were doing. Some were talking on the radio, giving information about what the robbers who had managed to escape were wearing, others were taking photographs, still others were questioning witnesses. Everyone said they hadn’t seen a thing. How could they say that if they were there? After a few hours it was all over, but for me and my friends it remained a topic of discussion for days.
Some time later there was another robbery, this one too occurred in the afternoon while I was playing on the balcony and spying on the guard as usual. I was attracted by a confusion that I can’t describe, and I noticed two men running towards a Fiat 128. I managed to write down part of the license plate number but I didn’t mention it to my mother. When the police arrived I mingled with the curious onlookers. I had hidden the slip of paper with the license plate number inside my briefs, but I was scared. They would take me to headquarters and ask me a lot of questions, and I would unquestionably get a sound thrashing from my parents, who were always telling me to mind my own business. And then too, the robbers: if they managed to get away, they would take it out on me and my family.
The note remained in my briefs and then ended up in the toilet.
One evening papa was late coming home from work. Waiting at home we looked at one another, extremely worried. Finally he turned up and told us that the police had prevented him from going through because the owner of a delicatessen shop in the area had been killed, shot with a pistol. I asked him a bunch of questions, what the police were doing, if he had seen the dead man. He said that the police were taking photos and that a body was stretched out in front of the shop, covered by a white sheet. The next day I went to the shop. It was closed but there was a small crowd outside, and people would pass by and stop to comment. I spotted an opening and found myself right in front of the roll-down shutter.
On the ground there was still a trace of blood. The stain was much bigger than that of the robber on the steps of the bank.
A woman said: “Puvureddru, era bravu cristianu, poor thing, he was a good Christian.”
“His meats were fresh”, said another.
“Iu sacciu ca era di famighia tinta” said a third, “I heard he was from a bad family.”
I left the scene of the crime and in my imagination reconstructed the murder. This is my calling, I thought. I was a child but already I knew that I could not do anything else in life but protect people, and also avenge them for the wrongs they suffered.
Chapter Four: The dream of a lifetime
I was 14 years old when I started to diligently frequent the Mobile Unit in Catania where my uncle worked. For me it was exciting to see the police cars up close, to sit in the driver’s seat, to hear the policemen talk via radio and especially to get to know many of them in person. I felt like a special, very lucky kid.
My uncle introduced me to the guys he was most friendly with and proudly told them all: “This is my nephew, he wants to be a cop”.
Some approved: “Bravo!”.
But others added: “Ma cu tu fa fari, why do you want to do that, find yourself another job, this one stinks, they pay you peanuts and you starve to death.”
I told them that money didn’t mean a thing to me and that my goal was to help the weak, those who could not defend themselves against mafiosi and bullies.
The older ones laughed: “Holy Christ, if it isn’t the Paladin Roland!”
Meanwhile my city was becoming unlivable: during those years murders, robberies and muggings reached an all-time high, the newspapers wrote of nothing else. I started to become aware of the surroundings in which I lived: I began to follow the television news, to read the newspapers, to feel involved. To tell the truth, I already felt like a cop. Often on my motorbike I would tail guys whose faces didn’t look so innocent, I imagined criminal designs and went to my uncle’s colleagues to tell them of my suspicions.
One day the press gave broad coverage to the news that police commissioner De Mario had established a special police squad called the Hawks, “Falchi”.
They were the best cops in the Mobile Unit, and rode powerful motorcycles. Their job was to eradicate crime and they were given carte blanche. I encountered them many times riding around the city. They wore plainclothes and they looked like any other thugs: long hair and beard as was common then. There were three who struck fear in me just by looking at them: at that time I would never have thought that one day I too would become part of the Hawks and work with some of them. There were legendary stories about the group: at the beginning they had the people’s endorsement because they had made the city more livable. The criminals feared them, muggings and robberies decreased considerably, though the killings went on. Hanging around my uncle’s offices, I saw that while many cops were proud of that special unit, others spoke critically of them.
“People don’t respect them, they fear them,” some said, “at this rate no one will be able to stand the sight of us cops anymore.”
I was silent but I thought that those were the comments of evaders, made by those who lacked the courage to go out on the street and risk their lives.
It was 1974 when they shot the Hawk Lorenzo Messina. There had been an execution right in the city center, he chased the killer, there was an exchange of gunfire. The gunman was killed while the policeman was seriously wounded. In the days that followed I devoured newspaper and TV accounts as never before, and I went to my uncle’s more often than usual to hear reports and listen to his colleagues’ comments. I decided to go to the hospital where Lorenzo Messina had been admitted. I parked my motorbike under the stern gaze of several uniformed policemen and various Hawks. I made it up to the first floor without much difficulty. I was very excited. I knew immediately where Messina was since two more policemen were posted in front of his room, a fierce scowl on their faces. It seemed like they were waiting for the first person to appear, to vent all their rage over their wounded colleague. I took some deep breaths, feeling like I was under observation. I walked slowly, to screw up my courage, glancing into the rooms as if I were looking for someone. Those few moments of hesitation seemed like an eternity. Finally I went over to the two cops: I told them I was an acquaintance of the wounded man and wanted to pay him a visit.
They asked me a lot of questions, then, convinced that I could not be a bad guy, they let me go in. The room was dimly lit, there was a strong smell of alcohol and a strange silence. The three Hawks in the room watched me with some suspicion.
One of them had a long, thick mustache: “Cu si, chi voi?, who are you? what do you want?”
I was terrified, what would happen if the victim told them he didn’t know me? Lorenzo turned to look at me. I whispered to him that I was an admirer of his and wished him a speedy recovery: I stood there for thirty eternal seconds. Then I said goodbye to everyone in a low voice and slipped out. It was dramatic and breathtaking, I had been close to one of my heroes.
The years passed, my 18th birthday started to approach, but not everything was going right. My parents wouldn’t hear a word about letting me become a policeman. In the ’70s the police were the favorite targets of terrorists and common criminals; then too my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps as a sales rep. I would have earned five times more than the salary of a policeman, but I wanted to wear the uniform at all costs. Furious family arguments marked those years, and many times my father went so far as to raise his hands. I spent whole days shut up in my room, but my parents’ attitude only reinforced my desire to leave home, choose my own calling, become a man. The threshold of turning 18 would change my life and mark my future for better or worse.
For a long time I collected all the crime pages of the local newspapers, especially those about the killing of law enforcement agents. In the years 1975-1980, the shooting was done mostly by terrorists, Red Brigades and NAR (armed revolutionary squads), and many were killed. In my journal, along with a class assignment that hadn’t gone well, a kiss for my girlfriend, a session at the gym and an argument with my parents, there was also room for the dates and circumstances concerning the killing of the day. It was as if I were experiencing those moments myself, the shooting, the man facing death, the heartache of his family members. If it happened to me, my parents would die as soon as they heard the news.
The thing that struck me the most in these situations was people’s indifference. I spoke about it with my parents, and their conclusion was always the same: “U viri comu i mazzunu, you see how they kill them? and you want to do this rotten job, e tu voi fari stu travagghiu schifosu, it doesn’t matter what we think...”
Finally, in March ’79, I submitted my application to join the police force.
Four months later, a preliminary screening took place in Catania. They came to see me and had me take several tests. Everything went very well. In January 1980, Chief Andreini of the Security Division of the State Police telephoned me at home: I was to appear in Rome on February 4 for medical exams and psychological and aptitude testing.
I was in seventh heaven, my parents’ bitterness did not matter much to me. The only person who shared my happiness was my uncle, the cop.
When I arrived in Rome on the 4th, I felt like I was living a dream, it was the first time I was traveling alone, my first experience as a man. In my hand I had a small suitcase with the few things I would need for the four days of testing. I could still see my mother’s sad gaze at the time I left, her faint smile as I said goodbye and then her abundant advice: “Be careful, non ghiri na zoni brutti, stay out of bad areas, don’t catch cold, non pigghiari friddu, did you take your toothbrush?”
My father was less gruff than usual, maybe he was beginning to accept it. All in all, to be able to tell his friends that his son was a policeman wasn’t too bad.
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