a story in Alison’s chapbook If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
lovingly reprinted with images in Nowhere Magazine where it was a Fall 2018 Travel Writing Contest Finalist
If you are an American Italophile walking through Rome’s former Jewish Ghetto on your first two-week vacation in the city, you might notice Attilio Pavoncello: the squeak of his motorino re-ree-reeing down Portico D’Ottavia Street; the short dark rider with oak trunk arms and round, deep-sea-diver-huge helmet; his wide smile. You might be curious about the smile, the same smile he wears whenever he says: “Out of necessity comes virtue; it’s all water under the bridge,” one of his favorite truisms.
Think of the bridge as Ponte Fabricio, “The Bridge of the Jews,” the Tevere River flowing underneath, filthy. The Tevere snakes through Rome, yellow, surfaced with beer bottles, condoms, goat corpses, scum, a viscous liquid stirred by eels and carp still alive in its waters. Try seeing Attilio’s life as not so different from the lives of these miraculous river fish, for which survival in the muck—in the flusso di Roma, the ebb and flow of Rome—is everything.
Now imagine the traffic on the Tevere under Attilio’s proverbial bridge two millennia ago: barges delivering timber, oil, fish and stone from conquered Mediterranean colonies; Jewish merchants, arriving from Alexandria to settle on the river’s west bank, Tras-tevere, beyond the Tevere; a ship from Jerusalem bringing Jewish prisoners—possibly Attilio’s ancestors—chained together to be paraded down the city’s streets as spoils. Imagine a rich, Jewish, Trastevere merchant buying freedom for the first Roman Pavoncellos.
If, by chance, you walk by Attilio’s woodshop, you might hear his baritone voice accompanying a tape of a Neapolitan crooner. You will probably pop your head in the half-open door, enjoy the sea of sawdust inside, say hi.
“Hello Joe,” he will reply and tell you how American soldiers taught him English.
If you are a woodworker, too, you might ask to see his work. Attilio will demonstrate how he glues used scraps of wood together to make planks for his built-in shelves and cabinets. You will admire his use of recycled materials.
If you ask to assist Attilio during your vacation, you will probably end up sitting behind him on his motorino, balancing boards, tools, and a cabinet with your arms as he drives across the river. Together, you two will haul everything up flights of stairs to his customer’s apartment. Attilio will punch holes with an awl, twist screws in by hand. The wood might split; the screws might not hold well; but the installation will be quick.
If the cabinet is too big, you will help Attilio pull it apart, watch him cut it down with a handsaw to make it fit, hear him tell the cabinet: “Mortacci tue, death to your family.”
Now picture how the yellow Tevere once flooded Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, gated in 1555. On the river’s east bank by the Fabricio Bridge, river spills submerged rickety Ghetto homes up to their third floors, incubated the plague and malarial mosquitoes. Papal law forced Jews inside—including Attilio’s ancestors—to pay high taxes, live under curfew, rag pick, and wear hats more yellow than the Tevere.
In 1938, when Attilio turned thirteen, seventy years had past since Italy had freed itself from Papal rule, demolished the Ghetto and built walls on the Tevere’s banks to prevent flooding.
If you spend the rest of your vacation as Attilio’s assistant, he will probably tell you about his adolescence.
“I swam in the Tevere,” Attilio might say, during a coffee break. He, his parents and his many siblings, lived in a one-room apartment in Trastevere. They were very poor, shared beds and clothes, and drank fresh water from the fontanella outside.
“Water was my lunch.” He was always hungry.
His father, Vittorio, sold merchandise on the street. After Mussolini’s Racial Laws took away all Jewish vendors’ licenses, Vittorio worked illegally, wheeling around a cart of empty boxes with two ties on top to feign a full inventory. Since the Racial Laws also prohibited Jews from attending public school, thirteen-year old Attilio helped his father earn extra money. Clients handed over their Sheffield pens; Attilio fixed them, secretly replacing their gold tips with parts made of durium. Then he sold the gold to a jeweler for fourteen lire each. Attilio gave the money to his mother to buy groceries for lunch. “A little relief.”
In April, 1944, German soldiers took Attilio’s father away. The family stored his cigarettes inside the drawer of his nightstand, in case he might return for them. Daily, Attilio checked the cigarettes. Two months later, American troops liberated Rome. But the cigarettes remained untouched. Vittorio had died in Auschwitz.
“We did not become homeless barboni,” Attilio might add. “We all succeeded in life.”
If you sit behind Attilio on his motorino after another job in Trastevere, he might tell you about the Trastevere signore with the cabinet shop, how Attilio’s mother pushed him to ask the man for an apprenticeship. He was paid five lire a week.
“I found the work easy.” After a couple of years, he opened a shop of his own in Trastevere.
Then Attilio fell in love. He crossed the Tevere to live with his new wife’s family in the former Jewish Ghetto. He set up a workshop close by and built the shop’s table saw with a used motor.
Imagine returning to Rome year after year to work with Attilio and listen to his stories, until the trip when, to see him, you must visit him in the hospital on Tiburina Island, just across the Fabricio Bridge from his neighborhood of sixty years.
From his hospital bed, Attilio will stick out his tongue at the terrible food, joke about the old man snoring in the next bed. You will both say nothing about the tubes in his body, his oxygen mask, his weakened heart.
Afterwards, already missing Attilio, you will walk to the bank of the Tevere. The yellow-green, murky water below will reflect the flusso di Roma, the ebb and flow of Rome.