On the island of Sicily—a ragged, beautiful, ancient place—we signed up for a day-trip to the (equally complex) city of Palermo. We boarded a mini-van with a handful of other couples; they were German and French. Our guide was a young man named Alex. He wore a floppy canvas hat and threadbare khakis, spoke good English and French, and offered a simple narrative in alternate languages as we drove along the coast: about the problematic, dramatic history of the island, about more current problems (the Fiat plant closing and putting hundreds out of work), and about the complicated reality of the Mafia—how they weren’t necessarily clever or more powerful than everybody else, but had enjoyed protection from, among others, the American government when it thought the Mafioso could help it fight Communism.
“They are victims, too,” Alex said quietly.
Everything about him was quiet, unassuming. He never showed off, claimed no possessiveness of the island, its glories, nor about its special problems. Yet it was clear he knew and loved the area very well. He stated calmly that Palermo was in no way as dangerous as gossip suggested but that one should simply, as in any city, be mindful of the occasional pickpocket.
He had the touching habit of enunciating the past-tense suffix “-ed.” “Are you tired?” came out as tie-red.
He led us through messy, vibrant markets, past old horsecarts painted with bright illustrations of famous historic wars, and into two of the most beautiful cathedrals we’ve ever seen. Alex walked slowly, patiently. He knew the proprietors at several sites, duly announcing the today-only sale of their special-rate guidebooks, clearly as an agreed-upon favor to them. He even knew one of the local crazy men who lingered, attracted and confused, near the group. “Next time,” Alex told the man soothingly as we passed.
Nothing about this young man was flamboyant, self-aggrandizing, or unkind. We knew he probably owned not much more than the clothes he wore.
At day’s end, being driven back along the coast and listening to Italian opera, the people who formed our tour group passed a baseball cap for bits of money as a good tip for Alex, and sent it forward to him.
Softly, he thanked the group.
That’s when my husband said this:
“There should be Guggenheims for people like him. Someone should come along and just say, Here’s forty grand: keep doing what you’re doing.”
È vero. It’s true.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just won the Silver ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.