Italy saved my life.
I first arrived there in the summer of 1969, 14 years old and thousands of miles removed from the streets of my New York City neighborhood. I left behind parents waging a futile battle against a crumbling marriage and a jagged mountain of debt and my closest friends beginning their surrender to the allure of drugs and a life of petty crime and one-way jobs that always follow in their wake.
I didn’t know what I would find in Italy but knew, even at such a young age, that whatever it was it couldn’t be much worse than what I was leaving behind. We lived in a four-room 10th Avenue tenement railroad apartment whose windows cracked and froze during long winter nights and were incapable of capturing even a slight breeze across many a brutal August summer. The night before my flight was to leave for Rome I sat with my mother on the stoop of our building, each of us cooling off with a Puerto Rican shaved ice cone. “You sure you want me to go?” I asked, speaking in Italian since my mother stubbornly refused to learn English, her one rebellious act against an American family and a way of life that for her amounted to little more than a prison sentence.
She nodded and then pointed to the street and the apartment buildings and clusters of neighborhood people milling about doing their best to escape the summer heat. “Do you want this to be the rest of your life?” she asked. “If you do, then stay and your father can find other uses for the money. But if this isn’t want you want, then get on that plane and go to Italy.”
“What’s there that’s not here?” I asked.