Reckoning with the Impact of the Camorra on My Family’s Livelihood

John Domini on Life Within “The System” in Naples

Naples has a downtown as old as any in the West, but for me it’s the locus of renewal. In the centro storico, byways still follow the routes the Greeks laid out thirty centuries ago, and since then the city has been shaped by ruling orders from SPQR to NATO. Then there’s my little slice amid the strata. That began early last century, as my father grew to adulthood under first the Fascists, then the Nazis. When the Americans arrived, Enzo Domini glimpsed his future; an economic refugee, he built a life in the States. His kids all visited his former home, but I turned out to have the Neapolitan gene. As I approached 40 and my American comforts came crumbling down—my career and marriage both falling apart—I sought out the old seaport. Immersed in its sediments, I found uplift, a cleansing change of perspective. I drummed up funds however I could, and wangled visits sometimes as short as a week. Often I bunked with the Naples family. Lucky man, I got some free meals.

The relations I relied on most were two cousins, brothers, my generation. I’ll call the older, more thickset, Marcaurelio; for the younger, lighter on his feet, Nando will do. Their actual names I can’t use, and I’m also glad my father changed his, when he became a US citizen. Both the Naples men are educated professionals, the older a doctor and the younger an engineer. Both enjoy long, solid marriages, each with a single child and an active social circle. Really, my uncle’s two sons seem the sort of citizens on which a livable city depends. Nevertheless, as I worked through my midlife crisis (just once, I’ll allow the expression), I found myself living with theirs—the damage done by the Camorra.

If Americans have heard of the Neapolitan Mafia, it’s largely thanks to Roberto Saviano. Born and raised in the city, Saviano now lives in hiding, under police protection. His 2006 exposé, Gomorrah, became a worldwide bestseller, prize-winning movie, and a hit series (in the US, on Netflix). This success owes something to shock value. Our investigator never flinches, not even back at age 13, when he comes upon his first mob victim. The man was struck in his car, and Saviano recalls how the body had been spun by the gunfire, so the legs poked out the door toes down. Later, in the text’s main action, clan rivalries sow ever more destruction, in run-up to the Secondigliano Wars of 2004-05.

“When you see so much blood,” claims Saviano, ”you start touching yourself, to check that you haven’t been wounded too…; you get into a psychotic state.” This traumatized state is the book’s larger subject, only hinted at in film or TV. “The System,” as the crooks themselves call it, sends its chill across all greater Naples. I suffered the tremors myself, downtown or out on the periferia. In particular, I grew weary of a certain refrain.

“We’ll always have the Camorra,” I heard.

Fatalistic, not to say uncaring, the phrase evokes a more shadowy and insidious criminal. It points to the comfortable end user, the “men of impeccable reputation.” Law-abiding as they appear, these fronts derive juicy benefits from the thug algorithm of fist, stick, knife, and gun. Some have a rack of designer goods dirt cheap, others immigrant labor even cheaper. Often a seeming paragon of virtue will happily take over a lucrative piece of property torn from its rightful owner.

*

The symbiosis between System and State, the true wickedness in Gomorrah, has always been central to Saviano’s argument. I first read him in the feisty left-wing daily, Il Manifesto, back in ’02. Potent stuff, I thought—and I felt the same about the novels of a woman named Elena Ferrante. I was learning a lot, in other words, in all sorts of places. What I’ve seen of Camorra collusion, the suits hand in hand with the goons, sets me thinking not just of single text, but of a Naples proverb.

Local folk sayings grin at humanity’s base elements. No one’s evolved much beyond the donkey or the chicken. Even a saint, “pure San’Antonio,” even the ascetic St. Anthony, “s’annammuraie d’o puorco”—he can fall in love with a pig. Concerning crime and its enablers, another aphorism fits best: Chi chiagne fott’ a chi ride. “The one crying is in bed with the one laughing.”

More or less; the quip, like all the city’s best, offers many interpretations. It pivots on the verb fottare, for which the most direct translation is the most obscene, fuck, and to fuck of course takes two—as it does to connive or bamboozle. Games of all sorts factor into the meaning, and they lend the expression a certain lightheartedness. The phrasing deconstructs itself, Derrida would have a field day, but then I’m not talking about “grammatology.” Not when a family I love, the one I owe my rebirth, has been torn in two.

*

Saviano was born to his task, a native of Secondigliano. This township out by the airport has long served as the base for the Camorra “Directory,” and early this century leant its name to the mob “Wars.” Yet despite the body count—far lower, it must be said, than on recent summer weekends in Chicago—my cousin Marcaurelio made his home there. As the worst of the violence ended, he relocated to a beachside community a long drive south, but even now he maintains an office on Corso Secondigliano. As COVID-19 ravaged the city, in a troubled ‘hood he remained the doctor of first resort.

Concerning crime and its enablers, another aphorism fits best: Chi chiagne fott’ a chi ride. “The one crying is in bed with the one laughing.”

There’s lots to admire about the man, really—not least how he’s done right by a certain wayward relation from the States. In Secondigliano, I envied the work-life balance, the apartment just three floors up from his studio. Buses and the Metro put downtown Naples in easy reach, and Marcaurelio’s son attended the same school as Saviano had. Just across the Corso, on the old market streets of Baku and Dante, my cousin’s wife Serena would take me shopping. The two of us could’ve strolled into a postcard. Heedless about our string bags, we slipped in and out of bead curtains, chatting up the butchers and fruit sellers. With the pasticceria, we took our time.

Afterwards, at the dinner table, Nando at first joined us often. Less so, over time.

Myself, before long, all my reading had me nervous. Gomorrah describes Dante and Baku as a “thriving market” for drugs: “always hopping… and the pushers are all young kids.” Kids even an American could spot, the youngest perhaps twelve, taking cash for hashish. The contraband suggested a stick of licorice gum, its aluminum wrapper half-unfolded. Enough for a party, I’d say, crumbled into loose tobacco and then rolled into a spinello, a joint. I sampled the wares myself, cold nights downtown. A warming drink would be Aglianico, the Vesuvian red, but you pay for every glass, while cadging a toke is gratis. In Secondigliano, the transaction was brisk but out in broad daylight. After spotting the third or fourth, I brought it up to my hostess.

She responded with a shrug, Kids these days. Marcaurelio followed up in the same vein, worldly and brusque. Over in New York, the way he’d heard it, you had ten-year-olds dealing crack. Here in Naples, in the first place they’d been smoking hashish since the days of the Moors, and in the second—eh. That piece of the business was nickel and dime.

Not that these kids could turn down a dime. Across the Italian South, my cousin reminded me, employment had fallen to horrendous levels, and the young were hit the hardest. Often the only income available was with the malavita (“the bad life,” one case where the simplest translation is best).

“Every family that comes into my office,” he declared, “knows how the System works.”

The mob could always use someone to sling the black goo. Any kid who stepped up, however, both exposed himself to prosecution and worked near the bottom of the pay scale. Almost all the profits went to a guy, who handed most of his to another guy.

“There’s only one job lower,” declared Marcaurelio. “Lo spotter.”

Someone needed to keep an eye out. Some kid with no stomach for risk—and now that my cousin thought about it, while I was poking around the mercato, one of them must’ve been watching me good and close. A grown man, out shopping? In that haircut?

I laughed airlessly, trying.

“But even the spotter,” he went on, “he’s good for eighty Euro a day. Eighty cash, every day. Eh.”

The figures have gone up slightly, since I first got schooled, but the lesson has remained the same. More than once it ended with someone saying We’ll always have the Camorra. Most of the men and women saying this, like both my cousins, don’t lack for education. They’ve tasted a spinello or two, and they realize that the drug trade goes far beyond the nickel and dime. They’ve seen Crack Alley, the housing project known as Le Vele, “The Sails.”

Ten minutes by Vespa from my cousin’s office, the Sails often turned up on film and TV; even Stanley Tucci paid a visit. In 2020 the place at last came down, but its images will linger, almost The Walking Dead. The zombies might be the ones crying, the Camorristi the ones laughing, but an entire city—for all its rewards—shares their filthy bed.

*

I’ve stumbled upon a couple of junkies, around the centro. Each was going into a nod, the tie-off coming loose, and after one encounter I found a cop. Yet he too gave a shrug.

Signore, the poor guy’s no trouble now.

Lost souls like that deliver enormous profits for the “Directory.” The clans have other old reliables as well, like prostitution, plus new ones like the traffic in refugees. Any Neapolitan with half a brain gets how the underground economy works. The most protected of my relatives, throughout my years of recovery, was an aunt who’d spent a career teaching church school; she read the papers on the right, nothing like Il Manifesto. Yet she too could cite the figures for Camorra activity.

The woman was entirely up to speed, as well, on what the crooks need to do with their illegal hoard. They need places to invest. These ventures too should yield a solid return (I mean, they’d better…), but what matters even more was that they appear on the square. How about, for instance, a piece of the government monies for infrastructure? How about the contracts for “waste management?”

Any Neapolitan with half a brain gets how the underground economy works.

The garbage crisis of ’08-’09, smearing muck across the city’s reputation, was the most notorious result of the clans muscling in. The blame, if you ask my cousin Nando, falls squarely on a former mayor. This politico oversaw notable downtown improvements, but his primary legacy may be the garbage in the streets; it was him who handed the job to the bad guys. So insists Nando, along with many others, and they also point to slapdash building projects, put up with funds from Rome or the Regione. One case in point stands outside my aunt’s window. She retired to a quiet patch of ex-urban greenery, a fruit orchard, but before long the trees were torn out. In a single night, too fast for any regulation-minded buttinskis, the site became a car dealership.

Anyone in my family, I’m sure, could’ve explained how this happened. Only one, however, spoke openly.

“The police?” said Nando, apropos of our aunt’s situation. “Sure, she could’ve gone to the police. But then she’d have to pack her bags.”

She’d have to go into hiding, witness protection. Most likely her grown son would’ve needed to join her. Nando laid out the consequences, mincing no words, though we sat in a café by the San Carlo Opera House. He let me know how the trouble starts.

“You have to hire these bastards,” he told me.

I was the one made uncomfortable, there amid the theater crowd. This cousin’s square talk recalls a hard decision he made years ago. He had a musical gift; at the piano, he’d swap off between Beethoven and Thelonious Monk. In college, however, he assessed the arts market coldly and switched to engineering. Call it no-nonsense, call it Neapolitan, he showed the same spirit while telling me how the System takes its pound of flesh.

“They walk in and say, ‘Nice business, very nice. From now on, the payroll includes one of us.’”

I figured there was no point asking about the cops. Rather, it was Nando who brought them up, falling back on another of the local refrains: The police do what they can. He sounded sympathetic, his gesture like a sigh. By and large, Neapolitans could count on the police rank and file. “You read the papers,” said my cousin. “There’s the wiretaps, the arrests.” But for every one of the authorities sweating the evidence, someone in another office sat creating delays or claiming other priorities.

In their case too, I came to understand, the crying and laughing share the same cramped space. If, say, some precinct captain eased off on the System, what he got out of it might not be so simple as an envelope full of Euros. Bribery was my first thought, but Nando corrected me the same way his brother had. In the Italian South, the malavita had no end of leverage. Maybe a lawmaker could use a certain contract, in his district; maybe he believed he was serving the greater good. On the other hand, a bean-counter might need a live-in aide for his Mom.

“Now, the police?” asked Nando. “They do what they can—but where’s the crime?”

Good question, and you could ask the same about the other side of the equation, the entrepreneurs on whom the Camorra lay its heavy hand. Any outfit that refused to play ball was in for trouble, but this too might lie beyond simple legal remedies.

“Maybe some punks kick down the door. Maybe they pull out your wiring and smash the toilet.”

Even if the cops collar the vandals, that arrest is a dead end, and meantime the business faces the expense of repair. Then again, the damage might cost less, but hurt more. A thug might get the point across by breaking into someone’s car and tearing out the child seat.

I tried for sympathy: “Every time one of those types walks in, it must be terrifying.”

“But you must never show fear! You show fear and you wind up with two of their people.”

*

Twenty minutes after that, I should say, I settled in to enjoy one of the local glories. I caught an opera by Mozart on the site where he himself conducted the debut (well, close: across the street). Nando couldn’t join me—again tomorrow morning, he was getting out of town—but he rode home on the new Metro, marvelously efficient and safe. What’s more, each station features its own artwork; Francesco Clemente won awards for the Toledo stop, where my cousin and I said goodnight.

The point is, Naples not only offers timeless gifts, but also new ones. Both the 1990s and the 20-Teens saw surges of urban renewal, boosting quality of life out to the scruffiest reaches of the commuter lines. And doesn’t the exposure for Gomorrah mean the same for the Camorra? Isn’t the Directory suffering constant turnover, lately? On top of that, since the black market depends on a whisper, a touch, it took an awful loss during the COVID lockdowns.

On good days, the Camorra seems like a nagging old civic injury. It’s responding to therapy slowly, but inexorably.

Once or twice, when Neapolitan friends have launched into that old saw, We’ll always have…, I’ve interrupted. Maybe crime is eternal, I’ve said, but not the Camorra. I might point to recent stories of “Nigerian gangs.” The name’s misleading, since Africans of all nationalities work off the books, but the case seems a classic: the outcasts have banded together for protection. They won’t be the last to challenge the establishment, I’m sure.

On good days, the Camorra seems like a nagging old civic injury. It’s responding to therapy slowly, but inexorably. My experience has its limits, granted, but it’s shown me a changing Naples, not so hidebound by tribal ways. Even the Wars of ’04-‘05, though they proved too much for my family, ended with a number of major kingpins either dead or locked up. Such inklings of better give me heart—but then I look again at Nando and Marcaurelio.

*

By the time the doctor finally quit his apartment over the Corso, I could see that his life in Secondigliano had been shrinking a while. I’d been spending nights at his place since the early ‘90s, the start of my Neapolitan Do-Over. In those early days, Nando and I could always arrange lunch, or an aperitivo. But Marcaurelio’s sketchy choice of neighborhood had afforded him far better space.

Shortly before the end of the century, he picked up a boat. A stubby, sturdy thing, in good weather it could make the run over to Ischia or Capri, and once or twice I too clambered aboard. Off our stern, the receding city seemed the beauty of legend. Back in Secondigliano, I’d seen the new health center that paid for the ride.

Marcaurelio had partnered with others, setting up a place that offered a range of services. It even had a gym for physical therapy. In the EU, health care isn’t the golden goose it is in the US, but any doctor will benefit from attracting more clients and sharing expenses. As for the facility, this too stood along the Corso; the boulevard never lacked for abandoned storefronts.

Which suggests something like a silver lining, for a story otherwise unhappy. The site hasn’t tumbled back into disuse. The center continues to operate, though its range of treatments has been cut back, as has the role played by Marcaurelio. These days, he’s just another caregiver. He works in appointments between those at his own small office or out on call. Still, neither he nor his Centro have fallen apart. He hasn’t become one of those ruined professionals, a staple of recent Italian comedy (see, especially, Di Gregorio’s Mid-August Lunch).

Yes, my cousin lost the boat. He and his family had to spend many nights apart as well, and not just before he followed his wife and son south. The commute was too long, many nights, for a doctor in demand. Besides that, his new home was a shared arrangement, a duplex with in-laws. Nevertheless, he maintained his hours and even some stature. Once COVID struck, they may have been no local worker so “essential.”

Before then, however, his downsizing could seem more pronounced each time I came to town. It set off a quivering in my Napoli-tenna. Nando was hardly my only informant, and the intel I was seeing all came to the same. A couple of bruisers must’ve walked into the center on the Corso: Nice business

Marcaurelio, for his part, never let slip a specific word. Concerning lo spotter or Le Vele, he sounded the same as ever, good-natured but unsparing. During the garbage crisis, he too put the finger on the former mayor. But his own situation turned him breezy and evasive, with an Ovidian gift for metamorphosis. The move south? That was a blessing, for his wife’s people as well. Her parents weren’t getting any younger, and besides, look these digs. Look at the beach nearby, the camellias and lemons, the mozzarella ranchlands up the road…. Every time I come home, I go on vacation.

And every time you come to work, I thought, you need to double check the next payment. Better not skimp on the bonuses, either, Easter and Christmas.

As for the money, my father pitched in a bit, doing what he could. What mattered more, I’d say, was the smarts and grace with which Marcaurelio and his wife handled their place down south. By now the duplex provides a second income, the top story a B&B. One summer, I put in a little sweat equity myself. But to learn the invisible costs of the man’s new life, I had to wait till he got a look at mine.

*

Lo, the prodigal settled down. I remarried and committed to a fresh career, in Des Moines of all places, and there—lo, the faraway relation spent a long weekend. The same happy serendipity could’ve included Nando, as well, but by this time he was always off on distant work projects. Was it Israel, that summer? Afghanistan? But Marcaurelio, after sharing so much of Naples with me, at last got a taste of the Heartland. I even found a local limoncellos.

You’d think I was trying to get the man talking.

At that table, we were a decade past the Secondigliano Wars, and another decade at least into a deepening friendship. Thanks to one or the other or both, I learned a new expression: omertìsmo. It derives from omertà, the silence on which the System depends. Marcaurelio declared he hated the term, but he’d long observed its rule, and in Iowa there was no mistaking his tone. His pride.

“I never ask, ‘Where did you get such a wound?’ Never.” He mimicked examining an injury, head down. “It’s up to them, what they care to reveal.”

And why shouldn’t he sound proud, after the mob had followed up extortion with subtler pressures? “They never let up, those types.”

Beautiful women had made appointments, with only the vaguest of complaints. Il dottore, they insisted, needed to give them a thorough examination. More than once they’d pulled their dress off without being asked, yet their ripe flesh wasn’t his only temptation. Also Marcaurelio had some patients clearly well-off, but improbably forgetful. These men would leave behind bundles of Euros.

My cousin hoisted his limoncello, sketching an enormous heap. “Such a bundle, nothing but 500s.”

Then he was slapping his head, playing the doofus who’d come back for his cash. Ah! Ecco!

Marcaurelio had known better than to filch a single bill, and he’d likewise kept hands off the girls. He was much too Neapolitan for that. To the malavita, after all, what did it matter if the neighborhood lost a resource? A good doctor, like the care center he’d set up, was only another venture to bleed dry and discard. Another abandoned storefront, luring in the next guy with big dreams.

In Des Moines, my guest speculated that he’d have become part of the drug trade, writing bad scrip. After that, when the law came knocking, he’d have made a useful fall guy.

“But the money, the women?“ He shook his head.

“If a person had a wound, I treated the wound.” In this way, one injury at a time, he worked towards his best option: a place in the System.

“These days, I’m the one they call. If they have a special case, if they need someone for the wife…”

The wife, no less. I thought of Carmela Soprano, and of the collateral damage done by her gangster story and others: the way they’ve disfigured that word respect. Because what better word existed for my cousin’s rare status? One that allowed him into the home of a murderer? A capo, after all, leads a stunted life. Day after day, he’s cooped up with the same bunch of lugs, and much of the time his wife can’t risk leaving the compound. Under circumstances like those, the doctor offers a breath of fresh air. He expects no extra payment, nothing beyond the rates set in Rome, and he acts as if the bodyguard isn’t there. It’s almost as if natural opposites, one laughing and one crying, were in bed together.

*

Naturally the other sibling came up, during this visit. Nando had joined Marcaurelio and I for some lovely times, in the centro or at the shore—though not recently. The years of my makeover, to either side of the millennium, turned out to coincide with Nando’s withdrawal. In Des Moines, the older brother couldn’t recall the last time he and the younger had so much as sat down for a pizza.

“Nando,” he said, “doesn’t understand how to live in Naples.”

Which echoes, in its chilly way, what Nando himself had told me. He and I managed one more substantial conversation, a year or so before Marcaurelio came to Des Moines. With the younger cousin, though, the setting was Napoli D.O.C. We finished up at the sweeping panorama of city, Gulf, and volcano, the view that launched a thousand postcards. Beforehand, we’d eaten pizza.

There was your System: first usury, then apathy.

Or I had; Nando barely touched his food. Given the HD clarity of hindsight, it looks as if he’d wanted to talk, but at time I’d made nothing of his turning up at the pizzeria alone. His boy was four or five then, quite a handful; better if stayed home with Mama. But why wouldn’t my host take off his overcoat? Granted, this was winter and the place had left the heat off. But that’s the way they do things in Naples, get the ovens roaring and wait for the tables to fill. Nonetheless, the man both kept his coat buttoned and ignored his food, stone-faced. Our server, solicitous, offered to take our picture.

Nando waved him off. “Cugino,” he told me, “whatever you’re looking for in Naples, you can find it without that.”

In the end he gulped down some Aglianico, and he wouldn’t hear of me paying. Not even a Euro, John! I wound up suggesting the viewpoint, about five minutes’ hike, manageable despite the cold. I had half a notion it might cheer him up.

Instead, at first look he started to growl. “This city is sick.”

With a grimace, he swung a gloved finger across the glowing scimitar of the metropolis.

“Sick and dying and full of crooks. The mayor is the biggest crook of them all.”

At least I knew enough to hold my peace, as between vituperation and pantomime, the unhappy story emerged. In midtown Nando had found an abandoned factory, a vast warren, alternating cubbyholes and atriums. He’d tracked down the mortgages and picked up the lion’s share, the general idea the same as his brother’s, some years back: a medical facility. The difference was, since he’d worked so much with infrastructure, he’d figured the goons could never get their hands on a close-in property like this. The center promised the city a major tax base.

“But you should’ve seen the man those bastards put up front,” he said. “The family, the reputation. An impeccable reputation.”

He was attempting to sneer, but a tourist site has good lamplight, and what I saw was mostly pain.

“As soon as they had that clown’s name on the contract, the break-ins started. The robberies.”

The System’s straw man, to be sure, hadn’t put up any of his own money.

“They stole everything they could and they smashed all the rest.”

What did the malavita care if the facility never got up and running? Their money came from Rome, the suits up there sharing a caffé with the one down here, and if the venture failed—eh. What’d they expect, in Naples? This shithouse of a town? The government wrote off the loss and the crooks kept the cash.

In the US, we’ve our own version of the scam. I’d even seen it on Law & Order. In my cousin’s case, he’d hung on longer than expected, and so one night, the goons hit his car.

“My car,” Nando groaned. “They tore out my son’s child seat.”

Enough. He’d gone to the Palazzo Municipio and signed the place away.

*

Before we left the overlook, I made him a mad offer. I told him that if he turned state’s witness, his family would be safe in Iowa.

Now he was the one silenced.

“I-o-wa,” I repeated. “The almighty Camorra, they can’t even spell it.”

A gallows laugh.

“Nando, even in Naples people do such things. Just look at Gomorrah, all eyewitness stuff….”

But in another moment I let it drop. Seeing him so limp before the view, his heavy Domini chin sunk in his collar, I lost heart myself. I felt like no match for the Bad Life, and especially not for the comfy folks who allowed the malignancy to flourish. The ones with a committee post or a registered watermark, they kept making excuses and reaping the benefits. There was your System: first usury, then apathy.

Had I hit the limit of what I could do, in my father’s home? Could I only stand by, helpless, as these brothers drifted apart? In an Italian that sounded suddenly like babytalk, I tried another tack, very American. I suggested he could start over.

Cugino, look at me.” I faced him. “Look—not too long ago, I lost everything. To tell the truth, I can’t think of a worthwhile person who hasn’t.”

Even now as I set down these words, they look like babytalk.

Still: “Your uncle, my father. Don’t you think he lost everything?”

My cousin cut in: “But this is just what I’m thinking. I’m going to get it back.

He was gesturing, his vitriol rising again.

“That’s why I’m never going to the police.”

Two could play this game, Take Away, and over the long haul, he had the advantage. He knew how to run a business. The Camorristi, just give them time, they were bound to mess up. Give them time, and you’d see them out looking for a new investor. Meanwhile, Nando was already making calls.

Up in Turin, he had a colleague in defense. The military could always use a good engineer.

“Defense work,” he said. “Think of the money. There’s even U.N. work, international money. Think of the contract on a base in the Middle East.”

To judge from my cousin’s glare, he’d already gone to a war zone.

“Some piece of shit stuck in Naples, he has no idea. I’ll show them money! I’ll take it back!”

__________________________________________________

Excerpt adapted from John Domini’s new memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father, & Myself, available now via Guernica Editions.

John Domini
John Domini’s latest novel is, The Color Inside a Melon. Coming in 2021 is his memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragù.





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