One Night in Livorno

It starts with children stealing in the Jewish quarter. It always does, I realise, but it's a part of stories often skimmed over or omitted entirely. These are the sons of bankers and lawyers, you know. These kids are just looking for the broad avenue of purpose before an ever-accelerating train brings them to the narrow alleys of maturity, and they are narrow, sorrowful alleys indeed, let me say.

A lot of thieves steal for the sheer thrill of it, not out of any kind of need. Need is a gauge to be filled; desire is this fountain of unbounded freedom and fulfilment, and the young drink from its cascading nectar-sweet waters until it wearies or, more likely, kills them. Depending on where you come from, that's what's called fate, or perhaps the balance of nature.

So, little Agostino asks a jeweller for scrap, which sends the wrinkled man to the back of the shop. Twenty seconds is more than the boy needs to deftly swipe the two gold rings, the jade pendant and the fine silver crucifix. Maurizio, the wider of the two, waits outside on the scooter, kickstand up, engine still on. Agostino is too light and skinny to keep the vehicle upright when it isn't moving.

The pair race off as the jeweller turns his head to the vacant counter. The kids make a dozen turns, winding up and around slender cobbled roads until they reach the nook of a backstreet. There they meet up with the other boys already comparing their illicit harvests, chattering like the magpies they are before curfew, before mothers hang out of windows and bellow their children's names, threatening to deny them supper.

It has become too much, though. The bakers have had enough and the pawnbrokers have had enough and the jewellers—well, the jewellers have most certainly had enough. Maybe it was the time and place, no more, or perhaps it was something greater, something deeper. That would be for the intellectuals to decide, for Agostino and Maurizio's little heist on an ubiquitously pleasant Mediterranean evening shatters, or at the very least greatly confuses, the city of Livorno.

The jeweller takes to the town square yelling curses. The fathers and the elders and the rabbi with his walking stick come to the streets. The jeweller demands to know why these sons of theirs would disrespect their families, would cause so much trouble. The husbands look at their wives in the windows and the wives look at the grandmothers in the other windows, each and every one of them clueless. A great argument ensues. They neglect to wear their yarmulkes! They do not learn their prayers!

The Italians revolt—chaos. They believe the revolution has begun, although its purpose is yet to be decided. As with all their endeavours, it is impassioned; you might mistake the fervour for a night of fierce lovemaking. The men dress themselves all in white, ostensibly the colour of purity—purification, some might say. They rush to and fro with wide belts of ammunition slung over their shoulders, ammunition for machine guns. Why do they need machine guns? Rather: where did all the machine guns come from?

There is a view among some that the Italians are somewhat lazy. In truth, they sleep as often as they do in order to sustain their frequent and lyrical outbursts. There is also a view among perhaps more that the Jews are a greedy people, although those who think so have clearly never met a goy.

Cars stop suddenly, are abandoned, looted, trashed, set afire. One van has crashed on its way to the dockside warehouse for the shipments going out at dawn. Its back doors are wide open, and two identical Marilyn Monroe impersonators perch on the cardboard boxes within. They've opened one and now delicately finger the cigarettes they've relieved from a carton in the box. They ask me for a light with a blasé look, eerie and simultaneous. I don't even have matches on me, so apologise quietly and move on.

The sound of distant gunfire rattles over the city and out to sea. They'll likely blame the Jews for the time being, but a tourist can't get in the way of an insurrection, let alone an Italian one. Giustizia!, they cry, and I will hear it intermingled with errant rat-tat-tats echoing down the streets until the sun rises over strange Livorno. I can't tell at this point if the uprising will be over by breakfast, if I will have bread with olive oil and wine with the overnight revolutionaries on the terrazza. I can't say what became of little Agostino and Maurizio. I only know that I came here to holiday, for my work in Boston was exhausting, and my doctor told me I was suffering from stress. I was to at most practise poetry and go for strolls up into the wonderful hills. It would pain me greatly to know that I, in visiting Livorno, caused this awful mess to happen.

Of course, I don't like to mislead. I can't say that the 1953 Italian Revolution began here or even happened at all, and I haven't actually been any farther south than Milan.