Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Writing On the Wall and A Neighborhood Curse

"It's not true," my eight-year-old son, Sandro, declared as soon as he saw me pause a few days ago to read the sign pictured above.

Rain-proofed inside a plastic sheath, it's posted on the tall iron fence surrounding a large private garden in our neighborhood, and it refers to the mimosa plant behind it, well inside the fence. The sign announces that underneath the mimosa plant a black cat was buried, so that anyone who steals the flowers will be carrying away with him or her not only the flowers but, basically, a big bouquet of bad luck as well.

In a city too often dismissed as--and also celebrated for--being nothing but an unreal or incredible spectacle, in which no real people actually live, handwritten signs like the above appear as small eruptions of the local substratum that persists beneath the touristic surface.

The most common and most uniform of such eruptions are the death announcements that even day-trippers can't help but notice taped to walls in various parts of the city, each with its color image of the deceased, his or her full name and nickname, and age at death. These are traditional public notices that are--in a city in which the number of tourists on most days dwarfs the number of residents--becoming ever more private in their significance.

Where once they would have merely confirmed what the vast majority of residents in a given neighborhood already knew, they now call to mind one of Marcel Proust's favorite myths: the old Celtic belief that the soul of a dying person becomes captive in some animal, plant, or thing and is:
thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life.
In a city overwhelmed by tourists the odds of any given passerby recognizing the deceased become ever more slim, and the chance that the deceased might "overcome death" in the memory of one who knew him or her becomes ever more remote.

These death notices evoke and invoke a vital local community that the vast majority of people now in Venice on any given day become aware of only in these literal signs of that community's quite literal demise. They learn of it just in time to wave good-bye.

But in certain neighborhoods there are other signs, handwritten like the one above, oriented toward the local present, or even the local future, rather than to memory. Sometimes in our neighborhood they take the form of political screeds or political satire, with the mayor (whoever happens to be in office at the time) or the city council or Renzi as its targets. Sometimes the target is much closer to home: like a recent one about the directors of the nearby marina.

Last fall my son and his neighborhood friends taped up their own handwritten sign announcing open auditions for a film they were planning to make. Inspired by their discovery of a mysterious circular pattern in the grass--which adults might have assumed was left behind by the riding lawnmower of a city worker, but which the kids knew was evidence of a flying saucer landing--they began pre-production of L'Alieno Segreto, or The Secret Alien. They had a screenwriter, director, and cinematographer (with his smart phone camera) in place, and had cast the title role (Sandro), but still needed to fill other roles.

They paid the local tabaccheria to photocopy their original handwritten notice and posted a half-dozen of them around the neighborhood. The signs gave a synopsis of the project, a list of its principal participants, and directed aspiring actors to the campo in which they'd recently set-up their open-air production office, with its conference table made of a very large flattened cardboard box resting upon two other cardboard boxes. They provided a great many irregularly sloping blank lines for actors to sign up, and announced, in large capitals, that the tryouts were NOT OPEN TO ADULTS.

They neglected, however, to specify a date and time for the auditions.

No one signed up. And as some rainy days and colder weather arrived (compromising their production office), and hostilities broke out among the crew (between one boy and girl in particular, who regularly battle like the pre-pubescent stars in the opening act of a romantic comedy), the film project--like so many film projects--collapsed. Or perhaps was simply displaced in their interest by the new pulley and rope one boy introduced into the group, which became the new focal point of their play. 

But what struck me about their sign--as well as those handwritten political declarations posted by a few neighborhood adults--was the implicit assumption of an audience for it. That there are still enough residents in our neighborhood, at least, if not in many others, as to make all those blank spaces awaiting names not simply the most fantastical and impossible part of their project. There are still a lot of kids in our neighborhood, I see them playing every day. And there are still a lot of residents--or, rather, enough--who will stop to read a hand-written screed or satire and, no matter how localized the subject matter, understand its point (if not necessarily agree with it).

I suppose what I'm struck by is an assumed sociability unlike any I've known in the US, whether living in a densely populated urban area of apartment houses or a less-populated neighborhood of houses--and no matter how much any given neighborhood we've lived in has boasted of its "community spirit."

But this is a topic that's far too big to get into here, and full of paradoxes and contradictions, besides. More generally, I take such signs in this "dying" city to be signs of life, with their assumption of a local audience and aspirations toward some future project--whether the unseating of a disliked mayor or L'Alieno Segreto.

But to return to the sign with which this post began: one of the oddest things about it is that the plant is set far enough back from the fence as to be impossible to reach its flowers through it. And the fence is so high it's impossible to reach them from over it. So that as alluring as all those yellow flowers may be--especially in March, when they are the customary gift of International Women's Day--I can't imagine that any passerby has ever succeeded in actually getting at them. The sign seems gratuitous, as though its writer were creating a curse simply for old time's sake (recalling when such things were more common), or to keep in practice for some future occasion when one might really be needed.

Or perhaps it's intended as a parable; one of those ancient kind that warns that anything beautiful and desired and acquired too easily by trespass--whether Helen of Troy or a pot of gold--delivers more in the way of disaster than blessing.

At the very least it's kind of like a very short bit of storytelling, whose aim is to create an urban legend.

Maybe that's why I like it. It's certainly had an effect. Sandro insists adamantly (too adamantly) that it's not true, but in a tone both frightened and intrigued by the possibility that it might be. He argues that as his friend's grandparents who live right nearby know nothing of a buried black cat or curse, and that the lawn beneath the tree looks like the lawn everywhere else in the yard, with no sign of recent burial, it can't be true. And yet the seed of a legend has been planted, and I suspect that the very kids who are busy denying it now will be the same ones who propagate it, carry it into the future: keeping this curious neighborhood curse alive for as long as tourism--its own golden promise predicated often enough on easy trespass--doesn't destroy the social conditions of its germination and growth.


  1. The UFO ring project your son worked on sounds fun. It could also be a fun to see a film of the curse being played out. Maybe someone manages to reach far enough through the fence to pick the flower and is followed by bad luck. A documentary on this subject would be fascinating.

    1. I was curious about how their film project would turn out, but just as it seemed to come out of the blue, so it has disappeared into the blue. Film no longer seems to be on the kids' minds these days, but school is still in session and maybe when summer comes their inspiration will return.

  2. Some of these paper signs are really touching - here is the one I photographed in Carrara 5 years ago. Somehow I'm almost sure Massimo andd Emanuela are still married.

    1. Well, their marriage must have at least outlasted the sign, which seems especially vulnerable on that post rather than flat against a wall.

      Whenever I visit your blog, Sasha, none of the images are visible and the links to them don't work. Am I doing something wrong?

    2. Hi, Steve! If you visit my LiveJournal at the Opera browser the pictures are not visible. And at my Venetian blog - the same story because ImageShack isn't hosting my photos any more. I have anotther blog that works fine - but it's about beer, not Venice :(

    3. Okay, so at least it's not just a problem with my computer or browser. I will check out your beer blog!