Guardians of the Sacred Chapter Nine

Antonio (Part One)

Antonio preferred to remain anonymous. I am not sure why because he only had positive things to say about the church he had lived in and had looked after over the last three decades. The vendors across the street, who sold everything from paintings to vegetables, introduced me to him, warning me that he carefully guarded his church. They said that although he knew a lot, he would not easily converse with me. When I first approached him, Antonio quickly said he had nothing of interest he could tell me. I explained that I was not interested in facts pertaining to the history of the church, which I could easily find in books. Instead I wanted to know that which only he knew about by being there. Antonio insisted that he could not help me. I once again insisted that he could. He mentioned that his church printed some excellent books on the historical heritage of Naples. He suggested that given my interest in historical monuments, I would appreciate these books for their beautiful pictures and detailed explanations.

“The books are printed on a need-by-need basis by a volunteer association that looks after this church,” he said. “There are three different books you can choose from. You can buy them all here directly from me. Each time I sell them, I’m happy that I gave a hand by selling one more copy. It’s all done to help the church. All the profits derived from the sale of the book go directly to cover the costs of maintaining the church.”

Without offering any further explanation, Antonio said that he could not receive me in the afternoon. He told me to come back the following morning when he usually had more time.

“When you come back tomorrow,” he said, “come directly to the back. Ring and I will come get you.”

I arrived early that morning to make sure that Antonio would find the promised time to speak to me. He looked very surprised to see me, as if he did not expect me to return. His expression hinted that the fact that I had come back did made him feel more than a bit important.

When I rang the doorbell, he quickly opened the unmarked door in the back of the church. Antonio was visibly in a rush; he mentioned that their official opening time had already passed yet he still had to open its front gates to the public. Given that he had asked me to come back, it was too late for him to turn me away, so he signaled for me to go to the front and wait for him there. When he arrived from the back, Antonio quickly delivered precise instructions to the six or so volunteers and employees of the different groups that worked in the church. He made it clear that he was to be the only person to go downstairs until the church opened. I understood that he was busy and that I would have to wait, so I leisurely walked around the building.

When I caught sight of Antonio again, he held a large coarse broom in his hand as he smoked his cigarette. He forcefully swept the front steps of the facade, partaking in that automatic morning neighborhood custom. Common belief in that part of the city dictates that it is still your duty to sweep your little corner. If everyone adheres to this prevailing philosophy, the street is cleaned. Antonio, who was thoroughly engaged in removing the thick balls of dust that had accumulated on the steps, pretended not to see me. Maybe he hoped that eventually I would get tired of waiting or would have to go somewhere else and simply leave. I had to linger in front of him for a long time before he finally suggested that I browse through the books. He had already displayed them on the front table of the church.

I returned with a purchased book visible in my hands. I began to loudly turn its pages making sure that Antonio could see me from where I stood on the front steps. I still hoped that since he made me come back, he would answer my questions. As he walked back inside holding his broom in his hand, Antonio said he was ready to meet with me, but I would have to go around the block and discretely ring the doorbell. I had explained to him that I was not a journalist and that this was not an exposé, but he insisted in conducting our meeting with the utmost secrecy. The whole time we spoke so furtively that I felt as if we were planning a plot to overthrow a government or as if he believed that I intended to sell these secrets to WikiLeaks.

I followed his directions and rang the doorbell of the back entrance for the third time. Antonio appeared in front of the door and led me into the kitchen of his home office, which is located inside the back building of the church. He worked there, but he also lived there. He spent most of his personal life in that one room, which had a glass door and windows that gave onto the hallway of the church building. The whole day, except for when he slept in the bedroom he had created upstairs, he was in full view of everyone who worked in the church. A woman who had been waiting around with me quickly followed me inside. While we waited for him to open the door, the woman informed me she was in charge of cleaning the church.

Antonio threw me a quick gesture, which symbolized in their language that I was to remain quiet while she was there. If Antonio was overly cautious, I quickly learned that the woman was simply curious. She was in there every day and she knew Antonio rarely spoke to visitors. As Antonio began to discretely divulge the odd details about his life, she realized that the conversation over coffee clearly was about more than just the church. Indeed she wanted to know why I was interviewing him. Like most of those who work in Naples’s churches, she believed that foreigners only come to Naples to photograph its immortal treasures. They rarely, if ever, care to speak with the people in there today. She also really wanted to know what he could possibly have to say.

Once we sat around the wooden kitchen table, Antonio spent at least the first thirty minutes making us coffee. This was going to be the first of probably at least six coffees I would surely consume that day. Drinking coffee in Naples is a requirement if you want to talk to people. It is the least common denominator, or great equalizer, of the city’s otherwise diverse population. Approaching people with an espresso in hand does not mean one is attempting to buy something from them, but instead it represents something along the lines of approaching them in a gesture of peace. Everyone there likes coffee. If for some reason you do not like coffee, like me because I suffer from horrible stomach ulcers, people are greatly offended. It is not the coffee that you are turning down, but rather their friendship you are refusing.

Even so, I never saw anyone turn their routine morning coffee break into as laborious a ceremony as Antonio did. If you live outside of Italy, chances are you rarely ever see coffee being made other than by pressing the button of a machine that is plugged into a wall. Antonio took his time to make his coffee the very old fashioned way. My thoughts wandered as I observed him meticulously remove the coffee spoonful by spoonful from a faded metal tin to place it into one of those traditional Neapolitan caffettieras, or coffee pots, mostly seen in black and white Totò movies of the fifties. For what must have been a very long time, Antonio measured and flattened the brown powder with the attention of an alchemist. He stopped once; the tightly packed mound of coffee had reached slightly above the metal rim of the pot. I realized that about thirty minutes had passed before he asked me if I cared for any sugar in my coffee. I peeked through the glass door and saw that the woman was still standing there, waiting. Another woman in heavy makeup with dyed blond hair had joined her. I finally said that I preferred to take it black.

Once he had poured the coffee, Antonio stepped outside to hand the women two plastic cups. They persisted to linger around the entrance, so Antonio decided that it was appropriate to close the door con permesso. They could still see us through the glass.

“You know how people are around here,” he whispered. “They don’t do it because they mean ill, but it’s just that they want to know what’s going on in other people’s business all the time. The problem is then they talk about the things they think they saw.

“At eleven every morning I make coffee for all of them. It’s our little habit around here to take this short coffee break,” he said as he arranged our cups meticulously on a tray.

He placed a porcelain espresso cup in front of me. I politely thanked him. I sipped the coffee, expecting for it to be bitter. Instead it was more than a little sweet. Seeing that I had finished my coffee, he offered to refill my cup. I accepted with a smile.

“Everyone can make coffee, but making it perfectly right is a real skill. But you’re in luck. It’s a well-known fact among everyone around the neighborhood that I’m an expert coffee maker,” he said with a large grin. Caffettiere doc (which roughly translates to a born coffee maker), is the precise term in Italian he used to refer to his acquired title.

“You said you take your coffee sweetened, right?” he asked as he poured the remainder of the caffettiera into my cup.

“Of course.”

“See I was not supposed to do this,” he said as he began to turn to his own story. “I sort of stumbled onto this by chance. Coincidence. However you wish to phrase it. By trade I was supposed to be a goldsmith.”

I asked him what he meant by the fact that he had a predestined vocation. He explained that he came from several generations of goldsmiths. His father had arranged for all of Antonio’s seven or eight brothers and sisters to work together to design and sell jewelry. One of them would be responsible for cutting the gemstones, while the other would mold the gold and so forth.

Antonio and his siblings were forced to abandon the plan because it became a very dangerous business. Once their jewelry acquired notoriety around the region, commissions arrived from all over Italy. There were no means to safely ship the pieces, so individuals were entrusted to secretly deliver jewelry from the goldsmith to the commissioning family. If these individuals were identified and discovered to be carrying commissions, they were sought out, followed, and often murdered.

“When we were children, we had two thefts that took place right in the shop. It was a different time back then. I saw the men with my own eyes. They were fully armed and they wore black hoods over their heads like you see in movies. They made us stand in a corner and took everything we had. It leaves you with an awful memory each time and instills in you the inevitable fear of when it will happen again. I was young, but I had already witnessed enough. I finally worked up the courage to tell my father what I really thought—that we should give up everything and all do something else. Even if it meant losing everything my ancestors had worked for, the risks were just too high. It was just not worth it; it was not worth living like that.”

I nodded, agreeing with him that living in fear was no way to live.

“So I had to forge my own way.”

In the meantime, a man had poked his head through the window several times. After multiple attempts, he worked up the courage to interrupt our conversation to ask for a particular office of the church. “Fourth floor,” Antonio indicated. He quickly added, “The elevator is free.” To most people that is expected, but in Naples, where the majority of elevators require at least ten cents to function, it is not to be taken so much for granted.

So when Antonio had completed his obligatory military service, someone in the neighborhood informed him of the vacancy in the church. They were looking for a custodian because the previous one had passed away. The year Antonio arrived, the church was not what it was when I visited it in 2013. It was falling apart. For many years after Antonio moved into the premises, the church was indefinitely closed to the faithful for renovation. In that vast, empty church, Antonio had spent not one but twelve years in solitude. Only a priest arrived every day from somewhere far away for some reason, precisely at seven every morning, to say his mass. Every day Antonio would wake up in time to let him in.

“That was when I moved here from the provinces to work for this church. I have lived most of my life within these walls. I raised my own family in here. Nothing is better than peace of mind,” he said. I finally understood the reason behind Antonio’s firmness of character, which could have easily been misinterpreted as a fault. Indeed Antonio was unwavering, but it had nothing to do with how he related to other people. He had developed this rigidity of character as his way of protecting the church the same way he believed it had long protected him.

Antonio looked around the room, which consisted of a kitchen adorned with tiles, pine furniture, and neon lighting. The only decoration on its walls was a large silver frame, which enclosed a wedding photograph. The man in the picture looked too different to be the man standing in front of me; hence, I assumed it must have been his son. Antonio, however, corrected me, telling me that the picture had been taken the day of his wedding, only a year before he took up his duties as custodian. Time had visibly altered him even though he had spent the entirety of those years since the photograph had been taken in that very same place. Despite the thirty­degree weather outside, the place felt awash with that indescribable dampness conferred by thick walls and small windows. It was only the large clock that hung above the frame of the door that allowed you to make any connection with time in the external world.

“All this,” he said, “was not here when I arrived in the early eighties.”

He got up, lit his cigarette, and walked over to one of the corners of the square room. He stopped in front of the exact spot where he had made our coffee, where the stovetop stood the year I first visited the premises.

“This,” he said gesturing up and down with both his arms in front of the corner, “was a urinal. There was not even a proper bathroom when I first moved into this place.

“I was in shock. I came from out there in the countryside, where my family had long since had a bathroom equipped with a bathtub, and then moved here, in the heart of Naples, the region’s capital, where there was not even a running toilet. Everything you see here,” he said looking around proudly, “I put in myself. They told me the place came without any luxuries. I made most of the things you see around here. I made this place into what it is.”