Years ago before searching under Castellammare’s crevices, our hotel or Airbnb of choice was paying top dollar to, quite possibly, the least respected family in town. Castellammarese locals practically spit on the ground hearing this family’s name mentioned. They own two of its oldest hotels, a family rarely seen socializing; most believe consumed basking elsewhere in supremacy. Prior to visiting Lampedusa three summers ago we rented a small house in town owned by the wretched family. This little place admittedly had its interior charm; although a boisterous proprietor across the narrow street stopped traffic day and night trying to drum up his business. I had my suspicions he was spying on us for our landlord. Following our abrupt departure, my gut instinct was confirmed after reading an email he sent bolstering his uncle, the hotelier patriarch.
True to form, us Sicilians. When Coppola’s Michael Corleone eventually discovered Fredo betrayed him, that was it; from then on Fredo’s days were numbered. Subsequent to exercising caution, we’re open heart and arms; the second any relationship goes south, a steel door slams shut — ain’t no turning back.
As everyone realizes there are two sides to every coin. Castellammare’s dark side is its deep roots with La Cosa Nostra. Twenty-two years ago, when I first came here Piazza Petrolo wasn’t even paved, decorative water spigots throughout town hadn’t been installed, drivers drove and parked as they pleased; Castellammare’s harbormaster didn’t yet foresee small cruise lines to soon dock — most looking forward to oodles of cash left behind.
In 1995, shortly after checking into our hotel, my mother, Jean and I returned from dinner; the man overseeing this establishment struck up what we thought would be a casual conversation. Within minutes, he took out a few 4 x 6 black and white crime scene photos of some local mob hit. The worn photos depicted a dead man wearing suit, tie and overcoat, gangster brim nearby, featuring an odious head wound oozing blood down his face. Jean didn’t flinch; speaking fluent Sicilian, in so many words told him: we’re from New York, these things happen there all the time — excused herself, going off to bed unimpressed.
We tread lightly walking around Castellammare. Fortunately there is a cardinal rule among made men: “don’t shit where you eat.” Any apprehension should be discarded if ever planning a visit here — Castellammare’s safer than Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Same reason Budweiser, barbecues and fireworks aren’t going away on the Fourth of July, Sicily’s underworld will forever remain woven into government, from Silvio Berlusconi on down, corporate hierarchy, alongside Vatican City. It’s here, just don’t talk about it.A friendly grocer told me in Italian regarding an elderly male customer he was waiting on, “Talk to him in English.” I introduced myself, explaining my grandmother left Castellammare del Golfo a hundred years ago. He asked her name, I told him, “Anna D’Angelo — prima del matrimonio, Mione.” Upon hearing Mione, this man’s eyes popped wide open, then clenched a fist, exposing the thumb, slashing an imaginary scar across his cheek — silently indicating, Mafioso.
LouLou left the store keyed-up and giggly, “Poppi, does this mean we’re mafia too?” She sounded thoroughly adorable asking this ridiculous question, I forgot to tell her to keep it down; people have a problem concerning anything about that term, especially in Castellammare. It doesn’t matter who we talk to in this town of fifteen thousand; everybody’s somebody’s cousin, niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, grandmother, grandfather — and “connected.”
If we pass by, chatting up an elderly gentleman we’ve known who lived in New Jersey for twenty years, retired here (his birthplace) our thoughts don’t wonder about his possible Soprano’s past. We like him for who he is. Recently I inquired about his wife. Pointing uphill toward the graveyard, speaking in perfect broken English he said, “My wife sleepa the cemetery.” Naturally I placed my arm around his shoulder to offer condolences. He smiled and said, “She die two thousand two, whaddaya gonna do?”
Two widowed sisters: one in her seventies, the other sixties, constantly together, spend each day inside their windowless kitchen, which I assume had once been a garage/storage area. The low ceiling acts as an echo chamber, carrying their voices a block away. Occasionally in curlers, always wearing cotton print housedresses, mismatched aprons, clay colored stockings rolled up to the knees and slippers — why bother putting on makeup? Tantalizing aromas wafting from steamy pots and simmering pans would entice anyone slightly curious to their exposed sliding garage door entrance. They’re the type of ladies who’ll grab your forearm, won’t let go and drag you inside, ordering, “siediti.” Fine — you don’t drink espresso, here’s our personal stash (a gift sent from Argentina) we’re making herbal tea regardless. They’ll talk over each other by an endangered Sicilian dialect, having separate conversations with Jeanette, LouLou and I simultaneously. Occasionally, we’ll glance at each other thinking the same thought, can you believe we’re actually in here experiencing this, they were moments ago complete strangers. An hour later, following a ten minute Sicilian goodbye, halfway down the street, LouLou’s spirit of interest could no longer be contained, whispering, “How come all these old ladies husbands died so young?”