Like Steve McQueen

Alberto Prunetti

Illustration by Cody Cobb

Hey you bastards, I'm still here!
Papillon, with more bark than bite

This is the way I tell a story, blending memories and hard facts into roughcast, that shoddy cement and gravel mix from my childhood. Yet they must have made a movie of this story, by accident, since I remember having seen fragments of it at a strange screening that felt like a dream. Or maybe it really was a dream. The movie was being shown inside the old foundry in Follonica, the first that Ilva built in Italy. Guido Pepe was the ticket taker, but Guido wasn't taking any tickets. He let us in for free. The theater was dark and at one point the projectionist ran off.

"My Dad called . . . my pigs have gotten loose," he said, abandoning his post at the projector and dashing off in the direction of his farm.

All we could do was pray the film would keep rolling and not get jammed. Which used to happen, once upon a time. If the screening was interrupted, everybody would start whistling until someone came to set the reel going again by splicing together the film with a bit of tape, cutting the botched frame and threading another reel on the projector. But sometimes they would skip several feet of film, or worse: they'd mix up the reels, so that you start out with Rocky and end up watching a sci-fi film. But people hardly complained: they let their imaginations fill in the gaps, and the actors may as well have been the same. During one of these mix-ups, the vagabond Alvaro materialized on the screen, dressed like a garibaldino. And not just Alvaro—everyone in my life appeared in the film. There was the coarse priest and the metalworker who kept chickens. There was Coach Diolopicardo and the Calabrian with his eggs. Suddenly Francesca appeared, a look of incredulity on her face, in her hand a letter from INPS informing her that it was increasing her pension by seventy euros for its having exposed Renato to asbestos. That's what you got for breathing that mineral.

Then came Angelo, Renato's coworker, who fell ill, too, and died last year. Francesca still remembers when he came to visit Renato's grave. Afterward she brought him to our farm to pick grapes. Unfortunately, boar had gleaned everything. Only a few bunches were left on the vines. Angelo plucked some grapes from a stalk and told her about the time when their whole crew was transferred to a refinery around Monfalcone, at the end of the seventies. They had to install new oil tanks, which they secured in a slipshod manner. One night there was a freak windstorm, the kind that makes you swallow your heart, and the next morning at the worksite they found only one of the tanks left standing.

"You know which?"

Angelo paused and popped a grape in his mouth.


At this point I heard the first notes of Lennon's Working Class Hero kick in.

In the movie some kids were playing soccer. A bit of wood got in a kid's eye, so Coach Diolopicardo tore off a branch of eucalyptus to extract the wood. Something similar happened to me once. Diolopicardo held my eyelids open with two fingers, and with a quick flick of the wrist removed the particle from my eye without cutting the orb. His skill stunned me. Renato told me that he could have done the same. It was one of the first things they taught you at the steel mill; you always had to help remove the grit that got stuck in a coworker's eye, because if the guy waited for permission to go to the infirmary—Renato paused, took a breath, bent over me and cupped his hands around his mouth, like a bullhorn—"Liiiggghts OOouut!"

Then the film cut to our workshop. Renato had just come back from convalescing at the hospital and had put on weight. He said, "Let's try doing something together." So we began welding an iron joint that I needed, but it didn't come out right. Renato's calloused hands were no longer steady after his lengthy convalescence. I looked at his hands and thought to myself that callouses in workers' hands are beautiful, like the wrinkles in old people's faces. But maybe that sophisticated thought came to me later. Then and there I was thinking how much I needed the right cut of welded steel. Plain and simple. That day we set off sparks when Renato set the welder's clamps on wrong. His mind tacked every which way then—the neurologist told me that Renato had a bomb in his skull. When I asked him who planted it there, he shot me a dirty look. As soon as we closed the electrical bridge, there was an explosion, and the circuit breaker left us in the dark. That put an end to welding. We threw a tarp over the machine, and I solemnly swore on the shop bench to always put antifreeze in the tractor come winter—a promise I never broke.

The last little job we did together left a bitter taste in my mouth. We had to dig a grave for my dog. Back then I had an amazing mutt, mean to strangers but loyal and loopy, a cross between a German shepherd and a Maremmano. It had a German shepherd's speed and a Maremmano's madness. We called her Zolla, or "Clod," for her tawny coat, which looked like the land after it's been ploughed by discs and leveled by a chain harrow. Zolla of the nut-brown eyes, whose footprints, filled with kilos of canine pride, spelled endless trouble for wandering shepherds and hunters lying in ambush. Zolla got sick and was unable to lie down. She must have had a tumor in her stomach. The veterinarian was waiting for my permission to operate on her. I had explained to him that I was willing to pay more to cure her than the price of a round of bullets (it pains me to say it, but where I'm from a lead bullet is sometimes the price you pay to treat a dog).

I went out with Renato to get her but we were too late. We found her face-down in the grass, already dead. There was nothing for us to do but bury her, so I began digging a grave under an old almond tree. The ground was compact, and I must have put a lot of sweat into it, because a sheepdog that weighs over sixty pounds requires space and depth. Renato couldn't dig, his balance was shaky. He watched and smoked. I dug a wide, deep hole and then had to ask Renato for help. He could hardly walk, he even staggered on the smooth floor at home, so you can imagine how he navigated a rutted field. But he didn't let me down, and together we lifted Zolla by her legs, loaded her into the wheelbarrow, and slid her gently into a bed of clay under the almond tree, where we covered her with shovelfuls of dirt. We would have happily skipped that job; it was grueling and left us dumbstruck. It was a bad omen and further confirmation that even in the face of death, it always fell to us—Renato most of all, tired and physically worn out as he was—to roll up our sleeves, and sweat and pant and toil, and return home dirtier than two roosting poles in a chicken coop, to the bitter end.

After this tragic scene, apparently the projectionist has accidentally mounted another reel, because now the film is a comedy. Renato and I are darting down Via Aurelia in an old racing car. We look like a redneck version of Il Sorpasso. Gassman and Trintignant have nothing on us. We stop for a shot of ponce alla livornese and then continue on toward Cecina. When we arrive in La California, a hamlet in the province of Livorno, I ask him why this place is named after California, USA, which I imagine is full of blonde girls and lush landscapes. (I'm curbing my language for the film's more cultured spectators; I always spoke to Renato in the vernacular, otherwise he wouldn't understand and would call me a man-fruit, a term that, in mangled redneck, means hermaphrodite and is used in reference to the adolescent children of the captains of industry, who, as rumor had it, were the products of self-fertilization.)

Drink in hand, Renato tells me a story that deserves to be passed down to the next generation, the foundation myth of La California (Province of Livorno), which sounds like a Borgesian tale cooked in wine. According to Renato, one day over a century ago a group of Pisan rustics, having decided to try their luck in America, arrived at the port of Livorno. A few fishermen from Livorno, ever hostile to Pisans, agreed to sail them to the new world for a hefty chunk of change. The Livornesi took them for a spin around the Tuscan archipelago, past Gorgona, then up to Capraia. After spending a couple of days on the open sea, one night the fishermen swung the wheel around and pointed the prow toward the Tyrrhenian coast again. They dropped anchor just below Livorno. When the boat—a little fishing skiff that could never cross an ocean—arrived in sight of the pine groves and wooly green forests of the Livorno coast, the fishermen began to shout, "Over there, eh, that's California."

"Would ya look at that, it's just like home," said the Pisans.

To this day, the area has been known as La California. The Pisans were happy to discover it wasn't very difficult to speak their language with the people there. But what makes me laugh the most is that even today, when elections are being held in the United States, people from La California write to the American consulate to ask for the right to vote, and they can't understand why on earth their voting cards never arrive on time.

There's also the story of the priests in the film. One priest made converts out of the people from the Colline Metallifere: now everyone in the area roots for Juventus. They forgive him for occasionally getting on their nerves, for ringing the bells on nights when the champions are playing, for scraping the sides of their homes with his Fiat Ritmo, speeding too fast, waving a black and white flag. I forgive him too. Being a Juventus fan is a sin, but it's a venial one. There was some good in him; while other places in town were closing shop, he opened a bar where the pour was generous and the wine cost nothing. He didn't let you drink alone, either. Now that would be a sin, he'd say. He joked about this thing called sin, and whenever I did something stupid as a teenager, he would claim that my baptism didn't count because he had baptized me a sinner. That is, like him.

I told this to an old trade unionist from mining country, who had worked in the mines and whose exposure to asbestos had been officially recognized. He listened to my story with interest before exclaiming, "That Maremman jackass married me! Does that mean I'm free on all scores?" We wound up talking about canonical rights and Marxism over a few glasses of wine during the sheep-and-pig festival. We drank to the priest's health and concluded that if he was a sinner, it was better to be a well-loved sinner than a saint nobody could stand.

There was a priest from Follonica cut from the same cloth, about whom the vox populi told stories that were as biblical as they were specious. That he supplemented his "meager" earnings by selling fertilizer made with pigeon shit he collected from the church roof. That every year he kept a pig in the bell-tower, and never the same pig, since—after fattening it—he would slaughter the beast on holy ground, his hand steady as a butcher's.

Now the film has become a docu-fiction, replete with headlines I'd glimpsed in newspaper racks. Sports news, mostly. MONDAY, APRIL 23, 1979. FOLLONICA HOCKEY TIED WITH GIOVINAZZO FOR FIRST PLACE WITH TWENTY-NINE POINTS. CECINA, THE TRIUMPHANT HOUR. NILS LIEDHOLM'S MILAN BEATS VERONA AT HOME TO CLINCH FIRST PLACE. (That year the Devil would win the championship with the Swedish Baron on the bench and Ricky Albertosi in the goal.) Il Tirreno dedicated a two-page spread to the Pisa-Livorno derby, which ended in a win for Livorno: 1-0 in 83 minutes of play. The caption below read, "Scuffle in the stands. One dead. Havoc everywhere." They're already killing each other in the stadiums, I thought. Then I read the first paragraph. The dead man was a seventy-nine-year-old hospice patient. His heart couldn't handle the confusion in the stands and stopped beating. There were, however, reports of fighting throughout the city and medical examiners cited one jaw injury that would take eight days to heal and another skull injury. And of course someone threw a stone at a paratrooper waiting at a bus stop. In Grosseto a trial was underway involving the first heroin overdose in Maremma: a twenty-two-year-old florist from Orbetello had been found dead on a park bench. UNREST AMONG METALWORKERS' UNION. NATIONAL CONVENTION OF WORKING CLASS PRIESTS. FACTORY OWNER KIDNAPPED IN PRATO FOUND DEAD. FEDAYEEN LEAD NIGHT RAID ON ISRAELI CITY. The most significant full-page story reported that an attorney from Padua was accusing a philosophy professor of being the head of the Red Brigades.

Now the screen lights up with a sequence of images. A how-to in using a chainsaw, for example, a rite of passage in my neck of the woods: "Listen close, always keep behind the chainsaw. Make sure the chain is oiled. Hold it tight and never let the board touch the ground. Learn how to remove the scabbard and work carefully." Or an after-work session to learn something "useful": "Grab it from the bottom. Raise it high, I need to see the bottom. Mark that there, with chalk, see? Alright. There, lift... don't let this run over, dammit... Stop there, don't let it slip. OK, enough. Come on! A little more. Make sure the screwdriver is always level with the screws. Pass me the twelve-inch wrench. Now push from behind. You there? This has to go in there. Put a little grease on it. Did it go in? Alright now. Vada via al cul!" (Ever since he'd begun working up north, he peppered his Tuscan with expressions from Piedmont and Lombardy.)

All the writing on those materials contained some magic, a kabbalah of codes that he had penned on wood or chalked on metal. Carpenter's notes on works in progress, from which, sometimes, I can still trace a rare epigraphic testimony. Among the video clips assembled in the film, there are also old super-eights from the seventies. The wobbly images, colorized and sped up, show me when I was three, a longhaired blond in his grandmother's garden. Before soccer, my only sport was pounding topsoil in a fruit crate and sticking a mini garden hoe into the ground while a little chick scuttled behind me. My hair is long and blond: I'm still a baby. When I turned five, a real man, Renato forced me to get a Facchetti cut, parted to one side, in honor of the great soccer fullback.

Next, the homespun montage of me as a kid with a chicken running after me zooms in on Renato and Francesca, coiffed and dressed in the style of the seventies, when people stopped killing themselves to get rich or look good but expected a decent salary. Who cared about TVs or vacations? Sundays were our vacations: we would go out to the stadium then take the long way back to reach the cemetery, mom whispering some words for grandpa, Renato and I walking past the graves like farmers through rows of vines: "Something's missing here, this stone is crooked, look at what a mess the masons made . . . " Then we'd stop by the Circolino Arci to hear the bar's patrons talk about the latest minor league game, which always ended with a goal from thirty yards out and a referee being blitzed in the locker room. Or else we would go out to the farm and burn the undergrowth of olive trees and afterward Renato, who had welded rebar together to make a grill, would fire up some sausages. One time he made something he called asado, a recipe he'd learned from an Argentine coworker with a black moustache who had once come to the house. Too bad Renato had mistaken a jar of salt for sugar: the result was a dish of sweet-and-sour nastiness. We ate it all the same. "No matter straw or hay," my grandmother would say, "if it fills you up, then pack it away." To which I responded: "As long as the body ingests it and the ass expels it, to hell with medicine and those who sell it" (a line I'd stolen from a neighbor who kept a vegetable garden behind our house and went around in nothing but camouflage pants in winter, and in summer was always barefoot. "Callouses keep you from catching cold," he'd say). But after my rhyming duel, Renato would get angry. "Don't use curse words," he scolded, "Motherfucking Maremma!" I skulked off, but later he would turn on the little battery-powered radio, and the speaker would crackle, "In sports news today . . . " Renato would tell me to check the lotto numbers, and we'd make peace. It would have been nice to win once, to head off to the little bar on Monday to collect our prize, still stinking of tree smoke, sweat, and pork fat. Instead evening came on slowly, the sound of chainsaws tapered off, the coals grew cold, and the pork fat around the rebar turned to tar. Hunters shot their last rounds, which faded into the woods, and dogs barked. Then even the dogs died down, and we went back home, Francesca and my little sister with kerchiefs on their heads, Renato and I in argyle sweaters. We didn't get two matching numbers, not even one. Mom stuck his clean coveralls, a tank top, and a change of underwear in a suede bag, and he, as always, caught the midnight train for the refineries up north, for the bitter cold.

A last hitch in the reel. The screen stays dark for two long seconds. The frames tight as bolts. Harmonicas dominating the soundtrack. Icy blue eyes, merciless and just. One of The Magnificent Seven. Steve McQueen. Handsome as a god. Renato's hero. A guy who could handle an angle grinder and a welder. Who could outfit a merchant ship with piping insulation. A working class tough, an American myth, fleeing the factory for the big-time studios of California.

But one deep breath was all it took for a microfiber to break through the wall of nasal filters, slip into the esophagus and clear a path to the lungs. Twenty years go by and you almost forget how to hold a hammer. Shooting an action scene in a Western, you realize you're no longer the same bastard you once were. You're short of breath. You can't breathe deeply. Who gives a shit about the bright lights of Hollywood? That fiber has won the day. It doesn't matter whether you're an actor or a bricklayer. Look in the mirror. Now you have the skin of an old man. Only your eyes are an explosion of metallic blue. The rest is leather, leathery skin, your nails dark from lack of oxygen, your lungs black. And when they switch off the spotlight, old Steve goes back to being a poor, helpless proletariat with pretty blue eyes, who had spent many a night sleeping outside and who, in life, never stopped escaping. Just like in Papillon, in The Great Escape, in The Getaway. Just like Steve McQueen.

And if you're not Steve McQueen then it's a real nightmare. Because you've breathed in asbestos for thirty-five years and the life you've lived has been one long slide from mortgages to unemployment insurance without you ever hearing lights, camera, action!, without ever riding a motorbike bare-chested down to the beaches of Florida. Maybe you're a member of the Cooperativa Vapordotti, those who, in upper Maremma, in the borax-rich area between Larderello and Pomarance, outfitted with asbestos the lymphatic system of tubes that carried steam up from the bowels of the earth. They made a conduit of the pipes with asbestos, cement, and baling wire. Out of twenty men, sixteen are dead. One by one, they have their lungs operated on, they're plied with cortisone, they lose their eyesight. And then they disappear. Forget recklessness, forget the devil-may-care lives, these guys were bundling metal with friable asbestos, they were splashing it everywhere, they were breathing it in deep. And in their free time they weren't cruising around on Harleys. They were tending a kitchen garden, or going out hunting, or talking about Baggio and Batistuta at the Circolo Arci. They were burning olive branches and grilling sausages, like us. And yet they're dead, like Steve McQueen.

Me, I would watch Steve's films with Renato. All of them, Westerns and actions. Nevada Smith, The Sand Pebbles. Yards of action reels on that Maltese cross of a projector that flickered in the summer theaters in the mining towns of the Colline Metallifere, where a part of our family came from, those hills full of geothermic vapors, where the energy of the subsoil was being dammed with a potent, fibrous, noxious mineral: asbestos. What did Renato know? That he'd end up like Steve McQueen?

And yet it's Steve himself on the screen. The frames run faster. The projectionist doesn't come back; we know his pigs are still on the run. As in The Getaway and The Great Escape. Like Papillon and Junior Bonner. And yet the film doesn't stop and the seats in the theater fill up for the final act: one by one, men in blue coveralls appear. I look closer, in the darkness. There are the men from Casale Monferrato and the men from Taranto. The men from the train yards of Pistoia and the shipyards of Monfalcone. From Bagnoli and Rubiera. There are the women, too, the ones who sewed asbestos bags and the ones who washed their husbands' coveralls. And the miners of Maremma, and the Sardinians of Sulcis. There's Angelo, too. And next to him Renato. There are the welders and pipemakers, the insulators and construction workers. The blessed blind look up at the film, and those who lost their fingers count them again and make a fist. Here they are, all of them together, working class heroes come back to settle the score, like characters in a Peckinpah film, like The Wild Bunch. They will walk the streets of our cities, the brims of their cowboy hats pulled down over their eyes, shoulder to shoulder, Renato and the men from Vapordotti and all the other metal cowboys. Even Steve. They will come back with their icy eyes and the coveralls that still bear their smell, that scent of cut metal and coagulated electrodes. They'll take a swig of hard stuff at the Circolino and fix things up their way, and money won't suffice to pay them back for their lives. They're not taking any refunds. Not even a fistful of dollars. They know damn well that money isn't everything, having been exposed to every danger imaginable, having done toxic, backbreaking, lethal work all their lives. A life of risk, full of trouble. The life of a daredevil. Motherfucking Maremma! That's it! A life like Steve McQueen's.

translated from the Italian by Will Schutt