“I don’t think I have the right ticket…” I text Alberto from a bus — a bus that I’m riding illegally without any valid documents aside from an old Iowa driver’s license.
Since I was traveling to a neighboring suburb of Milan for the first time, it occurred to me (belatedly, as I was boarding the bus) that I should doublecheck the transit app, and that’s where I saw the abnormal interurbano 1.6€ price tag of my route; I only have the standard urbano ticket in my purse. Cazzo.
I had a French classmate who got detained on the bus by transit security guys because she too rode illegally, mistakenly thinking she could buy a ticket on the bus. Playing the genuinely ignorant and nice white girl card worked for her; they let the signorina go with a very stern lecture but no fine.
“Cavolo. Jump off if you see controllers,” Alberto advises.
My stomach churned at the thought of another interaction with the Italian authorities, given my last one was so stimulating, but I was also just a few stops away from my destination, and I would’ve been late to an appointment. Successful people in Italy rarely follow the rules, I reasoned.
I’m twitching in a seat next to the ticket validating machine as hoards of teens are coming onto the bus. “I can hide among the youths with their student passes,” I contemplate. Alas, I left my 90s wardrobe in the 90s — the ONE day I don’t wear my Clarissa Explains It All outfit.
I scan every sidewalk stop for the authorities in their navy blue transit uniforms. Clear. Clear. Clear. Shit-is-that-one-ok-no-good-clear. I exhale as I step on the curb and book it down the street.
I make it to my appointment unscathed, but now I have to find a way to get home, and I’m still not certain which ticket I need to get back into Milano. It’s in that panicked walk across the piazza that Alessandro finds me.
“Oh hello, miss! Seeing as we’re both walking the same way, let’s walk together!” he exclaims.
He’s got an ActionAid vest on and a clipboard; I make the mistake of giving him eye contact and a nervous smile.
When I don’t want to talk to someone, sometimes I’ll use the Non parlo bene l’italiano card, and that’s what I tried with Ale as he drew near.
“It sounds like you speak it very well, actually!” he replies. Vaffaaaa. “Let me tell you a little bit about my organization, and maybe I’ll practice my English with you, too!”
Look, I’ve canvassed the streets before and I’m all about charitable work, but now is not the time, Ale. Then, somehow, we end up spending the next 10 minutes of our lives together.
First, he asks my age, because it’s illegal for him to talk to anyone under the age of 25 (is this a legit regulation or is this young man a child predator?).
“30? Li porti bene,” he responds, which literally means that I wear the years well. Ah, flattery — in the toolkit of any good fundraiser.
Then, he tells me these heartbreaking stories of child brides around the world, and I’m like, “Dude, yes, that is terrible. Thank you for doing the work you do,” as I try to inch my way toward the subway entrance.
Ale is working his angles, trying to get me to commit to a monthly donation; he pushes his clipboard closer and requests my address, phone number, and bank information. Two unsettling images flash in my mind: 1) The poor child brides 2) The face of Alberto when I tell him I gave a stranger on the street our bank account.
But this kid reminds me of myself 10 years ago trawling the University of Minnesota campus, so I’m trying to politely let him down, explaining in fragments of Italian and English that I’m a hot mess who can’t commit to his cause at the moment but that I promise to google his organization later.
“People don’t want to stop and talk to me, so thank you for stopping,” he responds. “Maybe because I have an ugly face. Maybe I should go to America and people would talk to me then. But I need money first. Or an American husband.”
I continue on my original path toward the subway, thinking that will be my new route home. I pass another man requesting money, this time for himself. I reach the turnstile and then RED-FREAKING-BUZZER. Porca miseria. My ticket still isn’t in the valid zone.
I pass the begging man again on my way out, as I’ve decided to go talk to the newspaper stand guy (who also sells tickets) about my transit needs. He is helpful, advising me which ticket I require, but then refuses to accept my debit card when I can’t find cash in the flustered depths of my purse.
“I’M STRANDED AND MAY NEVER GET HOME,” I proclaim when Alberto picks up his phone.
He asks where I am and (I imagine) briefly considers leaving work to rescue me, but then we both came to our senses. “Go back down into the subway; you can buy the right bus ticket there with your debit card,” he soothes.
I see the panhandling subway guy a third time — now he has gathered that I really don’t have my shit together and am not worth his time. I successfully purchase what seems to be the right ticket and emerge, yet again, from the subway steps. Alessandro’s there at the top.
“Hey! There’s the English teacher!” he says to his other ActionAid friend. “That’s her?” his colleague replies.
I pretend to have a phone call.
I find the bus stop and proceed to validate my ticket on board, but the machine is broken. “I can blame it on their technology if I still have the wrong ticket!” I calm myself. But then I see there’s another machine up front. I brave the walk toward the driver, holding my breath as I delicately insert this tiny piece of paper as if diffusing a bomb.
Green light. BLESSED BE THE FRUIT.
Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.