Gil Fagiani

Gil Fagiani



        Antonina “Ninetta” Cangemi was born on Sunday, September 6, 1893, in the azure-lapped seacoast hamlet of Capo d’Orlando, in Messina Province, Sicily. In the background, a black scarf of smoke unfurled out of the top of Mount Etna, and women complained all day to the Madonna about the soot landing on their freshly washed laundry. Later, townspeople speculated that perhaps being born on a day of volcanic activity was the reason Ninetta was sempre sulle spine—always on edge.

        From an early age, she worried about all kinds of natural phenomena: electrical storms, screeching cicadas, the scirocco, a restlesss sea, a flotilla of jellyfish. She also fretted about forestieri—strangers—who came into her family’s bottega, and it wasn’t until she was 14 that she agreed to work there with her mother. By then, people had started to call her L’ansiosa Ninetta—Ninetta the Worry-Wart.

        Three days after Christmas in 1908, Ninetta was up early, helping her mother weigh sacks of beans, rice, and flour, when the floor shook and she heard a loud whooshing sound. Dogs barked, seagulls shrieked, and ceramic plates flew off the walls, shattering on the cement pavement. The earth rumbled for 20 seconds, and in the chaotic hours that followed, Ninetta would hear about the docks, boats, and beach huts damaged by large breakers that swept over Capo d’Orlando’s shoreline. In the weeks that followed, she learned that an earthquake and tsunami had decimated the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria, causing the deaths of more than 80,000 people, and leaving many thousands more homeless.

        From then on, Ninetta was obssessed by a fear of earthquakes and of being buried alive under a mountain of rubble, and anytime she felt the slightest tremble—whether from a wagon rolling by or workmen drilling in the street—she pressed her medallion of the Madonna to her breast and prayed to Saint Anthony.

        Over the years, Carmelo Fiocco, a local cabinetmaker, frequented the Cangemi bottega and took a fancy to Ninetta, who at first ignored him. Eventually, though, she was won over by the exquisite dining room table he had made for her parents, as well as his passionate guitar serenades. After a brief courtship, they married.

        World War I broke out and hard times descended on Sicily. Carmelo could no longer find employment, so he joined the thousands of Sicilians who immigrated to the United States in search of lavoro—work. But then he received a notice to report to the draft board in Messina, and since the only job he had found was cleaning toilets in St. Louis—and feeling a sense of patriotic duty—he returned to Italy to join the army.

        All the while Carmelo was away, Ninetta was sick with worry. Every day she climbed the 217 steps to the chapel of the Madonna of Capo d’Orlando with her older sister, Maria, and recited the Rosary for her husband. She remained horrified at the prospect of another earthquake or volcanic eruption, and added to her fears the notion that Capo d’Orlando was in imminent danger of being bombed by German zeppelins.

        During the war, flour had become expensive, but the Cangemi bottega had resisted adding ground stone to their flour like other stores did. Taking pity on their neighbors, who were in danger of starving, they continued extending credit for food provisions. By the end of the war, the business went belly-up, and they were broke.

        Assessing the bleak economic conditions that prevailed in Italy, Carmelo took what he thought was the most prudent step—to immigrate to the U.S. for good—this time with his entire family, including their two-year-old daughter, Tina. At first, Ninetta was dead set against the move, not wanting to leave the rest of her family, but also because she was terrified at the thought of traveling by boat, fearing it would capsize and sink with everyone onboard. Finally, she relented when she realized her family couldn’t afford to support her, and that her sister Maria, along with her husband, would immigrate with her.

        Once in America, Ninetta’s morbid dread of earthquakes and volcanos returned, along with new fears: tenement fires, gas explosions, train collisions, rapes, robberies, and murders. After temporary lodging with several relatives, Carmelo found an apartment on the second floor of a four-story walk-up in Greenwich Village. They shared a hallway bathroom with a dope addict, and the Neapolitan woman downstairs complained that Ninetta’s burgeoning family—she now had three daughters—sounded like horses clomping on the floor above. Below there was a speakeasy, where there were constant fights and police raids. Her discontent at leaving Sicily grew, and at the end of every day, she showered Carmelo with her gripes and grievances.

        Once, Ninetta witnessed a shooting that left a pool of blood on the sidewalk. When Carmelo came home, Ninetta spewed all her bile, screaming Managgia l’America—damn America!

        Carmelo threw down his napkin. “I’m sick of your squawking,” he said. “You want to go back, we’ll go back.” But after a few days, Ninetta told him that it was too late to return to the Old World; the kids were learning English and making friends, and Tina was about to start school.

        Not long afterward, the family’s fortunes took a turn for the better. Carmelo landed a job as a carpenter at the Kingsbridge Veterans Hospital in the Bronx and relocated the family to the Italian neighborhood of Villa Avenue, two blocks from the Grand Concourse. During the move, Ninetta had no choice but to ride the subway at least half a dozen times. The experience was pure hell. Every time the train sped forward, or lurched to the side, Ninetta was sure there would be a derailment or crash.

        The day Ninetta and her daughters moved into their new building, Carmelo was at work and a huge rat scurried across the living room floor. Tina and her sisters, Raffaela and Rosa, screamed their heads off while Ninetta closed the windows, cornered the rat, and beat it to death with a broom. La battaglia con il ratto—the battle with the rat—as her sister Maria jokingly put it, turned out to be a watershed moment for Ninetta. Afterward, she seemed to finally get it into her noggin that there was no danger of an earthquake or volcano eruption in Gotham. And while she was still a worry-wart, she developed a circle of comari—women friends—who, along with her sister Maria, gave her great comfort and contentment at their daily afternoon Caffè And Biscotti Get-Togethers.

        Things went along pretty smoothly until the approach of World War II. For years, Carmelo had been after Ninetta to become a citizen, but she waved away his advice like she waved away his pleas to go to night school and learn English. As tensions mounted in Europe, Carmelo teased Ninetta: “Hurry-uppa and become a citizen, before the police pick-a you up and send-a you back-a to Sicily.”

        When the war broke out and Italians really were rounded up as enemy aliens, Ninetta and her sister rushed to get their citizenship papers. They celebrated with orangeades at the Woolworth’s counter on Fordham Road.

        The years went by, and in time, Ninetta’s three daughters married. Carmelo passed away at 83, and Ninetta moved to a one-room apartment on 204th Street, a block from Villa Avenue. Stricken with osteoporosis, Ninetta now walked like she was shouldering a 50-pound sandbag. Her doctor warned her that it wouldn’t be long before she was wheelchair-bound. Her youngest daughter, Rosa, begged her to move to Yonkers with her and her husband, but Ninetta refused, saying that in-laws were the scourge of a happy marriage. In the past, Ninetta’s tenement sang in napoletano, calabrese, siciliano. Now, the sounds of high-decibel Spanish, slapping dominoes, and conga drums dominated her soundscape.

        Ninetta commented to Rosa about the odor of onion that wafted through her building. “Mamma, that’s not onion,” Rosa said. “That’s marijuana! Junkies live next door!”

        One night, Ninetta sat on her bed, praying to Saint Anthony, when the ceiling collapsed. Chunks of plaster sheared her cheekbone, broke her nose, and knocked her unconscious. The neighbors rushed her to Fordham Hospital. When Rosa arrived, she saw winos in the waiting room, and demanded that her mother be transferred to a Catholic hospital.

        Rosa’s husband hired a lawyer from his Knights of Columbus Lodge to sue Ninetta’s landlord, who had promised for months to fix a water leak in her ceiling but had never gotten around to making the repairs. The lawyer pleaded with Nina to testify at the courtroom proceedings, but she shook her head. “I no wanna make-a no trouble.”

        Not long after, Ninetta insisted on moving to the Blackrock Nursing Home, despite her daughters’ protests. When Rosa brought her a $5,000 settlement check for damages, Ninetta said it’s too much money, but thanked Saint Anthony for giving her a gift to leave her grandchildren.

Gil Fagiani is a translator, essayist, short story writer, and poet. His latest book is Logos (Guernica Editions, 2015). Fagiani co-hosts the Italian American Writers’ Association’s monthly readings in Manhattan and is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum. In 2014, he was the subject of a New York Times article by David Gonzalez, “A Poet Mines Memories of Drug Addiction.”

Gil Fagiani



Springdale, Connecticut, 1955

When I trip on the sidewalk along Hope Street,

my knee goes down like an anchor

into the ridges of a foot-high stone wall.

A woman stops, wrinkled as my grandmother.

I figure she’ll comfort me like my Nonna Nina

with her pillowy breasts and buttery pastina soup.

Instead her blue eyes twinkle as she bends low

to stare more fully into my eyes streaming tears.

She grins bearishly as I groan, rubs her hands

together while I limp along. A devil of a woman,

wrinkled as my grandmother, wearing a straw derby

with clustered cloth roses.





Abruzzo, Italy


When I was a kid, I loved to kick sand along the beach,

and thrill to the song of the Coco Man,

“Coco bello! Coco bello!” his white teeth flashing

against brown skin as he pulled hairy coconuts

out of a burlap bag. “Coco bello! Coco bello!”

he sang once too often for the restaurant owners

along the boardwalk who sold coconut desserts

and pressured the vigili—the local cops—

to drive the Coco Man away. A decade went by

and there were no coconut vendors. Now five

years into la crisi—the economic crisis—

the Coco Man is back: A broke, jobless

cousin, about to lose his house to the bank.



Gil Fagiani is a translator, essayist, short story writer, and poet. His latest book is Logos (Guernica Editions, 2015). Fagiani co-hosts the Italian American Writers’ Association’s monthly readings in Manhattan and is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum. In 2014, he was the subject of a New York Times article by David Gonzalez, “A Poet Mines Memories of Drug Addiction.”