Death to Anyone Who Is Not Carrying A Candle
This is the third part of an almost true autobiography about labor — physical and mental, for joy and for money. This tale will be published in a series of installments over the coming months.
The pay at The Judea was eight euros and sixty-five euro cents an hour during the week and twelve ninety-five on Sundays. With a full schedule you could make over fifteen hundred euros a month and that was enough to rent a room in a flat and still have a thousand left over. It was more money than any job had ever paid me before.
Every day on my way to work I walked by a casino and I could see the roulette wheels turning and the cards flopping on the felt tables and I started to feel the pull that every gambler feels when other people are winning. All I could think about were my numbers and how I would spread my bets and what it would feel like to be in the flashing lights with cold stacks of bills piled up around me. I had convinced myself that I could win and I was making new plans for the money every day, but as long as I was poor I was good and did not go into the casino.
I learned the routine of The Judea in a couple of days. For me, the hardest part of the job was that you always had to serve somebody and when you served you had to put on your best performance. Wave after wave of people came through the doors and demanded your attention and your time and your energy and your devotion. It was exhausting work, but if you watched closely you could educate yourself a little about the customs and concerns of the human race and occasionally you might learn something new.
I saw that some people were content with everything and others found problems everywhere they went. Some enjoyed spending money and others hated to let it go. Some wanted to talk, some wanted to listen, others just wanted to be left alone. I saw striking acts of generosity performed by those who could not afford it. I watched self-interest trump principle whenever it was convenient. I saw that some people made their way in the world easily and others faced great difficulties and some would not make it at all. Every day I saw hundreds of people flow through The Judea and I stood in the middle like a rock and watched them pass.
When Elio saw my name on a schedule for the first time he paused and looked at me with beady, unbelieving eyes.
“You are Italian?” He asked.
“My great-grandparents were.”
“Great grandparents!” Allesandro shrieked. “You are only a little Italian,” he said, pinching the air with his fingers.
“But Allesandro,” Elio came to my defense. “He has the Italian blood.”
“You can speak Italian?” Paolo asked. “You have Italian chords and you can use the Italian words?” From his earnest manner, I understood that Paolo took the matter of my heritage very seriously.
“Che cazzo, Paolo?” Alle said slapping the younger man on the shoulder. “He has some Italian blood and that is all.”
Allesandro turned to me and when our eyes met his face became solemn and I could tell he was on the verge of making a far-reaching pronouncement. “But you know it is the same,” he finally said. “You are like us. You are Italian.”
He nodded with satisfaction. Conferring enfranchisement in the Italian race was the highest compliment Allesandro could imagine paying to another person.
The best moments of my life had been lived through books. Literature taught me how to dream and how to love, how to enter foreign cities and how to leave them. It burned me up and gave me hope and made me want to give others the feeling that my favorite authors gave to me. When my shifts were over I would go to the sunken octagon at Trinity College and work on my space opera. Every night I would re-read what I’d worked on the day before and make adjustments and apply another layer of scaffolding and gloss. Sometimes I saw flashes of brilliance in my book. In those moments I believed in myself and I had faith in my path and I knew that one day I would be recognized as a great writer.
When I was working on my book I often thought about one of the regulars of The Judea, an old man with white sideburns that curled down the sides of his head like the horns of a ram. The skin around his neck was fleshy and pink and compressed into folds so elaborate and baroque that his face resembled a very fine pastry. Elio said that for the last ten years the old man came in every day and sat alone and never uttered a word to anyone. On my first day at The Judea I handed him his coffee and he smiled at me and said, “death to anyone who is not carrying a candle.” He put his coffee down and turned to the other customers and started to sing. I did not recognize the words of his song but I knew it must come from another time and another country. He sang with such conviction and with such a thunderous voice that everybody stopped talking and watched him in stunned silence.
He had a wonderful voice. The kind you could easily imagine echoing down the backstreets of Seville or booming from an opera house in Prague. No one could understand why he chose to sing after a decade of silence, but I thought that maybe he was working on it the whole time and didn’t even know it himself. People say that creativity is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it moves forward in hidden stages of growth and then one morning you wake up and you find you are a cockroach or a dragon and the dream of your life explodes into the world. In one dazzling moment of sublimation his genius had finally transformed him. I’ve always dreamed of experiencing that, but never have.
Sometimes I did not feel the time pass when I was working on my book. I forgot to eat and eight hours would pass and still I did not feel tired. But other times the spirit was not with me and I saw that my writing was convoluted and trite and that there would never be an audience for it. My space opera had become a monstrous agglomeration of self-indulgence and in my heart I knew no editor would seriously consider publishing it. I started to doubt myself. What if I did not have talent to write books and it turned out that I was only good at doing things I did not care about?
What I dreaded most of all was going back to the donut shop on Devonshire Boulevard and giving an account of myself to the people who had watched me depart for bohemia with such fanfare. But as long as I had money in my pocket no one could ever stop me and no one could ever make me go back.
So every day I scrubbed the floors and served the people of The Judea and worked quietly to build up my savings.
When payday came I felt rich and I wanted to be generous to myself so I went to a barbershop on Camden Road that smelled like steamed towels and peppermint and an old man sat me down in an uncomfortable chair and lathered my face with hot cream. When he finished shaving me I told him my cut and he rolled up his sleeves and pushed the cold metal clippers against my scalp and I could hear the rotating blades and the sound of buses rattling the shop windows and in the end it didn’t matter what my cut was because the old man had just one cut that he’d been doing for a long time and when I came out of that shop his cut was my cut too.
After work that night I went with the Italians to the street behind The Judea and ordered cold pints of Smithwicks and several hours later we were still in the Temple Bar when Paolo ordered cold clear liquor that tasted slick and spicy in my throat and after a few shots they no longer spoke English until they saw me and switched back and many times they lapsed into Italian forgetting that I was Italian by blood only and had no Italian upbringing or knowledge of Romance languages. There came a point where I could learn nothing more from the Italians so while they were putting on their coats and deciding where to go I left them.
When I crossed O’Connell Bridge I saw the casino that I passed every morning and every night. I stopped to watch the people rolling dice in the flashing lights and after a while I could tell who would win and who would lose just by looking into their eyes. I got sick of watching and found a cash machine and withdrew half the money I had in my account and went to the blackjack table and within ten minutes I was up by almost a hundred euros.
A long time ago at a casino in Amsterdam I had selected numbers that I believed in and won almost a thousand Euros at roulette. Ever since then I carried those numbers with me around the world. They were my talismans and I went from city to city and table to table with them and every time I saw the wheels turning I put my faith in these numbers and more than half the time I won. So when I heard the metallic bounce of the ball and the spin of the wheel like the chain hill of a roller coaster I felt warm remembering all the money I’d won and I wanted to play the game again.
I found a table and exchanged eight fifty euro notes for several stacks of blue chips and I placed some chips on my numbers and on the lines between my numbers until the table was covered in blue bursts. The wheel spun and when the ball dropped the croupier placed the weight on a number I had no ties with and raked my chips into the gutter of the table with a hooked paddle. In six turns of the wheel my money was gone.
It did not seem right that I could lose so much money so quickly so I withdrew another four hundred euros and put them on my numbers again but this time it took only five spins before it was gone.
In less than thirty minutes I had lost eight hundred euros, which left me with only a hundred in my account to last until the next month’s paycheck. I started to calculate the amount of bread and beans and rice I could buy in bulk with the money I had left but I knew it was hopeless. The only way to survive was to win back what I lost so I took out my last hundred and bet it all on black.
I watched the ball circle and bounce over the troughs and when it slid over the final slots and landed on black I almost cried tears of joy. I let one hundred ride on black and placed fifty on numbers I hadn’t bet on before. This time the ball dropped on a red number that I’d staked something on and when the croupier counted out my chips and slid two hundred euros across the table I knew it was time to go. I was only up to four hundred and it made me sick to leave after losing so much, but I had gone to the edge of ruin once already and I could not risk it again.
This wasn’t the first time I’d chased that banal gambler’s dream of landing on the final golden number that changes everything all at once. I was angry at myself because I already knew that luck does not come that way. So why did I keep making the same mistake? Why was I still chasing magic numbers through casinos and nightclubs and notebooks when others had stopped searching long ago?
I wanted to write my signature on the world in fire. If I had cared to take a closer look at myself I would have seen why it wasn’t working. But I was in a rush, and it was so early still.