Near Canal Street

Once Upon A Time America

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

I grew up with coffee, milk and American TV, mostly crime stories. The most exciting was The Naked City (in Italian, La Città in Controluce/The Backlit City). Perhaps, in those times, the word “naked” was too explicit for Italy?

Those streets, skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, and American cars! Long cars, big engine and bigger curves. Powerful and mysterious. Every episode ended with the narrator intoning, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them. “

The first time I set foot in America was in New Orleans. I was traveling from Brazil to New York, I’d just caught a boat from Mexico. America seemed immediately familiar; it was something that belonged to my childhood. Those American cars, though, they were still exotic. And to tell the truth, excited me.

New Orleans. I walked away from the French Quarter, a guy stopped me, talked endlessly to me. After pleasantries, he said, “What beautiful eyes you have. You could make good money.”

I did not understand. “I beg your pardon?”

“French job,” he replied.

I just did not get it “What is the French Job?”

He mimed a blow-job and added, “In my night club, people come from all over America, they pay well

“I’m married,” I say

“Bring your wife too,” he said smiling.

That year in the news, word spread about the plague of the century, the AIDS epidemic.

French Quarter, New Orleans
I stayed just a few days in New Orleans.
Bourbon street, New Orleans

I took a Greyhound bus bound for New York, the trip takes 32 hours and runs through many American states. At each stop new passengers got on and just as many got off, I was the only passenger who left from New Orleans to disembark in New York.

Landscapes and people changed constantly.

New York flag, 1981

During the night it was dark with strange characters on the bus. On the other side of the aisle, near the window, there was a young girl and at some point of the night a fat man sat next to her, and soon after he began to harass her and touch her. The girl did not react vigorously, she repeatedly warded off his pulpy, sweaty palms. He went on for some time.

I decided to tap with a finger on the fat man’s shoulder and asked him to stop, he buys some time asking me what I wanted, I repeated him to stop, he mumbled some insults but after a few minutes he changed seats.

The girl looked at me indifferently.

At dawn we arrived in New Jersey and in the misty morning I could see New York’s skyline that I had so often seen in movies and American TV series, but I was excited anyway.

view from the window of Thompson Street.

It was done. The last stop. My journey had come to an end. I stayed in New York for two months, renting a tiny apartment in Soho, the trendy arts district, on Thompson Street.

Canal Street

A friend of mine from Venezuela asked me these questions:

What do you call someone from Canada? Canadian.

What do you call someone from Chile? Chilean.

What do you call someone from Mexico? Mexican.

What do you call someone from Brazil? Brazilian.

What do you call someone from Nicaragua? Nicaraguan.

What do you call someone from the United States? American.

He scolded me. “From Argentina to Chile to Canada we are all Americans. Please stop calling people born in the U.S. Americans. You insult the rest.”

New York 1981

From time immemorial this has happened. During the Roman Empire all people spoke Latin and the dominant culture was Roman. At the time of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, the common language was Russian. Now the dominant culture is American.

Nothing to be shocked about.

New York
Central Park, New York
Central Park, New York

After two months I took a plane and flew to Caracas, Venezuela to work in a friend’s photo studio.

Brooklyn Bridge

These days, in America, there are no more true American cars. Today cars are the same that we have in Europe.

So I want to pay tribute to the America that no longer exists…


Photographs and illustrations by Massimo Sormonta