Italy...South Street...San Francisco
searching for freedom
Nina Simone is singing on the radio.
I find it eerie that her voice still instigates wanderlust.
I had this need to make some sense out of this accident that left me paralyzed from the neck down! The head-on resulted in a sublexation of the C 5-6 vertebrae, broken ribs, a punctured lung, a ruptured brachial aorta, a fracture of the right femur and lower lumbar area. Fortunately I was under the influence of morphine so my continence and conversations were more blissful than logical.
Other patients in ICU would come and go...some to a room...others to the morgue. I felt envious. It was very lonely...I hardly slept...the TV was constant as was the innocuous hospital lighting. That halo on my head kept me from moving my neck shoulders and chest. I felt like I was a suspended brain.
After 10 days they put me on the CCU. Private 24 nursing care was mandatory...the doctor informed us they would keep me in ICU otherwise. Six hundred dollars a day payable by check or cash. Three 8 hour shifts seven days a week. They changed the sheets, bathed, stretched and turned me every two hours. I didn't move or breathe on my own. My boyfriend paid for it. Insurance would eventually reimburse him to the tune of $6,500.
It took three weeks for me to eat yogurt and a month or so before I was allowed a drink of water. In the meantime it was suckers made from swabs of cotton and water.
Lace panties, bikini style, with beads and seed pearls was placed on the wall in front of me. It was meant to be a gesture of future apparel. I was hooked to a catheter, did not move my bowels nor anything else for that matter.
Hair was another consideration. ER chopped the necessary areas and left one side long. "Cut it all off," I told the hospital beautician. She put my head over a wastebasket to wash my hair and snipped all but two inches all around. Someone painted my toenails red. I needed something pretty.
There were masses said, relics to hold, flowers, cards, plenty of stuffed animals, friends and family. Finally a nurse raised me out of bed with a hoya lift, a small crane with a swing-like cloth seat. Made me nervous to hang there like a rag doll. She put me in a rolling lounge chair and took me out into the hall. A butterfly flew by the courtyard window. Memorial Day.
Every visitor felt happy to see me outside the room. None of us really understood the severity of the injuries. A social worker made me feel like I had just been accepted into Harvard when in reality I was going to one of the "best" rehabs!
They had "tested" me out in the hospital's miniscule version of a physical rehabilitation unit. I had to try to sit up on a mat. Hell, hell, hell. Took three people to get me from a wheelchair to the mat where I kept falling over to one side or another. One look in the mirror and I collapsed into tears.
Absolutely no muscle control anywhere except my jaw muscles. What good were they if I couldn't eat or drink? What a way to lose weight.
Coffee; I drank eight cups of it a day and was in the process of weaning myself back down. Thought cutting most of the caffeine out of my diet would be healthy. Who knew I would fall asleep at the wheel without it!
It had taken me years to feel confident about my weight and looks. Yoga, exercise, and light diet had finally brought a positive physical condition.
Stress, a hapless love affair and mindless addictions ended that!
1961 Alcamo, Sicily
|Whether it was the commuting 3 hours a day, the
push to achieve, or a relationship without words...on a subway ride home I made an impetuous decision to
book a liner for Italy ...leaving in
two weeks. It was the fall of 1960. Jerry Witkin was living in Florence; it seemed the
This time I bought a used trunk with drawers on the right side and hangers on the left. I filled it with clothes, sheets, a blanket, oil paints and brushes.
There were about 15 people my age on board the Hanseatic9. We enjoyed endless nights of dancing, talking, drinking and dining. Bill Agee is the only acquaintance whose name I remember...his 6' plus presence and intelligence were formidable amongst us. Miss Greece, 1960, was present.
A few of us (including an Italian musician) decided to hang out together upon our arrival in Naples. We spent the entire evening walking the streets until dawn, smelling the bon fires, listening to street sounds and becoming one with an ancient and provocatively sensuous city!
When I arrived "a Firenze"10 I didn't have a place to stay, but within 3 days I found a run-down villa/pensione owned by a wispy spinster who refused to speak Italian preferring to practice her W.W.I. English with me. No running water or heat; 15' above my head cherubs and chipped plaster everywhere. On cold days I was forced to sit with a "portacenere" on my lap and the blanket from home over it to keep the warmth in. Perfect for that artists' image. A very mushy oil painting of a water pitcher and bowl exists on the backside of a re-stretched and re-primed canvas. Frontside... a springtime landscape.
Lunches, more often than not, consisted of a slice of fresh bread with marmalade, the latter sold by weight and wrapped in a waxy paper. I'd carry it to the tiny vaudevillian theatre next door and eat while watching burlesque dancing girls in scanty costumes who shared the stage with comics that I couldn't understand.
Jerry introduced me to Mimi and Red Grooms, the Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens and the Piazza Uffizzi. I met a French painter, Daniel Milhaud at a gathering of local intelligentsia. He grew up surrounded by his father Darius' friends. Notable Stravinski, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and so on. A few years before, Daniel traveled across the USA on a motorcycle with Bob Blackburn. No wonder his English was impeccable.
We traveled around the Tuscan countryside in Daniel's Citroen CV2, stopping to draw and paint animals and farmyards...sharing Bolla, homemade cheeses and pane. Exploring Vinci; the presence of Leonardo flowed through the hills.
I fell in love with the Etruscan town Fiesole 11 and rented a studio and bedroom from a French-Canadian female friend of Daniel's. She had twin sons I Gemelli (1960) who spoke their own language that no one else really understood! Olive trees sparkled in the sun, white oxen pulled plows over the terraced hills and, in season, margaritas or poppies covered the fields. I began to paint flowers, trees and people. Wealthy girls "doing the year abroad" partied while I painted. They introduced me to Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and a real American gigolo. He told me there was no place for love in his life, "You know what I mean."
The distance from Florence to Fiesole was enough to warrant some type of wheels. A Vespa seemed the best solution. I found a used one for $60+ dollars and looked forward to some lessons before I could take it out of the shop. Silly me; a month or so went by before any Italian male would take it upon himself to teach a female how to ride it alone. It never occurred that I was one of the only females around riding solo!
Fiesole Studio (1961) remains a precious mind-fragment in essence and as a painting. After the last brush stroke, I stepped outside and followed the walled roads downhill to San Dominico. Noting the stillness and absence of people or animals I felt as if I owned the world.
When I found out that Frenchmen had wives and mistresses I left on a train with friends in search of the Vivona and Ferrara heritage in Sicily. From there Africa!
Jerry, my housemate, and I hitched a ride from Palermo to my father's birthplace, Alcamo. My relatives couldn't understand how we magically appeared. I was too embarrassed to explain, not knowing what they would think of me if I told the truth. That night I slept with a distant female cousin in a massive wood bed with a stall and donkey some 20' away. Strangers languages and worlds apart in bed not saying a word.
Another cousin was leaving for the army. An all day festival was held including an Odyssey-like monologue by the honored man for entertainment. It felt like we stood for three hours listening to the rhythm and flow of words unknown to us. Sicilian is definitely different from Italian.
We left the way we came - picked up along the road. Just my female companion and I continued our exploration of the island. We had missed the boat to Algiers. Two young men followed us constantly until we managed to lose them around Erice. A postman dropped us off angrily in the middle of the country near a desolate farm house. Don't know what he expected of us!
Shortly after arriving at the doorway the owner forced us at rifle point up the narrow wooden staircase. We stood in the almost bare room numbly looking at each other. Fortunately within a minute or two another man entered downstairs and called out to our captor. He went down to sell him some grain and we followed after running down the stairs and out onto the hillside!
Decent women did not travel without a male escort. There was no way out of our predicament until we returned to port; we cut short our stay and I never hitched a ride there or anywhere else once I returned to the train at Messina.
My housemate left for Quebec and I went to live with her friend Luisa Buoninsegna (of Duccio di Boninsegna 1255-1318 ancestry) in San Domenico. Luisa was French and had 3 sons close to my age. She was living with a German psychiatrist after her husband left her in a difficult financial situation.
Once again, a new art form, carving linoleum utilizing Etruscan and Roman figures and antique writing. Luisa and I made shirts and used the blocks to print on them. She taught me the process of batiking.
Marco, the eldest, was very political. I too became interested in Socialist views. Read Marx in Italian and went to meetings. He made me sabalgione for breakfast.
Another reason for living with this family was my increasingly poor health.
Haphazard eating and living conditions took their toll on my digestive system. Every one seemed to suffer from the same malady - '"mal di fegato" or bad liver. With this general diagnosis it became obvious that an Italian doctor would not suffice. Although I was offered a job for an American broadcasting station; I set sail once more for the USA. I broke out in hives as the ship neared the port in NYC; I did not want to return to the USA.
Longings for Italy inspired me to do a collage using oil sticks, bark, pencil and cut paper, Olive Pickers (1961). The days spent picking olives, eating sausage, cheese and bread with virgin oil remains a singularly Tuscan tidbit for me to recall.