I arrived in my Catanian hostel and sat in the lobby, drinking coffee, wondering what the hell I was going to do in this city today. Upstairs in my room people were still asleep but it was now 11. I went back up and asked, “Is everyone awake now?” A couple of standing gents shook their heads. The sheets nearest me rolled over. I whispered, “Sorry.” We walked outside the room and met, Dan and Angus, a couple of Aussies. We were going to go to the market together but Angus was brushing his teeth so we waited. In the meanwhile the hostelier came upstairs and woke the sleeping man up. The hostel had an 11 o’ clock checkout policy; the maid had to clean. The man in bed was jet black and from across the room I saw the ghostly whites of his eyes. They were yellow. He rolled out of bed, hungover from last night when he, Ali, had taken out the Australians for horse meat and beer. They joked and laughed in that way hungover people do when they’re still kind of drunk, yet to come down.
Ali wore heavy ebony necklaces and dressed methodically. I complimented the necklaces and he let me try them on. They were heavy and authentic. Then he asked if we wanted weed and said for 25 euro he could hook it up. So me and the Aussies gave him 25 each, then walked outside together in the beautiful day, past the calls of the vendors and their beautiful produce and the boys started looking at some tomatoes. I needed to get cash from BNL where they don’t charge for withdrawals, are some kind of BofA extension. Ali volunteered to come with me. On the way in the bright Sicilian sunshine, we had a shot of espresso for .70 cents each. He thanked everyone in rapid Italian, asked where the BNL was. The men at the bar laughed. The espresso was pure crema, delicious. I forgot about the Aussies; Ali and I were doing our own thing.
After the bank, we went to a cafe where I had a panini with meat and cheese and tomatoes and olive oil. Ali had a salad. He knew everyone, they all loved him. He made them smile. Then he led me to a hip bar near the university, where a tranny and a chubby punk Asian girl sat next to us. He drank three glasses of white wine. The girl had an acoustic guitar I played, then we walked. Ali was drunk and swaying visibly. He turned to me and told me the plan: I give him 300 euro, and he gives me 350 euro back, after he sells his drugs. That was his profession, and come on, this guy is a migrant worker, in this rough economy–of course he sells drugs for a living. All afternoon long he’d been saying, “Peace, love, happiness. Rastafaright.” So if I lent him this money, of course he’d give it back to me. I mean, everyone knows him in this town, he wouldn’t rip me off, would he?
So I gave him my money I had withdrawn earlier. I mean, even if he did fuck me over, this was an adventure, right? Here is this guy who I just met, talking about turning over drug money, and we’re walking through Sicily on a beautiful spring day. But I mean come on, he wouldn’t do that. This is Ali, this guy’s a local celebrity. He can bring a smile to anyone’s face. We walked past a couple of laborers. “Laboro bene,” he said, “You guys are good workers,” and he totally made their day. Ali said I should go to the bank and take out another 300 and he’d give me 700 total, a return of 150 on top of the money he needed. And I looked at him and said, “Man, this is a lot of money. If you don’t give it back to me, I’m fucked.” And he said, “Of course I give it back to you. Look in my eyes.” He made me take off my sunglasses. “I swear to God, I give you your money back.” “When?” “Tonight. Two French men at hostel want half.” I knew this was the way the weed game worked, the more money the better the deal. He said after we flopped the weed, we’d go back to the bar and I could have sex with the Sicilian girl who let me play her guitar. He said she liked me. This was convincing, part of the adventure. Even though she wasn’t that attractive, I had never had sex with an Asian girl, not to mention an Italian Asian girl.
I liked Ali, really I did. Above all, I wanted to trust him, wanted to give him the chance to be good to me, to come back and be friends and go out for a drink and have it all be good. I wanted to go to BNL to withdraw, but he said, “Come on, it takes too long. I’ll buy you a beer later tonight.” And I said okay and withdrew the money and gave it to him. And he could tell I was nervous but he calmed me, “Don’t worry, I bring you the money, don’t worry. Va bene. Benebenebene.” I breathed deep and said, “It’s cool. I trust you Ali.” And I said it again, so he would know that I was giving him my trust.
Then we took a cab to the mafia part of town and he told the cabbie to stop and let us out and I was scared he’d try to leave so I went with him and there he was swinging high fives with everyone and jabbering on in Italian. And the guy he was looking for didn’t have the good stuff so we went back to where the cab waited, drove up a few blocks and he told me to wait here, that he’d be back. Meanwhile I really had to go to the bathroom so I got out, afraid not only of the mobsters but that he’d run away and I’d be stuck with the cab fare on top of all the euro I gave him and so I walked past a couple of guys sunning themselves, fat Sicilians, and into an espresso bar and asked two guys behind the bar to use their bathroom and they said the water doesn’t work, which was most likely a lie and then I looked around and gave up.
I walked back to the cab worried, but the cabbie didn’t seem too upset. I thought about how everyone knew Ali and I knew where he was staying so that if he didn’t come back he wouldn’t be too hard to find. Then I saw him, strutting his African swagger and I breathed a sigh of relief. He came back. He gave me a little present, wrapped in a paper towel and I felt good and we repeated, benebenebene, sisisi, muhumdiallah and went back to the cafe for a drink to relax. But I worried when he gave the cabbie a 20, which was a lot, right?
He ordered me a beer. I told him I’m a poet and I started to compose poetry in Italian, arbore e fragile como il amici, como la birra…and I asked him about his family, trying to build a connection so he would feel like a total dick if he decided to deceive me. And we relaxed and sat and drank and yes the girl was still there and I played her guitar again but she had a female friend who was sitting on her lap kissing her. And Ali had a second beer and said we would leave after that.
He said it would be better if I didn’t go with him to make the deal because I was a tourist and the police would know. He was going to send me home in a cab but I didn’t have any money and the cab driver didn’t agree on the fare and I told him I knew the way. He said don’t tell anyone and I zipped my mouth shut and pretended to throw away the key. He said 30 minutes and not to worry, that Ali always comes back and since he had before, since he had been building my trust all afternoon, I believed him.
An hour and a half later and I still with all my heart wanted to believe that my friend Ali was going to come back and at least give me back my money without the 150 euro extra he promised. Because he said how he likes people and wants to help them when he can and this was evidenced when the accordion player came over to us at the bar and he paid him a few coins and we talked about the beauty of music and I waxed poetic on how it’s like God’s breath.
Ali had cleared out. The Australians regretted that I had left them. They figured he might try to ditch me and run off with our money. I didn’t tell them how much I gave him. I was ashamed. And it was then that I realized what I had done. I had made a big bet on human morality. 550 euro that my newfound friend would return the money I lent him.
A German was also staying in our room. He also got swindled fifty euro the other day. Ali had said he was going to get him souvenirs. He just never did. The Aussies were planning to hunt him down– they had all been to his hangout the night before, Mama Africa. But I was exhausted. I had woken up at 430 in the morning and flown in and walked around and lost all this money and I just wanted to sleep it all away. So I did.
Then at 2 in the morning, the Aussies and the German came back gloating! Ali had been there all right, and didn’t want to give them anything, calling them bastards, but then the cops showed up and eventually he gave it back. So they came back in all amped up on adrenaline and woke me from my content sleep, my Buddhist dreams about how that man will maybe take that money and use it to feed his Senegalese family instead of getting drunk at Mama Africa and I had violent sweaty dreams later, full of hate. Because it dawned on me that I could get my money back, and the possibility, the being stuck between not knowing and knowing was generally worse than the acceptance and acknowledgement that I had lost a month’s rent, which it almost ironically, nearly exactly was.
So the next morning I wondered what made me want to believe in the good of humanity so badly? Jesus and Buddha. And the desire to be free of money, like Anthony. But what really turned my gears was knowing that he was trying to fuck me the whole time, and that our pretend friendship was all just part of his plan and I was letting him fuck me, hoping he wouldn’t, deep down knowing he would but hoping, with all my might that I could prove the naysayers wrong. That there is good in humanity and the bonds of friendship can be stronger than the bonds of evil. Or perhaps subconsciously I wanted to buy an adventure, with drugs and mafia, and Sicilian whores, part of me just going along for the ride, without even thinking about how this would affect me later.