I FIRST SAW BILLY ITALY on a still, cold, early spring Sunday, when he glided like a promise into the park. I was hypnotised by this should-be Italian film star, wearing an impeccable white linen suit. His hair was like blue-black bird-wings, framing the facial structure of a Russian Christ icon. He had the coloring of rich wood, and I’d never seen anything like him before, nor (thinking about it even now) since. Billy’s entourage, as impressive as they were, faded into the pale whenever they got into close proximity to him. It sounds like a cliché, but he radiated such beauty that he had the effect of the sun overwhelming a forty-watt light bulb. I was a goner. I don’t like bandying words like ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ around, but I had no choice in the matter.
After that first sight, I scoured the streets for months, which, considering my attention span at the time, was forever. I didn’t even know his name. Just when I had almost resigned myself to the idea that I would never see him again, I did. It was about two months after that first sighting. He was no longer wearing his beautiful white garments. As a matter of fact, on closer inspection, I could see the signs of early homelessness. But it didn’t detract from his glow, and it didn’t deter me in the least. If you put my scenario, and Billy’s together into the realms of reason, it makes no sense. But as I said, this was something I had no choice in. It was not as if we made small talk and found we shared common interests and hobbies. Nor was it something animalistic and primeval. We both had read the script and were on the same page. It was like he was sitting there waiting for me. I’m not being mystical. It was fact, and I didn’t question for a second that I was meant to be with this man. Sometimes, in order to believe, one must suspend beliefs.
Billy Italy was fourteen years old when he came by boat as an immigrant to the United States from a tiny town in Calabria, the toe of southern Italy’s boot. His mother, who was pregnant with his younger sister at the time, was grabbed by customs officials at Ellis Island in a case of mistaken identity. Speaking no English, she was carted off to Bellevue, and stayed there until relatives were able to track her down. She never fully recovered from her introduction to America.
Billy had never seen cars, television, or heroin till he arrived on these shores. He got strung out on dope almost immediately. His younger brother was also strung out. The golden land of opportunity in this instance was leaden with grief. Now, at twenty-nine, Billy’s poor body was prematurely failing him. A few months earlier he had nearly bled to death when his spleen exploded while he was in the waiting room of a hospital, where he was receiving treatment for a blood infection that had made his leg swell up. He had the luck of the unlucky.
His family, worn out from years of this affliction that they never had reason to conceive of, were trying tough love as a last resort. Hence Billy’s present lack of a home. I think he knew he was dying by the time we met. I had finally and thankfully run into him again at that same park where I had first seen him. He was sitting on a bench, holding court, encircled by a group of nodding, scratching dope fiends. I swallowed my ever-present shyness in these matters, joined the opiated circle, and joined in the conversation, which I seem to recall was about positive thinking, absurdly enough. We kept smiling at each other, in that conspiratorial way that only two souls who have known each other since the beginning of time can. We just started talking earnestly; there was no chit-chat, nor chatter, no attempts at creating an impression, or flattery with intent. All that stuff, as delicious as it is, takes time, and time was a luxury we couldn’t afford. Again, it was something we knew without knowing, if you know what I mean. There was a sense of urgency, and though I didn’t know its origins, I knew not to ignore it. Billy kept warning me that this situation could only bring me pain. I was a baby who had no yardstick to measure pain of that magnitude. I’d nod my head like a boxer, but had no intention of heeding his words. We didn’t really even need to use words. We even dreamed the same dreams sometimes. This did not seem eerie or especially strange to us. It just was.
This broken-nosed Christ was charming, frighteningly handsome, witty and warm. He spoke six languages, was funny as hell, had perfect manners, an astounding intellect and a rich spiritual core. He was also one of the lamest hustlers ever. He really was not made for the streets. One of his most stupid hustles was pretending to be an undercover cop in order to scam the weed off some potheads, so he could resell it for some junk and get straight. They knew he was no narc; they even knew exactly who he was. He was lucky not to have gotten lynched. I believe he was relieved when his hustles didn’t work. The guilt over his addiction was killing him just as much as the actual addiction was.
It took us quite a while to get this destiny thing off the ground. For one, he was of no fixed address. He slept at friends’ houses, on trains, at an ex-girlfriend’s Fifth Avenue penthouse when her husband was out of town, on park benches, anywhere he could. One rainy night, while with some buddies of mine, I ran into him in on South Broadway. We were cordial, as his refusal to phone me had kicked up my pride. That pride got me as far as the next corner. I ditched my pals and ran back to Billy, who just looked at me and said, ‘I knew you would come.’ And of course he did, and of course I would. We spent the night talking, huddled together in a freezing apartment he had the keys to. Again he kept warning me that this situation was rife with hazard. He was trying so hard to do the right thing. In the morning he took me to breakfast, and we arranged to meet that afternoon in Lincoln Park.
Billy and I were not good around other people. When we were alone with each other, we could ignore the impossible nature of our union – well, sometimes we could – but in public there were too many mirrors for us to see ourselves as others saw us: a foolish teenager and a homeless dope fiend on his last legs. Later on that same day Billy got jealous and we argued. We both possessed hot tempers, to put it mildly. Billy called me a child, which though true, was at the time was the worst insult in the book as far as I was concerned. Then he waited to see I got on my bus safely. Billy, who was barely able to look after himself, always looked out for me. I got on that bus all defiant, but my baby heart was broken.
Once again, he was on the missing list, and I was on the hunt for him. Eventually he ended up in Spanish Harlem, living in the basement of a tenement with T.C. and Blood, two West Indian guys who took him in. He called me from there and that was that. It was the American Bicentennial: the fourth of July 1976. We declared our independence from the rest of the world. I was sixteen years old. Upon my arrival, I washed his feet. They were in terrible shape, from the broken flip-flops that passed as shoes. The basement was pretty cool, with a bathtub right by the front door. The front door was the only door, so any maneuver, in the name of modesty, had to be announced. ‘I’m having a bath now’, ‘Better not go in there, Blood’s having a bath’, ‘I need to go to the ladies’ room’ . . . Thus ran our conversations.
Friday was mango day. Three mangoes for a dollar. They were like manna from heaven. Then there was the Horn and Hardart, on Eighty-sixth Street. We’d order coffee and eat the chili peppers that sat in bowls on every table. To be healthy, and if we had an extra 75 cents, we’d go to the Papaya King, and have a papaya juice with its secret life-giving properties and Aztec enzymes. We truly believed the hype they preached on the wall. It was our cure-all. It tasted like condensed milk and syrup, but it made us feel better, and I still make the pilgrimage occasionally, when my body is just screaming for Aztec enzymes. When we visited our families we would eat like boa constrictors, stockpiling vast amounts, to be digested later, downtown. While on Eighty-sixth Street, where we’d also do a lot of our panhandling, we used to talk to this couple from the Midwest who were out there with their guitars, busking. In their repertoire was a version of Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’, for which Billy would always give them one of the dollars that we had just begged. He liked the words of that song, and felt very protective of this nice, but naive, pair.
Since Billy spoke so many languages so perfectly, we’d go to, let’s say, a pizzeria, and while I stood silently making ‘hungry puppy’ eyes, he would explain in Italian how we just got off the boat from Italy, and were trying to get to California, and this whole spiel. We’d usually end up leaving with a bit of food and a few bucks. I thought the whole thing was an adventure – as I said I was just a baby in this world. But Billy was proud, and these little scams were killing him. Billy had an unearthly charisma about him, something that made people want to help him. When he spoke, he would draw you in with wit and intelligence that was never mean-spirited. Looking like Jesus Christ didn’t hurt his cause either.
Billy and I would have terrible fights triggered by nothing – irritable from the July heat, hunger and the overall hopelessness of the situation. Our age difference eventually proved to be a real problem, him being a grown man and myself, despite my illusions of sophistication, just a child. I have always been pretty politicized, and at the time I was still possessed by the idealism of youth. I was growing restless in our basement nest. It was still all about excitement for me. Billy was so tired, some days it felt to me as though he was a thousand years old. That man was beaten. He really didn’t have any fight left in him. Getting through the day was nearly an insurmountable chore.
We talked vaguely of going to California for real, thinking that the healthy environment and sun would fix everything. But we could barely get it together to travel the half-hour to our former homes. I’d go back every three or four days, but Billy could only go home when his mother, whose love for him was too huge to be ‘tough’, was there alone. So that in itself was a wedge between us. I think a lot about those fights Billy would deliberately stage, in an effort to make me go home for good. He felt so guilty about everything, and I wasn’t budging. The conversation would run from, ‘I don’t like you wearing that’, and end with ‘What would you do if I hung myself?’ These ‘fights’ would end once we started laughing at how crazy we sounded.
Around that time, I developed these two weird almost burn-like blisters on the tops of my feet, which made wearing shoes so painful. They seemed to come out of nowhere and healed the same way, leaving two matching little crucifixion scars. It was weird, and it’s weird that something that insignificant is something I’m remembering now as important.
At Billy’s insistence and to quell my family’s pleas, I drove with them the six hours to Canada to see my sister. Billy reckoned he could pull things together and sort himself out quicker without having me around to worry about for a few days. The day I was leaving, we went to see an apartment on the city line, which we figured out we could rent with Billy’s next disability check. So that was the new plan.
T.C. and Trudy from next door found Billy dead on the Saturday night before I got back. He had O.D.’d.
I heard from a friend up in Lincoln Park, which is where we had arranged to meet, that the wake and funeral were already arranged to take place a few days later. The friend, Gumby, filled me in on details, like how Billy’s older brother had to go downtown to identify his body, which hospital they had taken him to, who had found him, and so on. It sounds crazy but I didn’t believe it. For days it didn’t really sink in and I kept thinking it was a mistake, or some elaborate scam. I did what I was supposed to do, but I harbored this notion that the phone would ring any minute with Billy on the line telling me where our next rendezvous point would be. The idea of a world without him in it was inconceivable to me.
It was so strange, because the night he had passed, I woke to find a big bouquet of roses next to me. Now, I know that there couldn’t have possibly been such flowers present, but I had certainly seen them, and was not curious or even surprised. This all transpired at the exact same time that Billy had passed, though we were six hundred miles apart.
The wake was a nightmare. I had left him a man, and now returned to a mortician’s creation. They even straightened his nose. I could barely look. There was much howling. I’ve never heard such painful cries. His mother and all these other Italian women kept repeating, ‘Don’t you break your mother’s heart too.’ I wished our neighbor, T.C., had come with me. He was Billy’s family as much as anyone was, but he was scared to go there, thinking he wouldn’t be welcome. I walked the fifteen blocks down to Eighty-sixth Street to tell the busker couple that Billy was gone. The girl cried when I told her. They were truly upset by the news. We never even knew their names, nor they ours. They were just so innocent that I didn’t have the heart to tell them how he had died. I lied and said he had been sick. I never went to see them again after that, as I couldn’t stand to see the sorrow in their puppy eyes. That Cat Stevens song still cuts me.
I didn’t stay in our apartment for long; there was no reason to anymore. There was nowhere that felt right. Mainly I just ran, bouncing between diversion and oblivion, unable to stay still, lest despair grab me by the throat, and choke me. I was wrecked. A guy we both knew tried to shock me out of my deep funk, by putting a pistol to my temple, and asking if I really wanted to die. It was a desperately unwise attempt to shake me out of the cationic state I medicated myself into every night. Despite my talk to the contrary, I still had enough self-preservation instinct to get the hell out.
For a while after Billy died I kept thinking I saw him on subways. I’d run into the car because I thought he was there. Sometimes I still feel him close, and I believe he’s helped keep me safe over the years. Some years later, while on a visit home from England, I went to his grave. His younger brother had died a few years after Billy had, also from a heroin overdose. I was walking around with two bundles of daisies for what seemed like eternity. I just couldn’t find the plots. Once again, it was right when I was ready to give up on ever finding him again that I discovered where he lay.
— Little Annie