Grey Film: The Gondolier
by Aaron Akira
illustrator Sam Wolfe Connelly
In Puglia in 1893 Gaetano is born as his mother washes clothes in the Adriatic. His father, Gaetano Sr., is displeased that his white shirts are pink after the event.
Puglia is known chiefly for banditry at this time. Gaetano Sr. leaves for Venice in 1898, seeking work. He promises to send for the family. Months pass. Gaetano finds his mother weeping one morning: she has read about a massacre in Milan, where at King Umberto’s direction cannons were turned on demonstrators. Gaetano’s mother is convinced his father was among those killed. Gaetano explains that his father is not in Milan, but his mother prefers to believe Gaetano Sr. is dead rather than face abandonment. She dies the pink shirts black. To support the family, she relies on basket weaving, and the kindness of her brother, a one-eyed bandit.
The following year, King Umberto is assassinated by another Gaetano. Gaetano Jr. fancies his father was the assassin, despite knowing that the assassin was a man named Bresci who had lived in Paterson, New Jersey. Gaetano, age ten, commits his first crime, accompanying his uncle to steal pigs from a passing caravan under cover of night. His inexperience, the darkness, and the fact that his uncle has only one eye all combine to make the raid a clumsy affair. They wind up covered in feces with only one runty pig to show for their efforts. Gaetano’s mother is furious. Gaetano’s uncle allows Gaetano to keep the pig, which Gaetano raises until it becomes quite fat. His mother slaughters it without hesitation. Gaetano’s uncle tells him of the Wright brothers. Gaetano’s dreams alternate between images of airplanes and the fate of his pig—fennel sausage.
Gaetano leaves for Venice at age twelve. He pens a note for his mother in which he inadvertently quotes his father. In Venice he becomes a gondolier, working as a stand-in for a co-owner of a shared vessel. Gaetano enjoys the work, but is oppressed by his boss, a cruel Friulian who sings too often. Gaetano dreams of stealing the gondola and rowing to Croatia. One day he is flagged down by a bearded American in a pinstripe suit, who says he has built a replica of Venice in America, and needs gondoliers. Gaetano signs up and ships for New York with twenty-three other rangy grifter gondoliers.
On the boat to America he befriends a gondolier his age called Orazio. Neither can believe his luck at being selected to travel to the land of the Wright brothers. The man in pinstripes visits them often, bearing astonishing descriptions of Venice of America.
In New York the gondoliers board a cross-country train. During a layover in Missouri, news of the San Francisco earthquake arrives. The man in pinstripes, distraught, boards the gondoliers in a barn for several nights. On the first morning Gaetano and Orazio watch from a loft as the farmer’s young daughter milks cows. She struggles carrying the milk pails and Gaetano descends to help her. She is a sickly girl, not suited to physical labor. Her name is Rita. She wants to be an actress. Rita and Gaetano strike up a rapport over the next day, discussing President Teddy Roosevelt, whom they both admire. Soon the man in pinstripes receives word: Los Angeles is intact. Gaetano waves goodbye from the train window to Rita, who appears ill.
In L.A. the gondoliers can’t believe how wide everything is. They skip around in the streets and are almost hit by carts. The first day of work is miserable. News has arrived of the extent of the quake in San Francisco, and the pier is empty of revelers. Meanwhile, twenty-four pan-Italian gondoliers, dressed in Abbott Kinney’s quaint idea of traditional garb, punt around the empty canals, telling each other to shut up. Minor fights break out, involving oars.
The nation recovers. Gaetano becomes fluent in English. Orazio is fired after making a pass at the female companion of one of his charges, while the man was still aboard. Orazio becomes a rail car operator. Former President Teddy Roosevelt is shot while campaigning, but survives because the bullet was slowed by a rolled-up speech in his pocket. Gaetano becomes a popular gondolier, but, shyer than Orazio, he fails to impress any lady charges—until one day he re-encounters Rita, now a young actress, recently arrived to Los Angeles. They become friends. She has a moment near the spotlight, when numerous producers take her on gondola rides, all overseen by Gaetano. War breaks out in Europe. Rita lands a good role, but falls ill and must refuse it. Gaetano nurses her back to health. She falls in love with him.
Gaetano and Orazio are drafted. Rita marries Gaetano before he leaves. Sex in a boat.
In France, Gaetano learns of the influenza outbreak back home. Certain that Rita will die, he becomes inconsolable. He keeps her letters wadded up in his breast pocket, which saves his life, when he, like Roosevelt, is shot in the chest with a pistol, his battalion having charged far behind enemy lines. He is rescued and sent home, but remains convinced someone as weak as Rita will have been among the first to die of the flu.
He and Rita are stunned to see each other alive. She says the flu hit hardest those with strong immune systems; weaklings were spared. Rita and Gaetano soon have a baby, Gaetano, whom they call Tanino. With Orazio, who returned from the war with one leg, Gaetano attempts wheelchair-based confidence scams. Orazio, frustrated with Gaetano’s credulity, abandons the partership and goes into real estate.
Gaetano assumes Orazio’s old rail car gig. He doesn’t enjoy it as much as gondoliering: there is no personal interaction. Venice is annexed by Los Angeles. Gaetano watches with Tanino as most of the canals he used to navigate are paved over. Gaetano and Rita discuss moving to Italy, where Mussolini seems to be cleaning things up very efficiently. But one day, while walking beside Orazio, Tanino is hit by an automobile. The doctors are uncertain he will walk again. Father and son take inspiration from the recent flight of Charles Lindbergh, and commence rigorous physical therapy. Orazio, who has since prospered in real estate, promises he will pay for an expensive operation for Tanino.
The stock market crashes. Orazio admits he lost everything and will never be able to pay for Tanino’s operation. Rita and Gaetano plan to take Tanino to Missouri, where her family can help care for him. Not long after the Crash, however, oil is discovered in Venice. A well is established in Gaetano’s backyard. Soon there are pumps throughout Venice. The streets and the remaining canals become choked with pollution. Gaetano sells his house and his lucrative well to Orazio, and he takes Rita and Tanino on a farewell gondola tour of the last oil-slicked canals of Venice of America.