Firenze: The Bookseller from Senegal / Il Venditore di Libri di Senegal

I saw him crossing the street out of the corner of my eye. Victor and Eleanor were climbing a heavy, wrought-iron lamppost like two domesticated Florentine monkeys.

He often comes to the park at Piazza D’Azeglio. Dapper, fedora, medium height, well-built, wide smile. He carried small bags and trays of merchandise with him.

I do not always talk with this vendor, but he is far and away the friendliest of the Africans that come through the park, hoping to sell some of their wares to parents, perhaps further convinced by a wheedling child if the vendor is lucky that day.

I have also spoken to his counterparts, who come through the piazza with their children’s books, and sometimes poetry books.

“Do you like it here?” I asked a hard-faced one, a few Saturdays before.
“No. Florence is the worst,” he said to me, scowling. “No work, no money.”

Mr. Dapper Fedora came up on my right side, as Victor swung around the lamppost and Eleanor sat on its Art Deco lion’s knee.
“Buongiorno,” he said.
I greeted him back.
I will confess that, at first, I did not feel like having this interaction. It is fraught with guilt, as I watch the vendors amble around town, trying, trying, trying to sell their bilingual books about Africa, the text neatly laid out in Italian and English on each page.

Vic’s preferred parkour lamppost, Piazza D’Azeglio.

But this vendor is the nicest one. He never intrudes, and does not become angry or frustrated by a “no, grazie,” but moves on to the next parent or small group. I have seen other vendors stalk off in a huff after being rebuffed. I hate to refuse them, knowing that this is their everyday struggle, as well as the routine racism and lack of acceptance I can only imagine they encounter in Firenze. They are obvious outsiders, and unwelcome ones.

African vendor, San Lorenzo.
Getty Images as credited.

My ambivalence about these interactions is also exacerbated by the fact that, very often, I do not have cash on hand for the vendors. Why would I, at the park across the street? I am frequently chasing out two small children for fresh air with nothing more than a soccer ball and the housekey. When I say, mi dispiace (I am sorry) and that I do not have any money, I am regarded dolefully, as though I were lying to evade them. But I am telling them the truth – the days that I have no cash on hand, I really have no cash on hand.

The vendor brought out his books. They were small, colorful, bilingual. It’s ingenious, really. I admire the creative initiative of the person who saw the value in giving itinerant Africans books about Africa to sell, along with their regular stock of Kleenex, socks, and lighters. I have another regular vendor friend, Assan, who sells on the corner of Borgo Pinti and Via dei Giusti, greeting everyone with a smile and a wave. I have bought a lot of socks from Assan that are truthfully too large for me.

The vendor gave a book to Victor, who is old enough to be polite. Victor thumbed through the book.

“Where are you from?” I asked the vendor in Italian.
“Senegal,” he nodded.
“Alors, vous parlez francais,” I said. So you speak French.
He brightened. “Oui!”
“C’est mieux,” I said. It’s better, meaning in reference to my Italian.
“Does he like the book?” he asked me, pointing to Victor.
“No,” Victor said. So much for politesse.
The vendor tried with another book. “Forse un altro libro,” he said. Maybe another book.
Victor thumbed through that book, too, from the lamppost.
“No,” he said.

I discreetly checked the price. At almost seven euros for a thin book that my kids probably would not read, I was not tempted.

We own a similar book that I bought last year. We have read it together at bedtime, all 50 pages or so; the plot treats two brothers and a pack of monkeys that connives against them to burn down their family’s entire cornfield, then kidnaps the smaller brother so that the older brother gets in a heap of trouble with his parents for losing his younger brother in the burnt cornfield. The book goes on to describe how the monkeys threaten to torture and possibly kill the younger brother they have kidnapped, and who is now up in a tree. The family is eventually safely reunited, but it doesn’t look good for most of the book. The last time we read it, the kids had about 50 questions of the what the hell variety. So it’s not on a frequent rotation.

Eleanor spied his bangles in another bag and began touching the bracelets.
“What else do you have?” I asked him.
That was the right question, because out came all his Kleenex, socks, lighters, bracelets of every kind and description.
Victor was also interested in the bracelets. I tried to talk Eleanor into a bracelet I might later appropriate from her, but Victor selected a bead bracelet in a rasta color scheme, and so Eleanor chose one equal to it.
The book vendor had a fancy trick for sizing down the bracelet for small wrists, and with a quick flick, he removed an inch from each bracelet, and slid the elastic over each child’s hand onto their wrists.
I looked in my wallet. I had a fifty euro note and some change. I gave him all my change, which amount to about three euros.
“Va bene?” I said, slipping it all into his hand.
“Oui, oui,” he replied, relieved to have made a sale.
He walked down past the swings to the next family.

“Mommy, why did you buy us these?” Victor asked, stretching his bracelet with his other hand.
“Mommy used to work with people like him all the time. It was my job.”
“What!” Victor said. “When. What ages were you?”
“Hmm, about 23 to 40,” I said. “I helped people like him for my job. It is not easy for him, Victor.”
“What did you help them do?”
“I helped them stay in their homes with their families,” I said.

I have always been proud of my immigration work. It addressed many of my most deeply-held values. Civic duty. Charity. Humility. Awareness, of both privilege and discrimination. Doing what I could to help people along, when I can. Recalibrating social balance. Channeling legal benefits to those who qualify, and need them most. I miss this work, at times. It was also exhausting work. So much need. Such an unfair world. So many awful stories, so many bad hands dealt.

I used the book I Was an Elephant Salesman when I taught my class on immigration and Italy, in Arezzo five years ago. It is well-written, and accessible. The students liked it; it’s an engaging account, and a narrative backstory on the African vendors, albeit a generation has been born and come up into Italy from Africa since then, and things are far worse now for them in Italy than they were in 1988.

I saw the vendor in his fedora smiling and talking to the next Italian family, inside the fence of the playground. I could read their lips. No grazie. No. No. 

“Where do you think he sleeps, Victor?”
“I don’t know,” said Victor.
I thought how to say what I wanted to say next. “Probably not in a bed as nice and as warm as yours. He might sleep outside, or on a floor with ten friends.”
Victor said nothing.
He looked at the vendor.
“Where’s his mommy and daddy!” Eleanor blurted out.
“Not sure,” I said. “Probably in Africa still.”
“Why!”
“They live there. He is older, he would not live with his mommy and daddy anyway.”
Victor looked up. “Let’s go home.”
We crossed the street after a few large buses rumbled by.
Eleanor’s bracelet snapped and broke on the sidewalk, spilling the tiny plastic red, black, and yellow beads onto the flagstones.

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