Yesterday morning I finally saw Michelina again. If I had looked for her years ago, I would not have had to travel far to find her, she was always at the third or fourth “window” of the station, that’s how she called the glass walls of Termini that face Piazza del Cinquecento.
It’s not that I’m always thinking about Michelina, but when I’d run into her it made me smile. Like when you run into your neighbor, the little old lady who gets all dressed up just to go to the market to buy broccoli. It’s those familiar faces that reassure you just because they’re always there, come rain or come shine, whether you’re ten or fifty, whether you’re happy or pissed off, you can be sure that the little old lady across the way will wake up this morning, put on her best pin and go to the market to buy those blessed broccoli.
It was kind of like that with Michelina. Only that in place of the pin she had a colored button that hung from her collar and instead of broccoli she would go around collecting bottles, not any bottles though, “just the cutest ones.”
I talk about her as if I knew her well, but to tell the truth, it was more a matter of me wanting to get to know her than she wanting to know me.
They told me that she had been living there for twenty years. Twenty years spent at the “windows” of Termini. “Can you imagine that Marica? This poor thing, she went crazy after living on the street so long, now she’s one of our poor friends.” That’s what they would tell me. Now, besides the fact that I don’t like the expression “poor friend,” I swear that when I looked at her she seemed anything but crazy. Come to think of it, we must have seemed like the strange ones to her, when we insisted on giving her a sandwich when she said, “no way, I want lasagna, and if you don’t have lasagna, get outta here cuz I’ve got things to do.” And looking back on it now, I have to admit that it was a pretty sensible request, given the smell of that sandwich.
This is what I know about Michelina: she was Italian, Roman actually, to be precise, she was a little over sixty years old, the last twenty spent at the station, and rumor has it that she deliberately refused the offer of a comfortable home, made by an American gentleman whose hobby at the time was philanthropy. At the moment it appears that he is dedicating himself to saving koalas in Austrailia, but this too has yet to be confirmed.
In any case, the idea that you got from Michelina was that she was ok with living under the “windows.” For as much as I wanted to convince myself that this was true, seeing her there in winter was quite a challenge for my open mindedness. Such was the challenge that one day I could not resist and I went to talk to her. She had already seen me and in fact she did not bat an eye. I don’t know if it was the way that I approached her or the simple fact that I was approaching her that led her to understand what question I was about to ask. The fact is that I didn’t get a chance to say anything because she, sitting in her space under the third “window,” said, “Yes, you want to know if I’m cold, hungry, and maybe if I want to go to the Caritas shelter. I’ll say this to you too, after twenty years, this is my home. Despite the winter, despite sweet little faces that pity me, I’m staying here, you can be sure.”
She said nothing else to me, ever.
I grew up passing though those streets, I grew up knowing that Michelina was there, sitting at her window.
Today, if you pass by, you won’t find Michelina any more.
Today in her place there’s a nice big Italian army truck.
Today that place under the window, like all the other glass walls in Termini, is empty and clean, finally decent.
Today Michelina knows that Termini is no longer her home. But don’t worry. She still says “fuck you” to American philanthropists and stinking sandwiches, and she’s still fighting, even for us.