Give Me that Old-Time Profession! (3) This is #3 in a series. The first one, with the
introduction to the series, is here; then part 2part 4, part 5, part 6)
The Fig vendor. Not
just any fig, but what Italians call the "Indian
fig." (I'm not sure if it is even a fig.) This
fruit (is it even a fruit?) is what I grew up calling
a "prickly pear," the thing that grows on a "prickly
pear cactus." Let me do some research: Opuntia ficus-indica.
Good. "Indian fig" and "prickly pear" are both
legitimate English usages. Good. Uh-oh—a fig (aka syconium) is a
"false-fruit!" Great. A fruit is the "mature ovary of
a flowering plant." OK—I think. A cactus is a
kind of thistle. (I should have stayed awake in Botany
101.) The fruit of this plant (is it a plant?) is also
called "tuna." (I'm just copying here, pardner, but
there is something fishy going on.) Do not confuse
this thing (is it a thing?) with another "Indian fig"
called Ficus benghalensis, which is a Banyan
I love prickly pears as long as someone else peels
them for me. My most recent non-loving encounter with
the Indian fig was when I showed off my considerable
juggling skills at a local fruit-stand. Instead of
reaching for apples or oranges, I chose the
fruit-thing with thousands of almost invisible sharp
filaments called, I imagine, "prickles." I spent
painful days deprickling my palms. That never would
have happened if I had been jugging plain figs. Or
even Banyan trees.
Old clothes vendor.
This one is probably gone forever as a profession.
Most people give old clothes to local charities such
as the Sisters of Calcutta, who run a shelter in the
historic center of town. Recently, the city put in
place, alongside the rows of segregated trash bins
(for metal, plastic, paper, etc.), a number of bins
for articles of clothing. They have disappeared,
probably because too many people were rummaging
through them for usable items to wear—not a bad
idea, in principle, except that they left the items
they didn't want just lying on street. The city's
solution was to remove the bins. Flea markets still
abound in Naples and used clothes often wind up
there. It may very well have been the
flea-marketeers, rather than people in genuine need,
doing all that rummaging.
The Shoe-shine boy.
The label on the card reads Pulizza-Stivali,
a boot-cleaner, or what used to be called a
"boot-black." Interestingly, the most common
name in Naples for this profession—which has almost disappeared—is the
dialect word sciuscià, a word of
English origin. It was the local pronunciation of
the word "shoeshine" and came into Neapolitan
dialect when the Allies moved into Naples in late
1943. The word is also the name of a prominent 1947 film in the
genre of Italian
Neo-Realism. To my knowledge, there is only
one itinerant sciuscià left in
Naples, an elderly gentleman who sets up his box
outside of the via Toledo (aka via Roma) entrance to
the Galleria Umberto
almost every day and seems to do a good business.
There are still a few established shops with proper
chairs as well as magazines to read while you wait,
but those places are disappearing, too.
Street musicians, of course,
still exist all over the world. The term
"viggianesi," however, to mean "street
musicians" was another tough one. Almost no
one still recognizes this term except as a
demonym meaning "persons from Viggiano," a
town well south of Salerno; it is inland and
in the Basilicata region of Italy at 3,000
feet amidst the Lucanian Appenine mountains.
It turns out that the inhabitants of Viggiano
have a very long tradition of seasonal
emigration as musicians, typically with harps!
I have never seen street musicians in Naples
with anything close to the instrumentation
shown in this drawing. The most common
instrumentalists are solo accordions; there is
also a smattering of solo violinists, As far
as groups go, I have seen small jazz groups, a
roving band of Peruvian Pan-pipe players (say
that one five times fast!) and even, recently,
a klezmer band. At Christmas time, there are
also the typical Neapolitan zampognari.
It must have been around 1900 when a
group of "Viggianesi" street musicians last
appeared on the streets of Naples, a logical
market for anyone from the economically
depressed areas of southern Italy seeking to
make a bit of money in the big city. Apparently,
the tradition of exporting musicians was so
strong in Viggiano that some houses there still
bear witness to that tradition in that some façades (photo, right) bear bas-reliefs of musical
instruments. (Notice the "folk grip" of the
violinist, or "fiddler" in the above drawing;
also, I don't know why the harp is traditional