by Bluto Ray
You’re late for an appointment in downtown Palermo. The traffic was insane, the one-way streets ran you in circles, but, at last, you’ve found a space in a dark alley just big enough for your car. As you open the door and step out, a young man approaches.
“How long will you be?” he asks, smiling. You’re taken aback. You realize he wants money and you’re intimidated.
“About fifteen minutes,” you respond. It’s a lie but he might be a car thief. “How much is it?”
“Whatever you want,” he says with a shrug. You cough up a few euros and he thanks you graciously.
After an hour passes, you rush back to find your car safe and sound. As you pull out of the alley, you pass the young man who nods and flashes another smile. You feel taken and curse him under your breath. But as time goes on, you start to look for illicit parking attendants like him, and even feel uncomfortable leaving your car without paying somebody to protect it.
In southern Italy, paying the pizzo (in Sicilian, “u pizzu”) can feel like the natural order of things. The nineteenth-century grain farmers who turned over most of the harvest to overlords were expected to give an additional scoop, the pizzu, or beakful, to the estate guards. Thus, “wetting the beak” (“fari vagnari u pizzu”) became the tribute paid to the middlemen--the mafiosi who guaranteed distant landlords a smooth operation under threat of violence.