The year was nineteen eighty-three. Seventeen-year-old Paulo Del Santo said goodbye to his parents and the tiny Italian village he had known his whole life and boarded a plane for New York City.
Within two days of arriving, Paulo spent all the money it had taken him his entire life to save. Broke, hungry, and unable to string more than two English sentences together, he wandered the streets, begging for coins and looking for any warm place he might sleep. For the first time in his life, he stole. He grabbed a hotdog right out of a boy’s hands and ran off with it. Afterward, the weight upon his conscience was too great, and he vowed to die of hunger rather than rob somebody again. After eleven days in the United States of America, Paulo sat beneath a tree in Central Park and prayed for a miracle. He brought his knees in close to his chest and pushed his hands deep inside his jacket. Aching with fear and hunger, he lifted his head only to watch strangers passing by. None of them looked at him. He hung his head and drifted between waking and sleep, his fatigued body trembling with cold. As night set in and loneliness swallowed him up, Paulo remembered his village back in Italy. He thought of his parents, and his friends, and wondered what they were doing right now. He pictured the green hills and the trees, the little farmhouses and the sheep in the pastures. He imagined himself on a sunny afternoon, sitting at the café in town and eating a hot apple dumpling while he looked out over the sparkling Mediterranean. A tear slipped down his cheek.
As his head nodded forward with sleep, Paulo was startled by a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see the kindly face of an old man wearing a Salvation Army uniform. The man helped Paulo stand, introduced himself as Colin, and asked when Paulo when he had last eaten. Paulo, in fragmented English, asked if there was somewhere he could sleep for the night. Colin smiled. He held Paulo’s hands and checked them. He paused at Paulo’s right thumb, which had broken and not healed properly when he was a boy, so now it stayed straight and had limited movement. He grabbed Paulo by the jaw, opened his mouth and examined his teeth, turning his head side to side. He nodded and motioned for Paulo to follow him. It seemed a long walk to Paulo, and soon his legs cramped and his feet stung, but he forgot his pain when he saw the reward at the end of the journey. It was not a Salvation Army shelter as he had supposed, but rather a rundown apartment in a noisy, crowded neighbourhood. Nevertheless, to have friendly company, to feel the warmth of a room and smell the savoury aroma of simple soup and bread, was like entering Paradise. There was a woman in the apartment, the old man’s wife, Paulo assumed. She looked Paulo up and down and then muttered to Colin. Paulo ate, and the old Salvation Army officer asked him about his situation. Paulo explained as best he could. Colin offered him a foldout bed and a thin blanket in the tiny living room, and Paulo accepted with eternal gratefulness.
Paulo slept through most of the next day. Colin woke him in the afternoon and insisted he eat. The old man was no longer wearing his Salvation Army uniform, and neither was he smiling. After he ate, Paulo changed into a track suit Colin gave him, and then followed him outside. He approached an old yellow van parked on the street, grabbed the side door handle, and with a harsh yank, rolled the rumbling sliding door open. He motioned for Paulo to get in. Once Paulo was in the back of the van, amid an unpleasant smelling shambles of unwashed towels, crusty bandages, tattered running shoes, an oversized tube of heat cream, old gym socks, a 1960s era gym bag and a small toolbox, Colin dragged the sliding door shut and sat in the driver’s seat. The engine started with a listless mechanical fart, Colin crunched the gears, and then they were off. Five blocks down the road, he pulled over, and two gruff looking young men got in the back. They were lean and fit, with cold eyes. They seemed surprised to see Paulo. Paulo and the two young men sat silently in the back of the van for the next twenty minutes as Colin drove on. Paulo wanted to ask where they were going, but he struggled to find the words, and doubted anyone would have heard him over the pained groan of the engine.
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