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The Immersionism Issue

How To Buy A Gun

Milan, October 14th. 1.45 pmI'm sitting in a bar on the outskirts of town. The décor is squalid. Over at the fruitmachines an old guy with a moustache has already stuck around 100 euros in the machine

This is Leo with his gun. Photo by the author

Milan, October 14th. 1.45 pm
I’m sitting in a bar on the outskirts of town. The décor is squalid. Over at the fruitmachines an old guy with a moustache has already stuck around 100 euros in the machine. Now he’s shouting about his “full” not showing. Leo is late. Leo is 27, and now he’s convinced himself he wants to be an actor. Of course he’s never been to school, but he’s bright, capable, and I think he might have the talent for it—even thought he hides behind the mask of the “soldier”. “Of course man, 10 years of squares are better than any school”, he says, proud. The “square”, or “piazza”, in Italy, is like “The Block” for L.A.’s gangs: the theatre of all illegal activities. Today, the Perspicace, the Flachi and the Morabito, the three leading families of the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian mafia), the Sicilians (or Cosa Nostra) and the Camorra (Neapolitan mafia) have taken a step back and are happy to control all action from above, leaving the details to immigrants. The “square” remains the ultimate measure of criminal power. The strength of one crew, or that of a single hot-headed “maranza” is judged on the reputation of the square they control, the territory they possess, and how dangerous it is for members of other crews; squares such as Corvetto, Odazio, Barona, Giambellino, Bruzzano. Since the 70s, Milan has been a crossroads of international drug trafficking, where you can easily find everything you desire: be it Colombian coke, Moroccan hash, Spanish opium, Turkish heroin, Dutch skunk, or London’s finest ketamine. Milan is Italy’s crime capital, when you consider the level of the individual drug peddler coupled to that of the billion euros of money laundering. I have decided to explore these criminal “squares”, to immerse myself in their world by pretending to be a “maranza” looking for a gun. I ask Leo for help, as Leo has been through all of this before. He used to be loosely affiliated to one of the families, started running jobs for them when he was only 14. He was a good–looking kid, so no-one ever suspected him By 16 he never left his house without a gun. Drug-smuggling quickly became his thing, selling mainly pills and coke, but in 2002 one of his oldest mates, a kid he was running with, was shot dead during a robbery. Leo quit, got out of the family, but he never ratted anyone out, so he’s still around to move a dozen grams here and there. He likes my idea, he thinks it’s fun—“like a movie”—so here he is, my chaperone, showing me around these two days as a criminal in the underbelly of Milan. It’s already 2 PM when he shows up wearing more perfume than a Japanese male whore. He doesn’t apologise for his lateness. He just nods hello and stares at me, sizing me up, taking in my new outfit. I’m wearing exactly what he asked, from head to toe: cap, tracksuit, sneakers, gold chain outside of my sweatshirt. The tracksuit is important: in many Italian prisons it may be worn instead of the regulation striped uniform, which has transformed it into a symbol of respect. It means you just got out, and jail is always a plus on the Mafioso’s c.v. “Minchia Frà, stylish… where you coming from, Opera (a Camorra square) or San Vittore (Milan’s largest prison)?” He means it as a compliment, one of those constant jokes that these kids never seem to tire of. Nevertheless, I feel like touching wood. After a quick coffee and Sambuca we start moving for our first meet, at the end of Via Ripamonti. Beppe is also here, another guy from his crew, his driver for today, and Leo’s brother-in-law. They tell me about the night before, they did too much coke, and ended up getting in a fight: the usual bullshit: women, money owed. “It’s the coke”, adds Leo, “it makes you too fucking horny and too fucking mouthy, it’s not a good combination. That’s why I still have this with me,” he continues, patting the gun under his T-shirt. I ask how it all ended, concerned, when Beppe cuts in, “Nothing happened. We beat one of theirs, they beat one of ours, then we made peace and ended up at my house. We smoked freebase till morning, playing Playstation.”

4 PM
We still need the gun, but it’s too early. There’s a change of plan: we’re going to Beppe’s place, to prepare the cuts he’s going to sell tonight. In his basement, Beppe takes a coffee can, full of beans. But something is strange. They don’t smell like coffee. In fact, they’re pure cocaine, pressed. Beppe cleans about 10 beans with vinegar, then he crushes them and mixes them with mannite, the cutting agent, resulting in about 40 baggies ready to be sold. The whole procedure must have taken him about half an hour. While he’s at it, I give him my bean back, as I wasn’t gonna do it anyway. He asks me if I don’t like it, I mumble something about panic and insomnia, and, as soon, as I do, I realise I’ve just lost a lot of respect. He must think I’m a depressed maranza. Luckily Leo comes to my rescue, vouching for me, even though “I quit doing it”. I ask Beppe about his background. He tells me, plainfaced, that for a while he was almost “in” one of the families, but it ended up going the other way. I ask him how. “Four years ago, I used to deal big time. Always in Piazza Caneva, pot and coke. Once at the “Number” club, in Brescia, a guy from Corvetto introduces me to Tony, his cousin, from Calabria who robs jewellery stores. A total cokehead. To cut a long story short, we become best buddies, as well as accomplices. It was wild: parties every single night, orgies, Viagra and more coke than Tony Montana. We hit jewellery stores every week, between Piedmont and Liguria, a different hotel every night, we're fucking hot. I mean, he was already wanted, and now we literally can't spend more than two nights in the same place. Until one fine day that Venezuelan whore disappears with 200 grams of uncut blow. The next hour is spent in the piazza, selling Beppe’s stuff, a little courtyard beneath his house, a hangout for kids on their scooters. In that hour, the 40 baggies are sold: at the price of 70 euros per bag, you do the maths, because if I were to attempt that Id probably be here for the next two months. Before we leave Beppe, much more relaxed now, insists on showing me his 50,000 euro Mini-S motor car, “You like it? Give me 4,000 euros and I can get an identical one for you, regular, no problems with the paperwork.” “Pretty clean, huh? Too bad they put serial numbers on fucking screws now, so you can’t run this operation on Mercs or audis. Pity”, adds Leo. We head to the Hotel Diana for drinks. Leo introduces me to Pino, an alcoholic Pugliese who has been dealing with the families for years. Upon finding out that I support FC Inter, he gets pissed off at me, but then is moved to tears when I give him a saint-card of Padre Pio, which was given to me years ago in Puglia.

11 PM
We still haven’t had dinner, and we head out to the Central Station. We get into a private club where we meet Karim, a 30-year-old Serbian who, as well as running a small prostitution operation, also deals in firearms. This time nobody’s late: the gun dealer, the owner of the club, Pino, and his brother. The owner lets us in, and closes the heavy doors behind us. From behind a fridge, weapons start popping out rapidly, effortlessly, and then they are laid out on a table: a Beretta, a Colt Python, and a .357 Magnum. Their serial numbers have all been scratched off. They cost 170, 300, and 800 euros respectively. I buy the cheapest, the Beretta, the police ordnance gun, “a good weapon”, says Leo, trying to calm me down, as he studies it, caresses it. Maybe. But I’m feeling seriously uneasy: the realisation that this gun has already taken a life dawns on me and brings about a wave of nausea. I don’t really feel like a Goodfella right now. More like a fraud. I’m suddenly panicking that they’ll discover I’m not who I say I am. I mean, I’m not a cop, but journalists aren’t exactly welcome within the fold either. The more I want to leave and the more they want me to stay, hang out, drink some more wine, eat some more eggplant in olive oil, do one more line. All in about 4 squared metres. It’s ridiculous and sad: I feel nauseous and panicked, claustophobic. I manage to lay off the coke (Leo told them I have a heart condition) but the rest I can’t possibly refuse: the bottles of wine, grappa, vodka, Sambuca, and all the time food, tomatoes, eggplants. I couldn’t tell them I’ve been on the wagon for about ten years. So, at around 3 AM, we leave the club’s basement, and I’m drunk out of my head, and I have a gun. I don’t know where the fuck to put it. Sometimes my curiosity pisses me off. Leo starts telling me about Karim’s organised orgies, and about his best friend’s death, shot in the face after having spoken too much. All I can think about is how to get rid of this gun, which, it now dawns on me, is clearly hot. What the fuck am I doing? I feel like throwing up. Before I know what to do with the gun, and as Leo movingly tells me about his friend’s mistakes, I pass out, and I remember the good thing about booze: it makes you sleep. I had forgotten about that these past ten years (I used to be an alcoholic). FRANCESCO SCARPELLI AS TOLD TO TIM SMALL