He is a familiar face in a bustling, well-to-do area of Florence; the original ‘angel of beauty’ who, without the support of any institutional construct, ‘adopted’ the passageway under the train tracks and expelled the drug dealers and criminals who had long ruled the underground alley. Salvatore ‘Totò’ Orlando, Sicilian by birth, 58 years old but weathered to agelessness, cleaned the derelict alley of the syringes, broken bottles and filth that used to blemish it.
He has done this work unaided for 15 years, save for the spare change that Le Cure residents happily leave him, using almost every cent to buy detergents, mops and brooms. He uses the leftover change to purchase his daily sandwich and help the vagrants and homeless who find in the alley a clean and safe floor to sleep on. Although Totò sleeps on a mattress in a nearby apartment building for students, his health has been compromised by working day in and day out in the graffiti-filled alleyway; the fumes have affected his eyesight, and the trains above have dulled his hearing. More than once, he has had to resort to fighting to ward off petty criminals of every kind. Yet he continues to protect the alley.
Now, what was once the shady underbelly in an otherwise posh corner of town is a cheerful, safe place where the young and old alike pass through at all hours without having to glance over their shoulders. Totò knows the residents by name, asks about their work, accepts donations with a modest nod and seeks to return their favours with a song, a flower or his winning, toothless grin.
La Nazione recently ran a story on Totò and his life, announcing that local residents are calling on the local administration to release a ‘social pension’ on his behalf. While grateful for the kind words, Totò sees it differently: ‘Florence doesn’t have to worry about me. It’s this place that needs help; it’s dangerous, it’s poorly built. It shouldn’t be up to me, even if I enjoy my work, especially the smiles the locals give me for doing it,’ Totò explained. ‘I don’t want to be treated like a charity case; I have everything I need. I hold my head up high and try to help those who really need it. But I’d like to be able to leave this place and know it’s being tended to. I’d like to see my son and grandson.’
What do you think? Recently, the city of Florence recognized the underground passage as an area where graffiti artists had free reign; this is the only attention it has garnered in years. How can the city revitalize the area?
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