need to buy two kinds of stamps. One is called a marca da bollo. It’s a stamp, issued by the Italian government, to be affixed to documents, showing you’ve paid a fee. My son and I both need to renew our Italian passports, so I’ll need two of these.
The other is a normal postage stamp. I have five birthday cards to send this month: sister, brother, two great aunts and a nephew. In Italy, you buy postage stamps at a tobacco shop or at a bar also licensed to sell cigarettes and stamps.
It’s a beautiful Milan morning. The air is so warm I take off my sweater, but as soon as I step into the Viale Zara tobacco shop, a damp chill tempts me to put it back on.
An elderly woman in a slovenly apron and house slippers hoists herself from her stool behind the bar and shuffles toward me.
“Buon Giorno,” I say.
She looks at me as though that unnecessary remark has ruined her morning.
“I’d like 10 air mail stamps for the United States,” I say, thinking that way I’ll have a few extras.
She lifts a heavy book from underneath the counter. She slowly pages through it, examining the various kinds of stamps as they come up, each time saying, “Not this one.”
At last my stamp appears. There’s neat row of 10 of them on the page.
“There they are,” I say. I’ll take all 10.”
She counts them one by one, with a flat, paddle-like finger. She tears off two and shuts the book.
“I need 10 stamps,” I say.
“You can have two,” she says.
“But I need 10. Why can’t I buy 10?”
She stares at me as though I’m speaking Turkish. “I can only sell you two.”
“Why? You have 10 of them.”
She repeats slowly, “I can sell you two.” She sees my irritation and thinks perhaps I’m going to make a fuss. “If I sell them all to you,” she finally says, “then, if someone comes in and wants to buy stamps, I won’t have any left.”
This remark stops me cold. What kind of place is this? I look around the shop. A man is drinking an espresso, so they do sell coffee here. Off to the side, behind a plastic bush, a group of dusty old men are playing cards and drinking grappa from small glasses. Loud laughter erupts from behind a door in back. A young man in a jean jacket hurries out.
Behind the counter, cigarettes are displayed on narrow shelves. I see many empty slots. I imagine asking for Marlboro Lights and the lady saying they’re all sold out or that I can’t buy Marlboro Lights because there won’t be any left if someone comes in and wants the brand.
Who, I wonder, is this someone who might come in and want to buy stamps, this someone they’re so desperately waiting to serve? I’ll bet it’s the police, I think to myself. Perhaps this woman’s children are selling something out of that back room — something illegal; the tobacco shop is a front. They put their drowsy old mother up here behind the counter and tell her to keep a small supply of everything, in case the police come in and ask for stamps or cigarettes. Now that I think of it, there is even a burned out carcass of an automobile outside on the sidewalk, black, ashy and crumbling. Was burning it a criminal act of retaliation or a threat?
Or is it simply that, in this tobacco shop, they don’t want my business?
“I won’t take any stamps,” I say, thinking she will have to look for the page to put them back. I feel a little sorry for her now that I’ve imagined her surrounded by bloodthirsty, car-burning criminals. But it’s all the same to her. She’s already back on her stool.
I decide to go to the post office for a marca da bollo. By now, it’s 11 a.m. and the masses of people waiting in line will have finished their business and gone away. In fact, when I arrive, there are only two people ahead of me in line. When I ask the woman at the window for two stamps, however — two marca da bollo — she says I should have come earlier. She says she’s sorry, but there is only one stamp left. They’re sold out.
“You could try the post office on Via Steffini,” she says sweetly.
“Because on Via Steffini they don’t run out?” I respond. “On Via Steffini they have enough stamps to last until noon?”
“There’s nothing I can do,” she says. She motions to the person behind me in line to step forward. I quickly lay down my money and buy the last stamp.What if there are no stamps at the Via Steffini post office?
This second post office is a 10 minute walk from the first. In spite of everything, I feel lucky to arrive ahead of a group of people who have just left a bar-tobacco shop on the corner and are walking this way. When I ask for the marca da bollo, the man behind the counter doesn’t even look up from his papers.
“You have to take a number,” he says.
“But I’m the only one here,” I say. “There is no one in line but me.”
“I can’t wait on you unless you have a number.”
The machine that gives out the numbered tickets is located near the entrance. As I hurry toward it, the five people from the bar come through the door and reach the machine before I do. I am now sixth in line.
When, after 10 or 15 minutes, it is finally my turn, a balding, insignificant-looking man informs me I’m in the wrong line. “You buy marca da bollo over there.” He points to a window on the left side of the room. But there is no one at that window. “Knock on the glass,” he says. “Don’t forget to take a number.” Yet another customer indicates a different ticket machine off in a corner.
These people are used to rage and to tears. It’s all in a day’s work. It evidently bores them.
I finally buy my stamp from a kind lady with big round glasses. Out of curiosity I ask her, “If I had wanted two of them, would it have been possible to buy two?”
She looks at me as though I’m the one who’s an oddball in the stamp-buying world. “Of course,” she says. “You can buy as many as you want.”
I still need postage stamps and must tackle another tobacco shop.
“How many do you want?” the man asks. Overweight, roughly shaven and puffing for air, he lifts his heavy book from under the counter.
“How many do you have?” I say.
He doesn’t answer that. “One? Two? Three?” he says in English. He looks for the page. “You from New York?” he says. “I live two years in New York. All Negroes. America is land of Negroes. The people is poor. Very poor. Worse than here. A terrible place. I don’t like.”
“It’s a good place to buy stamps,” I say.
He looks up.
“How many?” he asks again.
“Twenty,” I say. “Thirty if you have them; even 50.”
I’d just as soon wait a couple years before needing to buy stamps again.