Roving thoughts and provocations

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Rome: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Game

Oliver amazed at the Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’; etching by George Cruikshank from Oliver Twist

An American archaeologist friend here in Rome, where I’m spending my sabbatical, was working for a time in Salerno, in the south of Italy, and found himself annoyed by the thugs who lounged near the main square and approached him, when he intended to park there, offering, for a small fee, to “protect” the car from anyone who might wish to damage it. It was bad enough when he thought it was only he, a foreigner, who was treated to this shake-down, but, as he idly watched one day, my friend realized that the louts were equal-opportunity predators: they made the same offer to local businessmen, little old ladies, factory workers. And worse still, they went about their business within sight of the uniformed carabinieri who stood chatting with each other in front of the police station. My friend expressed his outrage to a Salernitano acquaintance: the nuisance was not an unfamiliar one in America, he complained, but it seemed unaccountable to have it take place under the gaze of the authorities. Look, the acquaintance said to him, with the resignation of a native, everyone has to make a living.

The remark came to mind a few weeks ago when I was pickpocketed. The thieves got some money—not as much as they would have had the small restaurant where I had just eaten accepted a credit card. (As is quite typical here of a whole range of transactions I had had to pay cash.) Along with the wallet itself, the pickpockets got my credit cards too, of course, which I quickly cancelled, and an old 1000 lira note, from the days before Italy changed its currency to the Euro. For years I had carried this note—worth little then, when it first chanced into my hands, and nothing now—folded up and tucked away as a kind of good luck charm. Some Italians used to have the appealing custom of scribbling messages—to no one in particular—on the blank part of those notes. (It is not for nothing that graffiti is an Italian word—Italians love to write on blank surfaces of any kind and have done so, to the despair of the orderly, since the days of the Roman Empire.) On my 1000 lira note someone had written, in Neapolitan dialect, “Ogni scarifaggio e bell’ a mama soja”—Every dung beetle looks beautiful to its own mother.

Roman graffiti showing a victorious gladiator with the words “O Campani, you perished together with the Nucerians in that victory,” referring to the deadly riot in the amphitheater of Pompeii in 59 AD (VRoma Archive)

I do not know if the thieves who pinched my wallet are now carrying around this talisman for themselves or threw it away as worthless. What I do know is that they were good at their work. I was on the bus, with my wife and my little boy, on the way to Rome’s Olympic Stadium for the Rome-Florence soccer game, and, though I am on occasion clueless, I am well aware that crowded buses are prime targets for pickpockets. I was carrying my wallet not in the back pocket of my jeans but in the front pocket where I was absolutely confident I would feel any prying hands. But I had not reckoned on just how crowded the bus would be or on how entirely I would be focused in the mad press to hold onto my boy. In retrospect, I realize that the thief was working with an associate: together they cunningly let my boy get past but then made it extremely difficult for me, so that, though I was still holding onto his hand, I had to press my way through them, with profuse apologies. The wallet was probably gone in a second, the thieves quickly vanished at the next exit, and I was left with annoyance, embarrassment at my own stupidity, and relief that my wife was carrying the tickets.

When we reached the stadium, I was supposed to show some identification but, of course, that was gone with my wallet. I explained to the ticket taker what had happened, and we both laughed, I more ruefully than he, as, with a genial shrug, he waved me through. The A. S. Roma soccer team has not been having a very successful season, but they won handily that night, three goals to one. The crowd was joyous, and at least, as we made our way home, I did not have to worry about getting pickpocketed.

Should I conclude—as the ticket taker’s shrug implied— that everyone has to make a living? No: though I have a grudging admiration for the skill with which my wallet was fingered, I regard the thieves as dung beetles. But, even in the midst of my anger, I recognize something at once remarkable and functional in the widespread acceptance in this country of disorder, disruption, and inconvenience. The acceptance is at once cynical and philosophical—and it is perhaps worth recalling that cynicism has an ancient philosophical ancestry. It is, in its way, a life skill, a way to cope with drastically lowered expectations. The great cynic of the fourth century BCE, Diogenes, lived in a wooden tub: he would have had no fear of pickpockets. The stories that circulated about him suggest an unusual, if acidic, sense of humor. When Plato repeated Socrates’ celebrated definition of man as a “featherless biped,” Diogenes plucked a chicken and, presenting it to Plato’s Academy, declared “Behold, I bring you a man.” (Plato had to add “with flat nails” to the definition.) Alexander the Great is said to have gone to meet the cynic and asked him if there was any favor he could do for him; Diogenes replied, “Yes. Stand out of my sunlight.”

Recently, we drove from Rome to Naples for the weekend: we would never have chosen to do such a thing, since the train is exceptionally fast, but a train strike had been called on the day we were scheduled to leave. The drive normally takes 2.5 hours, and at first all was going well. But about an hour en route, a large electronic sign above the toll road said ominously that there was a manifestazione ahead and that we should expect a slow-down. A mile or two later, all movement on the three-lane highway had come to a complete halt—and we then sat, without any possibility of exiting or turning around, for over four hours.

The blockade itself was somewhere far ahead of us. We were in the midst of an enormous, seemingly endless queue, stretching in both directions, of freight vans, trucks, buses, passenger cars. Only the motorcycles, weaving through the lanes, were moving, along with a very occasional ambulance inching along the side with, I suppose, someone dying or being born. Four hours is a very long time, and I expected honking, rage, menace, the sounds of helicopters overhead. But there was nothing of the kind. The drivers, most of them men, got out and milled around, smoking, exchanging jokes, recalling other, similar inconveniences, and peeing by the railings. It was a spectacle of civility under pressure.

I reassured my son that we would begin to move eventually and that we would read all about this on the front page of the newspapers the next day. Sure enough, at first slowly and then with a rush, the road reopened, and we limped into Naples close to midnight, some seven hours after we had left Rome. But the papers the next day were virtually silent. Only after the most careful search did I find buried far back in one of the local dailies a brief report that some seven hundred workers, laid off by the corporate giant Videocon, had blocked the main autostrada from Rome to Naples. That was it, as far as I could tell: no investigations, no army units, no eruptions of violence. Only the almost fathomless patience, good humor, and cynicism of thousands of random travelers.

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