In January 1980 we were stuck between the politics of three countries, waiting for paperwork to clear us from the East into the West and then across the ocean to Cleveland, Ohio to start a new, better life. We idled in Rome at the Pensione La Scala, across from a porno theatre and a trattoria which sold head cheese by the slice.
Our room was small: two single beds, one sink and mirror, no hot water. The toilet was down the hall and shared with a dozen chain smokers who left their shoes on the doormat, outside their rooms, and held their lit cigarettes out the cracked door into the hallway of the rooming house. The shower worked on coins, like a pay phone. You had to constantly feed it. Hot water was more expensive.
For three weeks we waited for our paperwork to be processed at the American Embassy. We waited for Cleveland, Ohio. To me, it sounded exotic. I had no idea what Cleveland looked like. My father would walk everywhere to see the ruins. He walked to the Vatican one day. And then the next he walked again. And I went with him into the Sistine Chapel and saw the Pieta enclosed in a box of glass.
But mostly, while he walked the city, I stayed in the room and made cornete out of sheets of paper–smoothly-shaped, dart-like, rolled up projectiles which I launched from a long, plastic segment of pipe by blowing hard. I shot them out of our fifth floor window at parked cars. I didn’t have the courage to launch them at people. I was afraid of Italians. I was afraid of most people then. Now I simply just don’t like them.
I once set off a car alarm with one of these paper cornete. The Carabinieri came after almost an hour and towed the screaming Fiat down the long street, toward The Coliseum. There were other refugees just like us, some of them waiting perpetually for their entry visas into the United States. Albanians, Bulgarians, Yugoslavians. The entire pensione was full of emigrés idling.
A decrepit, Russian man gave me a small, metal memento of Misha The Bear, the mascot of the Moscow Olympics. Carter had announced America was boycotting the Games that year. Something to do with Afghanistan and the Soviets. I was ten so I didn’t care that much for politics, even though we were caught up in them. All of us were.
The old Russian carried with him a little notebook with phrases translated into English: “Yes, I would like a drink please.” “Pardon, do you know where the nearest bar is?” “Felicitations on your engagement, I would very much prefer to share a drink with you.” “An egg in an egg cup.” “Dick is in bed.” “This is the house that Jack built.” The Russian was waiting to go to California. He had no one out there. He must have been seventy.
Sometimes, in between the meals served at the pensione, he would help me roll cornete for my plastic tube. He had leather, peasant hands, and he constructed the best paper projectiles I’d ever seen. My father, who spoke a little Russian, said the old man had been in the Red Army during the war. He loaded shells into the 152-mm M1937 howitzer guns that fought back the Germans.
Our visas came through on January 25th. On our last day in Rome my father and I went down the hall to the shower with a fistful of lira and fed them into the slot while we worked quickly and washed our hair with hot water. We wanted to be clean and look fresh for Cleveland, Ohio.
(companion piece, “Sala Another”)
The first and only time I saw the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican I felt nothing. I was more impressed with the money being disbursed to various tourists at the American Express office on Via dei Funari, across from the Piazza Venezia.
The pensione in which we were staying had a coin-operated elevator and two lunch rooms set up to serve at simultaneous times the hungry hordes of immigrants in transit, holed up and waiting for their entry visas at this rooming house. The director was an emaciated, Lebanese man who orchestrated meal times with the precision of a traffic officer. When one room was at capacity, he’d stand out in the hallway and yell: “Sala another, sala another” frantically pointing to the second lunch room and re-routing the queue of hungry men (we were mostly men in that place).
He wore white gloves, for some reason. I don’t remember what they fed us day in and day out, but it was good. Everything was good. Even the head cheese slices that they sometimes doled out onto your plate, slapping them down with a hunk of mustard and horseradish on top. They were cold and gelatinous and heavenly in the January sun.
We waited and we walked. My father pushed me all across the city and sometimes onto city buses which cost 100 lira. Once, he bought me a tall gelato for 1,000 lira. And we waited. And we walked. We ate fresh bread on the steps of the Basilica di San Clemente and watched a man urinate a few feet from us. Afterward he spied us looking and gave us the peace sign. This was democracy: pissing on your history, on your religious icons.
The first and only time I saw the Palatino and The Church of St. Lawrence I felt nothing. There were stray cats in The Colosseum and I laughed and imagined they were distant cousins of the lions brought there long ago to eat the Christians. It was windy and warm inside the arena, and once I thought I smelled fresh blood.