inally, a resplendently sunny midwinter day in Rome — after weeks in which the sun seemed to have gone on some sort of exploratory cruise beneath the nearby Mediterranean. A day such as today, with its premature hints of spring, allows me to take a little walk around the verdant grounds of my building, a very modest walk indeed, but the only kind allowed to a one-eyed man whose one orb cannot truly discern a tree from a car. The anthropology of such vision would change the world, with people little more than darkly restive shapes moving all about like amoebas under a microscope.
But today I am blessed with company in the form of Joan Miró. No, the Catalan surrealist has not been reincarnated to suit my blurry whims, but a tabby cat, his namesake, appears also to have decided to take a sunny stroll with me. Miró lives several buildings away, but today he has made the trek to my neck of the woods, where there are more trees and painterly amusements.
I am careful as I walk, or pad, among the warren of trees behind the rear façade of my palazzina, tantamount to a little palazzo, which in Italian also means buildings. Yet Miró, whose coat I remember as yellow and white, is careful not to get between my legs or impede my progress, as if alerted to my condition by the deity who attends to such cautions, making sure to alert all species.
The birch and linden trees on the small lawn abut the rear of Villa Taverna, the American Embassy residence, a complex of palatial size rented to the United States a century ago but then all but handed over as a gesture of thanks after Anglo-British forces liberated Rome in 1944. Over the decades, from my top-floor balcony, I have heard more than a handful of American presidents make speeches of thanks to embassy staff, among them Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, the younger Bush, and most recently Donald Trump, whose voice carried farther than all the others combined. Fitting, I suppose. No Obama or Bush the father, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was out of the country, something that now seems unimaginable, namely the simple idea of travel. Nor have I seen the beloved core of my adopted city in six years. Nor will I see it again.
But Joan Miró is having none of this. It sounds too much like self-pity, something Catalan cats cannot abide.
So I walk on, coming to rest under a linden tree with a scruff of raw earth around it, a place where the alley kids don’t so much play soccer as run around and scream, kicking a very white ball in the process, all of them seeming to scream “GOAL!” at once. Today they are not around, but now, it’s lunchtime.
When my seeing-eye cat departs, I do the same, making my way back to the door and upstairs.
The plague crisis produced one major beneficiary: the city’s take-out food industry. It existed before, of course, but hadn’t wormed its way into fashionable status, essential for any sort of business breakthrough in this, at times, change-proof town. The plague made take-out cool in the way bubble-wrap winter coats were a decade ago: All teen girls had to wear one or else face papal-style excommunication. Before that fad, summer demanded that every Italian youth wear an American university T-shirts, many silly, some fictitious, as in the University of Mayland — someone forgetting the “r,” or Michigan Spatans, another “r” lost in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh — no doubt because the laborers in those countries were paid too much to concentrate on their sweat-shop weaving.
In any event, take-out is now in high gear, and probably would be doing even better if the supply of cheap labor weren’t so thin, thanks in part to Italy’s and Europe’s conviction that it doesn’t want or need more outsiders — when, in fact, the opposite is true. They fuel what’s left of true blue-collar, if the phrase can be said to still exist. Who is it, then, who brings me my Lebanese food on the rare occasion that a friend orders out for me? A Sri Lankan or a Bangladeshi on a motorbike who speaks no Italian, often loses his way in an alien city, and faces mistreatment by those convinced an app is not simply a means to an end but a sort of insurance policy that all will go well immediately. This, of course, bears no resemblance to life among fumbling humans, and app culture may be in for humbling before too long. The new generation perhaps suggests humans should have more, not less, impact on intelligence, since the artificial can only take you so far because (and this squares the circle) humans, though slaves to the new, are prone to the flaws anything new brings with it.
I feel for the kids who bring me my food, and I thank them many times. Often, though, it does no good. They seem like deer caught in other-worldly headlights and seek only to flee to their next delivery, Google maps permitting. I am nearly blind, yes, but their anxiety rubs off like a cheap scent, and as I eat, I ponder Asia — China specifically — and wonder how many decades it will take before that country faces its own idiosyncratic version of 1917, and all that Mao tried to make sure of for eternity comes undone, leaving a superstate the size of an eighth of the planet in chaos.
By late afternoon, as the sun begins to fade, I do what I do on most days, and listen to an audiobook. This at times takes me back to my early devotion to radio and my resistance to television, notwithstanding our long-glowing Motorola. Before I capitulated to TV’s “Superman,” I listened to call-in shows, fascinated by how people argue with the host about sports and politics — but in a tone so generally restrained and polite that today’s social media (and radio) acolytes would find it deferential. No one screamed. People actually uttered phrases like, “I beg to disagree with the previous caller…” In a word, the arguments came with discretion. So, in fact, did Superman, once I got around to him.
As to the books I’m listening to, these days they are mostly detective thrillers by the American-Canadian author Ross Macdonald, among the heirs to Raymond Chandler in the 1950s, all the way into the mid-1970s.
His detective is Lew Archer, who, more than Chandler’s or Hammett’s mostly hardboiled men, is a fatalist with no illusions about the darker side of the human condition, while also fundamentally compassionate. He rarely uses his gun. He acknowledges good and bad are not absolutes, but variables dictated by the many kinds of panic built in just below the surface of all human behavior. Above all, and in this Archer is a prototype, he is both gifted and cursed by rare emotional intelligence, a sensibility that set him aside from his Los Angeles-prowling precursors.
These days Archer’s musings would land him afoul of the linguistically correct. Odd characters and suspicious situations strike him as queer, a word that at the time wasn’t tied inexorably to homosexuality. Queer could simply mean peculiar,
awkward, or simply unsettled, and the word had just the right sound to suggest just those traits — until it was bastardized into a single-meaning epithet. Same with the word gay, as in gay times or a gay demeanor. This word (also used as a man’s name, Gay) was also hijacked to serve in the gender crusade.
Archer calls blacks “Negros” or “coloreds,” which they were known as when he wrote. Nigger, a word and slur now so reviled it has literally (and wrongly) been excised from history, never comes from Archer’s mouth. Yet his postwar California world is still tied to the separate-but-equal era, and the bigots his novels bring to life are less disdainful of race than they are a convex mirror in which people, men and women, hate and scheme against their fellows, with matters of gender and color merely netherworld sideshows. So it is that Archer trusts nothing and no one, is divorced, drinks a bit too much, and swears by a diehard conviction that purity and truth were long ago lost, if in fact they ever existed. What Macdonald does care about is basic fairness, and his Archer cannot be corrupted away from it.
The narrator of these books, a man named Grover Gardner, is good at what he does, good enough to transport the timbre of Macdonald’s prose to the place and times that spawned it. His diction is that of long-gone times: precise. Not precision for its own sake but to create a leading man (Paul Newman once played Lew Archer) who tries as best as he can to go by the book. Until he comes to admit to himself and his readers that there is no book but the book of life, and it is swollen with half-truths and lies in ways that can’t be predicted. In terms of the quest for justice and compassion, the blind lead the blind up Mount Sisyphus.
No doubt a portion of my affection for Archer is his contrarian side, his loner’s approach to the world, which I’ve always seen as a critical aspect of my otherwise outgoing self. I am, like Archer, a fatalist, a moral view that has to some extent protected me from the daily horror of going blind. I have a case to solve, my own, I tell myself, and I will work to solve it. This articulates a resilience that refuses to take stock of objective facts. Some might call it denial. I call it self-reliance above and beyond the call of duty, the “sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones” carried to what may be, in the end, an unsustainable belief in the act of stoic acceptance.
One small aside: Silencing Archer for a moment, I decided to ask the artificial intelligence that runs my audiobook library to find Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus. Silence. The book is not recognized because its title includes the slur. This, it occurs to me, is what happens when righteousness turned into panic runs amok, doing far more harm than good, like, say, lockdowns, whose deleterious effects continue to unsettle peoples and nations in ways as troubling as the virus panic that engendered them.
But enough. All that hubbub does not belong with the spirit of what set me jotting, a truth I embrace as I might a teddy bear, reluctantly (nay, unwilling), as dusk falls over Rome, to cast a sun so well-behaved and warming, and nor does it belong with my amiable companion, a Catalan surrealist painter masquerading quite wonderfully as a cat.