ind and rain take their toll on Rome windows. Caulking turns into pizza crust. This transformation led to the summoning of Tommaso the housepainter and his do-it-all brother Ignazio. They brought corrugated buckets and conversation.
Tommaso spoke melancholy and gripe, Italy’s two most common dialects. The country’s political system was rigged, he said. Powerful men ran the show and made both good news and bad, like mischievous satyrs. The prime minister was a disgrace. Then again, perhaps Italy deserved disgrace. The opposition was no better. Much as he disliked the prime minister, he’d worked for opposition members, judges and lawmakers, who behaved as dishonestly as the man they righteously disdained. Family relatives lacking in skills were spoiled with jobs. All this while men like he and his brother spent days and weeks toiling. They paid taxes. So did most workers. Not so for the politicians, who made astronomical salaries.
Squat, full-bearded Ignazio spoke less than his lanky brother. He worried mostly about his five-year-old son. What kind of a country would he live in as an adult? No better than the one that existed today, he speculated sadly. Neither street protests nor political upheavals could repair the country’s mediocrity. The only salvation was personal honor and the expression “to thine own self be true” (which he attributed to Dante, not Shakespeare). He wanted his son to learn English. Would I help?
Down the street, at the local pharmacy, Ettore and Fulvio feared for their jobs. They’d been hired as part-timers. Ettore had trained in pharmacy school but had yet to be given a contract, a bad sign. His friend Fulvio had no such training, working instead picking up and carting the incoming pharmaceuticals.
Ettore’s gripe was pay. He worked long days (sometimes the weekend all-night shift) and still his “busta paga,” his paycheck, came late, along with an assortment of excuses from the owner, including that his dog had gone lame and needed care. How was it possible to make a living and support a family in a country where all was so insecure; where fickleness nagged at the essential?
Fulvio took me aside and asked me if I knew of other jobs. Times were bad, he whispered. He was reliable, could drive a car, work as an electrician, cart boxes. He’d do anything, so long as his boss paid, if not on time then within a “reasonable” time.
I asked him what he thought about street protests, against the government and the troubled financial system, and he’d shake his head: Being indignant was a waste of time. So was criticizing politicians and political parties, who in any case would run things as they chose to. No crisis or crises would change that. He wished he lived in America.
For Ettore, whom I often found smoking under the pharmacy’s neon sign, Italy was and always would be a country that favored the educated and the privileged ahead of common workers. Even among technocrats and businessmen, only connections mattered. He’d been admitted to pharmacy school thanks to a friend of his father’s. Even the pharmacy job was the result of inside ties, since the same family friend knew the owner, who was, he insisted, a cruel and rude man that he still had no choice but to abide. He treats his dog better than he treats me, said Ettore, repeating the story about late pay and the lame animal.
Two doors down from the pharmacy was the butcher, who had a theory about the flimsy economy: Corporations were conspiring to pretend they were poor and in debt when really they weren’t at all. In cahoots with politicians, they adjusted prices whimsically. The butcher lived on the outskirts of the city, near a landfill that had begun overflowing. Italy stank. He felt more at home among edible animal corpses and his mostly polite clientele.
This country, he said, is like a frustrated old man annoyed that it can’t walk and petulant toward anyone in earshot. Talk of change, of replacing the prime minister, voting out his party, making the country more streamlined: All of it was nonsense, he said. Repugnant even, since even those agitating for change were in on the scam. Italy was country comfortable with thieves and smooth talkers, a place that would make do no matter what. This reality, he assured me, would not change in his lifetime or mine.
Write it down, he instructed me, poking at my notepad. I did.
The butcher died six years later, in 1985.