umbling down the streets near my Rome apartment with twin six-packs of mineral water I look suspiciously like hired help. The heavy plastic bottles are wrapped in cellophane and fastened to rudimentary plastic handles. I perspire profusely, my Lacoste shirtfront lactating. My tendons bulge and chafe. Seeing me up close, businessmen turn to their charcoal PDAs. Well-dressed women and teenaged girls sidestep me gingerly.
I shouldn’t expect any different in country where non-family judgment depends foremost on public appearance. In a nanosecond, Italy’s human mini-cams process lineage, parentage, background, and presumed income. First impressions usually stick unless you work exceptionally hard to change them.
None of this would seem remotely connected to the United States, a casual emporium of fads and hurricanes. Yet this isn’t a normal year.
In passing, an American friend mentions Cindy McCain. How, she asks, can the Republican candidate’s wife look so primped and wealthy when her husband wants working class votes? It’s an affront.
Effrontery, I reply guardedly, is what gets you noticed. Or so it seems.
Cindy McCain’s adversary, by way of her husband, is an elegant black Democrat that should be the opposition’s cool rebuttal of Mrs. McCain’s fashion statement, a Paul Robeson for the new millennium.
But take away oratorical big-occasions, where his Vedic speech thrives, and the black Democrat looks and sounds very ordinary, the sum of wary management.
He seems intent on being what he’s not, a blue-collar cave man. His woman vice presidential adversary he calls a pig with lipstick. Republicans are like old fish, he says. They stink.
It’s trashy and uncharacteristic mockery — Karl Rove-style — that stands only to worsen.
Yet things can’t be easy for the black Democrat.
A bright, cosmopolitan man he seems nonetheless determined to shatter his station. On Election Day, in that anything goes, ballot-box moment of truth, he’d prefer to be remembered for pig-lipstick quips than skin color. Better half-a-hack than black. In places where people broadcast Henry Fonda smiles they may later betray, he wants to hoodwink or pre-empt hypocrisy. To do so he must make second and third impressions more striking than racial first glance.
This may be wily, but there’s a price tag.
My own water labors aren’t without penalty. White and reasonably affluent, I shouldn’t need to wheeze, waddle and sweat. That’s the quiet buzz. But would anyone ever dare tell me openly? No.
In my neighborhood, Filipinos, Egyptians, Peruvians, Albanians, and Romanians do the heavy lifting (and the nannying, house painting, cooking, and construction). Their bosses often look like Cindy McCain.
That’s Italian immigration’s benign side, half-submerged ethnicities undertaking the menial work “Italian” Italians long ago backed away from. So long as you agree to undercurrents of contempt, the work is there, and pays well. North Italy long ago turned to insults to keep multiculturalism at bay. In vain.
Bearing water or groceries, the various Paolos (really Pavels or Petrs) and Linos (really Lins or Lees) are greeted warmly by their local employers, who depend on them. Some are culturally complicit in their own demeaning, changing their names as Jews and Italians did in early 20th century America, a Joe for a Giuseppe, a Smithson for a Horowitz. To escape its status, an underclass must start by sounding like where it is, not where it’s from.
My water-bearing confuses the neighborhood’s aristocracy. Where’s my underclass pedigree? I’m a self-demotion.
Even the immigrants don’t like it. Why should a university-educated American shuffle around with groceries? Some have even seen me on TV. Why not occupy the privilege to which others aspire and which is mine to have? Am I ungrateful? Do I mock them? Why discard status?
Their resistance makes me think of the black Democrat’s opponent, the older white Republican and his doll-like wife. He annoys but doesn’t alarm. He’s a familiar devil. He neatly fits into privilege and invective.
This may account at least in part for the black Democrat’s changeable behavior.
Though he lives in a country where bias has been largely erased, certainly in public, he senses an intangible fissure between open-mindedness and its endorsement.
When I walk, what others think of me emerges only at the end. They don’t want to seem crass or superior. Some, though perplexed, would like not wish me well, or simply not to care. Then comes viscera, a gut feeling, the paraphrasing of some less cranial irritation.
I see them; they see me; they don’t identify, disapprove; we pass. It all happens in an instant.
And I consider November.