There is global warming and lizard vanishing. The first monopolizes news and polemics. The second is about the city of Rome and a boy prowler with small hands and keen memory. Global warming is sold as an incipient manmade apocalypse in the simmering stage. Lizard vanishing has already happened but no would think to write the book.
And the book would begin with me in the spring and summers of long-ago visits to Rome, because when the city warmed even slightly its glades and gardens and some of its streets would teem with eager lizards on the move, small businessmen with long tails rushing from one meeting to another. I noticed them first on the boulevard near my mother’s home. Rome traffic was less ample once and the lizards took advantage to scamper by the roads, if not across them. They had inquisitively jerky little heads cued by the spasms around them.
I was one such spasm when I decided to make it my calling to catch them and speak to them and let them go after a chat. Sometimes my hands weren’t quick enough and I was left with their favorite souvenir, a tail. When I learned this didn’t bother them — they just grew another — I was amazed and hopeful about how mortality might work. Rude awakenings came later, but by then the lizards were gone.
Summer was their dominion in all parts of parkland Rome. They were as abundant as strands of pasta. Sit on a stone bench for a while and half-a-dozen lizards, green and brown, small and large, might scamper by on their way to secret rendezvous. One among many I caught and fell for. This was in March on a very warm Friday long ago. I gave him a name, put him in a sad shoebox, and refused to leave the city without him. He died in Paris despite the strange meals of lettuce I left in the damp box. I buried him there, my father saying a few words.
The ones I caught further south, near Naples and along the coast, I held only long enough to admire and praise — my little dinosaurs — before letting the Latin coast absorb them back into its hot and enveloping essence. I looked forward to spring and summer in Italy not so much for people but for lizards. No American city hosted such non-mammalian motion. And when the lizards went to sleep, ceilings were soon populated with their nocturnal counterparts, geckos. Rome, to me, was a reptilian wonderland with no Disney needed to embroider its magic.
The vanishing began in the 1970s. That decade saw once-sleepy Rome grow wholly car-infested. Bike locomotion ended for keeps. Crushed by the thousands, lizards receded from curbs and tree linings and into parks only. But parks slowly filled with people and pets and even the most earnest of the lizard businessmen saw no future. Except for a few stalwarts and lonely insurgents, the lizards packed for the countryside, where they moved for keeps. Take a hike into the hinterlands and fleets of wiggles come up on you in a flash. Stare long enough at a farmhouse cornerstone and it’ll grow a lizard for sport.
Not so in Rome, whose reptilian holocaust is complete. Sometimes, walking, I’ll see two blades of grass parting as if to make a point and know immediately what’s doing the talking. But I’ll rarely tell anyone. I won’t even approach. I’ll just smile inside and pretend to tip my extinct Fedora, then muddle forward, globally warmed, through the new city’s swampy exhaust.