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Preface & Reader Response

At the end of the corridor I found a vacant window sill with two phone books propped up as if they were inviting pillows; within minutes I had taken the cue and found myself at one end opposite three similarly unrooted brothers resting snugly at the other.


This feature is chapter two of a series that may have dozens of chapters. There are introductory essays for the series; they are marked with lowercase Roman numerals (e.g., i and ii). All parts of the series are accessible from the menu that appears under the title of each segment.


Phases of Astonishment


Chapters: i | ii | iii | I | II | III | IV

by Jerry Murley

As we approached Rome, Don slept. From the car window I scanned the vast farms of southern Italy. They varied immensely from the multitude of small country homes, spaced among thick vineyards and gardens, that were typical of Tuscany. Outside Rome the land was divided into Texas-size estates with cattle and large fields of brownish-yellow grain. Homes resembled ranch houses or those found on large Midwestern farms.

I glanced up at the rear-view mirror and studied the young Roman who was driving. I observed his physical image and bearing: his short black curly hair, the statuesque nose, and the sensitive, intuitive eyes. His eyes were not necessarily indicative of wisdom, but of a keen, self-contained calculation to be sure. His features hinted of a mind capable of disciplined, realistic reflection but unyielding: a personality with a potential for unflinching inconsideration. I thought fleetingly of the Greeks and comradely affection; I wondered if it was so that such relationships could nurture refined emotions and uncommon loyalty, stimulate creative minds, build strength and enduring courage, and ennoble individuality without resorting to demeaning subordination and theatrical display.

By sunset we arrived in Rome and were deposited at the train station. We checked our baggage and went out to eat and to try to find a reasonable spot to stay for the night. At a street cafe not far from the station, we sat out on the sidewalk. While we were eating, I noticed a coat hanger beneath the table; the hook of it was fishing for Don's camera. I discreetly informed Don in English that someone was trying to steal his camera. We both stood up and found a young man stooped behind a car holding the coat hanger. Immediately he stood up himself and started yelling, in supposed conversation aimed at an open window on the third floor of a building adjacent to the cafe. After he finished his diverting performance and began to walk away, Don called him a theft, et cetera, in Italian. The remainder of the meal was relatively uneventful and enjoyable. We then decided we would not bother looking for a pension that late in the evening; we would have a drink at the station cafe and try to sleep somewhere at the station among the arriving, the departing, and the waiting.

By midnight I was besotted with harsh insomnia, not having been able to slip into even semi-consciousness under the conditions of constant commotion and reverberating noise. There I was, uncomfortable beyond expression inside a tiny baggage cubical with my camera around my neck, my pockets bulging with valuables, which were chafing my haunches, and the sun burnt skin of the previous day at the beach. Eventually I staggered to the next station window ledge where Don was drowned in sleep and attempted to awaken him. I pleaded with him to accompany me, as we had discussed earlier that evening, to a park in the vicinity of the Colosseum to stretch out on a bench and sleep until 7 a.m. or so. He was unmoved and basically in a state of uncomprehending drowsiness. So I shuffled away peevishly and commanded myself to find a new place to sleep or the morrow would be ruined. At the end of the corridor I found a vacant window sill with two phone books propped up as if they were inviting pillows; within minutes I had taken the cue and found myself at one end opposite three similarly unrooted brothers resting snugly at the other. Only twice did I partially revive after my collapse: once to vaguely notice Don, or someone dressed like him, exiting and then again to witness the first diluted hint of sunup.

At dawn, I was aroused from sleep by a station guard urging me to move on. Awaking temporarily refurbished, I staggered toward Don to solicit his participation in departing for the Colosseum or to at least appoint a time when we would do so. To my bewilderment, he was not to be found. I looked for Don in vain. I looked and I looked but could not find him. Dismay seized me in proportion to the probability of three imagined explanations: first, that Don had left without me, without communicating his intentions; second, that he would leave, thinking I had breeched faith and propelled myself out without him, and without notice, into the crowds of tourists that would soon infest the metropolis; and third, and most dramatic, that he had been confronted by the authorities for sleeping at the station and been detained somewhere because of inadequate identity papers. Ire and concern jostled for dominance, pumping through my veins and resuscitating my vigor as it bathed me alternately in indignation, a desire to redress our supposed misunderstanding, and a call to action to find Don and help restore order to our Roman tour.

After attempting to burn a mental image of the city map hanging on the station wall, noting the places I wanted to visit and reviewing the prospects of an accidental rendezvous with my fellow traveler, I set out. The chief Roman antiquities were the first destination in my search. Simmering still, I walked down Via Cavour and shortly found myself viewing the black, blank eyes of the dilapidated but impressive remains of the Colosseum. The sleeping monster was an awful spectacle seen from above, a dim solitude in the ambiguous predawn. There was the Arch of Constantine to the right, straddling the constricted boulevard in contempt. Horse carriages were primped for parade, and drivers loitered before the coming day's grand exhibition.

Not discovering Don among the preening and scampering cats that populated the Colosseum, I searched among the splattering of campers who lay strewn under the bushes, fleshy remains amid scattered chunks of empire. I sat and watched the sunrise like a sprouting saffron disc, quickening the morning traffic. From my perch at the foothills of the Roman theatre, the sun appeared unnaturally incandescent, berating the revered, shattered structures of Rome, refusing to shine its effusive rejuvenation on the unkempt perversity, the stoney wrecks of human endeavor. Again, I walked alongside the Arch toward the fort of the Caesars. I glanced again at that overwhelming monument to organization, power, ingenuity, and pride, the stentorian receptacle of anxious mobs dying to divert themselves. After a moment, a callous, smirking grin cracked my hungry gravity, for I saw the scaffolds and partial walls of new brick, replacing, buttressing, filling the interstices of the Colosseum, patching it up for new use: it would conceivably be reformed and utilized for the modern Roman game of skewering tourism. The savant and antiquarian will ever drown in that labyrinth of tunnels, that maze of pain, with irritation and a vivid reminder of human corporality. The public will marvel at the latest gadget as if it were wonderful and pure because of its newness. The new kingdom will spin off its potential with the centrifugal force of the phantom of unity. The shell will topple, and the tribe will come to life again: disaster ever haunts the emboldened edifice and anarchy ever survives.

Finding myself in a futile attempt to peep into the hilltop fortress of the Caesars with its profound windows and corridors, worn but resilient in its unembellished reddish-brown stone, I turned the corner and spotted even more abstract monoliths rising above the abrupt hills to the right of an ancient stone road. Straying again, without restraint or hesitation, from my steps of reunion with Don, I went to the mounds, but beyond the park area I discovered them to be impenetrable and obscure and retreated for the Forum. On returning to the corner, walking towards the hill upon which stands the fortress, I was struck with a provoking misalliance of old and new. To the right was the emperors' palace, stalwart but gutted; to the left was St Peter's pious throne, white-domed; in the foreground were the frantic automobiles of Roman traffic, the angry menace of movement; and beside the street, workmen were swinging picks and propped upon them for intermittent comment, as they repaired a trolley line. The elements merged into something strong, restless, disturbing but inscrutable.

Don was not to be found in the rubble of Rome as I had anticipated, so I wandered in the direction of the marble gargantuan built to memorialize Victor Emmanuel, the Unknown Soldier and the Risorgimento. Pausing along the way before the Forum and palatine remains to take in the columns, walls and mosaic marble floors, I pondered the civil law and public administration which they bred. In a quandary as to what to do for the remainder of the day in order to relocate my friend, I made for the Spanish Steps, the habitat for hordes of American and Italian vagabonds – the place to which Don had taken me the night before to establish the precise location of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. That place was of particular interest to him, and he had expressed an intention to visit it. The memorial seemed the logical place for our convergence. Putting pen in hand I sat on the steps but hardly managed to keep my eyes open for more than three minutes out of thirty.

Languorous and fallow, I and a mass of free-falling internationals lounged in idleness, looking at a fountain and the motion centered around it. A gathering of displaced Americans sang ballads of the 1960s with maudlin tones and hang-dog faces, an army defeated by aimless causefulness. Hope misfired, relief flown, I soon decamped. Petulant at the situation and irritated by the company in which I found myself, I set out to enter the Keats-Shelley memorial when its doors opened. Ascending the stairs of the memorial, I soon learned that Don had not been there yet. I implored the curator to transmit a written message to Don when he visited. In that note, I related my plans to visit the Pantheon and return to the Steps for lunch at noon.

Shortly after spending my last 400 lire on a banana milkshake, I went to the sanctuary of the gods. As I emerged from an alleyway, I was at first stunned by this stocky, rather modest, structure – a cool, darkened cave in the middle of steaming Rome. I was taken aback at the threshold by the petrified columns anchoring the portico and by the mix of plain raw brick in the patchwork of exterior surfaces concealing the magnificence within. Inside, the depth of the celestial dome was deceiving as the hole in the middle allowed such brilliant light into the space, casting deep shades and shadows that undulated over the curved quadrilaterals composing the dome, supported first on numerous symmetrically spaced pilasters finally coming to rest on four sturdy columns. Too soon I had to seek exile from the tours and lectures that punctured the natural contemplation invited by the serene setting of the Pantheon. I proceeded to walked parallel with but not beside the Tiber and observed further ruin and the Temple of Veste. The pangs of hunger and the sweltering heat sent me headlong to the serenity of the lower Tiber riverbanks at the fork in the river. In that place, where the rush of the two branches combine under a disused, single arch of a Roman bridge striding the juncture, eternally straddling the waters like a fisherman or wading soldier, or maybe a strong-legged wash-woman stooping with her dress affixed high so as to prevent its soiling, I rested a moment. Half conscious, I traversed old Rome yet again, drifting back to Piazza di Spagna.

Fearful fantasies flew through my sleep-deprived and fevered brain: arguing with myself that Don must have been detained in the early morning, I was convinced that he had been out on the streets without his IDs and was stopped by the police, possibly mistaken for a vagrant Italian. This was not a farfetched conclusion since something similar had happened three weeks earlier in Florence near the Duomo. My irascible mood, stoked by Don's disappearance and the fruitlessness of my scavenger hunt, was straightaway transformed into an inflamed sense of duty to fetch Don from constabulary folly.

First, I went to the American Express office, suffered the prattle of fellow tourists, and cashed a check. Then I obtained the phone number of the American consulate in Rome. I purchased lunch – cream cheese on buns and mineral water – and bought one telephone token to call the embassy. I asked the duty officer to check to see if Don was in jail, but was told that information could not be obtained until five in the afternoon. The duty officer asked me to come to the embassy at that time. At one o'clock, after searching the train station again, I leaned back against a tree for an hour's nap. Waking with new impatience, I went straight to the police station. Standing out on Via Genova, the sentinel sent me to an information office for foreigners, where thirty youths slovenly decorated the floor and couches, apparently fatigued by the wait for an interpreter to return from lunch. I was holding number twenty in the waiting line; over-vexed with the slow bureaucracy, I tossed my number into the trash and struck out once more for the Spanish Steps. But again, Don was not in the concourse of sweaty and weary humanity.

I walked directly down a deserted narrow stone street to the Tiber and strolled beneath the bowers, curiously observing the river bottom and the refortification operation going on below. Passing the hideous circular castle of the Pope and sweltering in the midday sun, I reached the boulevard's rotund end at the Vatican. Outside of God's historical headquarters, I found nothing but the pompous vastness of the piazza and an impressive colonnade and cluster of statuary. I was exceedingly pleased by the repetitive, monumental effect of the semi-circle of columns on either side. Within, the Pieta was indisposed and the Sistine Chapel was closed. I recall nothing that was committed to memory, during those few minutes inside, as being either praiseworthy or of interest at the time, except for the ornate bronze pillars of the central canopy above the alter: resembling huge spiraling tree trunks, they looked like huge screws, as if the whole contraption were rooted to the ground so as to make it less portable, temporary and expendable – or as if it were a trap that could spring to life in an instant. It seemed a travesty to relate the cold precious metals and polished stone and eeriness of the Church with the natural by making the support of the papal pulpit, amid extravagant splendor siphoned from around the globe, appear an outdoor arbor, or fancy park pavilion fitted for a staged political picnic. The predominant impression of the Vatican was one of somber sobriety and unbearable totalitarianism: a glitter-ladened somnolence, clumsy, heavy and repressive. With an expressive lion-like yawn, I stepped, blinking back into the sun, lightly prancing my way to the station some miles ahead with a renewed sense of release and lack of care. Liberated youth is such an arrogate, persuasive master.

At the train station I went to the baggage depository and withdrew our luggage, placing within it my camera and a diary and extracting Don's passport; I sealed it again and checked it in. Then I went to the station restroom for a haphazard and long-overdue wash and with alacrity of foot set off for the consultant offices to somehow resolve the exigencies of the day. After finally finding Via Veneto 121 and passing the Carabiniere outside the embassy and trying to ignore the belittling, fulsome visage of our President plastered on the wall as I sat and waited for fifteen minutes and listened to aides exchange humorous stories from the adjoining room, I was finally given assistance. It was reported to me that Don was not in police custody. Tiring and without new direction, I drifted back down Via Sistina under a fume- and horn-berated tunnel toward Via Nazionale and on to the station.

Expectations having been dashed at every turn, I went in with the purpose of waiting Don out. As I walked through the corridor and back to the restaurant, a faint voice called my name, evincing the bedraggled mentality and physical condition that I am sure I, too, carried as a result of the day's ordeal. After weathering the queries and adjudications of our searches, the recriminations and apologies, Don and I were at last reconciled, mutually acquitted. Abstracted, we went together to buy some salami, cheese, buns and mineral water and ate an early supper on the grounds of Borghese park.

The infelicitous events seem to have been precipitated by my hollow proclamations of early morning, a shared impatience or lack of faith, and general miscalculation all around in taking one another literally – combined with amazing and numerous near misses. The dragnet was over; having digested our luck, inured to lassitude and renewed by the mirth engendered by the situation, we rested a while at the train station and commented upon other hapless travelers as we waited for a night train back to Florence. Since we could not catch an earlier train, we once more took to the streets and had a hamburger at a pretentious American fastfood joint. After the bad food and bad company, we stopped by a fountain for a drink of cold water and bought an ice cream, returning to the station.

We set out late at night, expecting to be able to sleep on the slow train from Rome to Florence. In fact, I remember that night as the worst sleep I had ever had in my life, up to that time. The train was packed. There were no seats in the compartments. We were fortunate to find little fold-down seats on the side of the crowded aisles. On the train, the dearth of sleep sent us into foggy states of semi-consciousness: I seem to remember the thumping, the swirling lights of villages in the blackened night, and the silhouettes of hills as we funneled closer to home. I vividly remember nodding to sleep, jerking back my head as I almost fell to the floor or against the side windows of the car, and repeating that cycle for hours on end. When the train pulled into the station in Florence, it was dark and early morning.

In the damp, empty solitude of early morning Florence, we walked for thirty minutes by the welcome sights of familiar places in the peace of Due Strade. We returned to the rancid body odor of one of the young neighbors we had allowed to stay for a few days at our apartment; he lay noisily curled upon Don's bed. Thus we were unable to sleep for thirty minutes more while we expelled him, ventilated the room, and Don eased into pitched sleep using clothing as a substitute for clean bedding and as a barrier from contaminated coverlets. And I, too, finally slept the long, contented sleep of home.

I daydreamed long after of Roman ruins: the Empire's fall was conducive to changes which enriched and furthered the cause of individuality. Homogenization had stretched the limits of imagination and science to deal with its concoctions and complications, and thus it broke down. That will ever happen until we moderate the hasty expansion of our horizons – too much future is no future. We are not original, but ever goaded to diverse redoings: the indelible urges persist even though the manifestations be mutable. Much more of Rome survived than passed away – the tyranny of blinded institutions and the destructive potential of universal actions. Propagation of imperious designs in pious homage to the past, to the future or to the heavens is deleterious to the cause of initiative, creativity, diversity and communal survival.

Roma was a broken mirror on the mend: an electrified, aged process of mixed identity where in daylight the transient uniformity, the death-paced traffic, and the rootless crowds refracted in disharmony and wasted motion. It was not our Tuscany. Walking the early morning streets of Florence was as refreshing as a return home. Florence was home and birthplace and future combined.

Returning to Florence is what a trip from New York City to familiar suburban Memphis in the 1970s resembled. That is except for the notable absence of the haunting sound of footfall echoing in the narrow, stone streets emerging from Porta Romana toward Via Senese – absent the organic scent of life in a community of walkers – absent the thick envelopment of history exuded from every facade and fold. No planning could have packed so much into so few hours crisscrossing old Rome – so much into the few days, weeks, and months I lived and had remaining in Tuscany. Italy was an anarchy that was, at that time, more sensible – a more lively order than the best day in America until then.

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