Sunday, February 26, 2017
Rome 1969. July. Heat wafting up from the cobblestones. The smell of rotting vegetables. Sultry. Hot. Flies.
I was in the streets all day, my first day in Rome. Walked from Via Veneto to the Spanish Steps. No shade. No place to stop. An occasional ice cream. But now a moment’s rest along the Tiber. I captured a spot on the stone wall. How many legionnaires and senators and popes and dukes had walked over these same stones. Open-eyed farmers, wizened grandmothers, woodcarvers with scarred palms, children liberated from school or convent. How many had also stopped for a moment to rest, leaned against the tanned limestone, hoping they wouldn’t burn. Hoping for a chance to catch the faint breeze floating above the river and cool the boiling blood.
He walked up the hill, shuffled really. Slowly. One foot ahead, then the other. Along the sidewalk. A war veteran? Pensioner after 50 years in the coal mine? So old, so slow. Dressed in an old overcoat that defied both logic and an acceptable color designation in the sweltering heat. A beret on his head. Grey. A grey beret, a grey man.
My teenage eyes followed as he shuffled past. Past the columned barricade on which I sat. Past Caesar and Cicero and Nero and a passel of popes. Past the smell of rotting tomatoes. Past the Fiats and Vespas angrily buzzing in the background.
He stopped. For an eternity, he stood. Motionless, he stood. His eyes were gazing toward the river. Right next to me, he placed the book on the wall. An afterthought. Then he resumed his shuffle. The book, like the man, had an indeterminate brown cover. It sat unmoving as I waited for him to come back for it. The grey man never looked back and soon disappeared around the bend, hidden by the wall on which I sat.
A silent gift. A poet could not have asked for a more perfect opening. The gateway to knowledge. Infinite wisdom in this tattered book left by a mysterious stranger. All my seventeen year old fantasies about discovering life’s meaning, messages for the future, all encapsulated in that volume, lying dormant beside me.
Shaking, I picked it up. Italian. More Italian. What on earth was this about? Finally, a photo. A man standing next to a giant marlin, trussed high on the scale, its sole eye open but staring at nothing. The man solemn, determined, proud. The marlin, a trophy. It was a book on fishing for marlin in the Red Sea.
So that was the meaning of life.
I still have that book somewhere out in the garage. I never learned to read Italian. Whatever secret message it contained is still entombed inside the tattered brown cover. I never discovered its wisdom, how it could change my life.
Now, wizened and gray myself, it is my turn. Dust off the gray coat, a beret. Finding the right wall shouldn’t be a problem in the buzz of the downtown shopping mall in Walnut Creek, though it won’t be one that has witnessed popes and generals and emperors and cardinals. Find a spot, find a teenager, one whose eyes aren’t chasing Pokemon on an iPhone.
But which book should it be? A bible? Hamlet? Sandberg poetry? Too predictable. Or one of my favorites from Shaw or Stoppard or Ibsen? An inspirational volume about alchemists? No, there’s only one right book. I will need to excavate those layers of boxes in the garage and find that one tattered brown tome, a lifetime older than when I received it, to pass along to the next generation. A book. In Italian. About catching marlin in the Red Sea. The meaning of life.
Marlin photo National Museum of New Zealand. Broadway Plaza photo East Bay Loop.
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