There isn’t much to say about the outskirts of Rome except that the part I saw was arid, run down, and full of graffiti. At the airport, policemen stood around in a group, hands on guns, caps at a jaunty angle, not interested much in security at all. Laughing and joking and pushing each other around in mock fights. Some of them stood to one side posing, looking dashing for the girls, pistols swung out away from their bodies so the handle made a perfect place to rest one hand and achieve the right effect. You either played the cool fool, the joker, or pouted your way through the afternoon shift. But you looked your best whatever; the only mandatory part of being a Rome policeman.
The route north from Rome is dirty too. All soundproofing/security fences to deal with the crazy locals cooped up like rats in any number of crumbling apartment blocks. Bad spray paint tags are everywhere and expressways tangle and run choking around almost every single block. And no-one seems to be around.
It’s hot. There is not a car, or truck, or bus, or even wheelchair, anywhere that is not dented in some way. No, Rome is not a city of love.
She was easily forty – could have been sixty. Plastic surgery, filled lips/tits, and blonde hair and tan made it hard to tell.
The young guy at the table with her wasn’t her lover. They were close, maybe mother and son, but they had trouble. She was switching between quick one line phone calls, laughter, to eyes welling up. I heard her say ‘The first two million is up front, but I’m scared.’
The young guy offered to make some alterations in his apartment. She’d have her own room. He would install a security gate and a camera entry system. He said she’d be safe then. She didn’t look convinced.
You could see by the way her face was lined that she’d probably been scared a lot in her life. The tiny dress and kitten heels and the Rolex watch were all ploughed into those lines one way or another. She’d earned them, but she hadn’t earned what she was running from now. You could tell that things had just got serious for the first time. Life was on the line.
Outside the little ristorante in the Via Ritorta with the overhanging stone balconies and tables with pots of lavender on them, things were not ok. He was trying to help but you could sense she knew he was coming up short. She kept on tapping at her phone but there were no good solutions coming back. She’d gone away – run away – to this town in the baking August sun but she hadn’t thought the next step through.
Around her neck were several silver necklaces. One held a Maltese cross, another a Kabbalah pendent. She was obviously big into protection, like she needed every bit of religious vengeance she could buy. She toyed with the necklaces as she ate cherries and spat the pips out discreetly into a semi-clenched fist.
You could tell the waiter wanted to fuck her. It was all she needed. She waved him away with a look that had been given and practiced a lot over the years. He didn’t need a second hint.
She gave her companion her card to pay the bill. They left the restaurant a little apart. They both knew the drill. She turned into the main square with no real sense of purpose or, I suspected, hope. I finished my wine. It was still cold. When I left I walked slowly. I haven’t the same enemies right now.
Is begging the worst thing a person can do to get money?
Or don’t. Just ignore it and move on and feel better.
Three times today I was asked by three different people for money. The first was a Romany woman – age unknown – who I’d seen for the last few days. She was always in the same place – the bottom of the escalator system into the ancient underground caverns beneath the town. She was always in the full sun. I felt for her.
At the start she’d cursed me when I didn’t toss any money into her cloak. That pissed me off. The next day, the leg she’d ‘lost’ had grown back and the other one was gone – prop crutch still there. It didn’t get much use. I had wished her luck. She didn’t want luck. Luck didn’t mean shit in this heat. But this morning I gave her money. She smiled and said some prayer that I’m hoping will work for the two euros it cost me. Or that it’ll cancel out yesterday’s curse.
The second beggar was still drunk. Large, afro-haired, decent clothes. He mistook me for an Italian but when I passed back he’d sussed I was English and ripe for fleecing. ‘Hey man. Please. I hungry.’ I told him I had problems too and he changed back into Italian, cursing, swearing, stinking of booze, wild and angry.
The third beggar was older, fat, bald, drunk, and swaying as he sat on the marble steps of a building in the old town. He cupped his hand with no conviction and muttered something with a bored expression on his sweating face. I was rude to him. I said I needed money too, and that I always felt one wrong step away from where he was, or worse. He didn’t respond. I was his hundreth lost cause that hour and wasn’t worth the trouble.
I’ve worked with the vulnerable, the poor, the abused, sex workers, heroin addicts, alcoholics, the mentally ill, the hopeless, and some of those labels have applied to me. Some still do. So I have some empathy, right?
I judged all the three beggars today with no empathy at all, just pure fat, pathetic, apathy. Even anger at the gall of someone in need to ask me…..ME…..for a few cents. Fucking awful behaviour. Thoughts of everyone and everything I hate. But I hate me the most.
Who cares if the first beggar gave more money to an abusive husband who puts her out there every day? Who cares if the second beggar, and the third, drink a litre more cheap wine tonight because of my spare change? Am I Saint or sinner either way? Does it matter?
Questions. Too many. And I don’t feel like I’m succeeding today in my ongoing journey to become a better human being. One beggar got slightly less money from me than I spent at lunch on a glass of cold beer in a decent restaurant near the cathedral, where fat white folks gorged on truffled pasta. The other two moved on to whatever lives they have. None of them, though, deserved to meet me today. They deserved more.