Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cigarettes & Opera

I almost walked right past him.  

Providing the standard “Sorry, dude” shrug of a person unwilling or unable to provide a beggar with a little change while not wishing to be unkind, I almost kept walking.  I was, after all, on a budget, and Rome is not a cheap place to be.  But as I tucked my hands into my pockets, I paused.  I did have something to offer.  I turned to him and asked, “You smoke?” along with the universal charades action for smoking.  He nodded.  I pulled my shoulder bag around, fished out a few cigarettes, and handed them to the man and his younger friend.  The small black puppy that sat between them declined.  I asked his name.

“Franco,” he replied.  

He was, I would have guessed, in his early sixties, slim and relatively clean-shaven for someone living on the street, keeping himself as clean as he could, combing back his black hair neatly.  He had thoughtful eyes that seemed to inspect the world from an acquiescent distance.  His friend, Antonio, was much younger, probably in his early 30s.  He had a round Roman face, a brief moustache and goatee, and a serious look accentuated by dark hair.  He spoke no English.

Franco, however, asked where I was from.

“Canada,” I said, “but I usually live in California.”

“Oh,” he said, “I live in San Jose for almost 20 years.  I have family there.”

We chatted a little longer, and I learned that he was from Sicily, and that he had a daughter that he had raised in California who remained there.  Finally I shook his hand.

“It was good to meet you, Franco.  Ciao,” I said, and smiled.

“Ciao,” he said, and I walked on.

Jaspar was around the corner.

He lay in front of the little cove in the wall that held a small collection of vending machines which sold everything from bland biscuits to bad espresso.  He thoroughly looked the part of a homeless man.  His pants drooped from his waist.  His dark hair fell messily from the sides of his cap.  And he muttered in Italian something that seemed to have no connection with his outstretched, begging hand.  His eyes scanned the world around him, a world which may have had little to do with the world of the passersby.

I held up a cigarette, and raised my eyebrows in offering.  He smiled and continued his inspection of his world as if to say, “What’s this guy up to?  Yeah, I’ll take a cigarette, you weirdo!”  I gave him two, and offered my hand.

“Uh… Mi nomé ‘Aaron’,” I said in my best accent.

He smiled again in an oh-what-the-hell way and shook my hand.  “Jaspar.”

“ ‘Jaspar’?”


“Mucho…” I almost said, ‘Mucho gusto’, which would have been the wrong latin-based language.  “Nice… Nice to meet you.”

He shook his head and smiled, and I walked on.

I came out of my hostel in the morning, and made my way toward what was quickly becoming “my” little coffee shop, for what had become my morning routine: a cafe latté, a Bible, a journal, and a pen.  My coffee shop stood on the bend in the corner, just beyond Jaspar’s Cove, with a lovely view of the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore that stood across the street.

Jaspar saw me coming, and started smiling and shaking his head.  I gave him two more cigarettes.

That night, , along with Antonio and his puppy, I saw Franco again.  He was in one of his two usual spots.  I greeted him with a handshake, and asked him if he and Antonio wanted a coffee.

“Sure, yes,” he said.  He asked Antonio, who looked at me seriously and nodded.

Espressos, with cream and sugar.  I strolled over to my coffee shop and ordered two coffees.  I returned, hot espresso in thin plastic cups, and hunkered down next to Franco.

“Grazi,” he said, taking a first tentative sip.

“De…”  And I almost said, ‘De nada.’  “Um… Prego.”

Small cars whirred through the street in front of us.  Open-roofed tour buses drove back and forth, shuttling people with sunglasses, large cameras, and larger hats.  I sat with him there for a while, sipping on espresso and watching the cars and the people.  Business men with a Very Important stride, smoking cigarettes, having Very Important conversations on Very Expensive cell phones.  Teenagers with the same giggles as the ones in North America, smoking cigarettes and being boisterous.  Hip young lovers, joined at the hip.  They were smoking, too.  A few priests (some of these also smoking).  Nuns.  Even a monkly robe or two.  And a lot of chubby middle-aged people in socked sandals, holding tourist maps and having a tendency to pointing.  One or two of those people smoked cigars.  

Some people, usually girls, smiled apologetically toward Franco’s begging cup.  A few, both men and women, stopped and gave change.  One or two even stopped a moment and talked and laughed, as if they knew each other (Of course, I couldn’t understand enough to tell).  A few looked disgusted.  Most, however, walked past at a high speed, somehow aware of everything on the street but the outstretched hand below them.  Their world had little to do with the world at their feet.

Franco and I talked a little.  I learned that he was 70 years old, and had no family here.  

Only his daughter in California.  

I spent the day at the Vatican.  I waved hello to the Pope.  I was blessed by a bishop.  I ate the most delicious sandwich in history.  I climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.  And at the end of that day, I sat down with Franco.  People strolled past, and a man stooped to drop some coins in Franco’s cup.

As the man went on his way, Franco inspected the change.  He took a coin and held it between his fingers.

“Where is this from?” he asked.

I looked at it closely.  “I think that’s from… Australia.”

“Australia?”  And he looked at it with some interest.  He reached behind him for his bag, and pulled out a small plastic container that once held butter.  “I collect these.”  

He opened the plastic lid and handed me the collection.  I smiled as I inspected coins from all over the world.

“Ah, this is from Thailand!” I said, holding up a coin with an image of the beloved king of Siam.  “I think I have some change from Canada,” I told him, “back in my room.  I will bring you some coins next time.”

“Si?  Thank-you.  Grazi.”

And the cars rolled by, and the people walked past.

I walked into my coffee shop, and pointed at a pack of cigarettes on the wall behind the counter.

Around the corner, Jaspar sat, back against the wall, legs outstretched and crossed and owning his little piece of the sidewalk.  He saw me coming.  He chucklemuttered under his breath, and shook his head, and smiled.  I handed him a pack of cigarettes.

“boyohboywhoisthiscrazysumbitchAmerican,” he said as we shook hands.  At least, I think that’s the translation.

“Pacé e bené, Jaspar,” I said.  I saluted a casual goodbye, and he smiled and shook his head, and I walked on.

I came back later that evening to Franco’s spot by the wall.  I handed him a small collection of Canadian change.  He smiled and inspected the goods with curiosity.  He held up the coin with the stag’s head.

“A quarter,” I said.  “Twenty-five cents.”

He held up a silver coin with a small rodent emblazoned upon it.

“A nickel.  Five cents,” I told him.  “These here are pennies.  One cent.  And this is a dime.  Ten cents.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and placed them in the container with the rest of his collection.  We sat quietly for a while.

“Franco, do you play music?  Do you…?” and I mimed a guitar.

“No, no.”  And he shook his head, and shook his cup for a passerby.

“Do you like music?  You have a….  A favourite music?”

The corners of his mouth went up just a little.  “Opera,” he said as his eyes met mine.  “I love opera.”

“Opera?  Really?  Wow.  Do you have a favourite opera?”

His eyes showed a spark.  “La Traviata.” And he smiled a smile of rapture and memory.  “Placido Domingo.  Teresa Stratas.  Very beautiful.”

And he began to tell me the story of La Traviata, of the nobleman who fell in love with the woman who strayed.  I don’t know if there is any music that could sing the story better than his eyes.  They were alive with the sadness and the joy of the telling.  He held the story like his first love’s hand, like a child in his arms, and spoke it with abiding affection, with great tenderness.  I felt each moment of love, each moment of heartbreak, like a song; I was present at the lovers’ first kiss, and their last embrace.  When the story came to its end, my own eyes were as misty as the storyteller’s.

And Franco smiled, and the song stayed in his eyes for a while, and he shook his cup of change to the passersby.


James Harrison said...

Wow, thanks Aaron! So good. The Lord obviously takes delight in bringing you memorable moments. Peace.

James Harrison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hitchie Mcgoo said...

So beautiful. So well written.

Your Friend Aaron said...

Thanks, James. And thanks, Hitchie, whoever thou art! You help me to keep writing.

InnerTV said...

i really like this franco guy.

Your Friend Aaron said...


Me too. I hope I run into him again someday.

Since this writing, by the way, I had the chance to actually watch La Traviata (on DVD, not the theatre!), and I loved it. I may have cried a little.