The Romans Have No Word for It

ONCE, when I was living in Rome, a Roman paper ran a series of articles about New York, and my Italian friends badgered me to know if conditions were really as represented. I remember a rhythmic headline: ‘ Trenta mila parla-bassi nella città di Nuova York.’ But no, they said, not thirty thousand speak-easies where the contraband was clandestinely sold! I told them it was a gross understatement. I told them that what was happening was the Great American Renaissance, and that naturally the streets ran blood just as they did in fifteenth-century Florence. They looked disturbed at this, but it did not stop them.

One day as I was standing by the Fountain of Trevi, one of these people came up to me with his wretched paper. He was a good Fascist who understood law and order. ‘But it is impossible,’ he said, pointing to a page spotted with words like ‘gangster’ and ‘racket,’ in italics. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘have it your own way. Perhaps the paper is lying. Anyway, I’m in Rome at the moment, so I can’t prove it. I’m interested in your fountain.’

I had come to the Fountain of Trevi on purpose. It is the fountain, you know, into which sentimental people throw pennies before they leave Rome. If you throw a penny there before you go, you are sure to come back. Americans stop their taxis there on the way to the station. Cook’s and the American Express disgorge their parties there, and everyone throws a penny.

The night before, I had waked up bitten by curiosity. What, I wondered, in a sweat of speculation, becomes of all the pennies? I did the kind of figuring one does in the nighttime and I estimated that a month of the ‘season’ would fill the basin of the fountain to the brim. So this morning I came early to find out.

‘It is a fantastic fountain,’ said my friend. ‘Not very good, you know.’

He was silent a moment and read his paper. Then he said: ‘Will you tell me one single thing?’

I knew that he was back in New York, so I sighed.

‘ What,’ he exploded, ‘ is a racket? ’

‘A racket,’ I told him, ‘is a concession which A gives to B, enabling B to do business in a certain place without competition. For this concession B pays A a sum of money.’

‘But who is A? Why does B pay him?’

‘Because A has a gun.’

‘But!’ Italians have a convulsive way of saying ‘but.’

‘I know,’ I said. ‘You are going to ask me about the police. You see, we have not the royal carabinieri.’

At that moment there arrived a throng of American girls. They giggled and looked self-conscious. They threw in their pennies and ran away.

‘Your compatriots,’ said my friend. ‘They are beautiful. So fresh, so free, so gay. A kind of children, naturally. . . .’

I knew these things by heart. I did not listen, because I was concentrated on the fountain. A small boy was looking into it at the pennies. He was a bedraggled person. I went to him and offered my stick. He looked frightened and shook his head.

’I will get the pennies for you,’ I said, but he trembled at that and began glancing uneasily about. I went back to my Fascist.

‘Are they afraid of the magic of the Trevi?’ I asked. ‘Or is it the police?’

There was, in fact, a policeman directing traffic, and two carabinieri in the middle distance.

My friend smiled and said, ‘Wait.'

A number of other boys came up and stared into the basin. There were a lot of pennies. Suddenly a boy looked over his shoulder, made a sign to the others, and they all ran away in a great fright. A second after I saw why.

Three large boys appeared from nowhere. They all carried sticks. The middle boy had a mechanism on his stick. He went direct to the basin; the others stood guard. The guards seemed to grow as they stood there; their chests stuck out, their faces became dark and threatening. The middle boy went quickly about his business. He operated his instrument from the handle. He did not make a false motion. When he had gathered the last penny, he made a sign to his friends, there was a quick conference, a quick distribution, and then the three of them, shouldering their sticks, marched in front of the policeman, by the carabinieri, and disappeared.

I looked at my friend, who was amused.

‘That,’ I said, ‘is a racket.’

His face changed; he was puzzled, then serious.

‘Why, it’s nothing but a game,’he said.

It was time for me to go. My curiosity was appeased and I had things to do.

‘A game — ’ my Roman repeated.

‘Yes,’ I said. I held out my hand. You shake hands on small provocation in Italy — at every meeting and parting. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I must be going about my business. But your questions are all answered.’

‘But it’s just a game,’he insisted, ‘an old children’s game.'

‘Old in Rome,’I called back over my shoulder as I walked away. ‘Old in Rome, but new in New York. And you must remember,’ I added, stopping dangerously in the traffic, ‘that we Americans are all a kind of children.'

ROGER BURLINGAME