Roma 1957, Part One

My four month stay in London came to naught: The London School of Economics rejected my application once they received my undergraduate grades from Temple University. I had six glorious weeks with the Mallets in Hans Place followed by two and a half months of misery in a garret in Notting Hill Gate, in a house inhabited by Turks. The occasional dinner with the Mallets at Hans Place gave some relief. Gina and I went to the movies twice. We went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

When the sun shone I’d share a bench in Kensington Park with other at-ease Londoners, our faces raised upwards. It was impossible to get work in London; you had to be a citizen of a Commonwealth country. I’d spend hours in the USIA Library, reading New Yorker magazines. The hot water in the mens room was glorious. I walked, walked all over London: from Notting Hill Gate to Saint Paul’s was a typical trek. I was lean as a wolf, existing on one full meal a day, buffet style (four and thruppence), at the Lyons Corner House on Oxford Circle.

I would pile my plate high, until the juices oozed over the edge. A female orchestra played light classical pieces, Gilbert and Sullivan and American pop tunes as I filled up on potatoes, Brussell sprouts and pickled herring. I’d eat bread, cheddar cheese and an apple in my room. Milk I’d buy on the street from the milkman making his morning deliveries and I’d drink it while standing by his van. That raised eyebrows, not the Arabs’s who had seen worse. I should have returned to Philadelphia but I couldn’t face it.

Mrs. Mallet bought my Olivetti typewriter – the blank page was pitiless – and I sold my old Air Force field jacket to a New Zealander friend. What remained was a few months of GI Bill eligibility. I returned to Rome.

To think that my income taxes were supporting your lifestyle,” Margie would complain with half-serious indignation. I assured her that I, without portfolio, had done more good in Italy than the U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce.

The first week in Rome I stayed with the Rotz’s, artist friends who had an apartment on Via Babuino, but it was a tight squeeze. Fortuitously, Diana Beames asked me to house-sit her apartment and her cat – for a token rent and utilities. She had accepted a three month job, teaching English at the British Council school in Zagreb. I began giving private English lessons to Italians whom I found through want ads in the Rome Daily American. A few ads said, “Americans need not apply” – these people wanted to acquire British accents. Maurizio Costa was not one of them.

His father, Alfonso Costa, was grooming Maurizio, a schoolboy, to enter the family business, an elegant haberdashery called ROMAGNOLI, The store was located on the corner of Via Sistina and Via Crispi. Signor Alfonso had an invisible partner, his widowed sister, whose husband, Romagnoli, had founded the business. I’d meet with Maurizio in the Costa’s large apartment just off Piazza Cavour, not far from Hadrian’s Tomb. After the lesson I’d stay for dinner. Rosina, the live-in maid, attended to the cooking and she served the meal. Rosina was from the Abbruzzi, the source, said the Romans, of good cooks.

Signor Alfonso would sit at the head of the table, flanked by his wife Lidia and his son Maurizio on one side and I on the other. At the table’s far end, facing Signor Alfonso, sat the television. We watched television as we ate. Rosina would stand behind Signor Alfonso’s chair, watching the show between courses, all the while taking part in our lively commentaries.

The favorite program was ‘Lascia o Radoppia‘ (Double or Nothing), the Italian version of the American ‘$64,00 Question’. The show was hosted by Mike Bongiorno, a transplanted American. One week the prize winner was a shepherd, a rustic old Tuscan who knew all of Dante. “Make a wish,” said Bongiorno. The old man said he’d like a plane ride, in a small plane like the one that sometimes flew over him and his sheep. And he’d like to eat grissini.

In those days RAI was the only TV channel, with about six hours programming per day. The programs were not interrupted by commercials. Instead, the commercials were aired sequentially at the end of the broadcasting day, in a half-hour block. The commercials consisted of little vignettes, sometimes portrayed by movie stars. A young Sofia Loren appeared in the Simmenthal commercial. Simmenthal was Italy’s leading producer of canned meats. Sofia would sit in a tiny Fiat 500, overflowing the car, as if in a tight but somehow yielding girdle. As Sofia spoke, oozing innuendos, the company’s rubric flashed over her head: “Simmenthal, la Buona Carne in Scatola”, “Simmenthal, the Good Meat in a Can”.

Signor Alfonso offered me a job in the store, to deal with the English speaking customers. Of course I accepted.

A tall, well dressed, broad-shouldered man, and a pretty younger woman entered the store. He was about sixty, she about thirty-five, maybe forty. The man stepped to the middle of the room, opened his arms wide and sang: “Una furtiva lagrima negli occhi suoi spunto.” He was good.

We applauded: Signor Alfonso, his older son Sergio, Alfredo, the other clerk and I. The tall man bowed, acknowledging our applause. Then, beseechingly, his fists thrust downward, he sang: “Brother, can you spare a dime,” a song I remembered hearing as a child in the 1930’s. This had to be the Street Singer.

I am Arthur Tracy, the Street Singer,” he announced. We applauded.

Good morning, Mr.Tracy, what can I do for you?” I said. Sergio seated Mrs.Tracy in a comfortable chair.

There’s a necktie in the window.” He led me out of the store to point it out. Back in the store I pulled out one of the broad flat drawers that held neckties of that type. I found his and handed it over, fanning out three or four others before him: “Italian silk, from Lake Como.” I said.

Yes, I like it. I’ll take it,” he said. “You speak pretty good English.”

I was born and raised in Philadelphia,” I said. “We used to listen to your program on the radio. The words came bubbling up from my memory: I sang: “Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today.” It had been the Street Singer’s other signature song in the 1930’s.

I grew up in Philadelphia too!” he said with delight. “Did you hear that, Blossom?” turning to his wife. Blossom had heard me. She was from Hollywood where Philadelphia was mostly the butt of bad jokes. I explained that I was a part-time student at the University of Rome. Arthur and I became instant pals.

Charlie, what I’d really like is an opera cape, black silk with a red velvet lining.”

I don’t think you’ll find one ready made. Custom made, yes. How long will you be in Rome?

Two more days in Rome, two in Capri, then a last day in Rome.” he said.

I looked to Sergio: he had understood everything. Yes, it can be done, if we begin this morning. Giuseppe Tonnina, the tailor, would come here to measure him up; then I’d accompany Arthur and Giuseppe to the nearby fabric store to select the silk and the velvet. On the third day I’d take Arthur to Giuseppe’s studio for his first and only fitting. One fitting was sufficient for a cape. The cape would be ready when he and Blossom got back from Capri.

Yes, let’s do it,’ said Arthur. Sergio phoned Giuseppe. Meanwhile, Signor Alfonso had strewn two or three lovely Italian silk squares onto Blossom’s lap – “Better than Hermes,” he said, proud of his English phrase. And he sent out for coffee and brioches.

Giuseppe arrived and he took Arthur’s measurements, grinning as he stretched the tape measure across Arthur’s broad back. He had never had a customer this big. The cape would have made a fair-sized tent.

You’re having all the fun,” said Blossom, pouting.

What is it, Dear?” said Arthur with exaggerated concern.

They were on their honeymoon trip, their third marriages. They had already been to London and Paris. Blossom was the daughter of Hollywood’s premier society bandleader. Arthur had had a long career in the movies and he was still popular in England where he had been a pal of the Duke of Windsor.

I’d like that suit all the women are wearing,” said Blossom. She meant the fitted jackets that nipped the waist, with a scalloped lower edge that rippled like Aspen leaves. The jackets, in Windsor plaids, were worn over grey flannel skirts and burnished Florentine leather shoes. The game was to find the most unusual plaids in the fabric shops. The skirts had an off-center gusset in the back lower hem. The accordion pleats of the gusset opened and shut saucily as the women walked.

Sergio nodded. His wife Beatrice, a former fashion model, had a salon which she ran, for now, out of the family’s apartment in I Prati, not far from Piazza Cavour. I would take Art and Blossom to Beatrice after lunch. Late in the afternoon of the next day, we’d return to Beatrice for the first fitting. Blossom was excited: yes, yes. Her fingers caressed the voluptuous silk squares in her lap. Arthur was thrilled. They were titillated to be dealing intimately with real Italians. Art and I had bonded.

Beatrice and her assistant, Anna, were waiting for us in the apartment’s sun-filled salotto. Anna hardly knew I existed. Beatrice turned to me: “Una questione delicata.” It would be best if Blossom stripped down to panties and bra when Beatrice took her measurements. Would Blossom mind, would Arthur mind, if I, Carlo, remained in the room, because Beatrice knew no English. I started to explain. Blossom began to wriggle out of her clothes before I finished my sentence. Arthur muttered, askance: “A nice old fashioned girl.”

Everything fell into place smoothly, smoothly because many unseen fingers had stitched for long hours. All was ready when the Tracys returned from Capri. Beatrice was right: Blossom did not need a second fitting. She loved the suit and Arthur was delighted with his cape. He had a top hat to match the cape in New York City. They thanked me profusely.

Art gave me his business card and he implored me to look him up when I got back to the United States. He had friends; there’d be a job for me somewhere. I was touched, but unknown to Arthur, all accounts had been settled in Rome. Arthur had already paid, in inflated prices, for the extra attention he and Blossom had received, prices which were nonetheless lower than they would have been in New York City.

I had received an envelope (una busta) from the owner of the fabric store. It contained cash equal to five percent of what Arthur had paid for the velvet and the silk. Giuseppe the tailor had given Signor Alfonso his busta: ten percent of what he had charged Tracy to make the cape. I gained points with Beatrice and Sergio: dinner invitations would ensue. My monthly salary contained an extra two thousand lire {$3.20). And sure to come, would be dinners with the elder Costas: with Mike Bongiorno, with Sofia Loren in the Fiat 500.




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