On 22 November 1963, the day the Music stopped, I was waiting to dissect a crayfish at the back table in biology lab in the science building of the first of three universities—in upstate New York, near Canada—I was to attend in my younger days. All of a sudden, in my right ear, at the door, I heard the loud, desperate whisper of one in the hall who had sent to me like a shot the “They shot Kennedy! They shot Kennedy!” cry of distress I was to remember for the rest of my life. I gulped. Then I raised my hand to seek the attention of the unflappable lab instructor, a be-speckled individual from New Delhi. I told him what I had heard. He strong-mindedly announced that we all should remain calm. He left to investigate for us the reality of the announcement. In two or three minutes he was back to us. The class was dismissed. I put on my coat and went out into the cold late-autumn afternoon. Across the campus I could see students serpentining their ways to the university chapel. I walked swiftly to my dormitory and entered the lobby of it to see scores of my fellows watching, in absolute silence, Walter Cronkite spiel forth the horrors of that day. My eyes were filled with tears. Other undergraduates had completely broken down. Anguish and fear were on the faces of all of us. In a few hours I was on my way to Arlington, Virginia with my frat brother, Matt Gallagher, whose father, a Russian expert employed by the Central Stupidity Agency, had invited me to his home. I eyed the caisson with J.F.K. go by very quickly in front of me. And the horse without a rider. No matter what would be said about John F. Kennedy in later years—and I would come to almost detest his wife, Jacqueline—I kept, and still keep, these words (perhaps written by Ted Sorensen?) close to my heart and fixed in my political mindset: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” When I wrote and re-wrote speeches for President Carlos Andrés Pérez of Venezuela, I kept J.F.K.’s words in my thoughts, and I sought—wherever I could—to sneak them as best I could into the ramblings-on of the corrupt Southamerican dictator bedecked in a business suit and not a beribboned military uniform and sunglasses. The spirit of J.F.K. was one built on hope for a better world and it inspired many of us at that time with an energy to create, to go forward and to try to make a better world not only for ourselves but even for others.
n 11 September 2000 I was with Federica in her home very near the Italian campus of New York University. Federica had asked me to help her with the translation into English of the Italian biography of an Italian flautist she was helping to promote throughout the world of entertainment. About half an hour into our session, the telephone rang. The sister of Federica in Milano sounded for her the Twin Towers/World Trade Center alarm. Federica went immediately to turn on the television. I was taken back by the caught-off-guard mien on her face. I knew immediately that something of great consequence had befallen all of us. Then the C.N.N. logo. One of the Twin Towers was billowing with smoke and flames shot out its sides. The woman commentator did not elicit evidence of emotion as Walter Cronkite had once done before my eyes, but I could understand that she, as me, could not fathom the substantiality of this event. I knew the two buildings might house tens of thousands of individuals on any given day. Maybe some 30,000…40,000…50,000…. These were the numbers which pirouetted right then left in my head now spinning as it did that 22nd day in November, 1963. The episode could not be comprehended. An attack on United States’ soil had been perpetrated. Numbers buzzed around my thinker. The Franchi Stadium in Firenze (Florence) accommodates about 40,000 fans. I know it. Could it be that that many people were dead! My stomach cringed. The Stalinoid aphorism, “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million people is history,” flashed contumaciously across my brain. What was this insanity? This will to destroy? I glanced about the den in which we were working together. I tried to catch onto something that would steady my being, my nerves. I was truly ruffled. When I witnessed people pleading hopelessly on the sills of the Twin Towers windows, I was forlorn. Federica declared forthwith that the perpetrators were Arabs. I advised her to delay her judgment. Remembering the November, 1998 article, “Shredding the Bill of Rights,” by Gore Vidal in Vanity Fair, I surmised almost immediately that the assailants probably were not foreigners! Perhaps the guilty ones were Northamerican reactionaries—paramilitary groups in the United States itself. I groped for other ideas to convey to Federica what I thought was going on—so much so that Federica interjected with this interpolation which would bring me back to a reality I was all too familiar with in Italy and which has never ceased to hit me in the eyes: “Be quiet! I want to enjoy (italics mine) this.” That comment snapped me out of my unsteadiness. (President Bush, I must parenthesise here—a bit. It is not that Federica was happy to see New Yorkers and others killed in the Twin Towers’ tragedy. No! Federica was expressing herself in a finical way. You must realize that Italy has suffered an incredible history. Invasions, wars, ravagements, political instabilities, famines, et cetera. It is seemingly impossible to grasp how sad Italian life was in the past. Italians are downcast by Nature. When they often find joy in the misfortunes of others, it is not that they are happy with the tribulations of them. It means that they are content to know that even others share experiences of woe similar to those which have made Italians languish so frequently before throughout their history. I know this cultural idiosyncrasy will seem uncanny to you, Mr. President. When I first arrived in Italy almost nineteen years ago—before an Italian professor of Italian culture and history on the Italian campus of New York University in Florence explained to me—it was also difficult for me to take in certain peculiarities. That professor pointed out that Italians will easily laugh at your hard times. It is normal. It is not, however, something you should take personally, he further simplified. It just means that Italians are like everyone else and that we all have something very much in common as human beings: plain old Misery! Only recently a nephrologist in a Firenze hospital stunned me with his reactive comments pertaining to the stroke of bad fortune which had taken hold of the BAXTER company—a Northamerican medical instruments firm which supplies kidney dialysis machines [the Althane series of dialysers] for hemodialysis treatment for patients all over the world. Many deaths were attributed to the malfunctions of BAXTER equipment. The doctor went on to tell me that at a meeting of Tuscan kidney specialists in the city of Prato, he watched a BAXTER sales representative in Italy sitting with hospital and medical functionaries. The doctor explained to me—laughing all the while as if he was spieling out a good joke—that the BAXTER salesman looked “depressed and very, very sad!” That being so, Mr.President, if your wife or your mother or one of your daughters or Vice President Cheney or a close friend dies and an Italian smiles, beams with delight, it does not mean that he or she is gratified with your grief. No! He or she is glad to know you are wincing, too!)
Federica and I watched on for some time—in total silence. Thereupon, she thrust herself up from her chair and announced to me, in an immaculate politeness, this: “I wish to be with my father during this tragic event. Would you mind if we conclude our appointment?” Of course not. She lead me to the door of her villa apartment, and as usual—upon my arrival and departure—kissed me (The Two-faced Kiss of Death?) on each cheek. Immediately following that the thirty-six-year-old Federica upped on her ten toes, put her two hands behind her back, leaned her head slightly to the side, simpered coquettishly, and after, there oozed from her voice box—in a deleteriously-like baby talk—the following: “I hope you are not going to make me pay for today’s meeting.” (President Bush, I must make, again, a parenthesis of something I am sure will interest you very much. Here in Italy we are being constantly bombarded [excuse the expression, Mr. President!] by requests to help those less blessed than us. One is given the idea that the Italian community is one generous in nature—that it is always contributing. At the moment [28 December 2001] there are numerous initiatives to collect sums of money for the despairing throughout the world. One ambitiousness, NelCUOREdelMONDO, is calling for funds for children in South Africa, for craftsmen and women in Palestine, and for all the people in Afghanistan! I must admit—with a deep feeling of disgust—that a number of these types of blasts-off have been previously exposed as being fraudulent. And there is, in the air, the suspicion that these endeavors are more beneficial to those who create them than they are for those they are intended to serve. My mind, and the minds of the sixty-some-thousand United States’ citizens living on this beautiful peninsular [The Boot], abruptly reflected on the fact that immediately after the demise of the Twin Towers’ buildings there was no out-pouring—licit or illicit—of Italian over-flowings of generosity directed to the families of the victims of this unbelievable, abominable staggering blow. No one budged. No television telethons. No toll-free numbers scurrying at the bottom of my T.V. screen. No newspaper announcements for the collection of ready money for the unfortunate ones caught up in the New York comedown. No bank C. C.’s to send money to. Not even Maurizio Costanzo, the epitomy of Italian hypocrisy, ventured a bit of pro-Unitedstatesism [$$$] on his boring talk show that has been lumbering on for twenty years. Something funny was going on. United States’ citizens bit their tongues—deathlikely. “Business is business. There are times when it is best to just keep quiet.” Oh, Mr. President, how many American women here in Italy are keeping quiet! And they talk about Taliban women being repressed! Most Northamerican women I have spoken to would like to wrap a Taliban veil not only around the faces of their mother-in-laws, but also, tightly, around their necks! “They are invadenti! They are invadenti!! They are invadenti!!!” These suffering girls from New York and Los Angeles have been silenced by a psychological burka that the racist Oriana Fallaci will never admit to. Everyone in Italy is just disgustingly out for himself or herself. Mr. President, I do not know one Italian who contributed on behalf of the unfortunate ones in New York.)
I was not nonplussed. I went straight to put in an appearance to the expert I knew who teaches on the Florentine campus of New York University, to seek a university-level interpretation of Federica’s non-Christian disposition and the parsimony of Italians in general. To wit: “Why? Why no Italian bounteousness for the families of the victims of the Twin Towers’ debacle?” His curt response: “You Americans are rich. You don’t need our money.” I time-outted. Well, then. The New York University-paid professor of Italian culture and history subsequently further articulated—after dragging heavily on his M&S cigarette—this heavily-Englished, almost arrogant “understatement”: “We need your money.” Mama mia!
It is not Federica’s egregious reaction to the travail of other human beings or her striking cunning to cut costs at every turn that disturb me about her. (“Get your money in advance!”) It is for something more interesting that I will forever carry with me her memory. Let us all listen to this tersely cogent Federican assertion blurted out on another occasion: “Ninety percent of the Italians are cafoni.” No more, no less. (Here we go again, Mr. President! Another parenthetical interruption! I know you are anxious to know the meaning of cafoni. That is the plural of the masculine singular cafone. Cafona is the singular feminine; and, its plural is cafone—the same as the masculine singular. Now for its meaning—meanings. If you go to the Il Nuovo Ragazzini, Dizionario inglese-italiano, italiano-inglese, Seconda edizione, Zanichelli, you will find that cafone signifies southern Italian peasant; a boor; boorish; caddish; or, vulgar. But since Italian lexicographers are slow in updating their entries, it may be said that cafone has also come—in recent times—to represent verbally someone considered an imbecile, an ignorant person, or a “little shit,” stronzo.) Ninety percent is an impressive percentage. So much so I am immediately prompted to ask myself if it is possible that Federica herself is a cafona? And if she is, is her father and mother cafoni? Is her sister in Milano a cafona?
And you, Mr. President? Do you know that Federica and her enormous clique of “ten per–centers” are the very ones who mostly have access—as wheelers and dealers of the Italian economic and political rat hole—to those who are mostly sympathetic to your idea of a maverick, liberal economic bacchanalia (the kind that leveled Venezuela and Argentina), or to others who work for you and favor your thinking? That Federica will say one thing to you and then do another? That it is not the bonds of mutual respect that join our communities? That it is time for you to wake up, Bush II? (I am preparing an essay, Why the Disunited States of America and the Disunited Kingdom are Loathed the Length and Breadth of this Planet, and I will be happy to send you an autographed copy—upon request.)
Well then, Mr. President, are you a cafone?
When your father, Bush I, was president, he sent an imbecile (cafone?), Peter Secchia, to Italy to represent the United States of America as ambassador. The history of Pete’s approval by Congress is something very comical, and Pete himself is a real humdinger! A few weeks ago you, Bush II, sent a Mr. Melvin Sembler—after an almost incredible eight-month hiatus—to fill the United States’ ambassadorship in Italy. Melvin buzzed into the Roman airport and when journalists asked him if he spoke Italian, he quick-whipped haughtily to Italian tape-recorder holders this: “I speak Bush!”
It may come as a surprise to you, Mr. President, that the “ninety per–centers” could care less who the United States’ Ambassador to Italy is. In fact, less than ten percent of the Italian population bought a newspaper today, and the others who did not, sense no Freedom of the Press or worse, no liberty of the sort a “normal” democratic country would boast of. They are separated from that reality that sanctions the “ten per–centers.” So much so that I personally believe—and you will see my logic in my soon-to-be completed essay—the Italian economic and political situation has reached a perilous stage and promises to offer you, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense a very rough time—perhaps even more difficult than some of the “priority problems” which exist for you now.
President Bush, I promise you that you can count on the Italian “ten per–centers” as long as the $$$’s flow into Italy. The “ten per–centers” are “fair weather” friends. By now, you have lost the “ninety per–centers”—irrevocably. Without your dollars, Italy will fall quickly into chaos. And with your dollars, the United States of America will continue to succor the parasitical Italy—”The Problem Child of Europe; The Miami Beach of Europe.” Something terrible is going on in Italy…
Mr. Anthony St. John, a former American, contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Italy.