Thursday, March 20, 2008

From the Chronicle's Travels: A Bus in Rome

© By Albert A Rasch

"His eyes though, were sharp and calculating, always moving, always noting every passenger..."

I have a good friend who travels the world. A historian, he has traveled to all the major sites of Western culture. He has been to the Parthenon, traveled through England, has seen the Venetian palace of the Doge, known as the Palazzo Ducale di Venezia, and regaled in the free city of Prague hunting peasants with a medieval crossbow. I think he’s even frolicked on some of the Grecian islands on the Mediterranean. What the hell that has to do with history I don’t know, he’s kind of cagey and circumspect when I bring it up. But it was his recent adventure in a Roman bus that he shared with me, that I will now share with you.

My friend shall remain nameless as his employment with the government of the United States is sensitive enough for me to indulge in this bit of license and refrain from referring to him by name.

This particular trip, he had given to his mother a tour through the Italian peninsula as a birthday gift, and as the doting son that he is, he had arranged every detail of this trip. And as an added bonus he invited his sister along too. (The only place I would invite my brother to is his own ass-whipping.) As his parents, like mine, are now of advanced age, he took special consideration with respect to the access to the hotel, and the quality of its services, and its convenience to the locations he wished to visit. I’ve known him for three and a half decades now, and when I say he is meticulous, it’s an understatement. He’s the guy who not only carries a spare scope, but an extractor and firing pin when he goes out. My things go south and I sharpen a stick and call it good. He plans for and is prepared for any contingency.

Except for Roman public transport.

Imagine if you will, a beautiful afternoon in Rome. The sun streaming down on the beautiful Roman architecture, bathing it with a warm, golden glow. Centuries of history bursting from every mortar joint and every piece of stone work, even the cobble stones echo with the ancient steps of the Legions. The lovely Italian women in the latest of fashions parade down the piazza, mindful of where they step lest they twist an ankle, and mindful of every man’s eye that lands upon them. Then there are the devout nuns calmly going about their business, habits swishing with every step, the hard leather soles on their very sensible black shoes hardly making an audible sound over the din of the city.

According to my friend’s itinerary it was time to visit some historic site or another. Finishing the last of an exquisite northern Italian wine while sitting on the terraza, he notes that it is time to visit the next stop on the tour. Mom and sister, comfortably ensconced in a luxurious hotel room and who by now are intimately familiar with his methods, are patiently awaiting him, so he gathers them and escorts them from the hotel.

As everyone knows, the public transportation in Europe is a finely tuned machine. Italy’s system is no exception. My friend, itinerary in mind and schedule in hand, guides dearest Mrs. M, and sister, to the bus stop. Before long the bus arrives and they board. Busses and trains in Europe are also very busy, and again, this bus was no exception. There was standing room only. Fortuitously for them a kindly priest offers his seat to Mrs. M., who gratefully accepts his kind gesture and takes it, while he stands next to her.

The priest was a middle aged, small and easily overlooked gentleman. Had you taken the time to notice, he had the benevolent face of a school teacher, a learned man who has seen much and is comfortable with the experiences he has endured. His eyes though, were sharp and calculating, always moving, always noting every passenger. But his size, the priestly frock, and the inordinate number of members of the clergy that are in Rome, made him almost imperceptible, non-descript, unnoticeable.

I’ll let my friend tell the rest of the story.

“Albert, let me tell you, Rome is gorgeous. The architectural history alone is enough to make you salivate. When you’re at the Coliseum it just grabs you by the… Anyway, so I’m standing in the bus, kind of bent over to look out the window, just absorbing the sights. Every block is different and you never know what will come next. My sister is standing next to me, thinking about lord knows what, when out of nowhere I hear a smack and my mother yells, ‘The priest had his hand in my bag! Grab him!’”

(Now I would like to interject here and let you all know that my buddy is a paragon of courtesy and good manners. He is a man of impeccable dress and incredibly good taste; the quintessential man of means and important affairs. If you didn’t know him you might think him to be minor nobility or something like that. Really. The point is he doesn’t usually go around and rough up unsuspecting priests.)

He continued. “Startled from my reverie, I look at the priest; he’s like five foot tall by the way. I look at my Mom, look at the priest, look back at Mom, and with a muttered “Sorry God.”, my hand shoots out and I snatch him hard by the neck, driving my thumb into his carotid.”

“I wasn’t the only one startled. By now everyone on the bus is looking at me. I have this priest dangling by his neck like a black robed pork belly on display, his shoes barely touching the rubber mats, and a couple of gurgles coming from his mouth. I could see the headlines: ‘Mad American throttles Vatican Emissary.’ ‘But, Albert’, he says to me, ‘it’s Mom.’ So I’m thinking ‘Too bad’ for everyone. I’m taking care of business here and now!”

“I rip his leather satchel out of his hands, and toss it to my sister. “Go through it.” I tell her. She holds it away from her body like it’s a venomous serpent. I swear she’s held worse so I don’t know what her problem was. My guess is she figured damnation would be upon her and the earth would be rent if she opened it or maybe she thought the Italian police would have me for roughing up a priest and she didn’t want to get thrown in the slammer as an accomplice. Meanwhile, Mother is going through her bag and checking for anything missing. Women buy on looks, not practicality; the bag had ‘steal-from-me’ written all over it. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her to get a flap-over purse for travel. Anyway, sister tells me there’s nothing in the priest’s bag and gives it to me. I’m not sure she even looked, but Mom says she can’t find anything misplaced or missing either.”

“Crap. I have a priest in one hand, a bus load of locals and tourists around me, and no good reason for having him dangling there like a dead tuna on a meat hook. I let him go, give him his bag, and roughly straighten him out. I’m muttering an apology while he’s rubbing his throat, when I notice something. I grab his left wrist and look at the back of his hand. Three red marks where my mother had smacked his hand. I looked him straight in the eye and you know what he did? He shrugged. Yeah, shrugged. Like ‘Ok, you caught me, so games over.’ I really contemplated grabbing him again and throttling the life out of him like a lousy flogging rooster, but after momentary consideration thought better of it. Then it dawns on me that the son-of–a-bitch is a damn pick-pocket in disguise.”

“At that moment of realization the bus jerks to a halt at our destination. I’m looming over this guy, and tell Mom and sister to get off the bus. I give the priest/pick-pocket a look that would of have curdled yesterday’s milk in a cow, and stalk off the bus. You would think he would have stayed still, but I’ll be damned if the SOB doesn’t get off with us. But no sooner had I decided to finish him, than he melts into the crowd.”

I herded Mom and sister to the museum, looking over my shoulder a couple of times, figuring he might try something or get an accomplice or two, but I think he got the message. I didn’t see him again.

My buddy finished up with: “Albert, I don’t know about you, but when Mom says, “Grab him.” I grab him!”

Both he and I are old school. We respect our parents, will gladly do whatever they ask of us, and will kill anyone that affronts our Moms. That pick-pocket was very fortunate that day that he didn’t lose the use of a hand, or maybe even an eye.

He should have known better than to mess with a member of “The Unit, One of the Chronicled.”