My photo
I'm an observer and a maker. I'm interested in human behavior.

Friday, November 6, 2009

This Month's Features - Part 1

This month I have decided to do a 2 part feature. I should have the second half up next week for your reading pleasure. This month I present you with some fantastic writers.

J. de Salvo

I met him in the summer of 1996. He was introduced to me then as Aristotle. A true philosopher with a fabulous talent for writing, music and drinking, the union of our friendship was instantly solidified. Reading has always been a passion of mine and as an avid reader I can tell you that the first time I read one of de Salvo's stories I was blow away. De Salvo also runs/curates an online contemporary literary and art journal called The Bicycle Review. He resides in Los Angeles and on occasion...haunts the Bay Area. I now present you with one of his short stories...

The Wrath of Florence

Listen, I just went to Italy. That was all.

Italy wasn’t the only place I went. It just happened to be between Greece and France. It just worked out like that. I was never Italian, but people often think I am. Sometimes I play along; it’s easier that way. My father was adopted by a family that was half Italian during World War Two. I have an Italian name.

...Which is part...maybe...of why I wanted to go there. Some kind of displacement issue around Italy. Agendas completely foreign to the time and place in which I live. And so...this association, no doubt entirely unfounded.

We started in Israel. My fiancée’s family was picking up the tab there and back. That was a good deal. We would not have been able to afford to go if not for that. I guess they thought that if they could just get us to the holy land, something in the air would force us into a trance-like state in which we would suddenly feel compelled to have multiple Jewish babies.

We got to Israel in what would be winter over here. We mostly stayed in Eilat. We made the obligatory trip to Jerusalem, of course. (Go there, read a travel book, or ask a Jew, or an Arab for that matter.) Of course, we flew in to Tel Aviv. We stayed in the city for a couple of days, went to punk rock clubs and art galleries, drank a lot, but not too much. Then we went to Eilat and stayed with her father, who went on and on about how great and rewarding it was to have a family; how the Talmud says you’re not really a complete man without one, that sort of thing. He had been divorced twice and lived alone. This went on for about two weeks. He kept asking me to fix things for him, things I didn’t know how to fix. For some reason I felt compelled to research how these things worked, and to set them right. Maybe I was bored. Mostly, all we did was eat huge meals all the time.

In the night I’d go to a coffeehouse, get some Turkish, and try to get some writing done. It was hard. Beautiful women kept hitting on me. Everyone was desperate to have babies. The conversation went there on the first not-even-a-date. Thankfully, I was already engaged, or I don’t know what I would have gotten myself into. The warm night, the breeze from the sea, the dark beauties; it could make you say things you didn’t absolutely mean. It really could. Good thing I was only drinking coffee. My internal clock hadn’t adjusted. It’s hard to be too horny at something approximating six o’ clock in the morning, but I tell, on second thought, I won’t.

Anyhow, with a great deal of luck, and intestinal as well as other anatomical fortitudes, my engagement survived such encounters. I would be lying if I said that I avoided them entirely without regret.

We took a boat out to Morocco. I had come down with a cold by this point. I am understating. It felt like I had simultaneously contracted the flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, and perhaps even narcolepsy. Certainly fever. Africa can make you sick; everyone knows that. There are diseases there which the “western” world has long since either completely eliminated or at least contained. So much for racial progress.

Anyhow, we did not stay long in Morocco. My fiancée had a grand aunt there who just sat in a wicker chair, wrapped up in a black shawl, and stared at me with open disapproval. Our closest language was French, but she would not speak it in my presence. She probably knew a bit of Spanish too, but she wasn’t letting on. Besides, she would most likely have thought my Los Angeles “pocho” Spanish beneath her.

The longest conversation we had was when I asked her why she was wearing that shawl; obviously she was not a Muslim. Her response, in Hebrew, which I could just make out in this case, was: ”My husband is dead.”

“Sure......” I continued in French, ‘but that was years ago...”

“My husband is dead.”

Her disapproval grew, if possible, even more blatant after this episode. We did not stay long in Tetouan.

My fiancée was a painter. Still is, for all I know. And yet she was tremendously ignorant of painting; getting most of her ideas from porno flicks and photos. So instead of looking at artworks with all the other tourists, we just drank on the beach. Between longing glances at Greek ladies, I thought only of Michelangelo. He was really the only artist whose works I wanted to see in person... we were supposed to go the Dali museum too, but it was not to be.

Again, the language barrier was there, and in my desire not to be a typical American tourist I found I just could not relax. This was my first time in Europe, and it was not working out the way I had pictured it. I had been overwhelmed by a sense of foreignness I had not expected. Not that the place was foreign, but that I was. My experience in Morocco had probably helped to create this impression. For whatever reason, I couldn’t shake it.

This feeling, along with my obsession with Michelangelo, made me more eager than ever to get to Italy. I could get by on my Italian, shaky as it was...but Greek was another story.

My fiancée kept asking me if I was okay. She knew my face well enough that even behind my sunglasses she could tell I was in a sour mood. I assured her that I was fine. I didn’t want to ruin the trip for her. She didn’t seem in the least bothered by not being able to communicate, and had even made a few friends who spoke a little English, but with whom she mostly communicated by means of their own invented sign language.

I was getting more annoyed by the day. After leaving the beach at Piraeus, we were supposed to head on to Athens. I looked forward to this, because I felt that in the big city I would blend in more. I have never been a beach person, and everyone seemed to be concerned that I wasn’t having enough fun. The more I tried to be unobtrusive, the more I seemed to stand out. The last straw was on the third day, when a revolting upper-class Englishman approached me. He didn’t exactly have a monocle or an ascot, but you could imagine them.

“Good day,” he said.

“It’s alright.”

“Feeling a bit out of sorts, are we?”

I just didn’t answer. I could see the play. He probably didn’t speak much Greek either, and something about me must have reeked of American-ness. He stood over me for perhaps ten minutes mumbling the inevitable “I say, are you alright”, and things of this nature. I wanted to explode. And of course there was a part of me which wanted to talk to him; to have a conversation for the first time in days with someone other than my fiancée. But larger than this was the sense, I might even call it a prejudice, that if I grouped myself off with English speakers I would feel even more like a caricature; a gringo, an Ugly American. Finally, I stormed off in a rage.

She chased me down just as I was leaving the beach.

“What’s up?”

“I’m just going for a walk,” I said.

“Well get it together! You’re ruining the whole fucking trip! How can I have fun with you sitting over there doing your Mersault impersonation?”

I repeated, “I’m just going for a walk.” This time with a bit more emphasis on certain words.

“Fine,” she said. “Fuck you, Vincent, Fuck you!”

“Right,” I said, over my shoulder.

Of course, she was right. Feelings are like thunderstorms. You never know when they’re going to come along and wreck a good outing. I walked into town, moving aimlessly from street to street. Eventually I came to the famous Dimotiko Theater. I stood outside of it for awhile, wondering if it was really as old as it looked, or if it had been rebuilt more recently. The architecture was classical Greek, but it looked so scrubbed and polished. It was hard to believe that anything that old could look that good. Especially coming from where I did.

It was then that I saw him. His head looked like a Golden Retrievers’, but there was a puff of fur around his ears which was indicative of a longer haired breed. His body was also the light, almost pastel yellow of that breed, but the legs were too short, and the body too small. It looked as if a retriever had been shrunk, the legs halved, and the fur on the ears, legs, and tail made to grow.

He came up to me and stood up on his hind legs, planting his paws on my calves. He jumped up, as if trying to reach my face, but couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be sure if he was a puppy or not, but he certainly had the energy of one.

There were no markings on him to indicate where he might have come from. As I looked for something of this sort on him, I noticed how thin he was. I bought a Spanokopita from a vendor and shared it with him, being hungry myself. He devoured it as dogs do; for all their supposedly overdeveloped sense of smell, they do not seem to give much thought to that of taste.

He wolfed down his half, then another whole pie. I guessed that he was a stray, him being so thin. If someone was looking for him, they weren’t looking very hard. Of course, I would make all the inquiries, wherever such things were done. But I was already thinking of him as mine.

I got back to the beach. There she was, distracted and content. I never could have been. It has often seemed to me that I have two selves, forever in opposition to one another. One of these immediately spills out much too much to people who really don’t want to hear it. The other remains silent when it would be of direct benefit to me to speak up. Perhaps I have not evaded the puritan influence altogether. That is how the one self thinks of it anyhow. I do not know which one is which anymore. There are masks beneath masks beneath masks. Any decent person will admit this. If someone makes a point of telling you they’re out!

I was running around with the dog, throwing pieces of driftwood around. It didn’t fetch very well. Seemed to get distracted easily. In time I gave it up. The beast seemed to be more content simply to run around in circles. At last my fiancée noticed me. The sun was setting, and my mood had improved improbably. There is much to be said for the setting of the sun on the beaches at Piraeus, but some poet has probably said it best long ago. I will leave the description of it in the hands of their economy. Suffice it to say that it was a sight which tended to remind one that life could be beautiful. You could almost understand someone really actually and literally believing in God; or worshipping the heavens at least. Almost.

My fiancée –if I don’t tell you her name, it is only because...well, you will see- shattered this festive moment with her arrival, and the subsequent question:

“Oh God, Vincent! What the hell have you done now?”

“Well, I found this dog over by the theatre, and it seemed hungry.”

“And you were suddenly seized by some romantic notion of yours! The only time you become sentimental is at the worst possible time!”

I said nothing.

“What are we going to do with it? We can’t have it at the hotel.”

Every now and again I think of something useful on the spot. Not very often, mind you, but it does happen.

“It’s the simplest thing...” I said. “I’ll pretend I am blind.”

“Right. Pretend you are blind. And no one will remember you.”

“If they do, I’ll make up a story. That’s the only talent I have is lying. I’ll say my previous dog was killed in an accident, and I had to get this new one. We’ll get one of those red harnesses for it...think about it, the whole trip I’ve been wearing dark glasses and carrying a walking stick.”

“Right. Because you think everyone wants to rob you, because you are American.”

“People carry them in America too. I don’t have to. I know my way around America. I know what’s safe and what isn’t. Sure, Greece and all...but you never know. There’s a dark side to tourism. In Morocco I think it saved us more than once.”

“You’re trying to change the subject. It’ll never work.”

But she was smiling, and so was I. And for the first time in a damn long while. I had created a diversion, an entertainment.

“Maybe they won’t remember me,” I continued. “There are only something like thirty hotels in Piraeus, and tourists by the planeful.”

It was less difficult than I had thought to find what I required. There were logistical problems to be worked out. For one, the dog was unruly, which would be a dead giveaway that it was not a well-trained Seeing Eye dog.

We found a certain pet supplies store in which all that we required was available.... the requisite red harness, which didn’t have any special markings on it...but that unfortunate fact could be altered by means of a silk screen, should it prove insufficient. Also, a dog whistle. I experimented with my technique for subduing the beast by trying it out in different entrances to different public places. I soon found that the most efficient means of making the dog appear to be well behaved was a sharp blow on the whistle, followed by a stern swinging of the cane.

Now I was ready for the real test...the crowded hotel. Before entering, I blew the whistle, and swung the cane about, much to my fiancées amusement. It seemed that this would be the most difficult part of it all, controlling her eruptions of belly laughter.

It worked. I found that this measure would keep the dog docile for about five minutes. More than enough time to get safely up to our room. I decided to call it D.B.; short for de Buonarotti.

I won’t bore you with the minutiae of our stay in Athens, of Rome. That week was fairly uneventful, and having left out Jerusalem it only seems fair. My “blindness” had solved all my problems. I had been given a role to play, and a way to be interesting to my fiancée, as well as to the people that we met along our way. Undoubtedly, there is a much more developed sense of vaudeville in the Romantic countries than here in our own. Far from being offended, and feeling the need to expose me as people would have done here, the Romans who were told of the fictitiousness of my ailment all took it in the spirit of good fun. I can only attribute this to a certain gauche’ sense of humor which most post WWII Americans lack entirely. More often than not, we do not understand the use of smoke and mirrors; unless of course, there is a great deal of money to be made.

Upon arriving in Florence, our first stop was the Casa de Buonarotti, the home of, among other things, Michelangelo’s early carving, “Battle of the Centaurs”; from the same year in which another Italian, in the employ of the Spanish, accidentally stumbled upon the Caribbean, a thought which had, at times, made me feel even more inferior. This was the thing I had chiefly come there to see. Unlike previous versions of this famous classical scene, which are a mess of swords and arrows, Michelangelo chose to depict the battle as having been fought with whatever was at hand; stones mostly. I am no expert on Ancient Greece, but this does seem to be more realistic. The “battle”, so-called, was actually supposed to be a wedding party that got out of hand. The centaurs, having drunk too much, and under the influence of the pipes of bacchanalia gave in to the prodding of their lower halves and began to ravish the women, including the bride herself. Since it was not really a battle after all, but just a party that took an unfortunate turn, it actually makes more sense that people would be fighting with whatever was on hand. It’s probably a prejudice of my own time, but it is hard to imagine having much of a party when everyone has happened to bring along their swords and spears. Of course, this approach also allowed Michelangelo to focus more on the form of the male body- his favorite subject matter- without all those weapons cluttering up the scene. Although biographers and novelists such as Stone tend to put down Michelangelo’s lack of interest in women to his astonishing work ethic, it is quite possible that he was in fact a latent homosexual. Many critics have developed this theory in more space than I wish to take up here with even a brief summary of their views. The truth remains unknown. What is known is that he considered the male form much more beautiful than its female counterpart, and that he hung around a bunch of academics who idealized Greek culture.

I had started drinking early that day, having found some very cheap Chianti, which were going down well without much in the belly. In Italy the largest meal is eaten in the afternoon, before Siesta. What we would call Breakfast and Dinner here are pithy in comparison to what the American belly has become accustomed to. Metabolically, I am afraid I have to side with the Italians. It is, in the end, rather stupid to a huge meal before and after a long sleep.

In addition to having drunk much, and eaten little, I was still holding traces of my Tetouan fever which would not quite disappear. Most of the time I was fine, but every now and then, having drunk too much wine too quickly, I would feel faint, disoriented. All of these things had made me more than a little manic, but in a pleasant way. Perhaps in a too pleasant way.

I am trying to explain away, and to excuse myself, but the fact is that what happened might just as easily have happened anyways.

It was just before noon when we reached the Galleria d’Accademia. I went straight for the David. If I am not mistaken, it took him four or five years to carve, and one can well imagine it. It is one of those unreal artworks which might inspire excessive fear or religious devotion in someone with little learning. Apparently, D.B. was one of these.

He had been eyeing it speculatively, with that confused look dogs get when they want, or do not understand, something. All of a sudden, he grew jealous, or afraid, or threatened by the Giant. Suddenly he leapt, snapping and yelping, at the pedestal.

Before I could react, two men in dark suits ran over to him and pulled him away, almost taking me down by the leash in the process. I let go of it, and turned to face them. They were standing just to the left of the statue.

“For God’s sake, get hold of your dog,” they demanded in Italian.

I responded,” Ridiculous! As if this dog could destroy a seventeen foot marble! Anyhow, I’ll fix him!”

And I blew the whistle, swung the cane. The next sound I heard was a great cracking, followed by an even louder crumbling. Before I could realize what happened, they were on me. First the security, then the whole crowd. They pulled the guards off and began beating me with my cane, with elbows, with fists... calling me “Devil!”, “Terrorist!”, “Dog!”, and many other insults which I was not familiar with, but which seemed to include not only myself but my mother, father, brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. The word spread out into the streets, and more people poured in, desperate to get a swing at me, to put a shoe or a boot in my jaw, my brain.

The beatings continued for some time, and I am sure they would have killed me had the police not eventually intervened. Of course, then they started fighting the cops, saying they weren’t done with me, I hadn’t gotten nearly what I be strung up, really. The police who arrived on the scene initially couldn’t cope with them. They had to call for reinforcements, and special gear, and tasers, and shields, and who knows what all. In the end, over half the mob was taken into the jail right along with me.

At the station they had to lock me in my own cell. I could still hear them yelling at me through the walls. Philistine! Shit for brains! Monkey!

The first witness they called against me was the doorman, who had also apparently been charged with something like gross negligence, conspiracy, and a number of other things. It seemed that in 1991, someone had managed to sneak in a ball-peen hammer, and to take off a piece of the giant’s toe. He was reminded of this, and chastised by the prosecutor for allowing me inside with both dog and cane.

“But I thought he was blind,” he protested.

“Yes sir, indeed. That is just where your story doesn’t add up. Why would a blind man have any need to see the David?”

“His fiancée was with him. She said he was ill, and that she couldn’t leave him outside. Besides, with the guards there, I didn’t suppose he could do so much damage.”

They tried to say that we were involved in some kind of plot to destroy the statue. The man broke down in tears on the stand, and was eventually absolved of the conspiracy to destroy a national treasure charge, or whatever they were calling it. He had worked there for years, and they could find no connection between us, no matter how hard they tried.

As for myself, I simply told the truth. But even my Israeli lawyer told me it didn’t look good. The dog whistle and the pretense of blindness I had carried out all made it look intentional. You see, the cane alone wouldn’t have done it. I could have swung that cane at the gargantuan piece of marble all I liked, and it would not have so much as cracked it. The previous attempt had been made with a bal-peen hammer, which could do the job theoretically, if the attacker had been given time to strike at several different points on the statue...which of course he wasn’t.

The reason the blow had created such an effect was primarily the dog whistle. Even old, deteriorated marble such as that of the David -which had been chiseled at a bit by Duccio decades before Michelangelo finished it- must be made brittle before any tools other than those made for the job will alter it in any significant way. For marble to become brittle, vibrations must pass through it. The timing of the high frequencies of the dog whistle at the exact moment I swung the cane was what had cracked the marble, causing it to break in half because of deterioration in that spot; due either to time, or to a bit of roughness on the part of Duccio or Michelangelo.

In other words, it looked like I had planned the whole thing, down to the last detail. There was one other thing, too.

“We direct the court’s attention to the following article, entitled: ‘the Misrepresentation of the Semitic Peoples in Christian Art.’ Do you deny writing this article, Mr. la Lido?”

Unfortunately, I could not deny it. I had only cited the David briefly, noting that it was uncircumcised. In fact, the prosecutor was making the same mistake which so many had made in reacting to the article at the time I had written it for a Los Angeles art criticism magazine. I was not saying that any of the art was bad art, quite the contrary. All I was trying to do was point out that depictions of figures from the Old Testament were portrayed time and time again as European and uncircumcised, particularly during the renaissance. This had more to do, as the piece went on, with how the Western World has come to view figures such as Moses, Jesus, and Abraham, than with any kind of attack on renaissance art, which I had written much in praise of.

I had completely forgotten about it, to tell the truth, and so we were unprepared when it was brought up. I have written dozens of articles on various subjects, and was obviously more concerned with my liberty than with my writing career at that exact moment. Yet, I could not, as I said, deny having written it. To be sure, I explained all this to my attorney, and he brought it up immediately after some frantic whispering between the two of us...but you can see how it all must have looked. The prosecutor did not ask me why I had written it, or to develop the finer points of my reasons for doing so. He had simply asked me a yes or no question, which I had to answer. What’s more, he has saved this question for last. We tried to move that this evidence was circumstantial, and should be stricken from the record, but the judge decided that since it had to do with the proof of motive, it was not altogether circumstantial, and therefore admissible.

Even if it had been declared circumstantial, I don’t think it would have helped me much. Sure, the Jury is not supposed to consider such things, but they have heard them with their own ears. It is not as if the human mind is a magnetic tape, and information can simply be, it stays there, along with whatever impression it creates. Along with this, there was the fact that a very angry Florentine public wanted justice, and knew who was responsible. More than one person had to be cleared out of court after attempting to assault me, often to the cheers of nearly all the spectators there. The media had of course taken up the story, and there were nightly exhortations, daily editorials, all over Italy; insisting that I should be hit hard with the most severe penalties for any and every charge they could conceivably bring against me.

Most of all, there was the fact that I looked, felt, and to a great degree was guilty. I had destroyed, however inadvertently, however incompletely, (the two pieces had been fitted back together, and were already on display again) a work of art which I myself considered to be one of the greatest and most important of all time. A piece of human history which was literally amount of restitution was really adequate for the damage I had done. In the end, the only thing Yitzhak (my lawyer) and I could do was to state this and plead that the court would believe that it was completely accidental and not find me guilty of some of the more ridiculous charges which I was accused of. The Italian papers were quoting my article out of context, casting me as some kind of radical Zionist who was bent on destroying all Christian art. An example had to be made of me, or who knew what was next. The Duomo? The Vatican? Apparently, no one was interested in any of my other and much more recent writing; such as my essay on Joyce and Eliot in which I hypothesized that some day all English and American literature would be post-cultural. Of course, that too could have been interpreted as damning, if quoted selectively. There were interviews with my now former fiancée, in which she reported that she couldn’t say if I had planned it or not, but that I was an unstable character, and at the very least an idiot who deserved to be punished. I assume she was paid handsomely for this access.

In the end I was found guilty of all the thirty two charges brought against me. Had the American embassy not intervened, I would have been in prison for life. As it stands, I am only doing two years, and the US government has paid the Italians a settlement of some 500,000,000 Euros. People are saying it’s not enough. I have to agree there, but again...who can set a price on the David? Apparently the State department.

I have disciples now, too. Moronic Art/Punk types, who go around smashing works of art, claiming to have been inspired by me. I spend my days returning their letters, trying to explain to them that it was all a big accident, and that I in no way support their activities, but on the contrary consider them juvenile and idiotic. There has also been talk in the papers here that there is some group of proud Tuscans out to get their revenge by destroying the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, or some or other symbol of Americanism.

On the up side, my books are selling much better then they ever did. I have never been printed in multiple editions up until now. People write articles; culled entirely from the ether, about the extreme Zionist/Nationalist tendencies in my work; not taking into account that I have only been to Israel twice, for a couple of weeks. I am as widely read as I am disgraced. Ironically, the only comparable figures in literature are Hamsun and Celine, the anti-Semites. Needless to say, I am no longer welcome in Italy.

My name, Vincenzo la Lido, shall go down in history...and in infamy. As for de Buonarotti, he is no longer with us.