Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Vietato Fumare.

I went to a breakfast this morning to benefit a health advocacy group that I work with, and they brought Anna Devere Smith in to entertain us, to give us our money's worth. I had never heard her perform before. She adopted the voice and persona of people she interviewed, and told their stories in their own voices, which I thought was interesting considering my own attempts at writing.

She started with Studs Terkel, who had told her about an experience he had on the monorail at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, how a couple had held up the train, prompting the disembodied voice to announce that the train would be delayed for 30 seconds because of this late entry. No one on the train said anything, Studs Terkel/Anna Devere Smith said, they just glowered. They just let it happen, while a woman impersonating a robot did all the necessary admonishing. The couple was sheepish. I remember something similar that happened to me on that very monorail at Hartsfield.

People were coming from Disney World, heading to Paris, or Dallas, or Chicago--everyone looked so prepared and expectant. A man came on, very ruddy, all in denim, disheveled. And he took out a cigarette and started smoking in. He stared straight ahead, not at anyone, but fixated. His eyes were blue and glassy, and he seemed to dare anyone one of us earnest travelers to say something. He was standing right underneath the No Smoking sign. I am telling you, I could not have been more shocked if he had come on the train and killed three people, a whole family back from Orlando. At least they had gotten to see Disney World before they died.

My God. I thought. He is smoking on a train! In a public place! Beneath a No Smoking sign, flourishing, flaunting his dastardly act in all of our faces! And he knew, not one of us would say a word. If he smokes on a train, we all thought, think of what else he could be capable of. Think of what he could do to us if we spoke up and asked him to put it out. I shuddered to think.

But then, was he really bothering anyone? Would the smell even stick to our traveling clothes during our five minutes with this madman? Yet you could see eyes darting around, hoping share a look of shock and fear with another doomed passenger. The ride seemed to last forever. Will he ever get off? He did. There was a nervous laugh, and the hostage crisis was over.

I guess this is what we're like, Americans, I thought. Easily shocked, easily ruffled. Sticklers for the rules, too polite to take action, to engage in a spectacle. Newspaper violence wraps oily fish without a second thought, but smoking in a public place can shake our cores.

Then it happened again. In New York. On the F train in Brooklyn on my way to work. We were elevated in an arc of track above the Gowanus Canal, the Statue of Liberty far to the left. The steeples on the Slope behind us, murk below. Smith and 9th Street. This was before Smith and 9th was fashionable and if there was ever a stop for dubious characters, this was it. A man got on and sat on the two-seater bench next to the door, at the end of the car. He pulled out a cigarette. He smoked. The stare was the same as the Atlanta man's. Middle-distance, he bored a hole in the floor with his eyes. But this time, the eyes were like black holes.

The Gen-Xers coughed nervously, looking to share their surprise with tiny glances. Will I smell like smoke now when I get to my dot-com job? What do I do? Will Jay Street never come? But one lady, bless her, was not having it.

"Ex-ca-use me."
She said something to him! She's a madwoman!
She said it again.
And again.
No response, the stare just got more and more determined.
She made a move. Her hand went into her purse. We all watched, we gasped.
She took out a bottle of perfume. She GOT OUT OF HER SEAT, went over to the guy. Still no response from him. She sprayed the perfume in his fame.
Maniacal laugh! He still didn't look at anyone.
She sat down again. She was the most courageous person we had ever seen.
We went back underground. He stubbed out the smoke on the floor and got off at Carroll Street.
That's New York for you.
Not so different from other places, but there's always a few gutsy nuts in the crowd.

Next week, I'm going to Italy. There, the sign "Vietato Fumare" is practically an invitation to smoke. Nonne, signore, everyone, at the airport baggage claim, in a hospital, on a train. That's telling them. That's living.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Commonwealth Avenue.

At lunchtime I will often walk Newbury Street. Up one side to the Public Garden, back down the other. I register minor changes in store window displays, the colors of the falling leaves, tourist demographics. Walking Newbury is like watching television while walking. There is enough there to keep my mind occupied while I get my air-taking out of the way.

Then sometimes, like today, I get wistful. "It's New England in the fall," I say to myself. "At this time of year, it's one of the lovliest places in the world." So I decided to walk with my head up, and forward, for once. I skipped my look-ins at Marc Jacobs and Camper, and I walked back to the office via Commonwealth Avenue.

Supposedly Commonwealth Avenue was, in a city that looks mostly like a shrunken version of a London high street, inspired by Paris. Beaux-Arts rowhouses succomb to ivy and American-style potted gardens on the stairs. In the middle of the road, dogs romp past statuary, under elms. The boughs lean over the wide road, couching its grandeur with coziness, and the shutters on the windows hide fires inside. And I was met with a police cordon.

I hadn't forgotten it was Veteran's Day, but I did not expect the parade. There was no buzz on Newbury that suggested a sweep of people was moving one block toward the river. Four horses shook themselves out into an orderly row, and behind them, flags, and pipers.

I'm not Irish. But somehow the Celtic wails of a bagpipe speak to my soul and I cannot help but get drawn in to their mauldlin wailing. The sound makes me feel somehow more American, which, in my first-generation, Blue state world, is a feeling I have started to lose touch with.

And then the soldiers came, from the USS Constitution, the Air National Guard, the Marines. There were years behind this feeling, I thought as I grew more melancholy. As my family sat on schooner decks or in chestnut groves, in the old country, my identity was simultaneously being grown here. Here, by these people who I was never related to and would never meet. Although my blood was in Italy when the old Constitution was built, my soul was looking to these coasts for what I was to become.

The uniforms, the flags, the determined stride, the Celtic drum caught me--it was mine, it was part of me, and I felt proud.

I looked at faces, as they glided by. It became easier to look at their backs as they walked past me rather than meet their gazes as they approached. I watch soldier after soldier walk away. And I started to cry. And the more soldiers I saw, the more I cried. I cried for them, their fates, their families. I cried for us, and our fate, and our families, and our past, and future, and our place in the world.

Then came the World War II veterans, and tears became sobs. My grandfather was a veteran, and in him I could pinpoint when my family and my country's history crossed, and became one and the same. When we became American, when what happened to America also happened to us. And what is going to happen to us?

Monday, November 08, 2004

A not-so-sperta moment.

I was watching The Third Man this weekend with my husband and recalled my own trip to Vienna at the age of sixteen. We were on a school trip. It was cleverly called the "3 Vs"--Verona, Venice and Vienna. Highlights included: an attempted flirtation with Italian soldiers at a piazza called Bra; the revelation that our teacher and leader was a manic-depressive (hilarious one minute! about to abandon us in despair the next!); another revelation that old ladies only wash their hair once a week, when they get a "set"; that I enjoy processed meat spread for breakfast; that I don't know what my shoe size is European-style.

I had been to Europe once before, I considered myself worldly, sophisticated (sperta). We all went to the famous ferris wheel in Vienna (I caught a glimpse of it in The Third Man before I fell asleep), and in the bus along the way I kept seeing signs for "Praha." "What a neat word," I thought. "Must be German for ferris wheel."

It wasn't until I went to Praha five years later that I realized that I was not sperta.

I am going to Rome in a few weeks: stay tuned for the story about the time I thought "Pisa" meant "supermarket."

Friday, November 05, 2004

Frivolous links.

I love to lurk here. Can't bring myself to post. I love a flamewar so I'm always checking the "Troll Patrol." Some people live to tattle on the other posters. And kiss moderator ass. Which is cool, but like the TV, I prefer just to watch.

My day can't begin until I can be sure if Lindsay Lohan's are real or not.

The sad thing about this website is how I found out about it: Tori Spelling told Entertainment Weekly that it was her favorite. Touche, Tori.

I can read this whole website in five seconds. But it's a good five seconds.

Seriously I can't think straight unless I check these websites everyday. We can't sit around readin' Voltaire ALL day, can we?

Since I'm on a roll...

What with all the posting I'm doing, I might as well keep going.

I am trying to be a writer. I am working on a Master of Liberal Arts in Literature and Creative Writing at Harvard Extension School. I hope that I will use this blog to generate ideas for my thesis, keep track of research, make notes, think of titles, etc. I could even poll myself to see what titles I like best.

I also would like to use this blog to write about non-thesis related topics. The price of milk. The London Underground. Reality TV. Like that.

Let's see if I keep this up for more than one weekend!

Lest I forget.

That's Sperta--Spare-ta, not Spur-ta.
I guess you could roll the r a tiny bit if you wanted to get fancy.

Wow. So here's my blog.

Hello. Welcome to my blog *Sperta*
I guess I am just welcoming myself at this point which is fiiiine by me. So welcome me! Here is a place for you to put your thoughts and possibly photos, once you figure that out.

What is *Sperta*? I might ask myself.
Sperta is a calabrese word that describes a girl who is clever, together, in gamba.
Not for nothing, she knows what's what.
She can hold her own at work, in school, in the kitchen, at a party, or on a midnight scavenger hunt.
She sends thank-you notes.
She reads the newspaper and then recycles it.
She pays her bills on time.
She can whip up una bella pasta at the drop of a hat.
When called upon to do so, she can talk to anyone: a Prime Minister, a Grocer, a Japan-League baseball player, about anything: the Holy Roman Empire, the growing season of chickory, or the architecture of Gaudi.

Sperta girls through history:
Hildegard of Bingen
Livia of I, Claudius fame, in an evil sort of way.
Elizabeth Bennett (in England, in those days, it was called "accomplished")
Martha Stewart but she had a lot of help, I think.

I like to think I am sperta. Some of the time. But it is what I aim to be. It is what would make my mother proud.

By the way boys can be sperta too, but that's called spiertu.
I'm just sayin'.
So that is my first post. Anywhere.