Rome IV: The Others

Micah Osler, copy editor

Loyal Readers: for the next… you know the drill. 

“Tour in English, skip line, only 25 Euros person!” shouted the peppy tour guide from the steps of the Colosseum as she frenetically waved what appeared to be a used handkerchief tied to the handle of a broom over her head. “Skip line! No wait hour for bad tour!”

She’s typical of the street peddlers here in Rome. Weirdly, in a city renowned for its laid-back pace and Old World atmosphere, the men and women who haunt these streets searching for personal fulfillment and also dumb people’s money seem to be imported from Chicago or something. They’re pushy, sorta rude, and seem to harbor a deep resentment for the tourists that provide their sole source of income.

The stuff they sell is just as out-of-place as they are. Despite the fact that venders seem to line every moderately busy street, 90% of them sell one of these five things:

1. Annoying plastic cats that make a noise like a mouse’s dying squeak when you fling them against the ground, in an apparent endorsement of animal abuse.

2. Little plastic tubes with a rubber band attached that you fling into the air, gawk at as they light up, and then are never able to find again.

3. iPhone cases decorated with the American flag, for some reason.

4. Hats!

5. Counterfeit handbags and purses.

One night, I went to the Piazza Navona (a pretty big public square) and found the night sky lit up by plastic tubes and hordes of confused tourists scouring the ground for their now-departed knickknack. I can see why they’d be fun the first time, but apparently the tourists who buy them have so little foresight that they can’t see that something shot high into the air in a crowded public place isn’t likely to find its way back to them.  So those guys make their money off of people with no common sense, of which there is no lack in any nation on Earth.

I have never seen anybody purchase one of those annoying plastic cat things. Not once. I have never seen someone using one, nor do I know where one would use such a thing (in the living room when your family has company over, to drive your parents crazy? In the bath, as a sort of uncomfortable improvised washcloth, at least until the thing inevitably electrocutes you?). Maybe that explains why the guys who sell these things are far and away the most aggressive salesmen. “See the kitty?” they implore you as you walk away from the horrifying plastic mutant they’re constantly flinging against a slab of plywood. “See the kitty?”

People anywhere will fall for iPhone cases and the human equivalent of the iPhone case, the poorly-constructed hat. The counterfeiters, though… They’re the quietest of the bunch, unless a police car rolls by, whereupon they wrap up their whole operation and scurry away. Most tourists ignore them, having been scared enough by the Amanda Knox trial to avoid getting involved in what’s obviously criminal activity in Italy. They always look so sad. I almost feel sorry enough to give them some money, but then they might try to give me one of their bags.

The street musicians are a nice relief from those guys. They’re nice, unobtrusive, and uniformly really, really good. My favorites so far are an all-female string quartet that play in the Campo de’ Fiori every night, but a nearby ensemble featuring a weird sort of hammer-based autoharp and a lot of fezzes is a close second. At night, the musicians weave their way through the city’s streets, serenading the patrons at outdoor restaurants and (often) getting the chef to lead his customers in a sing-along. I think the only musicians I’ve seen yet who’ve failed to get even one person to sing were a collaborating trombonist and clarinetist (it sounded like you’d think it would sound).

But the street musicians don’t have a monopoly on the restaurant tables. They’re often supplanted by a stranger and way creepier group – a group that makes up for its proportional deficit of talent with a proportional increase in bad-smelling cigars and greasy beards. I haven’t heard a name for them, but given how they seem to spring from some cheap yet deeply frightening horror movie, I’ll go with that genre’s clichés and call them The Others. The Others wander through tables, eliciting glares from waiters and fascinated stares from diners, their hands clutched around some useless item they’re about to try relentlessly to sell. They interrupt conversations to try and get young families to buy wilting roses. They break apart longing glances to try and sell young lovers grimy calendars featuring the Pope smiling awkwardly. I think they reproduce asexually, since despite their numbers I’ve never seen a female Other nor can I imagine any of these men attracting a mate, anywhere, ever.

And I believe that I have had the honor of meeting their king: Ragged Christmas Garfield Man. Before I came to Rome, my father told me tales of a man relentlessly pursuing a doomed mission – to palm off a filthy, ancient Garfield doll wearing a Christmas ribbon that, upon pressing its paw, does a semi-inappropriate dance. I brushed this off as my father blathering. My, how wrong I was.

Last night, my family walked out of a nice restaurant, bloated with pizza, and began our way home. Before we had gone five steps, though, a very sweaty and harried-looking man shoved the very doll my father had described into my mom’s face. It was exactly as I’d imagined it, except even dirtier.

“You want buy kitty?” the salesman asked desperately, echoing his more honorable compatriots, the plastic-cat-head venders. “You want?”

My dad and I had to walk away because we were laughing so hard, leaving my poor mom to deal with the King of All Terrible Salesman on her own. After refusing to purchase the Ragged Christmas Garfield or any of the deformed plastic keychains the man offered, a scowl came across his face.

“Ciao,” he muttered as he walked away seething, the Lewd Cat from Hell hanging limply from his trembling hand.