Introduction:Imagine, if you will, an alternate universe in which a confused old man – Joe Buckstop – stumbles into the presidency, and spends his entire term in his basement. Each evening, an aide walks downstairs and serves him his evening snack, and engages him in conversation about current events, in a losing effort to keep his mind hale. Tonight's episode is an excerpt from the ongoing series, "Evening Soup with Basement Joe," by John F. Di Leo, a fictional chronicle of the events of 2021, a political satire available in paperback or eBook from Amazon.
"Buona Mattina, Signore!"
"Huh? Don't they have anybody around here who speaks English?"
"Yes, signore, I speak English… but it is Rome, and we always greet people in Italian here, even if the conversation is in English. You know the old saying, 'When in Rome,' eh?"
"What saying is that?"
"Well, you know, ahh, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, you know, signore?"
"How come you speak English with an Italian accent?"
"I am Vittorio Humberto, signore. I was born in America, to American parents who worked for the State Department, but I was mostly raised here in Rome, so I speak both English and Italian like a native. I am bilingual, signore."
"Oh, well, that's okay with me. Got lots of bilinguals on my staff nowadays. Even made one of 'em an admiral. Don't expect any passes from me, though…"
"No, signore, not … ahh… hmm…. I think I had better, ahh, serve you your gelato."
"It is a bit unusual, signore. You arrive here in Roma very late, for you, very early for us. The time change, you know. Your Doctor, she told us, that you need some ice cream sundae before your medication, signore… I wish I had a doctor who prescribe ice cream before medication, signore… so we do what we can."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the gelateria, they are all closed at the middle of the night. But you can always find gelato in Italy, so the embassy chef, he whipped up a little dessert for you to start your day, signore."
"What's that box you're carrying around, kid?"
"Is our cooler, for bringing cold foods to office meetings. Inside, we have… Voila! … your gelato."
"That looks like ice cream!"
"Yes, signore, it is gelato. You are not familiar? It is Italy's, ahh, well, Italy's answer to ice cream. A little different from yours. More milk, a little denser than yours… I think your ice cream has eggs in it, our gelato, it does not. Wonderful flavor."
"Nobody ever has eggs with an ice cream sundae, you lying dog faced pony soldier! That sounds terrible!"
"No, signore, you do not understand…. your American ice cream, it is made with eggs. Eggs are in it. You would not notice. It is in the custard, signore."
"Come on, man!"
"Here, signore, we do not want your sundae to melt. Try this. Our embassy chef, he used vanilla gelato, some Italian liqueurs, pistachio and cherries, and of course, Italian wafer cookies. Is wonderful."
"Liquor? You put liquor in a sundae?"
"Well, this is Italy, signore. There will always be some liquor… but not very much. We do not drink to excess over here, signore… some wine in the pasta sauce, some Amaretto in a chocolate mousse, some limoncillo in a fruit topping, just a little. Just enough for the right flavor, signore. Enjoy!"
"Man, you Italians are weird."
"How you say, ahh, right back at you, signore."
"Mmm… Not bad. Could get used to this."
"Unusual time of day for it, signore, but again, there is really no bad time for gelato."
"Mmm… Pretty good."
"I hear you have big meetings in Rome, today, ahh, signore? Meeting the fellow who calls himself pope?"
"Yeah, yeah… man, you sure talk funny. Meeting the pope."
"Oh? You are going to the gardens to meet Pope Benedict?"
"Huh? No. Francis. Meeting Pope Francis."
"Ahh well. The man who calls himself pope. Ahh, well. Good luck. What are you going to talk about with him?"
"I don't know. Staff pays attention to that. I'll read prepared remarks, he'll read prepared remarks, we'll shake hands… then I'll be on my way to my next meeting."
"Who prepares his remarks, I wonder. Hmm. For that matter, I wonder who prepares yours… hmm… probably the same person…"
"Huh? What's that? You're mumbling, boy."
"Oh, yes, I am so sorry, signore. I was, talking to myself, ahh, you know, signore."
"Go halfway around the world, everybody still mumbles."
"I am sorry, signore. Well, what else will you do in Rome, while you are here? Taking any time to see the sights, signore?"
"Sights? What sights?"
"Well, signore, this is Roma, one of the world's greatest historical cities. The Eternal City, we call it, signore."
"So what? I've got meetings."
"Like my father always told me when I was growing up, signore, 'There is always time to sightsee in Roma, because even your commute takes you past great history.'"
"Your father said that?"
"Sounds pretty pompous."
"He worked for the American State Department, signore!"
"You will be going to the Vatican, yes, signore?"
"Much of the greatest artwork in the world, signore. Do a little… how you say… 'rubbernecking' while you are there, signore. Do not be embarrassed to stare at the ceilings and the windows, the statues and the paintings, signore. It is the greatest beauty in the world."
"Yeah, the Vatican is pretty rich, isn't it? Wonder what the taxes are there…"
"Signore, you do not make the American mistake of thinking of church artwork that way, do you?"
"What way? These things were painted two, three, four hundred years ago. Even longer. You realize what the unrealized capital gains must be on all that stuff?"
"Signore, if something is not sold, there can be no capital gains to tax. And they will not sell them, nor should they; it is part of what makes the Vatican… the Vatican!"
"People sure spent a lot of money on churches back then, didn't they, huh, kid?"
"Signore, do you know how they built all these churches? Commissions, signore. The wealthy dukes and princes spent money on the church, yes, but what exactly did that mean at the time? It means that they hired artists to paint; they hired sculptors to sculpt, they hired tileworkers to make mosaics, they hired architects and builders to build."
"Yeah, and spent a lot of money."
"You do not see my point, signore? These are people who would not have had other ways to practice their art, but for the church. You Americans, you think that donating to build a beautiful church is unnecessary because God does not need expensive art. And that much is true, God does not need expensive art. But His servants – his artists, architects, painters, designers, carpenters, sculptors – they needed to earn a living. And this process, the building of the churches, it gave them a way to earn a living that would also leave a lasting legacy, Signore."
"A leg ya see? My cook, back home, has a problem with her leg, ya see… that what you mean? These guys hobble around too?"
"No, signore, a legacy, they left behind beautiful works of art that brighten the world for centuries, signore. Think about it, people today earn a living in Rome at restaurants, hotels, tourist buses and other guided tourism programs. Their lives, their careers today, are dependent on the beautiful artwork that was commissioned in Rome during the Renaissance."
"Never thought about it that way. Huh."
"If you took away all this art, so Roma would just be another big modern city with nothing to see but Fiats and Vespas and factories.. it might be nice, it might be all right for a business trip… but it would not be the destination for millions and millions of tourists. It would not be the Eternal City, signore. Our artwork is special not for its monetary value, signore, but for how it serves to set the stage for a city of beauty, signore. You come to Roma for meetings, signore; you miss out on the greater opportunity."
"Coming to Rome to see Rome, signore."
"Oh, you make too big a deal of that stuff. I never paid any attention to that malarkey."
"A pity, signore. Well, at least be sure to have your drivers tell you what you see as you pass things by, signore."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Your path is certain to take you past at least some of the ruins of ancient Rome, signore. They serve as a wonderful lesson, especially for politicians, signore."
"How's that, kid?"
"The Flavian Amphitheatre, for example, signore. Built alongside the Colossus of Nero, who thought of himself as a sun god, they soon started calling it the Colosseum… the Ancient Roman emperors tried to buy the support and loyalty of the Roman people by fancying themselves as gods, and by passing out favors… you must have heard of the term 'bread and circuses,' signore? Well, the Colosseum was the greatest circus house of them all. Animal shows, battle re-enactions, gladiatorial combat, even to the death, trying ever harder to entertain the public and win their support. And did it work, signore?"
"Guess it must have, huh?"
"No, signore. The bread and circuses just bankrupted the empire, and everything collapsed. The bronze statue of the emperor was melted down for weaponry. The public buildings were stripped of their bricks for the construction of lesser buildings. The ancient civilization of the dictators is now known simply as the ruins, signore. Take a walk through the Roman Forum, signore; you will see how the government of the dictators collapsed."
"Come on, man! I don't want to see that! It sounds depressing!"
"It is history, signore. History should not be depressing; it is just reality, signore. To learn from. And then you move from the Roman Forum to the Vatican, and you cannot help but see the difference!"
"What's that? It's old too, isn't it?"
"Yes, signore. The Vatican is old too. But the Roman Forum was built by a command economy, and it all collapsed before its time. Built on demand, it was not appreciated, and was trod underfoot by a thousand barbarians. But the Vatican, the churches, were built with love, painted and sculpted by artists of great faith. They created names that are remembered after half a millenium or more – Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio – still cared for, still loved, seen and appreciated by millions every year, signore."
"I don't know… I've got a pretty tight schedule. And if I want to see artwork, I can always look at my son's paintings. Got too many of the damned things around as it is. That reminds me, while I'm here, I should see if any of these bozos at the G-20 meeting want to buy any. Could get some good commissions that way… if they know what's good for them, anyway… if they expect any help with that foreign aid that these greedy Euros are always after…"
…end of transmission…
Copyright 2021 John F Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based transportation and trade compliance professional, writer and actor. A one-time political activist and former county chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, his columns have been published by Illinois Review since 2009.
John's first book, a collection of his short stories about voting fraud originally run in Illinois Review, is available on Amazon under the title "The Tales of Little Pavel."
Also available on Amazon is the first volume of his new fiction series, "Evening Soup with Basement Joe," a political satire, set in a parallel universe not quite identical to the Earth of 2021… in which a confused, crooked old man becomes president, and a young aide brings down his nightly bowl of soup and engages him in conversation, in a losing battle to restrain the onset of dementia. Volume one covers the first ninety days of this strange new world.
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