Today is a sobering day, not just because Becky returned to California and Charlie’s flight from Crete was cancelled.
In the morning, after Bruno picked up Becky, I left Casa di Alice to explore. Rain clouds gone, the sun arrived, startlingly bright, but with a cold wind like a slap. In the first block after my apartment, I ran into the first begger, an African man, or at least a man of African descent, in Testaccio square by the meat market with a hat in his hand. Around the next corner, another begger. Then another. On the way to Galvani, a woman, maybe a Roma, with a toddler also begging. More beggars with hats along Galvani. It was more startling than the sun, a stronger, more provoking slap than the wind. Why so many beggars, all with hats? Why today? How should I respond?
I truly don’t know. I generally make quick eye contact, smile, and continue walking. I never give money, especially not to beggars with children – that seems like a terrible incentive – nor even to the beggar I see every morning on my walk to Charlie’s school who greets me warmly, always with a smile, and then an open hand. How could I choose? How could I know my money is going to needs and not addictions?
I tip generously – I know it’s not the same thing, but if I have to choose between rewarding underpaid work and rewarding begging I choose the former. I know that not all beggars can work, some are infirm, some are mentally ill, some have no skills, But in Rome I don’t know where to start to help them.
There is another class of working poor, the many Indian-looking (perhaps Indian, perhaps Bangladeshi, perhaps of origin somewhere else in Southeast Asia) men – they’re all men – who sell selfie sticks in the good weather and umbrellas in the rain (they see to be the same people, just with different inventory). There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them in Rome. Every day 5, 10 approach me with for a sale. I never buy because I have no need, but I have an admiration for their efforts and persistence.
Even the flower sellers, more annoying, more persistent, who come into the restaurants at night and stand next to your table with flowers for whoever you happen to be with. If it’s a woman, they’re likely to ask 2, 3, 10 times if you want flowers.
Today Rome I see the sadness in Rome, something I’ve glimpsed but not really lingered on. I think about my friend Brian Bajari. What would Brian do? Where would he start? If I had to guess it would be with empathy and humanity: eye contact, a smile, a kind no-thank-you, an acknowledgment of their work and effort, or in the case of a beggar their difficult circumstance – whatever it might be.
It’s not easy finding work in Italy. I read that Italy unemployment rate hits 18-year high, with youth unemployment at over 41%. My occasional neighbor Federico told me that his employment contract was just renewed, after a two-month lapse. His girl friend Giulia, recently kicked-out of her grandmother’s apartment because she is sleeping with Federico, has no work. She’s happy to clean our apartment for 10€ an hour.
And it’s even worse for the immigrants, the Africans, Indians, Albanians, Libyans, Syrians and others who are coming here to escape even worse conditions in their own countries. In the news recently More than 2,000 migrants from Libya rescued by Italian coastguard. What will they do when they arrive? Where will they work? Beg? Today in Testaccio it was hard to imagine any more corners for beggars, even harder to imagine any more charity from Italians who are themselves underpaid and underemployed.
As I said, it has been a sad, sobering day.