How I became a real man


I suppose most boys have to overcome something terrifying in order to have the conversion experience that makes real men of them.  Though Achilles dressed up as a girl and Odysseus pretended to be blind in an effort to stay out of the Trojan war, both these classic draft dodgers became feckless killers on their way to achieving hero status.  If medieval knights have to slay dragons to qualify for saving damsels in distress, and if young soldiers everywhere have to persuade their legs it’s wrong to try to outrun bullets flying their way, even Hemingway’s anti-heroes have to confront the terrifying bulls horning in on their minds.  After years of meditating on how swiftly my maturity makes me shrink from most forms of heroism, I too recently passed a major manhood test.  I drove a car in Naples, Italy, and survived to tell the tale.

Imagine a different kind of basketball game in a local gym.  There’s one smallish court, and three hundred bodies crowd in to play, most of them testosterone-engorged males.  Everyone brings a ball.  There are ten backboards and hoops–call them goals, or maybe home, where mamas are waiting to serve boys very large dishes of pasta after having done the boys’ laundry and made their beds.  Every score inspires a salivation response; make one and you want more.  Naturally everyone wants to score first and move on to another score.  No one sounds a horn or buzzer for the game to begin–or end.  There are no lines or lanes and nothing is out of bounds.  There are no rules, no timekeeper, no scorekeeper, and no referees, and everyone is calling fouls on everyone else–and you have a picture of a normal traffic day in Naples, Italy.

I had seen Naples a few times before, but always from the safe distance of a train going to and fro from a quiet village in the deep south where, just after the invention of cars, my parents were born.  That small village, San Pietro, has one main street called the Via del Popolo (the Way of the People), with a couple arteries branching off from it.  A grandmother or grandfather is normally seen taking a stroll along the Via del Popolo, and now and then an auto twists and turns its way past them toward the road leading down to the Mediterranean.  From the train window Naples seemed like a bigger version of this village on a mountainside–static, charming, tanned by a romantic sun.

But to venture into Naples takes manly resolve.  I had just read a disturbing book about the Camorra, the city’s Mafia, that inspired me to shy away from the place.  My memories of the mean streets of Detroit had something to do with that.  But my adventurous daughter Emily had set the agenda:  We were to dine at the historic pizzeria made famous in the movie Eat, Pray, Love, then continue our journey on the Autostrada.  When she handed me the keys to the rental car I decided to gird my loins for the great trial ahead.  The years have been drying out my bones, but I decided I was crustier because of it.  If all those pint-sized Italian boys could drive in Naples and survive, why couldn’t I?  Besides, it wasn’t death I had to fear most.  With traffic going almost nowhere one small leap forward at a time, I might be maimed but not murdered by another car.  My secret challenge was to return the slick BMW without a nick on it. 

I entered traffic in Naples with one bit of knowledge to help me get through to my daughter’s pizza joint.  I hadn’t driven a stick-shift car in over thirty years, so feet had to remember what my mind no longer knew.  What I knew well is what I said to my wife years earlier about my mother.  “She says ten things, but she only means one and a half of the ten things she says.  She’s Italian.  You have to figure out the one and a half things she really means, so subtract everything said by eight and a half before you take offense.”

Italians, in short, incline toward overstatement.  Ask an Italian how many times he makes love in one week, then subtract the answer by eight and a half.  Ask a lecherous Englishman the same question and he’ll say, “Yes, I play a little tennis now and then.”

It’s understandable that the English have a hard time driving on the wrong side of their streets in Italy, and one also must pity them for their confusion on discovering that in Naples there is no wrong side of the street.  There are only very small openings, some merely crevices, instantly filled by a fender, bumper, or grille, with riders on scooters and motorbikes deftly maneuvering their way into leftover square inches.  Car horns scream at each other, but their noise falls on deaf ears.  In a city where no birds sing many birds are flipped in a hand-language for which no dictionary exists.  Add to this panicata (a useful southern word that means “panic” and “mess” and is most often applied to ill-prepared food) the courage of pedestrians playing chicken with the metallic mouths threatening to bite them if they make a wrong move, and throw in too the arrogance of those on sidewalks who refuse to make way for cars that hop the curbs to gun them down–and you get a picture of a normal traffic scene in Naples.

I only saw one police officer in the whole panicata, and he seemed to be in a deep meditative trance as he gazed toward the sea.

One has to admire the skill and athleticism of these drivers, their ability to secrete themselves into the small spaces getting them ahead.  Though most of them would be jailed for driving that way in American streets, car owners in Naples have created a standard of behavior gaining currency in many parts of the world.  Some would call the process anarchy, but I think of it as individualistic entrepreneurship on wheels, a free enterprise system minus eight and a half parts of system.  In Naples driving is both taxing and deregulated.

The old charm and elegance is still visible on the city’s monuments and avenues.  The streets are teeming with people, businesses, and peddlers hawking mostly illegal merchandise.  Also in clear view are heaps of trash, the outward and visible sign of the deep corruption driving the city’s economy.  The Camorra, the Mafia clans of the Naples region, have capitalized on the national government’s failure (and perhaps cooperation) to govern and regulate.  Naples, an Italian city, is also a de facto Camorra fiefdom run by brutal and wily businessmen (and now women too), bosses who have infiltrated the port, manufacturing facilities, and distribution outlets for a wide range of enterprises.  Waste management is just one of them.  It’s an old trick really, the use of garbage to extort cooperation from individuals who don’t want to play with gangsters.  In my home town, Dearborn, Michigan, the mayor who ruled there for forty years, Orville Hubbard, used garbage as a way to enforce his racism.  Those who were suspected of renting or trying to sell a house to blacks would suddenly find their garbage piling up, and then the city inspector would show up to discover several expensive code violations.  In Naples non-cooperation with the Camorra leads to trash being heaped on the uncooperative, much of it brutally toxic.

Italy and its enchanting monuments are ancient, but Italy as an experiment in self-government is young.  Only in 1870 did Italy’s national heroes Garibaldi and Cavour manage to make a “nation” called “Italy” from the diverse regions, ways of life and dialects that are to be found on the length of the long peninsular boot.  Profound differences still exist, and the people of Naples, those who drive their cars recklessly and those who drive significant parts of its illegal economy, seem to have chosen–and are stuck with–disorder reeling out of control of anyone except the criminal class.

I wonder if the chaotic incivility of traffic in Naples is a sign of the times, especially as the planet’s bulging population is streaming by the millions into urban sprawls.  Will dysfunction and eventual collapse become the general rule as millions more vehicles fuel the economies of urban growth, often in cities ill-designed for traffic flow and lorded over by entrepreneurs, criminal or not, eager to deregulate in order to liberate their greed?  Will street crime and criminal syndicates become the norm when the state, and the common wealth it is supposed to represent and regulate, surrenders its responsibility to govern the few who make laissez-faire a religious right?  

My manhood survived not only Naples traffic but a wild 130 KM per hour roadrace over the Autostrada from Naples to Rome.  On the Autostrada those caught in congested city traffic break free, as if to make up for lost time in vehicles that seem to be saying, “Nothing can stop me now.  I can fly!”  One couple no longer on their motorcycle, whose bodies I glimpsed in the glare of flashing lights, came crashing down, perhaps because the young cyclists, feeling the rush that comes with breaking free of congestion unworthy of their machines, slightly miscalculated the skill that had worked so well for them in log-jammed city traffic.  The tangled mass of metal that once was their vehicle looked like a newfangled piece of postmodern art.  And as the streams of traffic passing the wreck slowed, I felt as if I were part of a funeral procession paying its last respects to the two bodies laid out on the concrete, victims that seemed like human sacrifices to some alien faceless gods.

Some Italians still credit the fascist Mussolini for getting the trains to run on time.  When out-of-control disorder is called freedom, and when criminal syndicates justify their business success as a function of free enterprise, I suspect we’re not far from the collapse that will allow the next Mussolini to turn the national state into a criminal enterprise.  When I was stuck in the middle of the Naples traffic jams I felt powerless to do anything but barge recklessly ahead with whatever clogged flow there was.  If a dictator were busy taking my basic rights away I would not have the time, energy or parking space that would allow me to register a complaint.

It was comforting to return to North American soil, where the streets are rationally laid out in straight-line grids, where drivers (except for Chicagoans) stay in their lanes and obey the traffic signs–here where there are traffic signs and some regulations still in place intended to make travel and business as usual safe, productive, legal, and possible.  I find beauty in the vast empty spaces of the Great Plains and western states, all that lush emptiness I like to imagine as immune to the congestion creeping up on it from suburban sprawls.  But the “Wild West” scares me too.  Many of the frontier freedom fighters who oppose all government restraint and who say they oppose government per se also believe that if you outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns.  The Western-hero type, made popular in so many films, takes the initiative to take the law into his own hands.  His city-slicker counterpart comes in two unsavory brands:  Either as romantic urban gangster, or as “urban cowboy” who routinely deems himself above the law as he fights against injustice and crime.  Both shoot their way into our living rooms after the troubling evening news.  The behaviors of both are so common they seem socially acceptable as norms.  Given the popularity of these types, and their presence as realities rather than as imaginary models, I’m not sure what fate would be worse for me, the streets of Naples or the sidewalks of Chicago’s south side. 

I stay clear of certain city streets and look forward to trips I can take without a car.  Whenever there is one available I prefer taking trains, even though they’re state subsidized.  I’m glad to know somebody in the democratic government I still believe in is wise enough to see the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of trains over the long haul.  I look forward to meeting strangers on trains and engaging in civil conversation with them.  I’m amazed by the speeds trains are capable of achieving, and I’m consoled by the opportunity for leisure they provide.  Like a worthwhile nation-state not engaged in corruption, graft, and crimes against humanity, the train seems like a good enough community free enterprise system.

My manhood?  Now that I’ve got it I’m prepared to send it back.  I’m hoping I’ll have no further use for it here.