Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mauro of Manhattan

New York Observer column, January 7, 2007

I meet Marsha’s mother two weeks after at Bloomingdales. I was lured there after work for a cocktail presentation of I don’t remember which new product. Marsha had given me an appointment at 6 p.m., and here she comes with her mummy: “We just met by chance at the first floor, she was Christmas shopping”, she tells me, false as Judas. I take it as a real ambush.

The lady looks the same as in the pictures, a nice bottle-blonde plastic-enhanced 60-year-old like 100,000 others in the Upper East Side. Fake nose, uplifted eyes, lackadaisical smile, incredibly elegant, foulard around her neck, haughty gait. Her only physical qualities, to my eyes: slim, perfect figure, beautiful legs and wonderful ankles. Like her daughter. So, Marsha too looks promising for the next thirty years. I have to confess I also took a glance at the senior’s pelvis: Marsha’s one worries me, because it’s too thin for her to become a good breeder. I know it’s shameful to admit it, I might be a maniac, but a peaceful pregnancy is an important feature of our future marriage.

Conversation with mother unwinds trivial as the phone calls between her and Marsha that I know so well: “Traffic is so horrible these days my dear, it’s impossible to go around before Christmas and it’s getting worse year after year...”
“Yes madam what a headache to find taxis and they’re useless anyway as they get trapped in the jams like any other car, the same goes with buses...”
“And let’s not talk about the subway it’s sooo overcrowded”.
Commonplace but surreal remarks, Bloomingdales being three blocks away from her penthouse. But the lady prefers to torture her chauffeur by taking the limousine, instead than walking three minutes.

“Be our guest before Christmas,” she invites-orders imperiously towards the end of our chat. I’m trapped. I can’t escape.
During the next few days I deftly negotiate the whereabouts of the gloomy family event. My last redoubt is not meeting the parents at their place, which would be tantamount to an official engagement with Marsha.
“Let’k keep it casual, what about a nice pizza at La Houppa?” I suggest with nonchalance.
La Houppa, a jewelry store on East 64th Street where they sell pizzas instead than (but at the price of) diamonds.

Arrives the lethal dinner. Marsha’s sister and her boyfriend are joining us. Will they lighten the atmosphere or make the evening more formal (the ‘whole’ family)? But, surprise: between my future father-in-law and me it’s love at first sight. We both order a capricciosa, and this similarity of taste seems to immediately raise his enthusiasm. Of course we start talking about Italy, and he goes on and on reminiscing about all of his Italian journeys.
I look at him: it’s a wonder such an angel-shaped Marsha came out of this chubby man with a red face. Softened by nostalgia and pinot bianco, he goes into raptures when I answer his question: “How do you like America?”
“I love it,” I reply, and it’s true. I omit to specify that I prefer Bob Dylan’s America to George Bush bigots: he is satisfied realizing that there is at least one European who doesn’t hate the States.
“Why do they all hate us?” he asks kind of worried.
“Well, the war in Iraq...” I begin to try and answer.
He stops me right away: “But that son of a bitch Saddam, didn’t he deserve a good blow?”
“Of course yes,” I say sincerely. And this is enough for him.
He then gets carried away by a stupid pun of mine: “We’re stuck in Iraq.”
“I love the rhyme, but in particular the fact you said ‘We’ and not ‘You’. Means that you feel like one of us. There are Italian soldiers in Iraq too, aren’t there?”
I would have never thought that one day I’d be thankful to premier Silvio Berlusconi for making me conquer my girlfriend’s father by sending troops to Baghdad. But this is exactly what happened one December night in 2006...

By now Marsha’s sturdy dad considers me one of the family, he begins to call me “son”. He forgets I’m only 15 years his junior, maybe he mistakes me for the male offspring he never had. Our idyll climaxes when we discover we both share a humiliating predilection for an obscure Sixties band called The Moody Blues.
“... ‘Nights in White Satin?” he asks me, embarrassed.
“Well, yes.”
“But it’s impossible for you to know them, son.”
“Why?”
“Because I used to dance to that song in the summer of ’67. I remember exactly the year because that’s when I met my wife. Do you remember, Jane?”
“Of course,” she says.
“Well, I remember too,” I throw myself in, “I was seven years old and they always played it in the jukebox at the Termoli beach, Molise region.”
This accuracy of mine makes him adore me: “I love precise people.”
Now that I understand he’s stuck like me at the anal stage, I turn pitiless: “In Italy that song was mostly successful in a cover version, translated by the band Dik Dik.”

The typical Virgo orgasm I know he’s reaching at this very moment makes him forget to calculate my real age: knowing I was seven 39 years ago, it wouldn’t be difficult (“Mauro is fortyish,” Marsha had lied to him). On the contrary, he states ecstatic: “‘Nights in White Satin’ is the best slow song ever. We used to dance to it in Washington, do you remember dear?”
“Sir, allow me to place it at the same level of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum, from that same summer.”
He turns slowly his head from his wife to me. He’s overwhelmed. He looks at me wet-eyed: “Son, you are the Bible, you are a living encyclopedia, you, you are... fantastic! You are so right, oh, the Procol Harum! How could I forget them?”

Marsha hates these retro musical predilections of mine. Our conversation is boring her. She discovered the Moody Blues and Procol Harum only because we had a small fight when I dared to invite her to one of their concerts: “Listen Mauro”, she had replied, “to be honest with you I really can’t stand that kind of music. A few days after we met you dragged me to a Jorma Kaukonen or whatever-was-is-name concert, and I accepted only because I was thrilled by all of your invitations, and because I thought it would be a palatable thing anyway. But let me tell you, that was a real drag. Now, if you want to make up for all of your lost time go ahead and do it, but please don’t you ever try and involve me again in one of these so very sad revivals of yours... No wonder they take place in places named with sad names such as The Bottom Line or The Bitter End, which sooner or later have to close down like the Cbgb due to the death of all of their customers, not to talk about the Beacon Theatre where you took me to watch the Allman Brothers, surrounded by drunk beer-smelling and pot-smoking 60-year-old New Jersey truckers...”

So, I have to go by myself to the concerts of all of my idols from the Sixties, some of whom never ventured in concert in Italy in the past 30 years, such as Crosby Stills and Nash, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Winwood, James Brown, Arlo Guthrie or the Eagles. In the famed Town Hall theatre, where Charlie Parker invented bebop jazz in ’45, I saw Art Garfunkel coming out of the formalin with exactly the same hair from decades ago. But this didn’t stop me from renting a car to go to as far as Albany in order to admire him again, this time coupled with Paul Simon.
Sometimes I even venture into fan club meetings, such as the yearly world reunion of Leonard Cohen at Columbia university in 2004, only to discover I have nothing in common with that bunch of alienated nerds. I reached the top in Alexandria, Louisiana, during a Mardi Gras with Chubby Checker, the inventor of twist, which was the first music I danced to in 1963 at the Lignano beach (my father shot a super8 home movie to document the event). I have no friends in New York City to share this nostalgia perversion with, except for my Italian journalist colleague Christian Rocca with whom I went to see Neil Young at Radio City Music Hall just before (or was it after?) the stroke that he brilliantly survived.
But now, here is my prospective father-in-law as companion of future raids into catheterock. Those type of concerts are challenging and never-ending, because at half-time the musicians always promise: “We’ll be back in a moment”. That is never true: intermissions last at least three quarters of an hour, as the public of former hippies has weak prostates, everybody needs to take a pee, so endless queues form in front of the toilets.

After the musical acme, we reach for the desserts. If he could, now Marsha’s father would marry me directly, instead than giving me his daughter. Or he would immediately appoint me director of his company, which produces bottle caps. I already see myself swimming in a sea of caps, like Scrooge swimming in his golden money. He inquires absentmindedly about my job, and delivers his presumptuous advise: “Son, the future of journalism is in the web”.

I feel like Dustin Hoffman in ‘The Graduate’: “Thank you very much, I had never thought about it”, I almost reply, but I don’t want to ruin the superfriendly atmosphere. He seems impressed by the fact that I have been writing for ‘Newsweek’ and ‘The New York Observer’: “They’re way too liberal for my taste, but I love the real estate column of the Observer”.
Dinner ends talking real estate: Marsha’s parents are about to buy something for her sister: “Maybe a little condo in Trump’s Park Avenue”, drops mother Jane. “I heard the same apartment costs one million more if you go up just one store: ten millions on the twentieth, eleven on the twenty-first, and so on...”, she adds, faking ignorance (her only read besides women’s mags is real estate, as well).

Now, this is an incredible oblique way to tell me: “Son, be good, kneel down in front of Marsha, give her the ring, become her puppy-dog, and you’ll be rewarded with the same godsend which is about to come down on that schmuck future brother-in-law of yours...” Such a cheap shot, very cheap, let me tell you madam. You were able to ruin with only a few word the magic atmosphere your husband had built between me and the Family. Because you surely know, your beloved daughter must have told you, that the building at the corner of Park and 59 bought and renovated by Donald Trump in 2004 is the former Delmonico Hotel, famous for hosting the Beatles during the summer of ’64, the second time they came to New York (the first time they stayed at the Plaza). It was there they met Bob Dylan, who offered them their first joint. That’s why it looks so irresistible to me, although I must be the only one - among the foreign billionaires buying there thanks to the weak dollar - to know about this.

We get out of La Houppa, exchange our greetings, and I take a taxi with Marsha. She is radiant with happiness: “Mauro, this was such a success! They love you.” I feel like I am about to dive into a fast, asphyxiating engagement, as light as quick setting concrete. If not in the Delmonico, I’ll end up in one of those terrorizing penthouses reachable by pressing PH in the elevator, but only if you have the key to insert on the side. And once you are up, you find yourself directly in the house, there is no landing. When I’ll have parties I’ll be obliged to spend thousands for catering at Fauchon, and waiters in uniform will wander around my place.
Most of all: we’ll not even be able to reach the Hamptons by helicopter, because Marsha, like her mother, is going to object: “What if someone we know spots us at the heliport, finding out we can’t afford to buy one, and that we are reduced to rent?”

Mauro Suttora

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