Roman Panhandlers

Having done quite a bit of busking in the U.S. and Europe, I’ve ran into my share of beggars and street urchins. Finding a good busking spot is a tricky business, often the best pitch also happens to be a good spot for begging. While busking in Trastevere one day I was informed by a rather bedraggled traveler that I had taken his place. I had seen the man about begging before, so I simply told him “non loso italiano” and went on playing. A bit later I saw the man across the piazza animatedly talking to a couple of tough-looking punks while gesticulating wildly in my direction. When the man saw me looking at them, he stopped and gave me a friendly wave. His two companions merely scowled. I decided that discretion was the better part of courage, said “Ah si, loso, loso,” and strategically withdrew. His two leather-clad associates both had enough tattoos and piercings to qualify them for any halfway respectable freak show, and the pit-bull-like muts they kept by them were none to friendly. (You will often see travelers and beggars in possession of a nasty mut. The acrimonious beast is present to complicate matters if the local constabulary takes a mind to start enforcing any laws; most officers would rather leave well enough alone.)

Around about the Coliseum and the Pantheon one is likely to encounter a dark-haired fortyish women who will boldly walk up to you and say, “Oh thank God, finally another American! I’ve been walking around for hours looking for help, I don’t know what to do.” Now, I appreciate a good story now and again and she had a fair one. In very good english she continued her tale of coming to Italy to learn Italian and how some thief stole her purse with all her money and she just needs enough to get back to her hotel. So, amused, I gave her a euro. “But what am I to do?! The place where I am staying is an hour outside the city and the bus costs forty euro!” Sorry, honey, thats all I got. “But what am I to do?” I guess you’ll just have to meet thirty nine more people like me. Good english by the way.

The same lady accosted a number of students in my class at various different times. Our theology professor, Monseigneur O’Brien, a short rotund fellow from County Cork, had an elegant solution he employed. When the same lady came up to him he looked at her quizzically for a moment and said, “Haven’t I met you before?” She hurriedly left.

One of the most pitiful sights I saw was outside of St. Peter’s in an underground thoroughfare beneath a major street. Kneeling face down on the ground was a gypsy woman and her young son with a tin cup and a small electronic keyboard in front of them. As I walked by the young boy reached out and pressed a button on the keyboard and it started playing an electronic rendition of ”Ode to Joy.” As the melody came to an end the little boy looked up at me with the most pitiful expression on his face, held out the cup and said, “ Per favore, Signor.” It was all I could do to keep from cracking up laughing.

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