Pompeii looked nothing like the mental picture I had of it. I had envisioned city of dark and lava-buried, subterranean chambers, a kind of Hades on earth, alive with torch-lit shadows, sweltering mist, and gloom, and wandering Shades, the echoes of Cerebus ringing through the night as grim Charon glides across the River Styx on a ferry heavy with bones.
Instead, the city was almost completely exhumed and open to the light of day, the rows and avenues of windowless brick houses standing much like they did 20 centuries ago, though without their roofs and some crumbling here and there.
It was another torrid day. The sun felt like it was about 50 feet over our heads as we wandered among the ruins, trying to keep away from all the other tourists. Pompeii was a little like Disneyworld. Like everything these days, it had been commercialized, bastardized, and was so detached from its past, I was half-expecting Mickey Mouse to climb out of a crypt or vault somewhere and dance a jig. But maybe it was just the sun making me dizzy. Whatever the case, it was hard to be at one with your thoughts for any time out there, let alone appreciate in any real way the history and grandeur of that bygone city. It felt more like I was just going through the motions of being there rather than truly experiencing it, and no matter how hard I tried to imagine Pompeii in its heyday, its baths, its bustling marketplace, the forum, the theater, the foot races in the park on a Sunday afternoon, the moon gazing down on everything on some cold winter night in 2 B.C., I couldn’t quite tap in. Nevertheless, I got a faint impression of a thriving community of fruit-sellers, fish-salesmen, wine-growers, fresco artists, actresses, poets, soldiers, con men and fools, all of whom had dreamed and wept and laughed and struggled like us, all of whom left not single a trace behind, their stories having long since been written on the winds and scattered to the ether.
I didn’t care so much about the laws or what materials the Pompeii was made of, I wanted to know about the individuals. I wanted to know how they thought, what they said, how they looked and carried themselves. I wanted to know their personalities, their idiosyncrasies and all the things that made them human rather than just the abstract notions that they were in my mind.
Too bad there wasn’t a tool rental shop owner back then who’d left his tales on some buried old papyrus.
Well, maybe when Florida becomes the next Atlantis someone will find my words and become acquainted with the rats and Pulcinellas and bottom-feeders and other forgotten characters of that forgotten world.
The reason we took this spur of the moment trip was because my sister, who lives in Michigan, was having her honeymoon in Italy and we set it up so that we could meet up for one night, in Positano. Our hotel was in Praiano, the neighboring town. Positano was too expensive for our blood.
We arrived at the hotel just after 5 p.m. The hotel, which was on a cliff that overlooked the sea, had heaps of sweet-smelling climbing flowers growing all around it, falling off the roof, dangling from the balconies and swallowing everything up.
We checked in with the owner of the place, dropped our stuff in the room, and went up to the third floor veranda bar for the complimentary drink we were told about.
We ordered proseccos from the bartender who was the son of the owner. Family business. Both were extraordinarily friendly. We sat at a table from which we could see the rugged curve of the Amalfi coast, the deep blue sea down below, and in the distance, Le Sirenuse, the archipelago of little islands where the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey had sung so beautifully.
The view was so enchanting and sublime it felt like I was sitting in a postcard and I said as much to Erica. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to appreciate it. Just however long it took us to finish our drinks and then we would take a bus along the tall and winding Amalfi cliffs, back to Positano to meet my sister and her husband.
Apparently only a few hours before we met up with them, my sister found out she’d gotten a promotion at her job. I won’t say where she works, but it’s a company everyone’s heard of and with her promotion, she became treasurer and the first female vice president to ever work there. In financial terms it meant a raise of 10-15% from her former salary. It also meant she would be paying for Erica and me that evening. She offered. We couldn’t refuse. We didn’t want to be rude. Nor could we afford to be rude. The cocktails at the first place we went were $22, and at the restaurant a $75 bottle of red wine was ordered. The night overall brought to mind the David Lee Roth quote.
“Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.”
We were happy.
There was a problem getting back to the hotel that night. The bus that we thought would take us there at midnight was no longer running, or we somehow missed it. Something happened. There were no taxis either. We ended up calling the hotel and talking to the owner. He sent his daughter over to pick us up. It was apparently a service they provided. Still, we felt bad about bothering them so late at night. It was our only choice though. It was a long walk.
On the drive back to the hotel, I asked the daughter, who was no less cheerful and friendly than her father and brother, how they ended up in such a rare and wonderful place. The story was that her grandfather, who lived in an orphanage, had inherited the land that the hotel was on from an uncle, and built the property. Her father was born the day the hotel opened, which must have been in the early fifties, and took it over when her grandfather died. She and her brother were of course next in line, which seemed to me to be both a blessing and a curse. You couldn’t ask for a more enchanting place to work, and the property was probably worth several millions, But there was something about following the footsteps your father that always made me suspicious. How many people had there been who had never discovered their true calling or potentialities because they took the easy way by doing what their fathers did? If I had done the same, I’d probably be selling patio furniture today. True, selling patio furniture is nothing like tending a lovely, flower-enshrouded hotel on the Amalfi Coast. But even so, if you were restless like me, you’d have to stuff your ears with beeswax like Odysseus’ men so as not to hear the sirens of the islands nearby, forever tempting and alluring with their beautiful songs of escape.