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Everything is related to Naples
Number 65 in this series. Link to all items here.


Driving Miss Godzilla

A gentleman wrote a letter with "a modest proposal" to the paper a while ago. In the 1990s, the city cleared out Piazza Plebiscito, the large square in front of the Royal Palace in Naples. It has been returned to its natural, wide–open, pristine state—spacious, clean, and eminently walk-aroundable. The letter pointed out that "wide open spaces" are all right for the Wild West and Asian steppes but, after all, we are human beings, not buffalo, and such an area is not natural in what is the least wide-open space in western Europe, Naples. Let the cars return, the letter argued. Bring those thousands of vehicles back from the parallel, quantum Naples that they are star–gated to every morning and let them park here in the real Piazza Plebiscito where they belong. Certainly, nothing could be worse than the presence of various works of "art" that take up space in the square a lot of the time, from castles made of Coca–Cola cans to mountains of salt to a recent display of 100 bronze skulls. Why not—in keeping with "Art for the masses" ambitions of the city—put on a permanent display of parked cars as "mobile installation art"? Then, instead of slurping coffee and holding maps of the city upside-down, visitors to our fair city can put in some quality tourist time by admiring the kaleidoscopically changing colors—Matisse, eat your heart out!—of the square as cars putt about looking for parking spaces, or by deconstructing the semiotics of the Hittite tridents, runes, alchemical emoticons and gypsy logoglyphs that serve as hood ornaments.

There really is no place to park a car in Naples anymore. Double-parking is so common that traffic cops look the other way. They have a difficult time drawing a firm line in the sand on this issue since most of the beaches, too, are strewn with illegally parked cars. You may get a ticket if you triple-park and swing open the driver-side door into passing traffic, thereby causing some poor kid on a motor–bike to slam into you and go flying over the door. ("But he wasn't wearing a helmet," you can always argue. And he probably wasn't.) Sometimes cars are towed, but it seems to be random. There isn't as much bad feeling over towed cars as one might think because if you come out of your house and find your car gone, you naturally think that it's been stolen. That's an ineluctable force of nature in Naples. No sense getting riled up over that.

In any event, for parking, small is better, and you see a lot of the official car of Lilliput nowadays, the Smart, a two–seater (photo insert, top). It is made by Mercedes and Swatch (from Swiss Watch, the gnomes who make those screwy–looking transparent wristwatches where you can actually see the springs and cogs of the works. The Smart is not cheap, in spite of its diminutive size, but it is easy to park. On the other hand, I did know one of the nouveau riches in Naples who had the ostentatiously bad taste to get himself a Rolls Royce. I have no idea if he ever took it out of the garage. I don't even know where the garage was; it was probably some sort of a secret cavern where he could enwomb himself in his expensive toy in solitude, fondle the steering wheel and feel completed in life. There are a few Mercedes around—the real ones: somber, well designed, solidly built, wall-to-wall airbags and even—as an optional—a cigar-smoking industrialist in the back seat. There are some Volvos and Saabs, too. Having a new high–tech German or Swedish set of wheels around here, though, is asking for trouble. There is a big market for them, and they say that if you park one in the wrong part of town, some sheikh will be driving your car around downtown Riyadh a few days from now. 

I may have been the only person in Naples who ever owned an American Motors Corp. Concord, a fine machine built in 1979. It used to draw stares, "oohs" and "aahs" when I brought it up out of my own Bat Cave for my nightly patrols through the by-ways of Naples. It wasn't what Europeans disparagingly term an "American battleship". They are remembering way back when—the 1950s—when American drivers were shameless love–slaves of the Godzillamobile, a gaudy behemoth with tail-fins aerodynamically honed to create intense low pressure vortices in their wake, vacuuming up little old ladies from curbside and blowing them down the streets like geriatric Dorothys on their way to Oz. One turn signal, alone, pulled more juice than it took to reanimate Boris Karloff in The Return of Frankenstein, and in fossil–fuel consumption, those cars barely got two miles to the dinosaur. My Concord wasn't any of that—it just wasn't a "European-looking" car. 

I drove that car way up to Switzerland once, even motoring up over the Alps instead of through the long, dreadful Gotthard tunnel. It was a fine ride. On the way back down south, I strayed from the autostrada near Naples onto a road that even the world's greatest optimist might call "What Road?!"—a trail ludicrously overrated on my map as a vague tracing of broken squiggles. I wound up in a village where children fled from my path and wide-eyed peasants threw sprigs of wolfbane at my car. (Or maybe it's "cloves" of wolfbane, or some metric unit like "kilobushes".) 

I pulled up in front of City Hut to ask directions, and a village elder appeared. He eyed my car suspiciously since it had just been seen to move without benefit of harnessed brute. Helpfully, he set the townsfolk to sharpening stakes and gathering firewood until I explained with my map that it had been all downhill from Switzerland. He was impressed, too, that Switzerland was a mere eleven inches from his village. He seemed fully conversant with the technology of the wheel since he tried to converse with my tires. When they wouldn't answer, he started kicking them, shaking his head and "tsk–tsking" as he went. I turned down his offer of a trade–in for a fine, slightly used mule. He even kicked the poor animal in the shins a few times just to show me what a good, solid beast it was. In any event, they let me go and I drove off back to Naples, but only after letting every adult in the village sit in the front seat of my Concord, fondle the steering wheel and feel completed in life.


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