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Number 37 in this series. Link to all items here.
Letters to the Famous
Art Thou Illiterate?
am trying to convince the city parenting
persons that we should have an official Pulcinella. This
archetypal Neapolitan figure is famous throughout
the world for dispensing local wisdom, such as Ogni scarrafone è
bell’a mamma soia ("Even a cockroach is
beautiful to its own mother"—self-explanatory) or
A gatta pe fa e
press, facette e figli cieche ("Because
she was in such a hurry, the cat had blind
kittens."—not so self-explanatory) and A gallina fa l'uovo,
e a 'o gallo ll'abbruccia 'o culo ("The
hen lays the egg; the cock gets his arse burnt"
—uh...hmmm... maybe you had to be there.) In any
case, the official Pulcinella would undertake to
answer thousands of letters from around the world
and be a pen-pal to the lovelorn, forlorn and
rooflorn (That's right. It means "without a
roof.") But, says City Hall, Pulcinella is a
fictitious character! Who is going to write
letters to someone who doesn't exist? City Hall
has not been paying attention.
We all know that Santa Claus gets letters.
Sherlock Holmes, too, rated pretty high on a
recent poll in Britain as a person "in history"
much admired by the general public. Thus, rest
assured that even Captain Ahab gets nasty letters
from Save-the-Whales, and Emma Bovary receives
furtive notes from men anxious to save her from
the humiliating traps and moral emptiness of
bourgeois existence. "But, soft! What light through yonder
window breaks?" It is the postman and
Juliet Capulet is getting another sack of mail! A
local paper reports that the Verona City Council
really and truly receives as many as one thousand
letters a year addressed simply to "Juliet,
Verona, Italy". The letters are inevitably from
girls, young and in love and seeking advice. A
recent one came from a young lady in Naples. She
I just saw your movie. It was cool. I am having
the same problems as you. I am sixteen and in love
with a seventeen-year-old guy. Our parents don't
want us to see each other, but we do anyway. What
should we do? Answer right away.
In the past, the city of
Verona has given part-time work to a number of persons
just to answer these letters. The town has now
announced, however, that it will sponsor a
letter-answering contest, the winner of which will be
the city's official "Juliet," charged with providing
advice to starcrossed lovers, especially those who are
too much in love even to go to school. It looks like a
good job and I think I could swing it from cyberspace.
(I mean, who wants to move to Verona?) I have prepared
an answer to the young lady in question.
Problems? You said a mouthful, sister. And what
did I tell you about writing with your mouth full.
Eschew it. In fact, you should eschew each
mouthful twenty-five times before putting quill to
You're sixteen? Well, when I was your age I was
fourteen. I am now 722 and, believe me, it hasn't
been easy. Sure, it was fun for a while. After
all, being told that your "eyes in heaven
would through the airy region stream so bright
that birds would sing and think it were not
night" —well, language like that had
quite an effect on us in those days, much the
same, I suppose, as "cool" does on your
generation. But, you know, fire in the loins can
only keep you going for a couple of centuries.
After that, what have you got but a few memories
and charred thighs?
This Romeo of yours—does he do drugs? Can he even
read? These are some of the things that you should
consider, because, in retrospect, life has not
been one long picnic for me. (And having your
retro spected while you're trying to eat can ruin
even a short picnic.) Anyway, your knowledge of
literature is atrocious, which is pretty bad,
seeing as how a trocious is even smaller than a
bysmal. In fact, it takes two whole troci to make
a single bysmal. Quick, how many bysmals in a
palling? See what I mean? You don't know very
much, if you will permit the aside.
But all permitting aside, you think the Middle
Ages are "cool"? Bifocals? Gum disease? Hot
flashes? Ho-ho. Pardon me while I don't laugh. The
Renaissance? How would you like to live in an age
which calls itself "born again" and then arrests
Michelangelo in a motel room in Florence? OK, it
Florence—something about sculpting an underage
model and then not paying her. They call it
statutory chiseling. The Enlightenment? How was I
to know that it ran on 220 volts? I plugged in my
hair-dryer and blew some of the finest minds in
history. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Ah,
I could tell you tales that would warm the cockles
of your heart. Indeed, I spent much of that period
in a sweat-shop turning out heart-cockle warmers.
I did all right, too, until they found out that
the only thing worse for your heart than
cigarettes and cholesterol is warm cockles. So,
here I am: one who took in laundry for the entire
Thirty Years War; one who raised 234 children, not
one of whom ever writes.
Oh, one last bit of solid advice. Never ever make
an offer like: 'What satisfaction canst thou have
p.s. How did you get my address? Please, mum's the
word. She hates to be called 'mother'.
I'm not sure I could handle a similar
Pulcinella gig, though. I'm still trying to figure
out that thing with the hen and cock.
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