Silvia and I were taking our coffee at a cafe facing Piazza Luca Balsoforie. She was wearing one of her more interesting t-shirts, which displayed Penelope in profile holding a skein of yarn, alongside half a dozen lines of what I presumed was from The Odyssey, in large black Greek letters.
A scruffy bearded man in a soiled shirt and trousers sauntered by. His dark cap was down over his forehead, and his eyes peered out of the shadow cast by its brim. In his thumb and forefinger was a cigarette, pointed upward in the European manner.
Silvia waved. “Mario! Come sta?”
Mario tossed his cigarette and sauntered toward our table. He bent over, peered at Silvia’s t-shirt. He pointed his nicotine-stained finger at the ancient Greek text and began to recite. His voice was deep, dramatic, resonant. He pronounced each syllable with care and great love, as if he were on stage before a large audience, and of course I imagined this was precisely as Homer himself meant the words to be spoken.
Perhaps it was the Odyssey's opening paragraph: "Tell me, O muse, of what that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy…"
When he concluded, Silvia said, “Magnifico!”
I was too surprised to say a word. In 800 BC there were people on this island, perhaps on this very spot, who spoke that Homeric language. And there I sat at this cafe, having been blessed with a vivid, live glimpse of antiquity.
Silvia gave him a couple Euros, and he said grazie and sauntered off.
"Do you know his story?" Silvia asked.
"No, but I see him all the time."
Five or six years ago, she said, Mario lost his mind. He'd been a scholar of Latin and Greek literature, was fluent in six languages. In addition to his professorship at the Sapienza University of Rome, he wrote essays for all the learned journals of Europe.
"One time long ago I was with a friend of mine who lived in Paris, and we were heading for the port and there he was, sitting on a bench. I told him she was French, and he immediately recited a few lines from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. My friend said it was tres elegant. But now? He's on heavy anti-psychotic medications and lives with a dozen flea-infested cats in a small flat in Monterone. He has a daughter named Ionica, who lives up North, near Venice, and never comes to visit him anymore."
"Ionic is the Greek dialect that Homer spoke," I said.
"Really?" Silvia said. "I didn't know that. Anyway, three times he tried to kill himself. Once he complained the voices were telling him terrible things, and I said, ‘Mario, when you hear them, you must shout, Shoo! Shoo! Go away! Like you do to a vagrant dog.’”
The last time I saw Mario was in 2008. He was, as usual, on the steps of Santa Maria di Loreto, a burning cigarette between the fingers of his right hand. A bottle of beer was at his side. His ragged, bearded face was bronzed by the setting sun. His blue plastic flip-flops were disintegrating. The backs of his heels were callused and crusted with dirt, his toenails were long, white, and curved downward. He tossed his butt aside. Then he rose and slowly shuffled up the street.