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The Shoe Salesman as Relic

27 Sep

846-02792528

 

He is thin, well postured and wears a fine suit and silk tie. His shoes, of course, are high quality. They are shined.

 

He is the Shoe Salesman, a man from another era. Proud, maybe arrogant, certainly fussy about footwear, he treats you, his customer, with respect and wants you to walk away in style and comfort.

 

You are seated when the Shoe Salesman approaches. He is polite and professional. You notice he moves well. There is some discussion about what you need and want. He makes suggestions and you tend to agree with him.

 

Now he must measure your feet.

shoe measuring device

The Shoe Salesman pulls up a specially designed bench that allows him to sit and you to put a foot up so he can place a shoe on it. But that comes a little later, after the measurement, which is done using a device that looks as if it belongs in his hands. He can move it about easily, flipping it to measure either your right or left foot.

 

On his request, you stand for the measurement. He moves the calibrators, touches your big toe, presses the foot flat and – regardless of what size you see on the device – tells you what size you should wear.

Eatons Shoe Salesman Chair 1970 1

Using the information from your earlier discussion with the Shoe Salesman, he goes into the back to get your shoes. A moment later he returns with three or four boxes. There are different styles and even different sizes, just in case his measurement is off.

 

The Shoe Salesman puts down all but one box. He holds it in his left hand, gracefully removes the lid and secures it underneath the box. There is a “fliff, fliff” sound as the Shoe Salesman deftly pushes aside the two pieces of tissue covering the shoes. You notice how good the shoes look.

 

He sits on his bench and takes one shoe from the open box. Then, in a move that would humble a magician, the Shoe Salesman produces a silvery shoehorn from somewhere. You are not certain from where. He manipulates the shoehorn and the shoe glides silently onto your foot with minimal friction.

 

The Shoe Salesman ties the laces like you never could. He repeats all this for the second shoe and asks you to stand. With your foot inside the shoe, he uses his thumb and forefinger to squeeze the tip of the shoe. This is to judge the distance, if any, from the top of your big toe to the leather in front. The Shoe Salesman decides if it’s enough.

 

He asks you to walk, which you do. He watches you closely. He asks questions.

 

You try on another pair or two and, upon the recommendation of the Shoe Salesman, make a decision. He expresses delight at your choice and while boxing up the shoes asks if you need socks. You say no, and then a point of importance is mentioned: Do you need shoe trees?

CedarShoeTree

Cedar shoe trees: $25

The shoe trees, he explains, are vital to the care and life of shoes. They allow the shoes to hold their shape and help to disperse odor. They come in plastic, but those are not recommended. You should only buy cedar, the Shoe Salesman advises, even if they are expensive.

 

With a degree of embarrassment, you decline the shoe trees. There is a look of disappointment on the face of the Shoe Salesman. This detracts from the near joy of the shoe purchasing experience. Something in you wants to make the Shoe Salesman happy, and you seemed to have failed at that.

 

But the Shoe Salesman rallies and the transaction finishes in upbeat fashion. There is a request that you visit again soon.

shoes-2000-dollars

A pair of $2,000 shoes

 

The Shoe Salesman may still exist at fine men stores where shoes sell for the price of a good suit. There was a time, however, when they were found in main street establishments and in family department stores like Sears.

 

It takes dignity, a reasonable salary and longevity to produce the kind of service described here. It is unfortunate these things were severed from shoe sales decades ago. So today, we are accustomed to what would have been an unacceptable horror in 1960: We must try on our own shoes and judge for ourselves whether or not they fit. In the entire shoe department, it may be impossible to find anything even resembling a rudimentary shoehorn.

 

Like in restaurants where we must serve and clean up after ourselves, we are pretty much on our own in the shoe department.

 

This is the American economy, a place sucked dry of everything deemed unessential. Remarkably, without someone trying to sell you shoes, the shoes manage to get sold. This is the miracle of our time. In a society where labor is horribly undervalued and skills like those of the Shoe Salesman will never be properly rewarded, the American public has been trained to supply free labor that previously was paid for.

 

How did this happen? Damned if I know. Perhaps it’s the results of global markets and the ability of foreign people with lower living standards to produce things once produced by those in countries with higher standards of living.

 

But I think it’s also related to the predatory nature of our society championed by corporations that want to keep an increasingly larger portion of their revenue. They succeed at this in the absence of any morality requiring a more even distribution of wealth, and with no market forces pushing up wages.

 

When Henry Ford needed to ramp up production on his new assembly line in order to meet the swelling demand for his cars, he famously boosted wages to $5 a day, an unheard of rate. Slyly, that rate was enough so all his employees could afford cars.

 

Today there are legions of undervalued workers, many at multi-billion dollar companies such as Walmart and Amazon, who cannot afford an automobile. As long as cars and other American products are purchased by consumers in the global market, this presumably doesn’t matter. It does, however, create instability, conflict and adds stress to government.

A Snug Fit

A shoe salesman attends to a customer in 1955

 

 

I say this not because I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal. I say this not because I want to penalize private enterprise. Rather, I say this because I am a person who once enjoyed purchasing a pair of men’s shoes and would like very much to someday enjoy that experience again.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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A Modest Place of Distinction Continues to Survive

26 Sep
2018-09-26 14.13.55

Near Broad and Wolf

 

Circumstances brought me to South Philadelphia this week.

 

For those unfamiliar with this legendary locale, it is a crowded little sub-town of look-alike row homes. South Philly probably is best known as the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak and as the home of 50s teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

Traditionally, it is considered an Italian neighborhood, and although it has had its ups and down, with people moving in and people moving out, it remains intact. Its vibrancy is illustrated by the thriving Italian market that has been in existence since the early 1900s. In the movies, Rocky runs through it as part of his training.

 

The area is broken up into many neighborhoods. I was at Wolf and Broad streets, a humble section without landmarks. One day at around 1:30, I decided to find a restaurant for lunch. I knew the big name South Philly restaurants were elsewhere, but whatever place I chose had to meet at least baseline standards in order to exist here.

The_South_9th_Street_Italian_Market_Festival

The Italian Market

 

I came upon a small corner joint named Johnnie’s at 12th and Wolf. My plan was to takeout, a good idea since the place was empty save for a waitress sitting at a table. Didn’t matter. Johnnie’s was clean and decorated with wine bottles, plastic flowers and garland. There were several religious icons, including a statue of the Sacred Heart, which is Jesus exposing his bulging heart through an open robe.

 

I ordered some pasta and sandwiches, including a Cheesesteak with sauce and onions.

 

“Sauce?” the waitress said with a puzzled face.

 

“Yes, sauce and onions.”

 

“You mean red gravy?” she asked.

 

“Yes, red gravy,” I said, remembering where I was.

 

After she put in my order we chatted. Having walked down Wolf Street, I noticed a good number of the 3-story homes had been gentrified, with beautiful wooden doors and fancy nameplates displaying address numbers. I hadn’t been in one of these homes for decades, but I recollect at least two common interior features. First, all couches and chairs were protected with clear plastic slipcovers. Second, one interior wall – the whole thing — was faced with mirrors to give the narrow homes a feeling of depth. The mirrors may still be there. I’m guessing the plastic slip covers are gone.

1959_Fabian_Forte

Singer Fabian Forte, from South Philly

“How’s the neighborhood doing?” I asked the waitress.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Broad Street (three blocks away). But I’d say it’s doing OK. Things have picked up. For a while, I was thinking about moving. Not now. It’s pretty good.”

 

South Philly has been targeted by an army of millennials looking for a small town feel in the big city. They have made South Philly one of the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods for rentals.

 

“What do these homes sell for?” I asked. “A good one, not a great one.”

 

She thought about it. “Maybe the low 300s. That’s what they go for on my street. Maybe the high or mid-200s.”

 

“It’s nice when a neighborhood comes back,” I said, thinking about the Chambersburg section of Trenton, which has not come back.

 

Trenton, New Jersey, was where my father was born. Our family lived there for a few years. I think we moved out when I was seven. We didn’t live in Chambersburg, but as children we’d hear talk about this very ethnic Italian neighborhood. Occasionally we’d eat at a restaurant there, but mostly we bought bread and pastries from its bakeries.

 

As an adult, while living in suburban Philadelphia, I joined my father’s Trenton-based lodge, The Roman Society. In its day it was a remarkably successful organization, and I’ve written about it here. Without repeating too much, I’ll just say the lodge owned a beautiful restaurant and banquet facility called the Roman Hall. It outlived its usefulness after the unmistakable truth became known: Chambersburg was no longer and never again would be Italian. Also, walking the streets was getting dangerous.

 

No surprise. The restaurant went under.

 

An entrepreneur wanted to turn the place into an Hispanic-style nightclub. He asked that the lodge to hold the mortgage, which it did, and our signs were taken down. For me, this was like Rome falling all over again.

 

But back to the better-fated South Philly.

 

Not far from Johnnies, a young man I know (non-Italian) lives happily with his new wife in a South Philly row home. The couple, both of whom work in Center City, got married at an old but stately South Philly high school that had been converted in a bar/banquet hall. It’s a large, slightly Greek-style building on a small, cramped side street. Hardly any parking. I’m told the wedding attendees stayed at a riverfront hotel and Ubered over.

 

South Philadelphia is an indication that things can change for the better. The defining question is how much better and for how much longer. Either way, I hope Johnnies’ dinner trade is better than its lunch trade. It’s not Dante and Luigi’s or Ralph’s or Marra’s, but it’s a nice place for quick, simple food. If you, like I, are near 12th and Wolf due to circumstances, I can recommend it. Be sure to remember it’s “red gravy,” not sauce.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A kind of Jewish internet flourished in 900 AD

13 Mar
Ancient Babylon

Babylonia

For this reason or that, I’ve adopted the belief that many human habits date back hundreds of thousands of years, to homo erectus, the Neanderthals, and Gods knows how many other hominid creatures.

 

I won’t go much into this now, but one much-more modern bit of evidence – for me at least – is the preserved Italian city of Pompeii, which remains exactly as it was in 79 AD. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fallen ash froze it in time. When I toured it several years ago, my lasting impression was: These people lived just like we do today!

 

Now something new to me – but historically old – has added to the idea that we haven’t changed much, even if our technology has. This small piece of information comes from a book called, “A History of the Jewish People,” written in 1934 by Max Margolis and Alexander Marx. It was paid for by the estate of one Rosetta M. Ulman, who during her life wanted such a publication written.

book-history-of-the-jewish-people

In chapters covering the years from 175 AD to 1038, there is a great deal of discussion about two highly respected schools of learning that guided Jewish communities dispersed throughout the known world. The schools, Sura and  Pumbeditha, were in Babylonia (modern Iraq). The two heads of these school was held in the highest regard by Jewish residents of Babylonia, Palestine, Egypt and many other locations. Every word from the leaders on religion, scripture, philosophy and life were sought out and followed.

Map-sura-pumbadita

Even the Arabs paid attention and gave their respect.

 

As I read, I wondered how word got from the schools to the communities. No doubt by heralds, messengers, traders and travelers. Obviously, it must have been a slow stream of news.

 

When Margolis and Marx get into a section on a schism between the two schools, however, it seems as if the news had a much faster way of getting out. The leaders of Sura and Pumbeditha were arguing over nearly everything. One highly sensitive issue was what kind of calendar or calculation should be used to set the Jewish holidays. They differed on this, and the result was that one year Passover was celebrated on two different days.

Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel

Margolis and Marx report that the “confusion” was so great “it was even noticed by non-Jews.”

 

My thoughts were: How did the details of this controversy and the two divergent holidays spread so quickly from Babylonia, through Palestine, to Egypt and North Africa, maybe to even to Spain, Greece, Turkey and Persia?

 

Was there a Jewish internet?

 

Information then and now was powerful and important and clever humans, with or without technology, knew how to spread it. What may be lost, however, is exactly how they did it, at what cost and to what extent. Margolis and Marx don’t get into that, but I’d sure like to know.

Sura-Iraq

The ancient school at Sura

Either way, the results were a lot like the results now.

 

We’ve always been the same and probably always will be. If we ever clone a Neanderthal, he may fit in much better than we’d expect.

Neanderthal

Depiction of a Neanderthal

But I would have known that. The bakeries, butcher shops, whorehouses, living room art, sidewalks and curbs and everything else in Pompeii seem to suggest the truth. And now, as more evidence, we have the ancient Jewish internet.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Thoughts about the “First People”

19 Aug
First People-hurdlers

This blog has been inactive for quite some time. I’m going to try and bring it back.

 

Here goes:

 

With high sensitivity all around us, I worry about something I hope to do soon – or rather say.

 

I plan to use the term “First People” in conversation. As far as I know, almost no one makes reference to the “First People.” They generally don’t get acknowledged as such, and in the rare case they do, there is almost no acclaim, credit, respect, distinction or awe given to them for being first.

 

The “First People,” of course, are those of African descent.  Human beings, according to a widely held theory, originated in African, migrated out and gradually but surely populated the entire globe. They are said to have gone east first, through what is now the Middle East, then into Asia, then they turned back west and went into Europe, displacing and eliminating the Neanderthals, who were human-like but were not homo sapiens.

 

This is the Out of Africa theory, and the average person doesn’t hear much of it or talk much about it. Worse, perhaps, I’ve never heard an African-American boast about it.

 

I got the idea for using the term “First People” from watching the TV show “Game of Thrones.” In that show the original inhabitants of the north are called the “First Men.” They are spoken of with great reverence. While the ancestors of the First Men seem to be gone from the “Game of Thrones,” the ancestors of our First People remain with us, but they are un-honored.

 

I thought about them during the Olympics, where they dominated over later-coming peoples in nearly all the running events. Could having the blood of the “First People” provide some advantage over other races, or do they just try harder? If it’s the latter, why is that? Is it a holdover quality from the “First People,” who had to try damn hard to do what they ended up doing?

 

In America, with race being such an inflammatory issue and with the ancestors of the “First People” historically being treated as if they were not even people, it would seem impossible for the majority to outwardly recognize a superior strain of any kind in them. That’s sad.

 

Would the majority even be willing to call them the “First People?” Probably not. But I hope the “First People” somehow start calling themselves that. It’s a distinction much worthy of note.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

What do these two photos have in common? My closet!

27 Jun

Lysistrata-LannyVietnam execution

On a Sunday when the grass had been cut and there were no great demands on my time, I organized the treasures and junk in my archive closet. There were depths to plunge, but I mostly skimmed. Still, the experience was like reliving an almost forgotten life.

There I was, in costume, in an old college photo. It was taken back stage after a performance of the bawdy Greek comedy “Lysistrata.” The play by Aristophanes is set during the Peloponnesian war. It has the women of all the city-states withholding sex from all the men until they make peace. In the photo I wore a tunic. My skin was bronzed with theatrical makeup called Texas Mud.

I had only a small part but on the last night of the run I got the biggest laugh of my life. Without meaning to or even knowing it, I had successfully improvised. And it worked.

In the scene, a group of horny Greek solders (me included) were on the ground as teasing women danced around them. As per our director’s order, we were to cover the lower portions of our body with our shields. In the center of those shields, facing outward, were tubular objects that resembled what was under the shield and under the tunic.

When one of the actresses danced over me, my recumbent body began to vibrate feverishly. I wasn’t aware of what was going on but when the auditorium erupted in laughter I knew I had done something very convincing and very funny.

Later, someone in the audience said it looked as if I had experienced an orgasm.

On this high note, I ended my show business career and never played again.

Back in the archive closet, in one of many boxes, was an orange folder containing yellow pages of text that had come from a dot matrix printer. It was a novel I started years ago and recently took up again (after devising what I hope is a slightly better plot.)

I began reading and realized the opening of the old version was much better than the opening of the new version. How disappointing! I thought time had made me better. I won’t share the new opening but just for fun here is the old:

“The hall was dirty, as was her dress. And it was dim, like her future.”

The problem is that after that, there wasn’t much worth reading.

So I went to another box.

My attention went to a curling letter from the Detroit News dated Nov. 10, 1989. It appeared to be an answer to an inquiry I had made about a women named Jeanne, a journalist from Detroit whom I met when we both worked in China. That was during the mid-80s, and Jeanne had returned later during the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time of the letter, she was sort of missing.

The letter reminded me how exciting things could be in my former profession, and how we never quite recognized danger. Danger was for the people we covered, not for us.

The letter said:

“Pat talked to Jeanne and her husband (a Chinese national) the other day. The good news is that neither of them has been arrested, although Jeanne was in some trouble for the stories she filed for the Free Press and her husband, as I told you, was in trouble for helping ABC’s news crew. The bad news is that officials won’t let them leave China. Her husband, who got a master’s at Harvard, has been accepted into a doctoral program there with a full scholarship. Someone said officials won’t make a decision because they fear that whatever they do will be perceived to be the wrong thing by the higher ups.”

Jeanne was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. She was, and I’m sure still is, a great storyteller. Her life, on its own, was a great story. It even started out interesting.

Her father was a diplomat and she was raised in Vietnam during the early stages of the war. Her family was especially good friends with Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of South Vietnam. Jeanne’s family often had him over for dinner.

Naturally, she was shocked and horrified when Deim, on the order of President Kennedy, was assassinated. Can you image how a little girl, unschooled in politics, might feel knowing the leader of her own country had killed a family friend?

The date was Nov. 2, 1963.

Three weeks later, when JFK himself was assassinated, young Jeanne felt justice had been served and a fair punishment issued.

That’s one of her best stories. But it doesn’t top her account of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. She was on the front lines with the protesting students when soldiers started firing. The only thing that protected her from the bullets were the dead bodies that had fallen on top of her.

When I finally got in touch with her and she told me this, I should have felt sympathy, sorrow and concern. Instead, I was jealous. Jeanne, damn her, would have yet another good story to tell.

How great to be part of history. I’m thankful that at least a small part of it is in my closet.

There is even more history in that closet. When I took an editor’s job at the Florida Times Union in 1986, I opened the draw of my desk and found an assortment of Associated Press Photos – actual photos, not newspaper clips – from a number of world events.

Columbia take over

And there they were now in my closet:

  • A captured member of the Viet Cong being executed with a bullet to the head.
  • Heavily armed black students proudly leaving the president’s office at Columbia University.
  • Reporters standing around watching men on the ground being run through with bayonets. (This might have been Indonesia)
  • President Kennedy walking idyllically at Camp David with former President Eisenhower.

. . . and more

Bayonet killingsAll of it in my closet.

There were some newer things in there as well, like the canvas bag filled with personal files dating to 2008.

They were from my last newspaper job as an executive editor, which I lost during the Great Recession when that paper combined with two others. I had left the files behind but a colleague brought them to me.

For almost seven years, there was no need or inclination to look inside the bag.

Now, I dumped out the contents to inspect them. Nothing too interesting. A few memories. Certificates of completion from a score of ridiculous management seminars. A letter from a reader who complained, “There is no excuse for bad English in a newspaper,” citing an article with the headline, “Imagine there’s no secrets.” It was about John Lennon and his battle with the FBI. The writer noted that it should have been “there are” no secrets.

Shuffling through the files, I noticed an unopened greeting card in a bright yellow envelope. I opened it. It was from the colleague who had brought me the files. There was a cute card with Snoopy on it wishing me good luck and happiness. There also was a letter. Seeing it, and being touched by it without having even read it, I felt great regret at never having acknowledged it. Once I read it, I felt that perhaps my years as an editor may have been worth something.

A person who leads never really knows if he’s a bastard, a prick, a woefully unfair tyrant, an anti-visionary who lacks talent and relevance. One can only hope he or she is respected and followed and right for the time. People can let you believe the latter even when it is not true.

Without going into detail, I will say that from the single perspective of the letter writer, I received confirmation that I had performed my job properly.

I will continue to keep and treasure this letter.

But there was something else about this letter that woke me to a situation I may have naively overlooked: discrimination against women in journalism.

Nothing in the letter directly spoke to this. It was the tone and sincerity of the “thanks” that suggested it.

While in newspapers, I always focused on the job of producing good stories. And it was always my belief that men and women were equally capable of doing this. In some cases, a woman would be better than a man. In others, a man might be better than a woman. The essence of it was that good was good and it could come from anywhere. The only thing I looked for was good.

The letter writer, a woman, had moved up through the ranks during my tenure. She began as a temp reporter and ended up being metro editor. There was one point where our managing editor – a woman – retired and I made this person acting managing editor while I searched for a replacement.

I had forgotten this; had forgotten why I did it. But in the letter it was explained back to me:

“Thank you for giving me a chance to be an acting managing editor. I wasn’t ready to be managing editor, but I put my name forth anyway. What a classy, clever suggestion that I be acting managing editor to help bridge the gap. Thank you for the experience.”

In the letter, she thanked me for every promotion.

“No Dale Carnegie course could have ever shown me better how important it is for managers to set a tone of inclusiveness and optimism,” she wrote.

It dawned on me then that the more natural course could have been a slower ascent (or no ascent) because she is a woman. It had never crossed my mind before, but knowing it now carries value.

In just a short time, I learned a lot from that overstuffed closet, with all it frozen chunks of life. I’ll have to go back again later and learn more.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The Black Death, a killer of 20 million, had its good points

7 Feb

black-death

Being the progeny of immigrants, I’m sympathetic to their cause. Still, I’m convinced large-scale, legal immigration has hastened the withering of the middle class.

There have been other causes, including changes in tax policy and the global economy. But I was surprised to learn recently how significant an impact immigration had on the downward spiral of wages.

With thousands and thousands of Baby Boomers leaving the work force for retirement, wages should be going up. That’s the simple law of supply and demand. Immigration, however, has provided a counter balance and prevented this. Indeed, opening the borders sometimes seems like a purposeful antidote designed to help labor-intensive corporations. This is mostly likely why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a strong advocate of robust immigration.

Congress, perhaps responding to appeals by business, has frequently and consistently raised the level of legal immigration. In 1965 it was at 290,000 annually. Today it is about 1.1 million. This is legal immigration, and it is four times higher than any other country.

how-many-is-too-manyPhilip Cafaro, author of “How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the United States,” gives a thorough accounting of all this in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cafaro sites studies by Harvard University economist George J. Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impact of immigration. Borjas found that in the 70s and 80s, a 10 percent increase in the number of workers in a given field decreased wages there by 3.5 percent. A more recent study showed that such an increase reduced wages of African-Americans by 4 percent, lowered their employment rate by 3.5 percent and increased their incarceration rate by almost one percent.

It’s good at least that today there is a great deal of talk about the withering middle class. Even Republicans now recognize it will be a critical issue in the 2016 presidential race. In an attempt to get in front of the issue, candidates like Jeb Bush are already saying they want to reverse the trend, although they provide few details.

If politics were not a factor, a solution could be easily found.

The strong post-war middle class in the U.S. was created primarily by tax policy. This policy was heavily graduated, meaning you paid a lot more if you made more a lot more. That policy no longer exists. Returning to it would easily restore the middle class, but it is unlikely the Republican Congress will choose this route.

Jeb-bushThere is, however, a consensus that a middle class, if one is desired, must be created, otherwise there will only be rich and poor. One was created in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Unfortunately, the creative force was the Black Death — the bubonic plague that may have killed one out of every three Europeans (about 20 million). With the labor force devastated, there was upward pressure on wages and the ability of farmers to earn a much better living. Some reports say farm income increased by 50 percent.

In addition to creating the middle class, the plague often is credited with spawning the cultural rebirth known as the Renaissance.

The Black Death is a high price to pay for a middle class, even if it is accompanied by a renaissance. Changes in the tax and immigration policies might be a better way. But because government move in micro increments, this is unlikely. Any significant change probably will have to come through some unseen, forced hand.

If this is true, let’s hope it’s a kind one.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I am an Etruscan!

14 Dec

Etruscans_couch

In the year 800 BC, you could earn a king’s fortune by making something good, perhaps with new materials or a new technique, putting it on a ship, sailing it around the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, and either trading it or selling it.

Most of us don’t think of inter-cultural commerce when we think of 800 BC. It’s more likely we think of benighted barbarians. Of course, we’d be wrong.

In the 4.5 billion year history of the world, 800 BC is like yesterday. Much of what was done then is still being done today. (Look at the button on your shirt. It’s 5,000 years old.) What is sad is that we don’t know as much about that time as we should.

Etruscan_Map01_fullThere was an early civilization back then that excelled at trading, culture, technology and wealth accumulation. Comparatively little is know of them. They were the Etruscans, and I’m one of them.

If your ancestors are from the Tuscany region of Italy, where the Etruscans lived, you might call yourself Italian. But I’m finding that more and more people in this category are starting to classify themselves as Etruscans – the civilization that pre-dated Rome and for a time coexisted with Rome; the civilization from which Rome borrowed and then moved ahead, absorbing and eliminating its once great rival.

Much of what we do know of the Etruscans comes from the ancient writings of Greeks and Romans, who had nothing good to say about them — a sure sign of envy and jealousy. The Greeks and Romans criticized the extravagant Etruscan lifestyle, the culture’s public display of affection between men and women, and a then unprecedented equality between the two sexes.

That’s quite a culture.

At a recent party I spoke to an Etruscan friend of mine, Franca. She was born in Florence, in the Tuscany region. In a heavy Italian accent, she started talking about her ancestors and how everything that made Rome great was taken or learned from the Etruscans.

She scoffed at the Roman warriors who battled in chariots.

“Chariots were designed by the Etruscans for women,” she said.

Franca is a rare human being who by chance became my friend. She’s a marvelous storyteller. She knew Pavarotti before he became famous. He used to cook for her in his tiny New York apartment. But that’s another story.

Etruscan sculptureWhile I had been aware that Franca was a fan of the ancients – she has a ring made from a coin that predates Christ — I didn’t know until this party that her son, a college president in Switzerland, spends every summer digging at an Etruscan excavation site. He is an expert on these people. I’m unsure if he taught Franca or if Franca taught him.

The discoveries at Etruscan sites come mainly from the findings within elaborate burial tombs of the rich. The Etruscan elite had the habit of building tombs that were detailed copies of their aboveground homes. The tombs were filled with domestic items of all kinds as well as great art objects and jewelry.

This provides a window into the culture, but it is heavily curtained.

The problem with unlocking all the mysteries of the Etruscans is that their writing did not survive. They had their own language and their own script, but they wrote on linen, which was easily ravaged by time. Some Etruscan writing had been found on metal and stone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Then came the mummy.

There often are quirks, mistakes and random or unusual acts that end up having a profound effect on history. This mummy is one of them.

I learned of it not from Franca but from a Time-Life book called, “Etruscans: Italy’s Lovers of Life.” The story, with many twists, begins in the late 1840s when a Croatian noble named Mihael de Barc visited Alexandria, Egypt. It was there that he bought himself a genuine mummy.

de Barc took his treasure to a home he had in Vienna, and put it on display. For some unknown reason, he found it necessary to slowly, over time, unwrap the mummy. By his death in 1859, he had completely unwrapped it.

Stay with me, please. I’m getting to the Etruscan part.

An executor put the exposed corpse and the bandages – which contained indecipherable writing — in separate cases and shipped them to the National Museum in Zagreb. In 1891, someone figured out that the unraveled linen actually was an Etruscan book.

The only way to explain this is to assume that an exiled Etruscan had once settled in Egypt and a mummy-maker grabbed one of his books to use on a client.

As mummification preserved the body, it also preserved the linen.

This chain of events, so far-fetched it could never pass for fiction, has given the world the only surviving Etruscan book. And still we don’t know enough.

Whenever I read more about these ancient yet modern people, my fasciation grows. The Etruscans called themselves by a name not used by others. To them, they were the Rasna or Rasemma. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi (from which we get the Tyrrhenian Sea). It was the Romans who called them Etrusci or Tusci (from which we get Tuscany).

They were great engineers, known for their roads and ambitious irrigation projects. Skeletal remains show they were exceptional dentists. (The design of the bridgework found in the mouths of tomb cadavers is still used today.) Their great wealth was the result of their talent at metalworking and the fact that they controlled vast deposits of copper, iron ore and tin, the largest in that area of the world. This was the stuff that went on their ships and gave them the foundation for one of the Western world’s greatest early civilization.

If only they had written on something more substantial than linen.

Anyway, I’m optimistic more information will be forthcoming. Franca’s son is sure to keep digging, so I may know more by the next party. But I doubt they will ever find another mummy that’s a book.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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