Updated: Dec 11, 2020
“You like exotic women, don’t you?”
It was Cousin Rocco thrusting with the rapier, seeking out a vital organ, preferably the heart. Tanya, his bare naked, flame-haired Russian squeeze toy perched trophy-like on his knee as if to punctuate what to me seemed glaringly obvious. At first, I didn’t take the bait. But then I did.
I loved Rocco. He was a black sheep among a family characterized by its black sheep. Rocco's parents and grandparents didn’t flee Sicily for the USA along with my parents and grandparents, and they never stopped repenting their decision to stay. But in so many other ways, Rocco was more ‘Americano’ than I could ever be.
My cousin was only a few weeks old when his father perished in a workplace accident – no safety harness or hardhats in those days – and his widowed mother inexplicably failed to bond with their second child. Instead, she fixated on his older brother, pampering and spoiling the heir while neglecting the spare, and farmed the newborn out to his paternal grandmother - my great aunt - to raise. That was in the 1940’s and the sibling rivalry persisted from cradle to grave. Everything Rocco ever did could be attributed to an obsession with winning his mother's affection.
Rocco was nine when his grandmother too passed away. By that time, his mama and older brother along with most of the aunts, uncles and cousins had migrated to Germany to toil in the factories of Volkswagen and Krupp and Mercedes Benz, or to the USA. 1955 was a bad year for the little boy who found himself prisoner of an orphanage run by Catholic friars. He was persistently beaten and sexually molested. At 13, he escaped his tormenters to live as a beggar in the streets of Palermo and later Catania, just another street kid among thousands of abandoned children in post-war Sicily.
But the Americanos had earlier done the country a huge favour: after the 1943 landings, they reinstated the Mafia like never before. Rocco was soon running errands, dealing drugs, collecting the ‘bustarella,’ that weekly envelope filled with cash that all Catania shopkeepers are encouraged to provide to their ‘protectors,’ and pimping girls even younger than himself. He was eating now and grew into a robust and self-confident young tough.
When 1968 rolled around and the Beatles migrated to India to pursue Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the enterprising Rocco decided that India was where he belonged. He hitched-hiked overland through Afghanistan, arriving in Mumbai and Delhi at the same moment that thousands of British and American hippies began flooding into the country. He learned to speak English in India. He dealt hallucinogens to itinerant expats. He partied with the Beatles and lived like a South Asian prince. He mellowed.
When Rocco returned to Italy in the early ‘80’s, once again he’d arrived in the right place at the right time. The Beatles had split up and heroin-addicted John Lennon died of gunshot wounds. Nonetheless, our cousin’s career as a legitimate businessman and behind-the-scenes facilitator for political wannabes was taking off. Rocco once again reinvented himself. Still, Lennon’s assassination made him feel bad. He never stopped talking about it.
With his seed money and old Mafia connections, he invested in real estate and high-end boutiques in Torino and Milano and contracted to fashion accessory and shoe factories in Tuscany, such as Gucci and Ferragamo, for goods to sell. He became rich. In the ‘80’s and 90’s, he backed Silvio Berlusconi who seduced the Italian voter and achieved on the Italian peninsula what Donald J. Trump failed to achieve in the USA: a virtual dictatorship of the rich wherein private enterprise became an extension of the state apparatus. Berlusconi’s so-called Bunga Bunga parties made Jeffrey Epstein’s get-togethers look like children’s birthday gatherings. Rocco went from a starving street kid to a wealthy, respectable, neo-Fascist playboy practically overnight.
Whatever you might have wanted, Rocco could arrange it. You see, there's a great misunderstanding about how Italian, and especially Sicilian, society works; both are driven by a concept called 'Clientelismo'. Clientelismo is not a uniquely Italian phenomenon, but like everything else they do, Italians have refined it to the level of fine art. Clientelismo means that if you want something that's basically unattainable - say, university entrance for your imbecile son - then it can be arranged via any number of connections, but the only way to guarantee that said imbecile graduates to a career in medicine is to purchase a guarantee. Only a Mafioso can provide such a guarantee. The 'client' then enters into a never-ending web of obligations.
Whatever one might think about my cousin, they would likely be wrong. To the end, he was the friendliest, most ingratiating, most loving person in the world, and a true family man. He was also an accomplished cook. He was generous to a fault. My own children adored him and, when he suddenly passed away this April, they were devastated by the sad news. We all were. Yeah, he was an old fox. But every animal, plant, insect, and even fungi have a critical job to do in the world.
You need to know this backstory to understand where Rocco’s question was coming from.
“You like exotic women, don’t you?” he’d asked.
I recalled a business trip to Lagos, Nigeria in the early ‘90’s. I’d come to sell aircraft propellers and brake assemblies for the country’s six C-130 Hercules that were grounded for lack of spare parts. Only somebody with connections - the American version of Clientelismo - could secure the production slots with McDonnell Douglas, as the USAF had priority and the CIA controlled the commercial distribution market. So, while a coup d’état raged in the military barracks, legislative chambers, and the streets outside, at 3 am I was tossing and turning and struggling with a severe case of jet lag in a plush suite in the Hotel Eko Meridian. The Ministry of Defence building was burning, my purchase orders going up in smoke.
I decided to grab my swim shorts and head down to the pool in the ground floor patio that was surrounded by an artificial jungle of dangling tropical ivy, potted palms, and twinkling strings of tiny Christmas lights, suggesting the story of Hylas and the Water Nymphs. As if stepping into the African version of the myth, a half dozen scantily clad young women emerged from the foliage to slip silently into the water. “What’s your name?” they twittered in their soft fairy-like voices, at the same time stroking my arms and competing for my ankles while I backstroked over the warm surface of the pool. “Will you come play with us?”
There was a time at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. The Hilton isn’t some cheap flophouse among the sprawling morass of slums that envelop Johannesburg. It’s the city’s most prestigious hotel only spitting distance from the airport terminal where I was poised to fly next day to the Democratic Republic of Congo. A soft knock at the door. The most irresistibly attractive creature I’d ever encountered stood calmly in the doorway, the top buttons of her hotel uniform unfastened, proffering a shiny red apple on a silver platter. If ever Eve had tempted Adam, here was Genesis repeating itself. The Bible calls it the fall of man and the infiltration of evil in the world, but personally I don't believe there are any vices below the belt.
In his twilight years, Rocco over-wintered in Thailand. He bragged that he spent less than two Euros per day on food and was eating like a king. Last season, he spent three months in Cambodia. His modus operandi never varied. He would rent a nice chalet in one or another of the many beach resort developments dedicated to European snowbirds and retired expats, hire a bevy of young, compliant servant girls, then settle in to enjoy the bright blue skies, warm clear ocean, tasty food, and exotic women.
Some would have accused Rocco of being a misogynist, that is, a male chauvinist who hates women, objectivizes them, and takes pleasure in dominating and abusing them. I’ve been called that myself; but hey, nobody’s perfect. On the surface at least, Rocco was the prototypical gentleman. He understood – albeit in a kind of raw, primordial way - the seemingly complex but essentially simple dynamic of male-female relations. He believed that the basis of all relations between men and women is transactional. Whether it’s a 50-year marriage with your high school sweetheart or a 5-minute fuck with a cheap hooker in a shabby motel, it will always be an exchange of goods and services. Well, I don’t entirely subscribe to this philosophy, but I do a little bit.
Rocco and his ex-wife (that’s another story) had two daughters. He knew that in spite of the Women’s Movement and @MeToo, the girls would most likely end up dependent on an undependable male once Daddy was dead and buried. It’s like that in Italy. It's like that everywhere. So, as his strength waned and the consequences of the fast life began claiming him, Rocco liquidated most of his investments in order to purchase flats for his daughters to rent for income and also for them to occupy with their children as their liaisons and marriages inevitably fell apart, one after another. He put his children on a pedestal, though being a realist, not a very lofty one.
Rocco knew that when his offspring felt the biological urge to reproduce, they wouldn’t be so astute in selecting a sperminator and that staying in an abusive marriage wasn’t very different from what he’d endured in the orphanage. As usual, he was right. After his oldest daughter had her most recent partner’s name tattooed in large blue font up and down her spine, the guy walked out the door. She was pregnant with her second child.
Rocco understood the 'Pareto Principle.' According to Italian Professor Pareto, 80% of available women in any society will be attracted to only 20% of the male population. You guessed it: the 20% with money. But what about that other 20% of women? Well, there’s a lot to be said for a dude with a pretty face, huge biceps, nice tattoos, and a hard salami. Did you think those qualities always come with money? For the answer, just ask Melania Trump (www.francescorizzuto.com/post/defending-melania).
Most telling of all, Rocco looked after his aged mother right to the end. Only the best care, the most expensive nursing home, daily visits with small treats and gifts. In her Will, she left everything to his older brother. But even in Italy there is sometimes justice. Italy still functions under Roman Law and there are fairly rigid rules governing inheritance. In the end, the liquidation of the old lady's estate left Rocco's daughters each with a little nest egg which, according to form, they will surely squander. But I'm running ahead of myself.
Enough philosophy. Let’s get back to my cousin’s question: “You like exotic women, don’t you?” Men are always challenging one another and deflecting challenges. Some would put it down to toxic masculinity. Whatever it is, it is. It doesn’t unnerve me. Never has.
He wasn’t exactly asking. He was telling me that I had a taste for exotic women, implying – no insisting – that we both had a taste for exotic women. It isn't that there aren’t enough good and wholesome Italian women to go around, or that they aren’t exotic enough; just a matter of perspective, right? Or is it like men and automobiles? While Fiat cranks out affordable puddle-jumpers for the masses, those of more discerning tastes and fatter pocketbooks go for the sportier Japanese and German and even Russian models. Don’t you just love the analogy?
But no, it’s actually not like that. Rocco was right. Every interaction between a man and a woman is transactional...she wants something, he wants something. Thankfully, most women have that principle nailed right down. Separating emotional from financial goals, they hold the Pareto Principle in high esteem, however one might spell ‘gold digger’ in Chinese characters or maybe the Cyrillic alphabet. Romeo & Juliet be damned. Nobody perishes for love in this soap opera.
If you look at the proliferation of internet websites devoted to young and old women displaying their most intimate parts while demonstrating every conceivable sex act known to man or beast, via webcam to a dedicated audience of deprived – and some not-so-deprived – men (and also a lot of women) in exchange for money, it’s hard to argue that male/female relations aren’t transactional. These so-called ‘models’ aren’t experiencing that big Hollywood wedding, not now at least. But I’m sure that more than a handful will emerge to hook a really big fish this way, because we men, both rich and poor, have always made our decisions using the small head between our legs rather than the big head sitting atop our necks. All women instinctively know this, and if they don’t, then someone should tell them.
So, I had a talk with my son Vinnie whose investment in internet dating wasn’t paying the dividends he’d expected. Or any dividends. I reminded him of Uncle Rocco’s philosophy of live well and never look back, and how Rocco defined the basis of every relationship, that is, as transactional.
“I know Dad,” he said. “A buddy looked at my dating profile and freaked. He said it was the exact opposite of what women are looking for. He said I needed to knock three years off my age and add it to my height, then post some photos of myself holding a baby. Also, a snapshot without my shirt taken by somebody at the beach, and another photo in a business suit, smoking a fat stogie and acting like a billionaire. So, that’s what I did. Changed my online profile.”
“And within a couple of hours I had five new emails asking for hook-ups.”
“See..? Uncle Rocco is looking after you from wherever he is now!”
But I’m digressing.
“You like exotic women, don’t you?”
After I answered “yes” to my cousin’s question, he looked knowingly at his enticing companion and sighed, “Good. Because I’m leaving you this one in my Will.”
On February 1, 1685, King Charles II of England, languishing on his death bed after a life of dissipation, famously pleaded with his brother, James II: "Do not let poor Nelly (Nell Gwyn, his favourite concubine) starve."
That was Rocco’s last request too, that I should look after Miss Carrot Top.
See, I don’t especially love exotic women, nor do I seek them out; not generally. To be honest, over the last 60 years, some of the most physically unattractive, I'll dare say repulsive, females have won my heart. To me, every woman seems exotic and I was just trying to please my cousin in his final days and hours by telling him whatever he wanted to hear. He’d had a rough life, lived by his own code, and I thought he deserved my admiration and a measure of hard-earned compassion.
After Rocco’s passing, Tanya moved on to other things. After all, she’s no Tinkerbell gingerly sipping dew drops from a lotus petal. She’s Russian tough, Russian sexy, and under 30. I liked her. She knew the formula. She had the ground rules straight.
And like the wannabe king, Donald J. Trump, famously said about Ghislaine Maxwell: “I wish her well…”