by Buster Burk

And as I headed South, leaving behind Paris and the cave where Jacques, Mohammed, Franck and I sweated the 90-hour-weeks of our lives into la cuisine française, I smiled, wondering of all that was to befall me on vacation in The Eternal City. I hoped to perhaps meet a she-wolf, or at least somehow go beyond the superficial enlightenment of frequenting museums and churches.

After a full day of reading and sighing, watching time slowly rush by out the window, I arrived: Roma-Termini. The city greeted me as all great cities greet the peoples of the world - with indifference, and the air that wherever you are you are interminably in the way. In the station, I noticed a young man standing by labeled parcels who introduced himself as Mario.

"Ahhh, Americano," he said with glee after I asked him about a hotel in town. "Where are you from? New York? Los Angeles?"

Having learned that, in Europe, Americans only live in one of these two cities, I said, "Well, near New York," though I doubt any South Carolinian would, under any other circumstance, claim affiliation with that city.

Over the next three days I drank a lot of coffee, walked a great deal, and read about or listened to a recorded voice tell me about whatever I was usually looking up at - the Colosseo; the Città del Vaticano; la Cappella Sistina and the emotional grandeur of a cat named Buonarotti Michelangelo.

Now living and traveling abroad is in many ways exciting, but it can also make you appreciate the town or towns and country which bore you. Thanksgiving fell over my vacation in Rome, and wanting to appreciate it in whatever way I could, I set aside that night to splurge on good wine and good food. Having met no Americans to share the national feast, I celebrated in silent desperation by myself, eating in some forgettable restaurant. After, I went to a bar called The Nag's Head, inviting because Nag's Head is in North Carolina and therefore closer to home than say, gelateria. Some of the young men inside worked demolition and construction, and over drinking and cajoling we got around to arm wrestling. I had, to my surprise, built up considerable strength in my arms, due to beating oil and eggs by hand into mayonnaise, and I drank a good bit on their nickel. Some muddled time later, though, I left by myself.

I decided to go see Mario, by that point in the night a modern-day Mercutio to me. I didn't find him, and decided to wait for him to show at the bar across from the Termini. Inside, men stood against the counter and drank espresso, Peroni, and liquor. As in most late-night, simple bars wherever you are, the men - Italians and Arabs over from Tunisia, seemed to be unsuccessfully trying to soothe loneliness and frustration born in them long ago, trying to read some cure-all translucent message in the bottle. I fit in perfectly and I stood there, understanding that I had two days left in Rome before I returned to cook and sweat deep into the Parisian ground.

While waiting, I decided to befriend some nighthawk with a shot of bourbon. The Jim Beam bottle, with its stamped-America label, called to me silently behind the bar, as in a choral of Southern, brown-liquor-drinking voices. It seemed home incarnate for me.

"Hey amico . . . come stai? Do you, uhh, want to have a drink on me? That bottle - Jeem Beam?" I was smiling as if we were already on our way to talking about something funny.

"Where you from?" he asked looking at me with an assumed, malicious curiosity. "You Americano? You from America?"

I smiled, as if answering a necessary formality. "Si, I'm here on vacation. I'm Americano, pero cuoco a Parigi."

"You buy drink?"

"Yeah," I said, "si." I went to pay the cashier - you must pay first in Italy, then get what you want, and once the shots were presented, the man and I picked up each picked up our glass. "Salute," said I in an airy gesture.

After holding down the wincing, as all young men feel is necessary to be a man and a drinker, he turned to me and smiled, getting ready to say something I will always remember.

"You know, amico . . . I thinks all Americanos are shit."

I looked at him and a barrage of thoughts flooded . . . measuring us up man to man and country to country, letting the words not warm into me like the liquor but burn into me: Italy; fascism; America and all of our boys; Il Duce and the Blackshirts; Sicily and 1943; Mark Clark and the end of Catch-22 when Yossarian gets real; my great uncle and his Legion of Merit; all that all is. I looked at him: he looked at me. "That's what I thinks," he said.

"You know what I thinks," I said, "if it weren't for Americanos, you'd be speaking German."

The man started gesticulating and screaming in Italian, for all of the bar to hear, and most consequently, for the two cops who appeared at the door. I was screaming too, though no swings were swung. These two cops - the carabinieri - approached us. One, certain offspring of Tarquinius Superbus, was very fat and with a shaved-bald head. The other, with red hair, stood by him, smugly listening to us. Messy Italian spilled from the man who had taken the drink with me, as if he were spitting up spaghetti noodles and throwing them everywhere. While I stood there trying to understand what he was saying, the massive hand of Superbus smacked me across the face. To say that I was stunned is beyond an understatement. As I tried to regain some composure, the red-haired man cuffed my hands behind my back.

And then I started yelling, throwing my own spaghetti petitions, wondering what in the hell was going on. The answer I received came in the form of several other blunt smacks to my face as I was taken out of the bar. The hands of Superbus were the size of good sautéing pans and equally hard. Before I was shoved into the backseat of a little police car, I pleaded one last time that this was all an errore a big misunderstanding. What was understood was Superbus pulling his gun out from his white leather belt. He smacked the butt of the pistol across my face and I fell into the car.

What I remember next was being escorted through some police station to a stark white room with one black chair and one long, white table. Everything in my pockets was emptied and strewn across the table: my wallet, my passport, my Walkman, and my green fountain pen with my name engraved on it, a graduation gift from my mother. With another smack from Superbus and a finger pointing to a solitary chair, I sat down. He picked up my passport in his panny hands - it looked like a book of matches within them - and left the room, closing the door behind him. I sat there and waited, though most miserably, not knowing what for. This waiting . . . for the summons, the unknown, the judgment, their reactions to my actions, was, as I learned, simply one of the elements of losing one's independence under the thumb of the law.

After, I guess, two hours, I stood up, turned my back to the door, and feeling the doorknob with my constricted hands, opened it. Superbus was stuffing up the hall and as he looked at me his nonchalant, having-a-comfortable-smoke gaze turned immediately into a blaze of rage. His hard voice echoed as he beat me back into the room, sat me down and yelled for one of his buddies to meet his new "amico Americano." The friend came and slapped me too - back and forth, several times, as if to reenact a scene of a film, probably done by some damn Americano.

While involuntarily playing the games that Breytenbach knows better than I, the door stayed open and other blue-and-black carabinieri came in to shrug at and thumb me. One, in standard grimace of sour curiosity, stuck his finger in my temple. I was bleeding from the side of my head, perhaps too much for police-brutality comfort, and the man who prodded my temple spoke to the rest of them. To hear them and to not understand what was said was acutely horrifying; my fate resting completely vulnerable, within a foreign, all-powerful tongue, within men frustrated with the world and with the authority to lash out their frustration. My left leg bobbed steadily and rapidly up and down, against my will.

My belongings were put into a manila envelope, I was picked up, and taken through the station, looking at all of the cops and their indifferent, tired eyes as we passed. They all wore stylish, devilishly-black leather jackets, with navy pants and a red stripe running the length of their legs. We then walked through an empty corridor and I looked at the fat rolls on the back of the head and neck of Superbus. His red-haired partner led me by the elbow to a garage of little Italian cop cars. He turned me around to make sure that the handcuffs were particularly tight around my wrists, and I once again got into the back seat. We drove from the contained grayness of the garage into the world of other people, as the night sky was starting to light in chilly-cold November blue, the hue of faint hope.

Wherever we drove, we drove with the police sirens blaring, as if the two carabinieri wanted to awaken the world entire and provoke the shame. We pulled up to the back entrance of a hospital and parked on the curb. I was led through corridors where I looked up, away from the judgmental eyes of people we passed. In some pre-appointed room I was set down and told something in strict order by the red-haired carabinieri. He took off the handcuffs and leaned against the wall, watching me as I watched him in wide-open, scared-like-an-animal-in-front-of-a-car eyes. Two nurses and gave me a quick look-over: blood pressure, temperature, checking my eyes, my head. While the nurses prepared a syringe with a plastic drip bag, the red-haired cop came over to me and spoke to me, shrugging. I felt he might have said, "We beat up on you and we gotta make sure you're O.K. before we release you, capish?"

The nurses took a bag of blood out of me - an involuntary donation - and a male doctor came in, looked at the cut on my head, and talked to the red-haired carabiniere. They seemed to know each other, and laughed about things. I was handcuffed again and taken to another room, un-handcuffed and made to lie down on a bench with my shirt off. I was beyond exhausted, but unable to close my eyes, and I stared at the ceiling.

When I realized that I was being prepared for a CAT scan on my head, I looked at the red-haired man before me, who had been with me from the beginning, and started crying. It was not a dramatic cry, full of motion and fury, but a cry of loss, only tears. The only thing that I could muster, in silence, was, "Goddamn you bastards. You cracked my skull."

With the hum and turn of the CAT scan hyper-light I thought that if one ever felt what a lobotomy was, this was it. Silencing. I guessed from the fact that my head was bandaged and I was made to put on my shirt that no permanent damage had been done. We walked out of the hospital and Superbus was standing by the cop car smoking a cigarette. He turned my head to look at the bandage over my cut, and smiled.

We drove some more, in siren chaos, and I was taken to another police station where I was fingerprinted and photographed. Then we drove off and at a stoplight, the red-haired cop turned around to say to me, "one more station." That station was the Carceri Giudiziarie, Penitenziere di Roma.

I was taken through an enormous door and into a stark office. I signed papers and was taken to a room of stuffed manila envelopes stacked nearly to the ceiling. Before two guards, the money in my wallet was counted out, and everything in the envelope - Walkman, pen, wallet, and passport, was recorded. My belt was taken off and recorded as well. I was ordered to strip, and my clothes and my person was searched, including the cuffs of my pants and the soles of my shoes.

I went back to the first room to sign papers and be fingerprinted again, and some cop kept asking me if I had or had not had sex with Pamela Anderson. Each answer I gave was wrong, and for each response I was slapped. Finishing up, the man at the desk said after one week I could write to the U.S. Embassy in Rome to explain my situation.

The next room was an actual cell, a holding cell, and along the three sides of the walls were long streaks of black in where it looked like thousands of men had tried to rub off the ink from the fingerprinting. I sat there in confined solitude, looking at the streaks of men's hands desperately drawn out against and down the walls, and felt as if everything from that point onward was changed. Perhaps this is the mindset of the "hardened" criminal. I realized I had to very quickly adopt a stance and a look without emotion - no sadness nor joy, and the sense that despite all freedoms having been stripped, I had, internally, control over my destiny. I didn't know if I was to be taken to a cell with other men, the idea more frightening than anything before, if only because of Hollywood images of what men do in prisons. But I knew that whatever happened to me until I was let out, I had to show no sign of sorrow for myself, no sign of weakness. "Was I going to be eaten alive?" I wondered. And then I quit wondering.

After time, I was led out of that part of the complex, down a driveway, in through a metal door, and down a hall. The hall had a very high ceiling, was painted plastery white and in an alcove at a turn in the corridor stood an icon of the Virgin Mary in the cheap-looking, kitschy, Technicolor color of Roman tabernacles. She looked dead and we walked past it.

The next door opened into prison proper, a concrete warehouse for bad men. I was made to stand by the wall on the first floor, by a closed door. After a time, a man came out of the one of the doors on the first floor. He was differently dressed from other carabinieri, with more ornaments of authority upon his chest and epaulets. I assumed him The Warden. He approached, pulled a plastic baton from behind his back, and swung it into my neck. I didn't know if I should look at him, or look straight out at nothing, like a Marine. He barked at me to stand where he was pointing, two paces to the right. I did as ordered, and he quit my face.

A few minutes later, a haggard-looking man in a white coat came out with The Warden and motioned to me to follow him. He sat down behind a desk and asked me questions which I could not answer.

"Americano?", he asked, incredulously.

"Si," I said. He motioned me to come to his desk where, upon reading the form, I could answer his questions of health and drug use. I stripped my clothes and he checked me for lice, particularly noticeable scars, tattoos, and heroin tracks. He asked me if the head wound was done "con la mano o con la pistola."

"Con la pistola," I said.

We finished and I was told to go to another room where three women sat behind a long table: Redux, Isis, and Nemesis. They had my forms and one of them spoke French. I explained my story, and they said that I should not be in prison, that they would try to get me out soon. A guard was called, and he escorted me to the provisions closet where I was given a blanket, a bowl, a box of salt, a razor, a toothbrush, and a tube of toothpaste. I was then pointed to walk up the stairs, up to the fourth floor. I stood by him as he unlocked the door, motioned me to step inside, and closed the door behind me. Prison.

I stood by the door for a long time, taking in my surroundings. There was an empty bed, one of four in one room. I looked in the adjoining room, seeing five occupied beds and a thin hall of a bathroom with a toilet and sink. We were all together nine. While walking about, one man sat up in bed, looked at me, and lay back down with the gray wool blanket over his head. I put my provisions on the empty bed, went to the bathroom, only then realizing that I needed to so badly, and drank water from the faucet.

Cutouts of women were on the walls and under the top bunk beds. They were simple, glossy magazine pictures: Women in dresses, stepping out of cars, walking somewhere, each of them much more free than any of us.

Some time later, two hours perhaps, the cell door was knocked upon. Each man rose, staying in bed as long as he could because of the cold air passing through the open, barred window.

The first to introduce himself was a black man named Paul. He was in the bunk above mine and spoke English. He had been there since "the summertime" when he was stopped at the airport for 30 kilos of cocaine. His home and girlfriend were in Amsterdam. Both excited that we could speak English, he asked me the quintessential prison question: "Whatcha in for?" I said, "being drunk."

He couldn't believe it, but he didn't laugh about it. I was the youngest one of the bunch - 22 at the time - and I asked him who was in with us.

"Oh, nothing bad. Just drug dealers and thiefs," he said, with an emphasis on the "f." Such knowledge was comforting.

I will always remember Paul's face and appearance. There were no uniforms, and he wore a once-dressy purple shirt. His afro was tufty, as if each hair grew at its own, decided pace, and his eyes retained a shiny amazement of things about them, the exact opposite of the dull and dead eyes of the carabinieri. In our room I met, with a simple nod of recognition, a short, well-fed Italian stretching and swinging his arms, a man with a great mustache - Greek perhaps, and another black man.

Paul ushered me into the next room to meet the others: two Arab men, both named Mohammed; another Italian man; and a man who, from the top bunk, swung his blanket off of himself and jumped onto the floor in one big, determined sweep. This man looked like a professional athlete gone bad. Besides his size and taut, morning musculature, tattoos covered his arms, ran up his neck, and spotted his back - the kind of tattoos that mean something beyond fad, symbolizing marginality and street superiority. The Virgin Mary encompassed his entire chest, her hands raised, and upon him she seemed alive. Paul introduced me to this tattooed Hercules. He shook my hand, smiled and pointed questioningly to the bandage on my head.

"La policia," I said. "Con la pistola."

I was looking at him while the other men looked at us and he said, as a brother would say to a fellow brother, "bastardi."

And I knew exactly what that meant.

For the rest of the day, I sat on my bunk and only occasionally talked to the others, who seemed as tired as I. Late into evening, a guard came around and yelled at the door. The men threw back their blankets, came over to me, Paul telling me from all of them that the guard was calling my name to set me free. I couldn't leave without my provisions, and everything was gathered for me by my cellmates and placed as it had been handed to me, though some of them asked to keep my toothbrush, toothpaste and razor. We all shook hands, they happily told me things I couldn't understand, and Paul gave me a note right before I left them.

Back where I started, I signed more papers, signed for my manila bag and was shown the contents again, noticing that my green fountain pen was not there. I was then led to the big iron door through which I walked that morning. It opened slightly, perhaps two feet, and I was pushed outside.

I found my bearings by running into the Tevere River by the Ponte Mazzini. I bought a Coa-Cola at a place called Snack Bar Paradis and walked to the hotel, as if learning how to walk again.

After time passed, I read the note that Paul had given me. He wanted me to call his girlfriend in Amsterdam for him, and I did, to tell her that Paul was OK, that he loved her, and that it was, as he wrote, "frizzing in Roma." I returned to Paris, to the kitchen under the ground, where my black eyes blackened and then faded. And every Thanksgiving, I raise a glass to Roma.


Buster Burk

I was born in the liberal college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Of the six years that I lived there, I only remember my sister being born and OD'ing on chocolate with my friend Wesley when we were both vampires for Halloween. From Chapel Hill my family and I (my father, mother, sister, and the dogs - one collie and three bassets named Hombre, Ray, Clifford and Angel) moved to Powdersville, South Carolina for a taste of the rural life. After a stay long enough to tire of the half-hour drive to the grocery store, we moved to the east side of Greenville, South Carolina.

I went through the public school system and the aptly named Eastside High about the time that Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre hit it nation-wide rapping about "the East Side" and all the way from the Wild Wild West. Ergo, we were cool, tough. Back when Charleston and Myrtle Beach were notorious as sin cities in the South, Greenville and its environs were referred to as "the Dark Corner" of the state, more for its conservatism de vigeur concerning the Blue Laws than for its shady mountains. My mother being from Asheville, N.C. and my father from Charleston, S.C., I lived between them both, and frequently visited each town to see my grandparents. We are Southern from way back and in my opinion that's a doggone good thing.

I was somehow accepted at the only school to which I applied. Davidson College (school motto - we haven't heard of your school either) is in the pedagological hamlet of Davidson, N.C. I have a respectful love and hate relationship with that little community, maybe due to my own insecurities while I was in school and the fact that I saw four a.m. much more than four p.m. I was involved in Student Government at Davidson, winning Sophomore class president by dancing in front of the cafeteria for a couple of hours to "Bust a Move," asking the constituents to "Bust a Vote." I was elected as Student Body President for my Senior year, and for the inaugeration of College President Bobby Vagt, I decided to proclaim myself the poet laureate for the ceremony. For all I know, I may be the only self-procalimed poet laureate in Davidson.

Outside the life of a student, I usually worked with my hands in the summers, as many do to try to balance in mind and body a sense of manhood between holding a book and holding a shovel, pan, or lasso. I remember best falling in love, working as third shift short-order cook at the Waffle House, a Southern institution of fine, greasy food and late-night existence, and working as a ranch hand in southeastern Kansas in the town of Belvidere, population 11.

Little pockets of pride surfaced after pulling a double cooking in boots, rolling my first and last hot tuna roll at Irashiai sushi, learning to throw a hatchet well enough to split a cow skull mounted on a tree, and driving non-stop across America.

After graduation from Davidson, I returned to the Hasknife Ranch in Kansas to work the spring cattle and lose both big toe toenails wrestling hoofed partners. Having majored in French in college, and wanting to really speak it without being intimidated (although French waiters never intimidate foreign-tongued French speakers) I moved to Paris. I found a good job cooking and working in a kitchen in the second arrondisement. I made few friends but good friends, and left them at Christmas in 1998. Before I got the hell back home though, I did spend a short vacation in Roma, which is recounted here.

I stayed in the United States for a year, and most of it away from The Dark Corner. Cities like Charleston, Savannah, Memphis, and New Orleans, have for better and worse, retained the old-world charm of yesterday's South, and I wanted to live in one of them. I got my first "serious" job writing for a PR firm for the H.L. Hunley submarine conservation project, and then taught French to 4th through 8th graders at the same grammar school that my father had attended.

I am now back in Paris and realizing the dream of studying lettres modernes for a Master's degree from the Universite de Paris IV, La Sorbonne. Simply being admitted into the French institution is another little pocket of pride for me. I host poetry nights in 'la ville lumiere' for anyone who isn't pretentious and simply wants to express themself in the company of others, sharing the tragic beauty of learning how to be alive.

I have the desire to give a lot more stories to the universal you, and to tell you about true characters that I have met. I recall Superbus and Paul; the bi-sexual, tarot card, ghost-conjuring man I lived with in Paris; the cowboys I worked with in Kansas, one of whom had a permanently-mounted riding saddle on his Harley; a dromedary-riding nomad in Tunisia who had never met an American; the girl to whom I met and ensuingly said, "In one hour, I want to be naked and reading The Catcher in the Rye to you in bed"; the boys I met and hung with on 125th Street in the middle of the night after I quit making copies for a publishing house; my secret and silent meetings with Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire and James Baldwin when I'm red-eye driving across America, asking them "what's up?"; the people I've never met but only seen wrapped within their own stories of bliss and despair; the convoluted, problematic, and sweaty-soothing character of the South; the comfort and confusion in friends and family and lovers and being at home and being far from home.

This is all it is. And so, here I am.


Published Kilometer Zero Magazine, Volume 00, December 2000