Inutile asking me why this column is called that, or what a buffalo harp might be. I honestly do not know, except that it is the name of an old ironmonger’s near my house. One still happens here and there, in the less progressive European towns, upon those ancient shop signs, faded black or gold lettering against a background of dark green lacquer. Once upon a time, murmurs the sign to the passerby, a true craftsman sold his wares here.
“I want to die the day you die,” I said to the local cobbler in Via Paternostro who had repaired some shoes and an alligator belt from my gigolo days. He is 65, and has been plying his trade since he could walk. For three decades, beginning in the 1950’s, he made ladies’ handbags in aristocratic python, bourgeois crocodile, and parvenu ostrich, and if you’ve ever made a lady’s handbag, even if it be of plebeian calfskin, believe me, a pair of man’s shoes or a belt is a doddle.
“They put me to work when I was four,” he says, pointing to my wife. Not because he thinks this to be her age, but because he has seen a poster at the Teatro Politeama and realizes she is a concert pianist. “I bet nobody thought it reprehensible that Signora was breaking her back learning the scales when her feet could not reach the pedals. Did anybody say it was ruthless exploitation, child labor, illicit gains? They would say that now of a child learning a craft. And that’s what I wanted to do. I had no head for school. Back in those days it was as normal as learning to play the piano.”
All this is no more. “There’s a man in Naples who knows his business as well as I do,” says the cobbler in Via Paternostro. “He is 92. But there isn’t anybody north of Rome who can build a fine handbag to order, bespoke, from the ground up.” Of course, I tell him. It’s quite simple, really. If one goes to school, what is taught there leads one to want to become a manager or a banker, and by then, at any rate, it’s simply too late to change one’s mind and grow up to be a pianist or a cobbler instead. And since everybody goes to school, managers or bankers are almost as numerous, and almost as unaware of their miserable condition in the eyes of future historians, as slaves were in the ancient world.
“Shall I tell you why I said that I don’t want to outlive you, my friend? I would, but Byron said it best two hundred years ago. I used to live in his house on the Grand Canal. No, really I did.”
Oh Venice! Venice! When thy marble walls
Are level with the waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!
If I, a northern wanderer, weep for thee,
What should thy sons do?
At the start of every month Iro the barber used to travel from Rome to the island of Giudecca at the bidding, and the expense, of a Venetian friend, and eventually I had caught on and insinuated myself into this arrangement. Now in his 80’s, Iro is the last barber—as opposed to hairdresser—in Italy, possibly in Europe. The defining characteristic of barbering, as opposed to hairdressing, of course, is that a barber cuts a man’s hair dry, while a hairdresser wets it first, with the result that if you’ve paid $20 your hair looks like a deserting soldier’s and, if it’s $200, like an ugly woman’s.
Barbers can still shave, of course—I remember hearing of balloon shaving competitions in Naples—but that’s beside the point. One’s own razor may be a plausible substitute for a proper shave, at least to the extent a self-service restaurant is a substitute for a maid, a cook, and a butler, but there is no appliance I know of, electrically powered or otherwise, that can do you anything in the way of a haircut. Luxuries, a mere generation ago, were there for the poor. Nowadays the pauper’s only consolation is that the man in the big house shan’t have them either.
Today an Hermès handbag, of the kind the cobbler in Via Paternostro used to make from crocodile or ostrich skins—complete with handtooled locking mechanisms and intricately worked brassware—for the wives of pharmacists and engineers, costs as much as a pharmacist or an engineer earns in a month. In other words, nowadays only the wives of thieves or embezzlers can afford one. But at least it exists. At least it is more immanent than a speck in a grainy image of Princess Kelly on the cover of some long defunct magazine.
And what of the next generation? What of my son’s haircuts, his shaves, his shoes and belts? What will he know of such luxuries? What will the buffalo harp, if ever he should chance upon one, sing of to him?