Tales From My Privileged Youth

I WAS LUCKY. I was sitting around with friends during the spring term of my senior year in college. “I want to go to Europe,” I said. “How can I get a job there?”

“Call Franco at the Red Garter in Florence,” a friend called out. “He’ll give you a job.” And he was right.

The Red Garter was (and probably still is) a tourist-trap bar in Florence, Italy. Knowing little more than that, I called Franco (the manager), got a job, and flew to Florence about a month later.

I arrived in Florence after a two-leg, red-eye flight. It was around 2 or 3 am my time, I’d had around an hour of sleep, and I had one day to find a place to live and report for work. I checked into a cheap pensione, washed my face, and walked to the American Consulate.

At the consulate, I asked if they had a bulletin board for people looking for apartments. “Well,” a nice middle-aged woman asked, “What are you looking for?”

In a stupor, I mumbled a few things. Looking me up and down, the woman volunteered that a young Italian banker was looking for a roommate with whom he could practice English. The apartment was on the top floor of a five-story walk-up facing a small square on the Arno, the Piazza de Guidici. She called him, and we soon met at a caffè near his office.

He was in his twenties and from Siena, in Florence to work for the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. He was willing to let me move in, the rent was low, and the next morning I was living in my new home. The walk to the Red Garter was less than five minutes. That afternooon, I walked over to tell Franco I was in Florence and ready to start.

With a bit of time to explore before starting work, I discovered that a three-minute walk along the Arno in the opposite direction took me to the famous Galleria degli Uffizi (see below). Florence was not crowded, admission to the museum cost a little over $1, and my days were free until 4 or 5 pm. Life was good. But it soon got better.

On my third day in Florence, my roommate said, “I have an invitation for a party tonight (which happened to be my one of my nights off). You’re probably not interested, but here it is,” he said, handing me an engraved invitation.

The Sarah Lawrence Summer Program in Florence was pleased to invite us to a party in one of their two villas on the top of a hill in the Oltrarno on the south side of the river. The party would introduce two-hundred Sarah Lawrence girls to their summer semester in Firenze, and I would be one of the fifty or so guys at the party. It seemed like the second or third circle of Paradise. Both villas today are five-star hotels.

The Red Gutter

The Red Garter was a tourist-trap bar. Near the church of Santa Croce, it was in a deep, dark, narrow space with a bar at the front, tables at the back, and a small dance floor all the way back. The music was recorded ragtime, and we waiters had to wear Gay Nineties red-and-white vests and armbands. Once upon a time, the American owner brought in banjo bands, but by the time I got there, it was owned or managed by an Italian (Franco) and there was no live music. But sawdust and shells from the baskets of peanuts on every table covered the the floor.

Franco liked American waiters because he thought they made American girls feel safe. He paid us 150 lire for every beer or alcoholic drink we served and 110 lire for every non-alcoholic drink we served, so the girls wouldn’t have to tip us. The menu also had hamburgers and hot dogs. I see online that today the Red Garter also serves things like Nachos and Buffalo Wings.

In my mind, my daily unit of currency became a drink, worth somewhere between 110 and 150 lire. One dollar was worth 650 lire, or around 5 drinks. A Quattro Stagione pizza was about 20 drinks. A Bellini at the Harry’s Bar in Florence was around 70 drinks.

Sometimes we had to put on our vests and armbands and stand around in the Piazza Santa Croce handing out flyers for the Red Garter, because that was where many of the tour buses parked when their tours only spent a few hours in the birthplace of the Renaissance.

The tour guides gave their customers discount coupons for the leather shops near Santa Croce (shops where no Italians ever went). The coupons had codes identifying the guides so they would get a percentage of sales as an incentive for promoting the shops.

At that time, the tourists on the buses were almost entirely American. “Is there anything to see here?” they would ask as they took our flyers. Sometimes I tried to answer, but if they were in buses parking at Santa Croce, they usually only had a few hours in Florence, so there wasn’t much I could say.

But I Was In Florence

Paraphrasing Mickey Mantle, “It’s good to be young and an American in Europe when the dollar is king.” I had some savings from previous summer jobs, and those dollars went a long, long way. (QV Part Two of “Tales from My Privileged Youth”)

I was young, Florence was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and the world was my oyster. I knew 200 American college girls. There was a record heat wave that summer, but I could walk up to their two Olympic-sized swimming pools and hang out with them and be the semi-cool Harvard guy (under the circumstances).

Europe was a lot less modern then, which meant it was a lot less American, which meant it was a great place for someone headed towards graduate school in architecture. What could be better than walking the stone streets of Florence, already almost car-free in the Centro Storico? A stone’s throw from my apartment was the Piazzale degli Uffizi (below). I could take a bus to Le Corbusier’s favorite monastery, an inspiration for his Unités d’Habitation.

Itaslians drove cool, funny little FIAT 500s that fit easily on the tiny streets. Most Italians of my generation lost their virginity in a Cinquecento. Every now and then you might see a sublimely beautiful Ferrari or Maserati. Vespas were everywhere, as much a part of the sound of summer as a baseball game on the radio in America.

Around the corner from my apartment was a wine stand that sold Chianti. If you brought your own flask, a liter of the local wine cost about half the price of a bottle of Coke.* Cheeses were cheap too. Gorgonzola and Chianti were like milk and cookies.

But most of all, I was living in the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in an ancient culture that valued things America had discarded. And that was a feeling that will never leave me.

* One night at work a customer said to me, “Hoha hola hohn hee ahtcho.”
“What does that mean?” I asked Franco.
Long story short: in the Florentine dialect and the local working-class accent, hard Cs and Gs are pronounced like an H. So “Hoha hola hohn hee ahtcho” means, “Coca Cola con ghiaccio” (Coca Cola with ice).

Also: Tales From My Privileged Youth / Palate Cleanser

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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