When in Rome

It’s one of the oldest sayings around. Good advice, too, say if you were sitting next to a Roman Emperor such as the great Augustus. If at the arena? Cheer when they cheer and shout encouragement when they stand and shout. If you want to stay in favor. It’s the same as today. Now, if you were sitting next to Caligula, double so.

First of all, he was stone cold nuts. Most likely from all the lead in his food preparation bowls and dinner ware. Wine really brought out the lead in the big goblets wealthy Romans favored. Archeologists have know this for a long time. I just read about it in an old National Geographic I bought at Goodwill. Well, back to Caligula.

This guy did a lot of weird sexual stuff, but, you can read up on that, my story is about how Caligula wanted to get public support back the fast and easy way. A real big gladiatorial event at the Coliseum. To make sure it went off as planned, he enlisted the help of his favorite drinking companion, Publeus Maxima. The top ‘Beastiary’ in all the corners of Rome.

Now, Maxima was just about the best darn killer of any type animal you could ever want to see. The bigger and meaner, the better. Also, in the later stage of his career, he had his animal assistants drug the animals he was to face, just to ‘make sure’ he would always come out on top. There was a trick to it. You had to keep the animal at bay until you saw the tiger’s eyes glaze, or the elephant’s trunk dip a bit, then, in you went with spear or sword, and the crowd roared. Business as usual.

Oh, almost forgot. Maxima loved to torture his foes, every chance he got. He and Caligula were as two peas in a pod.

Since there could be 210 days of games in a year, the crowd was pretty jaded. Some ‘advisors’ in the Emperor’s crowd, came up with some ‘extras’ to really make the crowd love the day’s events. A day to beat all fights in the arena before it. They had so many games and so many various arenas and stadiums, it was a tall order. Taking in animals from poorer conquests, completely wiped out entire species for fodder for the games. If that wasn’t your cup of tea that day, why, travel to the stadium for the chariot races. A charioteer was the big Kahuna in those days. He could sway an election, just by sitting next to the person needing votes. Next were the gladiators that had won their freedom by various means, yet still fought. It was in their blood. They would retire all the time, but, the roar of the crowd and a boring life always brought them back, ‘for one last match’. Usually for huge bets from both sides in the event. Sometimes cities were exchanged over the outcomes. Last on the scale of all these were the Beastiaries. Well trained. Many tricks. The animals never really stood any sort of a chance against a good one. Maxima was ‘The best’. At the top of his game. He was even being talked about in the same sentences mentioning swordsmen and trident net men. A big honor. He might be a transition. Bring his mates respectable, so to speak.

Well aware of this fact, plus, backed by the Emperor’s wallet, and Pretorian guard, Maxima made sure he had all the best of the animals flowing into Rome daily. A special area was set up for the animal merchants to show their latest acquisitions. Maximus always had first selection. He especially looked for large, impressive looking specimens. They made for a better kill, but even more important, well fed, made for a slow, ponderous opponent. Who wants lean and quick. On one such procuring trip, Maximus spotted a magnificent beast. An older elephant, but quite impressive.

It towered over the other elephants it was herded with in a large plaza. He pointed it out to one of the Mahars. The report was good. “A fine beast. Well mannered. Unusual for an African elephant. Also, it had exceptional scarring. Would look great for a dramatic finish. Maximus bought it, plus all the other elephants. They were big and people deemed them quite dangerous. A bit drugged and against seasoned killers, they stood no chance at all. Comparable to some of the wrestling extravaganzas we have now a days. The animal men had everything under control. The hardest part was to make it seem dangerous and difficult. Not only were they trained killers, they were also excellent actors. Two day before the event, Maximus strolled through his row after row of grist for the mill. Also a showman, Maximus planned to end the day’s events as the last act. It would be him and the ‘Old Man’.

That’s the name all the feeders and handlers had given the old elephant. Coming up to the well-chained beast, Maximus spoke to the animal quietly. Letting him know who he would be facing. The next time they met, the Old Man would be in one of the large cages at an end of the arena. Awaiting their fates. The Old Man would eat well this night. And all the water he could hold. It would make him even slower. At least sixty years old, it might be a tough sell. Maximus knew how to fix that problem.

The games begin. The first event was really starting to piss Caligula off. A huge fake mountain on hidden wooden wheels, had been rolled out into the arena, blocking the view of many in the almost capacity crowd. Hey, even if the arena wasn’t your cup of tea, you had better attend for at least part of them. Tongues would wag. Not today. Posters and criers paid by the Emperors flunkies had promised a game to remember. The crowd was noisy taking its seats. A good sign. The booths for the painted prostitutes did record business. Rows of them filled every spare twist and turn on every level. It was a different world then. Food vendors and fan wavers were for rent. Anything you so desired could be bought, or rented.

Watching this mountain roll in was making the crowd quiet. The Emperor was not pleased. Once the fake mountain stopped, a doorway opened near the top and a Greek poet stepped out, blinking his eyes in the bright sun shining down into the center of the arena. The wealthy had large shade covers pulled down to give them relief. Not so the Greek. Starting to strum his lyre, the Greek started slow, then, feeling a love of his words turning the fickle crowd in his favor, he raised his voice, gaining strength from the response. In reality, the crowd was waiting for the punch line to this fiasco. They had not long to wait.

As Caligula himself rose to say something, more doors opened in the middle of the mountain. From them emanated lions. Also hit in the eyes by the bright sun, and, intimidated by the vast crowd moving all around them, they did what was only natural, they climbed to higher ground. Unaware of his new guests on the mountain, the Greek in a new burst of vigor, suddenly feels something rub his leg. Looking down, his scream of terror brought down the house. The Emperor sat back down, a contented look on his face. The Greek was soon torn to pieces and eaten by the starved lions. It had been a big hit! The day started off perfect!

The day picked up. After an intermission and some heavy drinking, the crowd settled in for the end of the show. Now a bit cooler and their blood lust abated, they were ready for the chaser act, then, off to home and twenty slaves to tend every need. As Maximus entered the arena, the crowd roared its approval. He always gave a good show. The crowd was well aware of his opponent. The Old Man was the last elephant alive. As each of his pen mates went to their doom, the Old Man watched with interest how they met their fate. Now, it was to be his turn.

As Maximus gave the sign, the gate swung up, and the Old Man was goaded from behind by heated metal spikes. Smoke came off of his hide as he trumpeted and tried to spin in the tight confines of his corral. Nope, it was forward or more red hot burns. Time to die. Trotting out into the center of the arena, the Old Man blinked his eyes in the bright sun, then stood still, awaiting his fate. Maximus knew his craft. Trotting around the elephant in tighter and tighter circles, he would then switch direction and run in the opposite direction. His two swords glinting in the fading afternoon sunlight. Like a hundred times before, he made his move. First, hamstring the beast, then, play to the crowd before the thrust into the throat area. A fast, clean kill.

The Old man timed him. In the blink of an eye, it was all over. Maximus was grabbed, then crushed by a rolling forehead, mashing him into a pulpy unrecognizable mass. The Old Man wasn’t just any old elephant. He was a former War elephant. Bred and trained for decades by the Romans’ old foes, the Carthaginians, the old man had waited for his moment, then, spinning on one foot in the loose sand of the arena, caught Maximus cold. Unfazed by the crowd, or the smell of the blood seeping out of the raked sand, the Old Man now stood and swayed, seemingly content. At sight of his friend being smashed to death, Caligula ordered five lions to be set loose on the beast. NOW! Rolling in the five most starved lions in steel cages, their trap doors were raised and the animals goaded out. Spotting the elephant, two of the lions raced towards him, then, slowed as a team to stalk. The Old Man backed up against the arena wall, then started swinging his trunk from side to side. The lions sprang at the same time. As the two leaped on his back, the other lions came in on the exposed sides of the great beast. Sinking in their sharp claws and fangs, they suddenly found themselves being crushed to death. Slamming his one side into the cement of the arena, the Old Man then rolled completely over, crushing two more of his tormenters. As the surviving lions backed away, the old man, leaking blood in rivers, and having only one eye, then did something unbelievable.

Ignoring the hesitating lions, the old torn beast, turned, faced the Emperor, trumpeted, then BOWED. The crowd went BERSERK. Caligula was crazy, but not that crazy. Waving for the lions to be driven off the sand, he then tossed down a garland. A special wreath signifying the Emperors favor. From that day forth, no elephant was ever killed in the Coliseum again.

Hart Island

It’s a small island. Not to be confused with ‘Heart’ Island, the one built by the ‘man with the broken heart’. Nope, totally diferent. Hart Island is the one with over 850,000 buried in it. Most in giant mass graves. Some since the Civil War days. It housed Confederate prisoners for a while. They moved those guys’ graves, though. But don’t worry. They more than made up for ’em. Still put over 2,000 new ones in the ground there every year. Some graves have ten coffins stacked in one hole. I’ve never been there, but, a former New York Detective known as ‘Joe Bus’ (aka Joe Carbone) told me many a story about that island. None of them good…

Now, why would I hang with an ex-cop? To make my friend, Alice, happy. She owned an after-hours cop hang out in West Hollywood that Joe spent most of his waking hours in. He was a stalker of Alice, but, a nice one. He never went over the line, and, he spent a lot of dough at Alice’s house. It was tucked up at the end of Shoreham, not far from where I had a head-on in my AT&T truck. Another story.

Lots of cops drank and made book at Alice’s. On and off duty. Joe still had connections to Brooklyn cops, so, he was the guy L.A. cops went to for guys they were looking for that skipped town. Now, Joe Bus always sat with me, since I would play Backgammon with Alice. In close proximity, the guy literally panted like a Yorkie in a hot car. Joe never stepped over the line, though. His old lady owned a sports bar called ‘Strike Four’ in Silverlake. Alice hated her, so, she kept Joe on a big hook. Some chick deal I tried to stay out of. Since Joe bought me rounds, I was always nice to him. Plus, its better to have cops like you in my world.

So, my pal, Ira F., deals high end jewelry in Las Vegas. He changed his name legally to something so ridiculous, I burst out laughing just thinking about it. Anyhow, back when he was just plain Ira, a Detective from New York shows up at his mini-mansion, wanting to ask him some questions. Ira tells him to go fuck himself. No warrant. No talkie. I found out about this little exchange six weeks later when Ira calls me from the Burbank airport, needing a lift. It seems this cop came back three nights later with a cute little warrant. An arrest warrant for stolen diamonds…

Ira is cuffed, taken back to New York, ensconced in a Queens jail. From there, he gets lost in the ‘system’ for six weeks. Never did see a judge. Just a lot of jails. He lost 45lbs. Also, 20 grand. His wife put money into the accounts of all the guys that he buddied up too, to stay in one piece. Gee, he sure told that cop off.

Now, Joe Bus was this sort of cop. On occasion, other ex-New Yorkers would sit with us and tell stories about the East coast. One night the conversation came around to Hart Island…

Since the 50’s, only law enforcement was allowed on the island. Whenever they went over with a load of deceased, there was always a priest on board the barge-like vessel. Joe said there was only one rule. Never be on the island at night. Everything was to be completed well before dusk. One of Joe’s buddies expounded on this. Looking like an extra from ‘On the Water Front’, Bobby was about seventy, but looked like he still had one more fight in him. He had a brother-in-law that worked the ferry doing fill-ins for other harbor guys every once in a while. He said he always felt sad going out to the island. “All douse unwanted. Just piled all’s in a heap. It’s heart breakin!”

Now, a complete opposite island is ‘HEART’ Island. These guys also knew it well. I did research on both places after they got me interested. Heart Island was a creation of George Charles Boldt. Now, Boldt wasn’t a from a rich family. His father would work their garden at night so the neighbors wouldn’t know how broke they were. George made his way in the world as a Hotel man. One night, in a modest Hotel he owned and operated, a family with a sick child requested a room. With no rooms available, George gave them his own apartment and slept on a sofa in the lobby. This family was related to William Waldorf Astor. The owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. When they told him of the deed George had done, George finds himself the new Waldorf manager. From there on it was all up hill.

From here, the story is usually of George finding his true love after a long series of disasters with women. He takes possesion of his island, has thousands of tons of dirt brought in to shape the island like a Heart, then tears down the modest vacation house and begins construction of the gigantic manshion in honor of his new bride. On her death, all work is halted. Boxed furniture stayed boxed for 80 years. It was abandoned. Check out pictures of it. Boy, it is really something. It’s now being restored and has tours. My New York friends gave me another side of the story. They say that George’s wife Louise spent all the dough on his house, ruining him. Then, she left town with her chauffeur and was never seen again. I like both versions…