You’ve all seen them. Of course you’ve seen them; they’re impossible to avoid—those brightly colored splatty pig face balls hawked by vendors at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. But—like that leggy brunette in the navy skirt that you pass each morning on your way to work—seeing them every day isn’t knowing them. That’s where I come in. No, I can’t introduce you to Valentina, the brunette, nor can I tell you what her favorite flavor of gelato is, or where she takes her aperitivo. But I can, through the powers of investigative journalism, tell you almost everything there is to know about magic balls.
I say “almost everything” because the answer to your first question: “Why would anyone spend actual legal tender on those urban blights?” still eludes me. I think it eludes most people, because aside from my own experimental purchase, I have never seen a magic ball sale successfully closed. With that disclaimer in mind, let’s start with the basics. In magic ball sales, as in real estate, location is key. Buy one near a tourist hub where most of the selling takes place, and you’re likely to spend €3. That’s a tre-gusti gelato, il mio amico. I bought mine from a surprised vendor making his way home one evening on Via Nazionale. He offered me one for €2, and 2 for €3. One was plenty.
In completing this purchase, I tried to find out more about the sellers. Where did they come from? How many did they have to sell to get by? Why are they selling these instead of something eminently more desirable on a hot summer day—say, water, the elixir of life? I didn’t get answers to all my questions; I think the language barrier was particularly impassible for “the elixir of life”. My humble salesman came to Rome from Bangladesh about a year ago. His relatively recent arrival doesn’t confirm my theory that vendors have to start with splagic balls before working their way up to roses, and ultimately knockoff bags, but I think it still supports it.
As you’ve probably noticed, the splatting of these balls is usually accompanied by a whistling noise. You might be fooled into thinking this whistling is part of the magic. Not so. If you want to whistle while you splat, you’ll need to buy the upgrade, much like the electronic salesman tells you your brand new HDTV doesn’t come with HD cables only after you’ve agreed to buy it. I opted for the silent splatter.
With my experimental apparatus acquired, all I needed now was an experimental subject. You see, I had to find out if these balls appealed to anyone. As the kind of person who squints past the souvenir stands in search of the “authentic”, I’m certainly not the target demographic. Luckily, I have an eight-year-old second cousin once removed in this country, and could examine his reaction to the ball in the guise of a generous present. Cousin Damiano seemed pleased enough with the gift, though immediately after he opened it I told him it was the worst thing in the world, and he ought to give it what it deserves and throw it on the ground, expecting magic and delight to ensue.
What should have been an obvious question about the magic balls suddenly revealed itself: how does the magic work? Well, it turns out, you need an appropriate surface to slam it against. The vendors demonstrating this magic with metronome regularity always use a board covered in plastic packing tape, so the flattened ball briefly sticks to the surface before slowly reforming. There’s a reason they don’t use, say, Cousin Damiano’s mom’s dusty picnic table: the ball momentarily flattens, but returns to ball-shape instantly. Not much magic in that, other than the gross layer of dirt now permanently stuck to the ball. Happily, Cousin Damiano found more magic in transforming the ball from its original semi-solid state into a dripping gooey backseat-staining mess, through the powers of his grubby little fingers.
So there you have it. Everything I know about magic balls. In next week’s investigation, maybe I’ll find out whether my girlfriend actually thinks it’s romantic if I buy her the long-stemmed rose that was just thrust crudely at her midsection, only after satisfying myself that the plaintiff vendor’s children are actually hungry. That information will come in handy if you ever strike up the nerve to make a move on Valentina.