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Of Discos and Serenos in Madrid

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It started with the keys.

Clanking, jiggling, each heavy skeleton banging against a clutch of loose weighty metal.

Then clap, clap clap.

We clapped our hands, at first lightly, then with the growing impatience of youth. We could hear the keys in the distance. He couldn’t be far.

It was somewhere between Saturday night and Sunday morning in Madrid in the 1960s, and all was well.

The clanging became more insistent and a voice sang, “Sereno! Serenooooo!”

He was our neighborhood sereno, our ‘serene’, the man with the keys to every building’s front door. We didn’t carry our own keys, large and heavy as they were, so like millions of other city dwellers I would clap my hands to summon the sereno to unlock the door if I came home anytime between 11pm and 6 in the morning.

He was a lone guardian, his arsenal limited to a whistle with which he could call a colleague in case of mischief and a pointed iron staff – a chuzo – to rap on the ground and scatter troublesome elements. Should there be serious disorder he would summon the Guardia Civil police. In those dictatorial days of Franco’s military regime public disturbances were rare, at least in these comfortable urban neighborhoods.

The sereno was a guardian angel of sorts, available to run for the doctor or fetch medicine from the single open pharmacy. He was also our neighborhood public clock, chanting the hours to the dismay of early-to-bed foreigners.

This absolutely male profession emerged during the 18th century to light urban gas lamps and only later took on vigilance and security duties: opening doors, bidding good evening and keeping watch while banging a chuzo on the ground.

When I later moved to Canada as a young adult, one of my greatest surprises was to have a building key handed to me by the superintendent, so unaccustomed was I to having one.

Serenos of Spain

Serenos taking a break

serenos of Madrid

Serenos gather with their chief for their night’s assignments and instructions

We waited for the sereno… Pepe, with his bad beard and slight limp, a smoky Ducados hanging off his lips, looking as rumpled as if he’d fallen off a haystack… Alfonso, my first amor, who had eyes only for Laura, whose height and slim build made her a magnet for my short, swarthy friends… Rafa, besotted with this year’s musical rage, open-mouthed at the emerging talents of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin… Eli (the only name I’ve changed, for reasons about to become obvious), whose wealthy Dominican parentage didn’t prevent her from ‘accompanying’ men abroad, an emancipated if unusual form of travel in that most conservative of Spains… and Mike, the German singer of a popular band about to rocket to stardom.

Madrid in the final decade of Franco’s rule was a strange place. Part of the population – mine – was youthfully oblivious to crackdowns and speech curtailments and human rights abuses. The other, the more proletarian and vocal part, stood at the receiving end of what I would only understand years later was a typical police state.

To me Madrid was just home, where my cousins lived, where my father occasionally visited from his job in the wilds of rural Afghanistan and Iran, deemed unsuitable for a foreign family.

That Saturday we had done a very quick swing through two of Madrid’s more popular nightclubs, the Picadilly near the airport and the JJ (pronounced hota-hota) in the Plaza Callao right downtown, where each celebrity was announced over the intercom and the round dance floor shook to Creedence Clearwater Revival. We would monkey and pony and hitchhike to the music for hours, our corduroy hip-hugger bell bottoms flapping under the strobe lights. We all smoked, tobacco and anything else that could be rolled, and everyone drank far too much.

It was a carefree, unconscious, vapid time, reminiscent in some ways of the 1920s, when style was queen and substance was absent – a time of youth, oblivion and extreme self-centeredness, a time unaware.

***

At night we often stayed out late, for what was known as the night session, or sesión de noche.

Spanish discos had two shifts. The first from 7-10pm was for workers, the domestic servants who migrated to the city from their rural villages and for whom a weekly evening out was a desperately needed break from long days of servitude. Clubs then closed for supper and reopened at midnight, although no self-respecting clubber would be caught dead entering before one in the morning.

After a heady evening, euphoria-induced hunger would drive us to seek food. Our go-to eatery was a place in Old Madrid called Los Toneles, the barrels, which opened at six in the morning. Since clubs closed at five, there would often be a long line of bleary-eyed teenagers snaking around the block, unaware that a few years hence they’d be considered far too young to drink, let alone disco past midnight.

Los Toneles served only two dishes: lamb chops and Spaghetti Bolognaise, as though the chef had covered his eyes, twirled around and pointed randomly at a supermarket alley.

But no Toneles tonight.

As the sereno shuffled around the corner my friends and I kissed one another goodbye on the cheek, one kiss, two kisses, each and every one. The person who lived the furthest would be the first one dropped off.

I was the first. I lived on the edge of town, so far from the center that I could watch sheep munching on greenery from my window. The flock belonged to a tiny typically Castilian village of dirty beige walls, soon to be razed in Madrid’s inexorable expansion northward.

When it rained, the village children would climb down the sandy cliff and splash in the water that had pooled below, such fun! As a child I yearned to join them but village and city children didn’t mix.

My street was then called the Avenida del Generalissimo in honor of Generalissimo Franco, a name quickly switched to the Paseo de la Castellana once the little dictator died. On Sunday mornings when my father was visiting he would whisk me off to the Plaza Castilla for a rare treat of chocolate con churros, sold by an elderly man from a wooden shack, his frying oil having seen much better days. Here we would mix with the shepherds from the village, the taxi drivers stopping for breakfast, the late-night clubbers damping their hunger with those wonderful deep-fried pastries that even today make me drool. My father, unlike anyone else I knew, had no sense of social distinctions. To him people were people and his legendary kindness and humor extended to everyone. I didn’t see him often, but I watched him closely.

A few years ago, during a hot summer visit to Madrid, I walked through my old neighborhood and the building was still there, smaller than I remembered it, in need of a paint job. The neighborhood had clearly shed its upper class sheen, perhaps as residents followed the newly developing suburbs. Where the village had stood was a highrise, and the empty fields along the left side of the avenue had sprouted apartment blocks, almost into infinity.

What was once the very edge of town is now part of the city’s core.

***

The keys became louder and the sereno finally rounded the corner.

Wrapped in his dark woollen uniform against the chilly autumn night, he solemnly looked at me, recognizing my face among the thousands he saw each evening, knowing exactly where I lived and whether I belonged.

He unlocked the door, stuck out his palm for a few pesetas of propina, and locked up again behind me.

“Son las doooooos,” he would chant.

It’s two o’clock and all is well.

***

In case you’re curious, I’ve embedded this Google Map that shows you my building on the left. On the right is where the shepher’s village used to be.

 

10 Comments

  1. Suroor Alikhan on June 16, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    This is so evocative! We didn’t have serenos in India, but I remember listening to the chowkidar (guard) when we slept outside on summer nights banging his big stick on the ground to frighten away any thieves.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 16, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      Of course now people have been replaced by technology – we have webcams, alarms, trackers… and the thieves need a lot more than an angry stick banged on the ground to run!

  2. Linny on September 19, 2015 at 9:12 am

    You post almost brought me to tears for remembering. My mother and I moved to Spain in 1964 when I was 13, to Sevilla. A few years later we were living in Madrid and Club Picadilly was my “local” – I was there almost every night and lived nearby. I’ve long searched for any mention of the place which was my home away from home and yours is the first I have found. I only found the name JJ recently, as I had forgotten what it was called. I didn’t go there as often but knew it fairly well. This was around 1967 and later in 1970. Ah, the sereno! I remember them well, both in Madrid and in Sevilla. We had a key to some places we lived but there was only one and my mother didn’t trust me with it usually, so the sereno was it. On cold, rainy nights it seemed to take forever. I wouldn’t walk home alone in those neighborhoods today, but in the 60’s and early 70’s it was perfectly safe. I know the Castellana well and worked on it, near the Plaza de Castilla, but in 1990. In the 60’s we lived in a family pension, a residencia for long term guests in the tangle of dark and twisted streets not far from Callao. And I remember the restaurant too, though not well. We used to go to a bakery at 4 am sometimes to buy fresh pastry and bread from the back door, though I don’t remember where. Oh…and while you can get something called churros in the US now, they are nothing like the ones we got back then, long tubes of yummy goodness, extruded in a long, curling coil into the hot oil, snipped with scissors to the weight you wanted and wrapped in absorbent grey paper. What I would not give for one right now! If I think about the chocolate, I think I WILL cry. Thanks for the walk through memory lane – no one else I know remembers and it was nice to “hear” someone else talking about those magical days.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 19, 2015 at 9:18 am

      Thank you Linny, for joining me down memory lane! Based on the years, I am going to guess that you and I probably crossed, unknowingly, at some point in our youths. Between 1967-1970 I was often in those clubs, certainly a couple of times a week! I was deep into music in those days and these were the main venues in Madrid for up and coming talent. I remember Los Continentales, Smash, Karina, even Julio Iglesias in the days he was on his way to fame and fortune. Others who would drop in might include Patxi Andion, Juan y Junior (who later went their separate ways as Juan Pardo and Junior Morales), and so many more… there was a long wrong with those days but a lot right, too.

  3. Jill Echols McMahon on November 7, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Wow…I’m floored that I actually found this – trying to remember some of the “boites” that I frequented when I lived in Madrid. Arrived in 1965 and stayed on-off for 7 years.
    I went to The American School of Madrid and graduated in ’65. Most of my graduating classmates went to Picadilly. I actually was a go-go dancer (very part-time) in a cage, back in the day…!
    What led me here was trying to remember a (sort of) small Americanized nightclub that was close to the Picadilly. It was a hangout before the discos started opening. Close by or maybe above it there was an apartment tower where Americans and many film industry people stayed. I remember “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” cast stayed there. Anyway Zero Mostel and Michael Crawford would make this place their hang-out in the evenings. I used to go there to hear a group called the Ye Ye’s do their thing and now, for some reason, I’m going nuts trying to remember the name of the place! Lordy those were good times!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 7, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      Hmmm… I don’t remember it so I may not have known it – but all of a sudden I remembered the American cinema with movies in English!! I also went to ASM for one year (or a bit less) when it was in town – can’t remember the street but near the Castellana. Most of the time I remember is in the late 60s… the groups at the time were Juan y Junior, los Continentales, Smash, an American singer called Jackie (with whom I’m still in touch!) and so many more… all I needed was a little memory jog and off I go into Madrid of the sixties… and who knows – I might have seen you go-go dancing! 🙂

      • Jill Echols McMahon on November 7, 2015 at 10:18 pm

        I remembered it now. It was Nicco’s…!
        I graduated ’66 and for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the street of ASM. I remember our serreno Pepe where we lived on calle Orense. Our view was also a sheep laden empty lot with a view of Estadio Bernabeo.
        Did you have Mary Adah Curbero as your teacher? Mr. Bullard was the headmaster and Martha de la Cal was the Assistant Headmistress.
        I’m still in touch with lots of ex-ASMers. My sister teacher there and her daughter does too. Small world. Madrid has changed so much but I still love it!

        • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 7, 2015 at 10:21 pm

          I’m afraid I was there for such a short time – and my struggle was focused on English, a language I didn’t speak! And I remember across the street from the school was an empty sand pit, with low cliffs we used to climb at recess time… now of course it’s all highrises! Madrid in those days was phenomenal, but I admit I still love it, it’s MY city 🙂

  4. Gary Weiss on February 2, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    No, not a “woman on the road”, but a 70 year old American man who spent a year at the University of Madrid (1967-68, turbulent years in Europe) and, later, lived in Alicante from 1972-1978. As I have aged, like many, I try to recall events and things that helped shape my life.

    Spain had an incredible influence on what I was to become.

    I have thought, often, about the “serenos” and, fondly, remember coming “home” after a long night at The Drugstore on Ramon de la Cruz, probably close to where you lived off the “Avendia” or, as you indicated, later to become the Castellana. I lived, as a student, with a very wealthy family on Calle Almagro, next to the exiled Juan Peron, and became a familiar night-time figure of our local “sereno”.

    I thank you for, so accurately, depicting a facet of the Madrid night life that many have experienced during those years, the ’60’s that probably disappeared not long afterwards.

    Gary Weiss

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 3, 2016 at 11:12 am

      El Drugstore! OMG I’d forgotten all about that – of COURSE I knew it! Those were strange years and now, when anyone writes about them, it’s with the angst of dictatorship whereas to me, growing up, it was just another environment, with its own foibles and character. Spain in the 60s and early 70s was apart from the social flows of the rest of Europe, and while in hindsight I can’t condone its politics, life then was of a texture and flavour I’ll probably never experience again.

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