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.
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.