My Doorman Was Spiderman: An Italian Memoir

Doorman, super, handyman, cleaning crew, even the occasional delivery pictureman.  That was Giovanni, the doorman of the condominium in Portici where I grew up.  A mild-mannered middle-aged man, Giovanni sat in his gabbiotto for a good part of the day.  That would be the little, glass-enclosed box where a doorman is stationed, don’t even know what it’s called in English, but in Italian it derives from the word gabbia, meaning cage, which makes it sound a lot more ominous that it really is.  The citofono (intercom) was in the gabbiotto, and only he was allowed to push the appropriate buttons to make the connection to the various apartments, about 120 of them. You would tell him to call number 20, 30, whatever (mine was 51, forever imprinted in my mind, like the old phone number), he would click it, then pass you the receiver.  Or, I would just say, “ Giovanni, può chiamare mia madre?” and he would connect me to my apartment.  I would encounter him on the stairways, sweeping the steps, washing the ample hallway floor, watering the many planters in the courtyard, opening and closing the windows on each floor, taking care of the tiny elevator when it got stuck (though sometimes he just put up the ‘Guasto‘ sign – out of order – and call a repair service who would take their sweet time to show up), going up and down those stairs several times daily.  But he sure took il pranzo seriously, his lunch break was sacred.  The gabbiotto would be closed at 1 pm, and stay so till at least three, while he hung out with his family in his street-level apartment, the first one on the left, in our wing of the building. The front entrance would be locked, and residents would have to use their key to get in.  If you needed to call someone, well, you couldn’t, unless you started shouting at the top of your voice (which we kids did sometimes, much to the embarrassment and fury of our parents and the other tenants).  Giovanni progressed through his years-old daily routine methodically, and kept everything in order, never rushing, never stressing. As I said, a very average man who just did his job.

Until it was time for the annual cleaning of the windows.

He would start early.  We children were still in bed, our day not yet begun.  But his was just about to change the dimension of his life.  Dragging along his cleaning supplies – bucket, rags, squeegee – Giovanni would take the elevator to the top of the building, the sixth floor, and begin his yearly task.  He would open wide the windows of the landing, sit on the sill, and start reaching out with his materials, spraying, scrubbing, wiping.  As he did so, he would picturegradually stand on the sill, then literally walk out of the window, holding fast to the interior glass with his left hand, and energetically scrubbing away with his right.  Steadily, precisely, but definitely fearlessly.  Balancing his loafer-encased feet on the narrow ledge outside the window, he seemed to stretch all his limbs to reach every corners, wiping and polishing till the glass was sparkling.  When we kids walked out into the sun-warmed balcony, we would stare in awe at this man, our very own Giovanni il portiere, practically walking on glass, and we would cover our mouths so no sound would escape that might distract him.  And cause him to plunge to his death.  My mother would avert her eyes, scuttle back inside, mumbling non posso guardare (I can’t look), and again cautioned us not too make a sound, but just pray (silently!) that he might not lose his grip…quel pazzo scervellato…Yeah, she wasn’t very fond of his dramatic acrobatics, deeming that display of circus-like behavior completely irresponsible and ridiculous.   But, really, how else was he going to wash down those windows?  No professional window-washer crews, with scaffolding and workers secured with ropes, for my building in Portici, just a one-man team who crawled his way through six floors of landing windows, and on both wings of the building, a total of twelve floors.  How I wish I had snapped some photos of this awesome spectacle, but those were not the days of cell phones (besides, if he heard the click, he might even have turned around and, well, you know the rest).  Thus, I shall just post some photos of my good old building and the rusty gate (yes, you can see the gabbiotto behind it), as it still stands there today, beckoning every time I go to Italy.

The doorman days are over now.  It has already been more than twenty years that Giovanni’s gabbiotto has been locked up and empty, and a sturdy gate blocks the courtyard.  A regular intercom system outside the gate allows people to contact the residents, and be buzzed in.

I don’t know who cleans the windows these days, but it will always be Giovanni, il portiere, I will imagine up there, high on the fourth, fifth, sixth floor, semi-dangling from a window, his palm flat against the glass (so white!), his legs steady on the sill, our resident Spiderman performing his stunts. All in a day’s work.

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