ast month, the building custodian had a bad back. So painful were his plates — “It’s like an earthquake,” he told me — that he requested relief from at least one of his daily duties: Delivering the mail. In much of Italy, a double-decker nation of mostly urban apartments, mail is shoved into slots or hand-delivered by the custodian, known as the portiere, or porter, who in some cases holds the keys to a daily life’s realm. Some might call him a superintendent, though that seems grand.
He’s the man who knows the origin of water, the curvature of pipes, the place where the wrap-around gutter yields a tiny gap, permitting rainwater to flood terraces. He’s the keeper of any number of dubious domestic secrets.
Porter doesn’t do him justice, instead suggesting ancient railroad station luggage hawkers, the kind who pulled down bags before they were asked. That, too, was Italy, but in another era.
My custodian is in his late 40s, a man I’ve known for 25 years, and before him his uncle, who retired decades ago to tend to a small plot of land somewhere in endless south. He died in the 1980s, stopped in his tracks by a coronary while tending to a root. Or so my custodian said. “You never know with the heart,” he said, stubbing out one of the many cigarettes he smoked in the course of a day.
No, you don’t.
Once, when I suddenly and ill-advisedly began exercising, running in circles near the concrete deck near the custodian’s shack, he admonished me. “You can hurt your back, with that running. We’re not young anymore.” I nodded and continued to run. I gave up after a month. My legs hurt.
What I liked about seeing the custodian daily — he’d ring the buzzer when there was mail — was the feeling of continuity, and familiarity. I’d memorized his sweet gruffness, a gentle ache in his voice, the now-graying strands of his beard. “Krees” is what he called me.
When my washing machine broke on the eve of a long trip, a Sunday, he spent two hours working to determine why the water wouldn’t push through to the right valve. The repairing journey — I went along for the ride — took us on an extraordinary journey through a maze of rusty pipes that snaked over the bones of long-dead pigeons. “Why you live in Rome I don’t know,” he told me. By then we’d found the telltale valve, inches from exposed electrical wiring. The machine was fixed. “You write, I fix,” he smiled.
So when the tremors crippled his back I sighed. “Now you’ll have to come to me,” he said.
I did, and we’d chat. Drains and payments in arrears came up, so did his computer-wise sons, whose skills mystified him. “We’re getting old, Krees.” On some days he couldn’t wait to leave Rome’s maddening hubbub behind, but the exasperation would pass. I couldn’t imagine him tending to roots. He belongs to a generation impossibly straddled between old things and new.
His wife told me about the coronary on a Monday afternoon. He’d felt unwell, a stomach ache. Within hours he was in intensive care, jackknifed open and stented. Two blocked valves were slapped open and forced to behave. This is modern medicine.
I went looking for him yesterday, home after a week. He appeared at his window talking like a newborn sage. Cholesterol came up. So did exercise. “When I told the doctors what I did and where I worked the replied with one word: Stress.” In the realm of pigeon bones, exposed wires, and owner complaints, stress is a geopolitical hazard. “One doctor said, ‘For me, you’re cured.’ Another one said, ‘Take 30 days.'” No longer American, I recommended the 30 days. I’d learn to fix the washing machine alone, I told him, and this time he actually laughed.
“What bothers me most,” he said, “is the way people are rude over little things. They’re ruder than they ever were before. It’s hard to work that way. It’s hard to listen to people with so much anger over little things.”
Maybe the earthquakes in his back were a harbinger, and the coronary a second one. Maybe enough was enough. Perhaps the time had come to plant latter-day roots away from the city.
“It’s not enough to kill me, not yet Krees, not yet.” At which point he tugged at his shirt, fishing for a crumpled cigarette. None were there, not today, but I know they’re waiting in the wings, the hand-to-mouth habit of a blue-collar generation that still lights up at a moment’s notice. The mobile phone came too late to distract them for keeps.
But for now at least my retired mailman and washer-fixer is very much alive, his cardiac machinery repaired. Until, perhaps inevitably, he breaks it again.