am the madman of my apartment block. I have this propensity that is entirely un-Italian: I leave my front door open wide. To be more precise, when I know someone is headed my way I spare them the additional step of pressing the doorbell by leaving my Fort Knox-thick battlement, or one side of it, open to the nefarious outside world.
Which essentially means that in that space of time any terrible evil could, if it chose, enter my dominion.
An example: my maid has gone to fetch groceries and a prescription. I know, about thirty minutes into her hair-raising foray, that she should be back in about ten minutes. So I pry open my vault. Another example: my friend who manages my tech life – I am both semi-blind and ignorant – calls to announce he’ll be by in ten minutes to log me into some arcane website, or coax my recalcitrant phone into submission. On receiving his call I once again swing the Knox doors wide.
To which my superintendent says, “Are you mad! ANYONE could come in.” The emphasis, needless to say, is on the anyone, as if I lived between the apartment homes of Hitler and Genghis Khan. Would that I did. I’d have better conversation and bone up on geopolitical analytics. Maybe even Vlad Putin could join these door-busting interlopers, not that they’d have anything to bust open.
My superintendent is not alone. There’s my friend Toni. She’s my age, Sicilian, and recently came by only take the elevator up and, God have mercy, find open passage into my flat. “Are you crazy? ANYONE could come in.”
The truth is that Italians, Rome dwellers especially, are trained from embryonic “youth” to fear thieves and burglars. The government is of course the chief thief, but there are others more gross and less interested in theft through tax paperwork. These are the folk who, in midsummer, burgle countless local apartments. Then again, this is in part because at that time Romans tend to be away from the city, at the beach in summer. And in the winter, they pack off to their mountain lodges. Romans, as children, are taught by the older and wiser to beware the foxy cheat who is always ready to pilfer.
In this sense, the are a full wide step ahead of Americans, who have come to fear almost every aspect of daily life, most especially, and understandably, the potential presence of angry men with chips on their shoulders and weapons aplenty. Massacres follow.
These assaults leave gun-less Italians cold and bewildered since they can’t fathom the idea of one of their own walking the streets with gun or guns blazing. Gun laws are strict, but thievery is rampant. Better, maybe. No one gets hurt. All can be prevented with the right dose of vigilance and very, very closed doors.
Thus my lunatic status.
I am inviting thieves, says the superintendent. I have no regard for my own safety, which in turn means I cannot understand or stand up for the safety of others, says my friend. All this for the few occasions in which my front door is wide open.
There’s a cultural ingredient at work. Italians tend to live in large apartment blocks. One’s apartment is one’s fort. To not guard it as such is naïve, a bad example. Who knows the identity of a neighbors’ friend or visiting cousin? One or the other might be a prowler in disguise. Batten down the hatches. There is also the matter of privacy, which Italians tend to treasure in ways North Americans cannot fully comprehend. The Italian economy, though shaky, was saved from further harm in recent decades because few had a dozen credit cards, a feature of American life. They preferred cash or simple debit cards because credit cards required the conferring (to beings unknown) of information about income, holdings, bank accounts, and so on – information that institutional thieves (aka, the tax office) might use to suit its own cruel needs, as in collecting taxes and tracking down those who still don’t pay them.
Then came the wave of illegal immigrants. Wops in reverse, ready to steal jobs and money. These were Albanians or Somalis, some of them heathen Muslims. Red alert. The wops, what Italians were called in New York a century ago, is apt because these new breeds have been tarred and labeled in the same way. The word was originally an acronym for Italians “without papers.” And aren’t those without papers predisposed, as if genetically, to find and exploit open doors? Pity that all my Albanian and Somali friends (others also) are stalwart, as were many New York Wops who didn’t lapse into the criminal underworld.
In any event, my object lesson is simple: if you’re headed to Rome, whether to an Airbnb room or your very own home sweet apartment, don’t leave your doors open unless you’re standing beside them, pickax in hand. And if your flat happens to lie along a long corridor, hiss occasionally at those entering other flats, so they know you mean business.
Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be labeled as a lunatic. But I have that title proudly covered, so please, yes, come right in.