Death of a Doorman
My previous portero died unexpectedly. One day he was there – a fat and jovial man, bald, glasses, head pushed a little forward giving way to the staircase of rolls in the back of his neck, always with a kind word, or the latest English phrase he’d taught himself, Goot eebening, or just to hold open the elevator door – and then the next he wasn’t.
He just didn’t turn up to his job manning the foyer of our downtown Barcelona apartment block and it was after two days of his absence that I knew something wasn’t right; he’d never leave without organising a replacement, or at least letting us know that he was going to be elsewhere.
On the third day a handwritten note appeared on his booth from the young family on the floor below mine saying simply, Et trobarem a faltar Jordi, Catalan for “Jordi, we will miss you”.
On the fourth day, I went snooping on Jordi’s Facebook wall and it was confirmed by friends of his that he had indeed passed, but without any information as to how, or why, which I guess is customary, but still those questions nagged. I did know it was sudden – in our lives one day and without warning the next he was not, but was it sudden as in a heart attack, as he was a bigger man and his health had concerned me privately, or a scooter accident on his daily commute to his own apartment building in the suburbs? Was it something less desirable to process, like how do men younger than 60 die suddenly? The stats on that are easy to consult, but it doesn’t make for comfortable reading.
While almost unwaveringly jolly on the surface, I’d heard that Jordi was struggling with the breakup of his marriage and the difficulty he was having connecting with his kids in the aftermath. The marriage dissolved in a one-sided way and it wasn’t by his instigation. He had made efforts to fill the void with friends and activities – the group he’d motorbike with around the mountains and beaches of Catalunya, his barbershop quartet with whom he’d sing baritone as they performed at fetes and parties around the region, but still he felt a helplessness and despair over that profound change in his life.
An avid lover of music, Jordi had also shared on social media, on the assumed night of his death, some song lyrics that could have indicated, if you wanted to read into it that way, that he was depressed – ‘Paint It Black’ by the Rolling Stones.
It was quite sobering to have someone who I wasn’t necessarily close to, but with whom I’d share a joke and a chat with at least twice a day, be suddenly extracted from our life and there was an emptiness not dissimilar to, but not precisely, grief for the fortnight or so that followed. And while one inevitably moves on, the matter of how Jordi passed gnawed and the very real possibility that it was by his own hand and in a way that could have been prevented dragged behind me like a tree branch that had snagged onto my pants leg; if I’d read the signs and acted rather than simply brushing them off as being “nothing”, could I have said something to prevent that course of action, if that’s indeed the way he went?
Jordi’s elderly mother lives in the flat beneath ours. I guess that’s why Jordi took the job in our building – to be near and to take care of her and maybe so that she could take care of him. Sporadically, maybe once a month or sometimes more frequently, deep, theatrical, almost comical sobbing would come floating up the courtyard that half the building’s apartments open to, including ours and Jordi’s mother’s. It was a booming, baritone, boo hoo hoo, that would fill the shared space for five, or sometimes 10, minutes. I thought it was perhaps a drama game, an attempt to wail theatrically for the stage, because it was so unlike any expression of grief that I’d ever heard. I assumed, or hoped, that it wasn’t real; I never thought that it was Jordi taking refuge in his mother’s living room so that he could grieve about his broken-up marriage and estranged family. What I do know is that in the six months since Jordi’s departure from our lives I haven’t heard the sobbing, not once.
A portero/a arrives to your building around 8am and unlocks the big downstairs doors – mine are double carved wooden doors that swing inwards and must be three metres in total across and four high. The doors stay open until 2pm, when the portero will take a siesta, and open again from 4pm until around seven. The portero will mop the foyer, and the little bit of sidewalk immediately in front of the building, and receive packages and visitors throughout the day, and if the big double doors aren’t open we use our keys to open a smaller door within the doors, and visitors and deliverymen will buzz. For the most part, however, the portero’s job is to chat to the building’s residents, to be a hub of gossip both for the building and the neighbourhood, to keep an eye on things while everybody is at work and to act as an intermediary between tenant and landlord, or at least a sympathetic ear whenever the property baron one has the privilege of renting from is unresponsive to requests to maintain basic amenities.
Apart from all that, one’s portero is a person who we speak to more often than most, apart from perhaps the colleagues we work the closest with. They share their problems, although perhaps not all of them, and listen when you share yours. They sympathise with whichever pitfalls your family is going through and delight in your successes and triumphs and are sure to share your stories with the rest of the building – when the family downstairs says Hola in the stairwell it’s because the portero has told them all about you and given the intimation that you can be trusted. They are the spleen of the building, in that the building survives without them, but they just kind of hold things together quite nicely.
On the 1st of the following month Jordi’s replacement, Yolanda, arrived. Yolanda is a spunky mum of around 40 years with black hair and hooped earrings and a lot of energy bordering on neurosis, but charming neurosis. At first it was difficult to imagine there being a replacement for Jordi, a daily rock in our lives, but after a few days’ awkwardness Yolanda and I enjoyed the same warmth, consistency and quality of banter that had given me great pleasure with Jordi. We’d chat about the weather, the politics within our building and street, about the things that were going on in Barcelona – taxi strikes turned violent and the dwindling, but ongoing, independence movement.
Our lives in this city are shared with our doormen and women, and as a foreigner the guardians of our foyers can represent the closest local link to events that seem indecipherable. The closest thing we have to a safety net outside of our my little family unit and the handful of close friends I have here.
Yolanda has two sons, one young around eight who loves to come up to the rooftop terrace and play with our cat, Gazpacho, and an older son who I haven’t met. Yolanda is set to get married soon to a guy who doesn’t share half the amiability that she does with us, in fact I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him smile, but sometimes that’s the way love works. She lives in one of Barcelona’s satellite suburbs and is impressed by the amount I travel, either for work or pleasure, and says that she hopes to do that one day, but I think she knows that she won’t. Sometimes life is like that.
Two mornings ago she was unable to bend down to play with Miga (Spanish for Crumb), my sausage dog-mix rescue puppy, as is customary of a morning because she’d just had unexpected surgery two days before to slow her too-fast heart.
She was back at work, she explained, because she couldn’t afford not to be, and it was Monday and she was due to go off work for summer holidays on Friday anyway. She could take it easy, perform the bare minimum duties, and try to rest as much as possible. I went to work and insisted that she relax and that afternoon I saw her crossing the road, moving slowly, and I helped her across and told her to take care of herself. She gave me a smile and rubbed my arm and said that she would.
On Tuesday she wasn’t in the building, Wednesday or Thursday either, and by Friday afternoon I still hadn’t seen her or heard any news until the portero from the neighbouring building stopped me and let me know that Yolanda was rushed to the emergency room the previous night. Apparently she had overexerted herself on Monday, didn’t feel too good that night so took the next couple of days off and on Thursday night her appendix exploded and she was rushed to hospital. He didn’t know if it was related to her heart troubles, but it would be a horrible coincidence if it wasn’t.
At the time of writing the prognosis isn’t looking so great, and so not being a man of thought and prayer, and even less of love and light, I thought I’d put together a little ode to the porteros in my life and pay homage to the impact they’ve had on me – one that they’re likely to be absolutely unaware of. I’m not sure what else there is for me to do except for this.
Cover by armin djuhic