When I moved to Madrid in the year 2001, I found the city so open, friendly and well organized as far as public transport was concerned that I decided to live a year without a car. My then husband had a car, so for going out of the city I was set. Everything else I did by taxi, bus, metro or walking. It was delightful, inexpensive and challenging; a wonderful adventure. I used to prance down the streets with the feeling that even my bones were singing.
After eleven months of living here, my husband and I broke up and I found a marvelous apartment which I bought immediately. While waiting for the apartment to be remodeled to suit my taste, I continued living in the house we had shared and spent most of my time walking back and forth to the apartment to oversee the work in progress. It was during one of those walks when a sign on the gate of the building in front of mine caught my eye: “Parking Space for Rent”. The building my apartment was in did not have a garage and parking on the street, from what I had seen so far, was sometimes almost impossible. It took me all of two minutes to decide: I walked across the street to the other building, found the doorman, asked how much the parking space cost and paid for the first month. That afternoon I bought myself a white Peugeot 206. When I moved into my apartment two weeks later I was all set up with parking and car.
I don’t exactly remember how much later I took note of a white metal door on a ground floor office or apartment that I passed on my way down to the garage. In bold letters it said: INSTITUTE. Occasionally, when I would get home after the movies, usually around 11pm I would see young women entering the Institute and I wondered what they were studying. My curiosity never went so far as to knock on the door and ask; rather my mind drew what seemed to me to be logical conclusions: these nighttime classes were for working persons who could only study at this untimely hour.
There was something else that drew my attention at that time which I noticed not only when I parked my car at night, but also when I took my little dog out for her last “pee” which was generally after eleven also. A young man in a car parked in an unusual way that left the front of the car pointing towards the street and the back up against the curb. The young man seemed to be waiting for someone, for he sat hour after hour in his car, watching a small portable television propped up on the dashboard. We would glance at each other as I walked past with the dog or on my way towards my house from the garage and I took to saying “good evening” and he to answering very pleasantly. I wondered what he was doing there every night and in time my mind drew another apparently logical conclusion: he was waiting for his girlfriend who attended night classes at the Institute.
Our “good evenings” extended across a period of several months; occasionally I would cross paths with one of the girls going to the Institute and say “good evening” to her too. I was terribly pleased to be living in such a friendly neighborhood, where it felt perfectly safe to walk one’s dog at any hour of the night or arrive home alone without fear of being accosted or followed. And I really began to develop an admiration and liking for the kind young man who so patiently waited for his girlfriend every night without fail.
One evening, when I strolled past the young man seated in the car and we proffered our “good evenings”, I felt a desire to strike up a conversation with him. After all we were practically friends, having addressed our greetings to each other all through the months of July, August and September, so rather than just say “good evening” and walk on, I stopped and walked a bit closer to the open window of the car. He looked at me somewhat quizzically and I smiled.
“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked. “I see you sitting here every night and I wondered if you were waiting for your girl friend.”
He smiled. “No, I’m on guard duty.”
I was surprised. “And what exactly are you guarding?” I inquired feeling a bit bewildered.
“That” he said pointing to the building under which I parked my car.
“Ah” I said, “that’s nice. Well have a pleasant evening,” and I moved on wondering at the generosity of life that it would put a guard out every night to keep an eye precisely on the building where I left my car, so that I could now feel completely safe crossing the street alone after dark. When I returned fifteen minutes later, I once again said “good night” and gave the nice young man a broad smile. It is so pleasant to know that one is taken care of, even if that wasn’t his primary purpose in being there.
A few days later, I was riding down in the elevator with a neighbor who had been living in the building a few years more than I had, and it occurred to me to mention my new information so see if she knew about it too.
“Do you know” I queried, “that there is a guard who comes every night to keep an eye on the building across the street? I mean, it makes me feel so absolutely safe when I take my doggie out for a walk at night.”
She looked at me strangely and then burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny?”
She took my arm and drew me a bit closer, as if someone might overhear what she was about to say.
“My dear girl, that man is a bouncer for the ‘house that’s not a home’ across the street.”
I looked at her in disbelief, and then I too burst out laughing: “You mean the ‘Institute’ is a brothel?
“Yes, a very high class one it seems and he’s in charge of collecting from the customers or getting rid of them if they get rowdy.”
After that I noticed things that I hadn’t looked closely at previously. I saw that around the corner from the “Institute” there were four windows and each one had a lamp hung outside of it. During the early hours of the evening, the lamps were all dark, but after eleven, usually one, two or all four were lit. Next to the door, on the paneling there was an announcement that all types of credit cards were accepted. Several times I saw taxi cabs pulling up and one or two men descending from them and going over to talk to the young man in the car. And the clincher was a sign hung outside the door around Christmas time, announcing that the “Institute” would be open its usual hours (from 11pm to 7am) right up to December 23rd and would renew its business after January 6th.
My new knowledge didn’t stop me from saying “good evening” to the girls I passed or to the kind young man who was keeping watch from across the street, although I had no doubt he thought I was either damn stupid or incredibly naïve for my age. I did notice, however, that the smile with which I accompanied the “good evenings” had changed and now really was a smile directed inwards: I was so touched by my own innocence that I couldn’t keep from smiling.