Lived in Bars

Since the seafood place in the piazzetta must not be making much money now that it can’t serve dinner, the family that owns it rented out the restaurant, its vibe, and its tough-looking old-town-feel to a film crew. To be fair, they’ve been doing this for years, since the little square feels remote, eternal, neorealist—qualities that productions often long to capture in their exteriors. This time, though, it seems clear that it’s a fundraising arrangement.

Rome Coronavirus Dispatch #7

Photograph by Francesco Pacifico

This is my seventh pandemic dispatch. The first was about my father’s hip replacement, the second was about my marriage, the third was about my toothache, the fourth was about alienation, the fifth was a fake TV recap, and the sixth was about power in the workplace. Now that cases have surged and a curfew has been instated, I’ve written about my neighborhood. —FP

Bars close at six, the curfew sets at ten. Six is also when it gets dark in the fall, and the first night of the curfew happened to be the Sunday daylight savings time ended. Right at six, the neighborhood got dark and deserted. We live at the bottom of a dead-end street that abuts a piazzetta where a seafood restaurant oozes with people every night, and there’s also a vineria round the corner. But on that first night when I went out to take out the trash before dinner it looked like 1 AM.

There’s not much we can do after six but visit or invite friends over: there’s a six-person limit, and the aperitivi and dumpling dinners are fast and frugal. These dinners have an endearing plus side as the limited timeframe lets them gather a sort of momentum, a sensual urgency. One night I found myself walking a friend to their car at ten to ten so they could rush back to their home nearby, the reason for the visit (a work meeting on the roof) hastily drawn to a close, the strangeness of not being the owner of one’s nighttime, not having the time to weigh things, loosen up.

Between six and eight there’s a little bit of action: the bars have booze to go, and you can get bread from the bakeries—there’s one near the square, in front of the vineria. I went there the other day at seven to buy some pizza al taglio for the aforementioned work thing, and since the margherita was hot, straight from the oven, I asked the baker if she would let me try a slice while she packed my tray with some spinach-stuffed pizza bianca. I took a bite and felt the pang of pleasure, only to hear her laugh and say, “What are you doing? They’ll fine me if they see you eating!”

I apologized. I’d assumed that only booze was outlawed as a potential enzyme of social undistancing, and I volunteered to go finish the pizza outside while she filled my order. “But that would be even worse!” she said. A police patrol could spot me. It probably wasn’t going to happen, she said, but the fact of the matter is that the government doesn’t want clusters of people anywhere after 6 PM. The bakery had posted a flyer above the counter conveying this fact. “We don’t mean to be rude,” the message said.

I shoved the pizza into my mouth, paid, and left with a friend who had waited outside but had kept up a conversation with me and the baker the whole time through the open entrance. We’re all now used to doing that, not-so-cold Rome having become a Colosseum, as the saying goes: a place where all the doors are left open like its hollow arches.

In springtime the bars had shut down for weeks, and then when the rate dropped over the summer they’d gone distanced and sanitized. That’s how they were throughout the summer. But as the number of people in ICUs started to soar in September, they found themselves bracing for a new lockdown. They had navigated an ever changing situation, gotten used to sticking countless signs on their windows explaining all the new rules of conduct and apologizing for the strict enforcement. Some of them reported that neighbors were calling the police about every possible infraction—not out of fear of infection but as a form of retaliation for having opened a bar on the ground floor of their building in the first place.

One afternoon toward the end of October I was talking to one of the owners of a bar I frequent almost daily. The place is important to me—it’s the place where I feel more comfortable hanging out alone. The owners are from Veneto and Poland, they’re my age, the mood is low-key and affectionate, and I love going by myself and just talking to people—I need the bar more than I need an actual social life. The owner was waiting for the next government decree and was worried that they were going to shut them down or close all the bars and restaurants at six. The news that they’d have to close at six was announced an hour after I left. I came back the following day and tried to be alone with the owner, I needed to ask him how they were doing, what plans they were making to stay afloat. The number of outside tables, arranged in an L-shape around the building, had ballooned to fifteen or so over the summer, and they decided they had good enough sunlight to attract some remote workers for lunch. “We’re shutting down for two days to regroup, plan hours and menu, buy a coffee machine,” the owner told me. I was there the day they reopened. I made an Instagram story asking people to come out for lunch so that when this is all over we’ll still have our bar.

Since then I’ve organized my work around the need to visit all three of my bars as close to daily as possible. The way things happen is through connection, of course, but mostly through money, and it’s shocking to me that recession is just a word for the moment in the free market when you can no longer get people to pass their money around. Yeah, no, sorry we’re not coming tonight, and we’re not coming tomorrow, we won’t give you our twenty euros, you’ll shut down. The money that’s not passed around is then vacuumed up by whatever outfit can withstand the pressure, while everybody else is at serious risk of bankruptcy, including the bartenders who have given me the best forties I could dream of.

I keep thinking about one year from now, when we regain our entire habitual freedom of movement and discover lots of places gone—places that are the reasons why we live where we live. I don’t want them gone!

I feel stupid when I tell people that one major reason I live here are bars, but it’s true, and it’s connected to the way I stumble upon close friends on the street. It’s community, but—and this isn’t to negate the nobler things that come to mind when we say that word—it’s community in the sense of not feeling miserable and alone. Of running into people instead of making plans. Of seeing people in public instead of in dusty houses that smell of detergent. My idea of sex is not a hotel room or, god forbid, a house but hiding behind a clump of trees or a car. I hate interiors, interiors that are disconnected from the street. Maybe it’s the Jane Jacobs idea of shop-owners keeping an eye on their portion of the sidewalk, and I’m the child roaming around gleefully, instead of being stuck at home. You shut the businesses and everything looks gloomy and dangerous.

This was never an issue in the residential neighborhood where I grew up. The only public space we spent any time in was church. My mother had a role there preparing kids for communion and confirmation, and young men and women for marriage. We played football on the church’s small cement pitch, and the scout office was there, along with a complex outdoor space with many nooks and crannies where teenagers could hide and make out. My mother had the church, but my father didn’t: he only went to mass on Sunday. At the same time, a bar wasn’t the kind of place he allowed himself to hang out in—the only exception I can recall is one summer at a seaside town, when he was either pissed or depressed or in a rut. After dinner he’d go out to play Frogger in a bar across the street—it was the only irregular thing I ever saw my father do in his whole life. I was maybe seven, so he must have been in his early thirties, a stressed-out husband and a fledgling businessman. I was in my mid-thirties when I realized that you could have your bar, know the owners, and feel welcome, and that moment was a revelation. I started to reflect on my parents’ cheerful dinner parties and conversations and the activities in church, marveling at how they didn’t have a place where they’d be welcome for the anguished adults they were and offered a drink: it occurred to me that when, as an adult, I’m present for a special dinner with friends and family and they don’t bring out a bottle before dinner is ready—wine?, some Campari and soda maybe?, plain beer?—they don’t act on the premise that adults need to unwind, especially when they’ve just arrived at some friends’ house after a long day. When I first thought about that I felt an intimacy with them, as if one of them had just opened up and confessed to the sin of unease.

Since the seafood place in the piazzetta must not be making much money now that it can’t serve dinner, the family that owns it rented out the restaurant, its vibe, and its tough-looking old-town-feel to a film crew. To be fair, they’ve been doing this for years, since the little square feels remote, eternal, neorealist—qualities that productions often long to capture in their exteriors. This time, though, it seems clear that it’s a fundraising arrangement. Three or four huge trucks came stomping down one morning at the beginning of November and parked right on the piazzetta. Cars that had been parked there were ordered to park elsewhere for a week.

There’s an old man in my street who worked on movie productions at some point during his life. He once told me that he’d spent ten years in prison for something very bad. It’s something so bad that when he told me about it I felt like a tragedy had just befallen me and the whole street. It was as if I was now sharing a space with people I’d never truly know, who have seen the thing Tolstoy’s characters see in those glitchy inflection points in his novels and stories. During the lockdown in March he told me not to worry because he had an Uzi at home, so we were fine. He’s the person I most often stop and talk to. He wakes up very early and starts drinking white wine at the trattoria, which doubles as a cafe during the day. He’s invited me over for lunch before, promising to tell me his whole story, but I’ve never accepted, and he also gives me hot peppers from the small vegetable garden he keeps on a concrete makeshift balcony he built on the street. My friend has lived in the neighborhood since before our street was paved. The apartment where he lives was carved out of the ground floor of two adjacent buildings.

He is old, and a widower, but he still asks to be involved professionally when film crews come and shoot in the neighborhood. He must be a fixer of some sort, but I have no idea if he gets paid or not—maybe it’s just old work friends who let him hang out. The area around the piazza is a close-knit community, and the two other important places in the square are a tabacchi, the small store where you buy cigarettes and stamps, and the comitato di quartiere, a building where an informal civic committee organizes public activities and takes care of problems. If the cable companies have to drill to put in new fiber-optic cables, as they did recently, the committee shows them where to store their equipment (in an abandoned lot). The group organizes the yearly concert and fair in honor of the young man from the neighborhood who was killed by fascists forty years ago. This is the kind of piazza this is. But the story I’m getting at, with the old man and the movie production, has to do with the tabacchi.

I was working in my yard one afternoon and I heard a man shouting. I came out and saw this young man who was screaming at my old neighbor that he wasn’t gonna have all that, the cinema, the bullshit, and things were gonna be crazy, he’d see. I tried to figure out if this was a dangerous situation and I thought of my friend’s Uzi, how one day he’d get drunk and take it out on the young man. The young man, who was some ten meters from the restaurant, right outside the tabacchi, shouted: “We’ve all been to jail, man, you’re not the only one,” implying, it appeared, that the old man had been flaunting his street cred as he mediated between the movie people and the locals. Then the young guy got so mad that he picked up a red metal barrier that must have been placed insultingly close to the tabacchi and threw it in front of him—not in the direction of the movie set, but close enough.

I was shocked by his action. In the following days I found out that this was a Netflix production, and that the guy who’d freaked out was one of the owners of the tabacchi. I buy chocolate bars and bus tickets there, and they are always impeccably kind to me—the stranger who moved here from the bourgeoisie. The following day I strolled by the restaurant, the set was still there and there was a police car out front, shiny and iconic and out of place with its creamy light blue colors. I spotted my neighbor and asked if it was there for a scene they were shooting.

“No,” he replied with somber confidence, “it’s for security.”

I found out from the owner of a bar that the Netflix production was a TV show starring three young comedians who made it big ten years ago with a YouTube sketch show nitpicking the neuroses of a well-to-do stoner middle class. One of them lives in the neighborhood.

When we bought this house, the slick architect who had remodeled the abandoned one story building, which might have been a shooting gallery, told us there was good diversity in this specific area. And it really is an area, rather than a neighborhood: an enclosed space made up of one long street, the ladder of dead-end streets crossing it, and the piazza in the middle. What the architect meant was that there were people like me and people like my neighbor around, as well as the comitato giving the whole area some psychological structure. It’s never been a place that you can merely consume, at least not for me. Since I don’t have a job, I’m always around during the day, which means the unemployed people and the hustlers see me and I see them, and I know I have to say hi to a certain number of important people, and that their friends will never say hi to me.

Since the economy has been transformed by the pandemic faster than any other crisis I’ve witnessed in my life, some roughness that was previously concealed has made itself felt. The amount of goodwill and irony required to help different classes live elbow to elbow is enormous and it works better if the system is not shaken up like it has been over the past few months.

A guy recently stationed himself outside a different kind of bar—not a drinking bar, an espresso bar outside our enclave but in the neighborhood. He looks like he just came back from god knows where and is now back patrolling his area and has a huge black dog. This is how they entered my life: One morning I was lined up outside the pharmacy and this tall and scary dog appears from around the corner and then this leathery Roman face appears. The guy is dressed in a black tracksuit, his neck is covered in tattoos, and he’s got this half-meek half-proud smile. He tells everyone in line that his dog is the sweetest of them all. The dog had no leash and was very gregarious, but it still looked menacing to me and all the old ladies, who were very perplexed to meet him that way. A bunch of people like this guy have appeared recently, people who weren’t around the area before the pandemic. What sort of shift is this? They look like the more intense cousins of the people I’ve learned how to live with.

The bars I’ve been talking about are not lifestyle bars. The owners are people from different layers of the counterculture and the bulk of the patrons feel like they’re paying a visit, not picking a bar from a list. Still, they’re not bars from the same frequency of society—from the same class and clan—as the espresso bar where the tattooed guy shows off his dog. Maybe this guy’s bar has more of a chance to stay alive than our bars, because it belongs to a stratum of our area’s population that has been here longer and might know its way around, might have some kind of safety net in place. That could be magical thinking, though. Our bars, too, are rooted in a way. They are frequented by people who have nurtured the area’s countercultural scene for the past twenty years—and I don’t mean hipsters who eventually move on to higher and bigger business, but people who choose to live outside the grid, culturally speaking, and not pursue a place in the intelligentsia. But then maybe they’re the ones who have more access to money, and maybe they’ll outlast the black dog bar.

Next year might be when I find out if my neighborhood has opted, or managed, to go back to what it was like before I was here. Or the opposite might happen, and people like me might predominate and take whatever is left. Or maybe the change will be less dramatic and some members of both classes will find resources to maintain their way of life, and their own topography.

This is the fabric of experience, and it’s a scary thought that a change in what we see around us occurs one real estate contract at a time, stochastic but mesmerizingly harmonious like a piece of computer-generated ambient music.

I’ve tweaked my pace according to the hours I’m allowed to go out. Drinking at lunchtime, rushing out to meet people, then working in the evening. But while my wife and I wait to see what will happen to the neighborhood, we have retreated and are investigating the space inside our walls. We drink less than we did during the lockdown, and since I start drinking so much earlier during the day, I tend to stop hours before going to sleep. We used to be noisy and unable to be still when we were together, but over the past months we’ve practiced emptiness, and now the house shimmers with silence. My wife also took up the guitar, and we’ve just bought an upright piano because either of us can strum it. So now our house is a place where we are used to all that silence that builds up from 6 PM onward, and we know how to carve music into that slab of silence.

We bought the piano from a dealer of used instruments who started caressing it when the two movers took it inside our house and put it in place, then played it to see if it hadn’t been shocked by the move, but it really looked like he was reassuring it, helping it make itself at home.

It has a huge body that throbs when we talk. Its strings are a flock of electric birds, and their collective tension, tons of it, will hug you in undertones when you play it. The sound will hold you to its breast. We spend our evenings hovering around this creature and we take turns practicing; or she plays guitar, I play the piano, and we sing, and the cloud of overtones and undertones envelops us and keeps us together as we wait, slower and slower by the day.

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