Sounds of the Night§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: February 28, 2006; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 717

My Simple Bedroom

It seems that wherever I live in the world, I gravitate towards a night schedule. Living in Europe, though, has the advantage of putting me in synch with the waking schedule of friends and business associates in the U.S. So for the first time in my life, I can call people on the telephone at midnight and not expect to be abused when they answer and again when they next see me. Unfortunately, I can’t call them every night. They have their own lives back in the U.S. and I’m no longer part of it — at least not the way I used to be.

So, during the night while I work, I sit alone and re-run the few American films I have on DVD for background noise. I play an assortment of Humphrey Bogart films, a couple of the Cohen Brother films (Fratello, Dove Sei? — sorry, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?, and The Big Lewbowski), and several other odd movies. Some nights I put on favorite MP3’s — jazz, blues, techno-house. Sometimes I put on songs which make me cry and sometimes songs which make me feel good. It depends on how I want to feel, whether I have crying that I need to get out of my system. Sometimes, though, I sit with no television, no music, and no sound. Instead, I listen to the sounds of my apartment building and my neighborhood.

Certain nights of the week, especially when it’s moderately warm, the bar below my apartment is playing Euro techno-house music and people are standing in the street below my window, talking, laughing, and smoking. When I first moved here I thought this to be a terrible situation. But now I like them there. They keep me company. I will occasionally open the windows so I can hear them better. I can’t make out what they’re saying since I’m on the third floor and they’re speaking Italian. Nevertheless, I understand the feel of their words and laughs. They’re glad to be talking and to be together — and I’m glad to sneak in on their gladness. Occasionally, I will take my book and sit in one of the comfortable chairs in the bar (if it’s not too crowded) and read while I sip on a red wine or a cool glass of limoncello. Limoncello is a splendid concoction, by the way. It’s a lemonade drink with about thirty-six percent alcohol. The barkeeps are all nice and they make me feel welcome when I come in by calling me Rosario and shaking my hand. I have no friends amongst the regulars and there are many. This bar was a gathering place in the early part of the 20th century for writers, artists, philosophers and other great thinkers. Now there only seems to be me, the one writer, and a group of people I like and admire.

Around one or two in the morning, a young woman comes to the bar on her bicycle with her Jack Russell Terrier riding in the basket on the handle-bars. She’s well known by the group; everyone pets her dog. She’ll go in the bar with her dog for a while, but spend much of her visit outside. I wish I knew her name and knew her. She seems sweet. In time I may know her and many more, but for now I am limited to those who work there. Depending on the night, the regulars will disban suddenly and unexpected: Tonight it was at 12:30, other nights it could be at 2 or 3:00 a.m. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, the pattern is odd, but the locals understand it and are in synch with it.

It’s quiet now. The bar is closed. I hear the occasional noise of a neighbor. Somewhere in the night, the young woman in the next apartment — I’ve never seen her outside of her apartment, but I assume she’s a young woman since her voice sounded young when I heard her cries recently while she was enjoying some intimate time in her bedroom with her boyfriend — she will spontaneously hang up a garment in her closet. I’ll just hear the sound of light metal on the rod for just a moment, at least once after midnight. She will go hours making no penetrating sound and then suddenly, there it is, a hanger scraping across a metal rod for just a second. It comforts me, like the tapping on the pipe from a fellow inmate. She also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time washing dishes: I can hear her placing her dishes in a metal rack for drying. But she does this several times during the evening and in the morning, never at night.

I said it’s quiet now, but I still hear cars climbing my street here and there. It’s a one-way and narrow street, which one would think would reduce the amount of traffic along it. It does not. It seems convenient to use when trying to cut across from one sizable and popular street, a corso and another. It’s a short-cut for the neighborhood.

As I write this, I hear the street cleaners coming by. They are like a small parade, like flambeau carriers to me. A few men with lime yellow vests and long brooms will go ahead of a noisy sweeper truck. The brooms are uncut and have a swishy look like a witch’s broom. The men will sweep trash from the sidewalk and from under cars out into the street rapidly while the sweeper truck with it’s slight beeping sound goobles up the debris thrown before it. This band of sweeper men and sweeper truck work their way through the neighborhood every night. Italians naturally litter, but they municipally do something about it at least.

Later in the night, I will hear the firm and determined tap of a woman going by. I know the sound well, even though it’s rarely the same woman. As a man who loves women, I know when a woman is near. This sound is like a harp being plucked quickly on the thicker strings. It’s an unmistakable sound. Sometimes I will sit and hear her with her boots lightly chopping her way down the street, trying to walk briskly to keep warm, to get home sooner, and to seem less of an opportunity for a would-be attacker. Being on the third floor (second floor in Italian terms), I can open my window and look down and watch her go by without disturbing her. I have never been observed looking out my windows by anyone, day or night. Italians never look up, I guess. Anyway, I will watch the single late night woman traverse my side street. Like all Milanese women, she will have a slender figure, a fashionable and sexy looking long jacket, maybe a scarf, a purse, and long beautiful hair. From here, every one of them look so beautiful. Well, actually, all Italian women look beautiful to me. When a lone woman walks by, though, I will look down from my window and think about how there is an endless stream of beautiful women who go past my window all day and there’s even a stray one every night, in the latest hours of the night, sometimes at 4:00 a.m. I’ll watch this lone woman and wonder where she is coming from and where she is going. I will wonder if she has just broken up with her boyfriend — it being so late for her to be out alone — and her quick stepping attitude is an indication of her anger and determination for independence. All of the women I meet in Italy are either married or have a boyfriend. When I watch the lone woman go by, I think that maybe this is the one moment when an available woman can be found. Because I know that by the next evening she will have a new boyfriend, or have made up with the old one, I feel a bit of panic at the fleeting opportunity. A woman that beautiful has too many options and there are too many eager men here for her to be available for long. Unfortunately, I can’t introduce myself to a woman on the street at four in the morning from my third floor window and I can’t go downstairs and do it on the street since she would think I was some sort nut (which I am) or trying to assault her. Instead, I must watch her go by and merely sigh.

At 4:30 every morning, I hear a man pulling a cart on squeeky wheels. He pulls it slowly through the inner yard of my apartment building. I never hear him come in, so I don’t know if he’s coming from outside, from one of the shops in the building, or from the bar or restaurant. I guess he is coming from cleaning the bar. He quietly begins and squeeks his way into my consciousness. He makes his way to just below the entrance of my apartment and he begins dumping empty bottles into the recycling bins below. He does this without fail every night, almost always at 4:30 a.m. He doesn’t try to be quiet about it and no one ever complains. His noise is part of the night and has long been accepted. After about ten minutes of dumping, he wheels his cart out of the yard somewhere at the other end.

Around five in the morning, the milk man comes by. A truck dispatched from a dairy stops in front of the baker’s store across the street. He pulls up the metal garage-door like shutter over the entrance to the bakery and inspects the dairy case to determine what the baker needs. I’m not sure if the baker is there — he may be awake and in the back baking. But the milk man does his duties alone. He restocks the dairy case with milk, butter, yogurt, and other items that I’m not sure of yet. I have to say, although I don’t enjoy much of the food in Milano, they do have the freshest and creamiest dairy products. This includes cheeses that will make you cry, they’re so good. When the milk man is done, he’ll close the shutter and drive off to the next bakery — there are two on my short block alone.

At six once or twice a week, the trash pick up will begin. I think they pick up regular garbage on one day and then another day they collect trash to be recycled. Someone hauls the trash bins from the storage or trash room in our court yard out to the curb during the night, always after I’ve locked myself in, but never before midnight. I guess the old man who manages the building with his wife does it, but I’ve never seen him do it. The sound of garbage cans full of bottles being dumped into the back of the trucks is grinding. It’s quite a commotion, but no one seems to notice. It irritates me a little, but this is usually when I am either already deeply asleep, or crashing fast. So I don’t mind too much.

Living alone as I am these days, I appreciate all of these sounds. They comfort me, they keep me company at night, and as I look forward to them and am soothed by them, I know that I am becoming in tune to the motions of my new community.