Within the apartment buildings of central Santiago there exists an uneasy truce between tenants and concierges. These gatekeepers are the guardians of our safety, the custodians of calm, the keepers of the peace. No visitor, postal service worker, or pizza delivery person can even get close to you until they have gone through the fellow at the front desk. They are the mediators between you and the chaos outside. They mark your comings and goings, take note of who your friends are, and stoically witness you stumbling in at four in the morning. They say little, but they see all.
I have encountered, and defeated, many concierges in my time here, but there have been none who have filled me with quite a sense of foreboding as the one who guards the narrow lobby of my current building.
When I first met my concierge, I concluded that he was not long for this world. His sickly pallor and straggly hair gave the impression that he was a man slowly letting go of his earthly body. His hair hungered for a brush. His clothes longed for the laundry. The first time I laid eyes on him he struck me as a filthy man, and beyond that I gave him no thought at all. I simply made myself at home, and waited for him to die.
But he did not die. A few weeks after I moved in, I came home one day and discovered that my concierge had obtained a haircut. The change in his appearance was so drastic that I slowed my pace to get a better view. For the first time I could see his face clearly. The neatened hairstyle, trimmed to a grey bristle along the back and sides, threw his countenance into sharp relief. While aged and lined, his face didn’t look half bad. The thin silver glasses that enlarged his eyes to a ludicrous degree now made him seem academic, intelligent.
A few days after that, I noticed that he had found himself a leather jacket. I would have thought it incomprehensible that a fifty-something man living a sedentary life would be able to make a leather jacket look good, but somehow my concierge was able to pull it off. In open defiance of all the odds, my concierge was starting to look healthier.
I soon learned that my concierge was a man of noise. I would enter the building at odd moments and catch him humming tunes that, I surmised, he was composing on the spot. At times he would sing unintelligible songs at a volume far too loud for the small lobby in which he was encamped, his gruff voice sounding like a car pulling into a gravel driveway.
Probably the most distressing aspect of his nature was the cacophony produced by the unnatural machinations of his being. Often as I crossed the lobby from the elevators to the front door, I would hear him heave an exhausted breath from his lungs, stale air scraping phlegm up from a gnarled throat. Sometimes I would hear him clearing his throat for such long intervals that I believed he was timing it to the tune of the Imperial March. Once, as I stood on my balcony on the tenth floor of the building, I heard him sneeze. It was a sneeze to end worlds. It was less an expulsion of air than it was an open-mouthed howl. Moments after he had wailed out that ungodly sound I felt the concussion that followed the blast rattle up the elevator shaft and tremble the ground on which I stood.
It is my habit to avoid conversing with my concierges. I came into this country not knowing how to speak Spanish, and at that time I fell into the habit of keeping relations with concierges as non-communicative as possible. Even as my Spanish skills have progressed, I cannot shake the quirk of being unable to speak to the man behind the desk. Every time I enter or leave a building, the best I can muster is a feeble “Hola” or “Hasta luego.” But in an attempt to broaden my range I have also taken to echoing the words that concierges say to me. If they say “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” then I will repeat that phrase back to them. My current concierge has noted this and, although I cannot prove it, I suspect that he has turned it into a game. He rarely acknowledges me, and when he does he chooses his moments ever so carefully. Some might say that he is simply slow to react, but I am convinced that his comments are timed to fluster me and break my stride.
Sometimes I will be on my way out of the building, and as I pass by the front desk I will tip my head and say, “Hasta luego” without adjusting my speed. I receive only silence from him in return. I reach the front door, twist the handle, and push the door outwards. As I plant one foot outside he calls “Buenos días” to me in a loud, breathy sigh.
In that moment, I am caught off guard. Suddenly I feel as if my “Hasta luego” was rude. It’s like saying “See ya later” when I should have said “Good morning.” So to make amends I turn my body, which is already outside the building, and weakly croak “Buenos días,” but before I can finish saying “días” the door has already swung closed, and my words are nothing but fog against glass. Through the door I see my concierge. He hasn’t even looked up from sorting the mail.