Hello young’un, are you looking for something?
She’s good – she knows I don’t live here. An impressive memory given the building must have at least 200 residents.
I’m here to see you!
María de las Mercedes was intrigued. I unashamedly explained that I’d wandered into her building one evening when she wasn’t here, having heard that this street in particular has many hidden corralas.
There turn out to be no corralas here, but it does have a staggering four connecting courtyards and a seemingly endless tunnel between them. The building also still has its original municipal fountain from 1940, decades before bathrooms were installed inside each flat.
I wanted to know more, and as we chatted, stories from her 30 years as a concierge began to unravel…
‘When I first took the job here, every single apartment was Spanish. Also, the building was filthy. You could shovel the dirt off the stairs! Now look at it – I keep it clean and organised. Nobody makes a mess here. They know that if they do, they’ll have me to answer to!’
THE SHOE FIGHT
‘Twelve years ago was when the first foreigners moved in. Nowadays, there are many nationalities, and a lot of morenos. One afternoon, many years ago, I heard someone shouting. I went to see what was going on and the patio floor was covered in men’s shoes – really big shoes – a size I’d never seen before! Because, you know, Spanish men have little feet.
‘There were two morenos on opposite sides of the patio, shouting and throwing their shoes at each other! So I said,
I’ll give you one minute, and if you don’t come and collect your shoes, I’m throwing them in the bin! I’ll start with his shoes first, and then yours!
Well, they stopped arguing, apologised, and came and collected their shoes.’
THE GUILTY-LOOKING LADY
‘We had one woman who lived on the top floor, who never said hello – she always just scurried past me and up to her flat. Then one day, a man came in and asked me where the lady’s flat was, so I explained, and up he went.
‘After weeks of seeing him come and go, I saw her leaving the building with suitcases in her hands. I asked her where she was going, and she said she was off to her village for a while. When I asked her what about the man, she said, “I didn’t do anything!” You should have seen her face – she looked so guilty! I was thinking, has she locked him inside the flat or something? I still laugh about it to this day.’
THE OLD MAN WITH THE RED BOW TIE
‘When I was young and beautiful, a very old man used to come and see me every single day. He wore a different outfit each time, but it was always white with a little red bow tie under his collar. He would come with flowers, asking me to be his girlfriend – every day for months!
‘One day, I was mopping the floor, and when he came and asked me once again if I’d be his girlfriend. I said,
You want a girlfriend? Here!
and handed him the mop.
There’s your girlfriend!
He kept coming back for a few more weeks, but after that, I never saw him again.’
María has a thousand other tales, but she’s careful only to recount older stories, respecting the privacy of the residents that currently live here.
As well as cleaning, receiving post, and providing comfort and security to her residents, María has invaluable long-term knowledge of her building. She knows every square inch, who has lived here and who has died here. She knows things you wish you knew, and things you’re glad you don’t.
There are still many Marías in Madrid, but most concierge offices now sit empty. Several times a day, we walk past the small corners in which the concierge once sat. We’ve lost the friendly face who breaks up fights and shoos away pests. We’ve lost the guardian of our building and the keeper of our secrets.
María’s job is secure, for now. But when she retires, she may be replaced with a camera – it’s up to the neighbours to decide.
Before I left, I asked María if her building was anything like the well-known Spanish TV show Aquí no hay quien viva – a sitcom about the lives and dramas of a dozen Madrid residents living in a building similar to María’s. Her response?