It’s a memory: I don’t live in Milan yet. But I’m visiting the city with one of my best friends, Keith. We’ve had a couple cocktails too many, and we’re roaming the swanky Via Senato aimlessly going I-don’t-remember-where. Keith’s eye, ever on the lookout for a dramatic catalyst, is caught by the bling of a brass installation next to an imposing double wooden door fit for a castle. It’s the building’s “citofono” or buzzer—that singular instrument of passage given or passage denied which separates you from any building’s residents after the doorman’s gone off duty.
Keith reads through the names until he finds one he likes. “Ah, Versace! Yes, these are old friends of mine!” Then he buzzes and fakes the following conversation: “I’m here for my fitting! Let me up at once!” We laugh like the drunk idiots we are, then cruise to the next door, where we pick another name, buzz another buzzer, spin another tale.
I rarely confront a citofono without remembering that night, and how, in many ways it was the beginning of my own story here—my own real story, where I did indeed gain access, eventually starting a life on the other side of the buzzer.
While many Milanese apartment buildings—palazzi—have doormen, many others do not. But they all have the the citofono. Some are old-fashioned and ornate, adorning equally old and ornate buildings like bejeweled lapel pins. Others are modern, hi-tech affairs. Others are gray and sad with names missing, indicators of empty units or persons desperately in need of not being found. Some have video cameras that “see” you. Others require that you use only your voice to identify yourself.
In any case, they put you on a tiny stage for one. You buzz, you wait, and when you hear the voice on the other end (Sì?), you perform. It’s quick and usually painless. If you’re responding to an invitation, sometimes a simple Sono io will suffice. “It’s me.” If not, you may be required to go into more depth. Your name. Whose parent or child or second cousin you are. Why you’re there. What you’re delivering. And then, usually, there it is: that heavy, reassuring click—the disengagement of moving metal parts—inside the door which declares that you have successfully gained entry. And then, yes then, you are no longer on the outside, but on the inside. And things look quite a bit different there.
But I’m not sure that being on the inside is quite as perfect as staying on the outside, looking at the names, knowing that every one represents a life or a web of interwoven lives—the stuff of human drama unfolding even as you stand there imagining it. In that instant before you yourself cross the barrier, not only are the drama and its players on the other side up to your own imagination, but—as my friend Keith demonstrated—so are you. “Tell Donatella I’ve got places to go and people to see, and I can’t be kept waiting another minute…”