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Summer  18  The whole city to himself

(Italo Calvino — Estate  18  La città tutta per lui)

For eleven months of the year, the population loved their city, and critics impugned it at their peril; the skyscrapers, the cigarette machines, the wide-screen cinemas were all indisputable contributors to the city’s unfailing charm. The only inhabitant to whom this feeling could not be attributed with certainty was Marcovaldo; but what he thought was, in the first place, difficult to know, given his limited powers of communication, and, in the second place, it mattered so little that it came to the same thing.

At a certain point in the year, the month of August began. And a change of general sentiment was immediately in evidence. No one had a good word for the city any more; the same skyscrapers and pedestrian underpasses and car parks, which had been so beloved the day before, had become antipathetic and irritating. The population wished only to get away as soon as possible; and they were in such a mad rush to cram trains and clog motorways that by the 15th of the month they had indeed all departed. Except for one. Marcovaldo was the only inhabitant not to leave the city.

In the mornings he went out to walk around the centre. The streets stretched ahead, broad and endless, empty of traffic, deserted; the facades of the buildings, from the grey wall of lowered shop shutters to the countless slats of Venetian blinds, had been sealed off like defensive bastions. All year Marcovaldo had dreamed of being able to use the roads as roads: that is, by walking in the middle. Now he could do it, and he could pass traffic lights at red, cross the road slantwise, and stop in the middle of the squares. But he understood that the pleasure wasn’t so much in doing these unaccustomed things as in seeing everything through a different lens: the streets as valley bottoms or dry river beds, the buildings as ranges of precipitous mountains or sheer cliff faces.

Agreed, it was the lack of something that caught the eye; but not the absence of the line of parked cars, or of the traffic jam at the crossroads, or of the flow of the crowd through the doors of the department store, or of the little island of people standing waiting for the tram; what was lacking to fill the empty spaces and to bend the rectangular surfaces was, perhaps, a flood caused by a burst water main, or an invasion of tree roots along the avenues breaking through the tarmac. Marcovaldo looked around, searching for the flowering of a different city, a city of tree bark and fish scales and blood clots and nervous systems under the city of paint and tar and glass and plasterwork. And here was the apartment block in front of which he passed every day, revealed to him in reality as a quarry of grey porous sandstone; the wooden fence around a building site was made of pine planks, still green, with knots which looked like buds; on the sign for a big fabric store there rested a swarm of little clothes moths, asleep.

You could say that as soon as the city had been deserted by humans it had been leased to inhabitants hidden until the day before, who now had the upper hand; Marcovaldo’s stroll followed for a short time the route of a line of ants, then let itself be diverted by the flight of a stray beetle, then lingered to accompany the sinuous progress of an earthworm. It wasn’t only animals invading the scene; Marcovaldo noticed that on the newsstands, on the northerly side, a thin film of mould was forming, and that the dwarf trees in pots in front of the restaurants were straining to push their leaves beyond the shadowy limit of the pavement. But did the city still exist? That agglomeration of synthetic materials which constrained Marcovaldo’s days now revealed itself as a mosaic of separated stones, each clearly distinguished from the others to the eye and to the touch through their hardness and warmth and consistency.

And so, forgetting the function of pavements and zebra crossings, Marcovaldo was wandering up and down the streets with the zig-zag motion of a butterfly, when suddenly the radiator of a convertible driven at a hundred kilometres an hour stopped a millimetre from his hip. Half out of fear, half from the blast of air, Marcovaldo leapt upwards and fell back senseless.

With a great screech the car braked, almost turning round on itself. A group of young men in shirtsleeves jumped out. ‘They’re going to beat me up,’ thought Marcovaldo, ‘because I was walking in the middle of the road!’

The young men were armed with strange items of equipment. ‘At last we’ve found him! At last!’ they said, surrounding Marcovaldo. ‘So here,’ said one of them, holding a silver stick close to his mouth, ‘here is the only inhabitant remaining in the city on the Feast of the Assumption. Excuse me, sir, would you give your impressions to our viewers?’ And he thrust the little silver stick under Marcovaldo’s nose.

A beam of dazzling light shot out, it was as hot as an oven, and Marcovaldo was about to faint. They had pointed spotlights at him, TV cameras, microphones. He babbled something; at every three syllables he uttered, the young man interrupted him, turning the microphone towards himself. ‘Ah, so, you mean…’ and went on to speak for ten minutes.

In short, they interviewed him.

‘And can I go now?’

‘But of course. We thank you most warmly. On the other hand, if you have nothing else to do, and you’d like to earn a few thousand lire… would you mind staying here to give us a hand?’

The whole square was turned upside down: lorries, towing trucks, cameras on dollies, batteries, lighting systems, teams of men in overalls lounging around from one side to the other, sweating profusely.

‘There she is, she’s arrived! She’s arrived!’ And from an open-top custom-built limousine a film star emerged.

‘OK, lads, we can start the fountain shoot!’

The director of the TV programme Follie di Ferragosto began issuing instructions for filming the famous diva plunging into the principal fountain of the city.

They had given Marcovaldo, the odd-job man, the task of shifting a bank of spotlights on a heavy pedestal around the square. The vast space now buzzed with machinery and the hissing of lamps, it echoed with hammer blows on the improvised metal scaffolding and with shouted orders… Marcovaldo was dazzled and dazed. To his eyes, the everyday city had usurped the place of that other city, glimpsed for a mere moment, or perhaps only dreamed.