As a country, as a people, as Americans, what we lack is balconies. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the visuals. Some of the most poignant images I have from this pandemic are from Italy, a country I love, and more so as it goes through its devastation. There is nothing stopping the Italians. Even a virus. They have always and will forever sing arias from their balconies as the sun goes down. And the Parisians, from three stories up, applauding their medical workers at shift-change. And in Spain, a man on the street improvising a dance with a bag of garbage as he walks it to the bin, while above him, La Scala-style, his audience goes wild.
These balconies are the portal through which apartment-dwellers pass in order to share community. These balconies provide a call-and-response, which is the basic function of community. You say or do, and I reflect you. You sing your aria, and I join you. (Or I throw rotten tomatoes.) Without balconies we can only be observers. Life gets very internal and imbalanced.
My friend Gretchen who lives in Paris learned, from her balcony, that her neighbor cries at eight o’clock every evening. Her neighbor comes out on her adjacent balcony to weep, and at first my friend withdrew, wanting to give the woman privacy. One day the woman called across to her: No, please stay. We are more than two meters apart. May we talk? She told Gretchen her husband had died of cancer in early March, a few days before isolation was imposed, and she has had to grieve alone.
Every evening now they bring their suppers out on their balconies. They eat together, drink a glass of wine, and talk. Suppertime is the time this neighbor misses her husband the most, and Gretchen asks about him as she eats her arugula salad with brie cheese and a chewy baguette. What was his job? Did they always live in Paris? How did they meet? Were they married long? Are there children? Questions lead to answers, and answers to memories, and memories assuage our longing for those whose hearts stop suddenly and irreversibly, as his did. Balconies create the possibility of response to our call.
I grew up in a New York City apartment. New York is a city without balconies. It has front stoops where people sit, and windowsills where people lean, but no one I knew had a balcony. John F. Kennedy was president at the time and he preferred the Carlyle Hotel whenever he visited the city. The Carlyle was right around the corner from where we lived, and the excitement of my young life was to hang out the window of our third-floor apartment to watch the presidential motorcade go by. Kennedy sat in his bubbletop car, the top of his head clearly visible to me and my brothers and sisters. My older sister had once thrown a roller skate out that window and blamed it on my younger brother. In other words, it was a window with history. Kennedy came by once or twice a year, and though our parents had voted for Nixon, we kids thought of him as “our president.” To our way of thinking, we owned him. The top of his head wasn’t seen by many, precisely because America lacked balconies.
My friend Laura lives and teaches in Sofia, Bulgaria, and her balcony connects her to the world. Below her on the street, the older men of the neighborhood gather every morning. They stand in a circle, leaning in to hear one another while drinking their coffee. The circle gets smaller and tighter as the morning goes on, until finally they are all in a kind of embrace. She can look down from her balcony at the human scrum, or up and out at the beautiful old buildings of that Eastern European city. These days, the view from where she stands is of her neighbors doing exactly what she’s doing at that isolated moment: drinking coffee, looking out, finding others who share her world: a woman watering her plants; a man feeding a piece of bread to his dog; a mother stepping out to smoke a cigarette. Different lives, connected and divided. The streets are empty but the air is full of balconies.