People-watching means catching sight of citizens outside for severely limited circumstances — heading to shop for food, taking a brief stroll, walking the dog. Early in the lockdown, residents emerged at the stroke of 6 p.m. on their balconies, terraces or rooftops to sing and clap in a nationwide, simultaneous affirmation that they were alive and healthy. Soon, the novelty wore off. I was glad. That hour is when Italian authorities read out the numbers of the thousands of new cases, of the critically ill fighting for their lives against a virus that steals away breath, of the dead who lost the fight. One evening, someone shot off a firecracker just when the death toll was announced. I slammed shut the balcony’s doors.
One day, I spotted the driver of a utility truck deliver a pair of metal canisters to the apartment building directly across the street. Why would someone be ordering fire extinguishers at this time? Don’t they have enough to worry about?
Then it dawned on me: Those canisters might have been oxygen tanks. I wondered if the older couple on the second floor needed them. The husband comes out on his balcony every morning in his underwear to flap his pajama top. Had I seen him that morning? That evening I went out on my balcony to see if the couple would be watching TV as they have done for years. To my relief, there they were — sitting a safe distance apart on the couch.
After darkness comes, my street is deserted. The Sicilian restaurant on the corner is shuttered for the lockdown. There are no Romans chatting outside about how wonderful the grilled calamari were, no hugging friends goodbye before they get in their cars, shouting, “Buona notte! Buona notte!”
My building sounds dead, too. Somewhere on the floor above, I hear a man coughing. I trust he is OK. My 15-year-old refrigerator shudders with an awful noise. I pray it won’t conk out on me now. I drift off to sleep thinking of the sound I am grateful not to hear: that of a ringing telephone, someone calling with some bad news about a loved one too far away.
A few days ago, during my daily balcony breather, I caught a snippet of life so reassuring that I burned it in my mind to help see me through Month Two. A girl, maybe 2 years old, walked jauntily behind a man, likely her father. She was clutching a brown paper shopping bag nearly as big as she was. At the corner, the man took both the bag and her hand.
After they crossed, she tugged at her father’s hand to get the bag back. Then she set off, confidently, this time a few steps ahead of him.
“Virus Diary,” an occasional feature, will showcase the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. See previous entries here, and follow longtime Rome correspondent Frances D'Emilio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fdemilio