Yesterday, I was strolling along with La Bimba in the stroller, when a broom came lunging out of a basso doorway, nearly decapitating me. The broom belongs to a greasy-haired old lady; the basso’s interior, and as far out as she can lean onto the street from her waist-high door, is her domain. The lady has a slightly deranged look in her eye, and a permanently fixed half-smile to go with her permanently fixed house dress. Her smile always broadens when she sees La Bimba. I admit to quickening my pace a bit when she reaches out to touch La Bimba with trembling hand.
Try as I may, I don’t think I can do justice to the basso phenomenon. On the one hand, it’s not so hard to describe: street level housing, ground floor apartments that open onto the street. On the other hand, you need several hands and maybe a foot or two to capture what it means to live in a ground floor apartment in Naples. In the past, I have described it thusly:
“Residential in Naples means storefront-level housing called bassi. If you live in a basso, you live half your life on the street. I would say sidewalk, but there are too few sidewalks to mention in Naples. The street is where you set up your laundry rack (the bassi cannot string lines across the street like their upper floor neighbors; they would decapitate passing moped riders), your chairs to sit outside. It’s where you fight with your husband, serve your food in summer, smoke, drink, daydream. Your door is always open because you have no windows. Passers-by know what you’re having for dinner even if they’ve lost their sense of smell, know your favorite TV shows (and sometimes gather round to watch them with you), know the hour you turn down the sheets and get into bed. The bassi are what make Naples the most comic-tragic city in the western world.”
(Note that decaptitation appears twice in this short post. I sense a theme emerging).
Many basso inhabitants design their entrances to appear as front doors to country villas. There is latticework replete with climbing vines, potted plants, shrines to the Madonna or Padre Pio or both, shrines to dead relatives, their color glossies curling at the corners, canopies, columns, maybe a little fence. All of this aesthetic care does not, nevertheless, change the fact that when the inhabitant of a basso shakes out her rug, the dust mites hit La Bimba in the face; that when he eats his breakfast, a passer-by can see if the coffee is macchiato or not; that the monthly payments for the giant screen television mounted in the corner of the kitchen cost more than the rent; or that this house is supposed to be a garage, a blacksmith, a print shop.
The basso, along with the motorino, gives Naples its oddness, greatness, stubbornness, Naplesness. No matter how often I complain about it, Naples without the bassi would be just another western European capital, a place that has its physical spaces in all the right places: you shop here, you live there.
Mothers stand cut off at the waist at their Dutch doors like ticket vendors at a state fair, grandmothers hang out their colourful sheets like the welcoming flags of suburban America, fathers scream at their children to not get dirty and to come in for lunch. A woman picks at the pimples on her husbands back. A man drives by on his moped with his dog at the handlebars. Most bassi sit on streets where the sun’s rays do not reach. It is always dark and damp. Still, people are known to smile, and I thank La Bimba for that.