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Madrid Reviving 400-Year Tradition of Night Watcher

December 29, 1985|JULES STEWART | Reuters

Madrid is reviving the centuries-old tradition of the night watchman, but there will be no place for the bowed old men who used to keep an eye on the city's streets.

The city's Socialist administration plans in April to bring back the sereno , named after the familiar voice on the street that sang out the hour, followed by " Sereno (all quiet)".

"The new serenos will be of a younger, more professional breed," Madrid's councilor for security and traffic Emilio Garcia said.

"We put them through rigorous physical tests, including rope climbing and jumping," he said in an interview. "It is no easy task to spend an entire winter night patrolling the streets of Madrid."

Only 200 of the 3,400 applicants got the job. No women made it through the final test, the 1,000-yard run.

Stemmed from Lamplighter

The 16th-Century tradition of the Madrid sereno stemmed from the city lamplighter, a familiar neighborhood figure who also ran errands and opened street doors for people who did not want to carry their keys, which in those days could weigh more than a pound.

"The people of each neighborhood would give the sereno the key to their street door," Garcia said. "Their only source of income was the tips they earned by opening doors or running to the druggist if someone's child took ill during the night."

There is a wealth of tales about serenos who helped members of Madrid's aristocracy and high society by arranging secret trysts between lovers and giving the all-clear signal to unfaithful spouses.

The ritual for calling the sereno was to stand in front of your door and clap your hand--he would reply with sharp taps on the pavement with his wooden stick.

Serenos were on call from dusk until dawn and could often be seen napping on chairs tucked into sheltered doorways.

"They eventually became a dying breed and few young people came forth to take this largely thankless job," Garcia said.

The last of the serenos was retired in 1973.

Garcia said the idea was to provide employment for jobless youth--Spain's unemployment rate is 20%--and resuscitate a popular figure linked to Madrid folklore.

"The new serenos will be respected city employees," he said. "They will get a salary of 70,000 pesetas ($450) a month and won't have to depend on charity."

They will also perform a security function: Serenos will wear a uniform and will be issued with walkie-talkies linked to police headquarters.

Garcia said serenos had always acted as a support to the police, since they were aware of the comings and goings of everyone in their territory, which usually covered several blocks.

"They knew who should and shouldn't be about at 3 a.m. and would alert the police to any strange movements in the neighborhood," he said.

He said the city did not intend the new serenos to perform the role of vigilantes, but their presence would provide reassurance for residents of Madrid's high crime areas.

He said that despite pressure from rightist members of the city council, the sereno s would not have firearms.

"They will carry a good stout stick, just in case," he said.

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