The Spanish nightwatchman

A revealing note from Fran Harper’s Spanish phrasebook (1963, “text by Joan I de Corvera”):

If you stay in a hotel or private boarding house which has no all-night porter, and return after 10.30 p.m. in winter, or 11 p.m. in summer, the outer door will be opened by the “Sereno,” who is a kind of night watch-man, with a certain number of streets to look after. To call him, clap your hands loudly. He will advertise his coming by striking his wooden staff on the pavement. It is usual to give him one or two pesetas for this service.

Since you knew where serenos were going to be, it was easier to bribe them than municipal policemen (see eg the deal struck by Pablo Cerdá with his sereno during the Barcelona revolution of 1843). In fiction I believe they tend to figure as an intermediate point between cops and building concierges, having in common with the latter household secrets but not sexuality. I know next to nothing about the profession in the Republic of Anglosajonia, but I wonder if the nineteenth century proponents of the nightwatchman state understood that, apart from walking their lonely rounds singing now and then the hour of the night at the top of their voice, short pike in one hand and a lantern in the other (Scenes in Spain, on GBS), serenos expected you to hand over your house keys.

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