The neighbors across from me in Casco Viejo wake up around six AM. The wife cooks fried dough on a portable burner and the husband shaves without cream with the help of a handheld mirror. I know this because their doors are wide open for the world to see, or maybe more accurately for me, considering I’m the only one at their eye-level.
The balcony itself is the epitome of wear and tear. The white plaster is moldy in spots, the old layers of paint are peeling, and the wooden floor sags under the pressure of too much weight. Strung across the balcony are always someone’s clothes. On this particular morning, there’s a white bed sheet that’s held up by about ten different colored clothespins. Next to it sits an improvised TV antenna affixed to the railing that more closely resembles a wire hanger fashioned atop a broomstick. The terra cotta roof of the balcony has, as I can count from this vanish point, three small trees growing out from it. Besides the trees, patches of weeds emerge from just about every major crack in the foundation.
Not unlike those weeds, the residents of this building reproduce aggressively. There are something like twenty people living in confines that look more like farm stables and the front door, which gives access to all individual living spaces, is left open day and night. Not too different from the weeds, some visitors to Casco Viejo consider the residents unsightly. They believe they crowd out the street and that they’re taking up valuable and limited real estate. Real estate that could be transformed into something spectacular, like the building right beside it: a new red and green colonial structure with detailed archways and a smooth, renovated façade.
As I sit here writing, the son of the family, Edwin comes out and looks down Avenida Central in both directions. He looks tired from a nights sleep, stretching his arms and yawning, not noticing me, of all people, just across the street. He then moves to the corner of his balcony and urinates into the empty morning street below. The pitter-patter of the pee hitting the pavement is a familiar sound to me, I have heard it many times before from inside my apartment. After he finishes, he goes back inside and closes the door.
Several minutes later, a chorus of men can be heard down the street. It is the neighborhood police force singing Panama’s national anthem while the flag is raised to the top of the Ministerio de Gobierna y Justicia. The few people on the street at this hour – the women in blouses, the beggar going through the trash, the resident banker getting into his car – stop to pay respect to the flag. The sun begins to rise as rays of light strike through Casco Viejo’s narrow corridors to a very dramatic effect. The song finally ends, a whistle is blown, and everyone in suspended animation – the cars in the street, the birds on the phone lines, even seemingly the ocean in the background – resumes life and motion and sound.
Save the signing and the peeing, Casco is still relatively quiet around seven o’clock. There are the birds and the construction workers, the occasional loud muffler. Around eight, things get louder and more hectic. Government officials arrive, businesses open up, tourists come to walk around. But for those of us who cherish those wee morning hours in Casco Viejo, there’s always tomorrow to anticipate.