far too much writing, far too many photos

Yesterday, early a.m.: me in a neighborhood joint, working on an espresso and a croissant. Next to me sat a 50ish gent, working on a beer. Normal looking, dressed neatly and casually, gray hair. The in-house stereo played a tune by Joaquin Sabina, my neighbor sang along quietly.

Yesterday afternoon: rounded a corner from shadow into late-day sunshine. Two women stood in the street there talking. They turned and walked in my direction as I appeared, we collided, all three of us went, “Oy!”

Today, midday: me in the window seat of a local café — scribbling in a notebook, working on an espresso. At some point, I realized the in-house stereo was playing a jazz version of ‘The Christmas Song’ — a very late xmas wish? a very, very early xmas wish? — then noticed that a sad, dead Christmas tree which had appeared on a balcón across the street immediately after Christmas Day remained there. Brown, skeletal, almost completely without needles. Perhaps a local version of leaving Christmas lights up for weeks, months, years.

[Which reminds me, the only remaining member of my biological family claims he used to leave the following poem in the mailbox of houses that had Christmas lights up long into the new year (to be sung to the tune of "Christmas Is Coming"):
Easter is coming, the ice is getting thin,
Won't you please find a box to put your Christmas lights in.
If you can't find a box then a paper bag will do,
If you can't find a paper bag, God bless you.
]

This afternoon: on an impulse, decided to investigate lunch at a wine bar not far from here, an example of the kind of concern that’s sprouted up in recent years with the barrio’s upscaling. I’m not much of a wine drinker, but noticed recently they’d begun offering a menú del día that looked pretty good, figured they’d provide some non-grape-derived beverages.

The place stood nearly empty when I stepped inside, at the tail end of the long local lunchtime. I asked the waiter if they were still serving lunch, he nodded, waving in the direction of the multitude of empty tables/chairs. Found a nice window perch, the waiter dropped a couple of menus on the table and wafted off. I glanced at them, saw he’d neglected to leave the menú del día listing, opting to give me the more expensive wine and a la carte hooha instead. I caught his attention, asked if the menú was still available. He approached, looking less than overjoyed, grabbed the items he’d left, gestured for me to get up and follow. I did, he led me to the room’s farthest, darkest corner, where the joint’s only diners sat crowded together in less elegant tables/chairs.

I shrugged, sat at the only table that would give me a teeny bit of privacy, ordered, sat scribbling in a notebook until the first plate arrived — small, but okay. My fork brought food to my mouth as I studied the empty, spacious, sunlit dining area, comparing it with the cramped zone I sat in. And remembered one of my first flights to Madrid — its second leg, from London to Spain, the enormous plane empty except for the compartment where they’d herded people like me — your normal, economy-priced traveler — all crammed together, the flight crew politely refusing to let anyone escape from steerage to the relief of a spot in one of the vast, empty seating sections.

Fortunately, wiped out from a night spent crossing the Atlantic followed by a long forced march through unending corridors in Heathrow, I nodded off, waking during the final descent, looking out a window to see Spanish countryside spread out below, giving way to ‘burbs, then city, specks on the landscape swelling to become details of Madrid’s daily existence — buildings, vehicles, people.

Steerage — so much fun. But as with everything, it passes. And at its end, there’s life, waiting to take us off to better things.

I finished my meal, paid up and bolted, stepping out in sunlight so thick and golden it looked like I could reach out and take a handful of it.

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Coal seller’s shop, Madrid:

– runswithscissors is available for special occasions.

España, te quiero.

Between songs that played on my inner jukebox and tunes heard while out around the city center, the Clash provided the day’s soundtrack. Until a short time ago, when someone quoted a line from ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ an old, old Stones single. Never, ever one of my favorite songs, it nevertheless elbowed aside Joe Strummer and friends and has yet to give way to something I actually like. At this point, I’d take almost anything as a replacement music clip. (Note: just connected to soma fm, the Stones are on the way out. The internet: a weapon in the fight for mental health.)

Have been working hard at various things lately and so feeling no guilt when I slip into rest periods of total sloth. Sometimes the occasional bout of decadence is just what the sawbones ordered. (Which reminds me: the Spanish version of the word ’sawbones,’ the colloquial nickname for doctors? Matasanos — kill healthy ones.)

Have recently been doing a better job of ignoring all the political hooha currently heaving about on both sides of the Atlantic — one more step in the direction of mental health. (Hey, your needs may be different — please curb any impulses to lecture this writer on civic duties, etc.) Next up: getting my adorable bod into bed at a reasonable hour. I adore long nights of good sleep, something not promoted by conking out between 1 and 2 a.m.

A friend back in the States let me know they were working on a paper about Gaudí and wondered if I’d seen any of his work here in Spain. Which gave me the perfect excuse to grab a camera and stumble down to the local Gaudí building, just a few blocks from here — a spectacular creation belonging to The Society of Authors and Editors (la SGAE — La Sociedad General de Autores y Editores). A nice walk down a narrow sidestreet whose residents have endured months of the city ripping up and redoing pavement/sidewalks. A guard stood at the gate near the rear of the building, staring at me doubtfully as I pulled camera out, began snapping pix.

Detail, Gaudí building, Madrid

Five, ten minutes later, camera in its bag, I began the wander home, decided to stop in a neighborhood joint for a small glass of beer. Paged through a newspaper as conversations in Spanish carried on around me (Mexico City has begun running buses for women only as a solution to rampant sexual harassment; the immense bribery scandal in the Madrid city government continues, the party holding power [el Partido Popular] trying to limit the investigation to those already arrested, the opposition trying to open up the investigation’s parameters; a driver that killed a bicyclist several years ago is now suing the bicyclist’s parents for 20K euros to cover damages to his Audi; Richard Branson unveiled two aircraft with which he plans to begin commercial suborbital flights in 2009, including 4-5 minutes of weightlessness and amazing views).

When I paid up, the bartender did something I rarely encounter here: he purposely broke my change down into coins that could be used to leave what Spaniards would see as a generous tip. Tipping in this part of the world, as a local reminded me recently, is mostly symbolic. Many people leave nothing, no one seems to bat an eye, much less display disappointment or outrage. I handed over 3 euros for a bill of 2.40 euros, the barkeep gave me back three 20-centimo coins. Most times, the change would be a 10-centimo piece and a 50-centimo piece, the customer might leave the 10-centimo coin. This lad was smart enough to set himself up for double that — I could only appreciate his savvy and give it to him.

Back outside, walking home, a group of three 30ish males passed me, absorbed in conversation. All three with identical hair styles, a popular cut that can be seen everywhere, that many footballers sport — hair trimmed reasonably short and combed toward the center up top, forming a distant, much tamer cousin of a mohawk. In this case, looking like they all had modest, sleek, misplaced dorsal fins, cutting through the twilight air as they moved by.

Friday, late January. Madrid.

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For a good time: Moby-Dick in haiku!

– runswithscissors is sufficiently caffeinated.

España, te quiero.

This evening — the day’s last light:

España, te quiero.

Madrid, 1/19/08

España, te quiero.

Seen in recent days:

– Far, far too many clips of campaign rallies and politicians spewing campaign gibberish (both American and Spanish). The nightmarishly long campaign season is gaining momentum in both countries (officially out of the gate just recently; long, long underway in reality) and ignoring all the hot gas is becoming trickier with each passing day.

– A self-talker moving along one of the barrio’s main drags. The sighting is nothing special — Madrid is liberally sprinkled with individuals talking to themselves, to imaginary companions or to the general public. This one, however, was speaking French. That was a first.

– At least once a day during the last week, I’ve passed someone walking along immersed in a book. How they navigate successfully is a mystery to me. (Now that I think about it, my one and only ex-wife used to do that, without a single mishap that I remember. What a sweetie that woman was — wherever she is, I hope she’s having a great life.)

– A film by Italian director Nanni Moretti, Aprile. Gently comical — so gently, at such a relaxed pace, that I wondered at first if it might be a case of movie never getting off the ground. A goofily eccentric documentary — like a series of diary entries written by a perplexed clown (minus white make-up and plastic nose. and funnier.) — that veers between the Italian national elections of that time, the birth of Moretti’s first child, and various projects that Moretti and his crew attempt. It kicked in for me one of many scenes where Moretti’s crew is trying to get him to focus on work — something completely beyond him during the pregnancy and birth of his child. Sequences showing a crew growing ever more desperate, every individual onscreen distracted and perplexed, all for different reasons. And in the middle of one particularly desperate, distracted bit of comedy, I realized that I was watching an Italian version of my best friend stateside — also a director, also tall, bright, funny, dealing with work-related conundrums and a family that brings him joy, perplexity, distracted desperation. Making it funnier.

One sequence: after watching television consisting of campaign-season Berlusconi producing some especially spewings, Moretti ponders all the letters of outrage he’d written to politicians and political organizations but never sent, realizes he has to get them out of his system or it will drive him over the edge, but has no idea how to approach that unloading until he remembers Speakers Corner in London. Cut from warm, sunny Italy to Moretti wandering through crowds clustered around ranting individuals on a cold, gray London Sunday, carrying stepladder and wad of undelivered letters. Finds a spot, sets up, begins unburdening himself in gratifyingly melodramatic fashion. I — having seen and experienced some fairly madcap things at Speakers Corner on various occasions — liked it.

…the best nursery schools in the world!…

Comedy: an underrated cure for a whole lot of things. Remind me to indulge more often.

– runswithscissors is sufficiently caffeinated.

España, te quiero.

This morning: sitting in a bus watching the urban scenery pass by, I spotted a 40-something gent on a Segway. He glided patiently along behind a couple who walked at an excessively leisurely pace. I saw him gaze around, removing his gloves, then the bus was past and he was out of view.

I’ve seen more Segways in the last three months and change here than I’ve seen in the States in however long Segways have been on the market there. One day this last October, sitting in la Plaza de España, a covey of Segways drifted past, three males coasting slowly around the long promenade between the plaza’s two fountains. (What does one call a group of Segways in the wild anyway? A herd? A pack? A bunch?) This morning’s El País ran a brief story about the use of Segways by the police in a local town center. They’re not exactly an everyday item here in Madrid’s city center — not yet anyway — but have become common enough now that people seem to take them in stride.

This morning’s sighting happened on the way to meet with a friend in a café. That person never showed, hasn’t answered phone messages, leaving me wondering if I should be concerned. I waited a while there, getting contentedly caffeinated, then made the return trip home, people with shopping bags everywhere, a sign that the January sales are in high gear.

Stopped in front of a shop window along the way, checking out garments on display. A 50ish male with a shoulder bag noted that, slowed and glanced in the window, shrugged and began talking to himself as he moved on, apparently discussing (with himself) what he’d seen. Not exactly, I gathered, to his taste. La de da.

The holiday season came to a close this weekend — I’d expected life to be back to normal yesterday. Not the case, turned out. The local world needed one more day to pull itself together. The neighborhood was quiet yesterday morning, few people about, most places of business closed. Like a second Sunday, the streets slowly growing busier around midday, people about in search of places to eat, have a beer, hang out. Regular life has quietly asserted itself today in low-key fashion, as the days carry us steadily toward mid-January.

Life: it moves steadily on.

– runswithscissors is feeling minty fresh

España, te quiero.

Went to the movies last night, saw something featuring Marianne Faithfull that turned out to be one of the stranger, most overhyped films I’ve ever sat through. Woke up this morning with the song Broken English going through my head. Not a bad tune to have lodged in the inner jukebox, thought I, and let it play on. Then realized at some point that it had been replaced by another cut. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered myself a Stones fan (they call them Los Rolling here), a long, long time since a song of theirs latched on to me and followed me through my day. I’m not a fan, in general, of corporate rock ‘n’ roll or of rock songs being used to shill products. But there is something about that Sony Bravia ad with the claymation rabbits set to She’s A Rainbow‘ that is so wonderful it almost makes me ready to look at advertising with a kinder, less jaundiced eye. (One question: in the middle of the brief version of the ad shown on Spanish TV, the camera cuts to an older t-shirted bystander — clearly missing one or two teeth — and holds there for a moment. What in hell is that all about?) The Stones and Ms. Faithfull have been trading off in my inner sound system all morning.

Going to the film was partly an attempt to escape the wind-up of the Spanish holiday season, the arrival of the Three Kings. The local world was out shopping yesterday, either caught up in the final gift-buying frenzy or beginning to do the January sales thing. Yesterday evening brought the big parade, los Reyes Magos making a slow trip through part of the city center, surrounded by crowds gone wild trying to catch the candy being thrown by personnel riding parade floats. Several tons of candy, according to the news — gluten-free this year, the newscaster added, so that everyone can partake. (The sweet, fatuous goofiness of that last detail left me with a blissful smile.)

This morning in the local plaza, the sound of wheeled luggage predominated, one traveler after another trudging across the open expanse to disappear into the Metro, dragging a suitcase behind. As clear a signal of the holidays’s end as the gradual disappearance of parking spaces that have abounded on neighborhood streets since just before Christmas. Not to mention the traditional circular baked sweetbread that appears everywhere on this day, el Roscón de Reyes. I passed three different local bakeries yesterday that were packed with customers, each shop with a line extending out the door and down the sidewalk. This morning, the counterman at my a.m. caffeine joint mentioned that they had no croissants because all available time and counter space had been devoted to roscones. I’m not big on sweets normally, but I saw a couple of small cream-filled numbers that had me considering a purchase.

When I stepped back out into the gray, chilly morning, marginally more awake, I was met with birdsong. Distant at first, growing louder as I walked along. The sweet soundtrack one hears along streets where people have canaries and their cousins out on balcones, providing a sensation of sunlight despite overcast skies. At least to my still-sleepy system.

Sunday morning, early January. Madrid.

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Store window, Gran Vía, Madrid:

– runswithscissors smells like teen spirit and has no idea why.

España, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

My flat is four floors up in an old, old, building. An ancient building with enough space for a stairwell, an entry area the size of a postage stamp (a teeny, dog-eared, long-canceled postage stamp) and nothing more. No elevator. Stairs made of wood, long worn down by the passage of many feet. The final flight of stairs, leading to the building’s uppermost flats, begins right outside my door, immediately to the right.

What I found yesterday morning on emerging from my cosy hideyhole to get the day underway: a body. A live body, but still. Curled up on the bottom of the steps, just outside my door. Clad in soiled clothing and a stained winter coat, hood pulled up, face hidden. A male — asleep, the in and out of his breath audible.

Not the kind of good-morning I’d been expecting from life.

Events like this are not unknown in this building. Some tenants don’t care about making sure the ground floor door is closed, now and then that leads to mischief. One morning three or so years back, I emerged from my flat to find that someone had spent the night in the hallway — possibly a drunk, possibly an indigent, possibly a drunk indigent — leaving a tidy, fragrant pile of poop as a calling card. On exactly the spot where yesterday morning’s sleeping body lay. Once again, not the kind of good-morning I’d expected on leaving the flat.

I spent part of the ’90’s in a little bitty flat on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, Mass. In a building right across the sidestreet intersection from an Irish bar and a liquor store. Many drunks discovered our front hallway, spending many messy hours there. Dealing with them led to all sorts of experiences, and I was overjoyed like I cannot describe when I moved on and all that became memories that could be filed away and forgotten.

Yesterday morning’s temporary tenant was nothing like any of that. He may have been sleeping off a night of alcoholic cavorting, I don’t know — but his vibe felt different. And he didn’t smell of booze.

His appearance there surprised me so much that I found myself speaking in English to him. Not harshly, not loudly. Just a fast, soft-voiced sentence about how he wouldn’t be able to remain there. No response. Probably remained asleep, probably had no idea what I’d said if he’d come to while I talked.

I let him be, headed downstairs and out into the street, took care of some tasks. When I returned, there he still was — curled up, breathing slow and audible. This time I spoke softly in Spanish, in as kindly a tone as I could, again saying he wouldn’t be able to stay there. His head lifted from the stairs, he slowly straightened up, looked around at me, woozy-eyed. He mumbled an apology and a story about waiting for one of my neighbors, looking and sounding like he was making it up on the spot. I saw ruddy skin, the kind of coloration that develops from hard, homeless living. I noted ground-in dirt on hands looking thick and awkward from too much time spent out in winter cold. I talked to him a bit more, he apologized again, then excused himself, curled up once more — disappearing under winter coat, drifting back off to sleep.

The gas company was due to come by soon for meter readings, other tenants would pass through, heading up or downstairs. I knew he’d have to move along eventually, until that happened I did not want to be the one to make his life miserable. He didn’t feel like a threat of any kind — I let him be. Dropped groceries in my flat, wrapped up some fruit and left it on the stairs where it would be seen upon awakening, headed off to meet a friend.

When I returned a few hours later, he was gone, leaving no sign anyone had passed the night there.

I think about what that individual must experience on a daily basis, then I think about the grousing tone of this journal’s last entry. I have no grounds for bitching — blessings stream into my existence on a daily basis, and sometimes life does me the favor of providing a bit of perspective, a reminder. A gentle reminder in this case, provided by a sad soul wanting nothing more than a few hours of sleep out of the elements.

Not much to ask for, really. Something we should all be able to take for granted.

I wish him better times. And I extend that wish to all the rest of us who share this planet. We’re all brothers and sisters, though we seem to forget it so easily.

Anyway. Be well.

España, te quiero.

Last night: while talking with friends during a new year’s phone call, I mentioned my boredom with the whole new year’s eve thing. More than boredom: dislike. And it’s true, it feels like a big non-event to me, an arbitrary designation used as a pretext for a whole lot of noisy, trashy, shitfaced partying. (I won’t even go into New Year’s Eve television — zzzzzzzzzzzz….)

On the other hand: it’s also an excuse to call old (and new) friends. I like that. It’s also the reason for some pretty creative first night celebrations. I like that concept just fine. And it’s used as an excuse to have dinner gatherings. I love that. Not to mention that how anyone else chooses to spend it is none of my biz.

(Note to self: making an effort to move past knee-jerk reactions? It’s a good thing.)

I opted out of New Year’s Eve hooha this year, stayed home, got quiet. While the rest of the local world was out in the street carrying on like banshees in heat. Laughter, shouting, glass breaking, firecrackers. Until way into the wee hours. I cobbled together a pretty decent night’s sleep despite it all, stumbled out the next morning shortly after 11 into cold, nearly-deserted streets and a neighborhood in which nothing was open. Nothing. Even the ticket booth in the Metro was dark, a sign directing all passing humans to use nearby machines for passes. I walked sidewalks sprinkled with confetti and stray spangles/sequins, breathing in cold air, passing the occasional individual or couple out seeking somewhere warm to get food/caffeine, expressions dispirited. Also, a handful of individuals who had apparently been out all night, looking like they’d been run over by a tank but apparently not feeling it yet.

By the time I returned home, more people were about — all wandering, talking quietly. All looking in vain for nowhere to go. This may be the first time I’ve seen an entire zone of a city center totally, completely shut down. Kind of impressive, in a strange, slightly desolate way. (There’s a scene in the great Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes — U.S. remake: Vanilla Sky — in which Eduardo Noriega runs down Gran Vía, the big east-west avenue that cuts through the center of Madrid. It’s morning and the city center is empty — no people, no vehicles, no movement apart from the one figure running down the street. Given how busy the center normally is 24 hours a day, some have pondered what they had to do to get that shot. I suspect they simply filmed it after the city had been out partying all night.)

[continued in next entry]

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Along la Calle de Barquillo, Madrid, the last weekend of 2007:

España, te quiero.

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