far too much writing, far too many photos

Moments from Madrid jotted down in a notebook I just came across:

My last full day there this last July, I’m walking down el Paseo del Prado on the way to a museum. A beautiful, warm July morning, around 10:15 — early for a Sunday in Madrid. The streets were quiet until I emerged at the intersection of Gran Vía and la Calle de Alcalá, where people walked, cars passed.

El Paseo del Prado is one section of a wide avenue that runs along the eastern flank of the city center, north to south. Three lanes in either direction at this part of the avenue, with a wide island in the middle containing a walkway, grass, tall old trees, some benches. Lots of shade. A nice way to cover some ground, traffic passing on either side.

I head over to el Paseo del Prado, walk along the path beneath the trees in the boulevard’s green center section. Ahead of me is a couple, Japanese 20-somethings, wearing sports-type outfits -– sneakers, fanny packs, nice sweatpant-style bottoms, identical t-shirts reading “Superstar Exercise Unit.” They stop by a bench, confer with each other, and as I pass by they begin doing calisthenics together.

Later that same day, at la Reina Sofia, I go into a men’s room, step up to the row of five urinals and notice that (a) the two Spanish males already there have arranged themselves so that any third party coming to take a pee would have no choice but to stand next to one of them, while at the same time they (b) make a big show of looking up at the ceiling or in the opposite direction when I take a berth, even angling their bodies away so there will be absolutely no chance of eye contact, much less a fleeting glimpse of bare pipe. It jogs a memory of my first foray into a public restroom in London in 1986, a lavatory of extravagant opulence at the Barbicon theater complex. The urinal: a long, gleaming slab of marble spread along one wall, well-dressed men stepping up to it, whipping out their genitalia to relieve themselves, talking, relaxed, seemingly unconcerned with restroom modesty. The polar opposite of these two guys in la Reina Sofía.

Afterward, I wander into an exhibit of photography by Elliott Erwitt. Black and white photos from the 40’s through the 90’s — large, beautiful shots, some somber or poignant, some witty, all the work of a hugely accomplished artist. I find myself standing in front of a photo taken in Moscow in 1957, a shot of two boys, one in his late teens, the other maybe 10 years younger, standing by a truck. A sad, evocative image. A man appears next to me, checking out the photo. After a moment, he sees his reflection in the glass covering the print and takes a moment to slick down his hair (thin and combed sideways across the top of his head to cover a large bald spot). A perfect moment of self-absorption, juxtaposed over the quietly emotional moment in the photo. I had to move off before my smile grew too large.

Later, at a restaurant near the museum, a joint of long standing called el 7 -– good food at reasonable prices, usually busy during meal hours with a combination of tourists and local folk, often with a line that stretches to the door. I get there, all the tables in the main dining space are taken. I wait a couple of minutes, an older waiter grabs me and seats me in a small, windowless back room containing five or six tables, all occupied save one, which he aims me at. I sit down, he drops a menu in front of me and takes off, I realize I’ve been dumped at a table from which I can only see the wall, arranged so that I can’t even really watch the other diners in this little gastronomic dungeon. For the first time in my life I begin experiencing what I can only describe as claustrophobia, and the prospect of spending an entire meal that way becomes unacceptable. I go back out into the main room, petition the head waiter for a different table.

In another ten minutes, a table in the main space opens up, they seat me there. The two waiters who service that area are covering something like 16 tables between them and are in the zone, moving quickly around the space, carting drinks and plates of food, shmoozing with customers, carrying on loud comic patter. A great scene. There are families, couples in their 60s and 70s, younger folks with backpacks. And the waiters thread their way through it all, working hard, dishing out blue collar entertainment.

As I’m eating, an elderly couples finishes up, passes my table on their way out. The husband gives me a nice smile, saying, “¡Que aproveche!” — literally, may you take advantage of it, may you use it well. Sort of a combo ‘bon appetit’ and ‘good health.’

When my meal’s done, the bill arrives, I hand bunch of euros to one of the waiters, including a 10% tip, unusually generous in Madrid. I tell him that should take care of everything, he sees the fistful of cash I’ve given him, his eyes widen a bit, he says, “¡Hombre, sí!”, and heads off repeating, “¡Hombre, sí! ¡Hombre, sí!”

Madrid. There’s no place like it.

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