far too much writing, far too many photos

Down in the Metro this morning, waiting for a train. Not well ventilated, the Metro, so that it has a strong tendency to get stuffy when the mercury heads toward the stratosphere, as it has here lately. I’ll head into a station, take stairs or escalator down into the Earth, the air initially feeling like a cool contrast to the warm air/intense sunlight aboveground. Until I get down to the train platform where as soon as I stand still I can clearly feel that the air is not only warm, it is thick in a way the air up in the street is not. My sweat glands immediately swing into action, beads of moisture popping out all over my body.

That was essentially the case today. I’m planted on the end of a bench, waiting for the train, the underground air feeling close, uncomfortably warm. I look down the platform, the air stuffy but absolutely clear, and a hot weather memory of standing on the platform in a west-side subway station in Manhattan comes to mind, 96th Street maybe — whichever station one uses to change from the local to the express during the commute from the west side’s northern reaches to downtown. High humidity combined with pollution so intense that the air in the tunnel looked like mist. And then I remember spells of summer weather in Boston so outrageously humid that the covers of paperback books in my apartment would surrender and curl up like large, damp wood shavings. So much moisture in the air that it looked like thin, diffuse fog, the only real difference between that weather and rain being that raindrops generally move. Weather that can be real common in Boston/Cambridge, depending on the summer. Which puts my few minutes in the Metro’s stuffy air in perspective, so that I immediately feel better.

In the train, two mid- to late-20s women stand together, talking. One wore tan suede running shoes, red/white plaid flared, cuffed pants, a black skin-tight top. Hair dyed a dark, unnatural red, with a piercing dead center between the inside ends of her eyebrows where something tiny glittered. (A diamond or its cut-glass equivalent.)

Later, in the barrio of Salamanca. Walking along the shady, tree-lined, park-like, mid-avenue walkway that stretches for blocks along la Calle de José Ortega y Gasset, the dappling of tree shadows and sunlight poured down the back of a 60ish man walking ahead of me, so smoothly, so clearly that it looked like a special effect, like something projected onto his back from a machine.

Still later, coming up on 2:30. Walking north along a street with wide, tree-lined sidewalks, on the way to meet a friend for lunch. The sun far enough over in the western half of the sky that buildings were casting deep shadows, the kind that smart pedestrians seek out during the summer months here. Deep shadows, meaning three to four people deep. Spaniards tend to have a different sense of space when walking in public places, as compared to the rest of us, er, honkies. They tend to spread out and occupy as much of the space as possible. So that a pedestrian approaching from the other direction never knows how they’ll move. Today, with everyone wanting to remain in the shade, it made for fine people-watching. Some moved further into the shade to make room. Others spread apart, some moving out into the sun around me, then back into the shade. Some clearly preferred not to give way, presenting me with two options: move out into the sunlight to pass them or walk straight ahead, not giving way, and see what happened.

What happened: a remarkably smooth process of people deciding in the moment whether to give way or not. Me or them, didn’t matter. No one (including me) cared enough to make an issue, someone (sometimes me) always moved aside to allow passage.

Correction: a few elderly folk cared enough to make an issue, grimly maintaining their course, with no intention whatsoever of making way for an approaching pedestrian, even if there were only two elderly folk walking together, spread well out to occupy as much of the shadowed sidewalk as possible. Not a problem, thought I. They have undoubtedly paid their dues in this lifetime — I’m happy to give way, let them take up as much sidewalk as they want.

Arriving back here in the barrio. As the train pulled into the station, a slim, aging hipster — old jeans, a tired flannel shirt, long graying hair pulled back in an unruly ponytail, face abundant with salt and pepper stubble — stepped over to the door, positioning himself so he would be the first out. The train stops, I stand behind him as he hits the door lever. Nothing happens. He tries it once more, twice more. Still nothing. We both turn around, heading to another, already-open door, him behind me, literally pushing me as we go. I hold the other door open as I exit so that we’ll both get out. We make it, he says, “Vale” (Okay), moving past me, starting up the stairs first. I go up the stairs two at a time, my usual mode of going upstairs. I pass him on the way up, something about that must have seemed like a challenge to him. He picks up speed, reaching the top of the stairs and pulling even with me as I walk down the corridor. We approach a slow-moving person, there isn’t room for all of us to walk abreast — the slow person is in front of the hipster, I speed up to give the hipster room to move over and pass slow-walker. Hipster speeds up to match my speed. I slow down to allow him to pass. He slows down, again matching my speed instead of taking the opportunity to pass slow-person. In that moment I realize there’s some sort of head game going on. It is so clear, so brazen, so silly that I burst out laughing. To which he responds with a strange mix of energies, his expression softening into a half-smile, as if part of him couldn’t help acknowledging the silliness, while also radiating sudden anger, as if genuinely pissed off at my open acknowledgment of the situation. Looking straight ahead, he starts talking, his voice reflecting the mix of smiling, slightly sheepish acknowledgment and anger, saying, “Claro, vaya — ja! ja!” (Sure, hey — ha! ha!) All the time matching my walking speed. It is so bizarrely, comically surreal that, on impulse, I break into a full sprint toward the escalator, still laughing, waiting to see if he’s going to do the same. His speaking volume increases, his tone of voice still split between humor and anger, he seems to be torn between wanting to go after me and not wanting to appear too silly. I hear his voice behind me — further and further away — as I reach the escalator and head upstairs into a beautiful summer afternoon, the air full of the sounds of life: the conversations of people in the plaza, sparrows chirping, dogs having a close encounter.

Life: packed with amazing experiences, unpredictable people, unexpected turns and twists. Rarely, if ever, boring.

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