The air is hot this time of year in this part of Spain. It feels baked. The doors and windows of all the tabernas and cafes and restaurants are open to the night and people fill all the space on either side and in between. The music of shouting voices and eighties Spanish ballads are thick on the air and stick to it. The night smells like dust and piss and cigarettes.
I walk through hedgerows of people drinking and smoking out to the edge of the street. I slide along the outside, slick. There’s a bar around here that gives glasses of wine and some decent if not bottom-shelf ham for a euro. I have no particular destination but I feel a ghostly pull at my elbow when I pass the place.
I came back to Madrid to find meaning as if it were some ephemeral thing floating out there, wild and thrashing, what a reward to hook the beautiful damn thing. I’ve read in good books that that’s not the way it works but what the hell does anybody know. I mean really. The world is full of this kind of mystic junk to find and I’m covering a lot of ground. That’s the only reason I go anywhere. Sometimes we turn so far inward that it’s hard to tell if we’re more neuroses than person. I narrowly miss getting taken out by a Renault full of teens in the cross walk.
Farther up the street are middle-aged immigrants selling Spanish beer from trolleys they hide in the trash, waiting on corners splitting the tide of street revelry like rocks in a stream. They profit from the crisis because everyone’s too broke to get bar drunk, or don’t see the point. The white noise is deafening, the plazas are all full, the sidewalks are full. In the narrow streets and alleys the cars try to push through it all and somewhere in that throng is an Argentine kid with a guitar and a guy with dreads and rhythm sticks. Correction: single dread.
This is the kind of night that feels heavy, like nothing is in your control. That’s not the night and it’s not Spain and maybe you’re going to bring your problems with you or maybe there’s nothing to figure out.
People care about you and they understand.
Everyone’s drunk and everyone’s smiling and everyone wants me to venga tomar algo. American’s don’t like to be touched they tell me, patting my back and handing me a cup of red wine and coke zero. San Francisco’s beautiful, it’s their dream to go there. Someone has some hash.
A municipal police car rolls up across the plaza. In one big choreographed movement everyone throws their cans/cups/bottles (but not the hash) and runs.
My driving arm is three shades away from chestnut and the small patch of right thigh, a birthmark that has never had any melonin, stands in bright white contrast against the pink of too much sun; It still has the vague shape of the continguos United States. This is all left over from sunbathing in Highbury Fields with pale friends who feverishly flock to open spaces to pink themselves when London is generous enough to give them consecutive days of sun.
In this weather I’m in perma-bike shorts and a bra, drinking one of the 48 cans of diet soda I was obligated to buy because Stater Bros was having a sale.
I’m on my way up to the bay (that means the San Francisco bay on this side of the country), just booked a ticket on the new Megabus route that runs the 400 miles from Los Angeles to SF at unemployed-staying-on-your-mom’s-couch recession prices. It’s a double decker with shoddy wifi but it boasts none of the beheadings that are wont to happen on the Greyhound.
80% of the drive takes place on the I-5, a straight shot through the green and dusty belly of central California, capped on either end by the civilization of Northern and Southern California. The route starts at the straight sleek pillar of Union Station in Los Angeles, which feels like a grave yard of public transportation’s past; a huge dunny sepulchre of a building festooned with palm trees, vast and cold and only ever half full of foothill commuters.
The megabus is in the hub of bus termini, a small kiosk in the blazing Sun. We are seated according to a lottery, I’m number 34, I sit next to a snoring waiter whose foot keeps knocking my charger out of the port between us.
Leaving Los Angeles you wind your way around the outlying commuter communities until you reach the steep and winding brushy purple passes of the Grapevine. Signs run along the shoulder warning drivers to turn off their air conditioning lest their cars over-heat climbing the deceptively steep incline, but still 3 out of 5 times you’ll pass cars steaming or fully on fire on the shoulder, with burnt out blackened patches peppering the highway from car-deaths passed.
From there the interstate opens up onto the 5 proper, past Bakersfield and Buttonwillow. It’s here the bus stops at a travel center for a 20 minute lunch. I eat a big liquor store hotdog in the parking lot BY CHOICE, standing in the shade and exhaust of the megabus, watching the mix of students and common folk shuffle back to the bus with sad sacks of fast-food or happy big cups of Starbucks. Everyone’s head is down.
Then it’s back on the bus through orchards and farmland for 5 hours, then a concentrated animal farm colloquially known as “Cowschwitz” full of methane and mud and none of the “happy cows” for which the TV says California is known. Then there’s a famous pea soup place and windmills on a hill then you’re passing the outlying BART stations then you cross the SF Bay Bridge where you’re dumped off at another less-sunny bus depot deep in a weird part of the city. Then you go to the bar.
Traveling on the Spanish larga distancia bus networks has accustomed me to hours on buses, and the interior of Spain has a striking resemblance to San Bernardino and the Inland Empire of Southern California, so this all feels fairly routine. The only thing conspicuously lacking on this commute versus my Spanish bus life is the badly dubbed Jean Claude Van Damm movies.
Wi-Fi can take care of that.
There’s always chanting coming from somewhere. We have a new king, and flags of the Spanish Republic in Exile add dark marks of color up and down the duny streets that run past the four large open windows; Ni rey, Ni reina. The same breeze that ripples their dissenting reds yellows and purples slides along the sticky table, fluttering last night’s rolling papers across the un-mopped floor, where they stick to something horrible that I stepped in this morning. All the glasses are full of cigarette butts and warm gin. We’ve had about eight going away soirees and if I have to break up any more coke parties in the bathroom to brush my teeth, I’m going to renounce my residency.
I haven’t written for days because I’m not a writer, and my thoughts are manic and punctuated by drunken outbursts and ill-begotten lusty messages (mistakes in Spanish grammar take the bite out of both). The apartment has smelled of heat and cigarettes for days, and suitcases in various states of packing represent the disparate plans and departure dates of the three of us who live here: San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg.
At this point my eyes are dull and I need a drink. From one of the small balconies I can see into the closest old-man bar (the only variety worth a damn). Someone’s at the gambling machine and the barman is waltzing alone in the street spilling a glass of the light vermouth for which this place is famous. The sun isn’t going down but my worthless phone is stuck on Icelandic time, and doing the math I determine it is indeed not too early to indulge. It’s been a day that calls for drinking, for godsake.
I leave the spite email I’d been impassively drafting, a response to one I’d gotten hours before bearing ill news about the disintegrating San Francisco life I’d abandoned to its fate nine months ago. Both my best friends are banging my ex and fighting about it STOP Everyone is depressed STOP Bad sex and Jameson are the new religion STOP. I’ll be back there in three weeks and all I can think about are cheesesteaks, large coffees, and punching my ex in the dick. I managed to relate this desire to my roommate in French and feel that fact alone moves me up to a level C1.
I grab a general amount of currency and head downstairs.
The legions of day-drinkers draped across public spaces and plazas add an urgency to these last few days. I stop to check my broken phone at the corner where I traditionally catch some rogue wifi. At this hour post-siesta there’s no hope in rousing the other immigrants from their youtube hangovers, and frankly this drink needed to be drunk alone. Furthermore there’s no response to the flurry of weirdly-phrased Spanish come-ons I fired off to a couple of second-stringers late last night, because I have a misplaced need for affection at that hour. That’s certainly for the best, though that boldness will haunt me in the cold light of day when I cross them at the grocery store whilst buying spreadable cheese and diet coke.
I stand at the bar surrounded by old men shouting “venga coño” at various members of the Spanish National soccer team. This is where I pick up most of my functional vocabulary. Once the bartender comes in from dancing, shirt glistening and thirst unquenched, I order a tall glass of the same vermouth that his mirth advertized, and reflect on the decisions I’ve made.
I have an aversion to success and am debilitatingly self-reflective, it’s true. That needs to be taken into account. But goddamnit, I don’t understand the world anymore. Spain has certainly put that into perspective. Everything around me has disintegrated into mayhem, and that is oddly freeing.
Spain just scored a goal and someone’s abuelo is buying the bar a round of tiny beers.
I’ve learned to accept that seeking catharsis in mutual understanding is a fool’s errand and not the point. We’re emotionally developed enough to render rational thought not only inconvenient but impractical; contradiction is no impediment.
The barman gives me mushrooms, God’s most fucking inglorious food.
Everyone can do what they want, just be direct, that is the only salvation. And that frees everyone from the burden of frustration.
And then I would have more time to drink vermouth.
I’ll be gone for nearly three months and maybe nothing will change here just as, disappointingly, nothing has changed back home. People will still struggle, and drink in the streets and yell and scream all night because of it. And I’ll make bad decisions and I’ll forgive unforgivable things, but all I want is a clear conscience.
Our first 5 minutes in Tangier were spent in the pouring rain schlepping a wheelie suitcase (which always makes me feel like a tool but I’m not the backpack sort, I would feel like a walking lie, much like when people try to get me to wear lip gloss) through mud and cobble stones surrounded by a ring of men and boys offering in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic to bring us to a hostel, where’s our hostel, are we lost, that hostel is closed, that hostel is bad, come this way, come this way.
We kept our heads down and repeated emphatically no I don’t need/want any help, no I know where I’m going (which wasn’t very credible because I personally took the wrong turn 100% of the time like it was amateur hour), and struggled to follow the directions we’d memorized to the hostel both due to the lack of street signs and the constant prodding from our honor guard, who were politely but forcefully holding up various shabby business cards to hostels and hotels they surely had no affiliation with, which was powerfully disorienting, and oddly flattering (I love attention).
Even in the rain with runnels of muddy water flowing from up the narrow channels of the Medina in every direction the energy was palpable. Allow me to belabor the point that we’d often get lost in the warren, taking a wrong turn and ending up in a dead end where a small boy would appear and run ahead of us back the way we came and demand money, which they could do in about a thousand different languages (I have the same talent when ordering beer, so I was duly impressed).
There were people everywhere, everyone talking, greeting, standing around just being. Bread bakers were sweating in front of big iron ovens in shallow basements you had to stoop to enter. Sheep were being herded past bakeries (I tripped over one that wandered into a bakery whilst trying to buy a kilo of sweets (as is my wont), sliding around on its hooves and bleating angrily at me in one of my more surreal ovine interactions). The air smelled like almonds, dust, and camel leather, and everyone stared and everyone was gracious.
Whenever the call to prayer would sound the city became eerily still, the wailing voice reverberating off the high walls of the casbah in a ghostly song, seeming to bounce off the low-hanging gray clouds that muffled all other sound.
I drank hot mint tea and was happy.
At night the maze of alleyways and corridors was quiet, with here or there a person scurrying past on some urgent business, only seen far ahead or close behind. And there were always the young men, standing both together and separately, lining the streets in intervals like sentinels quietly talking together and in silence. They didn’t often speak to us but we felt their eyes and their eyes felt hot and weighed on us.
The sea was blue and beautiful and the food was sublime, and after 3 days I was ready to leave.