My shoes hit the sidewalk outside of the Regina Hotel in Barcelona that evening with a purposeful force and a rhythmic pace. It had been some time since I’d arrived in the city and for a series of reasons I had not yet ventured out much beyond the confines of the hotel. Which is understandable; I’d been here before and the week had been too real for frantic idealism and livid, giddy little moments after a day by the corporate park’s manicured lawns and still-water ponds. That kind of nonsense can make a man weak in the knees.
I felt the need to go see it again, though, the Barcelona streets, the vibrant mix of color in the dark, the smell of stucco and humid alleyways, the sounds of warm music strummed in some corner elsewhere and bouncing it’s way to me off of murals and walls. I wanted to see what was happening away from the bars one finds ads for in hotel lobbies; to get some satisfaction that I’d felt more than just the surface, that I knew, even its corridors of dripping garbage bags and lost strays. I wanted to know it, away from the corporate and tourist mass I had existed in for that week. And the only way to do it right was to walk through the thing.
For which I needed shoes in that cold and that filth; I couldn’t walk bare-footed there. Unprepared as ever, I only had with me my heeled work shoes, which were made of tight and formal raw Brazilian-leather, gel-slick and affluently upscale. In them I was fashionable as a Broadway diva on 5th Avenue. But in that soft air, in that Mediterranean breeze that was starting to blow on a March evening in Spain, shoes like that weren’t going to cut it for me; this was not the canal district of Amsterdam on a light and snowy December morning. Neither was it a blustery London afternoon at any bloody time of the year. I needed something light and casual – something that reminded me of a soft taste with an easy dinner. I don’t know; a light drink would do too – something like light rum or a thin scotch.
But I also needed light shoes. Something that didn’t clip or clop as I walked down the street, making a sound that resonated like bullets almost in harmony with the natural frequency of the narrow ways. I needed shoes that didn’t mind the wear and dust collected in meandering between the old mortar and brick facades of the old city, covered in soot from exhaust pipes and chimneys. Also, I felt like reading some Hemingway and as it happened, I had an unfinished copy of The Sun Also Rises clutched in my restless fingers. I had just blown off an evening of work to take care of these little things that I sometimes have to do in odd lands.
The fact that I was alone in a place like that is incidental, but it is still a fact. I don’t care about it as much as I’m aware of it because what’s the point, you know? Even when I walk into a bar lounge still wearing my suit and tie from work I get looked at as if I’m out of place. Which is weird because I’m fine with it all. In fact, I often feel appropriately under-dressed in that kind of environment, as if I were the only man in there not wearing a bra. Sure, you notice that you’re different, but isn’t that good? Besides, this isn’t about how comfortable I was, but rather how _un_comfortable they were.
Actually, no… I don’t much care about that either. Which is probably why I do things like this, wandering these old streets, looking aimlessly for a bar, dragging my feet along La Rambla, or any other central street in whatever town I happen to be. It’s probably why I sit and order a Jack or a Johnny, read my Hemingway and wonder why the groups of people and the couples seem to watch me stumble in as if I’m missing something they have. But, Christ, who the fuck needs that? Why not sit alone in a hotel room and do it without the stares?
And here’s what I think: it’s to avoid mullets, man. I mean, I’d try it, you know – flirting with a local, getting in on the situation… but in my defense, the Spaniards have an affinity for mullets that I just can’t stomach, and while I’m down with experimentation, there are some things I won’t even try once. Mullets are one. Mescaline is another but that’s another story with a whole different line of thought.
So let’s not stray and get lost before we even start, Pete. Mullets have nothing to do with this story.
So where was I? Alone? That sounds right.
The thing is I had to get out, had to see the streets, the city again, and while there’s no sense in wearing down my heels and the leather sole of my expensive shoes in search for a place that’s got just the right light and level of noise, there’s also no reason to give up the ghost and sit idly and alone in a hotel waiting for an answer. That’s the difference between alone and lonely.
So I put down my shot of Johnny Walker, a 20 Euro shot that my employer had paid for and elected to dirty up my shoes looking for a place, somewhere else, to bury myself in the sad tales of Ernest and disappear into a chair’s back. To order just whiskey, without the label, unpretentious and normal, becoming visible only when I needed another drink. Besides, getting drunk on that stuff at a hotel bar is expensive, even when someone else is footing the bill. But I was still in desperate need of shoes.
And as my shoes hit that scuffed asphalt I wove in and out of grimy narrow streets, passed closed boutiques and bakeries with no more pan until morning. The contrast of lights and energy between La Rambla and these narrow streets was more than just stark; it was diametrically opposed. Only a few dozen meters away from it, the winding paths of the old city were covered only in the dim glare of the faint lights that pepper La Rambla, the main pedestrian avenue off of Plaza Catalunia. There was a vibration in the air, a softening of what little sound there was. It was a mixture of merchants breathing a sigh of relief that the day was over, hushed giggling into cell phones of excited club goers scoping to see if they were going to score that night, and people that were mystified over the experience of getting lost in a place like the old Gothic City of the Catalan Capital. There were also the locals, going about their normal night-time business of hanging laundry, of mopping entrances at 10pm making noises like whish-whaash, of humming nameless tunes known only by their grandparents and keeping an eye on their boys playing futbol on the street.
I stepped into one of their shops and stared blankly at the shelves behind the register. They held most of the worthwhile liquor in the place but they didn’t have any rum. So I walked out with a banana and a small bottle of Cutty Sark.
After walking a few more of these streets I came across some Roman-style columns and the dense smell of fruit, olive oil and fish – La Boqueria – the main food market of Barcelona. I’d stumbled along the backside of it, which is adjacent to the large parking lot of trucks that lie in wait for reloading in the dark, where the real business happens.
And you should never kid yourself in a place like that: anything goes. I wandered around the market next to it as most shops were closing and bought a couple of figs and a plastic trey of cut-up mangoes and papaya. It mostly worked all right. But when I came back out on the back side of it, I saw it all the more clearly. The parking lot was large, unlit and covered – I mean covered – in small unmarked white trucks. Their license plates indicated they came from all over – Seville, Granada, Algeciras, Lleiga, Zaragoza, Fraga, Teruel, Valencia, Pamplona, Cordoba, Puertollano, Ciudad Real…
On my left were small shops made of sheet metal that sold anything edible you’ve ever wanted to buy. In front of me was a hotel that doubled as a brothel and to my right were a series of rows of trucks that would supposedly, eventually, at some point that night, be reloaded with fruit and fish. There hung around me the vague notion somewhere that at some point in the hours of darkness they would be hauled out of here to god-knew-where and the next morning they would be brought back.
But there were sinister signs littering the place and I felt uneasy. All manner of harsh and unforgivable transactions lurk in places like this, between micro-trucks in the darkness, deep within the seclusion of a parking lot with no specific entrance and no advertised exit. People die in places like this. A place that is nothing but a hall of mirrors where the glass is the delusion that you understand it just because you’ve seen something like it before elsewhere on planet; and that can be a dangerous thing. As I got a few steps closer to it, it almost seemed to take a breath and then I realized how wrong I was. I heard moaning about 4 rows of cars into the thing. Then, pure silence. From another direction I heard the flick of a cold metal blade against a sack of what I hoped was rope or twine. It was too horrible to ponder anything other than rope or twine at the other end of that sound. I heard a large coin fall to the floor and didn’t understand what it meant. Whispers were everywhere. Venture not into that good night, something told me.
Ok. And even as I backed out slowly, my shoes did me the favor of keeping their clipping and clopping to themselves. Thank jesus for that.
Walking along this line then, a foul stench lingered, rising from the pores of the asphalt. I noticed the breeze had stopped and as I looked up I saw a red sign. Restaurante Calypso, it read, from the 4th floor of the brick-sided building that looked like it hadn’t seen maintenance since the days of Franco. Back then it was probably possible to avoid a place like this, at least. A woman in what was clearly a red wig of curly hair was standing by the sign in red lace. Discretion was no priority there just as it isn’t in so many other cities in so many other places. Take Albany, NY, USA for example. Look it up under “current events” + “prostitution ring” + “governor”. It’ll come up. But right there, in the streets of Barcelona, there was no place for this outdated idea. And no business for you if you required it. No, Gracias, señor! And who needs it? We have anonymity by volume!
Along-side this display of a Spanish penchant for lives unfettered by sheepish desires, lining the outside walls of the market structure were bodies lying in the throngs of desperation, smack in the middle of the day’s waste and a smell of fish so strong it seems almost deadly. It’s a life I’ve never come close to living, or even understanding, for that matter. Far from the clutches of that bitch of a lady, Luck, they huddled against those Roman walls, wrapping themselves in blankets of raw cotton, handwoven material given to them by christ-knows-who but stained from years of dependency and want. They would simply be expensive blankets anywhere else, artisan cloth for rich grandchildren to give to their grandmothers. For those guys, though, they were priceless in the dead of night.
I became self-conscious and reached for my phone, aiming to turn it off lest it ring and stand me out among this crowd. Right away this plan backfired, and a man approached me when I stepped with a loud clop against the pavement.
“Perdone…” he started.
I shrunk back, caught off guard.
“I’m not a thief,” he said, matter-of-factly. His black coat reached down to his ankles. His black hair was cut, not surprisingly, in a mullet. And while I won’t go as far as to say the thing was carnivorous, I’m pretty sure it has eaten small animals before. I was shocked by both his hair and his comment.
“No, no, I’m sure I don’t care,” I mumbled. He asked for some coins, and when I told him I had none, he asked to use my cell phone to make a call.
“It’s local,” he said. Thankfully, I’ve learned a thing or two in my time and I walked away without pause or discomfort. Certainly without shame, misgiving or sorrow. I’m beyond that in a place like this and simply not as trusting as I’ve been before.
Before these crowded streets.
I saw a child alone in an alley, semi-lit by the light from the square not too far off. He had something in his hands but I couldn’t see what it was in the dark.
“Que es esto?” I asked him, curious to know what it was. He treated me as if I had been a talking ghost, distant and unattached. Then he walked right past me. I didn’t like it but kept walking the whole time.
Another child passed by me shortly after and speaking in French, mumbling something about bread sticks from what I gathered. She had dark blond hair down to her shoulders with perfect bangs, like a Romulan from the old Star Trek series. A pink button-down sweater covered her horizontally striped turtleneck shirt… horizontal stripes: I’m told that’s an easy thing to spot and you should put it on kids that have an easy time getting lost. She had matching red rubber rain boots up to her knees. I remembered that I use to have red boots like that. I wouldn’t take them off for anything. Or so I’m told. Who am I kidding? I remember nothing beyond 10 years ago very clearly, let alone shit from when I was 3. She can’t be older than 3. Maybe she won’t remember either.
I am amazed by children who can speak French. Or German. I kinda hate them for it, the little fuckers. Perhaps because kid-talk is not supposed to sound sophisticated to me – and French and German do. Or perhaps because these are the languages I most want to learn and here is this… ahh, kid, having to be told where she can wander off to and where she can’t, still lost beyond all reasonable measure, so tiny she’s almost falling out of her clothes and for the moment, she has an edge on me. Dammit. I felt like the equation only goes downhill from here.
Clip-clop, went my steps. I remember thinking “I have got to get some new shoes tonight… or else get out of here altogether.” It felt like trouble was brewing somewhere not far off and I wanted no part of it.
As I walked I looked up and saw stones that couldn’t have been put there less than a 1000 years ago. I thought, for a moment how there is nothing in the United States that is more than a fifth of that. It made me realize why the notion of conservatives who talk about things like ‘family values’ and ‘American Tradition’ makes me nauseous: the whole concept is an oxymoron. American Traditions? My ass. America hasn’t had time for traditions yet; we’re still working on fads.
Anyway, after I’d left the ominous fateful parking lot of ill fortune and small, white trucks, I went a few streets more. I passed many shops that sold only shoes, all of them closed beyond help. Some of the shoes were the athletic type and some were the more outdoorsy, Teva watersocks type. Still others that littered the windows of the shoes shops were the leather and velcro, “I’m European but trying not to look like it” type. But all of the shops were, as I said, closed beyond help.
As I pushed on it got darker and the noise from the La Rambla got fainter and fainter, until the clip and the clop were all I could hear aside from the occasional child that appeared in an intersection somewhere off to the side, ignoring me completely and disappearing just as abruptly.
I stepped off of a narrow street right into a small plaza, shrouded entirely by what looked like a Giant Oak in its center. The tree put the place in a humbling tone, and covered it with a very natural darkness. To boot, and it took me some time to see it, towards the back of the darkness at the other end of the small square there was a building that looked at first like a cross between an old warehouse and – unequivocally – a Spanish Church. In the darkness under the Great Oak where there were no stars, I pondered why I’d come to this place. I wanted shoes, dammit, not religion.
People ask me all the time “what’s your religion?” I’ve always thought it was a stupid questions in almost any situation.
“I don’t know, man – nothing?” I tell them. “Disinterested? Is that one?” I ask, not so innocently. They ask me if I’m an Atheist. I tell them I’m still looking.
The truth is I have yet to figure out why I ever walk into Cathedrals throughout my travels in the first place. I have little business inside these places as I’m neither religious nor a student of architecture, design, history, art or any combination thereof. Once I’m inside, though, I’m always glad I’ve come. The gestalt of the thing excites me, and I’m always thrown into a reverie of the deepest kind. Sometimes I write, sometimes I stare, but I’m always filled with a sick kind of glee from being connected to other things so ancient and gone.
Maybe it’s the way Catholicism permeates society in a way that no single rational thought ever has… as a non-religious person it’s humbling – and I guess a little educational – to realize that you must, by statistical definition, believe on some level that none of this crap is real in the slightest meaning of the word. That you must harbor some perverse little idea that over 95% of humanity has some kind of psychological anyurism or mental blockage; that they have some kind of childish and irrational delusion in thinking the way they do.
Whatever the real explanation, at least inside there is beauty and awe, and sometimes it is profound. The echoes against the pillars; the candlelight that has tossed itself throughout the space inside over the countless centuries; the not inexpensive microphones on near-invisible wires that drop down from the ceiling, scattered… the tattered stones, the hint of bones, the smell of ancient something; the surreal and macabre nature of the wooden and other carved figures and the bodies buried deep within the mysterious structure; the symbols on the walls that tell of suffering both great and weird; the people that honest-to-god believe that their salvation lies in this shit… I don’t know, man. I get some kind of fucked-up kick from seeing that displayed in such a graphic medium of dust and quaried rocks, laquered trestles rotting from inside and wet puddles throughout the building, supposedly blessed by something larger than us.
I climbed the stone steps and pushed the overly large and inconspicuous wooden door into the Catholic chamber. There were 3 people inside: Two of them were octogenarian women dressed in plaid scarves and matching skirts made of hideously outdated fabric. The third was an Indian man in a leather jacket that – sitting in that most Catholic of Churches – looked as Hindi as an Argentinian BBQ. Inside the old hall I heard my heels ominously clopping along the stone floor, loud and lonely in that vast empty chamber and it sent chills up my spine. A nun walked into the church behind me just then and kneeled by the place where the candles were on my right, 3 pews up from the back. As my shoes made those sounds of gunfire, she prayed without moving a muscle. The other two plaid hand-bags that were already there jumped where they stood with the loud resonance, and the old Hindi man in dark glasses on my left turned his head around slowly to see what was coming his way. He looked like an older James Dean but with a mustache. It did not become him well at all.
Still, I clip-clopped up to the receptacle in the middle of the nave, where the holy water was held, past the women and the shadow, past the mustache and the candles; past the statues and the madness and the ashen framed pictures of a battered man abused, shown in all the Technicolor shots that the budget could afford. There was a single fluorescent light inside, much like the kind they have in high school gymnasiums and basket ball courts across middle America. I stood at the top end of the aisle, staring down the middle and right between the eyes of St. Whatever at the other end. He stared back at me, dubious of something, it seemed. Or perhaps he stared at something just above my left shoulder. It’s hard to tell; he’s been there a long time and some things are worn beyond their years.
I didn’t know what to say or mumble. I didn’t know what to think, exactly, except that I couldn’t see the point. I couldn’t leave, either, but I didn’t know why not. I was reverent of the moment, but I was also drunk now from the Cutty Sark that was half-empty in my pocket.
I took off my shoes and held them between my fingers as I walked down the center of the aisle. I must have looked stoned, a silent agnostic drunk, accidentally lost in philosophy in the center aisle of a Spanish Church between a nun and an Indian James Dean. “This is how bad Quentin Tarantino movies end,” I thought. “If I were to get shot with a bloody bow and arrow right now it would be almost poetic, somehow.”
I let me shoes fall to the floor, and they did, with a loud BANG that reverberated and echoed all through the chamber. I didn’t look back to see the people’s reactions. I continued up to the altar, and when I had confirmed that it still meant nothing to me I turned around and walked back, right passed my shoes in the middle of the aisle, right past the Indian man and the nuns and the old bags; right out the thick and ornate doors of solid wood that keeps somethings in and other things out.
“Maybe those children will talk to me now,” I thought. “Maybe they’ll see me when I walk by silently.”
Hotel Regina Lounge — Barcelona, Spain