Tuesday, November 06, 2007


It's 3.30 in the morning, and 4°C outside, and down in the square a woman has been howling at her demons for over an hour. Some brave souls have tried to calm her down - if you're in trouble here, someone will always try to help - but she's afraid of them too. Ayuda! Policia!

Some police officers ran into the square, but they don't know what to do, because no-one's actually doing anything criminal, nor is anyone hurt. She's just terrified by whatever's in her head, and until or unless she attacks someone in her frenzy, or trips over one of her rolling empty bottles and falls through the cafe window, there's nothing to be done. The downside of Madrid’s streetlife.

During our month in the furnished flat off C. de Atocha, we had 24 hour street entertainment right outside our window. The day would start at around 7 a.m. with deliverymen trying to rouse traders by banging on their rolldown metal shutters. If it was the iceman, or the fruit & veg guy, there would be someone to open up at the Chinese supermarkets and bazaar; but if it was the Coca-Cola guy, with supplies for the local bar, he would have to bang long and hard to drag staff from the beds they'd only crawled into about 4 hours earlier. There was one day when it took him 40 minutes to get a response. He didn’t seem to mind that much. In fact he got quite creative: experimenting with pace, rhythm and volume, even jamming briefly with another deliveryman who’d come across to enquire and sympathise. By this time, obviously, I’d given up trying to sleep, given up completely. It’s quite possible that the people at his next port of call had given up on him. Maybe they enjoyed a rare lie-in.

For the next hour or so, a succession of trucks would reverse into the truck-+10cm spaces between the trees. You could tell which drivers were new to this: every now and again you’d see a treetop quiver and lean ever so slightly in one direction, then ease back into position - often with hardly a leaf out of place. It was educational too. While the drivers practised precision-parking, I was reading the sides of their vans and looking up their businesses in my diccionario. (Fontanería: plumbing. Cubitos de hielo: ice cubes.)

Meanwhile, the bank lights would go on, and sleepy people would hurry by or stop for a smoke on their way to or from work.

Next were the dog owners, who came and went through the day, strolling along with their teeny pooches, settling on the stone bench as the mood took them, and chatting with the local homeless people, some of them also dog-owners: that's one thing about this place - you might not have anywhere to live, but you've always got company and somewhere to sit.

Through the morning, shopkeepers and barstaff would roll up their shutters, put on their music, and put out their chairs and tables. Heavy-eyed customers would drift down to the cafés for breakfast, and chatty tourists would take up the other tables as the morning chill gave way to enervating heat. The cheerful homeless guy with the hoarse voice and ponytail would chat to all comers and cadge cigarettes; while the grumpy one with the thick black hair and weathered scarlet face of an alcoholic John the Baptist would stretch out on the pavement outside the Tabac, and, depending on his mood, sleep, shout, or lumber over to the café tables and snarl unintelligibly for a light or a cigarette. At each table, café customers would watch his progress out of the corners of their eyes, handing over the goods with a nervous grin and minimal eye contact if he picked their table, relaxing from studied nonchalance to sheepish relief if he passed them by. Meanwhile, the sparrows hopped about looking for their share. Everyone had his particular patch.

JB got increasingly disagreeable and aggressive over the month we were there, at one point taking a serious dislike to the staff of the Chinese bazaar, and moving to a doorway across the calle from the shop entrance, from which he shouted abuse for hours on end. A new routine evolved: several hours shouting would result in the arrival of a couple of police officers patrolling on foot, then perhaps a couple on pushbikes, and maybe a another couple or two, this time on motorbikes. Neighbours, shop staff and café customers would watch with interest as one of the 2/4/6/8 squatted down for a friendly chat with JB. After a while, the police would go away, and he would start up again. Then the police would come back, a car would be sent for, and he would be invited to get in the back. There would then be approximately four hours peace and quiet until he came back from the station. Time for a snooze.

As the heat of the day reached full intensity, wiping out every scrap of shade, the Chinese grocer’s children would disappear into the shop to watch TV, and the neighborhood would be almost deserted, apart from a trio of sweat-sheened Latinos who liked to spend their afternoons in full sun, drinking beer out of big bottles, with their teeshirts pulled up to air their bellies. Each to his own.

As the sun went down, taking the hammering heat with it, the calles would start to fill up with people looking for a good meal in good company. Waiters set tables with cloths and evening menus.

The early evening, when the 19th Century streetlamps shone through the trees, would bring out the one-bag street traders, and the homeless people trying to raise the price of a meal, a drink, or a packet of cigarettes. The cheerful chappie’s speciality was kneeling almost bolt upright on a jacket in the middle of the calle, head bowed and right arm stuck out in front of him, palm up. Meanwhile, the first jewellery sellers would set up shop, laying out their elegant spirals and twists on the stone benches, and settling on the ground in nests of bags and bikes to work wire, leather and semi-precious stones into new pieces.

Tourists and Madrileños, strolling up the calle en route for restaurant and bar, would pause and cluster to watch, discuss and buy at the jewellery benches, and perhaps give the chappie a coin. After a while, one set of makers would move on, and the next would move in. As the evening passed, the encampments got bigger: the jewellers’ friends knew their patterns, and would add their own bikes and bags to the nesting sites, settling down to talk and smoke in the cool of the evening.

By 11 o’clock, as the clubs and late bars opened for the serious nightlife, we would be closing our shutters and turning in for the night, but the street entertainment never really stopped. Through the night – at 5 in the morning - you’d hear clusters of friends, from late teens to late 70s, coming back from wherever they’d been, apparently unaware that there were four floors of households on either side, all resonating to their conversation, laughter and bursts of song. But that’s ok. One thing you learn early is that Madrileños are noisy. In almost every mood and circumstance. If you’re going to live here, you learn to either sleep through it, or join in.

But what to do for – or with - the homeless alcoholic having a full psychotic episode outside your window. Not a lot really. She went quiet after 2½ - 3 hours. I expect that tomorrow she’ll be out on the piazza with the rest of the gang as usual. Live and let live.

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